NO FAITH WITH HERETICS.
During the Crusades, when the Christians were wantonly fighting against their superiors in civilisation and humanity, the doctrine, was promulgated and obeyed that no faith should be kept with infidels, and this was subsequently put in force against heretics. Thousands of Mohammedan prisoners were butchered in cold blood, although their safety had been confirmed by an oath; and this infamous practice was afterwards pursued with respect to the "heretical" sects when the Papal troops desolated some of the fairest parts of Europe. Not only was there no salvation outside the Church, but even the ordinary laws of human society were held to be abrogated. This wickedness, perhaps, reached its culmination in the Spanish conquest of America. Few Christians were civilised enough to condemn these purjured banditti, but Montaigne in France, and Raleigh in England, were glorious exceptions, and both of them were under a just suspicion of heterodoxy.
Protestants as well as Catholics were infected with this infamous bigotry. Luther himself was not free from taint, and Calvin's treachery against Servetus is an eternal blot on his character.
"No faith with heretics" took a new form when the downright violation of an oath became too dissonant to the spirit of an improved civilisation. It found expression in robbing the heretic of political and social rights, and above all in treating him as outside the pale of honor. Slandering him was no libel. Every bigot claimed the right to say anything against his character, for the purpose of bringing his opinions into hatred and contempt. All the dictates of charity were cast aside; his good actions were misrepresented, and his failings maliciously exaggerated. If Voltaire spent thousands in charity, he did it for notoriety; if he wrote odes to beautiful or accomplished ladies, he was a wretched debauchee. If Thomas Paine made sacrifices for liberty, he did it because he had a private grudge against authority; if he befriended the wife and family of a distressed Republican, he only sought to gratify his lust; if he spent a convivial hour with a friend, he was an inveterate drunkard; and if he contracted a malignant abscess by lying for months in a damp, unwholesome dungeon, his sufferings were the nemesis of a wicked, profligate life.
An English precursor of Voltaire and Paine wrote A Discourse on Freethinking. His name was Anthony Collins, and in a certain sense he was the father of English Freethought. He was a man of exemplary life and manners, yet the saintly Bishop Berkeley said he "deserved to be denied the common benefit of air and water." One of Collins's antagonists was the famous Dr. Bentley; and although Collins was a man of fortune, the ridiculous calumny was started that he sought and obtained Bentley's assistance in adversity. The author of this calumny was Richard Cumberland, a grandson of Bentley, and in other respects an estimable man. His mistake was pointed out by Isaac D'Israeli, who told him the person he meant was Arthur Collins, the historical compiler. But Cumberland perpetuated the calumny, remarking that "it should stand, because it could do no harm to any but to Anthony Collins, whom he considered little short of an Atheist."
Another story about Collins, which has frequently done duty in Christian publications, is that a visitor found him reading the New Testament, and that he remarked, "I have but one book, but that is the best." Fortunately I am able to give the origin of this story. It is told of William Collins, the poet, by Dr. Johnson, and may be found in the second volume (p. 239) of that writer's "Miscellaneous and Fugitive Pieces," published by Davies in Johnson's lifetime. It was not Anthony Collins, therefore; but what does that matter? It was a gentleman named Collins; his other name is indifferent. Besides, the story is so much more affecting when told of Anthony.
Look at the lying stories of infidel death-beds; glance at the scurrilities of an outcast minister which are gratuitously circulated by the enemies of Colonel Ingersoll; observe on how many platforms Mr. Brad-laugh has pulled out his watch and given the Almighty five minutes to strike him dead; listen to the grotesque libels on every leading Freethinker which are solemnly circulated by Christian malice; and you will behold the last fruit of a very old tree, which is slowly but surely perishing. It once bore scaffolds, stakes, prisons and torture rooms; it now bears but libels and insinuations.
THE LOGIC OF PERSECUTION.
Neither the cruelty of tyrants, nor the ambition of conquerors, has wrought so much mischief and suffering, as the principle of persecution. The crimes of a Nero, the ravages of an Attila, afflict the world for a season, and then cease and are forgotten, or only linger in the memory of history. But persecution operates incessantly like a natural force. With the universality of light, it radiates in every direction. The palace is not too proud for its entrance, nor is the cottage too humble. It affects every relationship of life. Its action is exhibited in public through imprisonment, torture, and bloodshed, and in private through the tears of misery and the groans of despair.
But worse remains. Bodies starve and hearts break, but at last there comes "the poppied sleep, the end of all." Grief is buried in the grave, Nature covers it with a mantle of grass and flowers, and the feet of joy trip merrily over the paths once trodden by heavy-footed care. Yet the more subtle effects of persecution remain with the living. They are not screwed down in the coffin and buried with the dead. They become part of the pestilential atmosphere of cowardice and hypocrisy which saps the intellectual manhood of society, so that bright-eyed inquiry sinks into blear-eyed faith, and the rich vitality of active honest thought falls into the decrepitude of timid and slothful acquiescence.
What is this principle of persecution, and how is it generated and developed in the human mind? Now that it is falling into discredit, there is a tendency on the part of Christian apologists to ascribe it to our natural hatred of contradiction. Men argue and quarrel, and if intellectual differences excite hostility in an age like this, how easy it was for them to excite the bitterest animosity in more ignorant and barbarous ages! Such is the plea now frequently advanced. No doubt it wears a certain plausibility, but a little investigation will show its fallacy. Men and women are so various in their minds, characters, circumstances, and interests, that if left to themselves they inevitably form a multiplicity of ever-shifting parties, sects, fashions and opinions; and while each might resent the impertinence of disagreement from its own standard, the very multiformity of the whole mass must preserve a general balance of fair play, since every single sect with an itch for persecuting would be confronted by an overwhelming majority of dissidents. It is obvious, therefore, that persecution can only be indulged in when some particular form of opinion is in the ascendant: and if this form is artificially developed; if it is the result, not of knowledge and reflection, but of custom and training; if, in short, it is rather a superstition than a belief; you have a condition of things highly favorable to the forcible suppression of heresy. Now, throughout history, there is one great form of opinion which has been artificially developed, which has been accepted through faith and not through study, which has always been concerned with alleged occurrences in the remote past or the inaccessible future, and which has also been systematically maintained in its "pristine purity" by an army of teachers who have pledged themselves to inculcate the ancient faith without any admixture of their own intelligence.
That form of opinion is Religion. Accordingly we should expect to find its career always attended with persecution, and the expectation is amply justified by a cursory glance at the history of every faith. There is, indeed, one great exception; but, to use a popular though inaccurate phrase, it is an exception which proves the rule. Buddhism has never persecuted But Buddhism is rather a philosophy than a religion; or, if a religion, it is not a theology, and that is the sense attached to religion in this article.
All such religions have persecuted, do persecute, and will persecute while they exist. Let it not be supposed, however, that they punish heretics on the open ground that the majority must be right and the minority must be wrong, or that some people have a right to think while others have only the right to acquiesce. No, that is too shameless an avowal; nor would it, indeed, be the real truth. There is a principle in religions which has always been the sanction of persecution, and if it be true, persecution is more than right, it is a duty. That principle is Salvation by Faith.
If a certain belief is necessary to salvation, if to reject it is to merit damnation, and to undermine it is to imperil the eternal welfare of others, there is only one course open to its adherents; they must treat the heretic as they would treat a viper. He is a poisonous creature to be swiftly extinguished.
But not too swiftly, for he has a soul that may still be saved. Accordingly he is sequestered to prevent further harm, an effort is made to convert him, then he is punished, and the rest is left with God. That his conversion is attempted by torture, either physical or mental, is not an absurdity; it is consonant to the doctrine of salvation by faith. For if God punishes or rewards us according to our possession or lack of faith, it follows that faith is within the power of will. Accordingly the heretic, to use Dr. Martineau's expression, is reminded not of arguments but of motives, not of evidence but of fear, not of proofs but of perils, not of reasons but of ruin. When we recognise that the understanding acts independently of volition, and that the threat of punishment, while it may produce silence or hypocrisy, cannot alter belief, this method of procedure strikes us as a monstrous imbecility; but, given a belief in the doctrine of salvation by faith, it must necessarily appear both logical and just. If the heretic will not believe, he is clearly wicked, for he rejects the truth and insults God. He has deliberately chosen the path to hell, and does it matter whether he travel slowly or swiftly to his destination? But does it not matter whether he go alone or drag down others with him to perdition? Such was the logic of the Inquisitors, and although their cruelties must be detested their consistency must be allowed.
