An Essay on the Evils of Popular Ignorance
John Foster

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An Essay on the Evils of Popular Ignorance

By John Foster.

Revised and Enlarged Edition.

"A Work, which, popular and admired as it confessedly is, has never
met with the thousandth part of the attention which it deserves. It
appears to me that we are now at a crisis in the state of our country,
and of the world, which renders the reasonings and exhortations of
that eloquent production applicable and urgent beyond all power of
mine to express."

Dr. J. Pye Smith.


If the circumstance of a manner of introduction somewhat different from
what would be expected in a composition of the essay class were worth a
very few words of explanation, it might be mentioned, that the
following production has grown out of the topics of a discourse,
delivered at a public anniversary meeting in aid of the British and
Foreign School Society.

When it was thought, a good while after that occasion, that a more
extensive use might be made of some of the observations, the writing was
begun in the form of a Discourse addressed to an assembly, and commencing
with a sentence from the Bible, to serve as a general indication to the
subject. But after some progress had been made, it became evident that
anything like a comprehensive view of that subject would be incompatible
with the proper limits of such a composition.

In relinquishing, however, the form of a public address, the writer
thought he might be excused for leaving some traces of that character to
remain, in both the cast of expression and the theological sentiment; for
reverting repeatedly to the sentence from Scripture; and for continuing
the use of the plural pronoun, so commodious for the modest egotism of
public discoursers.

In the general design and course of observations, the essay retains the
character of the original discourse, which was, in accordance to the
presumed expectations of a grave assembly, an attempt to display the
importance of the education of the people in reference, mainly, to moral
and religious interests. There are special relations in which their
ignorance or cultivation are of great consequence to the welfare of the
community. Some of these are of indispensable consideration to the
legislator, and to the political economist. But it is in that general and
moral view, in which ignorance in the lower orders is beheld the cause of
their vice, irreligion, and consequent misery, that the subject is
attempted, imperfectly and somewhat desultorily, to be illustrated in the
following pages.

Nor was it within the writer's design to suggest any particular plans,
regulations, or instrumental expedients, in promotion of the system of
operations hopefully begun, for raising these classes from their
degradation. His part has been to make such a prominent representation of
the calamitous effects of their ignorance, as shall prove it an aggravated
national guilt to allow another generation to grow up to the same
condition as the present and the past. In the course of attempting this,
occasions have been seized of exposing the absurdity of those who are
hostile to the mental improvement of the people. If any one should say
that this is a mere beating of the air, for that all such hostility is now
gone by, he may be assured there are many persons, of no insignificant
rank in society, who would from their own consciousness smile at the
simplicity with which he can so easily shape men's opinions and
dispositions to his mind whether they will or not. He must have been the
most charitable or the most obtuse of observers.

It is feared the readers of the following essay will find some defect of
distribution and arrangement. To the candor of those who are practised in
literary work it would be an admissible plea, that when, in a preparation
to meet a particular occasion for which but little time has been allowed,
a series of topics and observations has been hastily sketched out, it is
far from easy to throw them afterwards into a different order. The author
has to bespeak indulgence also, here and there, to something too like
repetition. If he qualifies the terms in which this fault is acknowledged,
it is because he thinks that, though there be a recurrence of
similarities, a mere bare iteration is avoided, by means of a diversity
and addition of the matter of illustration and enforcement.

Any benevolent writer on the subject would wish he could treat it without
such frequent use of the phrases, "lower orders," "subordinate classes,"
"inferior portion of society," and other expressions of the same kind;
because they have an invidious sound, and have indeed very often been used
in contempt. He can only say, that he uses them with no such feeling; that
they are employed simply as the most obvious terms of designation; and
that he would like better to employ any less ungracious ones that did not
require an affected circumlocution.

