From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia
A LARGE number of persons embark from Europe and colonize an uninhabited territory in the South Sea. They erect a government,—suppose a republic,—and make all persons, of whatever creed, eligible to the legislature. The community prospers and increases. In process of time a Member of the legislature, who is a disciple of John Wesley, persuades himself that it will tend to the promotion of religion that the preachers of Methodism should be supported by a national tax; that their stipends should be sufficiently ample to prevent them from necessary attention to any business but that of religion; and that accordingly they shall be precluded from the· usual pursuits of commerce and from the professions. He proposes the measure. It is contended against by the Episcopalian members, and the Independents, and the Catholics, and the Unitarians,—by all but the adherents to his own creed. They insist upon the equality of civil and religious rights, but in vain. The majority prove to be Methodists; they support the measure: the law is enacted; and Methodism becomes henceforth the religion of the state, This is a Religious Establishment.
But it is a religious establishment in its best form; and perhaps none ever existed of which the constitution was so simple and so pure. During one portion of the papal history the Romish church was indeed not so much an “establishment” of the state as a separate and independent constitution. For though some species of alliance subsisted, yet the Romanists did not acknowledge, as Protestants now do, that the power of establishing a religion resides in the state.
In the present day, other immunities are possessed by ecclesiastical establishments than those which are necessary to constitute the institution,—such for example, as that of exclusive eligibility to the legislature: and other alliances with the civil power exist than that which necessarily results from any preference of a particular faith,—such as that of placing ecclesiastical patronage in the hands of a government, or of those who are wider its influence. From these circumstances it happens, that in inquiring into the propriety of religious establishments we cannot confine ourselves to the inquiry whether they would be proper in their simplest form, but whether they are proper as they usually exist. And this is so much the more needful, because there is little reason to expect that when once an ecclesiastical establishment has been erected,—when once a particular church has been selected for the preference and patronage of the civil power,—that preference and patronage will be confined to those circumstances which are necessary to the subsistence of an establishment at all.
It is sufficiently obvious that it matters nothing to the existence of an established church, what the faith of that church is, or what is the form of its government. It is not the creed which constitutes the establishment, but the preference of the civil power; and accordingly the reader will be pleased to bear in mind that neither in this chapter nor in the next have we any concern with religious opinions. Our business is not with churches, but with church establishments.
The actual history of religious establishments in Christian countries, does not differ in essence from that which we have supposed in the South Sea. They have been erected by the influence or the assistance of the civil power. In one country a religion may have owed its political supremacy to the superstitions of a prince; and in another to his policy or ambition: but the effect has been similar. Whether superstition or policy, the contrivances of a—priesthood, or the fortuitous predominance of a party, have given rise to the established church, is of comparatively little consequence to the fundamental principles of the institution. Of the divine right of a particular church to supremacy I say nothing; because none with whom I am at present concerned to argue imagine that it exists.
The only ground upon which it appears that religious establishments can be advocated are, first, that of example or approbation in the primitive churches; and, secondly, that of public utility.
I. The primitive church was not a religious establishment in any sense or in any degree. No establishment existed until the church had lost much of its purity. Nor is there any expression in the New Testament, direct or indirect, which would lead a reader to suppose that Christ or his apostles regarded an establishment as an eligible institution. “We find, in his religion, no scheme of building up a hierarchy or of ministers to the views of human governments.”—“Our religion, as it came out of the hands of its Founder and his apostles, exhibited a complete abstraction from all views either of ecclesiastical or civil policy.”1 The evidence which these facts supply respecting the moral character of religious establishments, whatever be its weight, tends manifestly to show that that character is not good. I do not say because Christianity exhibited this “complete abstraction,” that it therefore necessarily condemned establishments; but I say that the bearing and the tendency of this negative testimony is against them.
In the discourses and writings of the first teachers of our religion we find such absolute disinterestedness, so little disposition to assume political superiority, that to have become the members of an established, church would certainly have been inconsistent in them. It is indeed almost inconceivable that they could ever have desired the patronage of the state for themselves or for their converts. No man conceives that Paul or John could have participated in the exclusion of any portion of the Christian church from advantages which they themselves enjoyed. Every man perceives that to have done this would have been to assume a new character, a character which they had never exhibited before, and which was incongruous with their former principles and motives of action. But why is this incongruous with the apostolic character unless it is incongruous with Christianity? Upon this single ground, therefore, there is reason for the sentiment of “many well informed persons, that it seems extremely questionable whether the religion of Jesus Christ admits of any civil establishment at all.”2
I lay stress upon these considerations. We all know that much may be learned respecting human duty by a contemplation of the spirit and temper of Christianity as it was exhibited by its first teachers. When the spirit and temper is compared with the essential character of religious establishments they are found to be incongruous,—foreign to one another,—having no natural relationship or similarity. I should regard such facts, in reference to any question of rectitude, as of great importance; but upon a subject so intimately connected with religion itself, the importance is peculiarly great.
II. The question of the utility of religious establishments is to be decided by a comparison of their advantages and their evils.
