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WONDERFUL is the change which has come over the English mind in reference to the toleration of religious differences. When, in the Westminster Assembly, the doctrine of toleration was first propounded, and its practice pleaded for, it was hooted at as a heretical novelty, to be denounced rather than reasoned against. The Presbyterians who formed the majority of the Assembly reviled it as “the Diana of Ephesus of the Independents." Yet the toleration sought was of a very mild and moderate character, scarcely going beyond Washington Irying's quaint definition—"Liberty of conscience means, liberty to think as you please, provided you think right.” The Westminster divines would only have modified this statement into “ liberty to think, as you please, provided you do not think very wrong.". Unitarianism and Quakerism on the one side, and Roman Catholicism on the other, would certainly have been deemed intolerable.
It is said that one of the parties of the Pilgrim Fathers discovered, in mid-ocean, that a Unitarian had concealed himself amongst their company, and was escaping from persecution with them. They at once proceeded to discuss the question of throwing him overboard, pleading the history of Jonah as an authoritative example. The precedent was admitted to be applicable, but it was resolved not to carry out the extreme measure unless a storm arose, which would clearly decide the question. Meanwhile, the intruder was put in irons to await his doom. Happily, they enjoyed fair weather during the remainder of the voyage. The poor wretch was kept a close prisoner till the return of the vessel, when he was again put on board, and re-consigned to "the tender mercies" of Laud and the Star Chamber, which were “cruel.” Remembering the hard usage subsequently dealt out to the Quakers and Baptists in New England, he seems to have been dealt with very leniently.
During the stairing of a successor came out to the demanded
During the great Irish campaign of Cromwell, the citizens of New Ross, despairing of a successful resistance, desired to surrender on conditions, and the mayor came out to make the best terms he could. Amongst other stipulations, he demanded liberty of conscience. The victorious general replied, “As for liberty of conscience, Parliament dictateth to no man's conscience; but if by liberty of conscience you mean the right to celebrate the Mass, that Parliament alloweth not."
A toleration thus restricted and modified we have outgrown. But we are almost the only people in this world who have done so. With a self-righteous wonder we look back upon our ancestors, and round upon our contemporaries, marvelling that they should have been, and should still be, so bigoted and intolerant. There is nothing upon which an Englishman so prides himself as upon his freedom from this sin. He thanks God that he is not as other men are. He feels it his duty to testify against the world at large on this point. Every report of persecution, or suffering, for religious opinion, in any part of the world, at once sends up a deputation to the Foreign Office; and that complete letter-writer, Lord Russell, forthwith pens a despatch to the Sultan of Turkey, or the Queen of Spain, or the Emperor of Austria, pointing out their offence, and platitudinizing thereupon. We are an example to mankind and a joy to ourselves. Universal toleration is the bright consummate flower of English civilization in the nineteenth century.
The writer of these lines ventures to doubt whether we have so much cause for self-glorification as is commonly supposed. He is not, it is true, quite such a heretic as the title of this paper might seem to imply. But the showman, if he would attract visitors to his exhibition, must magnify his giant, and minify his dwarf, on the picture outside. He ventures therefore to exaggerate his heresy, that he may gain a hearing for himself.
Let it then be first inquired how much of our present toleration results from a decay of positive faith. Ours is an age which is not quite sure of anything, or very zealous for anything which cannot be negotiated on 'Change, or entered in a ledger, or made palpable and apparent to the senses. We have not faith enough left to persecute for our creed. Our forefathers believed resolutely. They grasped doctrines with an undoubting tenacity. They spoke that which they knew. Things were “most surely believed among" them. The present fashion of holding everything doubtfully and conditionally had no place with them. We seldom rise above a hesitating assent. The credenda of Christianity are received as only probably true. They are regarded not as axioms to be built upon with unfaltering trust, but as probabilities supported by the balance of evidence.
This seems to the present writer to be the one grand defect of
uitable, and partion, a firm faithing needful
modern English life and the fruitful source of innumerable evils -social, political, and religious. The one thing needful for us is to regain a steadfast conviction, a firm faith in objective truth, as eternal, immutable, and paramount.
The strong conviction, the resolute belief here pleaded for, of course implies that he who thus believes regards all opposing views as false. Two contradictories cannot both be true. The belief of this involves the repudiation of that. My Yes, if it be absolute, necessarily carries with it a No as its opposite pole. Instantly, however, the universal toleration of the age is up in arms. It is regarded as tolerant to say that probably there is truth on all sides, and that every party in the Church is more or less right. I am permitted to plead for my own opinions, but the moment I denounce those of my opponents as erroneous and declare that all who dissent from my view are wrong, I come under the ban. Bigotry, intolerance, narrowness of intellect and heart, are the only phrases by which such a spirit can be characterised.