Catholics have an infallible Church, and the Protestants an infallible Bible. Yet as the teaching of the Bible becomes a question of interpretation, the infallibility of each Church resolves itself into the infallibility of its priesthood. Each asserts that some belief is necessary to salvation. Religious liberty, therefore, has never entered into the imagination of either. The Protestants who revolted against the Papacy openly avowed the principle of persecution. Luther, Beza, Calvin, and Melancthon, were probably more intolerant than any Pope of their age; and if the Protestant persecutions were not, on the whole, so sanguinary as those of the Roman Catholic Church, it was simply due to the fact that Catholicism passed through a dark and ferocious period of history, while Protestantism emerged in an age of greater light and humanity. Persecution cannot always be bloody, but it always inflicts on heretics as much suffering as the sentiment of the community will tolerate.
The doctrine of salvation by faith has been more mischievous than all other delusions of theology combined. How true are the words of Pascal: "Jamais on ne fait le mal si pleinement et si gaiement que quand oh le fait par un faux principe de conscience." Fortunately a nobler day is breaking. The light of truth succeeds the darkness of error. Right belief is infinitely important, but it cannot be forced. Belief is independent of will. But character is not, and therefore the philosopher approves or condemns actions instead of censuring beliefs. Theology, however, consistently clings to its old habits. "Infidels" must not be argued with but threatened, not convinced but libelled; and when these weapons are futile there ensues the persecution of silence. That serves for a time, but only for a time; it may obstruct, but it cannot prevent, the spread of unbelief. It is like a veil against the light. It may obscure the dawn to the dull-eyed and the uninquisitive, but presently the blindest sluggards in the penfolds of faith will see that the sun has risen.
LUTHER AND THE DEVIL.
"Luther," says Heine, "was not only the greatest, but also the most thoroughly German, hero of our history." Carlyle says that "no more valiant man, no mortal heart to be called braver, ever lived in that Teutonic kindred, whose character is valor." Michelet calls him "the Arminius of modern Germany." Twenty tributes to Luther's greatness might be added, all more or less memorable; but these, from three very diverse men, will suffice for our present purpose. Martin Luther was a great man. Whoever questions it must appeal to new definitions.
A great difference lay between the cold, saturnine Pope of Geneva and the frank, exuberant hero of the German Reformation. Their doctrines were similar; there was a likeness between their mistakes; but what a diversity in their natures! Calvin was the perfect type of the theological pedant—vain, meagre, and arid; while Luther had in him, as Heine remarks, "something aboriginal"; and the world has, after all, profited by "the God-like brutality of Brother Martin."
The nature of this great man was suited to his task. It required no great intellectual power to see through the tricks of Papal priestcraft, which had, indeed, been the jest of the educated and thoughtful for generations. But it required gigantic courage to become the spokesman of discontent, to attack an imposture which was supported by universal popular credulity, by a well-nigh omnipotent Church, and by the keen-edged, merciless swords of kings and emperors. Still more, it required an indisputable elevation of nature to attack the imposture where, as in the sale of indulgences, it threatened the very essence of personal and social morality. Hundreds of persons may be hatching a new truth in unknown concert, but when a battle for humanity has to be fought, someone must begin, and begin decisively. Luther stepped out as protagonist in the great struggle of his time; and Freethought is not so barren in great names that it need envy Brother Martin his righteous applause. Indeed, it seems to me that Freethinkers are in a position to esteem Luther more justly than Christians. Seeing what was his task, and how it demanded a stormy, impetuous nature, we can thank Luther for accomplishing it, while recognising his great defects, his faults of temper and the narrowness of his views; defects, I would add, which it were unnecessary to dwell on if Protestants did not magnify them into virtues, or if they did not illustrate the inherent vices of Christianity itself.
Strong for his life-task, Luther was weak in other respects. Like Dr. Johnson, there were strange depths in his character, but none in his intellect. He emitted many flashes of genius in writing and talking, but they all came from the heart, and chiefly from the domestic affections. He broke away from the Papacy, but he only abandoned Catholicism so far as it conflicted with the most obvious morality. He retained all its capital superstitions. Mr. Froude puts the case very mildly when he says that "Erasmus knew many things which it would have been well for Luther to have known." Erasmus would not have called Copernicus "an old fool," or have answered him by appealing to Joshua. Erasmus would not have seen a special providence in the most trifling accidents. Erasmus would not have allowed devils to worry him. Above all, Erasmus would not have pursued those who were heretics to his doctrine with all the animosity of a Papal bigot. Such differences induced Mr. Matthew Arnold to call Luther a Philistine of genius; just as they led Goethe to say that Luther threw back the intellectual progress of mankind for centuries. Another poet, Shelley, seems to me to have hit the precise truth in his "Ode to Liberty":
Luther caught thy wakening glance: Like lightning from his leaden lance Reflected, it dissolved the visions of the trance In which, as in a tomb, the nations lay.
Shelley's epithet is perfect. Luther's lance was big and potent. It wrought terrible havoc among the enemy. But it was leaden. It overthrew, but it did not transfix.
This is not the place to relate how Luther played the Pope in his own way; how he persecuted the Zwinglians because they went farther than himself on the subject of the real presence; how he barked at the Swiss reformers, how he pursued Andreas Bodenstein for a difference on infant baptism; how he treated Muenzer and the Anabaptists; how he hounded on the nobles to suppress the peasant revolt and "stab, kill, and strangle them without mercy"; or how he was for handing over to the executioner all who denied a single article which rested on the Scripture or the authority of the universal teaching of the Church. My purpose is to show Luther's attitude towards the Devil, witches, apparitions, and all the rest of that ghostly tribe; and in doing so I have no wish to indulge in "the most small sneer" which Carlyle reprobates; although I do think it a great pity that such a man as Luther should have been a slave to superstitions which Erasmus would have met with a wholesome jest.
Neither Jews nor witches fared any the better for the Reformation, until it had far outgrown the intention of its founders. Brother Martin hated the Jews, thought many of them sorcerers, and praised the Duke of Saxony for killing a Jew in testing a talisman. As for witches, he said, "I would have no compassion on them—I would burn them all." Poor creatures! Yet Luther was naturally compassionate. It was the fatal superstition which steeled his heart. Still there are dainty sceptics who tell us not to attack superstition. I point them to Martin Luther burning witches.
Brother Martin lived in God's presence, but they were generally three, for the Devil was seldom absent. His Satanic Majesty plagued the poor Reformer's life till he wished himself safe in heaven. Sometimes the fiend suggested impious doubts, and at ether times suicide. He attributed his chronic vertigo to the Devil, because the physic he took did him no good. So familiar did the Devil become that Luther, hearing him walk overhead at night, would say "Oh, is it you?" and go to sleep again. Once, when he was marrying-an aristocratic couple, the wedding ring slipped out of his fingers at a critical moment. He was frightened, but, recovering himself, he exclaimed, "Listen, Devil, it is not your business, you are wasting your time." The famous scene in which Luther threw an inkstand at the Devil is legendary, though Coleridge, Carlyle and others have made it the theme of their eloquence; and the ink-stain still shown on the wall at Wartburg is like the stain of Rizzio's blood in Holyrood Palace.
Luther's own visions were largely due to dyspepsia and an active imagination. He said that the Devil troubled him less at night when he took a good "nightcap," which made him sleep soundly. He found that the Devil could not stand music, being a sad and sombre personage; just as, long before, music was found a sovereign recipe for the melancholia of King Saul. But the surest specific was railing and derision. When Luther called him names, or laughed at him, the Devil vanished in a huff. Brother Martin was plain-spoken at the best of times, but on these occasions he was too-downright for quotation. Michelet gives a choice sample; but though the French language allows more licence than ours, he is obliged to give but the first letter of one of Luther's vigorous substantives. Brother Martin displayed a sly humor in one of his stories about Satan. A possessed person was taken into a monastery, and the devil in him said to the monks, "O my people, what have I done?"—"Popule meus, quid feci tibi?"
