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AGAINST THE MODERN FREE-THINKERS.
THERE arrived in this neighbourhood, two days ago, one of your gay gentlemen of the town, who being attended at his entry with a servant of his own, besides a countryman he had taken up for a guide, excited the curiosity of the village to learn whence and what he might be. The countryman (to whom they applied as most easy of access) knew little more than that the gentleman came from London to travel and see fashions, and was, as he heard say, a Free-thinker; what religion that might be he could not tell; and for his own part, if they had not told him the man was a Free-thinker he should have guessed, by his way of talking, he was little better than a Heathen; excepting only that he had been a good gentleman to him, and made him drunk twice in one day, over and above what they had bargained for.
I do not look upon the simplicity of this, and several odd inquiries with which I shall not trouble you, to be wondered at; much less can I think that our youths of fine wit and enlarged understandings have any reason to laugh. There is no necessity that every squire in Great Britain should know what the word Free-thinker stands for: but it were much to be willed that they who value themselves upon that conceited title were 221a little better instructed in what it ought to stand for, and that they would not persuade themselves a man is really and truly a Free-thinker in any tolerable sense, merely by virtue of his being an Atheist, or an Infidel of any other distinction. It may be doubted with good reason, whether there ever was in nature a more abject, slavish, and bigotted generation than the tribe of Beaux Efprits at present so prevailing in this island. Their pretension to be Free-thinkers is no other than rakes have to be free-livers, and savages to be free-men; that is, they can think whatever they have a mind to, and give themselves up to whatever conceit the extravagancy of their inclination or their fancy shall suggest; they can think as wildly as talk and act, and will not endure that their wit should be controlled by such formal things as decency and common sense; deduction, coherence, consistency, and all the rules of reason, they accordingly disdain, as too precise and mechanical for men of a liberal education.
This, as far as I could ever learn from their writings, or my own observation, is a true account of the British Free-thinker. Our visitant here who gave occasion for this paper, has brought with him a new system of common sense, the particulars of which I am not yet acquainted with, but will lose no opportunity of informing myself whether it contains any thing worth Mr. Spectator’s notice. In the mean time, Sir, I cannot but 222think it would be for the good of mankind if you would take this subject into your own consideration, and convince the hopeful youth of our nation that licentiousness is not freedom: or, if such a paradox will not be understood, that a prejudice towards Atheism is not impartiality.
l am, Sir, your most humble Servant,
Quicquid est illud, quod sentit, quod sapit, quod vult, quod viget, cæleste et divinum est, ab eamque rem æternum sit necesse est.
Whatever that principle is, which lives, perceives, understands, and wills, the same is heavenly and divine, and consequently eternal.
I AM diverted from the account I was giving the town of my particular concerns by casting my eye upon a treatise, which I could not overlook without an inexcuseable negligence and want of concern for all the civil as well as religious interests of mankind. This piece has for its title “A Discourse of Free-thinking, occasioned by the rise and growth of a sect called Free-thinkers.” The author very methodically enters upon his argument, and says, “By Free-thinking, I mean the use of the understanding in endeavouring, to find out the meaning of any proposition whatsoever, 223in considering the nature of the evidence for or against, and in judging of it according to the seeming force or weakness of the evidence.” As soon as he has delivered this definition, from which one would expect he did not design to shew a particular inclination for or against any thing before he had considered it, he gives up all title to the character of a Free-thinker, with the most apparent prejudice against a body of men, whom of all others a good man would be most careful not to violate, I mean, men in holy orders. Persons who have devoted themselves to the service of God are venerable to all who fear him: and it is a certain characteristic of a dissolute and ungoverned mind to rail or speak disrespectfully of them in general. It is certain, that in so great a crowd of men some will intrude who are of tempers very unbecoming their function: but because ambition and avarice are sometimes lodged in that bosom, which ought to be the dwelling of sanctity and devotion, must this unreasonable author vilify the whole order! He has not taken the least care to disguise his being an enemy to the persons against whom he writes, nor any where granted, that the institution of religious men to serve at the altar, and instruct such who are not so wise as himself, is at all necessary or desirable, but proceeds, without