James Fitzjames Stephen.

Critical and miscellaneous essays online

. (page 50 of 83)
Online LibraryJames Fitzjames StephenCritical and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 50 of 83)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


the gospeL From them he might have disco-
vered the injustice of his censure ; for the real
nature of religious fanaticism can be learnt
with equal clearness from no other source.
They tell of men who compassed sea and land
to make one proselyte, that when made they
might train him up as a persecutor and a
bigot; of others, who erected sepulchral monu-
ments to the martyrs of a former age, while
unsheathing the sword which was to augment
their number; of some who would have called
down fire from heaven to punish the inhospi-
table city which rejected their master; and of
those who exhausted their bodies with fasting,
and their minds with study, that they might
with deeper emphasis curse the ignorant mul-
titude. They all laboured under a mental dis-
ease, which, amongst fanatics of every gene-
ration, has assumed the same distinctive type.
It consists in an unhallowed alliance of the
morose and vindictive passions with devotion
Of religious excitement Averting the mental
vision from what is cheerful, affectionate, and
animating in piety, the victims of this msilady
regard opposing sects, not as the children, but
as the enemies of God ; and while looking in-
ward with melancholy alternations of pride
and self-reproach, learn to contemplate Deity
Itself with but half-suppressed aversion. To
connect the name of the kind hearted George
Whitfield with such a reproach as this ! To
call on the indolent of all future generations
who should bel eve in Warburton, to associate
the despised itinerant with the Dominies, De
Ranees, and Bimners of former ages ! Truly
the indignant prelate knew not what manner
of spirit he was of. If ever philanthropy
burned in the human heart with a pure and
intense flame, embracing the whole family of
man in the spirit of universal charity, that
praise is pre-eminently due to Whitfield. His
predestinarian speculations perplexed his mind,
but could not check the expansion of his Cap
tholio feelings. ''He loved the world that
hated him." He had no preferences but in
&vour of the ignorant, the miserable, and the
poor. In their cause he shrunk from no pri-
vation, and declined neither insult nor hosti-
lity. To such wrongs he opposed the wea^
pons of an all-enduring meekness, and a love
incapable of repulse. The springs of his bene-
volence were inexhaustible, and could not
choose but flow. Assisted it may have been
by natural disposition, and by many an exter-
nal impulse ; but it ultimately reposed on the
fixed persuasion that he was engaged in a
tacred duty, the faithful discharge of which
would be followed by an imperishable recom-
pense. With whatever undigested subtleties
his religious creed was encumbered, they
oould not hide from him, though they might
pbaonre the truth, that, between the virtues of



this life and the rewards of a fumre state, ilii
connexion is necessary and indissoluble. Ra>
ferring this retributive dispensation exeh^ .
sirely to the divine benevolence, his theology
inculcated humility while it inspired hopoi
It taught him self-distrust, and relianee on a
strength superior to his own; and instructed
him in the mystery which reconciles the ele-
vation and the purity of disinterested love with
those lower motives of action which mors
immediately respect the future advantage of
the agent Whatever else Whitfield may ban
been, a fanatic, in the proper sense of that
term, he assuredly was not.

The charge of enthusiasm was so ambig»
ous, that it might, with equal propriety, be un-
derstood as convejring either commendation or
reproieu^h. Hope is the element in which all |
the great men of the world move and hart
their being. Engaged in arduous and lofty |
designs, tlray must, to a certain extent, live ia
an imaginary world, and recruit their exbaQS>>
ed strength with ideal prospects of the success
which is to repay their labours. But, like
every other emotion when long indulged, hope
jrields but a precarious obedience to the reason*
ing powers; and reason herself, even when
most enlightened, will not seldom make a vo-
luntary abdication of her sovereignty in laTour
of her powerful minister; — surrenderiof up Id
the guidance of impulse a mind whose aims
are too high to be fulfilled under her own sober
counsels. For in " this little state of maa'
the passions must be the free subjects, not thi
slaves of the understanding; and while they
obey her precepts, should impart to her soiM
of their own spirit, warmth, and energy. It n
however, essential to a well constitated nt^
ture, that the subordination of the lower to thi
superior faculties, though occasionally relaxed,
should be habitually maintained. Used with
due abstinence, hope acts as a healthful tonici
in temperately indulged, as an enervating opiate*
The visions of future triumph, which at first
animated exertion, if dwelt upon too intently,
will usurp the place of the stem reality, anu
noble objects will be contemplated, not for
their own inherent worth, but on account of
the day dreams they engender. Thus, imagi-
nation makes one man a hero, another a soin*
nambulist, and a third a lunatic: while it
renders them all enthusiasts. And thus an
classed together, under one generic term, cha^
racters wide asunder as the poles, and stand*
ing at the top and at the bottom of the seala
of human intellect; and the same epithet is
used to describe Francis Bacon and Emanoei
Swedenborg.