Of their advantages, the first and greatest appears to be that they provide, or are assumed to provide, religious instruction for the whole community. If this instruction be left by the state to be cared for by each Christian church as it possesses the zeal or the means, it may be supposed that many districts will be destitute of any public religious instruction. At least the state cannot be assured beforehand that every district will be supplied. And when it is considered bow great is the importance of regular public worship to the virtue of a people, it is not to be denied that a scheme which, by destroying an establishment, would make that instruction inadequate or uncertain, is so far to be regarded as of questionable expediency. But the effect which would be produced by dispensing with establishments is to be estimated, so far as is in our power, by facts. Now dissenters are in the situation of separate unestablished churches. If they do not provide for the public officers of religion voluntarily, they will not be provided for. Yet where is any considerable body of dissenters to be found who do not provide themselves with a chapel and a preacher? And if those churches which are not established do in fact provide public instruction, how is it shown that it would not be provided although there were no established religion in a state? Besides, the dissenters from an established church provide this under peculiar disadvantages; for after paying, in common with others, their quota to the state religion, they have to pay in addition to their own. But perhaps it will be said that dissenters from a state religion are actuated by a zeal with which the professors of that religion are not; and that the legal provision supplies the deficiency of zeal. If this be said, the inquiry imposes itself,—How does this disproportion of seal arise? Why should dissenters be more zealous than churchmen? What account can be given of the matter, but that there is something in the patronage of the 1tate which induces apathy upon the church that it prefers? One other account may indeed be offered,—that to be a dissenter is to be a positive religionist, while to be a churchman is frequently only to be nothing else; that an establishment embraces all who are not embraced by others; and that if those whom other churches do not include wen, not cared for· by the state religion, tht1y would not be cared for at all. This is an argument of apparent weight, but the effect of reasoning is to diminish that weight. For what is meant by “including,” by “caring for,” the indifferent and irreligious? An established church only offers them instruction: it does not “compel them to come in;” and we have just seen that this offer is made by unestablished churches also. Who doubts whether, in a district that is sufficient to fill a temple of the state religion, there would be found persons to offer a temple of public worship though the state did not compel it? Who doubts whether this would be the case if the district were inhabited by dissenters? and if it would not be done, supposing the inhabitants to belong to the state religion, the conclusion is inevitable, that there is a tendency to indifference resulting from the patronage of the state.
Let us listen to the testimony of Archbishop Newcome. He speaks of Ireland, and says, “Great numbers of country parishes are without churches, notwithstanding the largeness and frequency of parliamentary grants for building them;” but “meeting-houses and Romish chapels, which are built and repaired with a greater zeal, are in sufficient numbers about the country.”3 This is remarkable testimony indeed. That church which is patronised and largely assisted by the state does not provide places for public worship: those churches which are not patronized and not assisted by the state, do provide them, and provide them in “sufficient numbers” and “with greater zeal.” What then becomes of the argument, that a church establishment is necessary in order to provide instruction which would not otherwise be provided?
Yet here one point must be conceded: It does not follow because one particular state religion is thus deficient that none would be more exemplary. The fault may not be so much in religious establishments, as such, as in that particular establishment which obtains in the instance before us.
Kindred to the testimony of the Irish primate is the more cautious language of the Archdeacon of Carlisle:—“I do not know,” says he, “that it is in any degree true that the influence of religion is the greatest where there are the fewest dissenters.”4 This I suppose may lawfully be interpreted into positive language,—that the influence of religion is the greatest where there are numerous dissenters. But if numerous adherents to unestablished churches be favourable to religion, it would appear that although there were none but unestablished churches in a country, the influence of religion would be kept up. If established churches are practically useful to religion, what more reasonable than to expect that where they possessed the more exclusive operation their utility would be the greatest? Yet the contrary it appears is the fact. It may indeed be urged that it is the existence of a state religion which animates the zeal of the other churches, and that in this manner the state religion does good. To which it is a sufficient answer, that the benefit, if it is thus occasioned, is collateral and accidental, and offers no testimony in favor of establishments as such;—and this is our concern. Besides, there are many sects to animate the zeal of one another, even though none were patronised by the state.
To estimate the relative influence of religion in two countries is no easy task. Yet I believe if we compare its influence in the United States with that which it possesses in most of the European countries which possess state religions, it will be found that the balance is in favour of the community in which there is no established church: at any rate, the balance is not so much against it as to afford any evidence in favour of a state religion. A traveller in America has remarked, “There is more religion in the United States than in England, and more in England than in Italy. The closer the monopoly, the less abundant the supply.”5 Another traveller writes almost as if he had anticipated the present disquisition—“It has been often said, that the disinclination of the heart to religious truth renders a state establishment absolutely necessary for the purpose of Christianizing the country. Ireland and America can furnish abundant evidence of the fallacy of such an hypothesis. In the one country we see an ecclesiastical establishment of the most costly description utterly inoperative in dispelling ignorance or refuting error; in the other, no establishment of any kind, and yet religion making daily and hourly progress, promoting inquiry, diffusing knowledge, strengthening the weak, and mollifying the hardened.”6
In immediate connexion with this subject is the argument that Dr. Paley places at the head of those which he advances in favour of religious establishments,—that the knowledge and profession of Christianity cannot be upholden without a clergy supported by legal provision, and belonging to one sect of Christians.7 The justness of this proposition is founded upon the necessity of research. It is said that “Christianity is an historical religion.” and that the truth of its history must be investigated; that in order to vindicate its authority, and to ascertain its truths, leisure and education and learning are indispensable,—so that such “an order of clergy is necessary to perpetuate the evidences of revelation, and to interpret the obscurity of those ancient writings in which the religion is contained.” To all this there is one plain objection. that when once the evidences of religion are adduced and made public, when once the obscurity of the ancient writings is interpreted, the work, so far as discovery is concerned, is done; and it can hardly be imagined that an established clergy is necessary in perpetuity to do that which in its own nature can be done but once. Whatever may have been the validity of this argument in other times, when but few of the clergy possessed any learning, or when the evidences of religion had not been sought out, it possesses little validity now. These evidences are brought before the world in a form so clear and accessible to literary and good men, that in the present state of society there is little reason to fear they will be lost for want of an established church. Nor is it to be forgotten, that, with respect to our own country, the best defences of Christianity which exist in the language have not been the work either of the established clergy or of members of the established church. The expression that such “an order of clergy is necessary to perpetuate the evidences of revelation,” appears to contain an illusion. Evidences can in no other sense be perpetuated than by being again and again brought before the public. If this be the meaning, it belongs rather to the teaching of religious truths than to their discovery; but it is upon the discovery, it is upon the opportunity of research, that the argument is founded: and it is particularly to be noticed, that this is the primary argument which Paley adduces in deciding “the first and most fundamental question upon the subject.”
