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SECTION II. ENTHUSIASM IN DEVOTION.
SECTION IV. ENTHUSIASM THE SOURCE OF HERESY.
SECTION VI. ENTHUSIASTIC PERVERSIONS OF THE DOCTRINE OF A PARTICULAR PROVIDENCE.
SECTION VIII. SKETCH OF THE ENTHUSIASM OF THE ANCIENT CHURCH.
SECTION IX. THE SAME SUBJECT.—INGREDIENTS OF THE ANCIENT MONACHISM.
SECTION X. CONSIDERATIONS ON THE PROBABLE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTIANITY, SUBMITTED TO THOSE WHO MISUSE THE TERM ENTHUSIASM.
Section 5. General Information About Project Gutenberg-tm electronic works.
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Natural History of Enthusiasm, by Isaac Taylor
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Title: Natural History of Enthusiasm
Author: Isaac Taylor
Release Date: November 17, 2017 [eBook #55988]
Character set encoding: UTF-8
***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK NATURAL HISTORY OF ENTHUSIASM***
There are minor differences between the titles of sections and those given in the Table of Contents. A reference to two notes, at the end of the book, has been inserted in the table.
BY ISAAC TAYLOR
… δύο ἐστὶ, τὸ μὲν ἀρετὴ φυσικὴ, τὸ δ' ἡ κυρία.
FROM THE NINTH LONDON EDITION.
NEW YORK: ROBERT CARTER & BROTHERS No. 530 BROADWAY 1859.
The belief that a bright era of renovation, union, and extension, presently awaits the Christian Church, seems to be very generally entertained. The writer of this volume participates in the cheering hope; and it has impelled him to undertake the difficult task of describing, under its various forms, that FICTITIOUS PIETY which hitherto has never failed to appear in times of unusual religious excitement, and which may be anticipated as the probable attendant of a new development of the powers of Christianity.
But while it has been the writer's principal aim to present to the Christian reader, in as distinct a manner as possible, the characters of that specious illusion which too often supplants genuine piety, he has also endeavored so to fix the sense of the term Enthusiasm as to wrest it from those who misuse it to their own infinite damage.
The author would say a word in explanation of his choice of a term in this instance; and of the extent of meaning he has assigned to it. The best that can be done, when matters of mind are under discussion, is to select, from the stores of familiar language, a word which, in its usual sense, approximates more nearly than any other to the abstraction spoken of. To require from an ethical writer more than this, would be to demand that, before he enters upon his subject, he should both renovate the science of mind, and reform his mother tongue: for when things not yet scientifically defined are to be spoken of, it must needs happen that, in proportion to the accuracy with which they are described, there will be apparent occasion for taking exception against the sense imputed to the term employed.
The author proposed it to himself, as his task, to depict, under its principal forms, FICTITIOUS SENTIMENT in matters of religion, including, of course, a consideration of those opinions which seem to be either the parents or the offspring of such artificial sentiments. Having this object before him, he would have thought it a very inauspicious, as well as cumbrous method, to have constructed a many-syllabled phrase of definition, to be used on every page of his essay. Instead of attempting any such laborious accuracy, he has boldly chosen his single term—Enthusiasm; confiding in the good sense and candor of his readers for allowing him a span or two of latitude when employing it in different instances, which seem to come under the same general class.
NATURAL HISTORY OF ENTHUSIASM.
Some form of beauty, engendered by the imagination, or some semblance of dignity or grace, invests almost every object that excites desire. These illusions, if indeed they ought so to be called, serve the purpose of blending the incongruous materials of human nature, and by mediating between body and spirit, reconcile the animal and intellectual propensities, and give dignity and harmony to the character of man. By these unsubstantial impressions it is that the social affections are enriched and enlivened; by these, not less than by the superiority of the reasoning faculties, mankind is elevated above the brute; and it is these that, as the germinating principles of all improvement and refinement, distinguish civilized from savage life.
The constitutional difference between one man and another is to be traced, in great measure, to the quality and vigor of the imagination. Thus it will be found that eminently active and energetic spirits are peculiarly susceptible to those natural exaggerations by which the mind enhances the value of whatever it pursues. At the same time an efficient energy implies always the power of control over such impressions. Yet it is enough that these creations of fancy should be under the command of reason; for good sense by no means demands a rigid scrutiny into the composition or mechanism of common motives, or asks that whatever is not absolutely substantial in the objects of desire should be spurned. He who is not too wise to be happy, leaves the machinery of human nature to accomplish its revolutions unexplored, and is content to hold the mastery over its movements. Whoever, instead of simply repressing the irregularities of the imagination, and forbidding its predominance, would altogether exclude its influence, must either sink far below the common level of humanity, or rise much above it.
