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A History of Freedom of Thought by John Bagnell Bury

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gratuitous remission of sins or imputed righteousness, is as if a man
were to discuss whether a prince was to come on horseback,

[95] or in a chariot, or dressed in white or in red." [1] Religion is a
curse if persecution is a necessary part of it.

For a long time the Socinians and those who came under their influence
when, driven from Poland, they passed into Germany and Holland, were the
only sects which advocated toleration. It was adopted from them by the
Anabaptists and by the Arminian section of the Reformed Church of
Holland. And in Holland, the founder of the English Congregationalists,
who (under the name of Independents) played such an important part in
the history of the Civil War and the Commonwealth, learned the principle
of liberty of conscience.

Socinus thought that this principle could be realized without abolishing
the State Church. He contemplated a close union between the State and
the prevailing Church, combined with complete toleration for other
sects. It is under this system (which has been called jurisdictional)
that religious liberty has been realized in European States. But there
is another and simpler method, that of separating Church from State and
placing all religions on an equality. This was the solution which the
Anabaptists would have preferred. They detested the State; and the
doctrine of religious liberty was not

[96] precious to them. Their ideal system would have been an Anabaptist
theocracy; separation was the second best.

In Europe, public opinion was not ripe for separation, inasmuch as the
most powerful religious bodies were alike in regarding toleration as
wicked indifference. But it was introduced in a small corner of the new
world beyond the Atlantic in the seventeenth century. The Puritans who
fled from the intolerance of the English Church and State and founded
colonies in New England, were themselves equally intolerant, not only to
Anglicans and Catholics, but to Baptists and Quakers. They set up
theocratical governments from which all who did not belong to their own
sect were excluded. Roger Williams had imbibed from the Dutch Arminians
the idea of separation of Church from State. On account of this heresy
he was driven from Massachusetts, and he founded Providence to be a
refuge for those whom the Puritan colonists persecuted. Here he set up a
democratic constitution in which the magistrates had power only in civil
matters and could not interfere with religion. Other towns were
presently founded in Rhode Island, and a charter of Charles II (1663)
confirmed the constitution, which secured to all citizens professing
Christianity, of whatever

[97] form, the full enjoyment of political rights. Non-Christians were
tolerated, but were not admitted to the political rights of Christians.
So far, the new State fell short of perfect liberty. But the fact that
Jews were soon admitted, notwithstanding, to full citizenship shows how
free the atmosphere was. To Roger Williams belongs the glory of having
founded the first modern State which was really tolerant and was based
on the principle of taking the control of religious matters entirely out
of the hands of the civil government.

Toleration was also established in the Roman Catholic colony of
Maryland, but in a different way. Through the influence of Lord
Baltimore an Act of Toleration was passed in 1649, notable as the first
decree, voted by a legal assembly, granting complete freedom to all
Christians. No one professing faith in Christ was to be molested in
regard to his religion. But the law was heavy on all outside this pale.
Any one who blasphemed God or attacked the Trinity or any member of the
Trinity was threatened by the penalty of death. The tolerance of
Maryland attracted so many Protestant settlers from Virginia that the
Protestants became a majority, and as soon as they won political
preponderance, they introduced an Act (1654)

[98] excluding Papists and Prelatists from toleration. The rule of the
Baltimores was restored after 1660, and the old religious freedom was
revived, but with the accession of William III the Protestants again
came into power and the toleration which the Catholics had instituted in
Maryland came to an end.

It will be observed that in both these cases freedom was incomplete; but
it was much larger and more fundamental in Rhode Island, where it had
been ultimately derived from the doctrine of Socinus. [2] When the
colonies became independent of England the Federal Constitution which
they set up was absolutely secular, but it was left to each member of
the Union to adopt Separation or not (1789). If separation has become
the rule in the American States, it may be largely due to the fact that
on any other system the governments would have found it difficult to
impose mutual tolerance on the sects. It must be added that in Maryland
and a few southern States atheists still suffer from some political

In England, the experiment of Separation would have been tried under the
Commonwealth, if the Independents had had their way. This policy was
overruled by Cromwell.

[99] The new national Church included Presbyterians, Independents, and
Baptists, but liberty of worship was granted to all Christian sects,
except Roman Catholics and Anglicans. If the parliament had had the
power, this toleration would have been a mere name. The Presbyterians
regarded toleration as a work of the Devil, and would have persecuted
the Independents if they could. But under Cromwell's autocratic rule
even the Anglicans lived in peace, and toleration was extended to the
Jews. In these days, voices were raised from various quarters advocating
toleration on general grounds. [3] The most illustrious advocate was
Milton, the poet, who was in favour of the severance of Church from

In Milton's Areopagitica: a speech for the liberty of unlicensed
printing (1644), the freedom of the Press is eloquently sustained by
arguments which are valid for freedom of thought in general. It is shown
that the censorship will conduce "to the discouragement of all learning
and the stop of truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our
abilities in what we know already, but by hindering and cropping the
discovery that might be yet further made, both in religious

[100] and civil wisdom." For knowledge is advanced through the utterance
of new opinions, and truth is discovered by free discussion. If the
waters of truth "flow not in a perpetual progression they sicken into a
muddy pool of conformity and tradition." Books which are authorized by
the licensers are apt to be, as Bacon said, "but the language of the
times," and do not contribute to progress. The examples of the countries
where the censorship is severe do not suggest that it is useful for
morals: "look into Italy and Spain, whether those places be one scruple
the better, the honester, the wiser, the chaster, since all the
inquisitional rigour that hath been executed upon books." Spain indeed
could reply, "We are, what is more important, more orthodox." It is
interesting to notice that Milton places freedom of thought above civil
liberty: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely
according to conscience, above all other liberties."

With the restoration of the Monarchy and the Anglican Church, religious
liberty was extinguished by a series of laws against Dissenters. To the
Revolution we owe the Act of Toleration (1689) from which the religious
freedom which England enjoys at present is derived. It granted freedom
of worship to Presbyterians, Congregationalists,

[101] Baptists and Quakers, but only to these; Catholics and Unitarians
were expressly excepted and the repressive legislation of Charles II
remained in force against them. It was a characteristically English
measure, logically inconsistent and absurd, a mixture of tolerance and
intolerance, but suitable to the circumstances and the state of public
opinion at the time.

In the same year John Locke's famous (first) Letter concerning
Toleration appeared in Latin. Three subsequent letters developed and
illustrated his thesis. The main argument is based on the principle that
the business of civil government is quite distinct from that of
religion, that the State is a society constituted only for preserving
and promoting the civil interests of its members --civil interests
meaning life, liberty, health, and the possession of property. The care
of souls is not committed to magistrates more than to other men. For the
magistrate can only use outward force; but true religion means the
inward persuasion of the mind, and the mind is so made that force cannot
compel it to believe. So too it is absurd for a State to make laws to
enforce a religion, for laws are useless without penalties, and
penalties are impertinent because they cannot convince.

Moreover, even if penalties could change

[102] men's beliefs, this would not conduce to the salvation of souls.
Would more men be saved if all blindly resigned themselves to the will
of their rulers and accepted the religion of their country? For as the
princes of the world are divided in religion, one country alone would be
in the right, and all the rest of the world would have to follow their
princes to destruction; "and that which heightens the absurdity, and
very ill suits the notion of a deity, men would owe their eternal
happiness or their eternal misery to the places of their nativity." This
is a principle on which Locke repeatedly insists. If a State is
justified in imposing a creed, it follows that in all the lands, except
the one or few in which the true faith prevails, it is the duty of the
subjects to embrace a false religion. If Protestantism is promoted in
England, Popery by the same rule will be promoted in France. "What is
true and good in England will be true and good at Rome too, in China, or
Geneva." Toleration is the principle which gives to the true faith the
best chance of prevailing.

Locke would concede full liberty to idolaters, by whom he means the
Indians of North America, and he makes some scathing remarks on the
ecclesiastical zeal which forced these "innocent pagans" to forsake

[103] their ancient religion. But his toleration, though it extends
beyond the Christian pale, is not complete. He excepts in the first
place Roman Catholics, not on account of their theological dogmas but
because they "teach that faith is not to be kept with heretics," that
"kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms," and because
they deliver themselves up to the protection and service of a foreign
prince--the Pope. In other words, they are politically dangerous. His
other exception is atheists. "Those are not all to be tolerated who deny
the being of God. Promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of
human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God,
though but even in thought, dissolves all. Besides also, those that by
their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence
of religion to challenge the privilege of a Toleration."

Thus Locke is not free from the prejudices of his time. These exceptions
contradict his own principle that "it is absurd that things should be
enjoined by laws which are not in men's power to perform. And to believe
this or that to be true does not depend upon our will." This applies to
Roman Catholics as to Protestants, to atheists as to deists. Locke,
however, perhaps thought

[104] that the speculative opinion of atheism, which was uncommon in his
day, does depend on the will. He would have excluded from his State his
great contemporary Spinoza.

But in spite of its limitations Locke's Toleration is a work of the
highest value, and its argument takes us further than its author went.
It asserts unrestrictedly the secular principle, and its logical issue
is Disestablishment. A Church is merely "a free and voluntary society."
I may notice the remark that if infidels were to be converted by force,
it was easier for God to do it "with armies of heavenly legions than for
any son of the Church, how potent soever, with all his dragoons." This
is a polite way of stating a maxim analogous to that of the Emperor
Tiberius (above, p. 41). If false beliefs are an offence to God, it is,
really, his affair.

The toleration of Nonconformists was far from pleasing extreme
Anglicans, and the influence of this party at the beginning of the
eighteenth century menaced the liberty of Dissenters. The situation
provoked Defoe, who was a zealous Nonconformist, to write his pamphlet,
The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), an ironical attack upon the
principle of toleration. It pretends to show that the Dissenters are at
heart incorrigible rebels, that a gentle policy is useless, and suggests

[105] that all preachers at conventicles should be hanged and all
persons found attending such meetings should be banished. This
exceedingly amusing but terribly earnest caricature of the sentiments of
the High Anglican party at first deceived and alarmed the Dissenters
themselves. But the High Churchmen were furious. Defoe was fined,
exposed in the pillory three times, and sent to Newgate prison.

But the Tory reaction was only temporary. During the eighteenth century
a relatively tolerant spirit prevailed among the Christian sects and new
sects were founded. The official Church became less fanatical; many of
its leading divines were influenced by rationalistic thought. If it had
not been for the opposition of King George III, the Catholics might have
been freed from their disabilities before the end of the century. This
measure, eloquently advocated by Burke and desired by Pitt, was not
carried till 1829, and then under the threat of a revolution in Ireland.
In the meantime legal toleration had been extended to the Unitarians in
1813, but they were not relieved from all disabilities till the forties.
Jews were not admitted to the full rights of citizenship till 1858.

The achievement of religious liberty in England in the nineteenth
century has been mainly the work of Liberals. The Liberal

[106] party has been moving towards the ultimate goal of complete
secularization and the separation of the Church from the State-- the
logical results of Locke's theory of civil government. The
Disestablishment of the Church in Ireland in 1869 partly realized this
ideal, and now more than forty years later the Liberal party is seeking
to apply the principle to Wales. It is highly characteristic of English
politics and English psychology that the change should be carried out in
this piecemeal fashion. In the other countries of the British Empire the
system of Separation prevails; there is no connection between the State
and any sect; no Church is anything more than a voluntary society. But
secularization has advanced under the State Church system. It is enough
to mention the Education Act of 1870 and the abolition of religious
tests at Universities (1871). Other gains for freedom will be noticed
when I come to speak in another chapter of the progress of rationalism.