It pleases Providence to employ human agency in the vindication and diffusion of his truth; but to employ the expression, “the knowledge and profession of Christianity” cannot be upholden without an established clergy, approaches to irreverence. Even a rejecter of Christianity says, “If public worship be conformable to reason, reason without doubt will prove adequate to its vindication and support. If it be from God it is profanation to imagine that it stands in need of the alliance of the state.”8 And it is clearly untrue in fact; because, without such a clergy, it is actually upheld, and because, during the three first centuries, the religion subsisted and spread and prospered without Any encouragement from the state. And it is remarkable too that the diffusion of Christianity in our own times in pagan nations is effected leas by the clergy of established churches than by others.9
Such are among the principal of the direct advantages of religious establishments as they are urged by those who advocate them. Some others will be noticed in inquiring into the opposite question of their disadvantages.
These disadvantages respect either the institution itself,—or religion generally,—or the civil welfare of a people.
I. The institution itself. “The single end we ought to propose by religious establishments is, the preservation and communication of religious knowledge. Every other idea, and every other end, that hue been mixed with this, as the making of the church an engine, or even an ally of the state; converting it into the means of strengthening or diffusing influence; or regarding it as a support of regal, in opposition to popular forms of government; have served only to debase the institution, and to introduce into it numerous corruptions and abuses.”10 This is undoubtedly true. Now we affirm that this “debasement of the institution,” this “introduction of numerous corruptions and abuses,” is absolutely inseparable from religious establishments as they ordinarily exist; that wherever and whenever a state so prefers and patronises a particular church, these debasements and abuses and corruptions will inevitably arise.
“An engine or ally of the state.” How will you frame—I will not say any religions establishment, but—any religious establishment, that approaches to the ordinary character, without making it an engine or ally of the state? Alliance is involved in the very idea of the institution. The state selects, and prefers, and grants privileges to a particular church. The continuance of these privileges depends upon the continuance of the state in its present principles. If the state is altered, the privileges are endangered or may be swept away. The privileged church therefore is interested in supporting the state, in standing by it against opposition; or, which is the same thing, that church becomes an ally of the state. You cannot separate the effect from the cause. Wherever the state prefers and patronises one church. There will be an alliance between the state and that church. There may be variations in the strength of this alliance. The less the patronage of the state, the less strong the alliance will be. Or there may be emergencies in which the alliance is suspended by the influence of stronger interests; but still the alliance, as a general consequence of the preference of the state, will inevitably subsist. When therefore Dr. Paley says that to make an establishment an ally of the state is to introduce into it numerous corruptions and abuses, he in fact says that to make an establishment at all is to introduce into a church numerous corruptions and abuses.
It matters nothing what the doctrines or constitution of the church may be. The only point is, the alliance, and its degree. It may be Episcopal, or Presbyterian, or Independent; but wherever the degree of alliance,—that is of preference and patronage is great,—there the abuses and corruptions will be great. In this country during a part of the seventeenth century independency became, in effect, the established church. It became of course an ally of the state; and fought from its pulpits the battles of the state. Nor will any one I suppose deny that this alliance made independency worse than it was before;—that it “introduced into it corruption and abuses.”
The less strict the alliance, the fewer the corruptions that spring from an alliance. One state may impose a teat to distinguish the ministers of the preferred church, and leave the selection to the church itself: another may actually appoint some or all of the ministers. These differences in the closeness of the alliance will produce differences in the degree of corruption; but alliance and corruption in both cases there will be. He who receives a legal provision from the minister of the day, will lend his support to the minister of the day: He who receives it by the operation of a general law, will lend his support to that political system which is likely to perpetuate that law.
“The means of strengthening or diffusing influence.” This abuse of religious establishments is pre-supposed in the question of alliance. It is by the means of influence that the alliance is produced. There may be and there are gradations in the directness or flagrancy of the exercise of influence, but influence of some kind is inseparable from the selection and preference of a particular church.
“A support of regal in opposition to popular forms of government.” This attendant upon religious establishments is accidental. An establishment will support that form, whatever it be, by which it is itself supported. In one country it may be the ally of republicanism, in another of aristocracy, and in another of monarchy; but in all it will be the ally of its own patron. The establishment of France supported the despotism of the Louises. The establishment of Spain supports at this hour the pitiable policy of Ferdinand. So accurately is alliance maintained, that in a mixed government it will be found that an establishment adheres to that branch of the government by which its own pre-eminence is most supported. In England the strictest alliance is between the church and the executive; and accordingly, in ruptures between the executive and legislative powers, the establishment has adhered to the former. There was an exception in the reign of James II.: but it was an exception which confirms the rule; for the establishment then found or feared that its alliance with the regal power was about to be broken.
Seeing then that the debasement of a Christian church.—that the introduction into it of corruptions and abuse, is inseparable from religious establishments, what is this debasement and what are these abuses and corruptions?