The excesses of the imagination are of two kinds; the first is when, within its proper sphere, it gains so great a power that every other affection and motive belonging to human nature is overborne and excluded. It is thus that intellectual or professional pursuits seems sometimes to annihilate all sympathy with the common interests of life, and to render man a mere phantom, except within the particular circle of his favorite objects.
The second kind of excess (one species of which forms the subject of the present work) is of much more evil tendency, and consists in a trespass of the imagination upon ground where it should have little or no influence, and where it can only prevent or disturb the operation of reason and right feeling. Thus, not seldom, it is seen that, on the walks of common life, the sobrieties of good sense, and the counsels of experience, and the obvious motives of interest, and perhaps even the dictates of rectitude, are set at naught by some fiction of an exorbitant imagination, which, overstepping its proper function, invests even the most ordinary objects, either with preposterous charms or with unreal deformities.
Very few minds seem to be altogether free from such constitutional errors of the intellectual sight, which, to a greater or less extent, intercept our view of things as they are. And from the same cause it is that we so greatly miscalculate the amount of happiness or of suffering that belongs to the lot of those around us; which happens, not so much because their actual circumstances are unknown, as because the habitual illusions are not perceived by us amidst which they live. And if the coloring medium through which every man contemplates his own condition were exposed to the eyes of others, the victims of calamity might sometimes be envied; and still oftener would the favorites of fortune become the objects of pity. Or if every one were in a moment to be disenchanted of whatever is ideal in his permanent sensations, every one would think himself at once much less happy, and much more so, than he had hitherto supposed.
The force and extravagance of the imagination is in some constitutions so great, that it admits of no correction from even the severest lessons of experience, much less from the advices of wisdom: the enthusiast passes through life in a sort of happy somnambulency—smiling and dreaming as he goes, unconscious of whatever is real, and busy with whatever is fantastic: now he treads with naked foot on thorns; now plunges through depths; now verges the precipice, and always preserves the same impassible serenity, and displays the same reckless hardihood.
But if the predominance of the imagination do not approach quite so near to the limits of insanity, and if it admit of correction, then the many checks and reverses which belong to the common course of human life usually fray it away from present scenes, and either send it back in pensive recollections of past pleasures, or forwards in anticipation of a bright futurity. The former is, of the two, the safer kind of constitutional error; for as the objects upon which the imagination fixes its gaze, in this case, remain always unchanged, they impart a sort of tranquillity to the mind, and even favor its converse with wisdom; but the visions of hope being variable, and altogether under the command of the inventive faculty, bring with them perpetual agitations, and continually create new excitements. Besides; as these egregious hopes come in their turn to be dispelled by realities, the pensioner upon futurity lives amid the vexations of one who believes himself always plundered; for each day as it comes robs him of what he had fondly called his own. Thus the real ills of life pierce the heart with a double edge.
The propensity of a disordered imagination to find, or to create, some region of fictitious happiness, leads not a few to betake themselves to the fields of intellectual enjoyment, where they may be exempt from the annoyances that infest the lower world. Hence it is that the walks of natural philosophy or abstract science, and of literature, and especially of poetry and the fine arts, are frequented by many who addict themselves to pursuits of this kind, not so much from a genuine impulse of native genius or taste, as from a yearning desire to discover some paradise of delights, where no croaking voice of disappointment is heard, and where adversity has no range or leave of entrance. These intruders upon the realms of philosophy—these refugees from the vexations of common life, as they are in quest merely of solace and diversion, do not often become effective laborers in the departments upon which they enter: their motive possesses not the vigor necessary for continued and productive toil. Or if a degree of ambition happens to be conjoined with the feeble ardor of the mind, it renders them empirics in science, or schemers in mechanics; or they essay their ineptitude upon some gaudy extravagance of verse or picture; or perhaps spend their days in loading folios, shelves, and glass cases with curious lumber of whatever kind most completely unites the qualities of rarity and worthlessness.
