Front Page Titles (by Subject) Number LXII.: Power and Imposition, in Matters of Religion, tend rather to abolish Religion, than to improve it. The Light of Nature, and the Practice of Heathens, furnish Reproof to persecuting Christians. - The Independent Whig, vol. 3 (2nd ed. 1741)
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Number LXII.: Power and Imposition, in Matters of Religion, tend rather to abolish Religion, than to improve it. The Light of Nature, and the Practice of Heathens, furnish Reproof to persecuting Christians. - Thomas Gordon, The Independent Whig, vol. 3 (2nd ed. 1741) 
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 Second Edition (London: J. Peele, 1741). Vol. 3.
Part of: The Independent Whig, 4 vols.
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Power and Imposition, in Matters of Religion, tend rather to abolish Religion, than to improve it. The Light of Nature, and the Practice of Heathens, furnish Reproof to persecuting Christians.
IT is as true as it is amazing and melancholy, that the Abuse of the true Religion has done a thousand times more Mischief in the World, created more Wars, Hatred, and Havock amongst Men, shed more of their Blood, and carried human Miseries, Ignorance, and Idolatry, higher than all the Madness and Variety of the old idolatrous Religions of the Gentiles ever did before it. The Reason of this sad Difference, so shameful to Christians, is the uncharitable and imposing Spirit of their ignorant or designing Leaders: A Spirit as unknown to the civilized Pagans, as it is opposite to Christianity!
ThesePagans worshipped an endless Tribe of Deities: And though their principal Gods and Goddesses had great Emulation, and many Quarrels, among themselves, their Adorers agreed well enough in worshipping them all, or differed without quarrelling. The Light of Nature taught them that something was eternal, and the first Cause of themselves, and of all that they saw; and this Cause they called God. And because they thought that the conducting of Nature in its several great Divisions of Sea, Earth, and Ether, was too much for one, they allotted each Division to a different Deity, and made a numerous Subdivision of these Deities for smaller Purposes. Besides, finding or fansying themselves superior in Comeliness and Capacity to all other Creatures, they generally gave the Gods human Shapes and Passions. Thus, having never seen God, nor heard from him, they judged of him by Guess, and worshipped him by Humour, every Man following his own; nor had they then any other Rule.
No Man can say, that in this Worship, and in those Conjectures, every Man did not act according to the best of his own Knowledge, or that his Intention was not upright. It was a Thing in which he himself was chiefly concerned, and it behoved him to endeavour to be in the right. This Endeavour is, without divine Help, all that any Man can do, and all that ought to be expected from any Man. The Pagans could only see God in his Works, and from thence conclude him a great and glorious Being; but where he was, or what he was, they could not know. It was a Discovery which the Light of Nature could not make: Nor has Revelation made it. Revelation only tells us what is acceptable to him: And this we can conceive; but himself we can never conceive, nor define, any more than we can his Motives and Manner of acting. It is therefore as absurd in Christians to quarrel with one another about their different weak and imperfect Notions of God, as it would have been in Pagans to have quarrelled about their different false Ideas of God.
Amongst the Pagans there was an Infinity of religious Opinions; and yet, for the most part, perfect Peace. All the Superstitions and Nonsense of Paganism did scarce afford sufficient Tumults and Fightings to fill one moderate Ecclesiastical History. The wise Greeks and Romans, who understood so well the Laws of Nature and Society, did not suffer the Precepts of their Religion, nor the idle Tales and Dreams of Enthusiasts, to interfere with the Laws of Reason and Humanity, much less to extinguish them. They inquired not after the Whims and Superstitions of their Countrymen, any farther than to improve their Superstition to the Good of their State. They knew, that whether their People worshipped Jupiter, Bacchus, or Minerva, or whatever they thought of them, they were never the better nor the worse Subjects; and they had the good Sense never to engage the State in the Affairs of Religion, any farther than Religion directly concerned the State; and never to meddle with religious Notions and Fashions, which meddled not with the Government.
The College of Augurs at Rome, which consisted of their great Men and Magistrates, Men who were acquainted with human Nature, and its many Weaknesses and Superstitions, with the Innocence of unmolested Error, and with the just Extent and Use of Power, never founded Tables of Belief, nor oppressed the People with a Yoke of Imaginations, or of jarring Propositions to be believed upon Penalties, though they could not be understood. To this humane and tolerating Temper in the Romans it was owing, that of all the Turns, Contentions and Revolutions which happened in that State, not one, that I remember, was occasioned by Religion, though they had Gods without Number, and almost as many Religions as Men. Nor do different Religions ever any Harm to any State, where the State does not weakly and unnaturally force all Men into one Religion. Men who are suffered to enjoy their Religion, will seek no Force to defend it: But where religious Impositions are practised, religious Wars naturally ensue; and Men will rather fight than be forced.
In a War between two States of Greece, one of them robbed the Temple of Delphos, in the Territories of the other: Hence it was called the Sacred War. But it was, as to its Ends and Motives, a War for Power and Property, and had nothing to do with one Religion more than another, on either Side. The Greeks and Romans were so far from hurting any Man for his Religion, provided he let them alone with theirs, that their great Quarrel to the Christian Religion, at first, seems to have been, that it was destructive of theirs, and degraded all their Gods.
