"Der Grund aller Democratie; die hochste Thatsache der Popularitat."
"The Christian Religion is the root of all democracy; the highest fact in the Rights of Man."
Religion is the highest fact in the Rights of Man from itsbeing the most exclusively private and individual, while it isalso a universal, concern, of any in which man is interested.Religion is, in its widest sense, "the tendency of humannature to the Infinite;" and its principle is manifested inthe pursuit of perfection in any direction whatever. It is inthis widest sense that some speculative atheists have beenreligious men; religious in their efforts after self-perfection;though unable to personify their conception of the Infinite. In asomewhat narrower sense, religion is the relation which thehighest human sentiments bear towards an infinitely perfectBeing.
There can be no further narrowing than this. Any account ofreligion which restricts it within the boundaries of any system,which connects it with any mode of belief, which implicates itwith hope of reward or fear of punishment, is low and injurious,and debases religion into superstition.
The Christian religion is specified as being the highest factin the rights of man from its embodying (with all the rest) theprinciple of natural religion--that religion is at once anindividual, an universal, and an equal concern. In it may befound a sanction of all just claims of political and socialequality; for it proclaims, now in music and now in thunder,--itblazons, now in sunshine and now in lightning,--the fact of thenatural equality of men. In giving forth this as its granddoctrine, it is indeed "the root of all democracy;" theroot of the maxim (among others) that among the inalienablerights of all men are life, liberty, and the pursuit ofhappiness. The democracy of America is planted down deep into thechristian religion; into its principles, which it has in commonwith natural religion, and which it vivifies and illumines, butdoes not alter.
How does the existing state of religion accord with thepromise of its birth? In a country which professes to secure toevery man the pursuit of happiness in his own way, what is thestate of his liberty in the most private and individual of allconcerns? How carefully are all men and women left free frominterference in following up their own aspirations after theInfinite, in realising their own ideas of perfection, in bringinginto harmonious action the functions of their spirits, asinfinitely diversified as the expression1 of their features?
The absence of such diversity is the first striking fact whichpresents itself on the institution of such an inquiry. If therewere no constraint,--no social reward or penalty,--such anapproach to uniformity of profession could not exist as is seenin the United States. In a society where speculation andprofession were left perfectly free, as included among theinalienable rights of man, there would be many speculative(though probably extremely few practical) atheists: there wouldbe an adoption by many of the principles of natural religion,otherwise than in and through Christianity: and Christianitywould be adopted in modes as various as the minds by which itwould be reeognised. Instead of this, we find laws framed againstspeculative atheists: opprobrium directed upon such as embracenatural religion otherwise than through Christianity: and a yetmore bitter oppression exercised by those who view Christianityin one way, over those who regard it in another. A religiousyoung christian legislator was pitied, blamed, and traduced inBoston, last year, by clergymen, lawyers, and professors of acollege, for endeavouring to obtain a repeal of the law underwhich the testimony of speculative atheists is rejected in courtsof justice: Quakers (calling themselves Friends) excommunicateeach other: Presbyterian clergymen preach hatred to Catholies: aconvent is burnt, and the nuns are banished from theneighbourhood: and Episcopalian clergymen claim credit foradmitting Unitarians to sit in committees for public objects! Asmight be expected under such an infringement of the principle ofsecuring to every man the pursuit of happiness in his own way,there is no such endless diversity in the action of minds, andutterance of tongues, as nature and fidelity to truthperemptorily demand. Truth is deprived of the irrefragabletestimony which would be afforded by whatever agreement mightarise amidst this diversity: religion is insulted and scandalisedby nominal adherence and hypocritical advocacy. There are manyways of professing Christianity in the United States: but thereare few, very few men, whether speculative or thoughtless,whether studious or ignorant, whether reverent or indifferent,whether sober or profligate, whether disinterested or worldly,who do not carefully profess Christianity, in some form oranother. This, as men are made, is unnatural. Society presents nofaithful mirror of the religious perspective of the human mind.