the least apology, to undermind their credit, and frustrate their labours. Whatever clergymen, in disputes against each other, have 224 unguardedly uttered, is here recorded in such a manner as to affect religion itself by wresting concessions to its disadvantage from its own teachers. If this be true, as sure any man that reads the discourse must allow it is; and if religion is the strongest tie of human society, in what manner are we to treat this our common enemy, who promotes the growth of such a sect as he calls Free-thinkers? He that should burn a house, and justify the action, by asserting he is a free agent, would be more excuseable than this author in uttering what he has from the right of a Free-thinker; but they are a set of dry, joyless, dull fellows, who want capacities and talents to make a figure amongst mankind upon benevolent and generous principles, that think to surmount their own natural meanness, by laying offences in the way of such as make it their endeavour to excel upon the received maxims and honest arts of life. If it were possible to laugh at so melancholy an affair as what hazards salvation, it would be no unpleasant inquiry to ask what satisfaction they reap, what extraordinary gratification of sense, or what delicious libertinism this sect of Free-thinkers enjoy, after getting loose of the laws which confine the passions of other men? Would it not be a matter of mirth to find, after all, that the heads of this growing sect are sober wretches, who prate whole evenings over coffee, and have not themselves fire enough to be any farther debauchees than 225merely in principle? These sages of iniquity are, it seems, themselves only speculatively wicked, and are contented that all the abandoned young men of the age are kept safe from reflection, by dabbling in their rhapsodies, without tasting the pleasures for which their doctrines leave them unaccountable. Thus do heavy mortals, only to gratify a dry pride of heart, give up the interests of another world, without enlarging their gratifications in this; but it is certain that there are a sort of men that can puzzle truth, but cannot enjoy the satisfaction of it. The same Freethinker is a creature unacquainted with the emotions which possess great minds when they are tuned for religion; and it is apparent that he is untouched with any such sensation as the rapture of devotion. Whatever one of these scorners may think, they certainly want parts to be devout; a sense of piety towards heaven, as well as the sense of any thing else, is lively and warm in proportion to the faculties of the head and heart. This gentleman may be assured he has not a taste for what he pretends to decry, and the poor man is certainly more a blockhead than an Atheist. I must repeat, that he wants capacity to relish what true piety is: and he is as capable of writing an heroic poem as making a fervent prayer. When men are thus low and narrow in their apprehensions of things, and at the same time vain, they are naturally led to think every thing they do not understand 226not to be understood. Their contradiction to what is urged by others is a necessary consequence of their incapacity to receive it. Atheistical fellows, who appeared the last age, did not serve the devil for nought, but revelled in excesses suitable to their principles, while in these unhappy days mischief is done for mischief’s sake. These Free-thinkers, who lead the lives of recluse students, for no other purpose but to disturb the sentiments of other men, put me in mind of the monstrous recreation of these late wild youths, who, without provocation, had a wantonness in stabbing and defacing those they met with. When such writers as this, who has no spirit but that of malice, pretend to inform the age, Mohocks and cut-throats may well set up for wits and men of pleasure.
It will be perhaps expected, that I should produce some instances of the ill intention of this Free-thinker, to support the treatment I here give him. In his 52d page he says,
“2dly. The priests throughout the world differ about Scriptures, and the authority of Scriptures. The Bramins have a book of Scripture called the Shafter. The Persees have their Zundavastaw. The Bonzes of China have books written by the disciples of Fo-he, whom they call the God and Saviour of the world, who was born to teach the way of salvation, and to give satisfaction for all men’s sins. The Taiapoins of Siam have 227a book of Scripture, written by Sommonocodom, who, the Siamese say, was born of a virgin, and was the God expected by the universe. The Dervizes have their Alcoran.”
I believe their is no one will dispute the author’s great impartiality in setting down the accounts of there different religions. And I think it is pretty evident he delivers the matter with an air, that betrays the history of one born of a virgin has as much authority with him, from St. Sommonocodom, as from St. Matthew. Thus he treats revelation. Then as to philosophy, he tells you, p. 136, “Cicero produces this as an instance of a probable opinion, that they who study philosophy do not believe there are any gods;” and then, from consideration of various notions he affirms Tully concludes, “That there can be nothing after death.”