Nature has furnished each of the active faculties with a sensibility to pleasure in its own exercise: this sensibility is the spring of spontaneous exertion; and if the intellectual constitution be robust, it serves to stimulate labor, and yet itself observes a modest sobriety, leaving the forces of the mind to do their part without embarrassment. The pleasurable emotion is always subordinate and subservient, never predominant or importunate. But in minds of a less healthy temperament, the emotion of pleasure, and the consequent excitement, is disproportionate to the strength of the faculties. The efficient power of the understanding is therefore overborne, and left in the rear; there is more of commotion than of action; more of movement than of progress; more of enterprise than of achievement.
Such, then, are those who, in due regard both to the essential differences of character, and to the proprieties of language, should be termed Enthusiasts. To apply an epithet which carries with it an idea of folly, of weakness, and of extravagance, to a vigorous mind, efficiently as well as ardently engaged in the pursuit of any substantial and important object, is not merely to misuse a word, but to introduce confusion among our notions, and to put contempt upon what is deserving of respect. Where there is no error of imagination, no misjudging of realities, no calculation which reason condemns, there is no enthusiasm, even though the soul may be on fire with the velocity of its movement in pursuit of its chosen object. If once we abandon this distinction, language will want a term for a well-known and very common vice of the mind; and, from a wasteful perversion of phrases, we must be reduced to speak of qualities most noble and most infirm by the very same designation. If the objects which excite the ardor of the mind are substantial, and if the mode of pursuit be truly conducive to their attainment; if, in a word, all be real and genuine, then it is not one degree more, or even many degrees more, of intensity of feeling that can alter the character of the emotion. Enthusiasm is not a term of measurement, but of quality.
When it is said that enthusiasm is the fault of infirm constitutions, a seeming exception must be made in behalf of a few high-tempered spirits, distinguished by their indefatigable energy, and destined to achieve arduous and hazardous enterprises. That such spirits often exhibit the characters of enthusiasm cannot be denied; for the imagination spurns restraint, and rejects all the sober measurements and calculations of reason, whenever its chosen object is in view; and a tinge, often more than a tinge, of extravagance belongs to every word and action. And yet the exception is only apparent; for although these giants of human nature greatly surpass other men in force of mind, courage, and activity, still the heroic extravagance, and the irregular and ungovernable power which enables them to dare and to do so much, is, in fact, nothing more than a partial accumulation of strength, necessary because the utmost energies of human nature are so small, that, if equally distributed through the system, they would be inadequate to arduous labors. The very same task, which the human hero achieves in the fury and fever of a half-mad enthusiasm, would be performed by a seraph in the perfect serenity of reason. Although, therefore, these vigorous minds are strong when placed in comparison with others, their enthusiasm is in itself a weakness;—a weakness of the species, if not of the individual.
Unless a perpetual miracle were to intercept the natural operation of common causes, religion, not less than philosophy or poetry, will draw enthusiasts within its precincts. Nor, if we recollect on the one hand the fitness of the vast objects revealed in the Scriptures to affect the imagination, and on the other, the wide diffusion of religious ideas, can it seem strange if it be found, in fact, that religious enthusiasts outnumber any other class. It is also quite natural that enthusiastic and genuine religious emotions should be intermingled with peculiar intricacy; since the revelations which give them scope combine, in a peculiar manner, elements of grandeur, of power, and of sublimity (fitted to kindle the imagination), with those ideas that furnish excitement to the moral sentiments.
The religion of the heart, it is manifest, may be supplanted by a religion of the imagination, just in the same way that the social affections are often dislodged or corrupted by factitious sensibilities. Every one knows that an artificial excitement of the kind and tender emotions of our nature may take place through the medium of the imagination. Hence the power of poetry and the drama. But every one must also know that these feelings, how vivid soever and seemingly pure and salutary they may be, and however nearly they may resemble the genuine workings of the soul, are so far from producing the same softening effect upon the character, that they tend rather to indurate the heart. Whenever excitements of any kind are regarded distinctly as a source of luxurious pleasure, then, instead of expanding the bosom with beneficent energy, instead of dispelling the sinister purposes of selfishness, instead of shedding the softness and warmth of generous love through the moral system, they become a freezing centre of solitary and unsocial indulgence; and at length displace every emotion that deserves to be called virtuous. No cloak of selfishness is, in fact, more impenetrable than that which usually envelops a pampered imagination. The reality of woe is the very circumstance that paralyses sympathy; and the eye that can pour forth its flood of commiseration for the sorrows of the romance or the drama, grudges a tear to the substantial wretchedness of the unhappy. Much more often than not, this kind of luxurious sensitiveness to fiction is conjoined with a callousness that enables the subject of it to pass through the affecting occasions of domestic life in immovable apathy:—the heart has become, like that of leviathan, "firm as a stone, yea, hard as a piece of the nether millstone."
