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Fanaticism in New England.
hace must bilies not either
and to prefer a friendly diversity to an intolerant uniformity. Sir C. Lyell enumerates eight sects in this town of Portland; and the American Almanac for 1849 gives twenty-eight in all for the United States, with an estimate of their respective numbers. Statistics, however, are a rude, and must be a most vague measure of spiritual quantities; but take the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand, which strives to be the same in all lands, and multitudinous Protestantism on the other; and among the popular heresiarchs of the Union in our generation, let Dr. Channing stand at the top and Mormon Smith at the bottom;
and then let us consider the gradations of faith and polity that must lie between them. If amity be an accomplished fact in such a conflux of opposites, the spirit of peace must be strong, after all, in the world, and the problem of happy families' no longer desperate. The variety of sects is in truth not a subject either for satire or for tears, unless we could say how religion could otherwise adapt itself to the unequal growth of intellect in society. The polity of the Roman Church was perfect in itself, and for its own purposes. It grasped the whole body of the State, and left no grade or member of it uncared for. But when heresy broke into the fold, and conviction, instead of submission, was made the basis of the new Church, and every man had to choose his creed, or at least the keeper of his conscience, uniformity became impossible, and sects inevitable. Then arose the proverb, ubi una, ibi nulla! And if a civilised commonwealth is ever again to be one fold, under one Shepherd, it must be by getting through the sectarian stage, as the individual mind can best do, and resolving moral as well as material phenomena into general laws and a universal providence.
To this end, the first step is not that sects should cease to be, - far from it, but that they should agree to be. And this is what we rejoice to learn has been brought to pass in New England, as exemplified in the above-mentioned instance in the State of Maine. The same phenomenon is repeated and recurred to in many places; and instead of exaggerations and contrasts, Sir C. Lyell endeavours to give us things in their natural colours and proportions, the result of which is, a more intelligible picture of religion in America, than we usually meet with. Revivals, and camp meetings, and fanatical excesses are reported too, but not in a satirical style or spirit, nor with undue inferences drawn from them as to national character. Such fanaticism is the religion of an uninstructed but awakening vulgar. It is religion, however, having reference to conscience and the moral condition of man. A fixed superstition belongs to a wholly ignorant and stationary people. The free enthusiasm of a democracy is error in agitation and transition, and we may hope will correct itself on the way.
Revivals are made up of all the arts of excitement and some of the arts of fraud, which mingle strangely together in spiritual zealotry. Sir C. Lyell quotes from a New York paper the following advertisement:-'A protracted meeting is now in progress at the Church in — Street: there have been a
number of Conversions, and it is hoped the work of grace has • but just commenced. Preaching every evening. Seats
free !At a revival in Bethlehem, attended by sixteen ministers, Methodists, Baptists, and one Orthodox, there were
prayers and preaching incessantly from morning to night, for twenty-one days.' Sir C. Lyell was assured by a Boston friend, that, when he once attended a revival sermon, he heard • the preacher describe the symptoms which they might expect 'to experience on the first, second, and third day previous to
their conversion, just as a medical lecturer might expatiate to "his pupils on the progress of a well known disease; and the
complaint, he added, is indeed a serious one, and very conta
gious when the feelings have obtained an entire control over the * judgment, and the new convert is in the power of the preacher; • he himself is often worked up to such a pitch of enthusiasm
as to have lost all command over his own heated imagination.' But such a preacher belongs to a well-known genus in church history. The most memorable of them was perhaps Peter the Hermit. Religious madness is also a form of mania well known in lunatic asylums and out of them. It is admitted, however, and • deplored by the advocates of revivals, that, after the application
of such violent stimulants, there is invariably a reaction, and what they call a flat or dead season; and it is creditable to • the New England clergy of all sects that they have in general, of late years, almost discontinued such meetings.'
Then we have an account of the Millerites, followers of one Miller, who had appointed the 23d of Oct. 1844 for the final destruction of the world, and who found such faith on earth that, in the autumn of that year, many of his neighbours would neither reap their harvest nor let others reap it, lest they should tempt Providence in that awful hour: and, after the 23d of October, though they saved what they could, or had it saved for them by the parochial authorities, yet the failure of the prediction was resolved into miscalculation merely, and the sect continued to flourish and believe, and Boston shops advertised ascension robes for going up to Heaven; and an English bookseller at New York assured Sir C. Lyell “ that there was a • brisk demand for such articles even as far south as Phila
The Mormons and Millerites.
• delphia, and that he knew two individuals in New York who
sat up all night in their shrouds on the 22d of October!' • Several houses were pointed out to us between Plymouth
and Boston, the owners of which had been reduced to poverty .by their credulity, having sold their all towards building the
tabernacle in which they were to pray incessantly for six weeks previous to their ascension. In this tabernacle which was afterwards sold and converted into a theatre—the Author saw Macbeth; and was told by some of his party 'that • they were reminded of the extraordinary sight they had wit* nessed in that room on the 230 October of the previous year, when the walls were all covered with Hebrew and Greek texts, and when a crowd of devotees were praying in their ascension robes, in hourly expectation of the consummation of 6 all things.
Now fanatical excesses like these have been worked up with much effect by satirical and declamatory writers, as evidence against the general intelligence of American society; but when Sir Charles Lyell alleged the numerous followers of Miller and Smith to a New England friend, as 'not arguing much in favour
of the working of their plan of national education,' he received, we think, a very sensible reply, which, without vindicating the younger world, laid upon the elder its due share of the reproach.