As to what he misrepresents of Tully, the short sentence on the head of this paper is enough to oppose; but who can have patience to reflect upon the assembly of impostures among which our author places the religion of his country? As for my part, I cannot see any possible interpretation to give this work, but a design to subvert and ridicule the authority of Scripture. The peace and tranquility of the nation, and regards even above those, are so much concerned in this matter, that it is difficult to express sufficient sorrow for the offender, or indignation against him. But if ever man deserved to be 228denied the common benefits of air and water, it is the author of a discourse of Free-thinking.
—mentisque capacius altæ. Ovid. I. 1. v. 76.
Capacious of a more exalted mind.
AS I was the other day taking a solitary walk in St. Paul’s, indulged my thoughts in the pursuit of a certain analogy between the fabric and the Christian church in the largest sense. The divine order and œconomy of the one seemed to be emblematically set forth by the just, plain and majestic architecture of the other. And as the one consists of a great variety of parts united in the same regular design, according to the truest art, and most exact proportion; so the other contains a decent subordination of members, various sacred institutions, sublime doctrines, and solid precepts of morality digested into the same design, and with an admirable concurrence tending to one view, the happiness and exaltation of human nature.
In the midst of my contemplation I beheld a fly upon one of the pillars; and it straight-way came into my head, that this same fly was a Free-thinker. For it required some comprehension in the eye of the spectator to 229 take in at one view the various parts of the building, in order to observe their symmetry and design. But to the fly, whose prospect was confined to a little part of one of the stones of a single pillar, the joint beauty of the whole, or the distinct use of its parts, were inconspicuous, and nothing could appear but small inequalities in the surface of the hewn none, which, in the view of that insect, seemed so many deformed rocks and precipices.
The thoughts of a Free-thinker are employed on certain minute particularities of religion, the difficulty of a single text, or the unaccountableness of some step of Providence or point of doctrine to his narrow faculties, without comprehending the scope and design of Christianity, the perfection to which it raiseth human nature, the light it hath shed abroad in the world, and the close connection it hath as well with the good of public societies, as with that of particular persons.
This raised in me some reflections on that frame or disposition which is called largeness of mind, its necessity towards forming a true judgment of things, and where the soul is not incurably stinted by nature, what are the likeliest methods to give it enlargement.
It is evident that philosophy doth open and enlarge the mind, by the general views to which men are habituated in that study, and by the contemplation or more numerous 230and distant objects than fall within the sphere of mankind in the ordinary pursuits of life. Hence it comes to pass that philosophers judge of most things very differently from the vulgar. Some instances of this may be seen in the Theætetus of Plato, where Socrates makes the following remarks among others of the like nature.
“When a philosopher hears ten thousand acres mentioned as a great estate, he looks upon it as an inconsiderable spot, having been used to contemplate the whole globe of earth; or when he beholds a man elated with the nobility of his race, because he can reckon a series of seven rich ancestors, the philosopher thinks him a stupid ignorant fellow, whose mind cannot reach to a general view of human nature, which would shew him that we have all innumerable ancestors, among whom are crouds of rich and poor, kings and slaves, Greeks and Barbarians.” Thus far Socrates, who was accounted wiser than the rest of the Heathens, for notions which approach the nearest to Christianity.
As all parts and branches of philosophy, or speculative knowledge, are useful in that respect, astronomy is peculiarly adapted to remedy a little and narrow spirit. In that science, there are good reasons assigned to prove the sun an hundred thousand times bigger than our earth; and the distance of the stars so prodigious, that a cannon bullet, continuing in its ordinary rapid motion, would not arrive from hence at the nearest of them in 231the space of an hundred and fifty thousand years. These ideas wonderfully dilate and expand the mind. There is something in the immensity of this distance, that shocks and overwhelms the imagination, it is too big for the grasp of the human intellect: estates, provinces, and kingdoms, vanish at its presence. It were to be wished a certain prince, who hath encouraged the study of it in his subjects, had been himself a proficient in astronomy. This might have shewed him how mean an ambition that was, which terminated in a small part of what is in itself but a point, in respect of that part of the universe which lies within our view.
But the Christian religion ennobleth and enlargeth the mind beyond any other profession or science whatsoever. Upon that scheme, while the earth, and the transient enjoyments of this life, shrink in the narrowest dimensions, and are accounted as “the dast of a balance, the drop of a bucket, yea less than nothing,” the intellectual world opens wider to our view: the perfections of the Deity, the nature and excellency of virtue, the dignity of the human soul, are displayed in the largest characters. The mind of man seems to adapt itself to the different nature of its objects; it is contracted and debased by being conversant in little and low things, and feels a proportionable enlargement arising from the contemplation of these great and sublime ideas.