If we compare the religious situation in France in the seventeenth with
that in the eighteenth century, it seems to be sharply contrasted with
the development in England. In England there was a great advance towards
religious liberty, in France there was a falling away. Until 1676 the
French Protestants

[107] (Huguenots) were tolerated; for the next hundred years they were
outlaws. But the toleration, which their charter (the Edict of Nantes,
1598) secured them, was of a limited kind. They were excluded, for
instance, from the army; they were excluded from Paris and other cities
and districts. And the liberty which they enjoyed was confined to them;
it was not granted to any other sect. The charter was faithfully
maintained by the two great Cardinals (Richelieu and Mazarin) who
governed France under Louis XIII and Louis XIV, but when the latter
assumed the active power in 1661 he began a series of laws against the
Protestants which culminated in the revoking of the charter (1676) and
the beginning of a Protestant persecution.

The French clergy justified this policy by the notorious text "Compel
them to come in," and appealed to St. Augustine. Their arguments evoked
a defence of toleration by Bayle, a French Protestant who had taken
refuge in Holland. It was entitled a Philosophical Commentary on the
text "Compel them to come in" (1686) and in importance stands beside
Locke's work which was being composed at the same time. Many of the
arguments urged by the two writers are identical. They agreed, and for
the same reasons, in excluding Roman Catholics. The

[108] most characteristic thing in Bayle's treatise is his sceptical
argument that, even if it were a right principle to suppress error by
force, no truth is certain enough to justify us in applying the theory.
We shall see (next chapter) this eminent scholar's contribution to

Though there was an immense exodus of Protestants from France, Louis did
not succeed in his design of extirpating heresy from his lands. In the
eighteenth century, under Louis XV, the presence of Protestants was
tolerated though they were outlaws; their marriages were not recognized
as legal, and they were liable at any moment to persecution. About the
middle of the century a literary agitation began, conducted mainly by
rationalists, but finally supported by enlightened Catholics, to relieve
the affliction of the oppressed sect. It resulted at last in an Edict of
Toleration (1787), which made the position of the Protestants endurable,
though it excluded them from certain careers.

The most energetic and forceful leader in the campaign against
intolerance was Voltaire (see next chapter), and his exposure of some
glaring cases of unjust persecution did more than general arguments to
achieve the object. The most infamous case was that of Jean Calas, a
Protestant merchant of Toulouse, whose son committed suicide. A report

[109] was set abroad that the young man had decided to join the Catholic
Church, and that his father, mother, and brother, filled with Protestant
bigotry, killed him, with the help of a friend. They were all put in
irons, tried, and condemned, though there were no arguments for their
guilt, except the conjecture of bigotry. Jean Calas was broken on the
wheel, his son and daughter cast into convents, his wife left to starve.
Through the activity of Voltaire, then living near Geneva, the widow was
induced to go to Paris, where she was kindly received, and assisted by
eminent lawyers; a judicial inquiry was made; the Toulouse sentence was
reversed and the King granted pensions to those who had suffered. This
scandal could only have happened in the provinces, according to
Voltaire: "at Paris," he says, "fanaticism, powerful though it may be,
is always controlled by reason."

The case of Sirven, though it did not end tragically, was similar, and
the government of Toulouse was again responsible. He was accused of
having drowned his daughter in a well to hinder her from becoming a
Catholic, and was, with his wife, sentenced to death. Fortunately he and
his family had escaped to Switzerland, where they persuaded Voltaire of
their innocence. To get the sentence reversed was the work of nine
years, and this

[110] time it was reversed at Toulouse. When Voltaire visited Paris in
1778 he was acclaimed by crowds as the "defender of Calas and the
Sirvens." His disinterested practical activity against persecution was
of far more value than the treatise on Toleration which he wrote in
connexion with the Calas episode. It is a poor work compared with those
of Locke and Bayle. The tolerance which he advocates is of a limited
kind; he would confine public offices and dignities to those who belong
to the State religion.

But if Voltaire's system of toleration is limited, it is wide compared
with the religious establishment advocated by his contemporary,
Rousseau. Though of Swiss birth, Rousseau belongs to the literature and
history of France; but it was not for nothing that he was brought up in
the traditions of Calvinistic Geneva. His ideal State would, in its way,
have been little better than any theocracy. He proposed to establish a
"civil religion" which was to be a sort of undogmatic Christianity. But
certain dogmas, which he considered essential, were to be imposed on all
citizens on pain of banishment. Such were the existence of a deity, the
future bliss of the good and punishment of the bad, the duty of
tolerance towards all those who accepted the fundamental

[111] articles of faith. It may be said that a State founded on this
basis would be fairly inclusive--that all Christian sects and many deists
could find a place in it. But by imposing indispensable beliefs, it
denies the principle of toleration. The importance of Rousseau's idea
lies in the fact that it inspired one of the experiments in religious
policy which were made during the French Revolution.

The Revolution established religious liberty in France. Most of the
leaders were unorthodox. Their rationalism was naturally of the
eighteenth-century type, and in the preamble to the Declaration of
Rights (1789) deism was asserted by the words "in the presence and under
the auspices of the Supreme Being" (against which only one voice
protested). The Declaration laid down that no one was to be vexed on
account of his religious opinions provided he did not thereby trouble
public order. Catholicism was retained as the "dominant" religion;
Protestants (but not Jews) were admitted to public office. Mirabeau, the
greatest statesman of the day, protested strongly against the use of
words like "tolerance" and "dominant." He said: "The most unlimited
liberty of religion is in my eyes a right so sacred that to express it
by the word 'toleration' seems to me itself a sort of tyranny,

[112] since the authority which tolerates might also not tolerate." The
same protest was made in Thomas Paine's Rights of Man which appeared two
years later: "Toleration is not the opposite of Intolerance, but is the
counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes itself the right
of withholding liberty of conscience, and the other of granting it."
Paine was an ardent deist, and he added: "Were a bill brought into any
parliament, entitled 'An Act to tolerate or grant liberty to the
Almighty to receive the worship of a Jew or a Turk,' or 'to prohibit the
Almighty from receiving it,' all men would startle and call it
blasphemy. There would be an uproar. The presumption of toleration in
religious matters would then present itself unmasked."

The Revolution began well, but the spirit of Mirabeau was not in the
ascendant throughout its course. The vicissitudes in religious policy
from 1789 to 1801 have a particular interest, because they show that the
principle of liberty of conscience was far from possessing the minds of
the men who were proud of abolishing the intolerance of the government
which they had overthrown. The State Church was reorganized by the Civil
Constitution of the Clergy (1790), by which French citizens were
forbidden to acknowledge the authority of the Pope and

[113] the appointment of Bishops was transferred to the Electors of the
Departments, so that the commanding influence passed from the Crown to
the nation. Doctrine and worship were not touched. Under the democratic
Republic which succeeded the fall of the monarchy (1792-5) this
Constitution was maintained, but a movement to dechristianize France was
inaugurated, and the Commune of Paris ordered the churches of all
religions to be closed. The worship of Reason, with rites modelled on
the Catholic, was organized in Paris and the provinces. The government,
violently anti-Catholic, did not care to use force against the prevalent
faith; direct persecution would have weakened the national defence and
scandalized Europe. They naively hoped that the superstition would
disappear by degrees. Robespierre declared against the policy of
unchristianizing France, and when he had the power (April, 1795), he
established as a State religion the worship of the Supreme Being. "The
French people recognizes the existence of the Supreme Being and the
immortality of the Soul"; the liberty of other cults was maintained.
Thus, for a few months, Rousseau's idea was more or less realized. It
meant intolerance. Atheism was regarded as a vice, and "all were
atheists who did not think like Robespierre."


The democratic was succeeded by the middle-class Republic (1795-9), and
the policy of its government was to hinder the preponderance of any one
religious group; to hold the balance among all the creeds, but with a
certain partiality against the strongest, the Catholic, which
threatened, as was thought, to destroy the others or even the Republic.
The plan was to favour the growth of new rationalistic cults, and to
undermine revealed religion by a secular system of education.
Accordingly the Church was separated from the State by the Constitution
of 1795, which affirmed the liberty of all worship and withdrew from the
Catholic clergy the salaries which the State had hitherto paid. The
elementary schools were laicized. The Declaration of Rights, the
articles of the Constitution, and republican morality were taught
instead of religion. An enthusiast declared that "the religion of
Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero would soon be the religion of the

A new rationalistic religion was introduced under the name of
Theophilanthropy. It was the "natural religion" of the philosophers and
poets of the century, of Voltaire and the English deists--not the
purified Christianity of Rousseau, but anterior and superior to
Christianity. Its doctrines, briefly formulated,

[115] were: God, immortality, fraternity, humanity; no attacks on other
religions, but respect and honour towards all; gatherings in a family,
or in a temple, to encourage one another to practise morality. Protected
by the government sometimes secretly, sometimes openly, it had a certain
success among the cultivated classes.

The idea of the lay State was popularized under this rule, and by the
end of the century there was virtually religious peace in France. Under
the Consulate (from 1799) the same system continued, but Napoleon ceased
to protect Theophilanthropy. In 1801, though there seems to have been
little discontent with the existing arrangement, Napoleon decided to
upset it and bring the Pope upon the scene. The Catholic religion, as
that of the majority, was again taken under the special protection of
the State, the salaries of the clergy again paid by the nation, and the
Papal authority over the Church again recognized within well-defined
limits; while full toleration of other religions was maintained. This
was the effect of the Concordat between the French Republic and the
Pope. It is the judgment of a high authority that the nation, if it had
been consulted, would have pronounced against the change. It may be
doubted whether this is true. But Napoleon's policy

[116] seems to have been prompted by the calculation that, using the
Pope as an instrument, he could control the consciences of men, and more
easily carry out his plans of empire.

Apart from its ecclesiastical policies and its experiments in new creeds
based on the principles of rationalistic thinkers, the French Revolution
itself has an interest, in connexion with our subject, as an example of
the coercion of reason by an intolerant faith.

The leaders believed that, by applying certain principles, they could
regenerate France and show the world how the lasting happiness of
mankind can be secured. They acted in the name of reason, but their
principles were articles of faith, which were accepted just as blindly
and irrationally as the dogmas of any supernatural creed. One of these
dogmas was the false doctrine of Rousseau that man is a being who is
naturally good and loves justice and order. Another was the illusion
that all men are equal by nature. The puerile conviction prevailed that
legislation could completely blot out the past and radically transform
the character of a society. "Liberty, equality, and fraternity" was as
much a creed as the Creed of the Apostles; it hypnotized men's minds
like a revelation from on high; and reason had as little part in its
propagation as in the spread

[117] of Christianity or of Protestantism. It meant anything but
equality, fraternity, or liberty, especially liberty, when it was
translated into action by the fanatical apostles of "Reason," who were
blind to the facts of human nature and defied the facts of econnomics.
Terror, the usual instrument in propagating religions, was never more
mercilessly applied. Any one who questioned the doctrines was a heretic
and deserved a heretic's fate. And, as in most religious movements, the
milder and less unreasonable spirits succumbed to the fanatics. Never
was the name of reason more grievously abused than by those who believed
they were inaugurating her reign.

Religious liberty, however, among other good things, did emerge from the
Revolution, at first in the form of Separation, and then under the
Concordat. The Concordat lasted for more than a century, under
monarchies and republics, till it was abolished in December, 1905, when
the system of Separation was introduced again.

