Front Page Titles (by Subject) MIRACLES. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. VI (Philosophical Dictionary Part 4)
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MIRACLES. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. VI (Philosophical Dictionary Part 4) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. VI.
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A miracle, according to the true meaning of the word, is something admirable; and agreeable to this, all is miracle. The stupendous order of nature, the revolution of a hundred millions of worlds around a million of suns, the activity of light, the life of animals, all are grand and perpetual miracles.
According to common acceptation, we call a miracle the violation of these divine and eternal laws. A solar eclipse at the time of the full moon, or a dead man walking two leagues and carrying his head in his arms, we denominate a miracle.
Many natural philosophers maintain, that in this sense there are no miracles; and advance the following arguments:
A miracle is the violation of mathematical, divine, immutable, eternal laws. By the very exposition itself, a miracle is a contradiction in terms: a law cannot at the same time be immutable and violated. But they are asked, cannot a law, established by God Himself, be suspended by its author?
They have the hardihood to reply that it cannot; and that it is impossible a being infinitely wise can have made laws to violate them. He could not, they say, derange the machine but with a view of making it work better; but it is evident that God, all-wise and omnipotent, originally made this immense machine, the universe, as good and perfect as He was able; if He saw that some imperfections would arise from the nature of matter, He provided for that in the beginning; and, accordingly, He will never change anything in it. Moreover, God can do nothing without reason; but what reason could induce him to disfigure for a time His own work?
It is done, they are told, in favor of mankind. They reply: We must presume, then, that it is in favor of all mankind; for it is impossible to conceive that the divine nature should occupy itself only about a few men in particular, and not for the whole human race; and even the whole human race itself is a very small concern; it is less than a small ant-hill, in comparison with all the beings inhabiting immensity. But is it not the most absurd of all extravagances to imagine that the Infinite Supreme should, in favor of three or four hundred emmets on this little heap of earth, derange the operation of the vast machinery that moves the universe?
But, admitting that God chose to distinguish a small number of men by particular favors, is there any necessity that, in order to accomplish this object, He should change what He established for all periods and for all places? He certainly can have no need of this inconstancy in order to bestow favors on any of His creatures: His favors consist in His laws themselves: he has foreseen all and arranged all, with a view to them. All invariably obey the force which He has impressed forever on nature.
For what purpose would God perform a miracle? To accomplish some particular design upon living beings? He would then, in reality, be supposed to say: “I have not been able to effect by my construction of the universe, by my divine decrees, by my eternal laws, a particular object; I am now going to change my eternal ideas and immutable laws, to endeavor to accomplish what I have not been able to do by means of them.” This would be an avowal of His weakness, not of His power; it would appear in such a being an inconceivable contradiction. Accordingly, therefore, to dare to ascribe miracles to God is, if man can in reality insult God, actually offering Him that insult. It is saying to Him: “You are a weak and inconsistent Being.” It is, therefore, absurd to believe in miracles; it is, in fact, dishonoring the divinity.
These philosophers, however, are not suffered thus to declaim without opposition. You may extol, it is replied, as much as you please, the immutability of the Supreme Being, the eternity of His laws, and the regularity of His infinitude of worlds; but our little heap of earth has, notwithstanding all that you have advanced, been completely covered over with miracles in every part and time. Histories relate as many prodigies as natural events. The daughters of the high priest Anius changed whatever they pleased to corn, wine, and oil; Athalide, the daughter of Mercury, revived again several times; Æsculapius resuscitated Hippolytus; Hercules rescued Alcestes from the hand of death; and Heres returned to the world after having passed fifteen days in hell. Romulus and Remus were the offspring of a god and a vestal. The Palladium descended from heaven on the city of Troy; the hair of Berenice was changed into a constellation; the cot of Baucis and Philemon was converted into a superb temple; the head of Orpheus delivered oracles after his death; the walls of Thebes spontaneously constructed themselves to the sound of a flute, in the presence of the Greeks; the cures effected in the temple of Æsculapius were absolutely innumerable, and we have monuments still existing containing the very names of persons who were eyewitnesses of his miracles.
Mention to me a single nation in which the most incredible prodigies have not been performed, and especially in those periods in which the people scarcely knew how to write or read.