In several parts of the essay, there will be found a language of emphatic
censure on that conduct of states, that predominant spirit and system in
the administration of the affairs of nations, by which the people have
been consigned to such a deplorable condition of intellectual and
consequently moral degradation, while resources approaching to immensity
have been lavished on objects of vanity and ambition. So far from feeling
that such observations can require any apology, the writer thinks it is
high time for all the advocates of intellectual, moral, and religious
improvement, to raise a protesting voice against that policy of the states
denominated Christian, and especially our own, which has, through age
after age, found every conceivable thing necessary to be done, at all
costs and hazards, rather than to enlighten, reform, and refine the
people. He thinks that nothing can more strongly betray a judgment
enslaved, or a time-serving dishonesty, in those who would assume to
dictate to such an advocate and to censure him, than that sort of doctrine
which tells him that it is beside his business, and out of his sphere, as
a Christian moralist, to animadvert on the conduct of national
authorities, when he sees them, during one long period of time after
another, not doing that which is the most important of all things to be
done for the people over whom they preside, but doing what is in substance
and effect the reverse; and doing it on that great scale, which contrasts
so fearfully with the small one, on which the individuals who deplore such
perversion of power are confined to attempt a remedy of the consequences.

This interdiction comes with its worst appearance when it is put forth in
terms affecting a profound reverence of religion; a reverence which
cannot endure that so holy a thing should be defiled, by being brought in
any contact with such a subject as the disastrous effect of bad
government, on the intellectual and moral state of the people. The
advocate of schemes for the improvement of their rational nature _may_,
it seems, take his ground, his strongest ground, on religion, for
enforcing on _individuals_ the duty of promoting such an object. In the
name and authority of religion he may press on their consciences with
respect to the application of their property and influence; and he may
adopt under its sanction a strongly judicial language in censure of their
negligence, their insensibility to their accountableness, and their
lavish expenditures foreign to the most Important uses: in all this he
does well. But the instant he begins to make the like judicial
application of its laws to the public conduct of the governing
authorities, that instant he debases Christianity to politics, most
likely to party-politics; and a pious horror is affected at the
profanation. Christianity is to be honored somewhat after the same manner
as the Lama of Thibet. It is to stay in its temple, to have the
proprieties of homage duly preserved within its precincts, but to be
_exempted_ (in reverence of its sanctity!) from all cognizance of great
public affairs, even in the points where they most interfere with or
involve its interests. It could show, perhaps, in what manner the
administration of those affairs injures these interests; but it would
degrade its sacred character by talking of any such matter. But
Christianity must have leave to decline the sinister compliment of such
pretended anxiety to preserve it immaculate. As to its sacred character,
it can _venture that,_ on the strength of its intrinsic quality and of
its own guardianship, while, regardless of the limits thus attempted in
mock reverence to be prescribed, it steps in a censorial capacity on what
will be called a political ground, so far as to take account of what
concern has been shown, or what means have been left disposable, for
operations to promote the grand essentials of human welfare, by that
public system which has grasped and expended the strength of the
community, Christianity is not so demure a thing that it cannot, without
violating its consecrated character, go into the exercise of this
judicial office. And as to its _right_ to do so,--either it has a right
to take cognizance now of the manner in which the spirit and measures of
states and their regulators bear upon the most momentous interests, or it
will have no right to be brought forward as the supreme law for the final
award on those proceedings and those men. [Footnote: A censure on this
alleged desecration of religious topics, which had been pronounced on the
Essay (first edit.) by a Review making no small pretensions both
religious and literary, was the immediate cause that prompted these
observations. But they were made with a general reference to a
hypocritical cant much in vogue at that time, and long before. That it
_was_ hypocritical appeared plainly enough from the circumstance, that
those solemn rebukes of the profanation of religion, by implicating it
with political affairs, smote almost exclusively on one side. Let the
religious moralist, or the preacher, amalgamate religion as largely as he
pleased with the _proper sort_ of political sentiments, that is, the
servile, and then it was all right.]

It is now more than twenty years since a national plan of education for
the inferior classes, was brought forward by Mr. (now Lord) Brougham. The
announcement of such a scheme from such an Author, was received with hope
and delight by those who had so long deplored the condition of those
classes. But when it was formally set forth, its administrative
organization appeared so defective in liberal comprehension, so
invidiously restricted and accommodated to the prejudices and demands of
one part of the community, that another great division, the one in which
zeal and exertions for the education of the people had been more and
longer conspicuous, was constrained to make an instant and general protest
against it. And at the same time it was understood, that the party in
whose favor it had been so inequitably constructed, were displeased at
even the very small reserve it made from their monopoly of jurisdiction.
It speedily fell to the ground, to the extreme regret of the earnest
friends of popular reformation that a design of so much original promise
should have come to nothing.