According to Luther, fair and foul winds were caused by good and evil spirits. He spoke of a terrible lake in Switzerland, haunted by the Devil, and said there was a similar one in his own country. If a stone was thrown into it, a frightful storm shook the whole locality. The Devil made people idiots, cripples, blind, deaf and dumb; and Luther declared that the doctors who treated such infirmities as natural had a great deal to learn in demonology. One or two of his stories of possession are extremely gruesome. With his own lusty love of life, Luther could not understand suicide, so he attributed that also to the Devil. Satan made the suicides think they were doing something else; even praying, and thus he killed them. Brother Martin, indeed, sometimes feared the Devil would twist his neck or press his skull into his brains. Nor did he shrink from the darkest developments of this superstition. He held that the Devil could assume the form of a man or a woman, cohabit with human beings of the opposite sex, and become a father or a mother. "Eight years ago," said Luther, "I saw and touched myself at Dessau a child who had no parents, and was born of the Devil. He was twelve years old, and shaped like an ordinary child. He did nothing but eat, and ate as much as three peasants or threshers. When he was touched he cried out like one possessed; if any unfortunate accident happened in the house, he rejoiced and laughed; if, on the contrary, all went well, he wept continually. I said to the princes of Anhalt, with whom I then was: If I commanded here I would have that child thrown into the Moldau, at the risk of being its murderer. But the Elector of Saxony and the princes were not of my opinion."
Here is a case in which the Doctor of Divinity, though naturally a kind man, is quite ready to take human life at the behest of a devilish superstition, while the less fanatical laymen shrink from such inhumanity. The only devil in this story is the devil of fearful ignorance and misbelief in Brother Martin. He it was who needed the exorcist, although the truth would have greatly surprised him. Carlyle may use his snarling muscles at the "apothecary's apprentice" who is able to give a scientific explanation of Luther's visions; but, after all, the unfortunate persons whom Luther would have murdered by mistake might be pardoned for preferring the apothecary's apprentice to the Protestant Pope. The fact is, the doctrine of devils, of demoniacal possession, of incubi and succubi, and of sorcery and witchcraft, was not fostered by laymen so much as by the clergy. Lecky remarks that "almost all the great works written in favor of the executions were written by ecclesiastics," and Tylor asserts that "the guilt of thus bringing down Europe intellectually and morally to the level of negro Africa" lies mainly upon the Church, Protestant being as bad as Catholic, for they vied in outraging and killing those who were doomed, by the ghastliest of superstitions, to be "for life and death of all creatures the most wretched." Eternal honor to Luther for the heroism which sent him to Worms, and made him exclaim to his dissuaders: "I will go if there are as many devils in Worms as there are tiles upon the roofs of the houses." But eternal hatred and contempt for the Creed which degraded heroes into Jack the Rippers. I say the Creed; for Christianity cannot be exculpated. Witchcraft, possession, and sexual intercourse between human and superhuman beings, are distinctly taught in the Bible; and if there were no other indictment of Christianity, the awful massacre and torture of millions of helpless women and children would suffice to damn it everlastingly.
Turning over the pages of Coleridge's "Table Talk" recently, my attention was arrested oy several passages I had marked, many years ago, in that suggestive book. Two or three of these, referring to the style of the Bible, resuscitated some reflections I made on the first reading, and which I now venture to express: with all deference, let me add, to Coleridge's ethereal genius and magical mastery of words.
"Intense study of the Bible," he says, "will keep any writer from being vulgar, in point of style." Granted; and the sacred scriptures of any people and any creed would have the some influence. Vulgarity, unless it is bestial, is monkeyish. Obviously this is a characteristic alien to religion, which is based on the sense of wonder, and deals chiefly with the sublime. While the mind is absorbed by the unseen, imagination is called into play; and imagination is the antithesis of vulgarity. The unknown is also the terrible, and when the mind is alarmed there is no room for the puerilities of egotism. Any exaltation of feeling serves the same purpose. The most vulgar woman, in terror at a danger to her child, is lifted into the sphere of tragedy, and becomes a subject for art; nor could the lowest wretch exhibit vulgarity when committing a murder under the influence of passion. Vulgarity, in short, is self-consciousness, or at least only compatible with it; and displays itself in self-assertion at the expense of others, or in disregard or in defiance of their feelings. Now Monotheism, such as the Bible in its sublimest parts is pregnant with, naturally banishes this disposition, just in proportion as it is real. It may tolerate, and even cherish, many other evils, but not that; for vulgarity, as I understand it, is absolutely inconsistent with awe. How then do I account for the vulgarities of the Salvation Army? Simply by the fact that these people have no awe; they show the absurdities of religion without its sentiments. They are townspeople, used to music-halls, public-houses, street-fights, and frivolous crowds. Their antics would be impish to religionists whose awe was nurtured by hills and forests, the rising and setting sun, and the majesty of night.
Not only do we find the same austere simplicity in the Vedas, the Kuran, and other sacred scriptures; we find it in most of the old world literature. The characteristic of modern writings is subtlety and dexterity; that of the ancient, massiveness and directness; and the same difference holds good in a comparison of the various stages of our literature. The simplicity of the Elizabethan lyrics, to say nothing of Chaucer, is only to be emulated in later ages, whose life is so much more complex, by a recluse visionary like Blake. Even when Shelley approaches it, in such songs as that of Beatrice in the last act of the "The Cenci," we feel that stream of music is crossed and shaken by subtle under-currents.
What Coleridge claims for the Bible may be claimed for all imaginative and passionate literature. AEschylus, Lucretius, Dante, Milton; how does the Bible excel these in that respect? When we come to Shakespeare we find a sublimity which transcends that of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Job, with a pathos, a humor, and a wit, such as no Hebrew writer ever imagined. And Shakepeare's superb style triumphs easily in all these fields. Coleridge recommends the Bible as an antidote to vulgarity. I would recommend Milton as much, Dante more, and Shakespeare beyond all.
"Our version of the Bible," Coleridge elsewhere says, "has preserved a purity of meaning to many terms of natural objects. Without this holdfast, our vitiated imaginations would refine away language to mere abstractions." This is merely saying that our Bible, designed for common people centuries ago, is a monument of Saxon English. Clearly that is an accident of our translation, and not an essence of the Bible itself. As much may be said for all our ancient standards.
Coleridge admits that our New Testament is less elegant and correct than the Old, and contains "slovenly phrases which would never have come from Ben Jonson, or any other good prose writer of the day." Yet our New Testament, according to Mr. Swinburne (and there is no better judge), is translated from canine Greek into divine English. The truth is, the style of our Bible is owing to the translators. They lived before the hurry of our cheap periodical press, when men wrote leisurely for leisured readers. There was also no great accumulation of native literature, and scholars studied almost exclusively the masterpieces of Greece and Rome. Their sense of style was therefore superior. Read the Dedication to King James in our authorised version, then the introduction to our revised version, and see what an immense difference there is between the styles. Or read Paul's noble praise of charity in the two versions. By substituting love for charity, the revisers have vitiated the sense, and destroyed the balance of the style. Their mincing monosyllable is too weak to bear the structural weight of the clauses. A closer analysis shows that they have spoiled the passage throughout. They had no ear: in other words, no style. The old translators had ears, and knew other people had. Their work was meant to be read aloud, and it bears the test. That test is the supreme one, and goes deeper than hearing. Flaubert, a great master of style, always read his manuscript aloud; holding that phrases are right when they correspond to all the necessities of respiration, while ill-written phrases oppress the chest, disturb the beatings of the heart, and contravene the conditions of life. Shakespeare bears this test triumphantly. In his great passages, respiration is easy and pronunciation simple; the language is a splendid and mellifluous stream.
I venture to say in conclusion: Consult the revised version of the Bible for meaning, but read the old one for style. It is a treasury of musical and vigorous Saxon, a well of strong English undefiled; although Hebrew is a poor language, and the Greek of the New Testament is perhaps the worst ever written. But do not think, as Macaulay pretended, that the language of the Bible is sufficient for every purpose. It sustained the genius of Bunyan, but the mightier genius of Shakespeare had to draw from other sources to support its flight. Our English Bible contains six thousand words; Shakespeare's vocabulary contains nine thousand more.
LIVING BY FAITH.
