Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

View of a Particular Period of the State of Religion in Our CIVIL Wars.

Looking over the manuscript diary of Sir Symonds D’Ewes, I was struck by a picture of the domestic religious life which at that period was prevalent among families. Sir Symonds was a sober antiquary, heated with no fanaticism, yet I discovered in his diary that he was a visionary in his constitution, macerating his body by private fasts, and spiritualising in search of secret signs. These ascetic penances were afterwards succeeded in the nation by an era of hypocritical sanctity; and we may trace this last stage of insanity and of immorality closing with impiety. This would be a dreadful picture of religion, if for a moment we supposed that it were religion; that consolatory power which has its source in our feelings, and according to the derivation of its expressive term, binds men together. With us it was sectarism, whose origin and causes we shall not now touch on, which broke out into so many monstrous shapes, when every pretended reformer was guided by his own peculiar fancies: we have lived to prove that folly and wickedness are rarely obsolete.

The age of Sir Symonds D’Ewes, who lived through the times of Charles the First, was religious; for the character of this monarch had all the seriousness and piety not found in the bonhomie and careless indecorums of his father, whose manners of the Scottish court were moulded on the gaieties of the French, from the ancient intercourse of the French and Scottish governments. But this religious age of Charles the First presents a strange contrast with the licentiousness which subsequently prevailed among the people: there seems to be a secret connexion between a religious and an irreligious period: the levity of popular feeling is driven to and fro by its reaction; when man has been once taught to contemn his mere humanity, his abstract fancies open a secret bye-path to his presumed salvation; he wanders till he is lost — he trembles till he dotes in melancholy — he raves till truth itself is no longer immutable. The transition to a very opposite state is equally rapid and vehement. Such is the history of man when his religion is founded on misdirected feelings; and such, too, is the reaction so constantly operating in all human affairs.

The writer of this diary did not belong to those nonconformists who arranged themselves in hostility to the established religion and political government of our country. A private gentleman and a phlegmatic antiquary, Sir Symonds withal was a zealous Church of England protestant. Yet amidst the mystical allusions of an age of religious controversies, we see these close in the scenes we are about to open, and find this quiet gentleman tormenting himself and his lady by watching for “certain evident marks and signs of an assurance for a better life,” with I know not how many distinct sorts of “Graces.”

I give an extract from the manuscript diary:—

“I spent this day chiefly in private fasting, prayer, and other religious exercises. This was the first time that I ever practised this duty, having always before declined it, by reason of the papists’ superstitious abuses of it. I had partaken formerly of public fasts, but never knew the use and benefit of the same duty performed alone in secret, or with others of mine own family in private. In these particulars, I had my knowledge much enlarged by the religious converse I enjoyed at Albury Lodge, for there also I shortly after entered upon framing an evidence of marks and signs for my assurance of a better life.

“I found much benefit of my secret fasting, from a learned discourse on fasting by Mr. Henry Mason, and observed his rule, that Christians ought to sit sometimes apart for their ordinary humiliation and fasting, and so intend to continue the same course as long as my health will permit me. Yet did I vary the times and duration of my fasting. At first, before I had finished the marks and signs of my assurance of a better life, which scrutiny and search cost me some three-score days of fasting, I performed it sometimes twice in the space of five weeks, then once each month, or a little sooner or later, and then also I sometimes ended the duties of the day, and took some little food about three of the clock in the afternoon. But for divers years last past, I constantly abstained from all food the whole day. I fasted till supper-time, about six in the evening, and spent ordinarily about eight or nine hours in the performance of religious duties; one part of which was prayer and confession of sins, to which end I wrote down a catalogue of all my known sins, orderly. These were all sins of infirmity; for, through God’s grace, I was so far from allowing myself in the practice and commission of any actual sin, as I durst not take upon me any controversial sins, as usury, carding, dicing, mixt dancing, and the like, because I was in mine own judgment persuaded they were unlawful. Till I had finished my assurance first in English and afterwards in Latin, with a large and an elaborate preface in Latin also to it; I spent a great part of the day at that work, &c.