It may be asked whether this is not true of the Old Worldalso. It is. But the society of the Old World has not yet graspedin practice any one fundamental democratic principle: and the fewwho govern the many have not yet perceived that religion is"the root of all democracy:" they are so far from itthat they are still upholding an established form of religion; inwhich a particular mode of belief is enforced upon minds by theimposition of virtual rewards and punishments. The Americans havelong taken higher ground; repudiating establishments, andprofessing to leave religion free. They must be judged by theirown principles, and not by the example of societies whose errorsthey have practically denounced by their adoption of theVoluntary Principle.
The almost universal profession in America of the adoption ofChristianity,--this profession by many whose habits of thought,and others whose hahits of living forbid the supposition that itis the religion of their individual intellects and affections,compels the inquiry what sort of Chrislianity it is that isprofessed, and how it is come by. There is no evading theconviction that it is to a vast extent a monstrous superstitionthat is thus embraced by the tyrant, the profligate, theworldling, the bigot, the coward, and the slave; a superstitionwhich offers little molestation to their vices, littlerectification to their errors; a superstition which is but thespurious offspring of that divine Christianity which "is theroot of all democracy, the highest fact in the Rights ofMan." That so many of the meek, pure, disinterested, free,and brave, make the same profession, proves only that theypenetrate to religion through superstition; or that they castaway unconsciously the superstition with which their spirits haveno affinity, and accept such truth as all superstition mustinclude in order to live.
The only test by which religion and superstition can beultimately tried is that with which they coexist. "By theirfruits ye shall know them."
The Presbyterian body is a very large one; the total number incommunion, according to the minutes of the General Assembly for1834, being then 247,964. New England contains a very small, andthe south and west a very large, proportion of the body. Some ofthe most noble of the abolitionists of the north arePresbyterians; and from the lips and pens of Presbyterians in thesouth, come some of the defences of slavery which evince thedeepest depravity of principle and feeling. This is only anotherproof, added to the million, that religion comes out of morals.In tbe words of a pure moralist,* "Morality is usually saidto depend upon religion; but this is said in that low sense inwhich outward conduct is considered as morality. In that highersense in which morality denotes sentiment, it is more exactlytrue to say, that religion depends on morality, aml springs fromit. Virtue is not the conformity of outward actions to a rule;nor is religion the fear of punishment, or the hope of reward.Virtue is the state of a just, prudent, benevolent, firm, andtemperate mind. Religion is the whole of these sentimentswhich such a mind feels towards an infinitely perfectbeing." With these views, we may account for the differentmorality of the Presbyterians of the south from that of such ofthe friends of the slave in the north as are of the samecommunion. Of the Presbyterian, as well as other clergy of thesouth, some are even planters, superintending the toils of theirslaves, and making purchases, or effecting sales in theslave-markets, during the week, and preaching on Sundays whateverthey can devise that is least contradictory to their dailypractice. I watched closely the preaching in the SOutH,--that ofall denominations, to see what could be made of Christianity,"the highest fact in the Rights of Man," in such aregion. I found the stricter religionists preaching reward andpunishrnent in connexion with modes of belief, and hatred to theCatholics. I found the more philosophical preaching for oragainst materialism, and diverging to phrenology. I found themore quiet and "gentlemanly " preaching harmlessabstractions,--the four seasons, the attributes of the Deity,prosperity and adversity, &c. I heard one clergyman, whoalways goes out of the room when the subject of negroemancipation is mentioned, or when slavery is found fault with,preach in a southern city against following a multitude to doevil. I heard one noble religious discourse from the Rev. JoelPark er, a Presbyterian clergyman, of New Orleans; but exceptthat one, I never heard any available reference made to the grandtruths of religion, or principles of morals. The great principleswhich regard the three relations to God, man, and self,--strivingafter perfection, mutual justice and charity, and christianliberty,--were never touched upon.--Meantime, the clergy werepretending to find express sanctions of slavery in the Bible; andputting words to this purpose into the mouths of public men, whodo not profess to remember the existence of the Bible in anyother connexion. The clergy were boasting at public meetings,that there was not a periodical south of the Potomac which didnot advocate slavery; and some were even setting up a magazine,whose "fundamental principle is, that man ought to be theproperty of man." The clergy, who were to be sent asdelegates to the General Assembly, were receiving instructions toleave the room, if the subject of slavery was mentioned; and topropose the cessation of the practice of praying forslaves. At the same time, the wife of a clergyman called upon meto admire the benevolent toils of a friend, who had been"putting up 4000 weight of pork" for her slavehousehold: and another lady, kindly and religiously disposed,told me what pains she took on Sunday mornings to teach herslaves, by word of mouth, as much of Christianity as was good forthem. When I pressed her on the point as to why they were to haveChristianity and not the alphabet, and desired to know under whatauthority she dared to keep from them knowledge, which God hasshed abroad for all, as freely as the the air and sunshine, Ifound that the idea was wholly new to her: nothing that she hadheard in church, or out of it, from any of the Christians amongwhom she lived, had awakened the suspicion that she was robbingher brethren of their birth-right. The religion of the southstrictly accords with the morals of the south. There is much thatis gentle, merciful, and generous: much among the suffering womenthat is patient, heroic, and inspiring meek resignation. Amongthese victims, there is faith, hope, and charity. ButChristianity is severed from its radical principles of justiceand liberty; and it will have to be cast out as a rotten branch.
