Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

“Political Religionism.”

In Professor Dugald Stewart’s first Dissertation on the Progress of Philosophy, I find this singular and significant term. It has occasioned me to reflect on those contests for religion, in which a particular faith has been made the ostensible pretext, while the secret motive was usually political. The historians, who view in religious wars only religion itself, have written large volumes, in which we may never discover that they have either been a struggle to obtain predominance, or an expedient to secure it. The hatreds of ambitious men have disguised their own purposes, while Christianity has borne the odium of loosening a destroying spirit among mankind; which, had Christianity never existed, would have equally prevailed in human affairs. Of a moral malady, it is not only necessary to know the nature, but to designate it by a right name, that we may not err in our mode of treatment. If we call that religious which we shall find for the greater part is political, we are likely to be mistaken in the regimen and the cure.

Fox, in his “Acts and Monuments,” writes the martyrology of the Protestants in three mighty folios; where, in the third, “the tender mercies” of the Catholics are “cut in wood” for those who might not otherwise be enabled to read or spell them. Such pictures are abridgments of long narratives, but they leave in the mind a fulness of horror. Fox made more than one generation shudder; and his volume, particularly this third, chained to a reading-desk in the halls of the great, and in the aisles of churches, often detained the loiterer, as it furnished some new scene of papistical horrors to paint forth on returning to his fireside. The protestants were then the martyrs, because, under Mary, the protestants had been thrown out of power.

Dodd has opposed to Fox three curious folios, which he calls “The Church History of England,” exhibiting a most abundant martyrology of the catholics, inflicted by the hands of the protestants; who in the succeeding reign of Elizabeth, after long trepidations and balancings, were confirmed into power. He grieves over the delusion and seduction of the black-letter romance of honest John Fox, which he says, “has obtained a place in protestant churches next to the Bible, while John Fox himself is esteemed little less than an evangelist.”1 Dodd’s narratives are not less pathetic: for the situation of the catholic, who had to secrete himself, as well as to suffer, was more adapted for romantic adventures, than even the melancholy but monotonous story of the protestants tortured in the cell, or bound to the stake. These catholics, however, were attempting all sorts of intrigues; and the saints and martyrs of Dodd, to the parliament of England, were only traitors and conspirators!

Heylin, in his history of the Puritans and the Presbyterians, blackens them for political devils. He is the Spagnolet of history, delighting himself with horrors at which the painter himself must have started. He tells of their “oppositions” to monarchical and episcopal government; their “innovations” in the church; and their “embroilments” of the kingdoms. The sword rages in their hands; treason, sacrilege, plunder; while “more of the blood of Englishmen had poured like water within the space of four years, than had been shed in the civil wars of York and Lancaster in four centuries!”

Neal opposes a more elaborate history; where these “great and good men,” the puritans and the presbyterians, “are placed among the reformers;” while their fame is blanched into angelic purity. Neal and his party opined that the protestant had not sufficiently protested, and that the reformation itself needed to be reformed. They wearied the impatient Elizabeth and her ardent churchmen; and disputed with the learned James, and his courtly bishops, about such ceremonial trifles, that the historian may blush or smile who has to record them. And when the puritan was thrown out of preferment, and seceded into separation, he turned into a presbyter. Nonconformity was their darling sin, and their sullen triumph.