What is Faith? Faith, said Paul, "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." This is a faith that sensible men avoid. The man of reason may have faith, but it will be a faith according to knowledge, and not a faith that dispenses with knowledge. He believes that the sun will rise to-morrow, that the ground will remain firm under his feet, that the seasons will succeed each other in due course, and that if he tills the ground he will reap the harvest. But his belief in these things is based upon experience; his imagination extends the past into the future, and his expectations are determined by his knowledge. The future cannot indeed be demonstrated; it can only be predicted, and prediction can never amount to an absolute certitude; yet it may amount to a height of probability which is practically the same thing. Religious faith, however, is something very different. It is not belief based on evidence, but the evidence and the belief in one. The result is that persons who are full of faith always regard a demand for evidence as at once a heresy and an insult. Their faith seems to them, in the language of Paul, the very substance of their hopes; and they often talk of the existence of God and the divinity of Christ as being no less certain than their own existence.
Properly speaking, faith is trust. This involves a wide latitude beyond our knowledge. If we trust a friend, we have faith in him, and we act upon that sentiment. But we are sometimes deceived, and this shows that our faith was in excess of our knowledge. Sometimes, indeed, it is quite independent of knowledge. We trust people because we like them, or because they like us. This infirmity is well known to sharpers and adventurers, who invariably cultivate a pleasing manner, and generally practise the arts of flattery. The same principle holds good in religion. It was sagaciously remarked by Hume that we ought to suspect every agreeable belief. The mass of mankind, however, are not so fastidious or discriminating. On the contrary, they frequently believe a thing because it is pleasant, and for no other reason. How often have we heard Christian advocates prove the immortality of the soul to the complete satisfaction of their auditors by simply harping on man's desire to live for ever! Nay, there have been many great "philosophers" who have demonstrated the same doctrine by exactly the same means.
Religious faith, to borrow a definition from Chambers's Dictionary, is usually "belief in the statement of another." There are a few mystics who profess to hold personal intercourse with God, but the majority, of mankind take their religion on trust. They believe it because they were taught it, and those who taught them believed it for the very same reason. When you trace back the revelation to its beginning, you always find that it is derived from men who lived a long time ago, or who perhaps never lived at all. Mohammed vouches for the Koran. Yes, but who will vouch for Mohammed?
Thomas Paine well said that what is revelation to the man who receives it, is only hearsay to the man who gets it at secondhand. If anyone comes to you with a message from God, first button your pockets, and then ask him for his credentials. You will find that he has none. He can only tell you what someone else told him. If you meet the original messenger, he can only cry "thus saith the Lord," and bid you believe or be damned. To such a haughty prophet one might well reply, "My dear sir, what you say may be true, but it is very strange. Return to the being who sent you and ask him to give you better credentials. His word may be proof to you, but yours is no proof to me; and it seems reasonable to suppose that, if God had anything to tell to me, he could communicate personally to me as well as to you."
In ancient times the prophets who were thus accosted worked miracles in attestation of their mission; but our modern prophets have no such power, and therefore they can scarcely claim our belief. If they ask us why we reject what they tell us on the authority of the ancient prophets who possessed greater powers, we reply that what is a miracle to those who see it is only a story to those who hear it, and that we prefer to see the miracle ourselves. Telling us that a man rose from the dead is no reason why we should believe that three times one are one; it is only proving one wonder by another, and making a fresh draft on our credulity at every step in the demonstration.
There are men who tell us that we should live by faith. But that is impossible for all of us. The clergy live by faith, yet how could they do so if there were not others to support them? Knaves cannot exist without dupes, nor the Church without subscribers.
Living by faith is an easy profession. Living on faith, however, is more arduous and precarious. Elijah is said to have subsisted on food which was brought him by inspired ravens, but there are few of God's ministers willing to follow his example. They ask God to give them their daily bread, yet they would all shrink with horror from depending on what he sends them.
VICTOR HUGO. *
* May 31,1885.
Two years and a half ago France was mourning the death of Gambetta. Every hostile voice was hushed, and the whole nation bent tearfully over the bier, where a once mighty heart and fervent brain lay cold and still in death. Never, perhaps, since Mirabeau burned out the last of his great life had Paris been so profoundly moved. Gambetta was carried to his grave by a million of men, and in all that tremendous procession no priest figured, nor in all the funeral ceremony was there a word of God. For the first time in history a nation buried her hero without a shred of religious rites or a whisper of any other immortality than the immortality of fame.
France now mourns the death of Victor Hugo, the great poet of the Republic, as Gambetta was its great orator and statesman. These two, in their several ways, did the most to demolish the empire. Gambetta organised and led the Republican opposition, and when the decheance came, he played deep for the Republic in the game of life and death, making the restoration of the empire an impossibility. But long before the young orator challenged the empire, it was arraigned before the bar of liberty and humanity by the great poet. From his lonely channel rock, in the bitter grandeur of exile, Victor Hugo hurled the lightnings and thunders of his denunciation at the political burglar of France and his parasitical minions. Practical people laughed at him, not knowing that he was more practical than they. They saw nothing but the petty present, and judged everything by its immediate success. He was nourished by sovereign principles, rooted in the depths of the human heart and blossoming in its loftiest aspirations. He was a prophet who chanted his own inspiration to the world, knowing that few would listen at first, but assured that the message would kindle some hearts, and that the living flame would leap from breast to breast till all were wrapt in its divine blaze. He scorned the base successful lie and reverenced the noble outcast truth, and he had unfaltering faith in the response which mankind would ultimately make to the voice of their rightful lord. Great he was as a poet, a romancer and a dramatist, but he was greatest as a prophet. He lived to see his message justified and his principles triumphant, and died at the ripe old age of eighty-three, amid the love and reverence of the civilised world. We are not blind to his failings; he had, as the French say, the defects of his qualities. But they do not obscure his glory. His failings were those of other men; his greatness was his own.
Victor Hugo, like Gambetta, was a Freethinker. We know he professed a belief in God, but he had no theology. His God was Nature, suffused with passion and ideality; and his conviction of "Some far-off divine event, To which the whole creation moves," was only his faith in progress, extended into the remotest future. He was a true Freethinker in his grand assertion of the majesty of reason and conscience. He appealed to the native dignity of the individual, and hated priestcraft with a perfect hatred. Lacking humor himself, and brilliant without wit, he could recognise these qualities in others, and he thought them as valid as his own weapons against the dogmas of superstition. How fine was his great word about Voltaire—"Irony incarnate for the salvation of mankind." Like Gambetta, Victor Hugo is to be buried without religious rites, according to his will. No priest is to profane the sanctity of death by mumbling idle words over his grave concerning what he is as ignorant of as the corpse at his feet. In death, as in life, the Freethinker would confront the universe alone from the impregnable rock of his manhood, convinced that
There is no danger to a man that knows What life and death is: there's not any law Exceeds his knowledge: neither is it lawful That he should stoop to any other law.
Not only did Victor Hugo will that no priest should officiate at his burial, he ordered that none should approach his bed. But the carrion crows of the death-chamber were not to be deterred by his well-known wishes. The Archbishop of Paris offered to visit the dying heretic and administer to him the supreme unction on behalf of the Church. M. Lockroy, the poet's son-in-law, politely declined the offer. Our newspapers, especially the orthodox ones, regard the Archbishop's message as a compliment. In our opinion it was a brazen insult. Suppose Mr. Bradlaugh wrote to say that he would gladly attend the sickbed of Canon Wilberforce for the purpose of receiving his confession of Atheism; would the orthodox regard it as a compliment or an insult? We fail to see any difference in the two cases, and we know not why impertinence in an Atheist becomes civility in a Christian. Fortunately, Victor Hugo's death-chamber was not intruded upon by impudent priests. His relatives respected his convictions the more as they were Freethinkers themselves. No priest will consecrate his grave, but it will be hallowed by his greatness; and what pilgrim, as he bends over the master's tomb, will hear in the breeze, or see in the grass and flowers, any sign that a priest's benison is wanting to his repose?
DESECRATING A CHURCH.
There was a Pantheon at Rome, which was a monument of the religious tolerance of the Empire. It was dedicated, as appears from the inscription on the portico, by Agrippa, son-in-law to the great Augustus, to Jupiter and all the other gods, with the same generosity that prompted the Athenians to erect an altar to the gods that might be unknown. A niche was afforded within its walls to every deity of the provinces whose devotees were willing to accept the hospitality; and Christ himself might have figured with the rest, if his worshippers did not scorn all other gods but their own.
