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The Progress of the Nation page 3


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Religion

The struggles of the church we have sufficiently traced in our recent chapters. With the restoration it came back to full power and possession of Hs revenues and honours, and held them firmly against all rivals till James menaced them with the recall of the Romish hierarchy, when, joining with the alarmed public, it compelled the monarch himself to fly, and continued on its own vantage-ground. The only notice of religious phenomena at this period demanded of us is rather what regards the sects which became conspicuous at this period.

The leading sects, the presbyterians, the independents, and the baptists - then called anabaptists - differed little in their faith. They were all of the Calvinistic school, whilst the episcopal church was already divided by the contending parties of Calvinists and Arminians. We have related at full the struggles of the presbyterians, English and Scotch for the possession of the establishment in England to the exclusion of all other faiths; the triumph of the independents, with more liberal views, through Cromwell and the army, and the expulsion of both these parties from the national pulpits following on the restoration. The baptists, though many of them were high in the army and the state during the commonwealth, never displayed the political ambition of the other two great denominations. They cut, indeed, no figure in the secular affairs of the nation, but they were most honourably distinguished by their assertion of the right of private opinion. They were as tolerant of religious liberty as the independents, or more so, from whom they differed only in their views of the rite of baptism. Their early history in this country was adorned by the appearance in their pulpits of one of the most extraordinary men of modern times - John Bunyan, whose "Pilgrim's Progress" continues to delight all classes of men, and will continue so long as the world stands. Bunyan, who was a tinker by trade, was serving in the parliamentary army at Leicester, at the time of the battle of Naseby; and when Charles I. fled to that town he was ordered out as a sentinel, and his life was saved by another soldier volunteering to take his duty for some cause, who was shot at his post. Bunyan was soon thrown into prison for daring to preach under that liberal monarch, Charles II., as Mr. Hallam paints him, and lay in gaol twelve years and a half, solely because he had a conscience of his own; and was only liberated on the declaration of indulgence by James II. A Mr. Smyth, a clergyman of the church of England, who adopted their faith, was the first to open a chapel for the baptists in London, and, encouraged by his example, others were soon opened, and the views of the denomination soon spread over England and Wales, in later times to be eloquently expounded by Robert Robinson and Robert Hall.

But the most remarkable appearance of a religious body was that of the society of Friends, or, as they soon came to be nick-named, Quakers. We have introduced a short notice of the founder of this sect in defending him against the calumnies of Macaulay. George Fox was born at Drayton, in Leicestershire, in 1624. His father was a weaver, and George was apprenticed to a shoemaker, who also had a little farm. He informs us in his own journal that he preferred the farming, and chiefly devoted himself to it. When he was about nineteen he became deeply impressed with a religious feeling. It was a time when religious discussion was making rapid progress amongst the people from the more general access to the Bible, and many were dissatisfied with the different churches, which seemed too much engaged in attempts at worldly aggrandisement, and at achieving a dominance over each other. George was one of these. In seeking for clear views of religious faith, such as could set his mind at rest, he went to various clergymen of the established church first, but he found no light. One of them bade him take tobacco and sing psalms; and another, Cradock of Coventry, was beginning to speak comfortably to George as they walked in his garden, when the embryo reformer unluckily happened to set his foot on a flower- border, which threw the clergyman into such a rage that the discourse was abruptly brought to an end.