The philosophers make no answer to these objections, but by slightly raising their shoulders and by a smile; but the Christian philosophers say: “We are believers in the miracles of our holy religion; we believe them by faith and not by our reason, which we are very cautious how we listen to; for when faith speaks, it is well known that reason ought to be silent. We have a firm and entire faith in the miracles of Jesus Christ and the apostles, but permit us to entertain some doubt about many others: permit us, for example, to suspend our judgment on what is related by a very simple man, although he has obtained the title of great. He assures us, that a certain monk was so much in the habit of performing miracles, that the prior at length forbade him to exercise his talent in that line. The monk obeyed; but seeing a poor tiler fall from the top of a house, he hesitated for a moment between the desire to save the unfortunate man’s life, and the sacred duty of obedience to his superior. He merely ordered the tiler to stay in the air till he should receive further instructions, and ran as fast as his legs would carry him to communicate the urgency of the circumstances to the prior. The prior absolved him from the sin he had committed in beginning the miracle without permission, and gave him leave to finish it, provided he stopped with the same, and never again repeated his fault.” The philosophers may certainly be excused for entertaining a little doubt of this legend.
But how can you deny, they are asked, that St. Gervais and St. Protais appeared in a dream to St. Ambrose, and informed him of the spot in which were deposited their relics? that St. Ambrose had them disinterred? and that they restored sight to a man that was blind? St. Augustine was at Milan at the very time, and it is he who relates the miracle, using the expression, in the twenty-second book of his work called the “City of God,” “immenso populo teste”—in the presence of an immense number of people. Here is one of the very best attested and established miracles. The philosophers, however, say that they do not believe one word about Gervais and Protais appearing to any person whatever; that it is a matter of very little consequence to mankind where the remains of their carcasses lie; that they have no more faith in this blind man than in Vespasian’s; that it is a useless miracle, and that God does nothing that is useless; and they adhere to the principles they began with. My respect for St. Gervais and St. Protais prevents me from being of the same opinion as these philosophers: I merely state their incredulity. They lay great stress on the well-known passage of Lucian, to be found in the death of Peregrinus: “When an expert juggler turns Christian, he is sure to make his fortune.” But as Lucian is a profane author, we ought surely to set him aside as of no authority.
These philosophers cannot even make up their minds to believe the miracles performed in the second century. Even eye-witnesses to the facts may write and attest till the day of doom, that after the bishop of Smyrna, St. Polycarp, was condemned to be burned, and actually in the midst of the flames, they heard a voice from heaven exclaiming: “Courage, Polycarp! be strong, and show yourself a man”; that, at the very instant, the flames quitted his body, and formed a pavilion of fire above his head, and from the midst of the pile there flew out a dove; when, at length, Polycarp’s enemies ended his life by cutting off his head. All these facts and attestations are in vain. For what good, say these unimpressible and incredulous men, for what good was this miracle? Why did the flames lose their nature, and the axe of the executioner retain all its power of destruction? Whence comes it that so many martyrs escaped unhurt out of boiling oil, but were unable to resist the edge of the sword? It is answered, such was the will of God. But the philosophers would wish to see and hear all this themselves, before they believe it.
Those who strengthen their reasonings by learning will tell you that the fathers of the Church have frequently declared that miracles were in their days performed no longer. St. Chrysostom says expressly: “The extraordinary gifts of the spirit were bestowed even on the unworthy, because the Church at that time had need of miracles; but now, they are not bestowed even on the worthy, because the Church has need of them no longer.” He afterwards declares, that there is no one now who raises the dead, or even who heals the sick.
St. Augustine himself, notwithstanding the miracles of Gervais and Protais, says, in his “City of God”: “Why are not such miracles as were wrought formerly wrought now?” and he assigns the same reason as St. Chrysostom for it.
“Cur inquiunt, nunc illa miracula quæ prædicatis facta esse non fiunt? Possem quidem dicere necessaria prius fuisse, quam crederet mundus, ad hoc ut crederet mundus.”
It is objected to the philosophers, that St. Augustine, notwithstanding this avowal, mentions nevertheless an old cobbler of Hippo, who, having lost his garment, went to pray in the chapel of the twenty martyrs, and on his return found a fish, in the body of which was a gold ring; and that the cook who dressed the fish said to the cobbler: “See what a present the twenty martyrs have made you!”
