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Noah Webster on the resilience of common religious practices in the face of attempts by the state to radically change them (1794)

In a sermon given at the height of the French Terror Noah Webster (1758-1843) noted the failure of attempts by the state or established church to change the way ordinary people practised their religion. Whether it was the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Roman Catholic Church, or the Jacobins in Paris, the result was much the same. The ordinary people continued to practise their traditional beliefs with a universal passion for feasting and gift giving:

The Romans had a celebrated festival, called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn; this festival found its way into antient Scandinavia, among our pagan ancestors, by whom it was new-modelled or corrupted, being kept at the winter solstice. The night on which it was kept was called mother-night, as that which produced all the rest; and the festival was called Iuule or Yule. The christians, not being able to abolish the feast, changed its object, gave it the name of Christmas, and kept it in honor of Jesus Christ, altho the ancient name yule was retained in some parts of Scotland, till within a century. … What is the deduction from these facts? This certainly, that men have uniformly had a high veneration for some person or deity real or imaginary: the Romans for Saturn: the Goths for the mother-night of the year; and the christians for the founder of their religion. The christians have the advantage over the pagans in appropriating the feast to a nobler object; but the passion is the same, and the joy, the feasting, and the presents that have marked the festival are nearly the same among pagans and christians.

The history of men is one tissue of facts, confirmatory of their observations. The Egyptians adored certain animals; and to injure a cat in Egypt, was a crime no less enormous than to pull down a liberty cap, to use the christian era, or wear abroad the robes of a priest in France; it was sacrilege. When we are told by credible historians that the Egyptians, when a house was on fire took more pains to save the cats, than the house, we stare and wonder how men could ever be so weak and stupid as to regard a cat, as a sacred animal. But is not the cap of liberty now regarded with a similar veneration? Would not an insult offered to it be resented and call down the vengeance of its votaries? How is this? Why the answer is easy—the Egyptians venerated a cat and a cow, and our modern idolaters venerate a liberty cap. The passion of the Egyptians will be called superstition perhaps; the passion of our people, enthusiasm. But it is the object that is changed, and not the principle. Our people are perpetually exclaiming “Liberty is the goddess we adore,” and a cap is the emblem of this goddess. Yet in fact there is no more connection between liberty and a cap, than between the Egyptian deity Isis, and just notions of God; nor is it less an act of superstition to dance round a cap or a pole in honor of liberty, than it was in Egypt to sacrifice a bullock to Isis.

The Greeks were a learned nation: but they had their Delphic oracles, whose responses were regarded as inspiration. The Romans, were more superstitious, and were governed in public and private affairs, by the appearances of the entrails of beasts, the flight of birds, and other omens. Both these nations were superstitious; that is, they believed their fate to be connected with certain religious rites; they placed confidence in certain supposed deities or events; when in fact there was no connection at all between the cause and effect, but what existed in opinion. The Pythian god in Greece knew nothing of future events; the auspices in Rome had no connection with the fate of those who consulted them, but the people believed in these consultations, and according to the result, were inspired with confidence or depressed with apprehensions. There were philosophers indeed in those enlightened nations who rejected the authority of their divinities. Cicero says, in his days, the Delphic oracle had become contemptible. Demosthenes declared publicly, the oracle had been gained over to the interest of Philip. These and many others were the deists of Greece and Rome; the Humes and Voltaires of antiquity. But they never had the courage or the inclination to abolish the religion of their countrymen—they treated the fabled divinities of their country with more respect than the Jacobin club has paid to the founder of christianity. At the same time, while they indulged their fellow citizens in their own worship, they wrought out of their own imagination, some airy deity; some fine subtle theory of philosophy, which they adored with the superstition of bigots. It is idle, it is false that these philosophers had refined their ideas above all error and fanaticism—they soared above the absurdities of material deities, the lares and penates o