Front Page Titles (by Subject) Number XXXVIII.: Of Penance and Religious Revellings. - The Independent Whig, vol. 2 (7th ed. 1743)
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Number XXXVIII.: Of Penance and Religious Revellings. - Thomas Gordon, The Independent Whig, vol. 2 (7th ed. 1743) 
The Independent Whig: or, a Defence of Primitive Christianity, And of Our Ecclesiastical Establishment, against The Exorbitant Claims and Encroachments of Fanatical and Disaffected Clergymen. The Seventh Edition, with Additions and Amendments (London: J. Peele, 1743). Vol. 2.
Part of: The Independent Whig, 4 vols.
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Of Penance and Religious Revellings.
WednesdayOctober 5. 1720.
I Have, in two former Papers, consider’d the Nature, Use, and Consequences of Religious Fastings. I shall, in this, inquire a little into the Merits of Penance, and the Devotion of Festivals; a Couple of potent Engines in the Hands of Churchmen.
Joy and Sorrow proceeding, as they do, from certain Causes, which necessarily produce them; the one troubles the Imagination, and the other delights it, whether we will or no. They are different Names given to different Operations of the Animal Spirits, which bring to God Almighty no voluntary Worship, and consequently no Worship at all. The same Disorder in the Blood or Nerves, which discovers itself in Sighs and Groans, would in a greater Degree, bring forth Rage and Convulsions, which are not the Symptoms of a Gospel-Spirit, but rather the Marks of Spirits dispossessed in the Gospel. People under Trouble, or in the Spleen, are too apt to mistake their bodily or mental Disorders for the Workings of Divine Grace; as if the wise and mild Spirit of God delighted to play childish and mischievous Pranks with weak and unhappy Men, by filling them with wild Freaks, or cruel Agonies. I doubt there are few of these Sort of People, who can give a Reason why the great God should be better pleased with a sorrowful Heart, than an aching Head.
If God Almighty be pleased with our afflicting ourselves, he must be pleased best when we afflict ourselves most; and a greater Degree of Suffering must beget a greater Portion of his Favour: And consequently, the cutting ourselves with Knives, as did the Priests of Baal, must be more acceptable to him, than the bare whipping ourselves with Rods, as do the Priests of Rome,&c. By the same Rule, if the endangering of one’s Life be well-pleasing to him, the destroying of one’s Life must be more pleasing to him; and Despair and Self-Murder are more grateful Instances of Duty and Devotion to the God of Mercy, than barely being afraid of him, and barely making our Lives miserable. The pious Consequence of all which must be, that the Blessed and Beneficent God, who is the Giver of all Good, is the Author of all Evil, and all Misery; and the Maker and Preserver of Mankind, who is the Father of Mercies, is also the Destroyer of Mankind, and the Father of Cruelties.
Nor is this Reasoning so strange, or these Conclusions so unnatural, as some may ignorantly imagine; since the Priests, who, for the godly Ends of Dominion and Gain, were the first Inventors of Sacrifices and Penances, have frequently proceeded so far in their inhuman and diabolical Craft, as to butcher Men to appease their Deity. And indeed, when once you had taken their Word for the divine Will, you renounced all Right and Pretence to judge for yourself, or to dispute any Measure of Devotion which they had thought fit to prescribe. Thus, for Example, if the Priests told you, that their God graciously longed for a Bonfire, and had, in his divine Goodness, appointed you to be the principal Faggot; as averse as your carnal Spirit might be to this great Honour, yet you could not decline it, without the terrible Imputation of Disobedience, or Apostasy, and probably of Atheism: For, having given the Priest the Property of your Body, your Thoughts, and your Behaviour, you were become All the Priest’s.
The Duty of Penance is, according to certain Churchmen, a very necessary Duty: But there is another Duty quite opposite to it, yet very necessary also; and that is, the Business and Duty of Festivals. These two may indeed seem Contradictions to each other, and to the Eye of unsanctified Reason are so; but where they are injoined by Church-Authority, it is our Duty to think them orthodox and consistent, and so to be merry or melancholy, and to weep or laugh, just as Mother-Churchcommands us, in Defiance of our Constitutions, and our Understandings. We are to mourn on Good-Friday, because on that Day our Saviour died; though, if he had not, we could not have been saved: And we are to take our Belly full of Meat and Mirth on Easter-Sunday, because Christ rose on that Day from the Dead; though it was impossible for him to have continued there.
