Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. XIV.: An inquiry why the Christian Dispensation has, with all its advantages and excellencies, so little mended the World. Whether and how far public Teachers are chargeable with this. - The Works of Tacitus, vol. 3 - Gordon's Discourses II, History (Books 1-2)
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Sect. XIV.: An inquiry why the Christian Dispensation has, with all its advantages and excellencies, so little mended the World. Whether and how far public Teachers are chargeable with this. - Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Works of Tacitus, vol. 3 - Gordon’s Discourses II, History (Books 1-2) [120 AD]
The Works of Tacitus. In Four Volumes. To which are prefixed, Political Discourses upon that Author by Thomas Gordon. The Second Edition, corrected. (London: T. Woodward and J. Peele, 1737). Vol. 3.
Part of: The Works of Tacitus, 4 vols.
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An inquiry why the Christian Dispensation has, with all its advantages and excellencies, so little mended the World. Whether and how far public Teachers are chargeable with this.
WHY the world has not been more mended by the Christian Dispensation, of itself so much adapted to mend the world, is worth the inquiry of all men, especially of such as are employed to inculcate its precepts upon the minds of all. And here many other inquiries subsequent to this will naturally occur; namely, whether they have ever pursued their own worldly interest more assiduously than suited with their holy profession, and never prostituted religion to serve the pursuits of wealth and power: whether they have ever dispensed with sins, and been even partial to favourite and bountiful sinners, or discouraged and even persecuted conscience, and sincerity, and all holiness that bore not their mark: whether they never claimed an absolving and damning power, and by it brought men to fear them more than God, to be more afraid of offending them than of committing sin, for which they could so easily pronounce pardon: whether they have always manifested that humility, gentleness and benevolence so well becoming such as spoke in the name of Christ: whether they never used the Holy Gospel to warrant their own anger and ambition or avarice, and in the stile of the Gospel enflamed the mad rage of party: whether they have been equally diligent to make their followers sincere Christians, as warm zealots, Champions for Christ as Champions for Churchmen: whether they promoted knowledge and all religious and rational inquiries without reserve, and taught truth rather than blind submission, rather than the narrow principles of particular factions: whether they have promoted the great blessings of society, civil and religious Liberty, obedience to equal and fixed Laws rather than to the lawless and unsteady will of man, and have always supported Government, when Governors observed the Laws: and whether men who have a holy profession, if in their conduct they be not holy, can be reverenced for their profession which they dishonour, or lead men into all righteousness, without being righteous themselves?
The continual endeavours of so many thousand Teachers in any country, to recommend the beauty and benefit of Religion and Virtue, and to shew the deformity and mischief of evil and immorality, would surely be of vast weight and consequence. But let the number of Teachers be ever so great, small good will ensue, if many exert no endeavours at all, if many do it superficially, like a task which they seem forced to, and not to chuse or delight in.
If they recommend dry and dark speculations, such as are hard to be understood, or if understood, produce no practical duties, and, without mending the heart, only perplex the head; or if they inveigh against such as entertain ideas different from theirs, and provoke people to bitterness towards each other, instead of exhorting them to mutual love and forbearance: If their hearts appear set upon pomp, and gain, and dominion, rather than filled with humility and self-denial, and zeal for the souls of men: If they promote ignorance and slavery, persecution and discord, and shew anger or favour to men, not according as they are wicked or virtuous, but countenance their own followers however bad, and hate and distress such as only follow the pure dictates of Conscience: If they darken or pervert the Gospel by vain glosses, by false and selfish comments, and would oblige all men to submit to these their inventions, though directly opposite to the Gospel and all the ends of the Gospel; small is the wonder that mankind are not mended by such depraved instruction. It is indeed wonderful that, bad as they are, they are not still worse, since it is manifest that over a great part of the earth, and in some of its finest regions, their Instructors are continually deceiving, debasing, blinding, frightening and oppressing them.
In matters of Religion, neither the Greek Church nor the Roman Church allow their people to retain common sense, nor to forgive it in others. For Religion they are taught gibberish, and contradictions, and dreams, and to hate and damn as Atheists, or Heretics, all who are not so blind, and distracted, and slavish as themselves. Their Teachers even assume to sell them the mercy of God and eternal Salvation, at a price, to absolve them from the blackest guilt for money, and for money to disarm the Almighty of his resentment and vengeance. As long as they can pay, they may sin, and are thus encouraged, nay, warranted in eternal immorality. In the Office of the Datary at Rome, sins are taxed according to their several sizes and qualities, and the greatest as well as the least are cancelled by silver and gold; and for iniquities destructive to society and shocking to nature, such as have wealth may find atonement.
Where such or any commutations for sin are allowed and practised, are sins likely to abate, sinners to mend, or Religion to abound, or even to subsist, in any force or purity? I wish nothing like this vile traffic were found in other countries even where Popery is abolished. I doubt a good gift to the Altar, that is, to them who minister there, often passes as an expiation for a multitude of sins; and has it never happened that a bounty to the Church has been strangely pressed upon the consciences of timorous and dying people, as what powerfully opened the gates of Paradise, and was a prevailing antidote against future torments?
One thing seems to be notoriously true of almost all parties in Religion, that men are not esteemed by them according to their real piety and virtue, but according to their blind adherence and party-zeal; and the most worthless or worst men are often caressed and applauded, whilst the soberest and the best are neglected or decried. Thus we have seen very pious Christians hated and traduced as very bad Churchmen, when very base and very profligate men were extolled as excellent Churchmen.
