We have had this book before us for several weeks, but the task of reading it has been so repulsive that we have been obliged to get through it by short stages with long intervals of rest and refreshment between, and have only just reached the end. We believe, however, we are now possessed of its substance, so far as it is possible to admit into any mind matter wholly uncongenial with its structure, its faith and its hope.
Meanwhile others have shown themselves more energetic in the task, and notices have appeared that express, in part, our own views. Among others an able critic has thus summed up his impressions:
We know not that we can find a better scheme of arrangement for what we have to say than by dividing it into sections under these four heads:
1st. The premises are monstrous. Here we must add the qualification, they are monstrous to us. The God of these writers is not the God we recognize; the views they have of human nature are antipodal to ours. We believe in a Creative Spirit, the essence of whose being is Love. He has created men in the spirit of love, intending to develop them to perfect harmony with himself. He has permitted the temporary existence of evil as a condition necessary to bring out in them free agency and individuality of character. Punishment is the necessary result of a bad choice in them; it is not meant by him as vengeance, but as an admonition to choose better. Man is not born totally evil; he is born capable both of good and evil, and the Holy Spirit in working on him only quickens the soul already there to know its Father. To one who takes such views the address of Jesus becomes intelligible:
Those who take these views of the relation between God and man must naturally tend to have punishment consist as much as possible in the inward spiritual results of faults, rather than a violent outward enforcement of penalty. They must, so far as possible, seek to revere God by showing themselves brotherly to man; and if they wish to obey Christ, will not forget that he came especially to call sinners to repentance.
The views of Messrs. Lewis and Cheever are the opposite of all this. We need not state them; they are sufficiently indicated in each page of their own. Their conclusions are the natural result of such premises. We could say nothing about either except to express dissent from beginning to end. Yet would it be sweet and noble, and worthy of this late period of human progress, if this might be done in a spirit of religious, of manly courtesy; if they had the soul to say—“We differ from you, but we know that so wide and full a stream of thought and emotion as you are engaged in could not, under the providential rule in which we believe, have arisen in vain. The object of every such manifestation of life must be to bring out truth; come, let us seek it together. Let us show you our view, compare it with yours, and let us see which is the better. If, as we think, the truth lie with us, what joy will it be for us to cast the clear light on the object of your aspirations!”
Of this degree of liberality we have known some, even, who served the same creed as these writers to be capable. There is, indeed, a higher form which, believing all forms of opinion which we hold in the present stage of our growth can be but approximations to truth, and that God has permitted to the multitude of men a multitude of ways by which they may approach our common goal, looks with reverence on all modes of faith sincerely held and acted upon, and while it rejoices in those who have reached the higher stages of spiritual growth, has no despair as to those who still grope in a narrow path and by a glimmering light. Such liberality is, of course, out of the question with such writers as the present. Their creed binds them to believe that they have absolute truth, and that all who do not believe as they do are wretched heretics. Those whose creed is of narrower scope are to them hateful bigots, but also those with whom it is of wider are latitudinarians or infidels. The spot of earth on which they stand is the only one safe from the conflagration, and only through spectacles and spy-glasses such as are used by them can the sun and stars be seen. Yet, as we said before, some such, though incapacitated for an intellectual, are not so for a spiritual tolerance. With them the heart, more Christ-like than the creed, urges to a spirit of love and reverence even toward convictions opposed to their own. The sincere man is always respectable in their eyes, and they cannot help feeling that wherever there is a desire for truth, there is the spirit of God, and His true priests will approach with gentleness and do their ministry with holy care. Unhappily, it is very different with the persons before us.
We let go the first two counts of the indictment. Their premises are, as we have said, such as we totally dissent from, and their conclusions such as naturally flow from those premises. Yet they are those of a large body of men, and there must, no doubt, be temporary good in this state of things or it would not be permitted. When these writers say that to them moral and penal are coincident terms, they display a state of mind which prefers basing virtue on the fear of punishment rather than the love of right. If this be sincerely their state, if the idea of morality is with them entirely dependent on the retributions upon vice rather than the loveliness and joys of goodness, it is impossible for those who are in a different state of mind to say what they do need. It may seem to us, indeed, that, if the strait jacket was taken off, they might recover the natural energy of their frames, and do far better without it; or that, if no longer hurried along the road by the impending lash behind, they might uplift their eyes and find sufficient cause for speed in the glory visible before, though at a distance; however, it is not for us to say what their wants are. Let them choose their own principles of action, and if they lead to purity of life and benevolence and humanity of heart, we will not say a word against them.