In the German States the history of religious liberty differs in many
ways, but it resembles the development in France in so far as toleration
in a limited form was at first brought about by war. The Thirty Years'
War, which divided Germany in the first half

[118] of the seventeenth century, and in which, as in the English Civil
War, religion and politics were mixed, was terminated by the Peace of
Westphalia (1648). By this act, three religions, the Catholic, the
Lutheran, and the Reformed [4] were legally recognized by the Holy Roman
Empire, and placed on an equality; all other religious were excluded.
But it was left to each of the German States, of which the Empire
consisted, to tolerate or not any religion it pleased. That is, every
prince could impose on his subjects whichever of the three religions he
chose, and refuse to tolerate the others in his territory. But he might
also admit one or both of the others, and he might allow the followers
of other creeds to reside in his dominion, and practise their religion
within the precincts of their own houses. Thus toleration varied, from
State to State, according to the policy of each particular prince.

As elsewhere, so in Germany, considerations of political expediency
promoted the growth of toleration, especially in Prussia; and as
elsewhere, theoretical advocates exercised great influence on public
opinion. But the case for toleration was based by its German defenders
chiefly on legal, not, as in

[119] England and France, on moral and intellectual grounds. They
regarded it as a question of law, and discussed it from the point of
view of the legal relations between State and Church. It had been
considered long ago from this standpoint by an original Italian thinker,
Marsilius of Padua (thirteenth century), who had maintained that the
Church had no power to employ physical coercion, and that if the lay
authority punished heretics, the punishment was inflicted for the
violation not of divine ordinances but of the law of the State, which
excluded heretics from its territory.

Christian Thomasius may be taken as a leading exponent of the theory
that religious liberty logically follows from a right conception of law.
He laid down in a series of pamphlets (1693-1697) that the prince, who
alone has the power of coercion, has no right to interfere in spiritual
matters, while the clergy step beyond their province if they interfere
in secular matters or defend their faith by any other means than
teaching. But the secular power has no legal right to coerce heretics
unless heresy is a crime. And heresy is not a crime, but an error; for
it is not a matter of will. Thomasius, moreover, urges the view that the
public welfare has nothing to gain from unity of faith, that it makes no

[120] difference what faith a man professes so long as he is loyal to
the State. His toleration indeed is not complete. He was much influenced
by the writings of his contemporary Locke, and he excepts from the
benefit of toleration the same classes which Locke excepted.

Besides the influence of the jurists, we may note that the Pietistic
movement--a reaction of religious enthusiasm against the formal theology
of the Lutheran divines--was animated by a spirit favourable to
toleration; and that the cause was promoted by the leading men of
letters, especially by Lessing, in the second half of the eighteenth

But perhaps the most important fact of all in hastening the realization
of religious liberty in Germany was the accession of a rationalist to
the throne of Prussia, in the person of Frederick the Great. A few
months after his accession (1740) he wrote in the margin of a State
paper, in which a question of religious policy occurred, that every one
should be allowed to get to heaven in his own way. His view that
morality was independent of religion and therefore compatible with all
religions, and that thus a man could be a good citizen--the only thing
which the State was entitled to demand--whatever faith he might profess,
led to the logical consequence of complete religious liberty. Catholics

[121] were placed on an equality with Protestants, and the Treaty of
Westphalia was violated by the extension of full toleration to all the
forbidden sects. Frederick even conceived the idea of introducing
Mohammedan settlers into some parts of his realm. Contrast England under
George III, France under Louis XV, Italy under the shadow of the Popes.
It is an important fact in history, which has hardly been duly
emphasized, that full religious liberty was for the first time, in any
country in modern Europe, realized under a free-thinking ruler, the
friend of the great "blasphemer" Voltaire.

The policy and principles of Frederick were formulated in the Prussian
Territorial Code of 1794, by which unrestricted liberty of conscience
was guaranteed, and the three chief religions, the Lutheran, the
Reformed, and the Catholic, were placed on the same footing and enjoyed
the same privileges. The system is "jurisdictional"; only, three
Churches here occupy the position which the Anglican Church alone
occupies in England. The rest of Germany did not begin to move in the
direction pointed out by Prussia until, by one of the last acts of the
Holy Roman Empire (1803), the Westphalian settlement had been modified.
Before the foundation of the new Empire (1870), freedom was established
throughout Germany.


In Austria, the Emperor Joseph II issued an Edict of Toleration in 1781,
which may be considered a broad measure for a Catholic State at that
time. Joseph was a sincere Catholic, but he was not impervious to the
enlightened ideas of his age; he was an admirer of Frederick, and his
edict was prompted by a genuinely tolerant spirit, such as had not
inspired the English Act of 1689. It extended only to the Lutheran and
Reformed sects and the communities of the Greek Church which had entered
into union with Rome, and it was of a limited kind. Religious liberty
was not established till 1867.

The measure of Joseph applied to the Austrian States in Italy, and
helped to prepare that country for the idea of religious freedom. It is
notable that in Italy in the eighteenth century toleration found its
advocate, not in a rationalist or a philosopher, but in a Catholic
ecclesiastic, Tamburinni, who (under the name of his friend
Trautmansdorf) published a work On Ecclesiastical and Civil Toleration
(1783). A sharp line is drawn between the provinces of the Church and
the State, persecution and the Inquisition are condemned, coercion of
conscience is declared inconsistent with the Christian spirit, and the
principle is laid down that the sovran should only exercise coercion

[123] the interests of public safety are concerned. Like Locke, the
author thinks that atheism is a legitimate case for such coercion.

The new States which Napoleon set up in Italy exhibited toleration in
various degrees, but real liberty was first introduced in Piedmont by
Cavour (1848), a measure which prepared the way for the full liberty
which was one of the first-fruits of the foundation of the Italian
kingdom in 1870. The union of Italy, with all that it meant, is the most
signal and dramatic act in the triumph of the ideas of the modern State
over the traditional principles of the Christian Church. Rome, which
preserved those principles most faithfully, has offered a steadfast, we
may say a heroic, resistance to the liberal ideas which swept Europe in
the nineteenth century. The guides of her policy grasped thoroughly the
danger which liberal thought meant for an institution which, founded in
a remote past, claimed to be unchangeable and never out of date. Gregory
XVI issued a solemn protest maintaining authority against freedom, the
mediaeval against the modern ideal, in an Encyclical Letter (1832),
which was intended as a rebuke to some young French Catholics (Lamennais
and his friends) who had conceived the promising idea of transforming
the Church by the Liberal spirit

[124] of the day. The Pope denounces "the absurd and erroneous maxim, or
rather insanity, that liberty of conscience should be procured and
guaranteed to every one. The path to this pernicious error is prepared
by that full and unlimited liberty of thought which is spread abroad to
the misfortune of Church and State and which certain persons, with
excessive impudence, venture to represent as an advantage for religion.
Hence comes the corruption of youth, contempt for religion and for the
most venerable laws, and a general mental change in the world--in short
the most deadly scourge of society; since the experience of history has
shown that the States which have shone by their wealth and power and
glory have perished just by this evil-- immoderate freedom of opinion,
licence of conversation, and love of novelties. With this is connected
the liberty of publishing any writing of any kind. This is a deadly and
execrable liberty for which we cannot feel sufficient horror, though
some men dare to acclaim it noisily and enthusiastically." A generation
later Pius IX was to astonish the world by a similar manifesto--his
Syllabus of Modern Errors (1864). Yet, notwithstanding the fundamental
antagonism between the principles of the Church and the drift of modern
civilization, the Papacy survives,

[125] powerful and respected, in a world where the ideas which it
condemned have become the commonplace conditions of life.

The progress of Western nations from the system of unity which prevailed
in the fifteenth, to the system of liberty which was the rule in the
nineteenth century, was slow and painful, illogical and wavering,
generally dictated by political necessities, seldom inspired by
deliberate conviction. We have seen how religious liberty has been
realized, so far as the law is concerned, under two distinct systems,
"Jurisdiction" and "Separation." But legal toleration may coexist with
much practical intolerance, and liberty before the law is compatible
with serious disabilities of which the law cannot take account. For
instance, the expression of unorthodox opinions may exclude a man from
obtaining a secular post or hinder his advancement. The question has
been asked, which of the two systems is more favourable to the creation
of a tolerant social atmosphere? Ruffini (of whose excellent work on
Religious Liberty I have made much use in this chapter) decides in
favour of Jurisdiction. He points out that while Socinus, a true friend
of liberty of thought, contemplated this system, the Anabaptists, whose
spirit was intolerant, sought Separation. More important

[126] is the observation that in Germany, England, and Italy, where the
most powerful Church or Churches are under the control of the State,
there is more freedom, more tolerance of opinion, than in many of the
American States where Separation prevails. A hundred years ago the
Americans showed appalling ingratitude to Thomas Paine, who had done
them eminent service in the War of Independence, simply because he
published a very unorthodox book. It is notorious that free thought is
still a serious hindrance and handicap to an American, even in most of
the Universities. This proves that Separation is not an infallible
receipt for producing tolerance. But I see no reason to suppose that
public opinion in America would be different, if either the Federal
Republic or the particular States had adopted Jurisdiction. Given legal
liberty under either system, I should say that the tolerance of public
opinion depends on social conditions and especially on the degree of
culture among the educated classes.

From this sketch it will be seen that toleration was the outcome of new
political circumstances and necessities, brought about by the disunion
of the Church through the Reformation. But it meant that in those States
which granted toleration the opinion of

[127] a sufficiently influential group of the governing class was ripe
for the change, and this new mental attitude was in a great measure due
to the scepticism and rationalism which were diffused by the Renaissance
movement, and which subtly and unconsciously had affected the minds of
many who were sincerely devoted to rigidly orthodox beliefs; so
effective is the force of suggestion. In the next two chapters the
advance of reason at the expense of faith will be traced through the
seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

[1] Translated by Lecky.

[2] Complete toleration was established by Penn in the Quaker Colony of
Pennsylvania in 1682.

[3] Especially Chillingworth's Religion of Protestants (1637), and
Jeremy Taylor's Liberty of Prophesying (1646).

[4] The Reformed Church consists of the followers of Calvin and Zwingli.




DURING the last three hundred years reason has been slowly but steadily
destroying Christian mythology and exposing the pretensions of
supernatural revelation. The progress of rationalism falls naturally
into two periods. (1) In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries those
thinkers who rejected Christian theology and the book on which it relies
were mainly influenced by the inconsistencies, contradictions, and
absurdities which they discovered in the evidence, and by the moral

[128] difficulties of the creed. Some scientific facts were known which
seemed to reflect on the accuracy of Revelation, but arguments based on
science were subsidiary. (2) In the nineteenth century the discoveries
of science in many fields bore with full force upon fabrics which had
been constructed in a naive and ignorant age; and historical criticism
undermined methodically the authority of the sacred documents which had
hitherto been exposed chiefly to the acute but unmethodical criticisms
of common sense.

A disinterested love of facts, without any regard to the bearing which
those facts may have on one's hopes or fears or destiny, is a rare
quality in all ages, and it had been very rare indeed since the ancient
days of Greece and Rome. It means the scientific spirit. Now in the
seventeenth century we may say (without disrespect to a few precursors)
that the modern study of natural science began, and in the same period
we have a series of famous thinkers who were guided by a disinterested
love of truth. Of the most acute minds some reached the conclusion that
the Christian scheme of the world is irrational, and according to their
temperament some rejected it, whilst others, like the great Frenchman
Pascal, fell back upon an unreasoning act of faith. Bacon, who professed

[129] orthodoxy, was perhaps at heart a deist, but in any case the whole
spirit of his writings was to exclude authority from the domain of
scientific investigation which he did so much to stimulate. Descartes,
illustrious not only as the founder of modern metaphysics but also by
his original contributions to science, might seek to conciliate the
ecclesiastical authorities--his temper was timid-- but his philosophical
method was a powerful incentive to rationalistic thought. The general
tendency of superior intellects was to exalt reason at the expense of
authority; and in England this principle was established so firmly by
Locke, that throughout the theological warfare of the eighteenth century
both parties relied on reason, and no theologian of repute assumed faith
to be a higher faculty.