“Saturday, December 1, 1627, I devoted to my usual course of secret fasting, and drew divers signs of my assurance of a better life from the grace of repentance, having before gone through the graces of knowledge, faith, hope, love, zeal, patience, humility, and joy; and drawing several marks from them on like days of humiliation for the greater part. My dear wife beginning also to draw most certain signs of her own future happiness after death from several graces.

“January 19, 1628. — Saturday I spent in secret humiliation and fastings, and finished my whole assurance to a better life, consisting of three score and four signs, or marks drawn from several graces. I made some small alterations in the signs afterwards; and when I turned them into the Latin tongue, I enriched the margent with further proofs and authorities. I found much comfort and reposedness of spirit from them, which shows the devilish sophisms of the papists, anabaptists, and pseudo-Lutherans, and profane atheistical men, who say that assurance brings forth presumption, and a careless wicked life. True, when men pretend to the end, and not use the means.

“My wife joined with me in a private day of fasting, and drew several signs and marks by my help and assistance, for her assurance to a better life.

This was an era of religious diaries, particularly among the nonconformists; but they were, as we see, used by others. Of the Countess of Warwick, who died in 1678, we are told that “she kept a diary, and took counsel with two persons, whom she called her soul’s friends.” She called prayers heart’s ease, for such she found them. “Her own lord, knowing her hours of prayers, once conveyed a godly minister into a secret place within hearing, who, being a man very able to judge, much admired her humble fervency; for in praying she prayed aloud; but when she did not with an audible voice, her sighs and groans might be heard at a good distance from the closet.” We are not surprised to discover this practice of religious diaries among the more puritanic sort: what they were we may gather from this description of one. Mr. John Janeway “kept a diary, in which he wrote down every evening what the frame of his spirit had been all that day; he took notice what incomes he had, what profit he received in his spiritual traffic: what returns came from that far country; what answers of prayer, what deadness and flatness of spirit,” &c. And so we find of Mr. John Carter, that “He kept a day-book and cast up his accounts with God every day.”1 To such worldly notions had they humiliated the spirit of religion; and this style, and this mode of religion, has long been continued among us even among men of superior acquisitions: as witness the “Spiritual Diary and Soliloquies” of a learned physician within our own times, Dr. Rutty, which is a great curiosity of the kind.

Such was the domestic state of many well-meaning families: they were rejecting with the utmost abhorrence every resemblance to what they called the idolatry of Rome, while, in fact, the gloom of the monastic cell was settling over the houses of these melancholy puritans. Private fasts were more than ever practised; and a lady, said to be eminent for her genius and learning, who outlived this era, declared that she had nearly lost her life through a prevalent notion that no fat person could get to heaven; and thus spoiled and wasted her body through excessive fastings. A quaker, to prove the text that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by the word of God,” persisted in refusing his meals. The literal text proved for him a dead letter, and this practical commentator died by a metaphor. This quaker, however, was not the only victim to the letter of the text; for the famous Origen, by interpreting in too literal a way the 12th verse of the 19th of St. Matthew, which alludes to those persons who become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven, with his own hands armed himself against himself, as is sufficiently known. “Retournons à nos moutons!” The parliament afterwards had both periodical and occasional fasts; and Charles the First opposed “the hypocritical fast of every Wednesday in the month, by appointing one for the second Friday;” the two unhappy parties, who were hungering and thirsting for each other’s blood, were fasting in spite one against the other!

Without inquiring into the causes, even if we thought that we could ascertain them, of that frightful dissolution of religion which so long prevailed in our country, and of which the very corruption it has left behind still breeds in monstrous shapes, it will be sufficient to observe that the destruction of the monarchy and the ecclesiastical order was a moral earthquake, overturning all minds, and opening all changes. A theological logomachy was substituted by the sullen and proud ascetics who ascended into power. These, without wearying themselves, wearied all others, and triumphed over each other by their mutual obscurity. The two great giants in this theological war were the famous Richard Baxter and Dr. Owen. They both wrote a library of books; but the endless controversy between them was the extraordinary and incomprehensible subject, whether the death of Christ was solutio ejusdem, or only tantundem; that is, whether it was a payment of the very thing, which by law we ought to have paid, or of something held by God to be equivalent. Such was the point on which this debate between Owen and Baxter lasted without end.