But in the instance before us they do not produce these good fruits but the contrary, and therefore we have something to say on the other part of the criticism, to wit: that “the reasoning is sophistical and the spirit diabolic;” for indeed, in the sense of pride by which the angels fell, arrogance of judgment, malice and all uncharitableness, we have never looked on printed pages more deeply sinful.
We wish, however, to make all due allowance for incapacity in these writers to do better, and their disqualifications for their task, apart from a form of belief which inclines them rather to cling to the past, than to seek progress for the future, seem to be many.
From Mr. Lewis’s hand we have read but little before these pages, but sufficient to show the quality of his mind. It seems to be what is vulgarly considered the mind of a lawyer, though, in fact, a great lawyer can no more have such an one than a great statesman; but a good advocate may, and the habit of pleading all of one side and seeking to carry a special object, rather than to elicit truth, is likely to give such a cast. It is a mind active, acute upon details, capable of scholarship, but incapable of broad views, or thorough reasoning, and in the last degree unspiritual,—that is to say, blind to the working of principles either in the main stream of life or in the mind of the individual. He has a sense only for rules and precedents and their application to special cases.
Mr. or Dr. Cheever has a mind of better quality and more real life, but that life all tainted by the heat and bitterness of his spirit. He had by nature some congeniality with the noble poetic spirit, but it is soured and checked by the excess of petty and local feelings. It is mournful to see him amid the sublime beauties of Switzerland, fretting himself into a polemical fever against the Roman Catholic Church, or full of anxiety lest he shall forget God, if he cannot put all the emotions such sights inspire into the form of a sermon. It is pitiful to see him in his preface to a work (Vestiges of Creation) which attempts to give a philosophical view of the facts of science, so wholly benighted by his fears as to the spirit and scope of what he treats of, and though, we believe, with a good intention, using the most unfair as well as ridiculous means to provide an antidote against a fancied bane.
The history of this preface is so amusing a specimen of the steps to which the arrogant notions held by some shepherds as to their duties in the care of men’s souls may lead, that we must give it here, only premising that we give it, not as one having authority from the publishers or the prefatorial D.D. himself, but as the received version of the affair. If it be not true let it be corrected; if it be, let it figure in the annals of an age when, if Truth be still alive and bold, it is not the fault of Cant.
The book of the Vestiges was no sooner published in Great Britain than those reverend men and women who, with all their professions of honor to God, evince an amazing skepticism as to his power of upholding truth against the invasions of error, stood up, each in his or her place, to hurl their anathema against the dangerous man who tried to show that God works by law. ‘If he can only make out his case,” cried they, “hen will get the helm of the Universe so completely in his hand, that he may perhaps steer it quite away from God. He professes indeed, a reverence for God, and that he seeks to prove it by attempting to show the harmony which regulates the world. But that is very unlikely; it is too different from our way of going on. We have been contented to know that God made the world, without caring to know the how. Such inquiries are dangerous—who knows whither they may lead? Is it not a horrible thought that men might even be developed to the life of angels, instead of being transported into it in an instant by the hand of Death?—Who can tell where this development is to stop? it might even substitute the study of laws and causes for regular attendance on Church service, perhaps! We’ll none of it!’
Thus cried they, but each from his or her place. The Author of the Vestiges stood in his place and they in theirs and said their say. They made their critiques and he has answered them according to his judgment and ability in the “Explanations.”
Of course a work which had caused so much mental excitement passed over to this country and was published here. It was published, as a matter of business, because it was written and because people wanted to read it. No sooner was it out than our self-elected censors of the press, who, in their vigilance and jealous care, vie with any officials of foreign governments, declare that the book is most shocking, “blasphemous, atheistical,” and, if suffered to go abroad will ruin our nation, root and branch, with its insidious canker.
“But what is to be done?” replies the publisher. “The book is in the world, and people choose to read it. Some one would publish it, if I gave up.”