To this the philosophers reply, that there is nothing in the event here related in opposition to the laws of nature; that natural philosophy is not contradicted or shocked by a fish’s swallowing a gold ring, or a cook’s delivering such ring to a cobbler; that, in short, there is no miracle at all in the case.
If these philosophers are reminded that, according to St. Jerome, in his “Life of Paul the Hermit,” that hermit had many conversations with satyrs and fauns; that a raven carried to him every day, for thirty years together, half of a loaf for his dinner, and a whole one on the day that St. Anthony went to visit him, they might reply again, that all this is not absolutely inconsistent with natural philosophy; that satyrs and fauns may have existed; and that, at all events, whether the narrative be a recital of facts, or only a story fit for children, it has nothing at all to do with the miracles of our Lord and His apostles. Many good Christians have contested the “History of St. Simeon Stylites,” written by Theodoret; many miracles considered authentic by the Greek Church have been called in question by many Latins, just as the Latin miracles have been suspected by the Greek Church. Afterwards, the Protestants appeared on the stage, and treated the miracles of both churches certainly with very little respect or ceremony.
A learned Jesuit, who was long a preacher in the Indies, deplores that neither his colleagues nor himself could ever perform a miracle. Xavier laments, in many of his letters, that he has not the gift of languages. He says, that among the Japanese he is merely like a dumb statue: yet the Jesuits have written that he resuscitated eight persons. That was certainly no trifling matter; but it must be recollected that he resuscitated them six thousand leagues distant. Persons have since been found, who have pretended that the abolition of the Jesuits in France is a much greater miracle than any performed by Xavier and Ignatius.
However that may be, all Christians agree that the miracles of Jesus Christ and the apostles are incontestably true; but that we may certainly be permitted to doubt some stated to have been performed in our own times, and which have not been completely authenticated.
It would certainly, for example, be very desirable, in order to the firm and clear establishment of a miracle, that it should be performed in the presence of the Academy of Sciences of Paris, or the Royal Society of London, and the Faculty of Medicine, assisted by a detachment of guards to keep in due order and distance the populace, who might by their rudeness or indiscretion prevent the operation of the miracle.
A philosopher was once asked what he should say if he saw the sun stand still, that is, if the motion of the earth around that star were to cease; if all the dead were to rise again; and if the mountains were to go and throw themselves together into the sea, all in order to prove some important truth, like that, for instance, of versatile grace? “What should I say?” answered the philosopher; “I should become a Manichæan; I should say that one principle counteracted the performance of another.”
Define your terms, you will permit me again to say, or we shall never understand one another. “Miraculum res miranda, prodigium, portentum, monstrum.”—Miracle, something admirable; prodigy, implying something astonishing; portentous, bearing with it novelty; monster, something to show (à montrer) on account of its variety. Such are the first ideas that men formed of miracles.
As everything is refined and improved upon, such also would be the case with this definition. A miracle is said to be that which is impossible to nature. But it was not considered that this was in fact saying all miracle is absolutely impossible. For what is nature? You understand by it the eternal order of things. A miracle would therefore be impossible in such an order. In this sense God could not work a miracle.
If you mean by miracle an effect of which you cannot perceive the cause, in that sense all is miracle. The attraction and direction of the magnet are continual miracles. A snail whose head is renewed is a miracle. The birth of every animal, the production of every vegetable, are miracles of every day.
But we are so accustomed to these prodigies, that they have lost their name of admirable—of miraculous. The Indians are no longer astonished by cannon.
We have therefore formed for ourselves another idea of a miracle. It is, according to the common opinion, what never has happened and never will happen. Such is the idea formed of Samson’s jawbone of an ass; of the conversation between the ass and Balaam, and that between a serpent and Eve; of the chariot with four horses that conveyed away Elijah; of the fish that kept Jonah in its belly seventy-two hours; of the ten plagues of Egypt; of the walls of Jericho, and of the sun and moon standing still at mid-day, etc.
In order to believe a miracle, it is not enough merely to have seen it; for a man may be deceived. A fool is often called a dealer in wonders; and not merely do many excellent persons think that they have seen what they have not seen, and heard what was never said to them; not only do they thus become witnesses of miracles, but they become also subjects of miracles. They have been sometimes diseased, and sometimes cured by supernatural power; they have been changed into wolves; they have travelled through the air on broomsticks; they have become both incubi and succubi.