The old Pantheon still exists, and bears the name of the Rotunda. But it is no longer a Pagan temple. It was re-dedicated by Pope Boniface the Fourth, in A.D. 608, to the Virgin Mary and all the saints. Another Pope, a thousand years later, despoiled it of its ornaments, which had been spared by so many barbarian conquerors. He cast some into cannon, and with the rest formed a high altar for the Church of St. Peter.
These alterations were of course justifiable. They were all made in the interest of Christianity. What could be more proper than the transformation of Pagan temples into Christian churches? What more admirable than devoting to the worship of Christ the edifice which had echoed to the tread of the priests of Jupiter? What more pious than singing the praises of Mary and all the saints in a temple where idolaters had celebrated the glories of all the gods and goddesses of Olympus?
Such is Christian logic. But if the temples of one faith may be so transformed, why may not those of another? If Christianity had the right to devote the temples of Paganism to its own uses, why has not modern civilisation the right to devote the temples of Christianity to Secular purposes?
The Church thinks otherwise. It is at present denouncing the secularisation of the Church of St. Genevieve, in order that Victor Hugo, who died a Freethinker and was buried without religious rites, might repose in an unconsecrated place. This building is the French Pantheon. It was secularised during the Revolution, and dedicated by the Republic, not to the gods of religion, but to the heroes of liberty. When the monarchy was restored it was re-consecrated, and purged of the luciferous taint of Voltaire's dust. But now the Republic is once more established on the ruins of monarchy and imperialism, it again secularises the Church of St. Genevieve as a tomb for its mighty dead. The Church is naturally indignant, but its anathemas are powerless. God does not interpose, and the Republic is too strong. Nay, there is even a rumor that the Roman Pantheon may be secularised also, and changed into a national mausoleum, where the youth of Italy may bend reverently before the tombs of such glorious soldiers of progress as Mazzini and Garibaldi, instead of honoring the very counterfeit presentment of fabulous old saints, chiefly renowned for their laziness and dirt.
The Church of St. Genevieve is desecrated, cries the Archbishop of Paris, and special prayers are offered up to that ancient lady in heaven to avert her wrath from the infidel city which has so insulted her. In one sense the Archbishop is right. The Church is desecrated in the strict etymological meaning of the word. It has been converted from sacred to secular uses. But in the secondary meaning of the word the building is not desecrated, but honored, by being made a fit receptacle for the mortal remains of Victor Hugo.
A government decree and the removal of the cross on top of the church were the only steps necessary to its desecration. The consecrated character of the temple is gone. To the carnal eye the structure remains unchanged, within and without, except for the loss of a crucifix; but it is quite possible that a priestly nose would be able to scent the absence of the Spirit. The Holy Ghost has fled, angels no more haunt the nave and aisles, and St. Genevieve hides her poor head in grief and humiliation. No doubt; yet we dare say the building will stand none the less firmly, and if it should ever be pulled down, its materials would fetch as much in the market as if they were saturated with divinity.
Consecration is, after all, nothing but a priestly trick. What sensible man believes that the Holy Ghost, if such a being exist, is at the beck and call of every Catholic or Protestant bishop? Can the "universal spirit" dwell exclusively in certain places? Can the third person of the Trinity have sunk into such an abject state as to dodge in and out of buildings, according as he is wanted or not? Is there any difference that the nose, or any other sensitive organ, can detect between a consecrated church and an unconsecrated chapel? Can the geologist or the chemist discern any difference between the consecrated and the unconsecrated division in a cemetery? Is the earth affected by priestly mutterings? Do the corpses lie any more peacefully, or decompose any more slowly, for the words pronounced over the mould that covers them? Or is there any appreciable virtue in the consecrated water, with which the Protestant and Catholic are alike baptised, and with which the latter sprinkles himself periodically as a preservative against evil? Season finds no difference; it is perceived only by Faith, which may be defined as the faculty which enables a man to see what does not exist.
WALT WHITMAN. *
* April, 1892.
Walt Whitman's death can have taken no one by surprise. For years he had been at the brink of the grave, and the end comes as a relief. A great soul may be cheerful, or at least serene, in all circumstances; but there is neither pleasure nor dignity in living on as the ghost of one's self.
Few superber specimens of physical manhood than Walt Whitman's have appeared on this planet. "He looks like a man," said Abraham Lincoln, as his gaze followed the poet past a window of the White House. Whitman stood six feet two, his limbs and torso were splendid, and his head was magnificently proportioned. His vitality must have been wonderful, and his health was absolutely perfect until after the War, during which he too assiduously nursed the sick and wounded, to the lasting detriment of his phenomenal constitution. The flame of his life burnt on for another thirty years, but his strength was seriously undermined, and he is far better entitled to be called a martyr than many who have more cheaply earned the distinction.
Walt Whitman's great personality can hardly be disputed. He impressed himself as something colossal on all who came into close contact with him. The magnetism of his presence in the military hospitals was more sanative than the doctors' physic. Men, women, and children felt glad and satisfied in his company. His large, frank, healthy nature radiated a perpetual benediction. One who knew him intimately has said that he never saw upon Whitman's features any trace of mean or evil passions. The man was thoroughly wholesome. Even his occasionally free utterances on sexuality are only sins against decorum. They do not violate nature. He never spoke on this subject with the slobbery grin of the voluptuary, or the leer of prurience. He was at such moments simply unreticent. Meaning no harm, he suspected none. In this respect he belonged to a less self-conscious antiquity, when nothing pertaining to man was common or unclean, and even the worship of the powers of generation was not without dignity and solemnity.
Some of the foremost Englishmen of our time have acknowledged Whitman's greatness and sanity—notably Carlyle, Ruskin, and Tennyson. Mr. Swinburne is the only one who has unsaid his praise.
Tennyson's intimacy with Whitman—always through correspondence—was simply beautiful. A superficial reader of human nature might have inquired what they had in common—the rough, amorphous American poet, and the exquisite English poet, a flower of millenniums of culture. But there is something deeper than form. It is substance. There is something deeper than language. It is manhood. And on the common ground of the deeper things of life, the American and English poets—otherwise so diverse—clasped hands, as it were, across the sundering ocean.
Whitman's claim to be considered a great poet, or even a poet at all, has been the subject of hot dispute. But such questions are not so settled. Only give time enough, and every writer falls by mere gravitation into his proper place, from which all the controversies in the world can never shift him. Where the evidence is largely subjective, as it must be in appraising genius, there is sure to be much in our judgment that is incommunicable. The logic of events, as we say in politics; or the proof of the pudding, as we say in the vernacular; is not so brilliant as logical sword-play, but it has the merit of being decisive.
Whitman's poetry looks strange to a reader accustomed to conventional models. It positively offends his eyesight. The ear may detect a certain rhythm, but where are the set lengths of orthodox versification? Here, however, there lurks a fallacy. Poetry is not the antithesis of prose. The antithesis of prose is verse. Some of the finest and noblest poetry in the world's literature is not cast in rhyme, though rhythm—often subtler than all possible rules—is indispensable. Yet there is something precious in poetical form; ay, and something durable. Many an exquisite lyric, with no great depth of feeling or reach of thought, has come down the stream of time, and will float upon it for ever. No doubt Dr. Johnson was right in calling it a waste of time to carve cherrystones, but precious stones are the more valued and admired for the art of the lapidary. Whitman did not cultivate versification. He almost despised it. He sneered at "dulcet rhymes." Yet this may hinder his access to posterity. Mr. Meredith hints as much in his sonnet entitled "An Orson of the Muse," which surely refers to Whitman. He allows him to be the Muse's son, though he will not wear her livery.
Him, whom he blows of Earth, and Man, and Fate, The Muse will hearken to with graver ear Than many of her train can waken: him Would fain have taught what fruitful things and dear Must sink beneath the tidewaves, of their weight, If in no vessel built for sea they swim.
That Whitman, however, could do great things with rhythm, and without rhyme, is proved by his "Funeral Hymn of President Lincoln," which James Thomson ranked with Shelley's "Adonais," and Mr. Swinburne called "the most sublime nocturne ever chanted in the cathedral of the world." That this is a great poem, and will live, we have not the slightest doubt. Some other of Whitman's poems will doubtless live with it, but whole masses of his poetry will probably sink to the bottom—not, however, before doing their work and delivering their message.