Now, without entering into minute inquiry, many evils arise obviously from the nature of the case. Here is an introduction into the office of the Christian ministry of motives, and interests, and aims, foreign to the proper business of the office; and not only foreign but incongruous and discordant with it. Here are secular interests mixed up with the motives of religion. Here are temptations to assume the ministerial function in the church that is established, for the sake of its secular advantages. Here are inducements, when the function is assumed, to accommodate the manner of its exercise to the inclinations of the state; to suppress, for example, some religious principles which the civil power does not wish to see inculcated; to insist for the same reason with undue emphasis upon others; in a word, to adjust the religious conduct so as to strengthen or perpetuate the alliance with the state. It is very easy to perceive that these temptations will and must frequently prevail; and wherever they do prevail, there the excellence and dignity of the Christian ministry are diminished, are depressed: there Christianity is not exemplified in its purity: there it is shorn of a portion of its beams. The extent of the evil will depend of course upon the vigour of the cause; that is to say, the evil will be proportionate to the alliance. If a religious establishment were erected in which the executive power of the country appointed all its ministers, there would, I doubt not, ensue an almost universal corruption of the ministry. As an establishment recedes in its constitution from this closeness of alliance, a corresponding increase of purity may be expected.
During the reformation, and in Queen Elizabeth’s time, “of nine thousand four hundred beneficed clergy” (adherents to papacy), “only one hundred and seventy-seven resigned their preferment rather than acknowledge the queen’s supremacy;”11 “yet the pope to them was head of the church. One particular manner in which the establishment of a church injures the character of the church itself is, by the temptation which it holds out to equivocation or hypocrisy. It is necessary to the preference of the teachers of a particular sect that there should be some means of discovering who belong to that sect:—there must be some test. Before the man who is desirous of undertaking the ministerial office there are placed two roads, one of which conducts to those privileges which a state religion enjoys, and the other does not. The latter may be entered by all who will: the former by those only who affirm their belief of the rectitude of some church forms or of some points of theology. It requires no argument to prove that this is to tempt men to affirm that which they do not believe; that it is to say to the man who does no, believe the stipulated points, Here is money for you if you will violate your conscience. By some the invitation will be accepted;12 and what is the result? Why that, just as they are going publicly to insist upon the purity and sanctity of the moral law, they violate that law themselves. The injury which is thus done to a Christian church by establishing it is negative as well as positive. You not only tempt some men to equivocation or hypocrisy, but exclude from the office others of sounder integrity. Two persons, both of whom do not assent to the prescribed points, are desirous of entering the church. One is upright and conscientious, the other subservient and unscrupulous. An establishment excludes the good man and admits the bad. “Though some purpose of order and tranquillity may be answered by the establishment of creeds and confessions, yet they are at all times attended with serious inconveniences: they check inquiry; they violate liberty; they ensnare the consciences of the clergy, by holding out temptations to prevarication.13
And with respect to the habitual accommodation of the exercise of the ministry to the desires of the state, it is manifest that an enlightened and faithful minister may frequently find himself restrained by a species of political leading-strings. He has not the full command of his intellectual and religious attainments. He may not perhaps communicate the whole counsel of God14 It was formerly conceded to the English clergy that they might preach against the horrors and impolicy of war, provided they were not chaplains to regiments or in the navy. Conceded! Then if the state had pleased it might have withheld the concession; and accordingly from some the state did withhold it. They were prohibited to preach against that against which apostles wrote! What would these apostles have said if a state had bidden them keep silence respecting the moat unchristian custom in the world? They would have said, Whether we ought to obey God rather than man, judge ye. What would they have done? They would have gone away and preached against it u before. One question more should be asked,—What would they have said to an alliance which thus brought the Christian minister under bondage to the state?
The next point of view in which a religious establishment is injurious to the church itself is, that it perpetuates any evils which happen to exist in it. The reason is this: the preference which a state gives to a particular church is given to it as it is. If the church makes alterations in its constitution, its discipline, or its forms, it cannot tell whether the state would continue to prefer and to patronise it. Besides, if alterations are begun, its members do not know whether the alacrity of some other church might not take advantage of the loosening alliance with the state to supplant it. In short, they do not know what would be the consequences of amendments, nor where they would end. Conscious that the church as it is possesses the supremacy, they think it more prudent to retain that supremacy with existing evils than to endanger it by attempting to reform them. Thus it is that while unestablished churches alter their discipline or constitution as need appears to require, established churches remain century after century the same.15 Not to be free to alter, can only then be right when the church is at present as perfect as it can be; and no one perhaps will gravely say that there is any established church on the globe which needs no amendment. Dr. Hartley devoted a portion of his celebrated work to a discussion of the probability that all the existing church establishments in the world would be dissolved; and he founds this probability expressly upon the ground that they need so much reformation.
“In all exclusive establishments, were temporal emoluments are annexed to the profession of a certain system of doctrines, and the usage of a certain routine of forms, and appropriated to an order of men so and so qualified, that order of men will naturally think themselves interested that things should continue as they are. A reformation might endanger their emoluments.”16 This is the testimony of a dignitary of one of these establishments. And the fact being admitted, what is the amount of the evil which it involves! Let another dignitary reply: “He who, by a diligent and faithful examination of the original records, dismisses from the system one article which contradicts the apprehension, the experience, or the reasoning of mankind, does more towards recommending the belief, and with the belief the influence of Christianity, to the understandings and consciences of serious inquirers, and through them to universal reception and authority, than can be effected by a thousand contenders for creeds and ordinances of human establishments.” If the benefits of dismissing such an article are so great, what must be the evil of continuing it? If the benefit of dismissing one such article be so great, what must be the evil of an established system which tends habitually and constantly to retain many of them? Yet these “articles, which thus contradict the reasoning of mankind,” are actually retained by established churches. “Creeds and confessions,” says Dr. Paley, “however they may express the persuasion, or be accommodated to the controversies or to the fears of the age in which they are composed, in process of time, and by reason of the changes which are wont to take place in the judgment of mankind upon religious subjects, they come at length to contradict the actual opinions of the church whose doctrines they profess to contain.”17 It is then confessed by the members of an established church that religious establishments powerfully obstruct the belief, the influence, the universal reception, and authority of Christianity. Great, indeed, moat be the counter-advantages of these establishments if they counterbalance this portion of its evils.
