Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION VII.: Farther observations concerning the extent of ecclesiastical authority, and the power of civil governors in matters of religion. - An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty
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SECTION VII.: Farther observations concerning the extent of ecclesiastical authority, and the power of civil governors in matters of religion. - Joseph Priestley, An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty 
An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty, including remarks on Dr. Brown’s Code of Education, and on Dr. Balguy’s Sermon on Church Authority. The Second Edition, corrected and enlarged (London: J. Johnson, 1771).
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Farther observations concerning the extent of ecclesiastical authority, and the power of civil governors in matters of religion.
IT is said that a christian church, or a christian society, and the power of christian societies, are certainly spoken of in the New Testament; that societies cannot subsist without officers and laws, nor can laws be enforced without penalties. All this, and every consequence of the like nature, is readily granted; but the sanctions of the church of Christ in this world are, like itself, and like the weapons of the christian warfare, not carnal, and temporal, but of a spiritual nature; and do not affect a man’s person, life, liberty, or estate. All that our Saviour directs, in case of the greatest refractoriness, is to consider such obstinate offenders as heathen men and publicans; that is, we are justified in ceasing to look upon them as brethren and fellow christians; and they are not intitled to our peculiar affection, and attention, as such.
The delivering over to Satan, which St. Paul mentions, as a punishment for the greatest offence that could be committed in the christian church, is not a delivering over to the civil magistrate, or to the executioner. In short, all that the New Testament authorizes a christian church, or its officers, to do, is to exclude from their society those persons whom they deem unworthy of it. There is no hint of such excluded members lying under any civil disqualification. If they were not to be considered as christians, and proper members of christian societies; they were still men, proper members of civil society, and not liable to civil penalties, unless they had, likewise, offended against the laws of the state.
The horrid sentence of excommunication, as it is in use in the church of Rome, or the church of England, is well known not to have been introduced into the christian church, till the Roman Emperors became christians; and was not established in its full extent till about the fifth century, when it was adopted by the barbarous Celtes, and other Germanic nations, and made similar to what they had practised in their own Druidical religion; which was, in this respect, analogous to that of the Hindoos. In both of them excommunication was the heaviest punishment that could be incurred in human society, as it cut a man off from all the benefits of it.
It will be said that, in the times of St. Paul, temporal penalties were inflicted upon members of the christian church, for their irregularities committed in it. For this cause, says the apostle, some are weak and sickly among you, and some sleep; which is generally understood to refer to sickness and death, as a punishment for their shameful abuse of the institution of the Lord’s supper. But it should be considered, that these punishments were the immediate act of God, and in the strictest sense miraculous, like the death of Ananias and Sapphira, or the blindness of Elymas the sorcerer. These cases, therefore, will not authorize punishments inflicted by men. All that can be done to those who are guilty of contempt against church power, is to leave them to the judgment of God, who will sufficiently protect his church, and who is a better judge of its real danger than man can be; and if he chuse to bear with such offenders, what have we to do to obstruct the effects of his long suffering and mercy?
I have no objection, however, on my own account, to allowing ecclesiastical officers to do more than Christ, than St. Paul, or the other apostles ever pretended to. Let them not only predict, but, if their zeal prompt them to it, let them imprecate divine judgments. Let them pray that God would speedily plead his own cause, taking it for granted to be their own. Were I the obnoxious person, I should be very easy upon the occasion, provided their own cruel and merciless hands were not upon me.
It is allowed by many, that christian churches, as such, and its officers, as such, have no right to inflict civil punishments; but they say the civil magistrate may embrace the christian religion, and enforce its precepts by civil penalties. But have civil magistrates, when they become christians, a power of altering, or new modelling the christian religion, any more than other members of the christian church? If not, its laws and sanctions remain just as they did before, such as Jesus Christ and his apostles left them; and the things that may have been substituted in their place, cannot be called christianity, but are something else.
If the civil magistrate chuse to become a christian, by all means let the doors of the christian church be open to him, as they ought to be to all, without distinction or respect of persons; but when he is in, let him be considered as no more than any other private christian. Give him a vote in all cases in which the whole assembly is concerned, but let him, like others, be subject to church censures, and even to be excommunicated, or excluded for notorious ill behaviour.