A striking illustration of the gradual encroachments of reason is the
change which was silently wrought in public opinion on the subject of
witchcraft. The famous efforts of James I to carry out the Biblical
command, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," were outdone by the
zeal of the Puritans under the Commonwealth to suppress the wicked old
women who had commerce with Satan. After the Restoration, the belief in
witchcraft declined among educated people--though

[130] some able writers maintained it--and there were few executions. The
last trial of a witch was in 1712, when some clergymen in Hertfordshire
prosecuted Jane Wenham. The jury found her guilty, but the judge, who
had summed up in her favour, was able to procure the remission of her
sentence; and the laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1735. John
Wesley said with perfect truth that to disbelieve in witchcraft is to
disbelieve in the Bible. In France and in Holland the decline of belief
and interest in this particular form of Satan's activity was
simultaneous. In Scotland, where theology was very powerful, a woman was
burnt in 1722. It can be no mere coincidence that the general decline of
this superstition belongs to the age which saw the rise of modern
science and modern philosophy.

Hobbes, who was perhaps the most brilliant English thinker of the
seventeenth century, was a freethinker and materialist. He had come
under the influence of his friend the French philosopher Gassendi, who
had revived materialism in its Epicurean shape. Yet he was a champion
not of freedom of conscience but of coercion in its most uncompromising
form. In the political theory which he expounded in Leviathan, the
sovran has autocratic power in the domain of doctrine,

[131] as in everything else, and it is the duty of subjects to conform
to the religion which the sovran imposes. Religious persecution is thus
defended, but no independent power is left to the Church. But the
principles on which Hobbes built up his theory were rationalistic. He
separated morality from religion and identified "the true moral
philosophy" with the "true doctrine of the laws of nature." What he
really thought of religion could be inferred from his remark that the
fanciful fear of things invisible (due to ignorance) is the natural seed
of that feeling which, in himself, a man calls religion, but, in those
who fear or worship the invisible power differently, superstition. In
the reign of Charles II Hobbes was silenced and his books were burned.

Spinoza, the Jewish philosopher of Holland, owed a great deal to
Descartes and (in political speculation) to Hobbes, but his philosophy
meant a far wider and more open breach with orthodox opinion than either
of his masters had ventured on. He conceived ultimate reality, which he
called God, as an absolutely perfect, impersonal Being, a substance
whose nature is constituted by two "attributes"-- thought and spatial
extension. When Spinoza speaks of love of God, in which he considered
happiness to consist, he means knowledge

[132] and contemplation of the order of nature, including human nature,
which is subject to fixed, invariable laws. He rejects free-will and the
"superstition," as he calls it, of final causes in nature. If we want to
label his philosophy, we may say that it is a form of pantheism. It has
often been described as atheism. If atheism means, as I suppose in
ordinary use it is generally taken to mean, rejection of a personal God,
Spinoza was an atheist. It should be observed that in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries atheist was used in the wildest way as a term
of abuse for freethinkers, and when we read of atheists (except in
careful writers) we may generally assume that the persons so stigmatized
were really deists, that is, they believed in a personal God but not in
Revelation. [1]

Spinoza's daring philosophy was not in harmony with the general trend of
speculation at the time, and did not exert any profound influence on
thought till a much later period. The thinker whose writings appealed
most to the men of his age and were most opportune and effective was
John Locke, who professed more or less orthodox Anglicanism. His great
contribution to philosophy is equivalent to a very powerful defence

[133] of reason against the usurpations of authority. The object of his
Essay on the Human Understanding (1690) is to show that all knowledge is
derived from experience. He subordinated faith completely to reason.
While he accepted the Christian revelation, he held that revelation if
it contradicted the higher tribunal of reason must be rejected, and that
revelation cannot give us knowledge as certain as the knowledge which
reason gives. "He that takes away reason to make room for revelation
puts out the light of both; and does much what the same as if he would
persuade a man to put out his eyes, the better to receive the remote
light of an invisible star by a telescope." He wrote a book to show that
the Christian revelation is not contrary to reason, and its title, The
Reasonableness of Christianity, sounds the note of all religious
controversy in England during the next hundred years. Both the orthodox
and their opponents warmly agreed that reasonableness was the only test
of the claims of revealed religion. It was under the direct influence of
Locke that Toland, an Irishman who had been converted from Roman
Catholicism, composed a sensational book, Christianity Not Mysterious
(1696). He assumes that Christianity is true and argues that there can
be no mysteries in it, because mysteries, that

[134] is, unintelligible dogmas, cannot be accepted by reason. And if a
reasonable Deity gave a revelation, its purpose must be to enlighten,
not to puzzle. The assumption of the truth of Christianity was a mere
pretence, as an intelligent reader could not fail to see. The work was
important because it drew the logical inference from Locke's philosophy,
and it had a wide circulation. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu met a Turkish
Effendi at Belgrade who asked her for news of Mr. Toland.

It is characteristic of this stage of the struggle between reason and
authority that (excepting the leading French thinkers in the eighteenth
century) the rationalists, who attacked theology, generally feigned to
acknowledge the truth of the ideas which they were assailing. They
pretended that their speculations did not affect religion; they could
separate the domains of reason and of faith; they could show that
Revelation was superfluous without questioning it; they could do homage
to orthodoxy and lay down views with which orthodoxy was irreconcilable.
The errors which they exposed in the sphere of reason were ironically
allowed to be truths in the sphere of theology. The mediaeval principle
of double truth and other shifts were resorted to, in self-protection

[135] against the tyranny of orthodoxy--though they did not always avail;
and in reading much of the rationalistic literature of this period we
have to read between the lines. Bayle is an interesting instance.

If Locke's philosophy, by setting authority in its place and deriving
all knowledge from experience, was a powerful aid to rationalism, his
contemporary Bayle worked in the same direction by the investigation of
history. Driven from France (see above, p. 107), he lived at Amsterdam,
where he published his Philosophical Dictionary. He was really a
freethinker, but he never dropped the disguise of orthodoxy, and this
lends a particular piquancy to his work. He takes a delight in
marshalling all the objections which heretics had made to essential
Christian dogmas. He exposed without mercy the crimes and brutalities of
David, and showed that this favourite of the Almighty was a person with
whom one would refuse to shake hands. There was a great outcry at this
unedifying candour. Bayle, in replying, adopted the attitude of
Montaigne and Pascal, and opposed faith to reason.

The theological virtue of faith, he said, consists in believing revealed
truths simply and solely on God's authority. If you believe in the
immortality of the soul for

[136] philosophical reasons, you are orthodox, but you have no part in
faith. The merit of faith becomes greater, in proportion as the revealed
truth surpasses all the powers of our mind; the more incomprehensible
the truth and the more repugnant to reason, the greater is the sacrifice
we make in accepting it, the deeper our submission to God. Therefore a
merciless inventory of the objections which reason has to urge against
fundamental doctrines serves to exalt the merits of faith.

The Dictionary was also criticized for the justice done to the moral
excellencies of persons who denied the existence of God. Bayle replies
that if he had been able to find any atheistical thinkers who lived bad
lives, he would have been delighted to dwell on their vices, but he knew
of none such. As for the criminals you meet in history, whose abominable
actions make you tremble, their impieties and blasphemies prove they
believed in a Divinity. This is a natural consequence of the theological
doctrine that the Devil, who is incapable of atheism, is the instigator
of all the sins of men. For man's wickedness must clearly resemble that
of the Devil and must therefore be joined to a belief in God's
existence, since the Devil is not an atheist. And is it not a proof of
the infinite wisdom of God that the worst criminals

[137] are not atheists, and that most of the atheists whose names are
recorded have been honest men? By this arrangement Providence sets
bounds to the corruption of man; for if atheism and moral wickedness
were united in the same persons, the societies of earth would be exposed
to a fatal inundation of sin.

There was much more in the same vein; and the upshot was, under the thin
veil of serving faith, to show that the Christian dogmas were
essentially unreasonable.

Bayle's work, marked by scholarship and extraordinary learning, had a
great influence in England as well as in France. It supplied weapons to
assailants of Christianity in both countries. At first the assault was
carried on with most vigour and ability by the English deists, who,
though their writings are little read now, did memorable work by their
polemic against the authority of revealed religion.

The controversy between the deists and their orthodox opponents turned
on the question whether the Deity of natural religion --the God whose
existence, as was thought, could be proved by reason--can be identified
with the author of the Christian revelation. To the deists this seemed
impossible. The nature of the alleged revelation seemed inconsistent
with the character

[138] of the God to whom reason pointed. The defenders of revelation, at
least all the most competent, agreed with the deists in making reason
supreme, and through this reliance on reason some of them fell into
heresies. Clarke, for instance, one of the ablest, was very unsound on
the dogma of the Trinity. It is also to be noticed that with both
sections the interest of morality was the principal motive. The orthodox
held that the revealed doctrine of future rewards and punishments is
necessary for morality; the deists, that morality depends on reason
alone, and that revelation contains a great deal that is repugnant to
moral ideals. Throughout the eighteenth century morality was the guiding
consideration with Anglican Churchmen, and religious emotion, finding no
satisfaction within the Church, was driven, as it were, outside, and
sought an outlet in the Methodism of Wesley and Whitefield.

Spinoza had laid down the principle that Scripture must be interpreted
like any other book (1670), [2] and with the deists this principle was
fundamental. In order to avoid persecution they generally veiled their

[139] under sufficiently thin disguises. Hitherto the Press Licensing
Act (1662) had very effectually prevented the publication of heterodox
works, and it is from orthodox works denouncing infidel opinions that we
know how rationalism was spreading. But in 1695, the Press Law was
allowed to drop, and immediately deistic literature began to appear.
There was, however, the danger of prosecution under the Blasphemy laws.
There were three legal weapons for coercing those who attacked
Christianity: (1) The Ecclesiastical Courts had and have the power of
imprisoning for a maximum term of six months, for atheism, blasphemy,
heresy, and damnable opinions. (2) The common law as interpreted by Lord
Chief Justice Hale in 1676, when a certain Taylor was charged with
having said that religion was a cheat and blasphemed against Christ. The
accused was condemned to a fine and the pillory by the Judge, who ruled
that the Court of King's Bench has jurisdiction in such a case, inasmuch
as blasphemous words of the kind are an offence against the laws and the
State, and to speak against Christianity is to speak in subversion of
the law, since Christianity is "parcel of the laws of England." (3) The
statute of 1698 enacts that if any person educated in the Christian
religion "shall by

[140] writing, printing, teaching, or advised speaking deny any one of
the persons in the Holy Trinity to be God, or shall assert or maintain
there are more gods than one, or shall deny the Christian religion to be
true, or shall deny the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to
be of divine authority," is convicted, he shall for the first offence be
adjudged incapable to hold any public offices or employments, and on the
second shall lose his civil rights and be imprisoned for three years.
This Statute expressly states as its motive the fact that "many persons
have of late years openly avowed and published many blasphemous and
impious opinions contrary to the doctrine and principles of the
Christian religion."

As a matter of fact, most trials for blasphemy during the past two
hundred years fall under the second head. But the new Statute of 1698
was very intimidating, and we can easily understand how it drove
heterodox writers to ambiguous disguises. One of these disguises was
allegorical interpretation of Scripture. They showed that literal
interpretation led to absurdities or to inconsistencies with the wisdom
and justice of God, and pretended to infer that allegorical
interpretation must be substituted. But they meant the reader to reject
their pretended

[141] solution and draw a conclusion damaging to Revelation.