A southern clergyman mentioned to me, obviously withdifficulty and pain, that though he was as happily placed as aminister could be, treated with friendliness and generosity byhis people, and so cherished as to show that they were satisfied,he had one trouble. During all the years of his ministry, notoken had reached him that he had religiously impressed theirminds, more or less. They met regularly and decorously onSundays, and departed quietly, and there was an end. He did notknow that any one discourse had affected them more than anyother; and no opportunity was offered him of witnessing anyreligious emotion among them whatever.--Another, an Unitarianclergyman of the south, was known to lament the appearance of Dr.Channing's work on slavery, "the cause was going on so wellbefore!" "The cause going on!" exclaimed anotherUnitarian clergyman in the north; "what should the ship goon for, when they have thrown both captain and cargooverboard?"
What is to be said of the southern fruits of "the root ofall democracy?" Excluding the debased slaves, and thehelpless, suffering victims of the system, there remain thelaity, who, as they do not abolish slavery, must be concluded notto understand the religion with whose principles it cannotcoexist; and the acquiescing clergy, who, if they do notunderstand its principles, are unfit to be clergymen: and if theydo, are unfit to be called Christians.
The Presbyterians of the south have reason to perceive thatthe principles of christian liberty are not fully embraced bytheir brethren of the north, though acted upon by some with adisinterested heroism in the direction of abolition. Those whowould exclude slave-holders from the communion-table are usurpingan authority which the principles of their religion forbid. Thehatred to the Catholics also approaches too nearly in itsirreligious character to the oppression of the negro. It ispleaded by some who most mourn the persecution the Catholics areat present undergoing in the United States, that there is a veryprevalent ionorance on the subject of the Catholic religion; andthat dreadful slanders are being circulated by a very few wicked,which deceive a great many weak, persons. This is just the casebut there is that in the true christian religion which shouldintercept the hatred, whatever may be the ignorance. There isthat in the true christian religion which should give the lie tothose slanders, in the absence of all outward evidence of theiruntruth. There is that in true Christianity which should chastenthe imagination, allay faithless apprehensions, and inspire atrust that, as heart answers to heart, no vast body of men canever bind themselves by the name of Jesus, to become all that ismost the reverse of holy, harmless, and undefiled. The question"where is thy faith?" might reasonably have been put tothe Presbyterian clergyman who preached three long denunciationsagainst the Catholies in Boston, the Sunday before the burning ofthe Charlestown convent: and also to parents, who can put intotheir children's hands, as religious books, the foul libelsagainst the Catholies which are circulated throughout thecountry. In the west, I happened to find in the chamber of a veryyoung lady, the only child of an opulent and influential citizen,a book of this kind, which no epithet but filthy will suit. Itlay with her Bible and Prayer-book; the secular part of herlibrary being disposed elsewhere. If religion springs frommorals, those who put the book into the hands of this young girlwill be answerable, if her religion should be as little like thatwhich is "first pure, then peaceable," as their own.