The answer was found in a commission to Rev. Dr. Cheever to prepare a short prelude, which, being every where played before the piece itself, should put the ear into such a state as to repel all dangerous intoxication. A device borrowed from the wise man of old, who stopped the ears of his mariners with wax when they were exposed to the perilous song of the Syrens. This preface is, in itself, at once one of the weakest and most unfair productions on which we ever glanced. Like the productions before us (on Capital Punishment) it depends for its stress on appeals to passion and prejudice as to themes, where, if ever, they should be silent. Like these, it shows a want of that power without which no argument can ever be either honorable or cogent—the power of comprehending the other side. The assault is principally made by talking of the author groping amid dead matter and similar remarks. The chief reliance as to prejudicing the reader against the work he is about to read is upon addresses to the author as thou fool, or a use of the term “dead” which shows either an utter ignorance and misconception of the work or a willing perversion of truth.
But what we would wish to lay emphasis upon as illustrative of the state of this person’s mind, is the indelicacy, impertinence and arrogance of the position he assumes. Suppose a self-constituted master of ceremonies thus to introduce to a circle an invited guest, “Mr. —– here; you have invited him and I cannot help his entering the room. But I wish first to give you the correct view of him, which you must be careful not to lay aside for any other. I know that he is a wicked, unprincipled man, in fact an Atheist. If he says any thing that seems to imply the contrary, you are to infer that he adds the vice of hypocrisy to all his others. If you find that, in spite of what I say, his conversation and manners make a favorable impression on you, then, indeed, is your danger dreadful and imminent. Do not trust yourself to examine farther, but think of my words, turn in all haste and flee from the wrath to come.”
Such is the position assumed by the Rev. Mr. Cheever in regard to this work; a position not unworthy the worst days of the class he most detests, the framers of golden bulls and expurgatory indexes. So inconsistent is man, and so sadly needful is it that he should, day by day, recall the precept, “Judge not that ye be not judged.”
We know of no parallel yet to offer to the future D’Israeli of our literary history except the preface by another such self-elected guardian to Sir Humphrey Davy’s Consolations in Travel, who charges the reader to attach no importance to the heretical views advanced in the book, as there is every reason to believe that the author recanted them and died a Christian.
The Public, we suppose, have in the present case rejected the guardianship of Mr. Cheever, as the preface is dropt from the third edition, and we found it almost impossible now to procure a copy for the refreshment of our memory.
This position is more legitimately occupied in the book on Capital Punishment, but in the same spirit. We love an honest lover, but next best we, with Dr. Johnson, know how to respect an honest hater. But even he would scarce endure so bitter and ardent a hater as Mr. Cheever, and with so many and inconsistent objects of hatred—one who hates Catholics and thorough Protestants, hates materialists and hates spiritualists. His list is really too large for human sympathy.
Messrs. Lewis and Cheever profess to occupy the position of defence; surely never was one sustained so in the spirit of offence.
The “reasoning is sophistical,” and it would need the patience of a Socrates to ravel the weary web and convince these sophists against their will that they are exactly in the opposite region to what they suppose. For the task we have not space, skill or patience, but we can give some hints by which readers may be led to examine whether it is so or not.
1st. Mr. Lewis appeals either to the natural or regenerate man as suits his purpose. Sometimes all traditions and their literal interpretations are right; sometimes it is impossible to interpret them aright unless according to some peculiar doctrine, and the natural inference of the common mind would be an error.
2d. He strains, but vainly, to show the New Testament no improvement on the Old, and himself in harmonious relations to both. On this subject we would confidently leave the arbitration to a mind, could such an one be found, sufficiently disciplined to examine the subject, and new both to the New Testament and his essay, as that of Rammohun Roy might have been, whether his views are not of the same strain that Jesus sought to correct and enlighten among the Jews, and whether he does not treat the teachings of the new dispensation most unfairly in his desire to wrest them into the service of the old.
3d. Wherever there is a weak place in the argument, it is filled up by abuse of the opposite party. The words ‘absurd,’ ‘infidel,’ ‘blasphemous,’ ‘shallow philosophy,’ ‘sickly sentimentalism,’ and the like, are among the favorite missiles of these defenders of the truth. They are of a sort whose frequent use is generally supposed to argue a want of a shield of reason and a heart of faith.