Penanceis a ghostly Punishment imposed by a Priest, or voluntarily suffered by a Penitent, for some Offence real or imagined. Sometimes it consists in Abstinence from certain Meats, which, it seems, are not so much in Favour with Almighty God, as are others: A Piece of Cod, for Example, with rich Sauce, is less savoury in God’s Sight, than a plain Piece of Beef and Cabbage, and a greater Atonement for Sin. Sometimes it is performed by Change of Apparel; and a dirty Hair-cloth is more pious and meritorious, than a clean Holland Shirt. Sometimes it is performed by rambling to some Church, to stare at a wooden-Saint, and kiss an old Coffin. Sometimes this holy Severity rests altogether upon your Pocket, and God’s Wrath is fervently and successfully bribed away by the prevailing Intercession of some potent Pieces to his Priest, who will infallibly persuade him to overlook your Guilt, and be good Friends with you. Sometimes you are to scarify your Backside for the healing of your Soul, and reconcile yourself to Heaven by the Dint of Lashing; which will sometimes serve for another Purpose: And so a Scourge made of Broom, is made the Scourge of God. But, if drawing Blood on this Occasion be so pious, because so painful, I do not see why the Drawing of a Tooth would not do as well; or why the Omnipotent would not be as propitious to desolate Gums, as to blistered Loins.
So much for praising God by being sorrowful; in which Case, Sickness and Pain are great Blessings. Now for the Method of pleasing him, by being joyful; in which Case, Festivity and Merriment are great Blessings too! So that, we see, the Almighty is highly pleased both with our Misery and our Happiness.
Worldly Blessings are, no doubt, the Gifts of God, and we ought to receive them with joyful Hands, and grateful Hearts; and Religion, and Philosophy too, teaches us to submit to Afflictions and Calamities with Patience and Humility, and to consider them either as Effects of our own Intemperance and Folly, as the necessary and inevitable Concomitants of human Nature, or the Strokes of Providence intended for our Correction and Amendment; nor do I deny, that it may be sometimes lawful, and expedient too, mechanically to prepare our Minds with Dispositions suitable to the Actions which they are to produce.
Every one’s Experience shews him, that his Mind and Body operate upon one another: Both are improved by Exercise and moderate Food, raised and exhilarated by Music or Diversion, enervated by Sickness, oppressed with Drunkenness and Gluttony, fatigued with Labour; and often all the noble Faculties of the former are quite destroyed and extinguished by Distemper and Accidents.
It may be therefore not only lawful, but our Duty, by proper Food, agreeable Conversation, and due Exercise, to prepare and keep ourselves in such a Temperament, as may best qualify us for cool Reflection, and enable us in the best manner to exert our Faculties: But from what Principle of Reason or Religion do we find, that we must work up our Passions beyond their natural Pitch, and endeavour to destroy the Serenity and Calm of our Minds, to do Homage to the Deity? who will accept no Service but what flows from a sincere and upright Heart, elevated and raised by a due Contemplation of the divine Perfections, and the Benefits received from our great Creator, or humbled by the Consideration of human Infirmities; and not intoxicated with various Music, pompous Shews, delicious Banquets, or Bottles of Brandy; nor depressed or sunk with Mortification, Penances, Fasting, or unwholsome Diet; all which have nothing to do with true Religion, though they have been always essential Parts of every false one.
Let us now see what Sort of Devotion these Holy Days produce.
Idleness is the Nurse of Vice, and fills the Taverns and the Stews with many debauched Customers, who, had they any thing else to do, or would do any thing else, might live as chaste and sober as any of their Neighbours, that are so, because they are well employed. The common People think of a Holy Day with no other View, than that they shall then have their Belly-full of Ale, and Rambling, and Idleness. Perhaps, in the Morning, they hear a Sermon; which is often calculated to drive Peace and Religion out of their Souls, and to fill them with Bitterness and Rage against those who provoke them, by being sober Subjects, and conscientious Christians. Next comes a gluttonous Meal, and a Load of Liquor, which adds fresh Fuel to the Orthodox Zeal which they imbibed in the Morning, and inspires them to deface or demolish Places sacred to God’s Worship, and to affront and insult every sober Man, who has not been at the Brandy-shop, and will not pronounce Hell and Damnation according to the Word of Command. After all this Mischief and Bravery, they have recourse to more Liquor, over which they swear and triumph upon their late Orthodox Exploits. Probably, at last they vomit up their Devotions in Drury-lane, and finish the Holy Day in a Bawdy-house. Next Morning, the Sum of the Reckoning will be this: They have lost a Day, and with it their Innocence: They have risqued their Health and their Souls: They have provoked God, and in his Name committed Outrages upon their Neighbours. Sweet Jesus! Is this the Spirit of thy Church? Can these be thy Followers, or the Followers of thy Servants?
Upon the Whole, a Man may ply his Imagination with black and dismal Ideas, till he has made his Heart as sad and sorrowful as he pleases: He may also, by playing with his Fancy, and by amusing it with, agreeable and humourous Images, render his Soul as merry as he pleases; and by these Means create either Comedy or Tragedy within himself: But neither is Wantonness of Spirit any Worship of God; nor is this Gloominess of Soul any Devotion to him. The Mahometan Dervises, and Indian Brachmans, exceed us by far in Fasting and Austerities: It is incredible what voluntary Torture and Plague they undergo in the Way of Religion. And as to godly Ranting and Roaring, the old Pagan Bacchanals were as mad and as drunk on their Holy Days, as we of the Established Church can be on ours.