I was seriously told, by several persons in the south andwest, that the Catholics of Ameriea were employed by the Pope, inleague with the Emperor of Austria and the Irish, to explode theUnion. The vast and rapid spread of the Catholic faith in theUnited States has excited observation, which grew into thisrumour. I believe the truth to be that, in consequence of thePope's wish to keep the Catholics of America a colonial church,and the Catholics of the country thinking themselves nowsufficiently numerous to be an American Catholic church, a greatstimulus has been given to proselytism. This has awakened fearand persecution; which last has, again, been favourable to theincrease of the sect. While the Presbyterians preach a harsh,ascetic, persecuting religion, the Catholics dispense a mild andindulgent one; and the prodigious increase of their numbers is anecessary consequence. It is found so impossible to supply thedemand for priests, that the term of education has been shortenedby two years.--Those observers who have made themselves familiarwith the modes in which institutions, even of the most definitecharacter, adapt themselves to the wants of the time, willnot be made uneasy by the spread of a religion so flexible in itsforms as the Catholic, among a people so intelligent as theAmericans. The Catholic body is democratic in its politics, andmade up from the more independent kind of occupations. TheCatholic religion is modified by the spirit of the time inAmerica; and its professors are not a set of men who can bepriest-ridden to any fatal extent. If they are let alone, andtreated on genuine republican principles, they may show us howthe true, in any old form of religion, may be separated from thefalse, till, the eye being made clear, the whole body will befull of light. If they cannot do this, their form of religionwill decay, or at least remain harmless; for it is assuredly toolate now for a return of the dark ages. At all events, everyAmerican is required by his democratic principles to let everyman alone about his religion. He may do with the religion whatseems to him good; study, controvert, adopt, reject, speak,write, or preach, whatever he perceives and thinks about itsdoctrines and its abuses: but with its professors he has nothingto do, further than religiously to observe his fraternal relationto them; suffering no variance of opinion to seduce him into abreach of the republican and christian brotherhood to which he ispledged.
What other fruits are there of the superstition which pervadessociety, comprehending under the term Christian many who knowlittle of its doctrine, and exhibit less of its spirit?The state and treatment of infidelity are some of the worst.
There is in this respect a dreadful infringement on humanrights throughout the north; though a better spirit is beingcherished and extended by a few who see how contrary to allchristian and all democratic principles it is that a man shouldbe the worse for his opinions in society. I have seen enough toknow how little chance Christianity has in consequence of thisinfringement. I know that very large numbers of people aresecretly disinclined to cherish what is imposed upon them, withperpetual and unvarying modes of observance, from their childhoodup; and how the disgust grows from the opprobrium with whichunbelief is visited. I know that there are minds in New England,as everywhere else, which must, from their very structure, passthrough a state of scepticism on their way to stability; and thatsuch are surrounded with snares, such as no man should lay in hisbrother's path; with temptations to hypocrisy, to recklessness,to despair; and to an abdication of their human prerogative ofreason, as well as conscience. I know how women, in whom the veryfoundations of belief have been ploughed up by the share ofauthority, go wearily to church, Sunday after Sunday, to hearwhat they do not believe; lie down at night full of self-reproachfor a want of piety which they do not know how to attain; andrise up in the morning hopelessly, seeing nothing in the daybefore them but the misery of carrying their secret concealedfrom parents, husband, sisters, friends. I know how young men aredriven into vice, by having only the alternative of conformity oropprobrium: feeling it impossible to believe what is offeredthem; feeling it to be no crime to disbelieve: but, seeingunbelief treated as crime, and themselves under suspicion of it,losing faith in others and in themselves, and falling in realityat last. All this, and very much more, I know to be happening. Iwas told of one and another, with an air of mystery, like thatwith which one is informed of any person being insane, orintemperate, or insolvent, that so and so was thought to be anunbeliever. I was always tempted to rep]y, "And so are you,in a thousand things, to which this neighbour of yours addsone."--An elderly, generally intelligent, benevolentgentleman told me that he wanted to see regulations made by whichdeists should be excluded from office, and moral men onlyadmitted. Happily, the community is not nearly so far gone intyranny and folly as to entertain such a project as this: but itmust be a very superstitious society where such an idea could bedeliberately expressed by a sane man.