It is, certainly, contrary to all ideas of common sense, to suppose that civil magistrates embracing christianity have, therefore, a power of making laws for the christian church, and enforcing the observance of them by sanctions altogether unsuitable to its nature. The idea cannot be admitted without supposing a total change in the very first principles and essentials of christianity. If civil penalties be introduced into the christian church, it is, in every sense, and to every purpose, making it a kingdom of this world. Its governors then assume a power over men’s persons and property, a power unknown in the institutes of our religion. If, moreover, the civil magistrate take upon him to prescribe creeds and confessions of faith, as is the case in England, what is it but to usurp a dominion over the faith of christians, a power, which the apostles themselves expressly disclaimed.
It may be said, that the civil magistrate, upon embracing christianity, and being convinced of the excellency of its precepts, may chuse to incorporate them into his scheme of civil policy, and enforce them by civil penalties, not as matters of religion, but as belonging to civil government. Thus Christ has forbidden polygamy, and the civil magistrate (a Turk for instance) being converted to christianity, in order to put an end to the former custom, may make it death to marry two wives. He may also think the ministers of the christian church a very respectable order of men, and invest them with civil power; whereby they may be enabled to inflict civil punishments, in cases where, before, they could only make use of admonitions; and he may tax the people for their support. Thinking one mode of christianity preferable to another, may he not also, arm its ministers, with a civil power for suppressing the rest; when, before, they could only have used arguments for this purpose? Are civil and ecclesiastical powers so very incompatible that the same persons may not be invested with both? Were not all heads of families, both kings and priests, in the patriarchal times?
I answer, that, whatever regulations the civil magistrate may adopt, yet, as his adopting of them, and enforcing them by civil penalties makes them, confessedly, to be of a civil nature, he is not intitled to obedience with respect to them, so far as they are of a religious nature. If, therefore, any private christian should differ in opinion from his civil magistrate, or those invested by him with civil power, with respect to those things which are of a religious nature, he cannot consider himself as under any more obligation to submit to him, than he would be to submit to a heathen magistrate in the same case. A conscientious christian will never hesitate about obeying God rather than man, though that man should be a magistrate, or though he should be a christian, and assume the title of supreme head of the whole, or any part of the christian church. Any other maxims than these, it is evident, might be attended with the utter subversion of the christian religion. For the civil magistrate would have nothing to do but to adopt christianity into his system of civil policy; and then, having the whole within his own cognizance, he might add and alter at pleasure, till he had made it quite a different thing from what he found it.
It is upon this principle of the civil magistrate converting christianity into civil policy, or something similar to it, that Dr. Balguy, and, I believe, most of the advocates for church power in England at present, found their claim to ecclesiastical authority. The clergy of former ages went upon quite another ground. They claimed authority jure divino, and scorned to derive their power from the civil magistrate. These two species of authority were perpetually opposed to one another; and the church encroached upon the state, or the state upon the church, as opportunity favoured their respective attempts; insomuch that the history of Europe, in the dark ages, is little more than an account of the violent struggles between these two contrary powers.
The Romish clergy still keep up the same pretences, and so did the clergy of the church of England, till they were fairly argued, or laughed out of them. Upon this, they have, lately, set up another claim to power, not contrary to, but under that of the civil magistrate. In their present ideas, the ecclesiastical establishment is a creature of the state. They consider themselves as civil officers, employed by the king to teach the religion the state has adopted, and they receive their wages, as other servants of the crown.
Now, admitting all this, what have the people to do with them as ministers of the gospel, and servants of Jesus Christ; since they teach for doctrines the commandments of men? Hitherto the christian people of this country have imagined, that their ministers came to them with a commission from Christ, to teach them the things that relate to their everlasting happiness, and thereby secure the salvation of their immortal souls. Hitherto they have held them in reverence as successors of the apostles, and submitted themselves to them, as to persons, who watched for their souls, as those who must give an account to their chief shepherd, when he shall appear, and who, for their good, were invested with spiritual power, independent of all human authority.
Should they not now, therefore, be apprized, that their ghostly superiors have, of late, renounced the principle on which they have hitherto yielded them obedience, and that their clergy chuse to rank with justices of the peace, and other civil and crown officers, that they may, accordingly, change the mode of respect they have hitherto paid them?
