Front Page Titles (by Subject) Number LXVII.: The Principle and Practice of Penance; its Extravagance and ill Tendency further considered. - The Independent Whig, vol. 3 (2nd ed. 1741)
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Number LXVII.: The Principle and Practice of Penance; its Extravagance and ill Tendency further considered. - 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 Principle and Practice of Penance; its Extravagance and ill Tendency further considered.
I Intend in this Paper to say something further of Penance, which always keeps pace with Ignorance and Error: It is lost where Knowledge abounds, and triumphs in Darkness; but more or less, according to the Heat or Temperance of the Climate, and of the Constitutions of Men. In Spain and Italy, where the Power of the Sun, and of Priests, and Ignorance, prevails so abundantly, godly Savageness of all Kinds prevails in proportion: In other Countries, where the Air and People’s Tempers are cooler, Zeal is cooler; and where there is a Toleration of common Sense, very cool. Eastward, in proportion to the Increase of Heat and Ignorance, holy Austerities increase; and Turks, Christians, and Pagans, are Rivals in the Rigours of Penance.
SMITH, in his Account of the Greek Church, talking of their strict Observation both of the Annual and Weekly Fasts, says, “They retain them most religiously, and think it a grievous Sin herein to transgress the Laws of the Church, in the least; partly, out of a Principle of Conscience, and partly, through long Custom and Practice, which make the greatest Hardships and Severities of Life tolerable and easy. They have gained a perfect Mastery over their Appetites; and are so far from complaining of the Tediousness and Rigour of their Fasts, that they will not hear of any Abatement and Relaxation; but would be rather apt to retain strong Jealousies and Apprehensions, that their whole Religion would be in Danger, if there were the least Indulgence permitted in so necessary a Part of it. ------ Some are so strangely devout, or rather superstitious, that they will not touch any thing that is forbidden; so that if by chance a Drop of Wine or Oil should fall upon their Bread, or any of their lawful Food, they think them polluted and profaned, and accordingly throw them away; and had rather (out of Obstinacy and Desperateness) perish either through Hunger or Sickness, than be guilty of so grievous a Sin, as they esteem it. ---- The Women submit very readily to these Rigours; and Boys of six or seven Years of Age endure as much as they are able.”
The Christians of Armenia are at least as rigid. Monsieur Tavernier says, “Their Austerities are such, that many of their Bishops never eat Flesh or Fish above four times a Year; and when they come to be Archbishops, they only live upon Pulse. Six Months and three Days in a Year they keep Lent, or particular Fasts; and during that Time, both Ecclesiastics and Laics live only upon Bread, and some few Herbs which grow in their Gardens. The Superstition of one Zulpha, an Armenian, was so great, that he made his Horse fast with him, allowing him little Provender or Drink for a whole Week together. The poor labouring People feed only upon Pulse boiled with Salt. During their Lent they are not permitted, any more than others, to cat Butter or Oil; nay, tho’ they lay dying, it is not lawful for them to eat Flesh upon Fast-days.”
With all these religious Sufferings, the Greeks and Armenians have very little Religion amongst them, but devout Fooleries, Superstition, and pious Forgeries in abundance. They are a debauched, base, and licentious People, without Purity and Virtue; as excessive in their Depravities and Intemperance, as in their Penance, which only annoys Nature, without mending the Heart. On the contrary, it is an Incitement to Sin, as it is a Composition for sinning, an Equivalent to Almighty God for breaking his Laws. A Balsam for Iniquity, is only a Motive to commit it; and that Balsam is Penance.
TheTurks are not less barbarous to their own Bodies in their religious Severities, than are the Greeks and Armenians. Many of them would suffer Swooning and Death, rather than break their appointed Fasts. But the Indian Pagans far exceed them all in this Sort of Merit. The Life of many of the Bramins is a perpetual Life of Misery by Choice, of various and exquisite Misery. To go stark naked under a scorching Sun, stung and devoured by Vermin, which Religion forbids them to destroy; to live in constant Abstinence from all Pleasures, and from Refreshments above once in some Days, and sometimes many Days; to sit in the same painful Posture upon their folded Legs for Years together, or to stand upon one Leg, or to lean upon the Trunk of a Tree, with their Arms exalted unnaturally over their Heads, never to be let down; and to continue in these tormenting Situations as long as they live: To mortify every Appetite; to maintain an eternal Fight against Nature and Sensation; to court Distress; to invite Pain; to study Torture; to hang by the Hair upon a Tree, or tied by a sharp Rope about the Middle; to renounce all Speech and Cleanliness for ever; to ward off Sleep by Cruelty and a Rack, and never to shut their Eyes till they are shut eternally: These are some of the voluntary Penances which many of the Oriental Pagan Doctors inflict upon themselves. They are almost as barbarous to their Penitents, whom they torture and starve by way of religious Discipline: Some they hang by the Flesh upon iron Hooks, till the Weight of their Bodies, and the Sharpness of the Iron, tear the Hold, and the miserable Penitents tumble down.