Finding no relief or illumination from professors, as he called them, he very wisely took his Bible, and used to retire into a hollow tree in the fields, where he read and prayed earnestly to God to enlighten his understanding to comprehend the sacred volume, and the genuine will of the Lord. The result was that he came to a clear and steadfast conviction that Christianity was strictly a spiritual thing, having nothing specifically to do with states and governments, with worldly pomp and power, and strivings after mortal honours and high places; that Christ simply and strictly defined it when he said, "My kingdom is not of this world." He saw that it was the grand principle by which the soul of man is intended to be regenerated - born again, in fact, and made fitting to enter into the kingdom of disembodied souls, in the presence of God and his angels. He found himself, in a word, called back from the conflicting views and empty ceremonies of the time to Christianity as it existed amongst the apostles - a perfectly spiritual, and holy, and disinterested thing, embodying the wisdom and the truth of God, and inhabiting, not formal creeds and outward ceremonies, but the heart of man, and thence influencing all his thoughts and actions for good. George perceived that all fixed creeds, all rites and ceremonies, all investments in state power, were but as cobwebs and old rags with which the self-interests and self-love of men had enveloped, encumbered, and degraded it; and he felt himself called to go forth and proclaim this, which he emphatically styled "the truth."

He perceived that he needed no call or authorisation of man for this purpose; that he had the assurance that Christ, according to his promise, had sent the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, into his church to all time, to lead his disciples into all truth. He found the most distinct assurances that the gifts of the Divine Spirit, with all the spiritual powers which Christ had promised to his church, had been conferred on it in the apostles' time, and by them were pronounced as not given to them alone, but to all men in all ages who were willing to receive them. It was therefore evident to him that no authority was required from man for the assumption of the ministry of the Gospel; that none could be given by him for that office; that it was the prerogative of God alone, as was the whole work of regeneration in the human spirit. "Wherever two or three are met together in my name, there will I be in the midst of them." These words of Christ were sufficient for Fox; they were the charter of Christian freedom and independence for ever, which no human power, however high, had any business to interfere with. Whatever men might say to the contrary, the Holy Spirit, and it alone, was the great teacher and guide in the work of genuine religious life. That was "the light which enlighteneth every man which cometh into the world."

This became the grand foundation of Fox's religious system. True Christianity he believed to consist in living close to this Spirit incessantly and perpetually; in opening and keeping open an intimate walk and communion with this divine guide, and monitor, and moulder of the inward disposition and affections. In comparison with this, all outward rites and ceremonies were as dross and dust; and in forming his own system, which he fully believed he was led into by the Spirit, he abandoned all forms but that of simply sitting' down in silence, and waiting for the promised influence of the eternal word. As no other power could sanction a man to stand up and preach, there was an end, if Fox's doctrine became prevalent, of what he called u man- made ministers." As the Divine Spirit had been promised to be in the midst of every congregation of even two or three individuals, and that it should lead them into all truth, in Fox's view there could be no other teacher except such as it should directly influence and inspire.

Now it was evident that here was an axe laid to the root of everything like church dominance, ecclesiastical dictation, and state interference. It was a reversion to the fact of the essential spirituality of Christianity, independent of all outward rites, creeds, and formulas whatever. It revealed a religion which is alive and operative at every hour and in every corner of the universe; in the desert, on the hill-top, in the school, the closet, or the workshop, as fully and as absolutely existent as in any church, chapel, or cathedral whatever. The time was, in Fox's opinion, come "when men," in the words of the Saviour, "should no longer worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem," but that "all men should know God, from the greatest unto the least;" for he "is a spirit, and can be worshipped alone in spirit and in truth."

In Fox's doctrine lay, in fact, the most gigantic revolution in the world of mind which had ever been conceived, and which, spreading beyond the pale of his own society, is yet going on, leavening all forms of Christianity, and more and more imbuing the minds of sincere preachers, religious philosophers, and of the inquiring multitude.

Bancroft, the American historian, says: - "The rise of the people called quakers is one of the most remarkable events in the history of man. It marks the moment when intellectual freedom was claimed unconditionally by the people as an inalienable birthright. It was the consequence of the moral warfare against corruption; the aspiration of the human mind after a perfect emancipation from the long reign of bigotry and superstition. Thus did the mind of George Fox arrive at the conclusion that truth is to be sought by listening to the voice of God in the soul. This principle contained a moral revolution; it established absolute freedom of mind, treading idolatry under foot, and entered the strongest protest against the power of the hierarchy. It was the principle for which Socrates died and Plato suffered; and now that Fox went forth to proclaim it among the people, he was everywhere resisted with vehemence; and priests and professors, magistrates and people, 'swelled against him like the raging waves of the sea.'"