Yet these metaphysical absurdities were harmless, compared to what was passing among the more hot fanatics, who were for acting the wild fancies which their melancholy brains engendered; men, who from the places into which they had thrust themselves, might now be called “the higher orders of society!” These two parties alike sent forth an evil spirit to walk among the multitude. Every one would become his own law-maker, and even his own prophet; the meanest aspired to give his name to his sect. All things were to be put in motion according to the St. Vitus’s dance of the last new saint. “Away with the Law! which cuts off a man’s legs and then bids him walk!” cried one from his pulpit. “Let believers sin as fast as they will, they have a fountain open to wash them;” declared another teacher. We had the Brownists, from Robert Brown, the Vaneists, from Sir Harry Vane, then we sink down to Mr. Traske, Mr. Wilkinson, Mr. Robinson, and H. N., or Henry Nicholas, of the Family of Love, besides Mrs. Hutchinson, and the Grindletonian family, who preferred “motions to motives,” and conveniently assumed that “their spirit is not to be tried by the Scripture, but the Scripture by their spirit.” Edwards, the author of “Gangræna,” the adversary of Milton, whose work may still be preserved for its curiosity, though immortalised by the scourge of genius, has furnished a list of about two hundred of such sects in these times. A divine of the Church of England observed to a great sectary, “You talk of the idolatry of Rome: but each of you, whenever you have made and set up a calf, will dance about it.”2

This confusion of religions, if, indeed, these pretended modes of faith could be classed among religions, disturbed the consciences of good men, who read themselves in and out of their vacillating creed. It made, at least, even one of the puritans themselves, who had formerly complained that they had not enjoyed sufficient freedom under the bishops, cry out against “this cursed intolerable toleration.” And the fact is, that when the presbyterians had fixed themselves into the government, they published several treatises against toleration! The parallel between these wild notions of reform, and those of another character, run closely together. About this time, well-meaning persons, who were neither enthusiasts from the ambition of founding sects, nor of covering their immorality by their impiety, were infected by the religiosa insania. One case may stand for many. A Mr. Greswold, a gentleman of Warwickshire, whom a Brownist had by degrees enticed from his parish church, was afterwards persuaded to return to it — but he returned with a troubled mind, and lost in the prevalent theological contests. A horror of his future existence shut him out, as it were, from his present one: retiring into his own house, with his children, he ceased to communicate with the living world. He had his food put in at the window; and when his children lay sick, he admitted no one for their relief. His house at length was forced open, and they found two children dead, and the father confined to his bed. He had mangled his Bible, and cut out the titles, contents, and everything but the very text itself; for it seems that he thought that everything human was sinful, and he conceived that the titles of the books and the contents of the chapters were to be cut out of the sacred Scriptures, as having been composed by men.3

More terrible it was when the insanity, which had hitherto been more confined to the better classes, burst forth among the common people. Were we to dwell minutely on this period, we should start from the picture with horror: we might, perhaps, console ourselves with a disbelief of its truth; but the drug, though bitter in the mouth, we must sometimes digest. To observe the extent to which the populace can proceed, disfranchised of law and religion, will always leave a memorable recollection.