Not that I wonder that the advocates for the church of England have changed the ground of their defence, and that they are not a little embarassed with their temporal supreme head. It was a thing that was quite new in the christian church, a thing that was by no means their own choice, originally, but was forced upon them, and what they are now obliged to make the best of; so that if one hypothesis will not support the innovation, they must have recourse to another.
At this day, articles of faith, and rules of church discipline are enacted, and liable to be abrogated by acts of parliament; whereas all this business was formerly done in synods, and general councils, which acknowledged less dependence on the civil power; and, low as is my opinion of the persons who composed the synods, and general councils of former times, I cannot help thinking them more competent judges of articles of christian faith than any king of England, assisted, or not assisted by an English parliament. When these temporal powers shall think proper to enact any more ecclesiastical canons, or confessions of faith, I hope that, for the sake of decency, they will purge the two houses of those members who cannot give satisfactory evidence that they are christians at all. But, upon recollection, Dr. Balguy will not think this circumstance necessary, since, according to his determination, the civil magistrate is not to provide for himself, but for the largest sect among his subjects; and therefore a Mahometan magistrate might be as safely trusted to make christian constitutions as any christian magistrate whatever. Perhaps he might be thought more proper, since, having no bias in favour of any particular sect of christians, he might be expected to be a more impartial judge in the case.
The reason which the Bishop of Gloucester gives for the propriety of making the civil magistrate the supreme head of the church, “whereby he becomes possessed of the sole right of ordering and decreeing every thing that the ministers and officers of the church had before a power of doing, (so that even all matters of opinion are out of the jurisdiction of the church)”* is really curious. “The church,” it seems, “wants protection from external violence. This protection the state only can give to it; but,” says this author, “protection not being to be afforded to any person or body, without power over that person or body, in the person or body protecting, it necessarily follows, that the civil magistrate must be supreme.”
I cannot help thinking that the church, according to this author, made a very hard bargain, and paid very dear for protection. Might not the state have been content to protect the church, without dictating to her in ecclesiastical matters? Certainly at the time this famous alliance was made, the agents for the church were under a panick, and must have forgotten that Christ himself had promised to protect his church, to be with it to the end of the world, and that the gates of hell should not prevail against it.
Were it not for the power to favour the professors of religion with which magistrates are invested, one might wonder how, of all mankind, they should ever have been thought of, as proper to take the lead in an affair of this nature. I should much sooner have thought of applying to them to superintend the business of medicine, in which the healths and lives of their subjects are so much concerned. But, happily for mankind, they have not taken it into their heads to intermeddle so much with it. The reason is, that there is nothing in the business of medicine, of which they could avail themselves; whereas a league with priests, who have always a great influence over mankind, has often been extremely convenient for them.
Of all mankind, surely magistrates have the least leisure, and the least capacity for judging in matters of religion. Consequently, they are most likely to determine rashly, and in such a manner as best suits with their worldly views. Of this we have a notable example in the Hampton-Court conference. There the advocates for presbyterianism and episcopacy had a solemn meeting, to debate on the merits of their respective modes of church government, in the presence of King James I. (of blessed memory in the church of England) at a time, when, perhaps, a majority of the nation were disposed in favour of presbyterianism. But was a king, with his head full of the notions of arbitrary power, in a proper disposition to decide a controversy of this nature: and might it not have been expected, that the maxim No bishop no king would be sufficient to determine his choice, against the weight of a thousand solid arguments. The issue of the conference is well known, but no better than it was before it took place. Such cause have the advocates for episcopacy to boast of their triumph!
The history of this Hampton-Court controversy, so admirably exemplifies the reasoning of the Bishop of Gloucester, that I wonder it was not adduced by him, in aid of his argument, to prove, that the civil magistrate is more likely to decide according to truth in matters of religion than churchmen. Let us hear the great champion himself on this subject, as this part of his argument seems to be the great hinge on which the most important part of the controversy concerning establishments, turns.* “Church sanctity being acquired by secession, and retirement from human affairs, and that secession rendering men ignorant of civil society, its rights and interests (in the place of which will succeed all the follies of superstition and fanaticism) we must needs conclude that religion, under such directors and reformers, will deviate from truth, and consequently a capacity, in proportion, of serving society. On the other hand, when religion comes under the magistrate’s directions, its purity must needs be well supported and preserved. For truth and public utility coinciding, the civil magistrate, as such, will see it for his interest to seek after and promote truth in religion, and by means of public utility, which his office enables him so well to understand, he will never be at a loss to know where such truth is to be found, so that it is impossible, under this civil influence, for religion ever to deviate far from truth.” Risum teneatis amici!