Calamy, in four painful volumes, chronicles the bloodless martyrology of the two thousand silenced and ejected ministers. Their history is not glorious, and their heroes are obscure; but it is a domestic tale. When the second Charles was restored, the presbyterians, like every other faction, were to be amused, if not courted. Some of the king’s chaplains were selected from among them, and preached once. Their hopes were raised that they should, by some agreement, be enabled to share in that ecclesiastical establishment which they had so often opposed; and the bishops met the presbyters in a convocation at the Savoy. A conference was held between the high church, resuming the seat of power, and the low church, now prostrate; that is, between the old clergy who had recently been mercilessly ejected by the new, who in their turn were awaiting their fate. The conference was closed with arguments by the weaker, and votes by the stronger. Many curious anecdotes of this conference have come down to us. The presbyterians, in their last struggle, petitioned for indulgence; but oppressors who had become petitioners, only showed that they possessed no longer the means of resistance. This conference was followed up by the Act of Uniformity, which took place on Bartholomew day, August 24, 1652: an act which ejected Calamy’s two thousand ministers from the bosom of the established church. Bartholomew day with this party was long paralleled, and perhaps is still, with the dreadful French massacre of that fatal saint’s day. The calamity was rather, however, of a private than of a public nature. The two thousand ejected ministers were indeed deprived of their livings; but this was, however, a happier fate than what has often occurred in these contests for the security of political power. This ejection was not like the expulsion of the Moriscoes, the best and most useful subjects of Spain, which was a human sacrifice of half a million of men, and the proscription of many Jews from that land of Catholicism; or the massacre of thousands of Huguenots, and the expulsion of more than a hundred thousand by Louis the Fourteenth from France. The presbyterian divines were not driven from their fatherland, and compelled to learn another language than their mother-tongue. Destitute as divines, they were suffered to remain as citizens; and the result was remarkable. These divines could not disrobe themselves of their learning and their piety, while several of them were compelled to become tradesmen: among these the learned Samuel Chandler, whose literary productions are numerous, kept a bookseller’s shop in the Poultry.

Hard as this event proved in its result, it was, however, pleaded, that “It was but like for like.” And that the history of “the like” might not be curtailed in the telling, opposed to Calamy’s chronicle of the two thousand ejected ministers stands another, in folio magnitude, of the same sort of chronicle of the clergy of the Church of England, with a title by no means less pathetic.

This is Walker’s “Attempt towards recovering an Account of the Clergy of the Church of England who were sequestered, harassed, &c., in the late Times.” Walker is himself astonished at the size of his volume, the number of his sufferers, and the variety of the sufferings. “Shall the church,” says he, “not have the liberty to preserve the history of her sufferings, as well as the separation to set forth an account of theirs? Can Dr. Calamy be acquitted for publishing the history of the Bartholomew sufferers, if I am condemned for writing that of the sequestered loyalists?” He allows that “the number of the ejected amounts to two thousand,” and there were no less than “seven or eight thousand of the episcopal clergy imprisoned, banished, and sent a starving,” &c. &c.

Whether the reformed were martyred by the catholics, or the catholics executed by the reformed; whether the puritans expelled those of the established church, or the established church ejected the puritans, all seems reducible to two classes, conformists and non-conformists, or, in the political style, the administration and the opposition. When we discover that the heads of all parties are of the same hot temperament, and observe the same evil conduct in similar situations; when we view honest old Latimer with his own hands hanging a mendicant friar on a tree, and, the government changing, the friars binding Latimer to the stake; when we see the French catholics cutting out the tongues of the protestants, that they might no longer protest; the haughty Luther writing submissive apologies to Leo the Tenth and Henry the Eighth for the scurrility with which he had treated them in his writings, and finding that his apologies were received with contempt, then retracting his retractations; when we find that haughtiest of the haughty, John Knox, when Elizabeth first ascended the throne, crouching and repenting of having written his famous excommunication against all female sovereignty; or pulling down the monasteries, from the axiom that when the rookery was destroyed, the rooks would never return; when we find his recent apologist admiring, while he apologises for, some extraordinary proofs of Machiavelian politics, an impenetrable mystery seems to hang over the conduct of men who profess to be guided by the bloodless code of Jesus. But try them by a human standard, and treat them as politicians, and the motives once discovered, the actions are understood!