II. This last paragraph anticipates the second class of disadvantages attendant upon religious establishments: their ill effects upon religion generally. It is indisputable, that much of the irreligion of the world has resulted from those things which have been mixed up with Christianity and placed before mankind as parts of religion. In some countries, the mixture has been so flagrant that the majority of the thinking part of the papulation have almost rejected religion altogether. So it was, and so it may be feared it still is, in France. The intellectual part of her people rejected religion, not because they had examined Christianity and were convinced that it was a fiction, but because they had examined what was proposed to them as Christianity and found it was absurd or false. So numerous were “the articles that contradicted the experience and judgment of mankind,” that they concluded the whole was a fable, and rejected the whole.
Now that which the French church establishment did in an extreme degree, others do in a leas degree. If the French church retained a hundred articles that contradicted the judgment of mankind, and thus made a nation of unbelievers, the church which retains ten or five such articles, weakens the general influence of religion, although it may not destroy it.
Nor is it merely by unauthorized doctrinal articles or forms that the influence of religion is impaired, but by the general evils which affect the church itself. It is sufficiently manifest, that whatever tend, to diminish the virtue or to impeach the character of the ministers of religion must tend to diminish the influence of religion upon mankind. If the teacher is not good, we are not to expect goodness in the taught. If a man enters the church with impure or unworthy motives, he cannot do his duty when he is there. If he makes religion subservient to interest in his own practice, he cannot effectually teach others to make religion paramount to all. Men associate (they ought to do it less) the idea of religion with that of its teachers; and their respect for one is frequently measured by their respect for the other. Now, that the effect of religious establishments has been to depress their teachers in the estimation of mankind cannot be disputed. The effect is, in truth, inevitable. And it is manifest, that whatever conveys disrespectful ideas of religion diminishes its influence upon the human mind.—In brief, we have seen that to establish a religion is morally pernicious to its ministers; and whatever is injurious to them, diminishes the power of religion in the world.
Christianity is a religion of good-will and kind affections. Its essence, so far as the intercourse of society is concerned, is love. Whatever diminishes good-will and kind affections among Christians, attacks the essence of Christianity. Now religious establishments do this. They generate ill-will, heart-burnings, animosities,—those very things which our religion deprecates more almost than any other. It is obvious that if a fourth or a third of a community think they are unreasonably excluded from privileges which the other parts enjoy, feelings of jealousy or envy are likely to be generated. If the minority are obliged to pay to the support of a religion they disapprove, these feelings are likely to be exacerbated. They soon become reciprocal: attacks are made by one party and repelled by another, till there arises an habitual sense of unkindness or ill-will. I once met with rather a grotesque definition of religious dissent, but it illustrates our proposition:—“Dissenterism, that is, “systematic opposition to the established religion.”—The deduction from the practical influence of religion upon the minds of men which this effect of religious establishments occasions, is great.—The evil I trust is diminishing in the world; but then the diminution results, not from religious establishments, but from that power of Christianity which prevails against these evils.
From these and from other evidences of the injurious effects of religious establishments upon the religious condition of mankind; we shall perhaps be prepared to assent to the observations which follow:
“The placing all the religious sects (in America) upon an equal footing with respect to the government of the country has effectually secured the peace of the community, at the same time that it has essentially promoted the interests of truth and men.”—Mem. Dr. Priestley, p. 175; Men. In the MS.
Pennsylvania.—“Although there are so many sects and such a difference of religious opinions m this province, it is surprising the harmony which subsists among them; they consider themselves as children of the father, and live like brethren, because they have liberty of thinking like men; to this pleasing harmony in a great measure is to be attributed the rapid and flourishing state of Pennsylvania above all the other provinces.”—Travels through the interior parts of North America, by an officer, 1791. Lond. The officer was Thomas Auburey, who was taken prisoner by the Americans.—Men. In the MS.
“The history of the last eighteen centuries does, indeed, afford, in various ways, a strong presumptive evidence that the cause of true Christianity has very materially suffered in the world, in consequence of the connexion between the church and the state. It is probably in great measure the consequence of such a union that the church has assumed, is almost all christian countries, so secular a character—that Christianity has become so lamentably mixed up with the spirit, maxims, motives, and politics, of a vain and evil world. Had the union in question never been attempted, pure religion might probably have found a freer course; the practical effects of Christianity might have been more unmixed, and more extensive; and it might have spread its influence in a much more efficient manner than is now the case, even over the laws and politics of kings and nations. Before its union with the state, our holy religion flourished with comparative incorruptness; afterward it gradually declined in its purity and its power, until all was nearly lost in darkness, superstition, and spiritual tyranny.”18 “Religion should remain distinct from the political constitution of a state. Intermingled with it, what purposes can it serve, except the baneful purposes of communicating and of receiving contamination?”19
III. Then as to the effect of religious establishments upon the civil welfare of a state,—we know that the connexion between religious and civil welfare is intimate and great. Whatever therefore diminishes the influence of religion upon a people, diminishes their general welfare. In addition however to this general consideration, there are some particular modes of the injurious effect of religious establishments which it may be proper to notice.