One circumstance struck me throughout the country. Almost asoften as the conversation between myself and any other person onreligious subjects became intimate and earnest, I was met by thesupposition that I was a convert. It was the same in otherinstances: wherever there was a strong interest in the christianreligion, conversion to a particular profession of it wasconfidently supposed. This fact speaks volumes.
Happy influences are at work to enlighten and enlarge the mindof society. One of the most powerful of these is the union of menand women of all religious in pursuit of objects of commoninterest; particularly in the abolition cause. Persons who wereonce ready to excommunicate each other are now loving friends intheir mutual obedience to the weightier matters of the law. Thechurches in Boston, and even the other public buildings, beingguarded by the dragon of bigotry, so that even faith, hope andcharity are turned back from the doors, a large building is aboutto be erected for the use of all, deists not excepted, who maydesire to meet for purposes of free discussion. This is, atleast, an advance.
A reflecting and eminently religious person was speculatingwith me one day, on the influences by which the human mind is themost commonly and the most powerfully awakened to vivid andpermanent religious sensibility. We brought eases andsuppositions of its being now strong impressions of the beautyand grandeur of nature; now grief, and now joy, and so on. Myfriend concluded that it was most frequently the spectacle ofmoral beauty in an individual. I have no doubt it is so: and ifit be, what tremendous injury must be done to the highest partsof man's nature by the unprincipled tyranny of the religiousworld in the republic! Men declare by this very tyranny howessential they consider belief to be. Belief is essential,--notonly to safety, but to existence. Every mind lives by belief, asthe body lives by the atmosphere: but the objects andmodes of belief must be various; and it is from disallowing thisthat superstition arises. If men must exercise the mutualvigilance which their human affections prompt, it would be wellfor religion and for themselves that they should note how muchtheir brethren believe, rather than what they disbelieve: theamount would be found so vast as immeasurably to distance thedeficiency. If this were done, religion would be found to be sosafe that the proportions of sects, and the eccentricities ofindividuals would be lost sight of in the presence of universal,living, and breathing faith. I was told of a child who stood inthe middle of a grass-plat, with its arms by its sides, andlistening with a countenance of intense expectation, "tohear God's tramp on that high blue floor." Who would care toknow what christian sect this child belonged to; or whether toany?--I was told of a father and mother, savages, who lost theironly child, and were overwhelmed with grief, under which thefather soon sank. From the moment of his death, the solitarysurvivor recovered her cheerfulness. Being asked why, she saidshe had been miserable for her child, lest he should be forlornin the world of spirits: he had his father with him now, andwould be happy. Who would inquire for the creed of this exampleof disinterested love?--I was told of a young girl, brought upfrom the country by a selfish betrayer, refused the marriagewhich had been promised, and turned out of doors by him on herbeing seized with the cholera. She was picked up from a doorstep,and carried to the hospital. In the midst of her dying agonies,no inducement could prevail on her to tell the name of herbetrayer; and she died faithful to him, so that the secret ofwhose treachery we are abhorring is dead with her. With suchtestimony that the very spirit of the gospel was in this humblecreature, none but those who would dare to cast her out for herfall would feel any anxiety as to how she received the facts ofthe gospel. Religion is safe, and would be seen to be so if wewould set ourselves to mark how universal are some few of men'sconvictions, and the whole of man's affections. While men feelwonder, and the universe is wonderful; while men love naturalglory, and the heavens and the earth are resplendent withit; while men revere holiness, and the beauty of holiness beamsat times upon the dimmest sight, religion is safe. For the lastreason, Christianity is also safe. If the beauty of its holinesswere never obscured by the defilements of human passion withwhich it is insulted, it is scarcely conceivable that all menwould not be, in some sense or other, Christians.
Those who are certain that Christianity is safe, (and they arenot a few,) and who, therefore, beware of encroaching on theirbrother's liberty of conscience, will be found to be the mostprincipled republicans, the firmest believers that Christianityis "the root of all democracy: the highest fact in theRights of Man."
* Sir James Mackintosh.
From Harriet Martineau, Society in America, VolumeIII, Part IV, "Religion." London: Saunders and Otley,1837, pp. 224-243.
Forward to Society in America, VolumeIII, Part IV, Chapter I - "Science of Religion."
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