And well they might; for there was no tyranny, imposition, false ambition, or selfishness of any kind – whether wrapped in the lawn of the bishop, the purple of the prince, the ermine of the judge, whether assuming the mask of the priest, or the legislator, or the merchant, or the man in any profession who sought to indulge self at the expense of his neighbour, no rottenness, no stubble or chaff in the human system of cunning forms and pretences - which this all-searching principle did not go to hurl down, expose to scorn, and blow away from the face of society. Despotism, slavery, war, tyranny of all kinds and hues fell before it. Nor are we to seek for the full effects of this principle within the narrow limits of the society which continues to own Fox as its founder. That society soon became influenced by the world around it; and the very means which Fox had adopted to cut them off from the world, by making them rich brought the spirit of the world in upon them in a flood; but the great principle - that the Divine Spirit must be and is the only and hourly teacher of the human soul, displaying there the uncompromising moral laws developed in the Gospel - has overleaped these narrow bounds, and is going on conquering and to conquer. It is now frequently remarked that Fox taught only what almost every Christian minister now acknowledges; but what was it in Fox's time? Where can we point to any one denomination which so fully and unequivocally based all religion on the direct teaching of the Divine Spirit, and so completely abandoned all forms and ceremonies as being neither part nor parcel of this divine work? Even the advanced and enlightened independents were willing in Cromwell's time to accept state pulpits and state pay for preaching the Gospel - a thing, in Fox's opinion, holy and unpurchasable, and which must stand apart from all mere human props and establishments. How many yet actually believe in the direct and conscious teaching and communion of the Holy Spirit? With Fox it was no principle of mere faith, but a thing of consciousness, and as palpable as his own bodily existence. Hence the ridicule which even professing Christians still often cast on the doctrine of "the Spirit moving the quakers," and of "the illuminating aid of the Holy Spirit, as Fox imagined says Knight's History - as it yet it was folly to believe that the; Holy Spirit is that which enlighteneth every man, and leads into all truth; or that the words of Christ to his disciples,! "It is not you who speak, but your Father who speaketh in you," were more than a myth or a figure of speech.

Fox carried his great Christian test into every act and department of life. He was the first to elevate woman to her true place - an intellectual, moral, and political equality with man; basing his principle on the apostolic declaration that male and female are all one in Christ Jesus. Acting on this principle, the women of his society became preachers, and transacted their own affairs of association in their own meetings. He refused to take an oath before a magistrate, because Christ has expressly forbidden his disciples to swear at all under any circumstances; he refused to say "thou" to a poor man, and 44 you " to a rich one, as was then the odious custom; he refused to take off his hat as a mark of homage to the wealthy and great, on the same principle that it was a custom of pride and invidious distinction; and he addressed prince or magistrate with the respectful boldness which became a man sensible that the only true dignity was the dignity of truth. The sufferings which were brought upon him and his followers by these novel doctrines and practices from all parties were -terrible. Above three thousand of them were imprisoned, even under the more liberal rule of the commonwealth, and as many under Charles II. Their property was spoliated, their meeting-houses pulled down, and their families grossly insulted in their absence. Yet the doctrine spread rapidly, and many eminent men embraced it; amongst others, William Penn, the son of Admiral Penn, and the learned Robert Barclay, who wrote the celebrated vindication of their faith.

At the same time the violent agitation of the period, and the enthusiasm of this new doctrine, led some of Fox's followers into considerable extravagances - perhaps inseparable from such a state of things - which, however, could not affect the scriptural and eternal doctrine of direct divine influence itself, any more than clouds can affect the reality of the sun's rays, though they may intercept them for a moment.

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Pictures for The Progress of the Nation page 3

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