Because of his want of form, Whitman suffers more than other poets in extracts. We shall make none, but refer the reader to the whole body of his poetry, Some of it is almost wearisome; the rest will repay study. It contains the utterance of a great soul, full of love and friendship, patriotism and humanity, brooding over the everlasting problems of life and death. Untrammelled by schools and systems, Whitman was a true Freethinker. Cosmopolitan as he was, he preached the gospel of individuality.
"This is what you shall do: love the earth and the sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and mothers of families, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body."
Whitman appealed to the brotherhood of all and the dignity of each. He declared he would have nothing which every other man might not have on equal terms. The business of the great poet was "to cheer up slaves and horrify despots." Men, too, should keep in close communion with Nature, yet always feel that they could "be good or grand only of the consciousness of the supremacy within them."
"What do you think is the grandeur of storms and dismemberments, and the deadliest battles and wrecks, and the wildest fury of the elements, and the power of the sea, and the motion of nature, and of the throes of human desires, and dignity and hate and love? It is that something in the soul which says-Rage on, whirl on, I tread master here and everywhere; master of the spasms of the sky and of the shatter of the sea, of all terror and all pain."
America, perhaps even more than England, has need of Whitman's teaching as the poet of Democracy. He derided "the mania of owning things," he scorned distinctions of caste and class, he sang the divineness of comradeship—and, what is more, he practised it. Full-blooded, strong-limbed, rich-brained, large-hearted men and women are a nation's best products, and if a nation does not yield them, its wealth will only hasten its doom and pollute its grave.
TENNYSON AND THE BIBLE. *
* October, 1892.
We owe no apology for speaking of the dead poet as "Tennyson." This is how he will be known by posterity. The rank is but the guinea's stamp, and in this case it was not requisite. A true poet's gold can neither be made more precious nor more current by empty titles. In our opinion, it is a degradation, instead of an honor, for one of nature's aristocrats to herd with the artificial nobility of an hereditary peerage. We also take the opportunity of regretting that Tennyson ever became Poet Laureate. The court poet should not survive the court dwarf and the court jester. It is painful to see a great writer grinding out professional odes, and bestowing the excrements of his genius on royal nonentities. The preposterous office of Poet Laureate should now be abolished. No poet should write for a clique or a coterie; he should appeal directly to the heart of the nation.
Tennyson's funeral took place at Westminster Abbey. The heads of that establishment, following the example set by Dean Stanley, now act as body-snatchers. They appropriate the corpses of distinguished men, whether they believed or disbelieved the doctrines of the service read over their coffins. Charles Darwin's body is buried there—the great Agnostic, who repudiated Christianity; Robert Browning's too—the poet who said "I am no Christian" to Robert Buchanan. Carlyle took care that his corpse should not join the museum. Tennyson's, however, is now in the catalogue; and, it must be admitted, with more plausibility than in the case of Browning—with far more than in the case of Darwin.
Christian pulpiteers, all over the country, have been shouting their praises of Tennyson as a Christian poet. They are justified in making the most of a man of genius when they possess one. We do not quarrel with them. We only beg to remark that they have overdone it. The Christianity of Tennyson is a very different thing from the Christianity they vend to the credulous multitude.
There is no real evidence that Tennyson accepted the legendary part of Christianity. Even in "In Memoriam," which was published forty-three years ago, the thought is often extremely Pantheistic. It is nearly always so in the later poems. God, not Christ, became more and more the object of the poet's adoration, "Strong Son of God, immortal Love"—the first line of tne earlier poem—does not necessarily mean Christ; while the exclamation, "Ring in the Christ that is to be," is more symbolic than personal. There is also a strong hope, rather than the certitude, of a future life. No thoroughly convinced Christian could have written of
The Shadow cloaked from head to foot, Who keeps the keys of all the creeds.
Nay, the very deity of Christ is held loosely, if at all, in the thirty-third section, where he
Whose faith has centre everywhere, Nor cares to fix itself to form.
is bidden to leave his sister undisturbed when she prays; the poet exclaiming
Oh, sacred be the flesh and blood To which she links a truth divine!
In the last line of the next stanza this "sacred flesh and blood" of Christ (it is to be presumed) is called "a type"—which is a wide departure from orthodox Christianity. And what shall we say of the final lines of the whole poem?
One God, one law, one element, And one far-off divine event, To which the whole creation moves.
Like other passages of "In Memoriam," it is a distinct anticipation of the thought of "The Higher Pantheism," "Flower in the Crannied Wall," "De Profundus," and "The Ancient Sage."
Much has been made of the "Pilot" in one of Tennyson's last poems, "Crossing the Bar."
I hope to see my Pilot face to face When I have crossed the bar.
This has been treated as a reference to Christ; but a friend of Tennyson's, writing in the Athenaeum, says that the reference was really to the poet's son, Lionel Tennyson, who "crossed the bar" of death some years previously. How much more natural and human is the reference in the light of this explanation! Yet it appears, after all, from a later letter to the press by Tennyson's surviving son, that he did mean Christ. This is not, however, a confession of orthodoxy. The sentiment might be shared by men like the venerable Dr. Martineau, who deny the deity of Christ and strongly dissent from many time-honored Christian teachings.
Tennyson most assuredly revolted against the brutalities of Christianity; which, by the way, are countenanced by very explicit texts in the New Testament. He did not approve the text, "Great is your reward in heaven." He was above such huckstering. He sang of Virtue—
She desires no isles of the blest, no quiet seats of the just, To rest in a golden grove, or to bask in a summer sky. Give her the wages of going on, and not to die.
A noble petition! though in the teeth of a too patent destiny.
The doctrine of eternal Hell he first turned from, then denounced, and finally despised. It was for wavering as to this hideous dogma that the Rev. F. D. Maurice got into trouble with his College. He was godfather to Tennyson's little boy, and the poet invited him, in exquisitely charming verse, to share his hospitality.
For, being of that honest few, Who give the Fiend himself his due, Should eighty-thousand college-councils Thunder "Anathema," friend, at you;
Should all our churchmen foam in spite At you, so careful of the right, Yet one lay-hearth would give you welcome (Take it and come) to the Isle of Wight.
Tennyson had already, in "In Memoriam," proclaimed himself a Universalist, as Browning did afterwards in his powerful lines on the old Morgue at Paris. He had expressed the hope
That nothing walks with aimless feet; That not one life should be destroyed, Or cast as rubbish to the void, When God hath made the pile complete; That not a worm is cloven in vain; That not a moth with vain desire Is shrivelled in a fruitless fire, Or but subserves another's gain.
Such, a poet could never see the divinity of the wicked, awful words, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire." He denounced it in "Despair," a poem of his old age. Well does he make the Agnostic cry out to the minister—
What! I should call on that Infinite Love that has served us so well? Infinite cruelty rather that made everlasting Hell, Made us, foreknew us, foredoomed us, and does what he will with his own; Better our dead brute mother who never has heard us groan!
This is fierce denunciation, but it pales before the attack on Hell in "Rizpah"; that splendid poem, which is perhaps the very noblest effort of Tennyson's genius; outweighing hundreds of Balaclava charges and sea-fights; outshining the flawless perfection of "Maud":—a poem written in heart's blood and immortal tears, with a wondrously potent and subtle imagination, and a fire of humanity to burn up whole mountains of brutal superstitions.
The passionate words of the poor old dying mother, full of a deathless love for her boy who was hung, go straight as an arrow to its mark, through all the conventions of society and all the teachings of the Church.
Election, Election and Reprobation—it's all very well, But I go to-night to my boy, and I shall not find him in Hell.
And if he be lost—but to save my soul, that is all your desire; Do you think that I care for my soul if my boy be gone to the fire?
Tennyson gives the very essence of the moral revolt against Hell. Human nature has so developed in sympathy that the sufferings of others, though out of sight, afflict our imaginations. We loathe the spectacle of Abraham and Lazarus gazing complacently on the torture of Dives. Once it was not so. Those who were "saved" had little or no care for the "damned." But the best men and women of to-day do not want to be saved alone. They want a common salvation or none. And the mother's heart, which the creeds have trampled upon, hates the thought of any happiness in Heaven while son or daughter is agonising in Hell.