And this brings us to a more close consideration of the spirit of this book, characterized by our contemporary as ‘diabolic.’ And we, also, cannot excuse ourselves from marking it as, in this respect, one of the worst books we have ever seen.
It is not merely bitter intolerance, arrogance and want of spiritual perception which we have to condemn in these writers. It is a want of fairness and honor, of which we think they must be conscious.
We fear they are of those who hold the opinion that the end sanctifies the means, and who, by pretending to serve the God of Truth by other means than strict truth, have drawn upon the ‘professors of religion’ the frequent obloquy of ‘priestcraft.’ How else are we to construe that artful use of the words ‘dishonest’ and ‘infidel’ wherever they are likely to awaken the fears and prejudices of the ignorant? How the studied introduction and coupling together of the names of Paine and Parker, and the relation in which they stand? Does the writer here sincerely express any conviction of his mind? If he does not, while daring to accuse others of dishonesty, the words moral and penal should, indeed, be associated for him!
Of as bad a stamp as any is the part of the book headed “Spurious Public Opinion.” Here, as in the insinuations against Charles Burleigh, we are unable to believe the writers to be sincere. Where we think they are, however poor and narrow we may esteem their statement, we can respect it, but here we cannot.
Who can believe that such passages as the following stand for any thing real in the mind of the writer?
Why does not the writer draw the inference and accuse God of mistake, as he says His opponents accuse Him, whenever they attempt to get beyond the Jewish ideas of vengeance. He plainly thinks death was the only safe penalty in this case of Cain!
We can only wish for such a man that the vicissitudes of life may break through the crust of theological arrogance and Phariseeism and force him to “dive down” into the depths of his own nature.—We should see afterward whether he would be so forward to throw stones at malefactors, so eager to hurry souls to what he regards as a final account.
But we have said enough as to the spirit and tendency of this book. We shall only add a few words as to the unworthy use of the word “infidel” in the attempt to fix a stigma upon opponents. We feel still more contempt than indignation at the desire to work in this way on the unthinking and ignorant.
We ourselves are of the number stigmatized by these persons as sharing an infidel tendency, as are all not enlisted under their own sectarian banner. They, on their side, seem to us unbelievers in all that is most pure and holy, and in the saving grace of love. They do not believe in God, as we believe; they seem to us utterly deficient in the spirit of Christ, and to be of the number of those who are always calling ‘Lord, Lord,’ yet never have known him. We find throughout these pages the temper of “Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men are,” hatred of those whom they deem Gentiles, and a merciless spirit toward the sinner, yet we do not take upon ourselves to give them the name of Infidels, and we solemnly call them to trial before the bar of the Only Wise and Pure, the Searcher of hearts, to render an account of this daring assumption. We ask them in that presence if they are not of the class threatened with “retribution” for saying to their brother “Thou fool,” and that not merely in the heat of anger, but coolly, pertinaciously, and in a thousand ways.
We call to sit in council the spirits of our Puritan fathers, and ask if such was the right of individual judgment, of private conscience, they came here to vindicate. And we solicit the verdict of posterity as to whether the spirit of mercy or of vengeance be the more divine, and whether the denunciatory and personal mode chosen by these writers for carrying on this inquiry be the true one.
We wish most sincerely the book had been a wise and noble book. To ascertain just principles, it is necessary that the discussion should be full and fair and both sides ably argued. After this has been done, the sense of the world can decide. It would be a happiness for which it might seem that man at this time of day is ripe, that the opposing parties should meet in open lists as brothers, believing each that the other desired only that the truth should triumph, and able to clasp hands as men of different structure and ways of thinking, but fellow students of the Divine will. O had we but found such an adversary, above the use of artful abuse, or the feints of sophistry, able to believe in the noble intention of a foe as of a friend, how cheerily would the trumpets ring out while the assembled world echoed the signal words, “GOD SPEED THE RIGHT!” The tide of Progress rolls onward, swelling more and more with the lives of those who would fain see all men called to repentance. It must be a strong arm, indeed, that can build a dam to stay it even for a moment. None such do we see yet, but we should rejoice in a noble and strong opponent, putting forth all his power for conscience’s sake.—God speed the Right!*
“‘Darkness Visible’,” New-York Daily Tribune, 4 March 1846, p. 1.