Front Page Titles (by Subject) Number LXVI.: The extravagant Notions and Practice of Penance, how generally prevailing as a necessary Part of Religion, even amongst such as know not, or neglect, all the other and real Penalties. - The Independent Whig, vol. 3 (2nd ed. 1741)
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Number LXVI.: The extravagant Notions and Practice of Penance, how generally prevailing as a necessary Part of Religion, even amongst such as know not, or neglect, all the other and real Penalties. - 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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The extravagant Notions and Practice of Penance, how generally prevailing as a necessary Part of Religion, even amongst such as know not, or neglect, all the other and real Penalties.
MY last was concerning the Power of Example and Education. I shall in this pursue the same Subject, as far as it relates to Penance, or the undergoing voluntary Miseries for God’s sake. At what time it came into the World, I do not know; but the universal Esteem and Influence which it has gained in it amongst the Gentiles, Christians, and Mahometans, is surprizing to consider. It is probable, that it was begun by melancholy Enthusiasts, who, supposing the Deity to be like themselves, a gloomy and sorrowful Being, believed that he delighted, as they did, in splenetic and mortifying Actions; and having no Revelation but what they took for such, their own Dreams and Vapours, thought that their religious Worship ought to be as wild and horrid as their Imaginations were. Thus it is likely, that Men first cheated themselves, and were afterwards the more easily cheated by others, and Fraud improved what Phrenzy began.
But, whatever was the Original of Penance, its Progress has been prodigious, and it has gained strange and invincible Strength. It has run out into such numerous Branches, and into such extravagant Excesses, that there is no Room left for any new Device for Improvement. To it have been sacrificed Ease, Health, and Convenience; the necessary Appetites of Nature; the Faculties of the Soul; Self-pity and Tenderness; all the Pleasures of Life, and Life itself. People have been brought to vie with one another in Famine, Thirst, and Torture, and to engage with Zeal in a Combat for Misery.
As great a Mummery as Penance is made in the Roman Church, and as easily as it is dispensed with, there are still many amongst them who afflict themselves with great Cruelty, and even kill themselves by it. It is for the Glory of the Church, that Numbers should shew themselves in earnest in this savage Devotion; and therefore, on their penitential Days, so many are seen vehemently bruising and scarifying their own Flesh, and covering themselves, and the Ground which they go on, with their own Blood. Some actually die under this inhuman Discipline; some soon after. One would think, that these Self-murderers considered themselves as Martyrs.
The Men of Gallantry amongst these devout Catholics, especially in Spain and Portugal, are acted by a carnal, as well as spiritual Devotion on these Occasions; and make Love to God and their Mistresses by one and the same religious Feat of Barbarity. It is plain from hence, that they believe the merciful God to have the cruel Heart of a Coquette; and that both His and hers are to be won by pitiless Stripes, and the Loss of Blood. I wonder that they have not, for this double End, made a holy Exercise of their Bull-feasts, in which so many Lovers do such desperate things, and expose their Lives. For their Mistresses are in no other Danger than that of losing their Lovers. Their Acts of Faith are more barbarous than their Bull-feasts.
But at the same time that the more fierce Devotees of that Church are furnished with Acts of Penance, as rigid as their Spirit, others, not so fond of Pain, are more gently accommodated. The holding in the Breath for a Second or two, once or twice in a Day, or a Week; or saying a few Ave-Maria’s extraordinary, or repeating the Words Jesu amabilis half a dozen times, or carrying half a Pound of Lead or Iron in the Sinner’s Pocket, are all good and valid Penances upon such as can bear no harder.
Delicate Ladies, who cannot endure such robust Atonements for Sin, are complimented with a Discipline still softer, and as tender, if possible, as their Sex and Iniquity. However, their Penance is very mortifying; for they are sometimes commanded not to wear Gloves for at least half a Night together, and sometimes no Lace for a whole Day. If their Crimes be very flagitious, they are without any Mercy obliged, by the severe Confessor, to go in Stuff, instead of Silk, for two Days, without any Abatement; and sometimes, which is more cruel, ordered to quit the Company of their Spark a full Minute sooner than they would, at least for once or twice: Nay, I have heard of some, who, as an adequate Mortification for the Sin of Pride, were forbid looking in the Glass for a Night and a Day. Who would sin under such heavy Penalties? If they do, it is a Sign that Sin must be very sweet.