If, however, this be intolerance, it is the intolerance of the New Testament, and of the heroes of the faith in every age. Paul resisted Peter to the face. Even John, the model of gentleness and forbearance, declares that his opponents are liars, walking in darkness. “He that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." All reformers and men who have wrought deliverance in the earth have possessed the same spirit of unfaltering faith, and of resolute resistance. No two things can be more dissimilar than the indifferentism and latitudinarian tolerance so common at the present day, and the earnest belief required for the execution of great purposes.
If, then, it be true that our modern toleration is largely the product of mere indifferentism, it is no matter for boasting or selfglorification. It may, indeed, be questioned whether, on the whole, this phase of our religious life does not indicate retrogression rather than progress. Persecution for conscience-sake is a bad thing, and pugilism is a bad thing; but an ex-champion of the prize ring,"fat and scant o' breath," with his nerves unstrung, his muscles relaxed, his bull-dog courage and tenacity all gone-discoursing with unction of his pacific life, and perorating against his former courses, would not be an edifying spectacle.
Yet, further, does not our modern toleration demand a large measure of compromise and reticence as essential to its maintenance ? All minor differences of opinion are to be concealed or surrendered, in order to make things pleasant. We agree to tolerate one another on condition that our lips shall be sealed on controversial questions. Awkward topics must be kept out of sight, and terms of compromise must be agreed upon by which all
the eart resolute differe
indeed, t, is no mathleration is
parties shall give and take reciprocally. Non-essential points, as they are called, must be mutually surrendered for the sake of peace. So, and only so, we can consent to tolerate one another,
This spirit appears most forcibly in a little tract entitled “No Sect in Heaven," which has had an immense circulation in a great variety of forms. It describes Churchmen and Dissenters of every name coming up to the gates of the celestial city and demanding admittance there, but they are all, in turn, excluded until they have stripped off everything that was special in the creed of each and have reduced themselves to the uniformity of abstract Christians, like the world-famous abstract Lord Mayor of Martinus Scriblerus. This may, possibly, be true of the heavenly state, but by implication it teaches a very false and dangerous lesson for our earthly life. Virtually it implies that the claims of truth and of personal conviction are secondary and subordinate to those of peace, and that we are at liberty, nay, that it is our duty, to square our creed by the consensus of Christendom. If this be the true theory of the Church, sects are to be merged into unity by the abandonment of all conscientious convictions, the individual is to be sacrificed to the multitude, and truth to be immolated at the shrine of peace. But truth is a sacred thing. Her claims are paramount and supreme. We are not at liberty to surrender one jot or tittle of personal conviction for any consideration of expediency or convenience. He who balances the greater or the less importance of truths in order that he may sacrifice the latter, is guilty of treachery to the great cause of conscience. Let us remember who said, “ Whoso shall break one of the least of these commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” He who truly understands the Divine sanctity and authority of truth will echo in speech and action George Wilson's grand versification of Athanasius' grand words, Ego Athanasius contra Mundum.
ATHANASIUS CONTRA MUNDUM.
Makes my heart tremble when I hear it read,
God's doom on every unbeliever's head.
Against the heretic so boldly hurled, .
I, Athanasius, against the world.”
Thou wert a sinful mortal like us all;
On whom the terrors of His wrath will fall.
But it was well, believing as thou didst,
Like standard bearer with thy flag unfurled
“I, Athanasius, against the world."
'Tis thine example I would preach to all ;
Of things in Heaven or earth, or great or small,-
Although in scorn a thousand lips are curled;
Like Athanasius, against the world."
A toleration which cannot accept this outspoken ayowal of personal conviction is worthless. It should be based not upon the concealment or surrender of differences, but upon the mutual forbearance of their unfaltering, unflinching advocacy. To demand compromise as a condition of toleration is itself the height of intolerance. If it be affirmed on one side that two and two make four, and on another side that two and two make five, is it a true and rational toleration which agrees, for the sake of peace, that a compromise shall be accepted of four and a-half, or which stipulates that the ugly question shall be consigned to silence and oblivion? Can there be any real arithmetical agreement whilst this compromise is accepted ? Or can persistent silence be the mode to procure a settlement of it? Would not the most intolerant statement on the one side and the other be preferable to any such suppression of discussion ?
Let it, again, be borne in mind that those who were intolerant of the opinions of others, were ready to suffer in the advocacy of their own. They were fully prepared to endure what they inflicted. They went to the prison or the scaffold as uncomplainingly as they sent their opponents there unhesitatingly. They accepted the principle of non-toleration on both sides. The persecutor was ready, when needful, to become a martyr. Saul of Tarsus furnished the raw material for Paul the Apostle. Those who, under the Commonwealth, ejected Episcopalians from their livings, uttered no unmanly complaints when the wheel of fortune turned. On Black Bartholomew they uncomplainingly went forth from their parsonages, and cheerfully submitted to the stern reprisals of their now victorious opponents. In the present day we have a softness of fibre which shrinks equally from the infliction and the endurance of suffering. We can neither impose nor pay a penalty for the advocacy of unacceptable doctrines. An effeminacy of character has come over us which knows not
"How sublime a thing it is
Te suffer and be strong."