And first, religious establishments are incompatible with complete religious liberty. This consideration we requested the reader to bear is mind when the question of religious liberty was discussed.20 “If as establishment be right, religions liberty is not; and if religious liberty be right, an establishment is not.” Whatever arguments therefore exist to prove the rectitude of complete religious liberty, they prove at the same time the wrongness of religious establishments. Nor is this all: for it is the manifest tendency of these establishments to withhold an increase of religious liberty, even when on other grounds it would be granted. The secular interests of the state religion are set in array against an increase of liberty. If the established church allows ocher churches to approach more nearly to an equality with itself, its own relative eminence is diminished; and if by any means the state religion adds to its own privileges it is by deducting from the privileges of the reel. The state religion is besides afraid to dismiss any part even of its confessedly useless privileges, lest when an alteration is begun it should not easily be stopped. And there is no reason to doubt that it is temporal rather than religious considerations,—interest rather than Christianity, which now occasions restrictions and disabilities and tests.
In conformity with these views, persecution has generally been the work of religious establishments. Indeed some alliance or some countenance at least from the state is necessary to a systematic persecution. Popular outrage may persecute men on account of their religion, as ii often has done; but fixed stated persecutions have perhaps always been the work of the religion of the state. It was the state religion of Rome that persecuted the first Christians.—“Who was it that crucified the Saviour of the world for attempting to reform the religion of his country? The Jewish priesthood.—Who was it that drowned the altars of their idols with the blood of Christians for attempting to abolish paganism? The Pagan priesthood.—Who was it that persecuted to flames and death those who in the time of Wickliffe and his followers laboured to reform the errors of popery? The popish priesthood.—Who was it and who is it that both in England and in Ireland since the reformation—but I check my hand, being unwilling to reflect upon the dead or to exasperate the living.”21—We also are unwilling to reflect upon or to exasperate, but our business is with plain truth. Who then was it that since the reformation has persecuted dissentients from its creed, and who is it that at this hour thinks and speaks of them with unchristian antipathy? The English priesthood. Not to mention that it was the state religion of Judea that put our Saviour himself to death.—It was and it is the state religion in some European countries that now persecutes dissenters from its creed. It was the state religion in this country that persecuted the Protestants; and since Protestantism has been established, it is the state religion which has persecuted Protestant dissenters. Is this the fault principally of the faith of these churches or of their alliance with the state? No man can be in doubt for an answer.
We are accustomed to attribute too much to bigotry. Bigotry has been very great and very operative; but bigotry alone would not have produce the disgraceful and dreadful transactions which fill the record, of ecclesiastical history. No. Men have often been actuated by the love of supremacy or of money, while they were talking loudly of the sacredness of their faith. They have been less afraid for religion than for the dominance of a church. When the creed of that church was impugned, those who shared in its advantages were zealous to suppress the rising inquiry; because the discredit of the creed might endanger the loss of the advantages. The zeal of a pope for the real presence was often quite a fiction. He and his cardinals cared perhaps nothing for the real presence, u they sometimes cared nothing for morality. But men might be immoral without encroaching upon the papal power:—they could not deny the doctrine without endangering its overthrow.
Happily, persecution for religion is greatly diminished: yet, while we rejoice in the fact, we cannot conceal from ourselves the consideration, that the diminution of persecution has resulted rather from the general diffusion of better principles than from the operation of religious establishments as such.
In most or in all ages a great portion of the flagitious transactions which furnish materials for the ecclesiastical historian have resulted from the political connexions or interests of a church. It was not the interests of Christianity, but of an establishment which made Becket embroil his king and other sovereigns in distractions. It was not the interests of Christianity but of an establishment which occasioned the monstrous impositions and usurpations of the papal see. And I do not know whether there has ever been a religious war—of which religion was the only or the principal cause. Besides all this there has been an inextricable succession of intrigues and cabals,—of conflicting interests.—and clamour and distraction, which the world would have been spared if secular interests had not been brought into connexion with religion.
Another mode in which religious establishments are injurious to the civil welfare of a people, is by their tendency to resist political improvements. That same cause which induces state religions to maintain themselves as they are, induces them to maintain the patron state as it is. It is the state in its present condition that secures to the church its advantages; and the church does not know whether, if it were to encourage political reformation, the new state of things might not endanger its own supremacy. There are indeed so many other interests and powers concerned in political reformations that the state religion cannot always prevent alterations from being effected. Nor would I affirm that they always endeavour to prevent it. And yet we may appeal to the general experience of all ages, whether established churches have not resisted reformation in those political institutions upon which their own privileges depended. Now these are serious things. For after all that can be said and justly said of the mischiefs of political changes and the extravagances of political epiricism, it is sufficiently certain that almost every government that has been established in the world has needed from time to time important reformations in its constitution or its practice. And it is equally certain, that if there be any influence or power which habitually and with little discrimination supports political institutions as they are that influence or power must be very pernicious to the world.
We have seen that one of the requisites of a religious establishment is a “legal provision” for its ministers,—that is to say, the members of all the churches which exist in a state must be obliged to pay to the support of one, whether they approve of that one or not.
Now in endeavouring to estimate the effects of this syetem, with a view to ascertain the preponderance of public advantages, we are presented at the outset with the inquiry,—Is this compulsory maintenance right? Is it compatible with Christianity? If it is not, there is an end of the controversy; for it is nothing to Christians whether a system be politic or impolitic, if once they have discovered that it is wrong. But I waive for the present the question of rectitude. The reader is at liberty to assume that Christianity allows governments to make this compulsory provision if they think fit. I waive too the question whether a Christian minister ought to receive payment for his labours, whether that payment be voluntary or not.