The greatness of things is comparative; 232and this does not only hold, in respect of extension, but likewise in respect of dignity, duration, and all kinds of perfection. Astronomy opens the mind, and alters our judgment, with regard to the magnitude of extended beings but Christianity produceth an universal greatness of soul. Philosophy increaseth our views in every respect but Christianity extends them to a degree beyond the light of nature.
How mean must the most exalted potentate upon earth appear to that eye which takes in innumerable orders of blessed spirits, differing in glory and perfection? How little must the amusements of sense, and the ordinary occupations of mortal men, seem to one who engaged in so noble a pursuit, as the assimulation of himself to the Deity, which is the proper employment of every Christian!
And the improvement which grows from habituating the mind to the comprehensive views of religion must not be thought wholly to regard the understanding. Nothing is of greater force to subdue the inordinate motions of the heart, and to regulate the will. Whether a man be actuated by his passions or his reason, these are first wrought upon by some object, which stirs the soul in proportion to its apparent dimensions. Hence irreligious men, whose short prospects are filled with earth, and sense, and mortal life, are invited by these mean ideas, to actions proportionably little and low. But a mind 233whose views are enlightened and extended by religion, is animated to nobler pursuits, by more sublime and remote objects.
There is not any instance of weakness in the Free-thinkers that raises my indignation more, than their pretending to ridicule Christians, as men of narrow understandings, and to pass themselves upon the world for persons of superior sense, and more enlarged views. But I leave it to any impartial man to judge which hath the nobler sentiments, which the greater views; he whose notions are stinted to a few miserable inlets of sense, or he whose sentiments are raised above the common taste, by the anticipation of those delights which will satiate the soul, when the whole capacity of her nature is branched out into new faculties? he who looks for nothing beyond this short span of duration, or he whose aims are so extended with the endless length of eternity? he who derives his spirit from the elements, or he who thinks it was inspired by the Almighty?
“SINCE you have not refused to insert matters of a theological nature in those excellent papers, with which you daily both instruct and divert us, I earnestly desire you to print the following paper. The notions 234 therein advanced are, for ought I know, new to the English reader, and, if they are true, will afford room for more useful inferences.
No man that reads the Evangelists, but must observe that our blessed Saviour does upon every occasion bend all his force and zeal to rebuke and correct the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Upon that subject he shews a warmth which one meets with in no other part of his sermons. They were so enraged at the public detection of their secret villanies, by one who saw through all their disguises, that they joined in the prosecution of him; which was so vigorous that Pilate at last consented to his death. The frequency and vehemence of these reprehensions of our Lord, have made the word Pharisee to be looked upon as odious among Christians, and to mean only one who lays the utmost stress upon the outward, ceremonial and ritual part of his religion, without having such an inward sense of it as would lead him to a general and sincere observance of those duties which can only arise from the heart, and which cannot be supposed to spring from a desire of applause or profit.
This is plain from the history of the life and actions of our Lord, in the four Evangelists. One of them, St. Luke, continued his history down in a second part, which we commonly call the Acts of the Apostles. Now it is observable, that in this second part, in which he gives a particular account of what the apostles did and suffered at Jerusalem 235upon their firstl entering upon their commission, and also of what St. Paul did after he was consecrated to the apostleship till his journey to Rome, we find not only no opposition to Christianity from the Pharisees, but several signal occasions in which they assisted its first teachers, when the Christian church was in its infant state. The true, zealous and heart persecutors of Christianity at that time were the Sadducees, whom we may truly call the Free-thinkers among the Jews. They believed neither resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, i.e., in plain English, they were Deists at least, if not Atheists. They could outwardly comply with, and conform to the establishment in church and state, and they pretended forsooth to belong only to a particular sect; and because there was nothing in the law of Moses, which, in many words, asserted a resurrection, they appeared to adhere to that in a particular manner beyond any other part of the Old Testament. These men therefore justly dreaded the spreading of Christianity after the ascension of our Lord, because it was wholly founded upon his resurrection.