What occurred in the French Revolution had happened here — an age of impiety! Society itself seemed dissolved, for every tie of private affection and of public duty was unloosened. Even nature was strangely violated! From the first opposition to the decorous ceremonies of the national church, by the simple puritans, the next stage was that of ridicule, and the last of obloquy. They began by calling the surplice a linen rag on the back; baptism a Christ’s cross on a baby’s face; and the organ was likened to the bellow, the grunt, and the barking of the respective animals. They actually baptized horses in churches at the fonts; and the jest of that day was, that the Reformation was now a thorough one in England, since our horses went to church.4 St. Paul’s cathedral was turned into a market, and the aisles, the communion-table, and the altar, served for the foulest purposes.5 The liberty which every one now assumed of delivering his own opinions, led to acts so execrable, that I can find no parallel for them except in the mad times of the French Revolution. Some maintained that there existed no distinction between moral good and moral evil; and that every man’s actions were prompted by the Creator. Prostitution was professed as a religious act; a glazier was declared to be a prophet, and the woman he cohabited with was said to be ready to lie in of the Messiah. A man married his father’s wife. Murders of the most extraordinary nature were occurring; one woman crucified her mother; another, in imitation of Abraham, sacrificed her child; we hear, too, of parricides. Amidst the slaughters of civil wars, spoil and blood had accustomed the people to contemplate the most horrible scenes. One madman of the many, we find drinking a health on his knees, in the midst of a town, “to the devil! that it might be said that his family should not be extinct without doing some infamous act.” A Scotchman, one Alexander Agnew, commonly called “Jock of broad Scotland,” whom one cannot call an atheist, for he does not seem to deny the existence of the Creator, nor a future state, had a shrewdness of local humour in his strange notions. Omitting some offensive things, others as strange may exhibit the state to which the reaction of an hypocritical system of religion had driven the common people. “Jock of broad Scotland” said he was nothing in God’s common, for God had given him nothing; he was no more obliged to God than to the devil; for God was very greedy. Neither God nor the devil gave the fruits of the ground; the wives of the country gave him his meat. When asked wherein he believed, he answered, “He believed in white meal, water, and salt. Christ was not God; for he came into the world after it was made, and died as other men.” He declared that “he did not know whether God or the devil had the greatest power; but he thought the devil was the greatest. When I die, let God and the devil strive for my soul, and let him that is strongest take it.” He no doubt had been taught by the presbytery to mock religious rites; and when desired to give God thanks for his meat, he said, “Take a sackful of prayers to the mill and grind them, and take your breakfast of them.” To others he said, “I will give you a two-pence, to pray until a boll of meal, and one stone of butter, fall from heaven through the house rigging (roof) to you.” When bread and cheese were laid on the ground by him, he said, “If I leave this, I will long cry to God before he give it me again.” To others he said, “Take a bannock, and break it in two, and lay down one half thereof, and you will long pray to God before he will put the other half to it again!” He seems to have been an anti-trinitarian. He said he received everything from nature, which had ever reigned and ever would. He would not conform to any religious system, nor name the three Persons — “At all these things I have long shaken my cap,” he said. “Jock of broad Scotland” seems to have been one of those who imagine that God should have furnished them with bannocks ready baked.

The extravagant fervour then working in the minds of the people is marked by the story told by Clement Walker of the soldier who entered a church with a lantern and a candle burning in it, and in the other hand four candles not lighted. He said he came to deliver his message from God, and show it by these types of candles. Driven into the churchyard, and the wind blowing strong, he could not kindle his candles, and the new prophet was awkwardly compelled to conclude his five denouncements, abolishing the Sabbath, tithes, ministers, magistrates, and, at last, the Bible itself, without putting out each candle, as he could not kindle them; observing, however, each time —“And here I should put out the first light, but the wind is so high that I cannot kindle it.”

A perfect scene of the effects which the state of irreligious society produced among the lower orders I am enabled to give from the manuscript life of John Shaw, vicar of Rotherham; with a little tediousness, but with infinite naïveté, he relates what happened to himself. This honest divine was puritanically inclined, but there can be no exaggeration in these unvarnished facts. He tells a remarkable story of the state of religious knowledge in Lancashire, at a place called Cartmel: some of the people appeared desirous of religious instruction, declaring that they were without any minister, and had entirely neglected every religious rite, and therefore pressed him to quit his situation at Lymm for a short period. He may now tell his own story.

“I found a very large spacious church, scarce any seats in it; a people very ignorant, and yet willing to learn; so as I had frequently some thousands of hearers, I catechised in season and out of season. The churches were so thronged at nine in the morning, that I had much ado to get to the pulpit. One day, an old man about sixty, sensible enough in other things, and living in the parish of Cartmel, coming to me on some business, I told him that he belonged to my care and charge, and I desired to be informed of his knowledge in religion. I asked him how many Gods there were? He said he knew not. I informing him, asked again how he thought to be saved? He answered he could not tell. Yet thought that was a harder question than the other. I told him that the way to salvation was by Jesus Christ, God-man, who as he was man shed his blood for us on the cross, &c. Oh, sir, said he, I think I heard of that man you speak of once in a play at Kendall, called Corpus-Christ’s play,6 where there was a man on a tree and blood run down, &c. And afterwards he professed he could not remember that he ever heard of salvation by Jesus, but in that play.”