Among the arguments used in favour of the truth of Revelation the
fulfilment of prophecies and the miracles of the New Testament were
conspicuous. Anthony Collins, a country gentleman who was a disciple of
Locke, published in 1733 his Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the
Christian Religion, in which he drastically exposed the weakness of the
evidence for fulfilment of prophecy, depending as it does on forced and
unnatural figurative interpretations. Twenty years before he had written
a Discourse of Free-thinking (in which Bayle's influence is evident)
pleading for free discussion and the reference of all religious
questions to reason. He complained of the general intolerance which
prevailed; but the same facts which testify to intolerance testify also
to the spread of unbelief.

Collins escaped with comparative impunity, but Thomas Woolston, a Fellow
of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, who wrote six aggressive Discourses
on the Miracles of our Saviour (1727--1730) paid the penalty for his
audacity. Deprived of his Fellowship, he was prosecuted for libel, and
sentenced to a fine of L100 and a year's imprisonment. Unable to pay, he
died in prison. He does

[142] not adopt the line of arguing that miracles are incredible or
impossible. He examines the chief miracles related in the Gospels, and
shows with great ability and shrewd common sense that they are absurd or
unworthy of the performer. He pointed out, as Huxley was to point out in
a controversy with Gladstone, that the miraculous driving of devils into
a herd of swine was an unwarrantable injury to somebody's property. On
the story of the Divine blasting of the fig tree, he remarks: "What if a
yeoman of Kent should go to look for pippins in his orchard at Easter
(the supposed time that Jesus sought for these figs) and because of a
disappointment cut down his trees? What then would his neighbours make
of him? Nothing less than a laughing-stock; and if the story got into
our Publick News, he would be the jest and ridicule of mankind."

Or take his comment on the miracle of the Pool of Bethesda, where an
angel used to trouble the waters and the man who first entered the pool
was cured of his infirmity. "An odd and a merry way of conferring a
Divine mercy. And one would think that the angels of God did this for
their own diversion more than to do good to mankind. Just as some throw
a bone among a kennel of hounds for the pleasure of seeing them

[143] quarrel for it, or as others cast a piece of money among a company
of boys for the sport of seeing them scramble for it, so was the pastime
of the angels here." In dealing with the healing of the woman who
suffered from a bloody flux, he asks: "What if we had been told of the
Pope's curing an haemorrhage like this before us, what would Protestants
have said to it? Why, 'that a foolish, credulous, and superstitious
woman had fancied herself cured of some slight indisposition, and the
crafty Pope and his adherents, aspiring after popular applause,
magnified the presumed cure into a miracle.' The application of such a
supposed story of a miracle wrought by the Pope is easy; and if
Infidels, Jews, and Mahometans, who have no better opinion of Jesus than
we have of the Pope, should make it, there's no help for it."

Woolston professed no doubts of the inspiration of Scripture. While he
argued that it was out of the question to suppose the miracles literally
true, he pretended to believe in the fantastic theory that they were
intended allegorically as figures of Christ's mysterious operations in
the soul of man. Origen, a not very orthodox Christian Father, had
employed the allegorical method, and Woolston quotes him in his favour.

[144] vigorous criticisms vary in value, but many of them hit the nail
on the head, and the fashion of some modern critics to pass over
Woolston's productions as unimportant because they are "ribald" or
coarse, is perfectly unjust. The pamphlets had an enormous sale, and
Woolston's notoriety is illustrated by the anecdote of the "jolly young
woman" who met him walking abroad and accosted him with "You old rogue,
are you not hanged yet?" Mr. Woolston answered, "Good woman, I know you
not; pray what have I done to offend you?" "You have writ against my
Saviour," she said; "what would become of my poor sinful soul if it was
not for my dear Saviour?"

About the same time, Matthew Tindal (a Fellow of All Souls) attacked
Revelation from a more general point of view. In his Christianity as old
as the Creation (1730) he undertook to show that the Bible as a
revelation is superfluous, for it adds nothing to natural religion,
which God revealed to man from the very first by the sole light of
reason. He argues that those who defend Revealed religion by its
agreement with Natural religion, and thus set up a double government of
reason and authority, fall between the two. "It 's an odd jumble," he
observes, "to prove the truth of a book by the truth

[145] of the doctrines it contains, and at the same time conclude those
doctrines to be true because contained in that book." He goes on to
criticize the Bible in detail. In order to maintain its infallibility,
without doing violence to reason, you have, when you find irrational
statements, to torture them and depart from the literal sense. Would you
think that a Mohammedan was governed by his Koran, who on all occasions
departed from the literal sense? "Nay, would you not tell him that his
inspired book fell infinitely short of Cicero's uninspired writings,
where there is no such occasion to recede from the letter?"

As to chronological and physical errors, which seemed to endanger the
infallibility of the Scriptures, a bishop had met the argument by
saying, reasonably enough, that in the Bible God speaks according to the
conceptions of those to whom he speaks, and that it is not the business
of Revelation to rectify their opinions in such matters. Tindal made
this rejoinder:--

"Is there no difference between God's not rectifying men's sentiments in
those matters and using himself such sentiments as needs be rectified;
or between God's not mending men's logic and rhetoric where 't is
defective and using such himself; or between God's

[146] not contradicting vulgar notions and confirming them by speaking
according to them? Can infinite wisdom despair of gaining or keeping
people's affections without having recourse to such mean acts?"

He exposes with considerable effect the monstrosity of the doctrine of
exclusive salvation. Must we not consider, he asks, whether one can be
said to be sent as a Saviour of mankind, if he comes to shut Heaven's
gate against those to whom, before he came, it was open provided they
followed the dictates of their reason? He criticizes the inconsistency
of the impartial and universal goodness of God, known to us by the light
of nature, with acts committed by Jehovah or his prophets. Take the
cases in which the order of nature is violated to punish men for crimes
of which they were not guilty, such as Elijah's hindering rain from
falling for three years and a half. If God could break in upon the
ordinary rules of his providence to punish the innocent for the guilty,
we have no guarantee that if he deals thus with us in this life, he will
not act in the same way in the life to come, "since if the eternal rules
of justice are once broken how can we imagine any stop?" But the ideals
of holiness and justice in the Old Testament are strange indeed. The
holier men

[147] are represented to be, the more cruel they seem and the more
addicted to cursing. How surprising to find the holy prophet Elisha
cursing in the name of the Lord little children for calling him Bald-
pate! And, what is still more surprising, two she-bears immediately
devoured forty-two little children.

I have remarked that theologians at this time generally took the line of
basing Christianity on reason and not on faith. An interesting little
book, Christianity not founded on Argument, couched in the form of a
letter to a young gentleman at Oxford, by Henry Dodwell (Junior),
appeared in 1741, and pointed out the dangers of such confidence in
reason. It is an ironical development of the principle of Bayle, working
out the thesis that Christianity is essentially unreasonable, and that
if you want to believe, reasoning is fatal. The cultivation of faith and
reasoning produce contrary effects; the philosopher is disqualified for
Divine influences by his very progress in carnal wisdom; the Gospel must
be received with all the obsequious submission of a babe who has no
other disposition but to learn his lesson. Christ did not propose his
doctrines to investigation; he did not lay the arguments for his mission
before his disciples and give them time to consider

[148] calmly of their force, and liberty to determine as their reason
should direct them; the apostles had no qualifications for the task,
being the most artless and illiterate persons living. Dodwell exposes
the absurdity of the Protestant position. To give all men liberty to
judge for themselves and to expect at the same time that they shall be
of the Preacher's mind is such a scheme for unanimity as one would
scarcely imagine any one could be weak enough to devise in speculation
and much less that any could ever be found hardy enough to avow and
propose it to practice. The men of Rome "shall rise up in the judgment
(of all considering persons) against this generation and shall condemn
it; for they invented but the one absurdity of infallibility, and behold
a greater absurdity than infallibility is here."

I have still to speak of the (Third) Earl of Shaftesbury, whose style
has rescued his writings from entire neglect. His special interest was
ethics. While the valuable work of most of the heterodox writers of this
period lay in their destructive criticism of supernatural religion, they
clung, as we have seen, to what was called natural religion-- the belief
in a kind and wise personal God, who created the world, governs it by
natural laws, and desires our happiness. The idea

[149] was derived from ancient philosophers and had been revived by Lord
Herbert of Cherbury in his Latin treatise On Truth (in the reign of
James I). The deists contended that this was a sufficient basis for
morality and that the Christian inducements to good behaviour were
unnecessary. Shaftesbury in his Inquiry concerning Virtue (1699) debated
the question and argued that the scheme of heaven and hell, with the
selfish hopes and fears which they inspire, corrupts morality and that
the only worthy motive for conduct is the beauty of virtue in itself. He
does not even consider deism a necessary assumption for a moral code; he
admits that the opinion of atheists does not undermine ethics. But he
thinks that the belief in a good governor of the universe is a powerful
support to the practice of virtue. He is a thorough optimist, and is
perfectly satisfied with the admirable adaptation of means to ends,
whereby it is the function of one animal to be food for another. He
makes no attempt to reconcile the red claws and teeth of nature with the
beneficence of its powerful artist. "In the main all things are kindly
and well disposed." The atheist might have said that he preferred to be
at the mercy of blind chance than in the hands of an autocrat who, if he
pleased Lord Shaftesbury's sense

[150] of order, had created flies to be devoured by spiders. But this
was an aspect of the universe which did not much trouble thinkers in the
eighteenth century. On the other hand, the character of the God of the
Old Testament roused Shaftesbury's aversion. He attacks Scripture not
directly, but by allusion or with irony. He hints that if there is a
God, he would be less displeased with atheists than with those who
accepted him in the guise of Jehovah. As Plutarch said, "I had rather
men should say of me that there neither is nor ever was such a one as
Plutarch, than they should say 'There was a Plutarch, an unsteady,
changeable, easily provokable and revengeful man.' " Shaftesbury's
significance is that he built up a positive theory of morals, and
although it had no philosophical depth, his influence on French and
German thinkers of the eighteenth century was immense.

In some ways perhaps the ablest of the deists, and certainly the most
scholarly, was Rev. Conyers Middleton, who remained within the Church.
He supported Christianity on grounds of utility. Even if it is an
imposture, he said, it would be wrong to destroy it. For it is
established by law and it has a long tradition behind it. Some
traditional religion is necessary and it would

[151] be hopeless to supplant Christianity by reason. But his writings
contain effective arguments which go to undermine Revelation. The most
important was his Free Inquiry into Christian miracles (1748), which put
in a new and dangerous light an old question: At what time did the
Church cease to have the power of performing miracles? We shall see
presently how Gibbon applied Middleton's method.