This process of perversion and of induration may as readily have place among the religious emotions as among those of any other class; for the laws of human nature are uniform, whatever may be the immediate cause which puts them in action; and a fictitious piety corrupts or petrifies the heart not less certainly than does a romantic sentimentality. The danger attending enthusiasm in religion is not, then, of a trivial sort; and whoever disaffects the substantial matters of Christianity, and seeks to derive from it merely, or chiefly, the gratifications of excited feeling; whoever combines from its materials a paradise of abstract contemplation, or of poetic imagery, where he may take refuge from the annoyances and the importunate claims of common life; whoever thus delights himself with dreams, and is insensible to realities, lives in peril of awaking from his illusions when truth comes too late. The religious idealist sincerely believes himself, perhaps, to be eminently devout; and those who witness his abstraction, his elevation, his enjoyments, may reverence his piety; meanwhile, this fictitious happiness creeps as a lethargy through the moral system, and is rendering him, continually, less and less susceptible of those emotions in which true religion consists.
Nor is this always the limit of the evil; for though religious enthusiasm may sometimes seem a harmless delusion, compatible with amiable feelings and virtuous conduct, it more often allies itself with the malign passions, and then produces the virulent mischiefs of fanaticism. Opportunity may be wanting, and habit may be wanting, but intrinsic qualification for the perpetration of the worst crimes is not wanting to the man whose bosom heaves with religious enthusiasm, inflamed by malignancy. If checks are removed, if incitements are presented, if the momentum of action and custom is acquired, he will soon learn to contemn every emotion of kindness or of pity, as if it were a treason against heaven, and will make it his ambition to rival the achievements, not of heroes, but of fiends. The amenities that have been diffused through society in modern times forbid the overt acts and excesses of fanatical feeling; but the venom still lurks in the vicinity of enthusiasm, and may be quickened in a moment meantime, while smothered and repressed, it gives edge and spirit to those hundred religious differences which are still the opprobrium of Christianity. Whoever, then, admits into his bosom the artificial fire of an imaginative piety, ought first to assure himself that his heart harbors no particle of the poison of ill-will.
The reproach so eagerly propagated by those who make no religious pretensions, against those who do—that their godliness serves them as a cloak of immorality, is, to a great extent, calumnious: it is also, in some measure, founded upon facts, which, though misunderstood and exaggerated, give color to the charge. When professors of religion are suddenly found to be wanting in common integrity, or in personal virtue, no other supposition is admitted by the world than that the delinquent was always a hypocrite; and this supposition is, no doubt, sometimes not erroneous. But much more often his fall has surprised himself not less than others; and is, in fact, nothing more than the natural issue of a fictitious piety, which, though it might hold itself entire under ordinary circumstances, gave way necessarily in the hour of unusual trial. An artificial religion not only fails to impart to the mind the vigor and consistency of true virtue, but withdraws attention from those common principles of honor and integrity which carry worldly men with credit through difficult occasions. The enthusiast is, therefore, of all men, the one who is the worst prepared to withstand peculiar seductions. He possesses neither the heavenly armor of virtue, nor the earthly.
It were an affront to reason, as well as to theology, to suppose that true and universal virtue can rest on any other foundation than the fear and love of God. The enthusiast, therefore, whose piety is fictitious, has only a choice of immoralities, to be determined by his temperament and circumstances. He may become, perhaps, nothing worse than a recluse—an indolent contemplatist, and intellectual voluptuary, shut up from his fellows in the circle of profitless spiritual delights and conflicts. The times are, indeed, gone by when persons of this class might, in contempt of their species, and in idolatry of themselves, withdraw to dens, and hold society only with bats, and make the supreme wisdom to consist in the possession of a long beard, a filthy blanket, and a taste for raw herbs: but the same tastes, animated by the same principles, fail not still to find place of indulgence, even amid the crowds of a city: and the recluse who lives in the world will probably be more sour in temper than the anchoret of the wilderness. An ardent temperament converts the enthusiast into a zealot, who, while he is laborious in winning proselytes, discharges common duties very remissly, and is found to be a more punctilious observer of his creed than of his word. Or, if his imagination be fertile, he becomes a visionary, who lives on better terms with angels and with seraphs than with his children, servants, and neighbors: or he is one who, while he reverences the "thrones, dominions, and powers" of the invisible world, vents his spleen in railing at all "dignities and powers" of earth.