It is necessary that the miracle should have been seen by a great number of very sensible people, in sound health, and perfectly disinterested in the affair. It is above all necessary, that it should have been solemnly attested by them; for if solemn forms of authentication are deemed necessary with respect to transactions of very simple character, such as the purchase of a house, a marriage contract, or a will, what particular and minute cautionary formalities must not be deemed requisite in order to verify things naturally impossible, on which the destiny of the world is to depend?
Even when an authentic miracle is performed, it in fact proves nothing; for Scripture tells you, in a great variety of places, that impostors may perform miracles, and that if any man, after having performed them, should proclaim another God than that of the Jews, he ought to be stoned to death. It is requisite, therefore, that the doctrine should be confirmed by the miracles, and the miracles by the doctrine.
Even this, however, is not sufficient. As impostors may preach a very correct and pure morality, the better to deceive, and it is admitted that impostors, like the magicians of Pharaoh, may perform miracles; it is in addition necessary, that these miracles should have been announced by prophecies.
In order to be convinced of the truth of these prophecies, it is necessary that they should have been heard clearly announced, and seen really accomplished. It is necessary to possess perfectly the language in which they are preserved.
It is not sufficient, even, that you are a witness of their miraculous fulfilment; for you may be deceived by false appearances. It is necessary that the miracle and prophecy should be verified on oath by the heads of the nation; and even after all this there will be some doubters. For it is possible for a nation to be interested in the forgery of a prophecy or a miracle; and when interest mixes with the transaction, you may consider the whole affair as worth nothing. If a predicted miracle be not as public and as well verified as an eclipse that is announced in the almanac, be assured that it is nothing better than a juggler’s trick or an old woman’s tale.
A theocracy can be founded only upon miracles. Everything in it must be divine. The Great Sovereign speaks to men only in prodigies. These are his ministers and letters patent. His orders are intimated by the ocean’s covering the earth to drown nations, or opening a way through its depths, that they may pass upon dry land.
Accordingly you perceive, that in the Jewish history all is miracle; from the creation of Adam, and the formation of Eve, who was made of one of the ribs of Adam, to the time of the insignificant kingling Saul.
Even in the time of this same Saul, theocracy participates in power with royalty. There are still, consequently, miracles performed from time to time; but there is no longer that splendid train of prodigies which continually astonishes and interrupts nature. The ten plagues of Egypt are not renewed; the sun and moon do not stand still at mid-day, in order to give a commander time to exterminate a few runaways, already nearly destroyed by a shower of stones from the clouds. No Samson again extirpates a thousand Philistines by the jaw-bone of an ass. Asses no longer talk rationally with men; walls no longer fall prostrate at the mere sound of trumpets; cities are not swallowed up in a lake by the fire of heaven; the race of man is not a second time destroyed by a deluge. But the finger of God is still manifested; the shade of Saul is permitted to appear at the invocation of the sorceress, and God Himself promises David that he will defeat the Philistines at Baal-perazim.
“God gathers together His celestial army in the reign of Ahab, and asks the spirits: Who will go and deceive Ahab, and persuade him to go up to war against Ramoth Gilead? And there came forth a lying spirit and stood before the Lord and said, I will persuade him.” But the prophet Micaiah alone heard this conversation, and he received a blow on the cheek from another prophet, called Zedekiah, for having announced the ill-omened prodigy.
Of miracles performed in the sight of the whole nation, and changing the laws of all nature, we see no more until the time of Elijah, for whom the Lord despatched a chariot of fire and horses of fire, which conveyed him rapidly from the banks of the Jordan to heaven, although no one knew where heaven was.
From the commencement of historical times, that is, from the time of the conquests of Alexander, we see no more miracles among the Jews.
When Pompey comes to make himself master of Jerusalem—when Crassus plunders the temple—when Pompey puts to death the king of the Jews by the hands of the executioner—when Anthony confers the kingdom of Judæa on the Arabian Herod—when Titus takes Jerusalem by assault, and when it is razed to the ground by Arian—not a single miracle is ever performed. Thus it is with every nation upon earth. They begin with theocracy; they end in a manner simply and naturally human. The greater the progress made in society and knowledge, the fewer there are of prodigies.