But even these soft Votaries, the gentle Fair, are sometimes as merciless to their tender Tabernacles as the most boisterous Male Penitents. The famous Monsieur Huet, a most learned Man, but a miserable Bigot, in an Eloge of his upon one of his Sisters, gives us an affecting Instance of the Power of religious Folly under the Name of Penance: He says, that, bent upon a religious Life, she was put into a Nunnery, where she found none of their Mortifications severe enough for her; nor could she find in any Books any Rules and Lessons of Penance so rigid as her own Zeal. She therefore racked her Invention for new and uncommon Ways of afflicting herself. Such was her devout Passion to suffer for God; Souffrir pour Dieu, as he calls it. She heard that great Thirst was an exquisite Torment, and believed so from the Pleasure of quenching it; she therefore resolved never to drink more. In this cruel Course she persevered, without being perceived; for she spilt her Drink in the Refectory. Nor did the Disorders that came fast upon her, dispose her in the least to any Mercy upon herself. Her Illnesses were incurable before the Secret that caused them came out. She discovered it by the Authority of her Confessor, too late: Remedies signified nothing, and she could take nothing; her Stomach was gone; the Functions of Nature ceased; her whole Body was scorched up; and her Skin parched like a Scroll. She confessed, that, in the Course of her unnatural Abstinence, such was the Extremity of her Thirst and Heat, that she beheld the Swine with Envy for the filthy Puddle that they enjoyed, and would have given any thing but Heaven for a Refreshment of the Mire in which they wallowed.
If one was not taught by Experience, that Enthusiasm is capable of reconciling the wildest Contradictions, it would appear impossible, that God Almighty should be beloved by those who think him delighted with Cruelty; or feared by those who believed him appeased by Trifles. But I am satisfied, from Observation and Charity, that both Sorts are in earnest; and that, if we allowed none to be sincerely religious, but such whose Religion is warranted by Principles of Reason, we should find but very few religious Men upon Earth. Even they, or most of those, who are of the only true Religion, blend it with so many Chimeras and Absurdities, and put their own vain Superstructures upon so equal a Foot with the Foundation, that were you to leave them no more than enough, they would think you left them nothing, and call you a Persecutor, though you forced really nothing from them but their Follies.
In an Insurrection of the Priests and Populace of Sweden, upon the Loss of their Bells, and other Ecclesiastical Furniture, at the Beginning of the Reformation there, when both Sides were differently inflamed upon the same Cause, the Court sent to that zealous Rabble to know their Demands. In Answer, they insisted upon these two principal Articles, among others; “That all the Heretics, that is, all the Protestants, must be burnt; and they must have their Bells again.” Bells and Burning were really Parts of their Religion, as every Man’s Religion is what he thinks so; and Penance is another Part, a Part essential to Popery, and to the Domination of the Clergy. Upon their Authority the Necessity of Penance is established, and by their Appointment it is inflicted. It is so important a Pillar of their Trade, that they have made it a Sacrament; and from it derive no small Power and Gain. Upon the People it is, in every View and Degree, a monstrous Cheat and Abuse. Where it is slight, it is Mockery; where it is severe, it is Barbarity; in either Case it is Servitude. It is a Complication of Imposture and Tyranny over the Understandings, Persons and Properties of Men. But such is the Witchcraft of Superstition, that Men are Slaves by their own Consent. They would venture their Lives to defend their Misery, and the Authors of it; and murder the Man who would release them from Chains. Thus they are educated, in Fear and Abhorrence of common Sense; and where Enthusiasm has taken Possession, there is no Re-entrance for Reason; which is indeed marked out as an Enemy, and constant War maintained against it.
It is not only possible, but easy, to bring up a Child to worship a Pair of Tongs, or a Monkey’s Tooth; and in those Matters the Child generally forms the Man, who often adores Rust and Rottenness when he is old, because he did it when he was young; nay, Time and Experience, which sometimes cure other Follies, add to this. Religious Folly is a Mistress, which her Votaries scarce ever enjoy to Satiety; but, unlike other Mistresses, the more she is enjoyed, the more she is idolized; and the uglier, the more engaging. If we can but bear her at first, we will soon come to like her: Liking will improve into Love, and Love into Dotage. The highest Transports of this fairy Passion are found under grey Hairs, and in frozen Veins. The older, the more amorous: So that in this Instance, if we do not learn Wisdom when we are young, we shall be Children when we are old.