The leading adversaries of the deists appealed, like them, to reason,
and, in appealing to reason, did much to undermine authority. The ablest
defence of the faith, Bishop Butler's Analogy (1736), is suspected of
having raised more doubts than it appeased. This was the experience of
William Pitt the Younger, and the Analogy made James Mill (the
utilitarian) an unbeliever. The deists, argued that the unjust and cruel
God of Revelation could not be the God of nature; Butler pointed to
nature and said, There you behold cruelty and injustice. The argument
was perfectly good against the optimism of Shaftesbury, but it plainly
admitted of the conclusion--opposite to that which Butler wished to
establish--that a just and beneficent God does not exist. Butler is
driven to fall back on the sceptical argument that we are extremely
ignorant; that all things

[152] are possible, even eternal hell fire; and that therefore the safe
and prudent course is to accept the Christian doctrine. It may be
remarked that this reasoning, with a few modifications, could be used in
favour of other religions, at Mecca or at Timbuctoo. He has, in effect,
revived the argument used by Pascal that if there is one chance in any
very large number that Christianity is true, it is a man's interest to
be a Christian; for, if it prove false, it will do him no harm to have
believed it; if it prove true, he will be infinitely the gainer. Butler
seeks indeed to show that the chances in favour amount to a probability,
but his argument is essentially of the same intellectual and moral value
as Pascal's. It has been pointed out that it leads by an easy logical
step from the Anglican to the Roman Church. Catholics and Protestants
(as King Henry IV of France argued) agree that a Catholic may be saved;
the Catholics assert that a Protestant will be damned; therefore the
safe course is to embrace Catholicism. [3]

I have dwelt at some length upon some of the English deists, because,
while they occupy an important place in the history of

[153] rationalism in England, they also supplied, along with Bayle, a
great deal of the thought which, manipulated by brilliant writers on the
other side of the Channel, captured the educated classes in France. We
are now in the age of Voltaire. He was a convinced deist. He considered
that the nature of the universe proved that it was made by a conscious
architect, he held that God was required in the interests of conduct,
and he ardently combated atheism. His great achievements were his
efficacious labour in the cause of toleration, and his systematic
warfare against superstitions. He was profoundly influenced by English
thinkers, especially Locke and Bolingbroke. This statesman had concealed
his infidelity during his lifetime except from his intimates; he had
lived long as an exile in France; and his rationalistic essays were
published (1754) after his death. Voltaire, whose literary genius
converted the work of the English thinkers into a world-force, did not
begin his campaign against Christianity till after the middle of the
century, when superstitious practices and religious persecutions were
becoming a scandal in his country. He assailed the Catholic Church in
every field with ridicule and satire. In a little work called The Tomb
of Fanaticism (written 1736,

[154] published 1767), he begins by observing that a man who accepts his
religion (as most people do) without examining it is like an ox which
allows itself to be harnessed, and proceeds to review the difficulties
in the Bible, the rise of Christianity, and the course of Church
history; from which he concludes that every sensible man should hold the
Christian sect in horror. "Men are blind to prefer an absurd and
sanguinary creed, supported by executioners and surrounded by fiery
faggots, a creed which can only be approved by those to whom it gives
power and riches, a particular creed only accepted in a small part of
the world--to a simple and universal religion." In the Sermon of the
Fifty and the Questions of Zapata we can see what he owed to Bayle and
English critics, but his touch is lighter and his irony more telling.
His comment on geographical mistakes in the Old Testament is: "God was
evidently not strong in geography." Having called attention to the
"horrible crime" of Lot's wife in looking backward, and her conversion
into a pillar of salt, he hopes that the stories of Scripture will make
us better, if they do not make us more enlightened. One of his favourite
methods is to approach Christian doctrines as a person who had just
heard of the existence of Christians or Jews for the first time in his


His drama, Saul (1763), which the police tried to suppress, presents the
career of David, the man after God's own heart, in all its naked horror.
The scene in which Samuel reproves Saul for not having slain Agag will
give an idea of the spirit of the piece. SAMUEL: God commands me to tell
you that he repents of having made you king. SAUL: God repents! Only
they who commit errors repent. His eternal wisdom cannot be unwise. God
cannot commit errors. SAMUEL: He can repent of having set on the throne
those who do. SAUL: Well, who does not? Tell me, what is my fault?
SAMUEL: You have pardoned a king. AGAG: What! Is the fairest of virtues
considered a crime in Judea? SAMUEL (to Agag): Silence! do not
blaspheme. (To Saul). Saul, formerly king of the Jews, did not God
command you by my mouth to destroy all the Amalekites, without sparing
women, or maidens, or children at the breast? AGAG: Your god--gave such a
command! You are mistaken, you meant to say, your devil. SAMUEL: Saul,
did you obey God? SAUL: I did not suppose such a command

[156] was positive. I thought that goodness was the first attribute of
the Supreme Being, and that a compassionate heart could not displease
him. SAMUEL: You are mistaken, unbeliever. God reproves you, your
sceptre will pass into other hands.

Perhaps no writer has ever roused more hatred in Christendom than
Voltaire. He was looked on as a sort of anti-Christ. That was natural;
his attacks were so tremendously effective at the time. But he has been
sometimes decried on the ground that he only demolished and made no
effort to build up where he had pulled down. This is a narrow complaint.
It might be replied that when a sewer is spreading plague in a town, we
cannot wait to remove it till we have a new system of drains, and it may
fairly be said that religion as practised in contemporary France was a
poisonous sewer. But the true answer is that knowledge, and therefore
civilization, are advanced by criticism and negation, as well as by
construction and positive discovery. When a man has the talent to attack
with effect falsehood, prejudice, and imposture, it is his duty, if
there are any social duties, to use it.

For constructive thinking we must go to the other great leader of French

[157] Rousseau, who contributed to the growth of freedom in a different
way. He was a deist, but his deism, unlike that of Voltaire, was
religious and emotional. He regarded Christianity with a sort of
reverent scepticism. But his thought was revolutionary and repugnant to
orthodoxy; it made against authority in every sphere; and it had an
enormous influence. The clergy perhaps dreaded his theories more than
the scoffs and negations of Voltaire. For some years he was a fugitive
on the face of the earth. Emile, his brilliant contribution to the
theory of education, appeared in 1762. It contains some remarkable pages
on religion, "the profession of faith of a Savoyard vicar," in which the
author's deistic faith is strongly affirmed and revelation and theology
rejected. The book was publicly burned in Paris and an order issued for
Rousseau's arrest. Forced by his friends to flee, he was debarred from
returning to Geneva, for the government of that canton followed the
example of Paris. He sought refuge in the canton of Bern and was ordered
to quit. He then fled to the principality of Neufchatel which belonged
to Prussia. Frederick the Great, the one really tolerant ruler of the
age, gave him protection, but he was persecuted and calumniated by the
local clergy, who but for Frederick would

[158] have expelled him, and he went to England for a few months (1766),
then returning to France, where he was left unmolested till his death.
The religious views of Rousseau are only a minor point in his heretical
speculations. It was by his daring social and political theories that he
set the world on fire. His Social Contract in which these theories were
set forth was burned at Geneva. Though his principles will not stand
criticism for a moment, and though his doctrine worked mischief by its
extraordinary power of turning men into fanatics, yet it contributed to
progress, by helping to discredit privilege and to establish the view
that the object of a State is to secure the wellbeing of all its

Deism--whether in the semi-Christian form of Rousseau or the anti-
Christian form of Voltaire--was a house built on the sand, and thinkers
arose in France, England, and Germany to shatter its foundations. In
France, it proved to be only a half-way inn to atheism. In 1770, French
readers were startled by the appearance of Baron D'Holbach's System of
Nature, in which God's existence and the immortality of the soul were
denied and the world declared to be matter spontaneously moving.

Holbach was a friend of Diderot, who had also come to reject deism. All
the leading

[159] ideas in the revolt against the Church had a place in Diderot's
great work, the Encyclopedia, in which a number of leading thinkers
collaborated with him. It was not merely a scientific book of reference.
It was representative of the whole movement of the enemies of faith. It
was intended to lead men from Christianity with its original sin to a
new conception of the world as a place which can be made agreeable and
in which the actual evils are due not to radical faults of human nature
but to perverse institutions and perverse education. To divert interest
from the dogmas of religion to the improvement of society, to persuade
the world that man's felicity depends not on Revelation but on social
transformation--this was what Diderot and Rousseau in their different
ways did so much to effect. And their work influenced those who did not
abandon orthodoxy; it affected the spirit of the Church itself. Contrast
the Catholic Church in France in the eighteenth and in the nineteenth
century. Without the work of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and their
fellow-combatants, would it have been reformed? "The Christian Churches"
(I quote Lord Morley) "are assimilating as rapidly as their formulae
will permit, the new light and the more generous moral ideas and the
higher spirituality of

[160] teachers who have abandoned all churches and who are
systematically denounced as enemies of the souls of men."

In England the prevalent deistic thought did not lead to the same
intellectual consequences as in France; yet Hume, the greatest English
philosopher of the century, showed that the arguments commonly adduced
for a personal God were untenable. I may first speak of his discussion
on miracles in his Essay on Miracles and in his philosophical Inquiry
concerning Human Understanding (1748). Hitherto the credibility of
miracles had not been submitted to a general examination independent of
theological assumptions. Hume, pointing out that there must be a uniform
experience against every miraculous event (otherwise it would not merit
the name of miracle), and that it will require stronger testimony to
establish a miracle than an event which is not contrary to experience,
lays down the general maxim that "no testimony is sufficient to
establish a miracle unless the testimony is of such a kind that its
falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to
establish." But, as a matter of fact, no testimony exists of which the
falsehood would be a prodigy. We cannot find in history any miracle
attested by a sufficient number of men of such unquestionable good

[161] sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all
delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity as to place them
beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit in
the eyes of mankind as to have a great deal to lose in case of their
being detected in any falsehood, and at the same time attesting facts
performed in such a public manner as to render detection unavoidable
--all which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in
the testimony of men.

In the Dialogues on Natural Religion which were not published till after
his death (1776), Hume made an attack on the "argument from design," on
which deists and Christians alike relied to prove the existence of a
Deity. The argument is that the world presents clear marks of design,
endless adaptation of means to ends, which can only be explained as due
to the deliberate plan of a powerful intelligence. Hume disputes the
inference on the ground that a mere intelligent being is not a
sufficient cause to explain the effect. For the argument must be that
the system of the material world demands as a cause a corresponding
system of interconnected ideas; but such a mental system would demand an
explanation of its existence just as much as the material world; and
thus we find ourselves

[162] committed to an endless series of causes. But in any case, even if
the argument held, it would prove only the existence of a Deity whose
powers, though superior to man's, might be very limited and whose
workmanship might be very imperfect. For this world may be very faulty,
compared to a superior standard. It may be the first rude experiment "of
some infant Deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame
performance"; or the work of some inferior Deity at which his superior
would scoff; or the production of some old superannuated Deity which
since his death has pursued an adventurous career from the first impulse
which he gave it. An argument which leaves such deities in the running
is worse than useless for the purposes of Deism or of Christianity.

The sceptical philosophy of Hume had less influence on the general
public than Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Of the
numerous freethinking books that appeared in England in the eighteenth
century, this is the only one which is still a widely read classic. In
what a lady friend of Dr. Johnson called "the two offensive chapters"
(XV and XVI) the causes of the rise and success of Christianity are for
the first time critically investigated as a simple historical
phenomenon. Like most freethinkers of the

[163] time Gibbon thought it well to protect himself and his work
against the possibility of prosecution by paying ironical lip-homage to
the orthodox creed. But even if there had been no such danger, he could
not have chosen a more incisive weapon for his merciless criticism of
orthodox opinion than the irony which he wielded with superb ease.
Having pointed out that the victory of Christianity is obviously and
satisfactorily explained by the convincing evidence of the doctrine and
by the ruling providence of its great Author, he proceeds "with becoming
submission" to inquire into the secondary causes. He traces the history
of the faith up to the time of Constantine in such a way as clearly to
suggest that the hypothesis of divine interposition is superfluous and
that we have to do with a purely human development. He marshals, with
ironical protests, the obvious objections to the alleged evidence for
supernatural control. He does not himself criticize Moses and the
prophets, but he reproduces the objections which were made against their
authority by "the vain science of the gnostics." He notes that the
doctrine of immortality is omitted in the law of Moses, but this
doubtless was a mysterious dispensation of Providence. We cannot
entirely remove "the imputation of ignorance and

[164] obscurity which has been so arrogantly cast on the first
proselytes of Christianity," but we must "convert the occasion of
scandal into a subject of edification" and remember that "the lower we
depress the temporal condition of the first Christians, the more reason
we shall find to admire their merit and success."