We well know that the theocracy of the Jews was the only true one, and that those of other nations were false; but in all other respects, the case was precisely the same with them as with the Jews.
In Egypt, in the time of Vulcan, and in that of Isis and Osiris, everything was out of the laws of nature; under the Ptolemies everything resumed its natural course.
In the remote periods of Phos, Chrysos, and Ephestes, gods and mortals conversed in Chaldee with the most interesting familiarity. A god warned King Xissuter that there would be a deluge in Armenia, and that it was necessary he should, as soon as possible, build a vessel five stadii in length and two in width. Such things do not happen to the Dariuses and the Alexanders.
The fish Oannes, in former times, came every day out of the Euphrates to preach upon its banks; but there is no preaching fish now. It is true that St. Anthony of Padua went and preached to the fishes; however, such things happen so very rarely that they are scarcely to be taken any account of.
Numa held long conversations with the nymph Egeria; but we never read that Cæsar had any with Venus, although he was descended from her in the direct line. The world, we see, is constantly advancing a little, and refining gradually.
But after being extricated out of one slough for a time, mankind are soon plunged into another. To ages of civilization succeed ages of barbarism; that barbarism is again expelled, and again reappears: it is the regular alternation of day and night.
Of Those Who Have Been so Impiously Rash as to Deny the Miracles of Jesus Christ.
Among the moderns, Thomas Woolston, a learned member of the University of Cambridge, appears to me to have been the first who ventured to interpret the Gospels merely in a typical, allegorical, and spiritual sense, and boldly maintained that not one of the miracles of Jesus was actually performed. He wrote without method or art, and in a style confused and coarse, but not destitute of vigor. His six discourses against the miracles of Jesus Christ were publicly sold at London, in his own house. In the course of two years, from 1737 to 1739, he had three editions of them printed, of twenty thousand copies each, and yet it is now very difficult to procure one from the booksellers.
Never was Christianity so daringly assailed by any Christian. Few writers entertain less awe or respect for the public, and no priest ever declared himself more openly the enemy of priests. He even dared to justify this hatred by that of Jesus Christ against the Pharisees and Scribes; and he said that he should not, like Jesus Christ, become their victim, because he had come into the world in a more enlightened age.
He certainly hoped to justify his rashness by his adoption of the mystical sense; but he employs expressions so contemptuous and abusive that every Christian ear is shocked at them.
If we may believe him, when Jesus sent the devil into the herd of two thousand swine, He did neither more nor less than commit a robbery on their owners. If the story had been told of Mahomet, he would have been considered as “an abominable wizard, and a sworn slave to the devil.” And if the proprietor of the swine, and the merchants who in the outer court of the temple sold beasts for sacrifices, and whom Jesus drove out with a scourge, came to demand justice when he was apprehended, it is clear that he was deservedly condemned, as there never was a jury in England that would not have found him guilty.
He tells her fortune to the woman of Samaria, just like a wandering Bohemian or Gypsy. This alone was sufficient to cause His banishment, which was the punishment inflicted upon fortune-tellers, or diviners, by Tiberius. “I am astonished,” says he, “that the gypsies do not proclaim themselves the genuine disciples of Jesus, as their vocation is the same. However, I am glad to see that He did not extort money from the Samaritan woman, differing in this respect from our clergy, who take care to be well paid for their divinations.”
I follow the order of the pages in his book. The author goes on to the entrance of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. It is not clear, he says, whether He was mounted on a male or female ass, or upon the foal of an ass, or upon all three together.
He compares Jesus, when tempted by the devil, to St. Dunstan, who seized the devil by the nose; and he gives the preference to St. Dunstan.
At the article of the fig-tree, which was cursed with barrenness for not producing figs out of season for them, he describes Jesus as a mere vagabond, a mendicant friar, who before He turned field-preacher was “no better than a journeyman carpenter.” It is surprising, he says, that the court of Rome has not among all its relics some little fancy-box or joint-stool of His workmanship. In a word, it is difficult to carry blasphemy further.
After diverting himself with the probationary fish-pool of Bethesda, the waters of which were troubled or stirred once in every year by an angel, he inquires how it could well be, that neither Flavius Josephus, nor Philo should ever mention this angel; why St. John should be the sole historian of this miracle; and by what other miracle it happened that no Roman ever saw this angel, or ever even heard his name mentioned?