And all this not as an Atonement for Sin, but to acquire a Stock of Merit, and to humour the Deity. They are thus religious and distracted, through Ambition to be as great hereafter, as they are wretched and ridiculous here; and (agreeably to their Notions of Transmigration) to return into the World again Rajahs and Omrahs, that is, great Lords and Princes. It is all Selfishness, but Selfishness turned by Superstition against Nature. Hence we see a Reason for the Haughtiness of mortified Men, and why Enthusiasts and Bigots are the proudest of all Men: They have more Conceit of their Merit, and more aspiring Views. What is so sublime as to be the special Favourites of Heaven? and who can equal them?
BAUMGARTEN, the Traveller, tells us of a Saracen Saint, who arrived at the Glory of Saintship, not only by living austerely in the Desart, and refusing the Use of Women, but by lying carnally with Mules and Asses, instead of Women. This Bestiality was imputed to him for Religion and Righteousness, and procured him Canonization. Indeed, many in the Roman Calendar deserve it less. He only defiled himself and some Brutes of the Wilderness: But the Catholic Saints have polluted and poisoned Mankind with their Superstitions, and merited their Title by more extensive Mischiefs, by endless Frauds and Massacres.
Now what is the Use of all these, or any of these Severities called Penances? By what Precept of God, or of Nature, are they commanded? That they disorder and afflict the Body and Spirit, is most certain: That they can do Good to either, has not the Face of Probability. To say, that they please God, is to say, that God takes Pleasure in human Miseries and Pain. To say, that they dispose the Soul to serve him, is as absurd: They fill the Mind with Gloominess and Chimera’s; and it is a shocking Character of the Almighty, to suppose him served by Infatuation and Madness.
We are indeed told in Scripture, of Fasting, of Sackcloth, and Ashes: But if by these Words any thing more is meant, (as I believe there is not) than a Departure from Intemperance and Riot, than Shame and Concern for Vice; I do not conceive their Signification. Without Rest, Food, and other Conveniencies, Man cannot subsist; his Nature requires perpetual Recruits; and as long as we must live, where can be the Crime of living easily?
It is Heathenism and Superstition to believe, that Crimes can be expiated by Starving, Stripes, and the Absence of Rest. To such as think the Deity a barbarous Being, such Expedients to please him may seem necessary: They therefore who worshipped Dæmons, cut themselves with Knives, made their Children pass through Fire, and offered human Sacrifices, as devout Barbarities agreeable to the Genius of their Gods. When a great Idol in the East-Indies (I think ’tis in Bengal) is carried forth in Procession, on a solemn Festival, in a Chariot, some of the Indians are mad enough to throw themselves under the Wheels which support that ponderous Idol, and are instantly crushed to Death, in pursuit of the Glory of Martyrdom, and as an acceptable Sacrifice to that inanimate Deity.
Where-ever the Devil is adored, as he is in many Places, Penance is a great and indispensable Part of the Adoration paid him; and ’tis natural to imagine a raging, cruel, and avaricious Being delighted with Cruelty and Gifts; as it is impious and unnatural to think, that the God of Wisdom and Mercy is to be bribed with Money or Blood, and rendered propitious by merciless and foolish Actions. He is always propitious; he has no Fury to be appeased, no Caprice to be humoured, no Avarice to be satiated: He who endowed us with Reason and Humanity, cannot require of us a Behaviour that is frantic and inhuman: He who gave us all things, wants nothing; no Gifts for Gifts, no Share in his own Bounty. A rich Man who bestows Alms, claims none of his own Alms again; and it would be an Affront to offer it: Neither do our Friends and Patrons desire to see us beat, famish, and impoverish our selves, in Honour and Gratitude to them. If we were thus mad, without Doubt they would restrain us, probably send us to Bedlam. And can we believe, that the Omnipotent God is to be charmed with Follies, that are below the Reason and Dignity of Men? That infinite Wisdom approves Things which are ridiculous and offensive to common Sense? That the merciful God, the Maker and Preserver of Men, takes Pleasure in the Pains and Sorrows of Men, in their Stupidity and Extravagance, and in Feats of Rigour and Anguish, such as shock Good-nature?
I am the larger and warmer upon this Subject, because the Nonjuring Clergy, and those who agree with them in every thing but in not taking the Oaths, have shewn so much Zeal, and preached and written so much for the Restoration of Penance, among the other Chimera’s and Barbarities of Popery. It is a Doctrine admirably contrived for intoxicating and enslaving the Spirits and Persons of Men, and for opening their Purses; and no Wonder that the Advocates for Levitical Empire are so fierce for it. But, as it can never be introduced, without the total Extirpation of all Civil and Religious Liberty, it becomes all sober Christians, and rational Men, to be as zealous against it.