Accordingly, therefore, when Peter and John had cured the lame man at the beautiful gate of the temple, and had thereby raised a wonderful expectation of themselves among the people, the priests and Sadducees, clapt them up, and sent them away for the first time with a severe reprimand. Quickly after, when the deaths of Ananias and 236Sapphira, and many miracles wrought after those severe instances of the apostolical power had alarmed the priests, who looked upon the temple worship, and consequently their bread, to be struck at; these priests, and all they that were with them, who were of the sect of the Sadducees, imprisoned the apostles, intending to examine them in the great council the next day: where, when the council met, and the priests and Sadducees proposed to proceed with great rigour against them, we find that Gamaliel, a very eminent Pharisee, St. Paul’s master, a man of great authority among the people, many of whose determinations we have still preserved in the body of the Jewish traditions, commonly called the Talmud, opposed their heat, and told them, for ought they knew, the apostles might be actuated by the Spirit of God, and that in such a case it would be in vain to oppose them; since, if they did so, they would only fight against God, whom they could not overcome. Gamaliel was so considerable a man amongst his own sect, that we may reasonably believe he spoke the sense of his party as well as his own. St. Stephen’s martyrdom came on presently after, in which we do not find the Pharisees, as such, had any hand; it is probable that he was prosecuted by those who had before imprisoned Peter and John. One novice indeed of that sect was so zealous that he kept the clothes of those that stoned him. This novice, whose zeal went beyond all bounds, 237the great St. Paul, who was particularly honoured with a call from heaven by which be was converted, and he was afterwards, by God himself, appointed to be the Apostle of the Gentiles. Besides him, and him too reclaimed in so glorious a manner, we find no one Pharisee, either named or hinted at by St. Luke, as an opposer of Christianity in these earliest days. What others might do we know not. But we find the Sadducees pursuing St. Paul even to death at his coming to Jerusalem, in the 21st of the Acts. He then, upon all occasions, owned himself to be a Pharisee. In the 22d chapter he told the people, that he had been bred up at the feet of Gamaliel after the strictest manner, in the law of his fathers. In the 23d chapter he told the council that he was a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee, and that he was accused for asserting the hope and resurrection of the dead, which was their darling doctrine. Hereupon the Pharisees stood by him, and though they did not own our Saviour to be the Messiah, yet they would not deny but some angel or spirit might have spoken to him, and then if they opposed him, they should fight against God. This was the very argument Gamaliel had used before. The resurrection of our Lord, which they saw so strenuously asserted by the apostles, whose miracles they also saw and owned, (Acts iv. 16) seems to have struck them, and many of them were converted (Acts xv. 5.) even without a miracle, and the rest stood still and made no opposition.238
We see here what the part was which the Pharisees acted in this important conjuncture. Of the Sadducees, we meet not with one in the whole apostolic history that was converted. We hear of no miracles wrought to convince any of them, though there was an eminent one wrought to reclaim a Pharisee. St. Paul, we see, after his conversion, always gloried in his having been bred a Pharisee. He did so to the people of Jerusalem, to the great council, to King Agrippa, and to the Philippians. So that from hence we may justly infer, that is was not their institution, which was in itself laudable, which our blessed Saviour found fault with, but it was their hypocrisy, their covetousness, their oppression, the overvaluing themselves upon their zeal for the ceremonial law, and their adding to that yoke, by their traditions, all which were not properly essentials of their institution, that our Lord blamed.
But I must not run on. What I would observe, Sir, is, that Atheism is more dreadful, and would be more grievous to human society, if it were invested with sufficient power, than religion under any shape, where its professors do at the bottom believe what they profess, I despair not of a Papist’s conversion, though I would not willingly lie at a zealot Papist’s mercy, (and no Protestant would, if he knew what Popery is) though he truly believes in our Saviour. But the Free-thinker, who scarcely believes there is a God, and certainly disbelieves revelations 239 is a very terrible animal. He will talk of natural rights, and the just freedoms of mankind, no longer than till he himself gets into power; and, by the instance before us, we have small grounds to hope for his salvation, or that God will ever vouchsafe him sufficient grace to reclaim him from errors, which have been so immediately levelled against himself.