The Gentlemen of Port Royal were, for their Learning and Writings, for their Religion and Virtue, an ornament to the learned world as well as to the Kingdom of France: They were even zealously attached to the Romish Religion. But all this merit saved them not from contumely and persecution, because they had defended the eternal laws of Morality and the Gospel against the execrable maxims and casuistry of the Jesuits, who in their voluminous writings had confounded all Morality and Conscience. For this the Gentlemen of Port Royal were represented as Atheists, Heretics, and enemies to the Church, nay, as enemies to the Government, and thence exposed to all injustice, ill usage, and the frowns of power. The like treatment had the divine Archbishop of Cambray, the immortal Fenelon. When at the same time, the grossest ignorants, the vilest voluptuaries, the most hot-headed bigots, were reckoned excellent Catholics, applauded, and preferred.
What the King of Sardinia has lately done, in taking the education of youth out of the hands of the Jesuits, merits great attention, and is an example to other Princes and States, at least to those of the same communion. It was indeed of high moment, that the publick education should not be directed by an order of men who were continually pursuing an interest directly against the interest of the State; who taught his subjects not so much to reverence the Magistrate, as to reverence Them, not to love or consider the good of the whole, but the good of that Order; who poisoned them with party-maxims destructive of the maxims of society; and instead of instilling the benevolent principles of peace and mutual forbearance, without which all society must be miserable or perish, inspired virulence and eternal hate, and would rather see the State run into ruin and dissolution, than suffer the least variation from their own conceits, however fond, or ridiculous, or wicked. For, it is notorious, that this is the spirit of the Jesuits. I wish it were not the spirit of several other sects and bigots, especially where their bigotry is animated by a passion for power and riches. It seems the Court at Turin is not much disturbed at the threats of the Reverend Fathers to leave the country, but even frankly offers passports to as many as think fit to go.
No body can forget the extraodinary merit and bitter treatment of the late excellent Dr. Clark, his able performances in defence of Christianity, and the restless attempts to ruin him as a bad Churchman. The declaration of Father Canaye the Jesuit to the Marshal D’Hocquincourt, related by St. Evremont, was open and instructtive. The Marshal had said, that he was formerly a Jansenist, but now for the Jesuits, and could be crucified for his Religion, though he knew not why or wherefore. Oh excellent words, blessed motions, says the Jesuit! be crucified for Religion, yet not know why or wherefore! what an extraordinary grace, my Lord, has Heaven bestowed upon you? Estote sicuti infantes: Be as little children: Blessed are the poor in spirit. The good Father liked the Marshal’s zeal the better for being stark blind: so far was he from blaming his ignorance.
Where-ever it is more dangerous to offend the Clergy than to offend God, it is natural for the interest of Religion to decay. For the ignorant and the many, will always incline, nay, probably, be taught to rely more upon Them than upon Him, and to think that if they can but please Them, they cannot displease Him. Where an ill man who conforms, is better used than a good man who dissents, the necessity of being good will not be considered, but the necessity of being conformable, and men will not be so much afraid of sin as of dissenting. When the doing certain actions, which may be done without any devoutness at all, shall yet pass for devotion, many will be apt to think that when they have performed these, they have done all that is required, at least made amends for past iniquities, which they may still cancel, as often as committed, by the like atonement and repetitions, and by a little devotion on one day in the week, calm their conscience about all their failings during the rest.
Thus false zeal is, as it were, a mulct for want of Religion, and passes for Religion; and many other Churchmen besides those of Rome, seem to accept of equivalents in the room of real piety. Were it otherwise, the guides of one sect would love the sober and good men of another sect better than the vicious of their own. They would hate the strictest conformists who wanted virtue, and esteem separatists who had it. But I doubt the constant practice is otherwise in most Churches and Sects. So that the name of Religion is used, but the thing, the essence, is often turned into faction and party, and lost in the endless passions of men. They all talk of Christ and Paul, and appeal to them. Perhaps it is well for many that they are not yet called upon by either to make good their appeals. Nay, were Christ or Paul to return to the earth under their former characters, I fear their reception, in many countries, would not be better than it was in Judæa.
This Section, as well as the whole Discourse grows too long, though much more might be said. I shall make but one observation more, namely, upon the strange inconsistency which has sometimes appeared in the notions of some great and venerable Doctors about evil and sin; I mean how they could be vehement against peccadillos, against follies and frailties, which were of little consequence, and for which perhaps they had no relish, yet could often, at the same time, go deliberately, nay, zealously, into apparent measures of public oppression, or of public tumults and war; could assist and sanctify the most enormous, the most dreadful, the most complicated and devouring of all sins, those of Tyranny and Rebellion; could declaim terribly against profane swearing, which only hurt him who uttered it, and yet encourage and animate universal Perjury, sometimes in Magistrates, at another time in the people; and be for establishing universal Slavery, or inciting general Revolts, at different times, just as they happened to be pleased or disgusted. For such has been the inconsistency of their behaviour in many countries, and at many times; and, as none have ever proved sorer plagues to righteous Governors, none have been such fell champions for Tyrants. And as to the abuses of Religion, especially such as were gainful, have they ever appeared willing to reform them, or willingly suffered them to be reformed by others? And have not all great and useful Reformations been accomplished by the Laity, and constantly opposed by the public Teachers? Could Religion, the humble and disinterested Religion of the Gospel flourish under such Circumstances, and such Directors?