Superstition—the creature of guilt and fear—is an evil almost as ancient as the human family. But Enthusiasm—the child of hope—hardly appeared on earth until after the time when life and immortality had been brought to light by Christianity. Hitherto, a cloud of the thickest gloom had stretched itself out before the eye of man as he trod the sad path to the grave; and though poetry supplied its fictions, and philosophy its surmises, the one possessed little force, and the other could claim no authentication; neither, therefore, had power to awaken the soul. But the Christian revelation not only shed a sudden splendor upon the awful futurity, but brought its revelations to bear upon the minds of men, with all the pressure and intensity of palpable facts. The long slumbering sentiment of immortal hope—a sentiment natural to the human constitution, and chief among its passions—instead of being deluded, as heretofore, by dreams, was thoroughly aroused by the hand and voice of reality; and human nature exhibited a new development of the higher faculties. When therefore, in the second century of the Christian era, various and vigorous forms of an enthusiasm, such as the world had hitherto never known, are seen to start forth on the stage of history, we behold the indications of the presence of Truth, giving an impulse to the human mind both for the better and the worse, which no fictions of sages or poets had ever imparted.
In proportion as the influence of scriptural religion faded, the elder and the younger vice—Superstition and Enthusiasm, joined their forces to deform every principle and practice of Christianity, and in the course of four or five centuries, under their united operations, a faint semblance only of its primeval beauty survived; another period of five hundred years saw Superstition prevail, almost to the extinction, not only of true religion, but of Enthusiasm also; and mankind fell back into a gloom as thick as that of the ancient polytheism. But at length the breath of life returned to the prostrate church, and the accumulated and consolidated evils of many ages were thrown off in a day. Yet as Superstition more than Enthusiasm had spoiled Christianity, she chiefly was recognized as the enemy of religion; and the latter, rather than the former, was allowed to hold a place in the sanctuary after its cleansing. Since that happy period of refreshment and renovation, both vices have had their seasons of recovered influence; but both have been held in check, and their prevalence prevented. At the present time (1828)—we speak of protestant Christendom—the power of superstition is exceedingly small; for the diffusion of general knowledge, and the prevalence of true religion, and not less the influence of the infidel spirit, forbid the advances of an error which must always lean for support on ignorance and fear. Nor, on the other hand, can it be fairly affirmed that ours is eminently or conspicuously an age of religious enthusiasm. Yet, as there are superstitions which still maintain a feeble existence under favor of the respect naturally paid to antiquity, so are there also among us enthusiastic principles and practices, which, having been generated in a period of greater excitement than our own, are preserved as they were received from the fathers; and seem to be in safe course of transmission to the next generation.
But even if it should appear that—excepting individual instances of constitutional extravagance, which it would be absurd, because useless, to make the subject of serious animadversion—enthusiasm is not now justly chargeable upon any body of Christians, there would still be a very sufficient reason for attempting to fix the true import of the term, so long as it is vaguely and contumeliously applied by many to every degree of fervor in religion which seems to condemn their own indifference. Not, indeed, as if there were ground to hope that even the most exact and unexceptionable analysis, or the clearest definitions, would ever avail so to distinguish genuine from spurious piety as should compel irreligious men to acknowledge that the difference is real; for such persons feel it to be indispensable to the slumber of conscience to confound the one with the other; and although a thousand times refuted, they will again, when pressed by truth and reason, run to the old and crazy sophism which pretends that, because Christianity is sometimes disfigured by enthusiasts and fanatics, therefore there is neither retribution nor immortality for man. It is the infatuation of persons of a certain character, to live always at variance with wisdom, on account of other men's follies; and this is the deplorable error of those who will see nothing in religion but its corruptions. Nevertheless Truth owes always a vindication of herself to her friends, if not to her enemies; and her sincere friends will not wish to screen their own errors, when this vindication requires them to be exposed.