Religious men are, for obvious reason^
more subject than others to enthusiasm, both
in its invigorating and in its morbid foroA
They are aware that there is about their path
and about their bed a real presence, which yet
no sense attests. They revere a spiritual «•
mate of the soul, of whom they have no definiis
conciousness. They live in communion with
one, whose nature is chiefly defined by neg»»
tives. They are engaged in duties which caa
be performed acceptably only at the biddiaf
of the deepest affections. They rest their fciti
on prophetic and miraculous suspensions, u



Digitized by VjOOQIC



THB LIYBS OP WHITFIELD AND FROUDB.



87



\ past, of the nsaal course of nature ; and
derive their hopes and fears from the dim sha-
dows cast by things eternal on the troubled
mirror of this transient scene. What wonder
if, under the incumbent weight of such thoughts
as these, the course of active virtue be too
ofVen arrested; or if a religious romance some-
times takes the place of contemplative piety,
and the fictitious gradually supersedes the
real ; and a world of dreams, a system of opi-
nions, and a code of morals, which religion dis-
avow^ occasionally shed their narcotic influ-
ence over a spirit excited and oppressed by the
shapeless forms and the fearful powers with
which it is conversant 1

Both in the more and in the less favourable
reuse of the expression, Whitfield was an en-
thusiasL The thraldom of the active to the
meditative powers was indeed abhorrent from
his nature ; but he was unable to maintain a
just equilibrium between them. His life was
one protracted calenture ; and the mental fever
discoloured and distorted the objects of his
pursuits. Without intellectual discipline or
sound learning, he confounded his narrow
range of elementary topics with the compre-
hensive scheme and science of divinity.
Iieaping over the state of pupilage, he became
at once a teacher and a dogmatist. The les-
sons which he never drew fronv. books, were
never taught him by men. He allowed him-
self no leisure for social intercourse with his
superiors, or with his equals ; but underwent
the debilitating effects of conversing almost
exclusively with those who sat as disciples at
his feet Their homage, and the impetuous
tumult of his career, leA him but superficially
acquainted with himself. Unsuspicious of his
own ignorance, and exposed to flattery far
more intoxicatiug than the acclamations of the
theatre, he laid the foundations of a new reli-
gious system with less of profound thought,
and in a greater penury of theological research,
than had ever fallen to the lot of a reformer or
heresiarch before. The want of learning was
concealed under the dazzling veil of popular
eloquence, and supplied by the assurance of
divine illumination ; and the spiritual influence
on which he thus relied was little else than a
continually recurring miracle. It was not a
power like that which acts throughout the
material world — the unseen and inaudible
source of life, sustaining, cementing, and in-
vigorating all things, hiding itself from the
heedless beneath the subordinate agency it
employs, and disclosed to the thoughtful by
his prolific and plastic energies. The access
of the Sacred presence, which Whitfield ac-
knowledged, was perceptible by an inwuxl
consciousness, and was not merely different,
but distinguishable from the movements of
that intellectual and sensitive mechanism of
his own nature, by means of which it operated.
He discerned it not only in the growth of the
active and passive virtues and in progressive
strength and wisdom and peace, but in sudden
impulses which visited his bosom, and unex-
pected suggcstioQS which directed his path. A
truth of all others the most consolatory and the
most awful, was thus degraded almost to a
level with superstitions, which, in their naked



form, no man would have metre vehementhr
disclaimed; and the great mystery which
blends together the human and the divine in
the Christian dispensation, lost much of its
sublime character, and with it much of its
salutary influence.