The water changed into wine at the marriage of Cana, according to him, excites the laughter and contempt of all who are not imbruted by superstition.
“What!” says he, “John expressly says that the guests were already intoxicated, ‘methus tosi’; and God comes down to earth and performs His first miracle to enable them to drink still more!”
God, made man, commences His mission by assisting at a village wedding. “Whether Jesus and His mother were drunk, as were others of the company, is not certain. The familiarity of the lady with a soldier leads to the presumption that she was fond of her bottle; that her Son, however, was somewhat affected by the wine, appears from His answering His mother so ‘waspishly and snappishly’ as He did, when He said, ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ It may be inferred from these words that Mary was not a virgin, and that Jesus was not her son; had it been otherwise, He would not have thus insulted His father and mother in violation of one of the most sacred commandments of the law. However, He complied with His mother’s request; He fills eighteen jars with water, and makes punch of it.” These are the very words of Thomas Woolston, and must fill every Christian soul with indignation.
It is with regret, and even with trembling, that I quote these passages; but there have been sixty thousand copies of this work printed, all bearing the name of the author, and all publicly sold at his house. It can never be said that I calumniate him.
It is to the dead raised again by Jesus Christ that he principally directs his attention. He contends that a dead man restored to life would have been an object of attention and astonishment to the universe; that all the Jewish magistracy, and more especially Pilate, would have made the most minute investigations and obtained the most authentic depositions; that Tiberius enjoined all proconsuls, prætors, and governors of provinces to inform him with exactness of every event that took place; that Lazarus, who had been dead four whole days, would have been most strictly interrogated; and that no little curiosity would have been excited to know what had become, during that time, of his soul.
With what eager interest would Tiberius and the whole Roman senate have questioned him, and not indeed only him, but the daughter of Jairus and the son of the widow of Nain? Three dead persons restored to life would have been three attestations to the divinity of Jesus, which almost in a single moment would have made the whole world Christian. But instead of all this, the whole world, for more than two hundred years, knew nothing about these resplendent and decisive evidences. It is not till a hundred years have rolled away from the date of the events that some obscure individuals show one another the writings that contain the relation of those miracles. Eighty-nine emperors reckoning those who had only the name of “tyrants,” never hear the slightest mention of these resurrections, although they must inevitably have held all nature in amazement. Neither the Jewish historian Josephus, nor the learned Philo, nor any Greek or Roman historian at all notices these prodigies. In short, Woolston has the imprudence to say that the history of Lazarus is so brimful of absurdities that St. John, when he wrote it, had outlived his senses.
Supposing, says Woolston, that God should in our own times send an ambassador to London to convert the hireling clergy, and that ambassador should raise the dead, what would the clergy say?
He blasphemes the incarnation, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus Christ, just upon the same system; and he calls these miracles: “The most manifest and the most barefaced imposture that ever was put upon the world!”
What is perhaps more singular still is that each of his discourses is dedicated to a bishop. His dedications are certainly not exactly in the French style. He bestows no flattery nor compliments. He upbraids them with their pride and avarice, their ambition and faction, and smiles with triumph at the thought of their being now, like every other class of citizens, in complete subjection to the laws of the state.
At last these bishops, tired of being insulted by an undignified member of the University of Cambridge, determined upon a formal appeal to the laws. They instituted a prosecution against Woolston in the King’s Bench, and he was tried before Chief-Justice Raymond, in 1729, when he was imprisoned, condemned to pay a fine, and obliged to give security to the amount of a hundred and fifty pounds sterling. His friends furnished him with the security, and he did not in fact die in prison, as in some of our careless and ill-compiled dictionaries he is stated to have done. He died at his own house in London, after having uttered these words: “This is a pass that every man must come to.” Some time before his death, a female zealot meeting him in the street was gross enough to spit in his face; he calmly wiped his face and bowed to her. His manners were mild and pleasing. He was obstinately infatuated with the mystical meaning, and blasphemed the literal one; but let us hope that he repented on his death-bed, and that God has showed him mercy.
About the same period there appeared in France the will of John Meslier, clergyman (curé) of But and Entrepigni, in Champagne, of whom we have already spoken, under the article on “Contradictions.”