It is perfectly clear that Tennyson was far from an orthodox Christian. Quite as certainly he was not a Bibliolator. He read the Bible, of course; and so did Shelley. There are fine things in it, amidst its falsehoods and barbarities; and the English version is a monument of our literature. We regard as apocryphal, however, the story of Tennyson's telling a boy, "Read the Bible and Shakespeare; the one will teach you how to speak to God, and the other how to speak to your fellow-men." Anyhow, when the poet came to die, he did not ask for the Bible and he did ask for Shakespeare. The copy he habitually used was handed to him; he opened it at "Cymbeline," one of the most pagan of Shakespeare's plays; he read a little, and then held the book until Death came with the fall of "tired eyelids upon tired eyes."
It was a poetic death, and a pagan death. There lay the aged, world-weary poet; artificial light was withdrawn, and the moonlight streamed through the window upon his noble figure. Wife and son, doctors and nurses, were silent around him. And as Death put the last cold touch on the once passionate heart, it found him still clasping the book of the mighty magician. * Let it be also noted that no Christian priest was at his bedside. He needed not the mum-lings of a smaller soul to aid him in his last extremity. Hope he may have had, but no fear. His life ended like a long summer day, slowly dying into night.
* The present Lord Tennyson wrote as follows to Sir Arthur Hodgson, Chairman of the Shakespeare's Birthplace Trustees: "I beg to convey from my mother and myself our grateful acknowledgment to the Executive Committee of Shakespeare's Birthplace for their most kind expression of sympathy and for their beautiful wreath. My father was reading 'King Lear,' 'Troilus and Cressida,' and 'Cymbeline' through the last days of his life. On Wednesday he asked for Shakespeare. I gave him the book, but said, 'You must not try to read.' He answered, 'I have opened the book.' I looked at the book at midnight when I was sitting by him, lying dead on the Thursday, and found he had opened on one of the passages which he had called the tenderest in Shakespeare. We could not part with this volume, but buried a Shakespeare with him. We had the book enclosed in a metal box and laid by his side. —Yours faithfully, Hallam Tennyson."
CHRIST'S OLD COAT.
The little town of Trier (Treves) will soon wear a festive appearance. Pilgrims will be flocking to it from all parts of Germany, and God knows from where besides. Its handful of inhabitants have obtained licenses to open hotels and restaurants; every inch of available space has been let, so that whirligigs, panoramas, and menageries have to be refused the sites they apply for; every room in the town is to be let, more or less furnished; and not only is the tram company doubling its line, but the railway company is constructing special stations for special trains.
All this excitement springs from a superstitious source. After an interval of several years the Church will once more exhibit an old rag, which it calls the Holy Coat, and which it pretends is the very garment we read of in the Gospels. Such a precious relic is, of course, endowed with supernatural qualities. It will heal the sick, cure cripples, and, let us hope, put brains into idiotic heads. Hence the contemplated rush to Trier, where more people will congregate to see Christ's coat than ever assembled to hear him preach or see him crucified.
The pilgrims will not be allowed to examine the Holy Coat. Few of them, perhaps, would be inclined to do so. Thev have the faith which removes mountains, and swallowing a coat is but a trifle. Nor would the Church allow a close inspection of this curious relic, any more than it would allow a chemist to examine the bottle in which the blood of St. Januarius annually liquefies. The Holy Coat will be held up by priests at a discreet and convenient distance; the multitude of fools will fall before it in ecstatic adoration; and the result will be the usual one in such cases, a lightening of the devotees' pockets to the profit of Holy Mother Church.
According to the Gospels, the Prophet of Nazareth had a seamless overcoat. Perhaps it was presented to him by one of the rich women who ministered unto him of their substance. Perhaps it was a birthday gift from Joseph of Arimathaea. Anyhow he had it, unless the Gospels lie; and, with the rest of his clothes, it became the property of his executioners. Those gentlemen raffled for it. Which of them won it we are not informed. Nor are we told what he did with it. It would be a useless garment to a Roman soldier, and perhaps the warrior who won the raffle sold it to a second-hand clothes-dealer. This, however, is merely a conjecture. Nothing is known with certainty. The seamless overcoat disappeared from view as decisively as the person who wore it.
For many hundreds of years it was supposed to have gone the way of other coats. No one thought it would ever be preserved in a Church museum. But somehow it turned up again, and the Church got possession of it, though the Church could not tell now and when it was found, or where it had been while it was lost. One coat disappeared; hundreds of years afterwards another coat was found; and it suited the Church to declare them the same.
At that time the Church was "discovering" relics with extraordinary success and rapidity. Almost everything Christ ever used (or didn't use) came to light. His baby linen, samples of his hair and teeth, and the milk he drew from Mary's breast, the shoes he wore into Jerusalem, fragments of the twelve baskets' full of food after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the dish from which he ate the last supper, the thorns that crowned his brow, the sponge put to his lips on the cross, pieces of the cross itself—these and a host of other relics were treasured at varions churches in Europe, and exhibited with unblushing effrontery. Even the prepuce of Jesus, amputated at his circumcision, was kept at Rome.
Several churches boasted the same articles. John the Baptist's body was in dozens of different places, and the finger with which he pointed to Jesus as his successor was shown, in a fine state of preservation, at Besancon, Toulouse, Lyons, Bourges, Macon, and many other towns.
John Calvin pointed out, in his grim Treatise on Relics, that the Holy Coat of Christ was kept in several churches. In our own time, a book on this subject has been written by H. von Sybel, who proves that the Trier coat is only one of twenty that were exhibited. All were authentic, and all were guaranteed by the same authority. Holy Mother Church lied and cheated without a twinge of compunction.
Nineteen Holy Coats have gone. The twentieth is the last of the tribe. While it pays it will be exhibited. When it ceases to pay, the Church will quietly drop it. By and bye the Church will swear it never kept such an article in stock.
Superstition dies hard, and it always dies viciously. The ruling passion is strong in death. A journalist has just been sent to prison for casting a doubt on the authenticity of this Holy Coat. Give the Catholic Church its old power again, and all who laughed at its wretched humbug would be choked with blood.
Protestants, as well as Freethinkers, laugh at Catholic relics. Were we to quote from some of the old English "Reformers," who carried on a vigorous polemic against Catholic "idolatry," we should be reproached for soiling our pages unnecessarily. John Calvin himself, the Genevan pope, declared that so many samples of the Virgin Mary's milk were exhibited in Europe that "one might suppose she was a wet nurse or a cow."
Freethinkers, however, laugh at the miracles of Protestantism, as well as those of the Catholic Church. They are all of a piece, in the ultimate analysis. It is just as credible that Christ's Coat would work miracles, as that Elisha's bones restored a corpse to life, or that Paul's handkerchiefs cured the sick and diseased. All such things belong to the same realm of pious imagination. Thus, while the Protestant laughs at the Catholic, the Freethinker laughs at both.
CHRIST'S COAT, NUMBER TWO.
Jesus Christ is urgently required on earth again, to settle the pious dispute between Treves and Argenteuil as to which possesses the real seamless coat that was taken from him at the Crucifixion and raffled for by the Roman soldiers. No one but the second person of the Trinity, unless it be the first or third person of that three-headed monstrosity, is adequate to the settlement of this distracting quarrel. Even the Papacy, which represents the Holy Trinity on earth, is at variance with itself. Pope Leo favors Treves, and the wicked pilgrims who visit that little old town are to obtain absolution, if they do not forget to "pray for the extirpation of erroneous doctrines." Pope Pius, his predecessor, however, favored Argenteuil. A portion of the Holy Coat treasured in the church there was sent to him, and in return for the precious gift he forwarded a well-blessed and marvellously-decorated wax taper, which is still on show in a fine state of preservation.
When Popes differ, ordinary people, like pious Christians, and even the editors of Freethought journals, may be excused if they hesitate to commit themselves. One of these coats may be the true one, though the evidence is all against it, being in fact of such a shaky nature that it would hardly suffice to substantiate a claim to a bunch of radishes. But both of them cannot be authentic, and the problem is, which is the very coat that Jesus wore? Now it is obvious that no one—barring his two colleagues aforesaid—can possibly determine this question but himself. His re-appearance on earth is therefore most desirable; nay, it is absolutely necessary, unless a lot of people who would fain bow before the cast-off clothes of their Redeemer are either to stay at home in a state of dubiety or to incur the risk of kneeling before a mouldy old rag that perchance belonged to a Moorish slave or a Syrian water-carrier—in any case, to a dog of an infidel who spat at the very name of Christ, for such raiment was never worn by the worshippers of the Nazarene.