It was indeed impossible that a mind fee<^
ing upon such visions as he invited and
cherished should entirely escape their practi-
cal mischief. He would have rejected with
horror the impious dream that the indwelling
Deity would absolve him from any obligation
of justice, mercy, or truth. Yet he could pei^
suade himself that he enjoyed a dispensation
from the duty of canonical obedience to his
ecclesiastical superiors. His revolt against
the authority of the church of which he was a
presbyter is at once avowed and defended by
his present biographer. ^'If,*' he says, ^'a
bishop did good or allowed good to be done,
Whitfield venerated him and his ofiice too;
but he despised both whenever they were hos-
tile to truth or zeal — J have no objection to
say, whenever they were hostile to his own
sentiments and measures. What honest man
would respect an unjust judge, or an ignorant
physician, because of their professional titles 1
It is high time to put an end to this nonsense."

Mr. Philip's boast is not, or at least should
not be, that he is well found in the principles
of casuistry. He is no Ductor Dumantium^
but a spiritual pugilist, who uses his pen as a
cudgeL But, whatever may be the value of
hard words, they are not sufficient to adjust
such a question as this. Under sanctions of
the most awful solemnity, Whitfield had bound
himself to submit to the lawful commands of
his bishop. His '^ measures," being opposed
to the law ecclesiastical, were interdicted by
his diocesan; but, his ** sentiments" telling
him that he was right, and the bishop wrong,
the vow of obedience was, it seems, cancelled.
If so, it was but an impious mockery to maka
or to receive it. If it be really ** nonsense" to
respect so sacred an engagement, then is there
less sense than has usually been supposed in
good faith and plain dealing. Even on the
hazardous assumption that the allegiance
voluntarily assumed by the clergy of the An-
glican church is dissoluble at the pleasure of
the inferior party, it is at least evident that, as
an honest man, Whitfield was bound to aban-
don the advantages when he repudiated ths
duties of the relation in which he stood to his
bishop. But, ** despising" the episcopal ofilce,
he still kept his station in the episcopal church ;
and, if he had no share in her emoluments,
continued at least to enjoy the rank, the wor-
ship, and the influence which attend her mi-
nisters. In the midst of his revolt he per«
formed her offices, and ministered in her tem-
ples, as often as opportunity offered. It was
the dishonest proceeding of a good man bewil-
dered by dreams of the special guidance of a
Divine Monitor. The apology is the enor of
an honest man led astray by a sectarian spirit

The sinister influence of Whitfield's imagi^
nation on his opinions, and through them on
his conduct, may be illustrated by another
example. He not only became the purchaser
of slaves, but condemned the restriction which



Digitized by VjOOQIC



STEPHEN'S laaCBLLAMEOUB WUTINGflL



at that time forbade their introduction into
Georgia. There is extant, in his handwritiDg,
an inventory of the effects at the Orphan
House, in that province, in which these mise-
rable captives take their place between the
cattle and the carts* *' Blessed be God," he
exclaimed, *'for the increase of the negroes.
I entirely approve of reducing the Orphan
House as low as possible, and I am determined
to take no more than the plantation will main-
tain till I can buy more negroes." It is true
that it was only as founder of this asylum for
destitute children that he made these pur-
chases; and true, that in these wretched bonds-
men he recognised immortal beings for whose
eternal welfare he laboured; and it is also
true that the morality of his age was lax on
the subject But the American Quakers were
already bearing testimony against the guilt of
slavery and the slave trade; and even had
they been silent, so eminent a teacher of
Christianity as Whitfield, could not, without
censure, have so far descended from Scriptu-
ral to conventional virtue.

To measure such a man as George Whit-
field by the standards of refined society might
seem a very strange, if not a ludicrous attempt
Yet, as Mr. Philip repeatedly, and with em-
phasis, ascribes to him the character of a
''gentleman,*' it must ^ stated that he was
guilty of high crimes and misdemeanours
against the laws of that aristocratic common-
wealth in which the assertion of social equality,
and the nice observance of the privileges of
sex and rank, are so curiously harmonized.
Such was his want of animal courage, that in
the vigour of his days he could tamely acqui-
esce in a severe personal chastisement, and
fly to the hold of his vessel for safety at the
prospect of an approaching sea-fight Such
was his failure in self-respect, that a tone of
awkward adulation distingtiishes his letters to
Che ladies of high degree who partook and
graced his triumph. But his capital offence
against the code of manners was the absence
of that pudioity which shrinks from exposing
to public gaze the deepest emotions of the
heart In journals originally divulged, and at
last published by himself, and throughout his
voluminous correspondence, he is ** naked and
is not ashamed." Some very coarse elements
must have entered into the composition of a
man who could thus scatter abroad disclo-
sures of the secret communings of his spirit
with his Maker.