If these notions be true, as I verily believe they are, I thought they might be worth publishing at this time, for which reason they are sent in this manner to you by,
Your most humble Servant.
Quid si in hoc erro, quod animos hominum immortales esse credam, libenter erro: nec mihi hunc errorem, quo delector, dum vivo, extorqueri velo: sin mortuus (ut quidam minuti philosophi censent) nihil sentiam; no vereor, ne hunc errorem meum mortui philosophi irrideant.
I please myself in my mistake: nor while I live, will I ever chuse, that this opinion, wherewith I am so much delighted, should be wrested from me, but if, at death, I am to be annihilated, as some minute philosophers imagine, I am not afraid lest those wise men when extinct too, should laugh at my error.
SEVERAL letters which I have lately received give me information, that some well disposed persons have taken offence at my using the word Free-thinker as a term of reproach; To set therefore this matter in a clear light, I must declare that no one can have a greater veneration than myself for the Free-thinkers of antiquity, who acted the same part in those times, as the great men of the reformation did in several nations of Europe, by exerting themselves against the idolatry and superstition of the times in which they lived. It was by this noble impulse that Socrates and his disciples, as well as all the philosophers of note in Greece; and Cicero, Seneca, with all the learned men of Rome, endeavoured to enlighten their contemporaries amidst the darkness and ignorance in which the world was then sunk and buried.
The great points which these Free-thinkers endeavoured to establish and inculcate into the minds of men, were, the formation of 241the universe, the superintendency of Providence, the perfection of the divine nature, the immortality of the soul, and the future state of rewards and punishments. They all complied with the religion of their country, as much as possible, in such particulars as did not contradict and pervert these great and fundamental doctrines of mankind. On the contrary, the persons who now set up for Free-thinkers, are such as endeavour, by a little trash of words and sophistry, to weaken and destroy those very principles, for the vindication of which, freedom of thought at first become laudable and heroic. These apostates from reason and good sense, can look at the glorious frame of nature, without paying any adoration to him that raised it; can consider the great revolutions in the universe, without lifting up their minds to that superior power which hath the direction of it; can presume to censure the Deity in his ways towards men; can level mankind with the beasts that perish; can extinguish in their own minds all the pleasing hopes of a future state, and lull themselves into a stupid security against the terrors of it. If one were to take the word Priestcraft out of the mouths of these shallow monsters, they would be immediately struck dumb. It is by the help of this single term that they endeavour to disappoint the good works of the most learned and venerable order of men, and harden the hearts of the ignorant against the very light of nature, 242and the common received notions of mankind. We might not to treat such miscreants as these upon the foot of fair disputants, but to pour out contempt upon them, and speak of them with scorn and infamy, as the pest of society, the revilers of human nature, and the blasphemers of a Being, whom a good man would rather die than hear dishonoured. Cicero, after having mentioned the great heroes of knowledge that recommended this divine doctrine of the immortality of the soul, calls those small pretenders to wisdom who declared against it, certain minute philosophers, using a diminutive even of the word little, to express the despicable opinion he had of them. The contempt he throws upon them in another passage is yet more remarkable; where, to shew the mean thoughts he entertains of them, he declares, he would rather be in the wrong with Plato, than in the right with such company. There is indeed nothing in the world so ridiculous as one of these grave philosophical Free-thinkers, that hath neither passions nor appetites to gratify, no hates of blood nor vigour of constitution that can turn his systems of Infidelity to his advantage, or raise pleasures out of them which are inconsistent with the belief of an hereafter. One that has neither wit, gallantry, mirth or youth to indulge by those notions, but only a poor, joyless, uncomfortable vanity of distinguishing himself from the rest of mankind, is rather to be regarded as a mischievous lunatic 243than a mistaken philosopher. A chaste Infidel, a speculative Libertine, is an animal that I should not believe to be in nature, did I not sometimes meet with this species of men, that plead for the indulgence of their passions in the midst of a severe studious life, and talk against the immortality of the soul over a dish of coffee.