The scenes passing in the metropolis, as well as in the country, are opened to us in one of the chronicling poems of George Withers. Our sensible rhymer wrote in November, 1652, “a Darke Lanthorne” on the present subject.

After noticing that God, to mortify us, had sent preachers from the “shop-board and the plough,”

——— Such as we seem justly to contemn,

As making truths abhorred, which come from them;

he seems, however, inclined to think that these self-taught “Teachers and Prophets” in their darkness might hold a certain light within them:

———— Children, fools,

Women, and madmen, we do often meet

Preaching, and threatening judgments in the street,

Yea by strange actions, postures, tones, and cries,

Themselves they offer to our ears and eyes

As signs unto this nation. ——

They act as men in ecstacies have done ——

Striving their cloudy visions to declare,

Till they have lost the notions which they had,

And want but few degrees of being mad.7

Such is the picture of the folly and of the wickedness, which, after having been preceded by the piety of a religious age, were succeeded by a dominion of hypocritical sanctity, and then closed in all the horrors of immorality and impiety. The parliament at length issued one of their ordinances for “punishing blasphemous and execrable opinions,” and this was enforced with greater power than the slighted proclamations of James and Charles; but the curious wording is a comment on our present subject. The preamble notices that “men and women had lately discovered monstrous opinions, even such as tended to the dissolution of human society, and have abused, and turned into licentiousness, the liberty given in matters of religion.” It punishes any person not distempered in his brains, who shall maintain any mere creature to be God; or that all acts of unrighteousness are not forbidden in the Scriptures; or that God approves of them; or that there is no real difference between moral good and evil, &c.

To this disordered state was the public mind reduced, for this proclamation was only describing what was passing among the people! The view of this subject embraces more than one point, which I leave for the meditation of the politician, as well as the religionist.

1 “The Lives of Sundry Eminent Persons in this Later Age;” by Samuel Clarke. Folio, 1683. A rare volume, with curious portraits.

2 Alexander Ross’s laborious “View of all Religions” may also be consulted with advantage by those who would study this subject.

3 “The Hypocrite Discovered and Cured,” by Sam. Torshall, 4to. 1644.

4 There is a pamphlet which records a strange fact. “News from Powles: or the new Reformation of the army, with a true Relation of a Colt that was foaled in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, in London, and how it was publiquely baptised, and the name (because a bald colt) was called Baal-Rex!” 1649. The water they sprinkled from the soldier’s helmet on this occasion is described. The same occurred elsewhere. See Foulis’s History of the Plots, &c., of our pretended Saints. These men, who baptized horses and pigs in the name of the Trinity, sang psalms when they marched. One cannot easily comprehend the nature of fanaticism, except when we learn that they refused to pay rents!

5 That curious compilation by Bruno Ryves, published in 1646, with the title “Mercurius Rusticus, or the countrie’s complaint of the barbarous outrages committed by the sectaries of this late flourishing kingdom,” furnishes a fearful detail of “sacrileges, profanations, and plunderings committed in the cathedrall churches.”

6 The festival of Corpus Christi, held on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday, was the period chosen in old times for the performances of miracle-plays by the clergy, or the guilds of various towns; for an account of them see vol. i. p. 352-362.

7 There is a little “Treatise of Humilitie, published by E.D. — Parson, sequestered”— 1654; in which, while enforcing the virtue which his book defends, he with much naïveté gives a strong opinion of his oppressors. “We acknowledge the justice and mercy of the Lord in punishing us, so we take notice of his wisdom in choosing such instruments to punish us, men of mean and low rank, and of common parts and abilities. By these he doth admonish all the honourable, valiant, learned, and wise men of this nation; and as it were write our sin, in the character of our punishment; and in the low condition of these instruments of his anger and displeasure, the rod of his wrath, he would abate and punish our great pride.”

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