Akin to this fault is his seeming uncon-
sciousness of the oppressive majesty of the
topics with which he was habitually occupied.
The seraph in the prophetic vision was ar-
rayed with wings, of which some were given
to urge his flight, and others to cover his face.
Vigorous as were the pinions with which
Whitfield moved, he appears to have been un-
provided with those beneath which his eyes
should have shrunk from too familiar a cor-
templation of the ineffable glory. Where
prophets and apostles *< stood trembling," he
IS at his ease ; where they adored, he declaims.
This is, indeed, one of the besetting sins of
licentiates in divinity. But few ever moved
among the infinitums and eternities of invisi-



ble things with less embarrassment or wHk
less of silent awe. UiustratioDs might be
drawn from every part of his writiiigs, bol
hardly without committing the irreverence wt
condemn.

To the lighter graces of taste and £uief
Whitfield had no pretension. He wa&dered
from shore to shore unobservant of the voa-
ders of art and nature, and tlie strange vaneliei
of men and manners which solicited bis no-
tice. In sermons in idiich no resource within
its reach is neglected, there is scarcely a trace
to be found of such objects having met his eje
or arrested his attention. The poetry of (be
inspired volume awakens in him no corres-
ponding raptures ; and the rhythmical qooi^
tions which overspread his letters never rist
above the tanHlena of the tabernacle. lo po>
lite literature, in phjrsical and moral science,
be never advanced much beyond the standard
of the grammar^chool of St Mary de Crfpt
Even as a theologian, he has no claims to
erudition. He appears to have had no He-
brew and little Greek, and to have stndied
neither ecclesiastical antiquity nor the great
divines of modem times. His reading seens
to have been confined to a few, and those not
the most considerable, of the works of the kler
nonconformists. Neither is it possible toa»
sign him a place among profound or original
thinkers. He was, in fact, almost an UBedo-
cated man ; and the powers of his mind wen
never applied, and perhaps could not hafi
been bent successfully, either to the acqoisi-
tion of abstruse knowledge or to the enlargfr
raent of its boundaries. ** Let the name of
George Whitfield perish if God be glorified,"
was his own ardent and sincere exclamatieBi
His disciples will hardly acquiesce in their
teacher's self-abasement, but will resent, u
injurious to him and to their cause, the impo-
tations of enthusiasm^ of personal timidity, of
irreverence and coarseness of mind, of igao-
rance and of a mediocrity or absence of the
powers of fancy, invention and research. Bat
the apotheosis of saints is no less idolatroos
than that of heroes ; and they have not in-
bibed Whitfield's spirit who cannot brook to
be told that he had his share of the faults and
infirmities which no man more sdemnly as*
cribed to the whole human race.

Such, howeyer, was his energy and sel^d^
votion, that even the defects of his character
were rendered subservient to the one end lor
which he lived. From the days of Paul of
Tarsus and Martin Luther to our own, histoiy
records the career of no man who, with a less
alloy of motives terminating in self, or of pas-
sions breaking loose from the control of rea-
son, concentrated all the faculties of his aoal
with such intensity and perseverance for the
accompUshment of one great design. He b^
longed to that rare variety of the human ape
cies of which it has been said that the libertits
of mankind depend on their inability to wffli-
bine in erecting a universal monarehy. With
nerves incapable of fatigue, and a buoyaat
confidence in himself, which no authority
neglect, or opposition could abate, opposing a
poihydarmatou9 front to all the missiles oi
scorn and contumely, and yet exqaisitely se»



Digitized by V^OOQIC



THE LVnSB OP WMlTFIiSL D AND FROimE.