Gibbon's treatment of miracles from the purely historical point of view
(he owed a great deal to Middleton, see above, p. 150) was particularly
disconcerting. In the early age of Christianity "the laws of nature were
frequently suspended for the benefit of the Church. But the sages of
Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the
ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any
alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the
reign of Tiberius the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of
the Roman Empire, was involved in a praeternatural darkness of three
hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the
wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without
notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime
of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate
effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of

[165] philosophers in a laborious work has recorded all the great
phenomena of nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which
his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other
have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye
has been witness since the creation of the globe." How "shall we excuse
the supine inattention of the pagan and philosophic world to those
evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their
reason, but to their senses?"

Again, if every believer is convinced of the reality of miracles, every
reasonable man is convinced of their cessation. Yet every age bears
testimony to miracles, and the testimony seems no less respectable than
that of the preceding generation. When did they cease? How was it that
the generation which saw the last genuine miracles performed could not
distinguish them from the impostures which followed? Had men so soon
forgotten "the style of the divine artist"? The inference is that
genuine and spurious miracles are indistinguishable. But the credulity
or "softness of temper" among early believers was beneficial to the
cause of truth and religion. "In modern times, a latent and even
involuntary scepticism adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their

[166] admission of supernatural truths is much less an active consent
than a cold and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe
and to respect the invariable order of nature, our reason, or at least
our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain the visible
action of the Deity."

Gibbon had not the advantage of the minute critical labours which in the
following century were expended on his sources of information, but his
masterly exposure of the conventional history of the early Church
remains in many of its most important points perfectly valid to-day. I
suspect that his artillery has produced more effect on intelligent minds
in subsequent generations than the archery of Voltaire. For his book
became indispensable as the great history of the Middle Ages; the most
orthodox could not do without it; and the poison must have often worked.

We have seen how theological controversy in the first half of the
eighteenth century had turned on the question whether the revealed
religion was consistent and compatible with natural religion. The
deistic attacks, on this line, were almost exhausted by the middle of
the century, and the orthodox thought that they had been satisfactorily
answered. But it was not enough to show that the revelation

[167] is reasonable; it was necessary to prove that it is real and rests
on a solid historical basis. This was the question raised in an acute
form by the criticisms of Hume and Middleton (1748) on miracles. The
ablest answer was given by Paley in his Evidences of Christianity
(1794), the only one of the apologies of that age which is still read,
though it has ceased to have any value. Paley's theology illustrates how
orthodox opinions are coloured, unconsciously, by the spirit of the
time. He proved (in his Natural Theology) the existence of God by the
argument from design --without taking any account of the criticisms of
Hume on that argument. Just as a watchmaker is inferred from a watch, so
a divine workman is inferred from contrivances in nature. Paley takes
his instances of such contrivance largely from the organs and
constitution of the human body. His idea of God is that of an ingenious
contriver dealing with rather obstinate material. Paley's "God" (Mr.
Leslie Stephen remarked) "has been civilized like man; he has become
scientific and ingenious; he is superior to Watt or Priestley in
devising mechanical and chemical contrivances, and is therefore made in
the image of that generation of which Watt and Priestley were
conspicuous lights." When a God of this kind

[168] is established there is no difficulty about miracles, and it is on
miracles that Paley bases the case for Christianity--all other arguments
are subsidiary. And his proof of the New Testament miracles is that the
apostles who were eye-witnesses believed in them, for otherwise they
would not have acted and suffered in the cause of their new religion.
Paley's defence is the performance of an able legal adviser to the

The list of the English deistic writers of the eighteenth century closes
with one whose name is more familiar than any of his predecessors,
Thomas Paine. A Norfolk man, he migrated to America and played a leading
part in the Revolution. Then he returned to England and in 1791
published his Rights of Man in two parts. I have been considering,
almost exclusively, freedom of thought in religion, because it may be
taken as the thermometer for freedom of thought in general. At this
period it was as dangerous to publish revolutionary opinions in politics
as in theology. Paine was an enthusiastic admirer of the American
Constitution and a supporter of the French Revolution (in which also he
was to play a part). His Rights of Man is an indictment of the
monarchical form of government, and a plea for representative democracy.
It had an enormous

[169] sale, a cheap edition was issued, and the government, finding that
it was accessible to the poorer classes, decided to prosecute. Paine
escaped to France, and received a brilliant ovation at Calais, which
returned him as deputy to the National Convention. His trial for high
treason came on at the end of 1792. Among the passages in his book, on
which the charge was founded, were these: "All hereditary government is
in its nature tyranny." "The time is not very distant when England will
laugh at itself for sending to Holland, Hanover, Zell, or Brunswick for
men" [meaning King William III and King George I] "at the expense of a
million a year who understood neither her laws, her language, nor her
interest, and whose capacities would scarcely have fitted them for the
office of a parish constable. If government could be trusted to such
hands, it must be some easy and simple thing indeed, and materials fit
for all the purposes may be found in every town and village in England."
Erskine was Paine's counsel, and he made a fine oration in defence of
freedom of speech.

"Constraint," he said, "is the natural parent of resistance, and a
pregnant proof that reason is not on the side of those who use it. You
must all remember, gentlemen, Lucian's pleasant story: Jupiter and a

[170] were walking together, conversing with great freedom and
familiarity upon the subject of heaven and earth. The countryman
listened with attention and acquiescence while Jupiter strove only to
convince him; but happening to hint a doubt, Jupiter turned hastily
around and threatened him with his thunder. 'Ah, ha!' says the
countryman, 'now, Jupiter, I know that you are wrong; you are always
wrong when you appeal to your thunder.' This is the case with me. I can
reason with the people of England, but I cannot fight against the
thunder of authority."

Paine was found guilty and outlawed. He soon committed a new offence by
the publication of an anti-Christian work, The Age of Reason (1794 and
1796), which he began to write in the Paris prison into which he had
been thrown by Robespierre. This book is remarkable as the first
important English publication in which the Christian scheme of salvation
and the Bible are assailed in plain language without any disguise or
reserve. In the second place it was written in such a way as to reach
the masses. And, thirdly, while the criticisms on the Bible are in the
same vein as those of the earlier deists, Paine is the first to present
with force the incongruity of the Christian scheme with the conception
of the universe attained by astronomical science.


"Though it is not a direct article of the Christian system that this
world that we inhabit is the whole of the inhabitable globe, yet it is
so worked up therewith--from what is called the Mosaic account of the
creation, the story of Eve and the apple, and the counterpart of that
story, the death of the Son of God--that to believe otherwise (that is,
to believe that God created a plurality of worlds at least as numerous
as what we call stars) renders the Christian system of faith at once
little and ridiculous, and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the
air. The two beliefs cannot be held together in the same mind; and he
who thinks that he believes both has thought but little of either."

As an ardent deist, who regarded nature as God's revelation, Paine was
able to press this argument with particular force. Referring to some of
the tales in the Old Testament, he says: "When we contemplate the
immensity of that Being who directs and governs the incomprehensible
Whole, of which the utmost ken of human sight can discover but a part,
we ought to feel shame at calling such paltry stories the Word of God."

The book drew a reply from Bishop Watson, one of those admirable
eighteenth-century divines, who admitted the right of private judgment
and thought that argument

[172] should be met by argument and not by force. His reply had the
rather significant title, An Apology for the Bible. George III remarked
that he was not aware that any apology was needed for that book. It is a
weak defence, but is remarkable for the concessions which it makes to
several of Paine's criticisms of Scripture--admissions which were
calculated to damage the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible.

It was doubtless in consequence of the enormous circulation of the Age
of Reason that a Society for the Suppression of Vice decided to
prosecute the publisher. Unbelief was common among the ruling class, but
the view was firmly held that religion was necessary for the populace
and that any attempt to disseminate unbelief among the lower classes
must be suppressed. Religion was regarded as a valuable instrument to
keep the poor in order. It is notable that of the earlier rationalists
(apart from the case of Woolston) the only one who was punished was
Peter Annet, a schoolmaster, who tried to popularize freethought and was
sentenced for diffusing "diabolical" opinions to the pillory and hard
labour (1763). Paine held that the people at large had the right of
access to all new ideas, and he wrote so as to reach the people. Hence
his book must be suppressed.

[173] At the trial (1797) the judge placed every obstacle in the way of
the defence. The publisher was sentenced to a year's imprisonment.

This was not the end of Paine prosecutions. In 1811 a Third Part of the
Age of Reason appeared, and Eaton the publisher was condemned to
eighteen months' imprisonment and to stand in the pillory once a month.
The judge, Lord Ellenborough, said in his charge, that "to deny the
truths of the book which is the foundation of our faith has never been
permitted." The poet Shelley addressed to Lord Ellenborough a scathing
letter. "Do you think to convert Mr. Eaton to your religion by
embittering his existence? You might force him by torture to profess
your tenets, but he could not believe them except you should make them
credible, which perhaps exceeds your power. Do you think to please the
God you worship by this exhibition of your zeal? If so, the demon to
whom some nations offer human hecatombs is less barbarous than the deity
of civilized society!" In 1819 Richard Carlisle was prosecuted for
publishing the Age of Reason and sentenced to a large fine and three
years' imprisonment. Unable to pay the fine he was kept in prison for
three years. His wife and sister, who carried on the business

[174] and continued to sell the book, were fined and imprisoned soon
afterwards and a whole host of shop assistants.

If his publishers suffered in England, the author himself suffered in
America where bigotry did all it could to make the last years of his
life bitter.

The age of enlightenment began in Germany in the middle of the
eighteenth century. In most of the German States, thought was
considerably less free than in England. Under Frederick the Great's
father, the philosopher Wolff was banished from Prussia for according to
the moral teachings of the Chinese sage Confucius a praise which, it was
thought, ought to be reserved for Christianity. He returned after the
accession of Frederick, under whose tolerant rule Prussia was an asylum
for those writers who suffered for their opinions in neighbouring
States. Frederick, indeed, held the view which was held by so many
English rationalists of the time, and is still held widely enough, that
freethought is not desirable for the multitude, because they are
incapable of understanding philosophy. Germany felt the influence of the
English Deists, of the French freethinkers, and of Spinoza; but in the
German rationalistic propaganda of this period there is nothing very
original or interesting.

[175] The names of Edelmann and Bahrdt may be mentioned. The works of
Edelmann, who attacked the inspiration of the Bible, were burned in
various cities, and he was forced to seek Frederick's protection at
Berlin. Bahrdt was more aggressive than any other writer of the time.
Originally a preacher, it was by slow degrees that he moved away from
the orthodox faith. His translation of the New Testament cut short his
ecclesiastical career. His last years were spent as an inn-keeper. His
writings, for instance his popular Letters on the Bible, must have had a
considerable effect, if we may judge by the hatred which he excited
among theologians.

It was not, however, in direct rationalistic propaganda, but in
literature and philosophy, that the German enlightenment of this century
expressed itself. The most illustrious men of letters, Goethe (who was
profoundly influenced by Spinoza) and Schiller, stood outside the
Churches, and the effect of their writings and of the whole literary
movement of the time made for the freest treatment of human experience.

One German thinker shook the world--the philosopher Kant. His Critic of
Pure Reason demonstrated that when we attempt to prove by the fight of
the intellect the existence of

[176] God and the immortality of the Soul, we fall helplessly into
contradictions. His destructive criticism of the argument from design
and all natural theology was more complete than that of Hume; and his
philosophy, different though his system was, issued in the same
practical result as that of Locke, to confine knowledge to experience.
It is true that afterwards, in the interest of ethics, he tried to
smuggle in by a back-door the Deity whom he had turned out by the front
gate, but the attempt was not a success. His philosophy--while it led to
new speculative systems in which the name of God was used to mean
something very different from the Deistic conception--was a significant
step further in the deliverance of reason from the yoke of authority.