If, as is implied in some common modes of speaking, enthusiasm were only an error in degree, or a mere fault by excess, then the attempt to establish a definite distinction between what is blameworthy and what is commendable in the religious affections—between the maximum and minimum of emotion which sobriety approves, must be both hopeless and fruitless; inasmuch as we should need a scale adapted to every man's constitution; for the very same amount of fervor which may be only natural and proper to one mind, could not be attained by another without delirium or insanity. If this notion were just, every one would be entitled to repel the charge of either apathy or enthusiasm; and while one might maintain, that if he were to admit into his bosom a single degree more of religious fervor than he actually feels, he should become an enthusiast, another might offer an equally reasonable apology for the wildest extravagances. At this rate the real offenders against sober piety could never be convicted of their fault; and in allowing such a principle we should only authenticate the scorn with which indifference loves to look upon sincerity.
That the error of the enthusiast does not consist in an excess merely of the religious emotions, might be argued conclusively on the ground that the Scriptures, our only safe guide on such points, while they are replete with the language of impassioned devotion, and while they contain a multitude of urgent and explicit exhortations, tending to stimulate the fervency of prayer, offer no cautions against any such supposed excesses of piety.
But, as matter of fact, nothing is more common than to meet with religionists whose opinions and language are manifestly deformed by enthusiasm, while their devotional feelings are barely tepid: languor, relaxation, apathy, not less than extravagance, characterize their style of piety; and it were quite a ludicrous mistake to warn such persons of the danger of being "religious overmuch." Yet it must be granted that those extremes, in matters of opinion or practice, which sometimes render even torpor conspicuous by its absurdities, have always originated with minds susceptible of high excitement. Enthusiasm, in a concrete form, is the child of vivacious temperaments; but when once produced, it spreads almost as readily through inert, as through active masses, and shows itself to be altogether separable from the ardor or turbulence whence it sprang.
To depict the character of those who are enthusiasts by physical temperament is then a matter of much less importance than to define the errors which such persons propagate; for, in the first place, the originators of enthusiasm are few, and the parties infected by it many; and, in the second, the evil with the latter is incidental, and therefore may be remedied; while with the former, as it is constitutional, it is hardly in any degree susceptible of correction.
The examination of a few principal points will make it evident that a very intelligible distinction may, without difficulty, be established between what is genuine and what is spurious in religious feeling; and when an object so important is before us, we ought not to heed the injudicious, and perhaps sinister, delicacy of some persons who had rather that truth should remain forever sullied by corruptions, and exposed to the contempt of worldlings, than that themselves should be disturbed in their narrow and long-cherished modes of thinking. And yet there may be some lesser misconceptions, perhaps, which it will be more wise to leave untouched than to attempt to correct them at the cost of breaking up habits of thought and modes of speaking connected indissolubly with truths of vital importance. It should also be granted, that, when those explanations or illustrations of momentous doctrines which an exposure of the error of the enthusiast may lead us to propound seem at all to endanger the simplicity of our reliance upon the inartificial declarations of Scripture, they are much better abandoned at once, although in themselves, perhaps, justifiable, than maintained; if in doing so we are seduced from the direct light of revelation into the dim regions of philosophical abstraction.
Christianity has in some short periods of its history been entirely dissociated from philosophical modes of thought and expression; and assuredly it has prospered in such periods. At other times it has scarcely been seen at all, except in the garb of metaphysical discussion, and then it has lost all its vigor and glory. In the present state of the world the primitive insulation of religious truth from the philosophical style is scarcely practicable; nor indeed does it seem so desirable while, happily, we are in no danger of seeing the light of revelation again immured in colleges. But although it is inevitable, and perhaps not to be regretted, that religious subjects, both doctrinal and practical, should, especially in books, admit such generalities, every sober-minded writer will remember that it is not by an intrinsic and permanent necessity, but by a temporary concession to the spirit of the age, that this style is used and allowed. He will moreover bear in mind that the concession leans towards a side of danger, and will therefore always hold himself ready to break off from even the most pleasing or plausible speculation when his Christian instincts, if the phrase may be permitted, give him warning that he is going remote from the vital atmosphere of scriptural truth. Whatever is practically important in religion or morals, may at all times be advanced and argued in the simplest terms of colloquial expression. From the pulpit, perhaps, no other style should at any time be heard; for the pulpit belongs to the poor and to the uninstructed. But the press is not bound by the same conditions, for it is an instrument of knowledge foreign to the authenticated means of Christian instruction. A writer and a layman is no recognized functionary in the Church; he may, therefore, choose his style without violating any rules or proprieties of office.