Two edicts of Charles the Fifth, in 1555, condemned to death the Reformed of the Low Countries, even should they return to the catholic faith, with this exception, however, in favour of the latter, that they shall not be burnt alive, but that the men shall be beheaded, and the women buried alive! Religion could not, then, be the real motive of the Spanish cabinet, for in returning to the ancient faith that point was obtained; but the truth is, that the Spanish government considered the reformed as rebels, whom it was not safe to re-admit to the rights of citizenship. The undisguised fact appears in the codicil to the will of the emperor, when he solemnly declares that he had written to the Inquisition “to burn and extirpate the heretics,” after trying to make Christians of them, because he is convinced that they never can become sincere catholics; and he acknowledges that he had committed a great fault in permitting Luther to return free on the faith of his safe-conduct, as the emperor was not bound to keep a promise with a heretic. “It is because that I destroyed him not, that heresy has now become strong, which I am convinced might have been stifled with him in its birth.”2 The whole conduct of Charles the Fifth in this mighty revolution was, from its beginning, censured by contemporaries as purely political. Francis the First observed that the emperor, under the colour of religion, was placing himself at the head of a league to make his way to a predominant monarchy. “The pretext of religion is no new thing,” writes the Duke of Nevers. “Charles the Fifth had never undertaken a war against the Protestant princes but with the design of rendering the Imperial crown hereditary in the house of Austria; and he has only attacked the electoral princes to ruin them, and to abolish their right of election. Had it been zeal for the catholic religion, would he have delayed from 1519 to 1549 to arm? That he might have extinguished the Lutheran heresy, which he could easily have done in 1526, but he considered that this novelty would serve to divide the German princes, and he patiently waited till the effect was realised.”3

Good men of both parties, mistaking the nature of these religious wars, have drawn horrid inferences! The “dragonnades” of Louis XIV. excited the admiration of Bruyère; and Anquetil, in his “Esprit de la Ligue,” compares the revocation of the Edict of Nantes to a salutary amputation. The massacre of St. Bartholomew in its own day, and even recently, has found advocates; a Greek professor at the time asserted that there were two classes of protestants in France — political and religious; and that “the late ebullition of public vengeance was solely directed against the former.” Dr. M’Crie, cursing the catholic with a catholic’s curse, execrates “the stale sophistry of this calumniator.” But should we allow that the Greek professor who advocated their national crime was the wretch the calvinistic doctor describes, yet the nature of things cannot be altered by the equal violence of Peter Charpentier and Dr. M’Crie.

This subject of “Political Religionism” is indeed as nice as it is curious; politics have been so cunningly worked into the cause of religion, that the parties themselves will never be able to separate them; and to this moment the most opposite opinions are formed concerning the same events and the same persons. When public disturbances broke out at Nismes on the first restoration of the Bourbons, the protestants, who there are numerous, declared that they were persecuted for religion, and their cry, echoed by their brethren the dissenters, resounded in this country. We have not forgotten the ferment it raised here; much was said, and something was done. Our minister, however, persisted in declaring that it was a mere political affair. It is clear that our government was right on the cause, and those zealous complainants wrong, who only observed the effect; for as soon as the Bourbonists had triumphed over the Bonapartists, we heard no more of those sanguinary persecutions of the protestants of Nismes, of which a dissenter has just published a large history. It is a curious fact, that when two writers at the same time were occupied in a Life of Cardinal Ximenes, Flechier converted the cardinal into a saint, and every incident in his administration was made to connect itself with his religious character; Marsollier, a writer very inferior to Flechier, shows the cardinal merely as a politician. The elegances of Flechier were soon neglected by the public, and the deep interests of truth soon acquired, and still retain, for the less elegant writer the attention of the statesman.

A modern historian has observed that “the affairs of religion were the grand fomenters and promoters of the Thirty Years’ War, which first brought down the powers of the North to mix in the politics of the Southern states.” The fact is indisputable, but the cause is not so apparent. Gustavus Adolphus, the vast military genius of his age, had designed, and was successfully attempting, to oppose the overgrown power of the imperial house of Austria, which had long aimed at an universal monarchy in Europe; a circumstance which Philip IV. weakly hinted at to the world when he placed this motto under his arms —“Sine ipso factum est nihil;” an expression applied to Jesus Christ by St. John!

1 “Fox’s Martyrs,” as the book was popularly called, was often chained to a reading-desk in churches; one is still thus affixed at Cirencester; it thus received equal honour with the Bible.

2 Llorente’s “Critical History of the Inquisition.”

3 Naudé, “Considérations Politiques,” p. 115. See a curious note in Hart’s “Life of Gustavus Adolphus,” ii. 129.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37