[1] For the sake of simplicity I use "deist" in this sense throughout,
though "theist" is now the usual term.

[2] Spinoza's Theological Political Treatise, which deals with the
interpretation of Scripture, was translated into English in 1689.

[3] See Benn, Rationalism in the Nineteenth Century, vol. i, p. 138
seq., for a good exposure of the fallacies and sophistries of Butler.




MODERN science, heralded by the researches of Copernicus, was founded in
the seventeenth century, which saw the demonstration of the Copernican
theory, the discovery of gravitation, the discovery of the circulation
of the blood, and the foundation

[177] of modern chemistry and physics. The true nature of comets was
ascertained, and they ceased to be regarded as signs of heavenly wrath.
But several generations were to pass before science became, in
Protestant countries, an involuntary arch-enemy of theology. Till the
nineteenth century, it was only in minor points, such as the movement of
the earth, that proved scientific facts seemed to conflict with
Scripture, and it was easy enough to explain away these inconsistencies
by a new interpretation of the sacred texts. Yet remarkable facts were
accumulating which, though not explained by science, seemed to menace
the credibility of Biblical history. If the story of Noah's Ark and the
Flood is true, how was it that beasts unable to swim or fly inhabit
America and the islands of the Ocean? And what about the new species
which were constantly being found in the New World and did not exist in
the Old? Where did the kangaroos of Australia drop from? The only
explanation compatible with received theology seemed to be the
hypothesis of innumerable new acts of creation, later than the Flood. It
was in the field of natural history that scientific men of the
eighteenth century suffered most from the coercion of authority.
Linnaeus felt it in Sweden, Buffon

[178] in France. Buffon was compelled to retract hypotheses which he put
forward about the formation of the earth in his Natural History (1749),
and to state that he believed implicitly in the Bible account of

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Laplace worked out the
mechanics of the universe, on the nebular hypothesis. His results
dispensed, as he said to Napoleon, with the hypothesis of God, and were
duly denounced. His theory involved a long physical process before the
earth and solar system came to be formed; but this was not fatal, for a
little ingenuity might preserve the credit of the first chapter of
Genesis. Geology was to prove a more formidable enemy to the Biblical
story of the Creation and the Deluge. The theory of a French naturalist
(Cuvier) that the earth had repeatedly experienced catastrophes, each of
which necessitated a new creative act, helped for a time to save the
belief in divine intervention, and Lyell, in his Principles of Geology
(1830), while he undermined the assumption of catastrophes, by showing
that the earth's history could be explained by the ordinary processes
which we still see in operation, yet held fast to successive acts of
creation. It was not till 1863 that he presented fully, in his Antiquity
of Man, the

[179] evidence which showed that the human race had inhabited the earth
for a far longer period than could be reconciled with the record of
Scripture. That record might be adapted to the results of science in
regard not only to the earth itself but also to the plants and lower
animals, by explaining the word "day" in the Jewish story of creation to
signify some long period of time. But this way out was impossible in the
case of the creation of man, for the sacred chronology is quite
definite. An English divine of the seventeenth century ingeniously
calculated that man was created by the Trinity on October 23, B.C. 4004,
at 9 o'clock in the morning, and no reckoning of the Bible dates could
put the event much further back. Other evidence reinforced the
conclusions from geology, but geology alone was sufficient to damage
irretrievably the historical truth of the Jewish legend of Creation. The
only means of rescuing it was to suppose that God had created misleading
evidence for the express purpose of deceiving man.

Geology shook the infallibility of the Bible, but left the creation of
some prehistoric Adam and Eve a still admissible hypothesis. Here
however zoology stepped in, and pronounced upon the origin of man. It
was an old conjecture that the higher forms of life, including

[180] man, had developed out of lower forms, and advanced thinkers had
been reaching the conclusion that the universe, as we find it, is the
result of a continuous process, unbroken by supernatural interference,
and explicable by uniform natural laws. But while the reign of law in
the world of non-living matter seemed to be established, the world of
life could be considered a field in which the theory of divine
intervention is perfectly valid, so long as science failed to assign
satisfactory causes for the origination of the various kinds of animals
and plants. The publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 is,
therefore, a landmark not only in science but in the war between science
and theology. When this book appeared, Bishop Wilberforce truly said
that "the principle of natural selection is incompatible with the word
of God," and theologians in Germany and France as well as in England
cried aloud against the threatened dethronement of the Deity. The
appearance of the Descent of Man (1871), in which the evidence for the
pedigree of the human race from lower animals was marshalled with
masterly force, renewed the outcry. The Bible said that God created man
in his own image, Darwin said that man descended from an ape. The
feelings of the orthodox world may be

[181] expressed in the words of Mr. Gladstone: "Upon the grounds of what
is called evolution God is relieved of the labour of creation, and in
the name of unchangeable laws is discharged from governing the world."
It was a discharge which, as Spencer observed, had begun with Newton's
discovery of gravitation. If Darwin did not, as is now recognized,
supply a complete explanation of the origin of species, his researches
shattered the supernatural theory and confirmed the view to which many
able thinkers had been led that development is continuous in the living
as in the non-living world. Another nail was driven into the coffin of
Creation and the Fall of Adam, and the doctrine of redemption could only
be rescued by making it independent of the Jewish fable on which it was

Darwinism, as it is called, has had the larger effect of discrediting
the theory of the adaptation of means to ends in nature by an external
and infinitely powerful intelligence. The inadequacy of the argument
from design, as a proof of God's existence, had been shown by the logic
of Hume and Kant; but the observation of the life-processes of nature
shows that the very analogy between nature and art, on which the
argument depends, breaks down. The impropriety of the analogy has been

[182] pointed out, in a telling way, by a German writer (Lange). If a
man wants to shoot a hare which is in a certain field, he does not
procure thousands of guns, surround the field, and cause them all to be
fired off; or if he wants a house to live in, he does not build a whole
town and abandon to weather and decay all the houses but one. If he did
either of these things we should say he was mad or amazingly
unintelligent; his actions certainly would not be held to indicate a
powerful mind, expert in adapting means to ends. But these are the sort
of things that nature does. Her wastefulness in the propagation of life
is reckless. For the production of one life she sacrifices innumerable
germs. The "end" is achieved in one case out of thousands; the rule is
destruction and failure. If intelligence had anything to do with this
bungling process, it would be an intelligence infinitely low. And the
finished product, if regarded as a work of design, points to
incompetence in the designer. Take the human eye. An illustrious man of
science (Helmholtz) said, "If an optician sent it to me as an
instrument, I should send it back with reproaches for the carelessness
of his work and demand the return of my money. Darwin showed how the
phenomena might be explained as events not brought about

[183] intentionally, but due to exceptional concurrences of

The phenomena of nature are a system of things which co-exist and follow
each other according to invariable laws. This deadly proposition was
asserted early in the nineteenth century to be an axiom of science. It
was formulated by Mill (in his System of Logic, 1843) as the foundation
on which scientific induction rests. It means that at any moment the
state of the whole universe is the effect of its state at the preceding
moment; the casual sequence between two successive states is not broken
by any arbitrary interference suppressing or altering the relation
between cause and effect. Some ancient Greek philosophers were convinced
of this principle; the work done by modern science in every field seems
to be a verification of it. But it need not be stated in such an
absolute form. Recently, scientific men have been inclined to express
the axiom with more reserve and less dogmatically. They are prepared to
recognize that it is simply a postulate without which the scientific
comprehension of the universe would be impossible, and they are inclined
to state it not as a law of causation--for the idea of causation leads
into metaphysics--but rather as uniformity of experience. But they are

[184] readier to admit exceptions to this uniformity than their
predecessors were to admit exceptions to the law of causation.

The idea of development has been applied not only to nature, but to the
mind of man and to the history of civilization, including thought and
religion. The first who attempted to apply this idea methodically to the
whole universe was not a student of natural science, but a
metaphysician, Hegel. His extremely difficult philosophy had such a wide
influence on thought that a few words must be said about its tendency.
He conceived the whole of existence as what he called the Absolute Idea,
which is not in space or time and is compelled by the laws of its being
to manifest itself in the process of the world, first externalizing
itself in nature, and then becoming conscious of itself as spirit in
individual minds. His system is hence called Absolute Idealism. The
attraction which it exercised has probably been in great measure due to
the fact that it was in harmony with nineteenth-century thought, in so
far as it conceived the process of the world, both in nature and spirit,
as a necessary development from lower to higher stages. In this respect
indeed Hegel's vision was limited. He treats the process as if it were
practically complete already, and does not take into account

[185] the probability of further development in the future, to which
other thinkers of his own time were turning their attention. But what
concerns us here is that, while Hegel's system is "idealistic," finding
the explanation of the universe in thought and not in matter, it tended
as powerfully as any materialistic system to subvert orthodox beliefs.
It is true that some have claimed it as supporting Christianity. A
certain colour is lent to this by Hegel's view that the Christian creed,
as the highest religion, contains doctrines which express imperfectly
some of the ideas of the highest philosophy--his own; along with the fact
that he sometimes speaks of the Absolute Idea as if it were a person,
though personality would be a limitation inconsistent with his
conception of it. But it is sufficient to observe that, whatever value
be assigned to Christianity, he regarded it from the superior standpoint
of a purely intellectual philosophy, not as a special revelation of
truth, but as a certain approximation to the truth which philosophy
alone can reach; and it may be said with some confidence that any one
who comes under Hegel's spell feels that he is in possession of a theory
of the universe which relieves him from the need or desire of any
revealed religion. His influence in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere has
entirely made for highly unorthodox thought.


Hegel was not aggressive, he was superior. His French contemporary,
Comte, who also thought out a comprehensive system, aggressively and
explicitly rejected theology as an obsolete way of explaining the
universe. He rejected metaphysics likewise, and all that Hegel stood
for, as equally useless, on the ground that metaphysicians explain
nothing, but merely describe phenomena in abstract terms, and that
questions about the origin of the world and why it exists are quite
beyond the reach of reason. Both theology and metaphysics are superseded
by science--the investigation of causes and effects and coexistences; and
the future progress of society will be guided by the scientific view of
the world which confines itself to the positive data of experience.
Comte was convinced that religion is a social necessity, and, to supply
the place of the theological religions which he pronounced to be doomed,
he invented a new religion--the religion of Humanity. It differs from the
great religions of the world in having no supernatural or non-rational
articles of belief, and on that account he had few adherents. But the
"Positive Philosophy" of Comte has exercised great influence, not least
in England, where its principles have been promulgated especially by Mr.
Frederic Harrison, who in the latter

[187] half of the nineteenth century has been one of the most
indefatigable workers in the cause of reason against authority.

Another comprehensive system was worked out by an Englishman, Herbert
Spencer. Like Comte's, it was based on science, and attempts to show
how, starting with a nebular universe, the whole knowable world,
psychical and social as well as physical, can be deduced. His Synthetic
Philosophy perhaps did more than anything else to make the idea of
evolution familiar in England.

I must mention one other modern explanation of the world, that of
Haeckel, the zoologist, professor at Jena, who may be called the prophet
of evolution. His Creation of Man (1868) covered the same ground as
Darwin's Descent, had an enormous circulation, and was translated, I
believe, into fourteen languages. His World-riddles (1899) enjoys the
same popularity. He has taught, like Spencer, that the principle of
evolution applies not only to the history of nature, but also to human
civilization and human thought. He differs from Spencer and Comte in not
assuming any unknowable reality behind natural phenomena. His

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