The most formal and lifeless devotions, not less than the most fervent, are mere enthusiasm, unless it can be ascertained, on satisfactory grounds, that such exercises are indeed efficient means for promoting our welfare. Prayer is impiety, and praise a folly, if the one be not a real instrument of obtaining important benefits, and the other an authorized and acceptable offering to the Giver of all good. But when once these points are determined, and they are necessarily involved in the truth of Christianity, then, whatever improprieties may be chargeable upon the devout, an error of incomparably greater magnitude rests with the undevout. To err in modes of prayer, may be reprehensible; but not to pray, is mad. And when those whose temper is abhorrent to religious services animadvert sarcastically upon the follies, real or supposed, of religionists there is a sad inconsistency in such criticisms, like that which is seen when the insane make ghastly mirth of the manners or personal defects of their friends and keepers.
The doctrine of immortality, as revealed in the Scriptures, gives at once reason and force to devotion; for if the interests of the present life only, in which "one event happeneth to the just and to the unjust," were taken into calculation, the utility of prayer could scarcely be proved, and never be made conspicuous, at least not to the profane. As a matter of feeling, it is the expectation of a more direct and sensible intercourse with the Supreme Being in a future life, that imparts depth and energy to the sentiments which fill the mind in its approaches to the throne of the heavenly majesty. But the man of earth who thinks himself rich when he has enjoyed the delights of seventy summers, and who deems the hope of eternity to be of less value than an hour of riotous sensuality, can never desire to penetrate the veil of second causes, or to "find out the Almighty." Glad to snatch the boons of the present life, he covets no knowledge of the Giver.
Not so those into whose hearts the belief of a future life—of such a future life as Christianity depicts—has entered. They feel that the promised bliss cannot possibly spring from an atheistic satiety of animal or even of intellectual pleasures; but that the substance of it must consist in communion with him who is the source and centre of good. This belief and expectation sheds vigor through the soul while engaged in exercises of devotion; for such employments are known to be the preparatives, and the foretastes, and the earnests, of the expected "fulness of joy." The only idea which the human mind, under its present limitations, can form of a pure and perpetual felicity, free from all elements of decay and corruption, is that which it gathers and compounds from devotional sentiments. In cherishing and expressing these sentiments, it grasps, therefore, the substance of immortal delights, and, by an affinity of the heart, holds fast the unutterable hope set forth in the Scriptures. The Scriptures being admitted as the word of God, this intensity of devotional feelings is exempted from blame or suspicion; nor can it ever be shown that the very highest pitch of such feelings is in itself excessive or unreasonable. The mischiefs of enthusiasm arise, not from the force or fervor, but from the perversion of the religious affections.
The very idea of addressing petitions to him who "worketh all things" according to the counsel of his own eternal and unalterable will, and the enjoined practice of clothing sentiments of piety in articulate forms of language, though these sentiments, before they are invested in words, are perfectly known to the Searcher of hearts, imply that, in the terms and the mode of intercourse between God and man, no attempt is made to lift the latter above his sphere of limited notions and imperfect knowledge. The terms of devotional communion rest even on a much lower ground than that which man, by efforts of reason and imagination, would fain attain to. Prayer, in its very conditions, supposes, not only a condescension of the divine nature to meet the human, but a humbling of the human nature to a lower range than it might reach. But the region of abstract conceptions, of lofty reasonings, of magnificent images, has an atmosphere too subtile to support the health of true piety; and in order that the warmth and vigor of life may be maintained in the heart, the common level of the natural affections is chosen as the scene of intercourse between heaven and earth. In accordance with this plan of devotion, not only does the Supreme conceal himself from our senses, but he reveals in his word barely a glimpse of his essential glories. By some naked affirmations we are indeed secured against false and grovelling notions of the divine nature; but these hints are incidental, and so scanty that every excursive mind goes beyond them in its conceptions of the infinite attributes.