They had afterwards too much Ground given them for new Prejudices against it, by the abominable Spirit and Behaviour of the Christian Clergy; by their unbounded Pride, and Thirst of Riches, Power, and Revenge; by their restless Quarrels, and implacable Tyranny; by their Dissimulation and Frauds; by their wicked, absurd and selfish Doctrines; by their scandalous and tumultuous Synods, and the wicked Purposes and Results of those Synods; by their base Flatteries to some Princes, and the vile Arts which they used to engage those Princes to shed Blood in their Behalf and Quarrel; by their Factions, Rebellions, and insulting Deportment to other Princes for their Wisdom and Humanity; in short, by a horrid and universal Depravation of Manners, and a monstrous Apostasy from the Soul and Letter of that humble, meek and charitable Religion, which, as a black Aggravation of all their Usurpations, and incredible Excesses, they still professed, and impiously urged, as their Warrant for such enormous Iniquities.
I mention these Things in the Bitterness of my Soul, and without any Exaggeration: They are owned and lamented by the best Christian Writers, ancient and modern; and the Ecclesiastical Histories, voluminous as they are, have little else to fill them but the Frauds and Fury of those Men. As to those General Councils, particularly, which are reverenced only for want of being known, they were composed of Men so utterly void of all Sincerity, Holiness, Peace and Probity, that it will be hard to find in any Country upon Earth, any Assembly of Men met together upon any Occasion, so bent upon Mischief and Strife, or by whom so much was begun and promoted. The bold Impositions and furious Contentions begun by them are not yet ended: God knows whether they will ever end. They took upon them to coin Faith for others, and tacked dreadful Penalties and Denunciations to Injunctions of their own devising; as if the plain and easy Truths of Christianity, as delivered by such only as could deliver them, the holy disinterested Men who first heard them, and saw them, were not plain enough, or rather too plain. These Imposers, after some hundred Years, took upon them to new-fashion Christianity according to their own strange and selfish Inventions, and disguised it with such a Dress, that it was not to be known. What an inexhaustible Source this has proved of Wars and Outrage, of Domination and Servitude, and of all human Woes, Wickedness, and Sorrows, I leave the Historians of all Ages and Countries to tell. By it Millions have fallen; and by it Mahometanism seems to have been raised, and justified by Example, in exercising the Sword over the Soul, and laying the World waste.
How innocent, I had almost said, how pious, were the ancient sober Heathens, in comparison with these false Christians, those Destroyers of Christianity, and Pests of human Society! The only Reason why the Pagan Religion, with all its Follies, Frauds, and Superstitions, did so little Harm, (how little in Comparison!) was, that it imposed nothing upon the Consciences of Men, and Opinions were not unnaturally made subject to Power. They believed naturally a supreme Power, and as naturally worshipped it; in which they all freely followed their own Fancies. The public Forms, where they were established, were established by Consent, and in Compliance with the various or unanimous Humours of the People; and every one took as much of them as he liked, and was in Practice and Opinion a Stoic, an Epicurean, a Pyrrhonist, just as he thought fit. His Practice was as free as his Speculations; so free, that the Gods of Greece were often ridiculed and severely rallied upon the Grecian Stage; and their Oracles were perfect Noses of Wax to every Prince or State, that had either Power to frighten the Priests, or Money to bribe them. If Socrates was put to Death by the Athenians for nobler Notions of the Deity than the Vulgar entertained, it was done for the Honour of Persecution, as all such Things are done, by a Faction; and, for the Honour of the Athenians, they repented severely their rash Zeal, and practised it no more.
But the Christian Religion, by how much it is more excellent than all other Religions, by so much it has been more abused: It has had the ill Luck to fall, in most Places and Times, into the Hands of such Directors, as have profanely trampled upon all its gentle Precepts, and, in room of the meek Christian Spirit, have introduced a Spirit of Ferocity and Domineering; such Directors as have turned Prayer and Persuasion into Imposing and Fury; and such as, setting up for governing Conscience, which is, and can be subject to God only, have grasped temporal Dominion, and the Sword, which can have no other Power over the Soul, but to terrify and afflict it, to darken it with Ignorance, and taint it with Hypocrisy.
This Power they have called, by a foolish and deceitful Phrase, Spiritual Power; which is the most furious and fraudulent of all the Schemes and Engines of human Craft and Policy, and comprehends them all, as may be seen by the Rage, Rapine and Treachery with which it is exerted in the Territories of Popery: It is a Power heterogeneous to Society, poisonous to the Gospel of Christ, forbid by him, and barbarous to Men. It is indeed pure secular Tyranny, heightened by ghostly Arts and Cruelty, and a further Improvement of human Malice and Misery. Dominion over Conscience is absolute Nonsense, and the Word big with Fraud: Men can only be subject to Dominion in their Bodies and Properties. That which no Power can reach, can never be the Object of Power. The Governing of Opinions is therefore impossible, and only a Pretence for the Governing of Men in their Persons and Purses. Thus far only Men can be subject to Men: Every thing beyond this is Delusion, Phrenzy and Contradiction. Thoughts and Opinions can neither be bound, whipped, nor burnt.