If Christ is coming to decide this great and grave problem, he will have to make haste, for Argenteuil is already on the war-path. Its Holy Coat is being exhibited before that of Treves, and thousands of pilgrims are giving Number Two the preference. Presently the Treves relic will attract its thousands, and the spectacle will be positively scandalous. Two Richmonds in the field were nothing to two Christ's Coats, each pretending to be the real article, and each blessed by a Pope. For the sake of decency as well as truth, Christ should peremptorily interfere. It is difficult to see how he can refrain. The Second Advent may therefore be expected before the date assigned by Prophet Baxter, and we shall probably soon hear the faithful singing "Lo he comes in clouds descending."
Why should he not come? we may ask the Catholics. His mother has often appeared, if we may believe the solemn affidavits of priests and bishops, backed up by the Holy See. Why should he not come? we may also ask the Protestants. His second coming is an article of their faith; it is plainly taught in the New Testament, and was recently propounded by Mr. Spurgeon as part of the irreducible minimum of the Christian faith. That he will come, then, may be taken for granted; and what better opportunity could be desired than the present? Surely the faithful, all over Europe—ay, and in America, to say nothing of Asia, Africa, and Australia—will cry like one man, "Come Lord Jesus, quickly come! Tell us, oh tell us, which of these mouldy old rags did once grace thy holy shoulders? Save us, oh save us, from the pain, the ignominy of adoring a dirty relic of some unknown sinner, who perhaps blasphemed thy holy name. Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord!" Meanwhile we may point out that, if Christ does not come and adjudicate between Treves and Argenteuil, a multitude of Christians will certainly go on a fool's errand. Our private opinion is that all will do so who visit either or these places. Nevertheless they will no doubt congratulate themselves, if they go to Treves, on winning absolution. The Holy Father at Rome, who has a supernatural dispensing power, promises to wipe out the record of their sins. Liars, cheats, seducers, adulterers, and undetected assassins, may take a trip, perform genuflexions before something in a glass case, and return home with a clean record. Who can conceive an easier method of avoiding the consequences of wickedness? As for the prayer which the pilgrims are to offer up for "the extirpation of erroneous doctrines," it will cost them very little effort, for sinners who are washed clean with such delightful celerity are not likely to be in love with "erroneous doctrines" that declare the Pope's dispensing power a sham, and sternly tell men that the consequences of action, whether good or bad, are inevitable. We very much doubt, however, if "erroneous doctrines" will disappear through the prayers of the pilgrims or the curses of the Pope. Scepticism will probably gain by the spectacle of two rival Coats of Christ, both exhibited at the same time, both attracting crowds of devotees, and both enjoying the Papal blessing. It will bring superstition into still further contempt, and promote the rejection of a creed which has ever traded on ignorance and credulity.
SCOTCHED, NOT SLAIN.
Those who have read the foregoing articles on the Holy Coat exhibitions at Treves and Argenteuil may think that enough space has been devoted to such a ridiculous subject. It is possible, however, that the present article will induce them to alter that opinion.
Hitherto we have treated this outburst of Christian superstition with jocosity, but there is a serious aspect of it which must not be neglected. Christianity has often made Freethinkers laugh, but not unfrequently it has made them weep tears of blood. Absurdity is not always a laughing matter. There was a comic side to the orthodox persecution of Charles Bradlaugh—but it killed him. Bigotry and superstition are fit subjects for jest and ridicule; when they gain power, however, they are apt to substitute agony for laughter. Celsus ridiculed Christianity in the second century; in the fourth his writings were absolutely destroyed, and those who shared his opinions, and dared to express them, were on the high road to the prison and the stake.
More recent events teach the same lesson. Thomas Paine treated Christianity not only with trenchant argument, but also with brilliant derision. For this he suffered ostracism and calumny, and for publishing the Age of Reason Richard Carlile, his wife, his sister, and his shopmen rotted in English gaols. The Freethinker derided Christian absurdities, and its conductors were sent to herd with criminals in a Christian prison. Nearly everyone thought, as Sir James Stephen declared in a legal text-book, that the Blasphemy Laws were obsolete; but it was proved by the inexorable logic of fact that laws are never obsolete until they are repealed. While the Blasphemy Laws exist they are always liable to enforcement. They are the standing menace of an absurd creed to those who smile at it too ostentatiously.
Let us extend the same line of reflection to this Holy Coat business. Contemptible as it is to the eye of reason, it excites the piety of millions of persons who never reasoned on religion in the whole course of their lives. Hundreds of thousands of men and women will visit these sham relics of a Savior whose own existence is open to dispute. Superstition will be stirred to its depths. The bestial instinct of spiritual slavery inherited from ancient semi-human progenitors will be intensely stimulated. The sacred function of priests will be heightened and intensified. Nor must it be forgotten that the pecuniary offerings of the pilgrims will fill the coffers of Holy Mother Church, who promises heaven to her dupes and seizes wealth and power for herself on earth.
Superstition is scotched, but not slain. It has life enough to be a peril to civilisation. The faith which wrecked "the grandeur that was Greece and the glory that was Rome"—the faith which buried the science, art, philosophy and literature of antiquity under a monstrous heap of brutal rubbish, out of which they were slowly and painfully excavated after the lapse of a thousand years—this same faith is still a danger to the highest welfare of mankind; to its reason, its conscience, its sense of dignity, and its spirit of brotherhood; above all, to freedom of thought, which is the sole guarantee of real and durable progress.
If we turn to Russia, we see at a single glance the fruits of superstition and its twin-sister tyranny. The Czar is the head of the Church and the head of the State; not like Queen Victoria, whose sacred function is only indicated in Latin on our coinage, but in literal, prosaic fact. By means of a swarm of ignorant, and often drunken and immoral priests, the masses of the people are kept in wretched subjection—hewers of wood and drawers of water, toilers for the huge army of officials, aristocrats, and princes—and conscripts for the army; while the best and noblest, in whom there still throbs the pulse of freedom, blacken the highways to the mines of Siberia, where hell is more than realised on earth, and the dreams of sour-blooded theologians are outdone in misery and horror. *
Over the rest of Europe, even in France, the secular State is often as insecure as the footsteps of travellers over thin crusts of volcanic soil. Bismarck, the Titan, whose great work, with all its defects and failings, may appeal from the clamorous passing hour to the quiet verdict of history, only kept the Catholic Church and its Jesuits in check for a generation. He could not impair its vitality nor diminish its latent power. It is in Germany that the Coat of Christ is being exhibited, with priests and professors joining hands at the brazen ceremony of imposture; in Germany that myriads of pilgrims are wending their way to the shrine of an idolatry as ignominious as anything that Christianity ever supplanted.
Even in France the one great danger to the Republic is Christian superstition. It is the Church, her priests and her devotees, that furnish the real strength of every reactionary movement. That consummate charlatan, General Boulanger, took to going to church and cultivating orthodoxy when at the height of his aspiration for power. Happily he was defeated by the men of light and leading. Happily, too, the ablest and most trusted leaders of public life in France are on the side of Freethought. It is this, more than anything else, that makes the country of Voltaire the beacon of civilisation as well as the "martyr of democracy."
Charles Bradlaugh, on a very solemn occasion, warned the Freethought party that even in England their great fight would ultimately be with the Catholic Church. He knew that superstition was scotched, but he also knew it was far from slain. While Freethinkers are laughing at this exhibition of old rags, called the Coat of Christ, they should pause for a moment to consider the serious meaning of such a grotesque display of superstition in the land of Goethe and Heine, and in the age of Darwin. Let us jest round our camp-fires, but let us grip our sword-hilts as we hear the cries, the jingle of weapons, and the tramp of men in the camp of our enemy.
"Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a flea, and yet he will be making gods by dozens." So wrote honest Montaigne, the first great sceptic in modern history, who was so far in advance of his age that he surprised the world by venturing to doubt whether it was after all a just and sensible thing to burn a man alive for differing from his neighbors.