The single point before us is then the balance of advantages. Is it more advantageous that ministers should be paid by a legal provision or by voluntary subscription?
That advantage of a legal provision which consists in the supply of a teacher to every district has already been noticed; so that our inquiry is reduced to a narrow limit. Supposing that a minister would be appointed in every district although the state did not pay him, is it more desirable that he should be paid by the state or voluntarily by the people?
Of the legal provision some of the advantages are these: it holds out no inducement to the irreligious or indifferent to absent themselves from public worship lest they should be expected to pay the preacher. Public worship is conducted,—the preacher delivers his discourse, whether such persons go or not. They pay no more for going, and no less for staying away: and it is probable, in the present religious state of mankind, that some go to places for worship since it costs them nothing, who otherwise would stay away. But it is manifestly better that men should attend even in such a state of indifference than that they should not attend at all. Upon the voluntary system of payment this good effect is not so fully secured; for though the doors of chapels be open to all, yet few persons of competent means would attend them constantly without feeling that they might be expected to contribute to the expenses, I do not believe that the non-attendance of indifferent persons would be greatly increased by the adoption of the voluntary system, especially if the payments were as moderate as they easily might be;—but it is a question rather of speculation than of experience, and the reader is to give upon this account to the system of legal provision such an amount of advantage as he shall think fit.
Again.—Preaching where there is a legal provision is not “a mode of begging.” If you adopt voluntary payment, that payment depends upon the good pleasure of the hearers, and there is manifestly a temptation upon the preacher to accommodate his discourses, or the manner of them, to the wishes of his hearers rather than to the dictates of his own judgment; but the man who receives his stipend, whether his hearers be pleased or not, is under no such temptation. He is at liberty to conform the exercise of his functions to his judgment, without the diminution of a subscription. This I think is an undeniable advantage.
Another consideration is this:—That where there is a religious establishment with a legal provision it is usual, not to say indispensable, to fill the pulpits only with persons who entertain a certain set of religious opinions. It be would be obviously idle to assume that these opinions are true, but they are, or are in a considerable degree, uniform. Assuming then that one set of opinions is as sound as another, is it better that a district should always hear one set, or that the teachers of twenty different sets should successively gain possession of the pulpit, as the choice of the people might direct? I presume not to determine such a question; but it may be observed that in point of fact those churches which do proceed upon the voluntary system, are not often subjected lo such fluctuations of doctrine. There does not appear much difficulty in constituting churches upon the voluntary plan which shall in practice secure considerable uniformity in the sentiments of the teachers. And as to the bitter animosities and distractions which have been predicted if a choice of new teachers was to be left to the people,—they do not I believe ordinarily follow. Not that I apprehend the ministers, for instance, of an Independent church are always elected with that unanimity and freedom from heart—burnings which ought to subsist, but that animosities do not subsist to any great extent. Besides, the prediction appears to be founded on the supposition, that a certain stipend was to be appropriated to one teacher or to another according as he might obtain the greater number of votes,—whereas every man is at liberty, if he please, to withdraw his contribution from him whom he disapproves and to give it to another. And after all, there may be voluntary support of ministers without an election by those who contribute, as is instanced by the Methodists in the present day.
On the other hand, there are some advantages attendant on the voluntary system which that of a legal provision does not possess.
And first, it appears to be of importance that there should be a union, a harmony, a cordiality between the minister and the people. It is in truth an indispensable requisite. Christianity, which is a religion of love, cannot flourish where unkindly feelings prevail. Now I think it is manifest that harmony and cordiality are likely to prevail more where the minister is chosen and voluntarily remunerated by his hearers, than where they are not consulted in the choice: where they are obliged to take him whom others please to appoint, and where they are compelled to pay him whether they like him or not. The tendency of this last system is evidently opposed to perfect kindliness and cordiality. There is likely to be a sort of natural connexion, a communication of good offices induced between hearers and the man whom they themselves choose and voluntarily remunerate, which is less likely in the other case. If love be of so much consequence generally to the Christian character, it is especially of consequence that it should subsist between him who assumes to be a dispenser and them who are in the relation of hearers of the gospel of Christ.
Indeed the very circumstance that a man is compelled to pay a preacher tends to the introduction of unkind and unfriendly feelings. It is not to be expected that men will pay him more graciously or with a better will than they pay a tax-gatherer; and we all know that the tax-gatherer is one of the last persons whom men wish to see. He who desires to extend the influence of Christianity would be very cautious of establishing a system of which so ungracious a regulation formed a part. There is truth worthy of grave attention in the ludicrous verse of Cowper’s,—
In pulpit none shall hear;
But yet methinks to tell you true,
You sell it plaguy dear.
It is easy to perceive that the influence of that man’s exhortations must be diminished, whose hearers listen with the reflection that his advice is “plaguy dear.” The reflection too is perfectly natural, and cannot be helped. And when superadded to this is the consideration that it is not only sold “dear,” but that payment is enforced,—material injury must be sustained by the cause of religion. In this view it may be remarked, that the support of an establishment by a general tax would be preferable to the payment of each pastor by his own hearers. Nor is it unworthy of notice that some persona will always think (whether with reason or without it) that compulsory maintenance is not right; and in whatever degree they do this, there is an increased cause of dissatisfaction or estrangement.