I shall only observe, in answer to this curious piece of reasoning, that in an advertisement prefixed to this very work, he says, “It is a trite observation, that divines make bad politicians. I believe it is more generally true, that politicians are but bad divines.” A confession which, I own, I should not have expected from a man who, in the very same book, pleads for the propriety of making these same politicians, alias bad divines, the final judges in all ecclesiastical causes, and for giving them a power of enacting articles of faith and ecclesiastical canons.
This author, indeed, thinks there is a necessity for churchmen making part the legislative body, lest, instead of being subjects, they should be the slaves of the state, p. 78. But so long as the bishops in parliament have no negative upon the resolutions of the house (a privilege which this bishop himself would not allow them) I do not see what their seat there would avail them, if all the laity should differ from them in their opinion concerning religious matters. In this case, ecclesiastical canons would be made, and articles of faith enacted, as contrary to their inclinations, as if they had not been consulted at all. So that, in case of an opposition between the two powers, the clergy are still entirely at the mercy of the laity, and therefore their slaves.
Upon the whole, considering every thing relating to this new business of a temporal head over christians, who are expressly commanded to call no man master upon earth; and considering how averse the clergy always were to such a catastrophe in their affairs, and how little they were prepared for it; I cannot help thinking, that they have given very striking proofs of their acuteness, and presence of mind, in defending it so plausibly as they have done.
To make this case of a temporal head to a spiritual church the more intelligible, let us suppose there are, in any country, a number of persons, who have formed themselves into a society for promoting natural philosophy; that the civil magistrate hears of it, and, having a taste for the study, becomes a member. If, upon this, he should take upon him to make laws for the society, and to enforce them with civil penalties; or if he should compel the members to subscribe to particular propositions, and hypotheses, should we not pronounce that the philosophical society was, to all intents and purposes, dissolved? In like manner a christian magistrate, pretending to make laws to the christian church, is to be considered as doing every thing in his power to abolish christianity, and setting up something else in its place, that may be more or less like it, just as it shall happen.
It may be said that an union of civil and ecclesiastical power may take place in another manner, namely by a nation of christians voluntarily chusing the civil magistrate to be their protector or head, and to make laws for them. So also a society of philosophers may chuse the civil magistrate for their protector and head; but if, in this case, he should compel their assent to his own opinions, would it not be thought that, notwithstanding their choice of the civil magistrate for their head, if they submitted to his impositions, they ceased to be what they were before, and the society changed its nature and character! In like manner, christians act altogether out of character in chusing a temporal head; and no person who has a just regard to his religion, and the liberty wherewith Christ has made him free, will ever acknowledge such a dependence on the civil power.
Whenever, therefore, the civil magistrate, either in consequence of becoming a member of the christian church, by incorporating christianity into his system of civil policy, or by being chosen supreme head of the church in a christian nation, introduces into the gospel such laws and sanctions as are evidently unsuitable to the nature of it; as, for instance, when, instead of voluntary contributions to the church stock, he appoints the compulsory payment of dues; and when, for exhortation and reproof, he substitutes fines and confiscations, torture and death, this new modelled scheme cannot be called christianity. Thus when the poor in England became intitled to a legal maintenance, charity, on which they before subsisted, was so far precluded; for a man who now pays a poor rate is not to be ranked with him who gives alms of that which he possesses. In all cases a change in the fundamental maxims of government, especially a change both in the laws themselves, and in the sanctions of them, cannot be deemed less than a change in the constitution.