99



•Ithre to the affection which cheered, and the
applause which rewarded his labours, unem-
barrassed by the learning which rereals diffi-
onlttes, or the meditative powers which suggest
donbts ; with an insatiable thirst for active oc-
eapation, and an unhesitating faith in what-
ever eanse he undertook ; he might have been
one of the most dangerous enemies of the
peace and happiness of the world, if powers
to formidable in their possible abuse had not
been directed to a beneficent end. Judged bjr
the wisdom which is of the earth, earthy, Whit-
fieid would be pronounced a man whose energy
ministered to a vulgar ambition, of which the
triumph over his ecclesiastical superiors, and
the admiration of unlettered multitudes, were
the object and the recompense. Estimated by
those whose religious opinions and observ-
ances are derived from him by hereditary de-
scent, he is nothing less than an apostle,
inspired in the latter ages of the church to
pmnfy her faith and to reform her morals. A
more impartial survey of his life and writings
may suggest the conclusion, that the homage
of admiring crowds, and the blandishments of
courtly dames, were neither unwelcome nor
vnsolicited ; that a hierarchy subdued to inac-
tioB, if not to silence, gratified his self-esteem :
and that, when standing on what he delighted
to call his " throne," the current of devout and
holy thoughts was not uncontaminated by the
admixture of some human exultation. But ill
betide him who delights in the too curious dis-
section of the motives of others, or even of his
own. Such anatomists breathe an impure air,
and unconsciously contract a sickly mental
habit. Whitfield was a great and a holy man ;
among the foremost of the heroes of philan-
thropy, and as a preacher without a superior
era rivaL

If eloquence be justly defined by the emo-
tions it excites, or by the activity it quickens,
the greatest orator of our times was he who
frst announced the victory of Waterloo— if
that station be not rather due to the learned
President of the College of Ph3rsician8, who
daily makes the ears to tingle of those who
listen to his prognostics. But the converse of
the rule may be more readilv admitted, and
we may confidently exclude from the list of
eloquent speakers him whose audience is im-
passive whilst he addresses them, and inactive
afterwards. Every seventh day a great com-
pany of preachers raise their voices in the
land to detect our sins, to explain our duty, to
admonish, to alarm, and to console. Compare
the prodigious extent of this apparatus with
its perceptible results, and, inestimable as they
sre, who will deny that they disappointed the
lK>pe8 which antecedently to experience, the
least sanguine would have indulged? The
preacher has, indeed, no novelties to commu-
nicate. His path has been trodden hard and
dry by constant use ; yet he speaks as an am-
bsLSsador from Heaven, and his hearers are
frail, sorrowing, perplexed, and dying men.
The highest interests of both are at stake.
The preacher's eye rests on his manuscript;
the hearer's turns to the clock ; the half hour
glass runs out its sand ; and the portals close



on well-dressed groups of critics, looking for
all the world as if just dismissed from a lee-
lure on the tertiary strata.

Taking his stand on some rising knoll, his
tall and graceful figure dressed with elaborate
propriety, and composed into an easy and
commanding attitude, Whitfield's clear blue
eye ranged over thousands, and tens of thou-
sands, drawn up in close files on the plain
below, or clustering into masses on every ad-
jacent eminence. A *^ rabble rout" hung on
the skirts of the mighty host ; and the feelings
of the devout were disturbed by the scurrile
jests of the illiterate and the old sarcasms of
the more polished spectators of their worship.
But the rich and varied tones of a voice of
unequalled depth and compass quickly si-
lenced every ruder sound — as in rapid succes-
sion its ever-changing melodies passed from
the calm of simple narrative, to the measured
distinctness of argument, to Uie vehemence of
reproof, and the pathos of heavenly consola-
tion. ** Sometimes the preacher wept exceed-
ingly, stamped loudly and passionately, and
was frequenUy so overcome that for a few
seconds one would suspect he could never
recover, and, when he did, nature required
some little time to compose herself." In words
originally applied to one of the first German
Reformers — vividus vuUtu, vhidi oeuli, vimdm
manust denique omnia wvida. The agitated
assembly caught the passions of the speaker,
and exulted, wept, or trembled at his bidding;
He stood before them, in popular belief, a per-
secuted man, spumed and rejected by lordly
prelates, yet still a presbyter of the church,
and clothed with her authority ; his meek and
lowly demeanour chastened and elevated by
the conscious grandeur of the apostolic suc-
cession. The thoughtful gazed eamesUy on
the scene of solemn interest, pregnant with
some strange and enduring influence on the
future condition of mankind. But the wise
and the simple alike yielded to the enchant
ment; and the thronging multitude gave uttei^
ance to their emotions in every form in which
nature seeks relief from feeling too strong for
mastery.

Whitfield had cultivated the histrionic art
to a perfection which has rarely been obtained
by any who have worn the sock or the buskiik
Foote and Garrick were his frequent hearers^
and brought away wiUi them the characteristi4
and very just remark, that ^ his oratory was
not at its full height until he had repeated a
discourse forty times." The transient delirium



Online LibraryJames Fitzjames StephenCritical and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 50 of 83)