It was both a wonderful and a melancholy spectacle to see two priests at the same time writing against the Christian religion. Meslier is still more violent than Woolston. He ventures to treat the devil’s carrying off our Lord to the top of a mountain, the marriage of Cana, and the loaves and fishes, as absurd tales, injurious to the Supreme Being, which for three hundred years were unknown to the whole Roman Empire, and at last advanced from the dregs of the community to the throne of the emperors, when policy compelled them to adopt the nonsense of the people, in order to keep them the better in subjection. The declamations of the English priest do not approach in vehemence those of the priest of Champagne. Woolston occasionally showed discretion. Meslier never has any; he is a man so sensitively sore to the crimes to which he has been witness that he renders the Christian religion responsible for them, forgetting that it condemns them. There is not a single miracle which is not with him an object of scorn or horror; no prophecy which he does not compare with the prophecies of Nostradamus. He even goes so far as to compare Jesus Christ to Don Quixote, and St. Peter to Sancho Panza; and what is most of all to be deplored is, that he wrote these blasphemies against Jesus Christ, when he might be said to be in the very arms of death—at a moment when the most deceitful are sincere, and the most intrepid tremble. Too strongly impressed by some injuries that had been done him by his superiors in authority; too deeply affected by the great difficulties which he met with in the Scripture, he became exasperated against it more than Acosta and all the Jews; more than Porphyry, Celsus, Iamblichus, Julian, Libanius, Maximus, Simmachus, or any other whatever of the partisans of human reason against the divine incomprehensibilities of our religion. Many abridgments of his work have been printed; but happily the persons in authority suppressed them as fast as they appeared.
A priest of Bonne-Nouvelle, near Paris, wrote also on the same subject; and it thus happened that at the very time the abbé Becheran and the rest of the Convulsionaries were performing miracles, three priests were writing against the genuine Gospel miracles.
The most clever work that has been written against the miracles and prophecies is that of my Lord Bolingbroke. But happily it is so voluminous, so destitute of method, so verbose, and so abounding in long and sometimes complicated sentences, that it requires a great deal of patience to read him.
There have been some minds so constituted that they have been enchanted by the miracles of Moses and Joshua, but have not entertained for those of Jesus Christ the respect to which they are entitled. Their imagination—raised by the grand spectacle of the sea opening a passage through its depths, and suspending its waves that a horde of Hebrews might safely go through; by the ten plagues of Egypt, and by the stars that stopped in their course over Gibeon and Ajalon, etc.—could not with ease and satisfaction be let down again, so as to admire the comparatively petty miracles of the water changed into wine, the withered fig-tree, and the swine drowned in the little lake of Gadara. Vaghenseil said that it was like hearing a rustic ditty after attending a grand concert.
The Talmud pretends that there have been many Christians who, after comparing the miracles of the Old Testament with those of the New Testament, embraced Judaism; they consider it impossible that the Sovereign Lord of Nature should have wrought such stupendous prodigies for a religion He intended to annihilate. What! they exclaim, can it possibly be, that for a series of ages He should have exhibited a train of astonishing and tremendous miracles in favor of a true religion that was to become a false one? What! can it be that God Himself has recorded that this religion shall never perish, and that those who attempt to destroy it shall be stoned to death, and yet that He has nevertheless sent His own Son, Who is no other than Himself, to annihilate what He was employed so many ages in erecting?
There is much more to be added to these remarks; this Son, they continue, this Eternal God, having made Himself a Jew, adheres to the Jewish religion during the whole of His life; He performs all the functions of it, He frequents the Jewish temple, He announces nothing contrary to the Jewish law, and all His disciples are Jews and observe the Jewish ceremonies. It most certainly is not He who established the Christian religion. It was established by the dissident Jews who united with the Platonists. There is not a single dogma of Christianity that was preached by Jesus Christ.
Such is the reasoning of these rash men, who, with minds at once hypocritical and audacious, dare to criticise the works of God, and admit the miracles of the Old Testament for the sole purpose of rejecting those of the New Testament.