For my own part, I can conceive no method whatever, in which the civil magistrate can be invested with ecclesiastical power, or ecclesiastics with civil power, so that a conscientious christian shall consider himself as under any obligation to yield them obedience in their new character. In civil matters he will obey the civil magistrate, and where religion is concerned, he will listen to nothing but the dictates of his own conscience, or the admonitions of his chosen spiritual guide; and to him no farther than he is satisfied he has a better authority than his own for what he says. However they agree to change or mix their powers, their alliance and stipulations will have no weight with him. He will still give to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s; and he will judge for himself, what are the things that are due to the one or the other. If he should make any mistake in this case, it will be some apology for him, that his superiors had confounded his understanding, by the unnatural mixture they had made of things of such different natures.
Had there been such a connection between ecclesiastical and civil matters, as the advocates for church power contend for; had it been the proper office of the civil magistrate to superintend the affairs of religion, and had it been unlawful, as some assert, for private persons to attempt any alteration in it, except by application to the civil governor; is it not unaccountable, that our Lord, and his apostles, did not make their first proposals to the supreme magistrates among the Jews or Romans? They certainly had no idea of the peculiar obligation of magistrates to attend to this business, and to chuse a religion for the people, since we never hear of their making application to them on any such account. It was their constant custom to preach the gospel wherever they came, in all companies, and to all persons promiscuously; and almost all the intercourse they had with magistrates, seems to have been on occasion of their being brought before them as criminals.
Our Lord sent out, both his twelve apostles, and also seventy disciples, among all the cities of Israel, but we do not read of his sending any deputation to the rulers of the Jews. John the Baptist seems to have confined his preaching to the wilderness of Judea, and the territory in the neighbourhood of the river Jordan; where he gave his exhortations to all that came to hear him, without distinction of persons. St. Paul, indeed, made an appeal to Cæsar, but it was in order to obtain his liberty in an unjust prosecution. We are not informed that he, or any of the apostles, ever took any measures to lay the evidences of the christian religion before the Roman emperor, or the Roman senate, in order to convince them of the truth and excellency of it, and induce them to abolish heathenism, in favour of it, throughout the Roman empire; which many persons would now think to have been the readiest, the most proper, and the best method of christianizing the world. On the contrary, their whole conduct shows, that they considered religion as the proper and immediate concern of every single person, and that there was no occasion whatever to consult, or advise with any earthly superior in a case of this nature.
If magistrates had a right to chuse a mode of religion for their people, much more, one would think, had masters a right to chuse for their slaves in this case; yet we find great numbers of converts were made amongst this most dependent part of mankind, without any account of their masters being consulted, or applied to about it. The contrary is clearly inferred, from the first view of things, in primitive times.
Though it be true, that we must not expect to find in the scriptures an accurate account of every thing belonging to a christian church, including a minute description of the rank and power of its officers, it does not therefore follow, that it is not worth our while to consult them on this subject; for we shall find such a general view of the mutual relations, and reciprocal duties of christians, as may prevent our making any considerable mistake, with respect to the authority of some, or the subjection of others.
It cannot be inferred from any thing that our Saviour has delivered, that any one christian has a right authoritatively to dictate or prescribe to another, but I think the very contrary, if it be in the power of words to convey such a meaning.
If we consider the plan of the primitive church, we shall see that it was evidently formed upon that of the Jewish synagogue; in which the elders (all of whom promiscuously instructed the rest) were persons of the greatest age and experience, and he that is called the ruler of the synagogue (to which the office of the christian bishop corresponds) was only one of them, distinguished, indeed, by some titles of honour, but with no superior power worth mentioning. This is the reason why both the rulers of the synagogues among the Jews, and bishops in christian churches, are generally called elders, in common with the rest. The office of deacon was also the same in both, and needs no description in this place.
The apostles always represent themselves as appointed witnesses of the life, sufferings, and resurrection of Christ; but, seem not to have arrogated any dominion over the faith of their fellow christians.
So far were they from assuming any authority over their brethren, or peremptorily enjoining any thing of themselves, except they were authorized to do it by the immediate direction of the Holy Ghost, that they virtually disclaimed all such power; and when their advice was not taken, and their designs obstructed, they wrote as persons who had nothing but reason on their side, without dictating, or giving themselves such airs as modern dignitaries in the church would assume, in case of such opposition.
[* ]Alliance p. 64, 81, 87.
[* ]Alliance, p. 51.