Again.—The teacher who is independent of the congregation, who will enjoy all his emoluments whether they are satisfied with him or not,—is under manifest temptation to remissness in his duty,—not perhaps to remissness in those particulars on which his superiors would animadvert, but in those which respect the unstipulated and undefinable but very important duties of private care and of private labours. To mention this is sufficient. No man who reflects upon the human constitution, or who looks around him, will need arguments to prove that they are likely to labour negligently whose profits are not increased by assiduity and zeal. I know that the power of religion can, and that it often does, counteract this; but that is no argument for putting temptation in the way. So powerful indeed is this temptation that with a very great number it is acknowledged to prevail. Even if we do not assert, with a clergyman, that a great proportion of his brethren labour only so much for the religious benefit of their parishioners as will screen them from the arm of the law, there is other evidence which is unhappily conclusive. The desperate extent to which the non-residence is practised is infallible proof that a large proportion of the clergy are remiss in the discharge of the duties of a Christian pastor. They do not discharge them con amore. And how should they? It was not the wish to do this which prompted them to become clergymen at first. They were influenced by another object, and that they have obtained;—they possess as income: and it is not to be expected that when this is obtained the mental desires should suddenly become elevated and purified, and that they who entered the church for the sake of its emoluments should commonly labour in it for the sake of religion.
Although to many the motive for entering the church is the same u that for engaging in other professions, it is an unhappiness peculiar to the clerical profession that it does not offer the same stimulus to subsequent exertion,—that advancement does not usually depend upon desert. The man who seeks for an income from surgery or the bar is continually prompted to pay exemplary attention to its duties. Unless the surgeon is skilful and attentive, he knows that practice is not to be expected: unless the pleader devotes himself to statutes and reports, he knows that he is not to expect cases and briefs. But the clergyman, whether he studies the Bible or not, whether he be diligent and zealous or not, still possesses his living. Nor would it be rational to expect, that where the ordinary stimulus to human exertion is wanting, the exertion itself should generally be found. So naturally does exertion follow from stimulus, that we believe it is an observation frequently made, that curates are more exemplary than beneficed clergymen. And if beneficed clergymen were more solicitous than they are to make the diligence of their curates the principal consideration in employing them, this difference between curates and their employers would be much greater than it is. Let beneficed clergymen employ and reward curates upon as simple principles as those are on which a merchant employs and rewards a clerk, and it is probable that nine-tenths of the parishes in England would wish for a curate rather than a rector.
But this very consideration affords a powerfu1 argument against the present system. If much good would result from making clerical reward the price of desert, much evil results from making it independent of desert. This effect of the English establishment is not, like some others, inseparable from the institution. It would doubtless be possible even with compulsory maintenance so to appropriate it that it should form a constant motive to assiduity and exertion. Clergymen might be elevated in their profession according to their fidelity to their office: and if this were done, if as opportunity offered all were likely to be promoted who deserved it; and if all who did not deserve it were sure to he passed by, a new face would soon be put upon the affairs of the church. The complaints of neglect of duty would quickly be diminished, and non-residence would soon cease to be the reproach of three thousand out of ten. We cannot however amuse ourselves with the hope that this will be done; because in reference to the civil constitution of the church, there is too near an approach to that condition in which the whole head is sick and the whole heart faint.
If then it be asserted that it is one great advantage of the establishment that it provides a teacher for every pariah, it is one great disadvantage that it makes a large proportion of those teachers negligent of their duty.
There may perhaps be a religious establishment in which the ministers shall be selected for their deserts, though I know not whether in any it is actually and sufficiently done. That it is one of the first requisites in the appointment of religious teachers is plain; and this point is manifestly better consulted by a system in which the people voluntarily pay and choose their pastors than when they do not. Men love goodness in others though they may be bad themselves; and they especially like it in their religious teachers; so that when they come to select a person to fill that office, they are likely to select one of whom they think at least that he is a good man.
The same observation holds of non-residence. Non-residence is not necessary to a state religion. By the system of voluntary payment it is impossible.
It has sometimes been said (with whatever truth) that in times of public discontent these persons have been disposed to disaffection. If this be true, compulsory support is in this respect a political evil, inasmuch as it is the cause of the alienation of a part of the community. We will not suppose so strong a case as that this alienation might lead to physical opposition; but, supposing the dissatisfaction only to exist affords no inconsiderable topic of the statesman’s inquiry. Happiness is the object of civil government, and this object is frustrated in part in respect of those who think themselves aggrieved by its policy. And when it is considered how numerous the dissenters are, and that they increase in number, the political impropriety and impolicy of keeping them in a state of dissatisfaction becomes increased.
The best security of a government is in the satisfaction and affection of the people; which satisfaction is always diminished, and which affection is always endangered, in respect of those who, disapproving a certain church, are compelled to pay to its support. This is a consequence of a “legal provision” that demands much attention from the legislator. Every legislator knows that it is an evil. It is a point that no man disputes, and that every man knows should be prevented, unless its cause effects a counterbalance of advantages.
Lastly. Upon the question of the comparative advantages of a legal provision and a voluntary remuneration in securing the due discharge of the ministerial function, what is the evidence of facts? Are the ministers of established or of unestablished churches the more zealous, the more exemplary, the more laborious, the more devoted? Whether of the two are the more beloved by their hearers? Whether of the two lead the more exemplary and religious lives? Whether of the two are the more active in works of philanthropy? It is a question of fact, and facts are before the world.
The discussions of the present chapter conduct the mind of the writer to these short conclusions:—
That of the two grounds upon which the propriety of religious establishments is capable of examination, neither affords evidence in their favour: that religious establishments derive no countenance from the nature of Christianity or from the example of the primitive churches: and, that they are not recommended by practical utility
See Footnotes here.
All Sub-Works of Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).:
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- Preface to the American Edition.
- Introductory Notices.
- Moral Obligations.
- Standard of Right and Wrong.
- Subordinate Standards of Right and Wrong.
- Standard of Right and Wrong Footnotes.
- Collateral Observations.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God Footnotes.