Nor is it only the brightness of the eternal throne that is shrouded from the view of those who are invited to draw near to him that "sitteth thereon;" for the immeasurable distance that separates man from his Maker is carefully veiled by the concealment of the intervening orders of rational beings. Although the fact of such superior existences is clearly affirmed, nothing more than the bare fact is imparted: nor can we misunderstand the reason and necessity of so much reserve; for without it, those free and kindly movements of the heart in which genuine devotion consists, would be overborne by impressions of a kind that belong to the imagination. Distance is known and measured only by the perception of intermediate objects. The traveller who, with weary steps, has passed from one extremity to the other of a continent, and whose memory is fraught with the recollection of the various scenes of the journey, is qualified to attach a distinct idea to the higher terms of measurement; but the notion of extended space formed by those who have never passed the boundary of their native province is vague and unreal. Such are the notions which, with all the aids of astronomy and arithmetic, we form of the distances even of the nearest of the heavenly bodies. But if the traveller who has actually looked upon the ten thousand successive landscapes that lie between the farthest west and the remotest east could, with a sustained effort of memory and imagination, hold all those scenes in recollection, and repeat the voluminous idea with distinct reiteration until the millions of millions were numbered that separate sun from sun; and if the notion thus laboriously obtained could be vividly supported and transferred to the pathless spaces of the universe, then that prospect of distant systems which night opens before us, instead of exciting mild and pleasurable emotions of admiration, would rather oppress the imagination under a painful sense of the so measured interval. If the eye, when it fixes its gaze upon the vault of heaven, could see, in fancy, a causeway arched across the void, and bordered in long series with the hills and plains of an earthly journey—repeated ten thousand and ten thousand times, until ages were spent in the pilgrimage, then would he who possessed such a power of vision hide himself in caverns rather than venture to look up to the terrible magnitude of the starry skies, thus set out in parts before him.
And yet the utmost distances of the material universe are finite; but the disparity of nature which separates man from his Maker is infinite; nor can the interval be filled up or brought under any process of measurement. Nevertheless, in the view of our feeble conceptions, an apparent measurement or filling up of the infinite void would take place, and so the idea of immense separation would be painfully enhanced if distinct vision were obtained of the towering hierarchy of intelligences at the basement of which the human system is founded. Were it indeed permitted to man to gaze upward from step to step, and from range to range of the vast edifice of rational existences, and could his eye attain its summit, and then perceive, at an infinite height beyond that highest platform of created beings, the lowest beams of the eternal throne, what liberty of heart would afterwards be left to him in drawing near to the Father of spirits? How, after such a revelation of the upper world, could the affectionate cheerfulness of earthly worship again take place? Or how, while contemplating the measured vastness of the interval between heaven and earth, could the dwellers thereon come familiarly, as before, to the Hearer of prayer, bringing with them the small requests of their petty interests of the present life? If introduction were had to the society of those beings whose wisdom has accumulated during ages which time forgets to number, and who have lived to see, once and again, the mystery of the providence of God complete its cycles, would not the impression of created superiority oppress the spirit, and obstruct its access to the Being whose excellences are absolute and infinite? Or what would be the feelings of the infirm child of earth, if, when about to present his supplications, he found himself standing in the theatre of heaven, and saw, ranged in a circle wider than the skies, the congregation of immortals? These spectacles of greatness, if laid open to perception, would present such an interminable perspective of glory, and so set out the immeasurable distance between ourselves and the Supreme Being with a long gradation of splendors, that we should henceforward feel as if thrust down to an extreme remoteness from the Divine notice; and it would be hard, or impossible, to retain, with any comfortable conviction, the belief in the nearness of him who is revealed as "a very present help in every time of trouble." But that our feeble spirits may not thus be overborne, or our faith and confidence baffled and perplexed, the Most High hides from our sight the ministries of his court, and, dismissing his train, visits with infinite condescension the lowly abodes of those who fear him, and dwells as a Father in the homes of earth.
Every ambitious attempt to break through the humbling conditions on which man may hold communion with God, must then fail of success; since the Supreme has fixed the scene of worship and converse, not in the skies, but on earth. The Scripture models of devotion, far from encouraging vague and inarticulate contemplations, consist of such utterances of desire, or hope, or love, as seem to suppose the existence of correlative feelings, and indeed of every human sympathy in him to whom they are addressed. And although reason and