As for the Mormons, you must bear in mind that they were largely recruited from the manufacturing districts of England and Wales, and from European emigrants recently arrived. They were drawn chiefly from the illiterate class in the Western States, where society is in its rudest condition. The progress of the Millerites however, though confined to a fraction of the population, reflects undoubtedly much discredit on the educational and religious training in New England; but since the year 1000, when all Christendom believed that the world was come to an end, there have never been wanting interpreters of prophecy who have confidently assigned some exact date, and one near at hand, for the millennium. Your Faber on the Prophecies, and the writings of Croly, and even some articles in the Quarterly Review, helped for a time to keep up this spirit here, and make it fashionable. But the Millerite movement, like the exhibition of the Holy Coat at Treves, has done much to open men's minds; and the exertions made of late to check this fanatical movement have advanced the cause of truth.
· The same friend then went on to describe to me a sermon preached in one of the north-eastern townships of Massachusetts, which he named, against the Millerite opinions, by the minister of the parish, who explained the doubts generally entertained by the learned in regard to some of the dates of the prophecies of Daniel, entered freely into modern controversies about the verbal inspiration of the Old and New Testament, and referred to several works both of German,
British, and New England authors, which his congregation had never heard of till then. Not a few of them complained that they had been so long kept in the dark; that their minister must have entertained many of these opinions long before, and that he had now revealed them in order to stem the current of a popular delusion, and for expediency, rather than the love of truth. • Never," said they, “ can we in future put the same confidence in him again."
• Other apologists observed to me, that so long as part of the population was very ignorant, even the well educated would occasionally participate in fanatical movements; for religious enthusiasm, being very contagious, resembles a famine fever, which first attacks those who are starving, but afterwards infects some of the healthiest and best fed individuals in the whole community.'
This last observation and similitude, which Sir Charles Lyell thinks plausible and ingenious but fallacious,' seems to us to haye both force and truth in it. All excitability beyond the bounds of reason is a matter of temperament, and subject to strange sympathies which reason can neither control nor explain. But whoever seriously believed the end of the world to be at hand, would be in a state of reasonable excitement; and the doctrine of literal inspiration had, long before America was known, seemed to give all men an absolute warrant for that belief. The behaviour of the New England sectaries under such persuasion was natural enough. The opinion was a de-, lusion ; but if one honest sermon proved sufficient to dispel it from the minds of one congregation, let the theology both at home and abroad, which dares not speak plainly to the people, and hardly dares to open its own eyes, bear the blame of all such epidemic extravagance.
But we must follow Sir Charles Lyell further into this subject, on which, in his 12th chapter, he has written fully, earnestly, and wisely, in a tone that can give just offence to nobody. And if we can draw more general attention to that chapter alone, we shall render a seasonable service to truth and charity on both sides of the Atlantic.
Religion is rightly assumed, by all who believe in a power above them, to be the basis and soul of education. Yet religion, as moulded by most schools of theology in Europe, is found in unnatural opposition to free teaching; and it puzzles the wisdom of senates to discover how this fatal schism is to be healed. But in New England the problem has been solved already. There are free schools there and independent sects in amicable fellowship; and it is well worth further inquiry whether toleration has produced the schools or the schools have produced toleration. Sir Charles Lyell quotes, from the farewell charge of Pastor Robinson to his congregation at
True Religion essentially progressive.
Leyden, before they set sail in the Mayflower, the following passage:
'I charge you before God, and his holy angels, that you follow me no further than you have seen me to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of his holy word. For my part I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the reformed churches, who are come to a period in religion, and will go at present no further than the instruments of their first reformation; the Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. Whatever part of his will our good God has imparted and revealed unto Calvin, they will die rather than embrace it, and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented; for though they were burning and shining lights in their times, yet they penetrated not into the whole council of God : But were they now living, they would be as willing to embrace further light as that which they first received. I beseech you to remember it: It is an article of your Church covenant, that you will be ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known unto you from the written word of God. Remember that, and every other article of your most sacred covenant.'
Now the principle which is contained in these pregnant words it is probable that neither the preacher himself nor the most reflecting of his hearers would have been ready to follow out to its destined results. The zealous exiles were as positive and intolerant under their new heaven as the brethren they had left behind them under the old. But no philosopher ever stood wholly clear of his own times and associations -- how much less any religious enthusiast. The progress which Pastor Robinson foresaw was something that should enlarge only, and enforce, but not confute, or altogether outgrow, the teaching of Calvin. It was indeed a great step to admit that Calvin himself saw not all things. It is a further and greater step to admit that Calvin saw many things that were not, and that the progress of truth includes unlearning much as well as learning more. It is Coleridge, we think, who remarks of political disputants and parties, that, seeing half the truth, they are generally right in the principles which they assert, and wrong in those which they deny;
- in the same sense in which opposite proverbs are the complements of each other — both true, and yet both false. But as much can hardly be said of religious sects - for, in religion, the positive, from the nature of the case, is far more likely to be wrong, because the horizon there is infinite ; and we have no data for a doctrine of the moral sphere. The Pastor's rule, however, be ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known unto you,' though it has already led whither he would not, is a rule