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THE PROGRESS OF THE REFORMATION IN IRE
LAND-REMARKS ON THE STATE OF MORALS · AND RELIGION, BEFORE THIS PERIOD.
THE mere establishment of forms of religion and of civil government, however pure in their nature, and beneficial in their tendency, can be of little avail to the general happiness of any people, unless they have been previously prepared for their reception, and unless the adoption of them be the effect rather than the cause of their improvement. It can contribute little to the good of the people, that in states the most corrupt, where the multitude are grossly stupid and ignorant, revolutions take place in infinite succession : these changes only give them new masters, whilst they leave their condition marked with the same unvaried supineness, the same apathy to noble and vigorous exertion, the same melancholy and hopeless degradation. There has been a revolution in France as well as in England ; but the one has secured the liberty and independence of the subject for ever, while the other has produced a power which attempts to destroy the dearest remains of all that claims the sympathies and affections of man, and threatens with its gigantic force to bring the whole world again into bondage. It was not because the French people wanted philosophers and patriots, men who sincerely wished the renovation of the state, and the happiness of society, that their chains have thus been rivetted ; but the multitude was ignorant: they had more of the senseless forms of popery than of the pure morality of that religion whose name it assumes ; they had more of the blind fanaticism of a revolutionary phrenzy, than of the popular enthusiasm of a nation already beyond the power of thraldom, because they determine to be free already in the enjoyment of liberty, because they are capable of appreciating the inconceivable advantage of that liberty at which they aim.
Are we then to conclude, that unless a people be somewhat enlightened, all forms of government, whether civil or religious, are in point of utility to them alike? This were perhaps granting too much; since it is more probable that a free government, if, indeed, such an institution can in such circumstances long exist, will improve the condition of the people sooner than one of an opposite description. It is perfectly evident, however, that forms of religion can do no good, unless their immediate and direct object be to produce pure devotion and genuine morality; and that when these effects are produced, a nation will spontaneously relinquish the unmeaning and pernicious mummeries of superstition. First enlighten the people, and make them christians, before you attempt to reform and make them protestants. This, at least, seems the most natural, as well as the most efficient mode of procedure. Accordingly, 'in those countries in which the reformation from popery commenced, and to which it has extended its inestimable blessings, some knowledge had been diffused among the lower orders of the people; their condition in society was considerably improved ; and the sacred writings began to be in circulation : so that their departure from the tyranny of the church of Rome was as agreeable to them as to their rulers, and an event which, though its accomplishment might have been protracted, no power on earth could ultimately prevent. To be convinced of the truth of this, let us only advert to one of the causes which, in conjunction with many others, occasioned that long night of moral darkness, so illustrative of human folly and weakness, and so replete with instruction to the ages to come.
In the primitive christian church, the circu. lation of the sacred writings must have been necessarily limited. The method of multiplying copies of any author, was, at that time, as well as for many ages afterwards, extremely tedious and expensive: the opulent alone could afford the gratification of a tolerable library. From this circumstance, a few copies of the inspired volume, or perhaps a single copy among the members of one congregation, 'was as much as could be expected. And though this would be carefully and frequently consulted, yet from the nature of the case it must be presumed, that the people derived their principal information from the pastors of the church. Notwithstanding this disadvantage, christianity, to a period long subsequent to the decease of its only infallible teachers, flourished in all its purity, and mightily prevailed. Its humble preachers were not yet acquainted with the metaphysical jargon of the schools; the doc. trine of Christ supremely occupied their attention; neither was there yet any temptation presented to unprincipled men to assume the mask of religion, to make the church the path to opulence and power, and zeal for its cause a pretence to the accomplishment of the most criminal designs.
The great comparative scarcity of the scrip
tures, before the invention of the art of printing, is a circumstance whose influence on the introduction of error and false religion ought not to be unnoticed or forgotten. When the great body of the believers received all their knowledge from the rulers of the church, who were erring mortals like themselves, it was very possible for them in many instances to be wrong, Difference of opinion would of course arise ; this would beget division; division would produce bigotry and intolerance; and these qualities, when strengthened by the love of victory and power, would end in the violence of perse. cution. A knowledge of the Bible not being familiar to the people, it would, in the progress of error, not be deemed very essential to their teachers; a minute acquaintance with polemical divinity, together with the imposing dogmas and senseless disputes of the church, would be deemed far more useful in a candidate for the holy ministry. Error being thus finally established, and along with it a powerful order of men who would feel interested in its support, that part of mankind who should presume to adhere to the simplicity of the ancient faith, must incur the odious name of heretic, and feel themselves involved in the punishment assigned to this unfortunate character.
Ireland, at a very early period, was visited