The 6th Day of Christmas: Vicesimus Knox on the Christian religion and peace on earth (1793)

Vicesimus Knox

The English anti-war minister Vicesimus Knox (1752-1821) reminded his parishioners in 1793 that the motto of Christianity was the exhortation from the gospel of Saint Luke “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will towards men”:

This gracious proclamation from Heaven announces the great purpose of Jesus Christ, the promotion of piety to God and benevolence to man. It may indeed be called the motto of Christianity. It may form the inscription on its unstained banners, as it advances in its progress, endeavouring to diffuse the blessings of perpetual peace and universal love….

Peace on earth! Alas where is it? amid all our refinement in the modes of cultivated life, all our elegant pleasures, all our boasted humanity, war, that giant fiend, is stalking over empires in garments dropping with the blood of men, shed by men, personally unoffended and unoffending; of men, professing to love as brethren, yet cutting off each other from the land of the living, long before the little time allotted them by nature is elapsed; and increasing beyond measure, all the evils to which man is naturally and morally doomed, at the command of a narrow shortsighted human policy, and an ambition which, considering the calamities it causes, I must call accursed.

The shades of the picture are black as death, the colouring of blood. No; not all the arts of politicians can veil its shocking deformity, from any eyes but those of the vulgar; the vulgar, I mean, rich as well as poor, titled as well as untitled, swaying sceptres or wielding a spade. By all but the vulgar and the creatures of despotism, offensive war, with all its pompous exterior, must be deprecated as the disgrace and calamity of human nature….

Oh war! thy blood-stained visage cannot be disguised by the politician’s artifice. Thy brilliant vestments are to him who sympathizes with human woe in all climes and conditions, no better than sable mourning; thy melody, doleful discord, the voice of misery unutterable. Decked, like the harlot, in finery not thine own, thou art even the pest of human nature; and in countries where arbitrary power prevails, the last sad refuge of selfish cruel despotism, building its gorgeous palaces on the ruins of those who support its grandeur by their personal labour; and whom it ought to protect and to nourish under the olive shade of peace….

If the Christian religion in all its purity, and in its full force, were suffered to prevail universally, the sword of offensive war must be sheathed for ever, and the din of arms would at last be silenced in perpetual peace. Glorious idea!…

This quotation is part of a series for “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on the theme of “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will towards men” [Luke 2:14]

The radical anti-war English minister Vicesimus Knox got into a lot of trouble with the authorities when he began preaching against the British and other European monarchies' efforts to defeat the new French Republic by force of arms during the 1790s. He reminded them that “the motto of Christianity” had been clearly stated in Luke II, 14, namely “peace on earth and goodwill towards men.” What makes this sermon rise above the sometimes empty homilies about peace which are offered up at Christmas time are his profound moral and political objections to war. Here are some examples.

He begins by noting the hypocrisy of the most enlightened and Christian countries of the world which ignore this basic Christian principle by constantly pursuing a policy of war, “that giant fiend, (which) is stalking over empires in garments dropping with the blood of men, shed by men, personally unoffended and unoffending”.

Young men are deceived by “the politician’s artifice” and are taught by the military “the art of spreading devastation and most expeditiously and effectually destroying those of their fellow-creatures, whom politicians have bade them consider as enemies.” These wars are paid for in the lives and taxes of those who make their living “wielding a spade” or in “the useful employments of mechanic arts”. The young men who fall on the battle fields are “the pale victims of war; poor victims” who are “cut off in this world before their time, in youth and health, like rose-buds cropt in the bud of existence.”

Politicians are constantly defending their actions by claiming that the state is faced with the “political necessity of war” but which Knox calls “a narrow shortsighted human policy” which serves the interest of a small group of political and military leaders.

Knox’s solution is “to compose the differences of nations by negotiation” “in a league of philanthropy” and to return to the Christian ideal of considering “all men under the sun, as united to us by brotherly love, or, as it is termed, fraternity; natural, not political fraternity; the strong tie of one common nature”. In this way Christian principles would come into “full force” and “the sword of offensive war (would) be sheathed for ever, and the din of arms would at last be silenced in perpetual peace.”

Merry Christmas and a Peaceful New Year.