Of this number was the unfortunate priest of Pont-à-Mousson in Lorraine, called Nicholas Anthony; he was known by no other name. After he had received what is called “the four minors” in Lorraine, the Calvinistic preacher Ferri, happening to go to Pont-à-Mousson, raised in his mind very serious scruples, and persuaded him that the four minors were the mark of the beast. Anthony, driven almost to distraction by the thought of carrying about him the mark of the beast, had it immediately effaced by Ferri, embraced the Protestant religion, and became a minister at Geneva about the year 1630.
With a head full of rabbinical learning, he thought that if the Protestants were right in reference to the Papists, the Jews were much more so in reference to all the different sects of Christianity whatever. From the village of Divonne, where he was pastor, he went to be received as a Jew at Venice, together with a young apprentice in theology whom he had persuaded to adopt his own principles, but who afterwards abandoned him, not experiencing any call to martyrdom.
At first the minister, Nicholas Anthony, abstained from uttering the name of Jesus Christ in his sermons and prayers; in a short time, however, becoming animated and emboldened by the example of the Jewish saints, who confidently professed Judaism before the princes of Tyre and Babylon, he travelled barefooted to Geneva, to confess before the judges and magistrates that there is only one religion upon earth, because there is only one God; that that religion is the Jewish; that it is absolutely necessary to become circumcised; and that it is a horrible crime to eat bacon and blood pudding. He pathetically exhorted all the people of Geneva, who crowded to hear him, no longer to continue children of Belial, but to become good Jews, in order to deserve the kingdom of heaven. He was apprehended, and put in chains.
The little Council of Geneva, which at that period did nothing without consulting the council of preachers, asked their advice in this emergency. The most sensible of them recommended that poor Anthony should be bled in the cephalic vein, use the bath, and be kept upon gruel and broths; after which he might perhaps gradually be induced to pronounce the name of Jesus Christ, or at least to hear it pronounced, without grinding his teeth, as had hitherto been his practice. They added, that the laws bore with Jews; that there were eight thousand of them even in Rome itself; that many merchants are true Jews, and therefore that as Rome admitted within its walls eight thousand children of the synagogue, Geneva might well tolerate one. At the sound of “toleration” the rest of the pastors, who were the majority, gnashing their teeth still more than Anthony did at the name of Jesus Christ, and also eager to find an opportunity to burn a man, which could not be done every day, called peremptorily for the burning. They resolved that nothing could serve more to establish genuine Christianity; that the Spaniards had obtained so much reputation in the world only by burning the Jews every year, and that after all, if the Old Testament must prevail over the New Testament, God would not fail to come and extinguish the flames of the pile, as he did at Babylon for Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego; in which case all must go back again to the Old Testament; but that, in the meantime, it was indispensable to burn Nicholas Anthony. On the breaking up of the meeting, they concluded with the observation: “We must put the wicked out of the way”—the very words they used.
The long-headed syndics, Sarasin and Godefroi, agreed that the reasoning of the Calvinistic sanhedrim was admirable, and by the right of the strongest party, condemned Nicholas Anthony, the weakest of men, to die the same death as Calanus and the counsellor Dubourg. This sentence was carried into execution on April 20, 1632, in a very beautiful lawn or meadow, called Plain-Palais, in the presence of twenty thousand persons, who blessed the new law, and the wonderful sense of the syndics Sarasin and Godefroi.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not renew the miracle of the furnace of Babylon in favor of poor Anthony.
Abauzit, an author of great veracity, relates in his notes, that he died in the greatest constancy, and persisted in his opinions even at the stake on the pile; he broke out into no passionate invective against his judges when the executioner was tying him to the stake; he displayed neither pride nor pusillanimity; he neither wept nor sighed; he was resigned. Never did martyr consummate his sacrifice with a more lively faith; never did philosopher contemplate a death of horror with greater firmness. This clearly proves that his folly or madness was at all events attended with sincere conviction. Let us implore of the God of both the Old and the New Testaments that he will grant him mercy.
I would say as much for the Jesuit Malagrida, who was still more infatuated and mad than Nicholas Anthony; as I would also for the ex-Jesuits Patouillet and Paulian, should they ever be brought to the stake.
A great number of writers, whose misfortune it was to be philosophers rather than Christians, have been bold enough to deny the miracles of our Lord; but after the four priests already noticed, there is no necessity to enumerate other instances. Let us lament over these four unfortunate men, led astray by their own deceitful reason, and precipitated by the gloom of their feelings into an abyss so dreadful and so fatal.