I would fain ask a minute philosopher, what good he proposes to mankind by the publishing of his doctrines? Will they make a man a better citizen, or father of a family; a more endearing husband, friend, or son? Will they enlarge his public or private virtues, or correct any of his frailties or vices? What is there either joyful or glorious in such opinions? Do they either refresh or enlarge our thoughts? Do they contribute to the happiness, or raise the dignity of human nature? The only good that I have ever heard pretended to, is, that they banish terrors, and set the mind at ease. But whose terrors do they banish? It is certain, if there were any strength in their arguments, they would give great disturbance to minds that are influenced by virtue, honour and morality, and take from us the only comforts and supports of affliction, sickness and old age. The minds therefore which they set at ease, are only those of impenitent criminals and malefactors, and which, to the good of mankind, should be in perpetual terror and alarm.
I must confess, nothing is more of usual than 244for a Free-thinker, in proportion as the insolence of scepticism is abated in him by years and knowledge, or humbled or beaten down by sorrow or sickness, to reconcile himself to the general conceptions of reasonable creatures; so that we frequently see the apostates turning from their revolt toward the end of their lives, and employing the refuse of their parts in promoting those truths which they had before endeavoured to invalidate.
The history of a Gentleman in France is very well known, who was so zealous a promoter of Infidelity, that he had got together a select company of disciples, and travelled into all parts of the kingdom to make converts. In the midst of his fantastical success he fell sick, and was reclaimed to such a sense of his condition, that after he had passed some time in great agonies and horrors of mind, he begged those who had the care of burying him, to dress his body in the habit of a Capuchin, that the devil might not run away with it: and, to do farther justice upon himself, desired them to tie a halter about his neck, as a mark of that ignominious punishment, which in his own thoughts he he had so justly deserved.
I would not have persecution so far disgraced, as to with these vermin might be animadverted on by any legal penalties; though I think it would be highly reasonable that those few of them who die in the professions of their infidelity, should have such 245tokens of infamy fixed upon them, as might distinguish those bodies which are given up by the owners to oblivion and putrefaction, from those which rest in hope, and shall rise in glory. But, at the same time that I am against doing them the honour of the notice of our laws, which ought not to suppose there are such criminals in being, I have often wondered, how they can be tolerated in any mixed conversations, while they are venting these absurd opinions; and should think, that if, on any such occasions, half a dozen of the most robust Christians in the company would lead one of these Gentlemen to a pump, or convey him into a blanket, they would do very good service both to church and state. I do not know how the law stands in this particular; but I hope, whatever knocks, bangs or thumps, might be given with such an honest intention, would not be construed as a breach of the peace. I dare say they would not be returned by the person who receives them; for whatever these fools may say in the vanity of their hearts, they are too wise to risk their lives upon the uncertainty of their opinions.
When I was a young man about this town, I frequented the ordinary of the Black Horse, in Holburn, where the person that usually presided at the table was a rough old-fashioned Gentleman, who according to the customs of those times, had been the Major and Preacher of a regiment. It happened one day that a nosy young officer, bred in France, 246was venting some new fangled notions, and speaking, in the gaity of his humour, against the dispensations of Providence. The Major at first only desired him to talk more respectfully of one for whom all the company had an honour; but finding him run on in his extravagance, began to reprimand him after a more serious manner. Young man! said he, do not abuse your benefactor, whilst you are eating his bread. Consider whose air you breathe, whose presence you are in, and who it is that gave you the power of that very speech which you make use of to his dishonour. The young fellow, who thought to turn matters into a jest, asked him, if he was going to preach? But, at the same time, desired him to take care what he said, when he spoke to a man of honour. A man of honour, says the Major; thou art an Infidel and a blasphemer, and I shall use thee as such. In short, the quarrel ran so high, that the Major was desired to walkout. Upon their coming into the garden, the old fellow advised his antagonist to consider the place into which one pass might drive him; but finding him grow upon him to a degree of scurrility, as believing the advice proceeded from fear; Sirrah, says he, if a thunderbolt does not strike thee dead before I come at thee, I than not fail to chastise thee for thy profaneness to thy Maker, and thy sauciness to his servant. Upon this he drew his sword, and cried out with a loud voice, “The sword of the Lord and of 247 Gideon;” which so terrified his antagonist, that he was immediately disarmed, and thrown upon his knees. In this posture he begged his life; but the Major refused to grant it before he had asked pardon for his offence in a short extemporary prayer, which the old Gentleman dictated to him upon the spot, and which his proselyte repeated after him, in the presence of the whole ordinary, that were now gathered about him in the garden.
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