All legislative consideration of the subject went into abeyance; and has
so remained, with trifling exception, through an interval in which far
more than a million, in England alone, of the children who were at that
time within that stage of their life on which chiefly a general scheme
would have acted, have grown up to animal maturity, destitute of all that
can, in any decent sense of the word, be called education. Think of the
difference between their state as it is, and what it might have been if
there had at that time existed patriotism, liberality, and moral
principle, enough to enact and carry into effect a comprehensive measure.
The longer the neglect the more aggravated the pressure with which the
subject returns upon us. It is forcing itself on attention with a demand
as peremptory as ever was the necessity of an embankment against the peril
of inundation. There are no indications to make us sanguine as to the
disposition of the most influential classes; but it were little less than
infatuation not to see the necessity of some extraordinary proceeding, to
establish a fortified line between us and--not national dishonor; _that_
is flagrantly upon us, but--the destruction of national safety.

As to national dishonor, by comparison with what may be seen elsewhere, it
is hardly possible for a patriot to feel a more bitter mortification than
in reading the description, as recently given by M. Cousin, of the state
of education in the Prussian dominions, and then looking over the hideous
exhibition of ignorance and barbarism in this country; in representing to
himself the vernal intelligence, (as we may rightly name it,) the
information, the sense of decorum, the fitness for rational converse,
which must quite inevitably diffuse a value and grace throughout the
general youthful character under such a discipline, and then changing his
view to what may be seen all over his own country--an incalculable and
ever-increasing tribe of human creatures, growing up in a condition to
show what a wretched and offensive thing is human nature left to itself.

When neither opprobrium, nor prospective policy, nor sense of duty, can
constrain the attention of the officially and virtually ruling part of
society to an important national interest, it is sure to come on them at
last in some more alarming and imperative manifestation. The present and
very recent times have afforded significant indication of what an ignorant
populace are capable of believing, and of being successfully instigated to
perpetrate. It is not to be pretended that such ignorance, and such
liabilities to mischief, exist only in particular spots of the land, as if
the local outbreaks were merely incidental and insulated facts, standing
out of community with anything widely pervading the mass. Within but very
few years of the present date, we have had the spectacle of millions,
literally millions, of the people of England, yielding an absolute
credence to the most monstrous delusions respecting public questions and
measures, imposed on them by dishonest artifice, and what may be called
moral incendiarism; and these delusions of a nature to excite the passions
of the multitude to crime. It is difficult to believe that all this can be
seen without serious apprehension, by those who sustain the primary
responsibility for devising measures to secure the national _safety_,
(that we may take the lowest term of national welfare;) and that they can
be content to rest that security on expedients which, in keeping the
people in order, make them no wiser or better. It would truly be a
glorious change in our history, if we might at length see the national
power wielded by enlightened, virtuous, and energetic spirits, not only to
the bare effect of withstanding disorder and danger, but in a resolute,
invincible determination to redeem us from the national ignominy of
exhibiting to the world, far in the nineteenth century, a rude,
unprincipled, semi-barbarous populace.

Thus far the hopes which had flattered us with such a change, as a
consequence of a political movement so considerable as to be denominated a
revolution, have been grievously disappointed. We must wait, but with
prognostics little encouraging, to see whether a professed concern for
popular education will result in any effective scheme. That profession has
hitherto been followed up with so little appearance of earnest conviction,
or of high and comprehensive purpose, among the majority of the
influential persons who, perhaps for decorum's sake, have made it, as to
leave cause for apprehension that, if any such scheme were to be proposed,
it would be in the first instance very limited in its compass, indecisive
in its enforcement, and niggardly in its pecuniary appointments. Many of
our legislators have never thought of investigating the condition of the
people, and are unaware of their deplorable destitution of all mental
cultivation; and many have formed but a low and indistinct estimate of the
kind and measure of cultivation desirable to be imparted. Very slowly does
the conviction or the desire make its way among the favorites of fortune,
that the portion of humanity so far below them should be raised to the
highest mental condition compatible with the limitation and duties of
their subordinate allotment.

No doubt, the most genuine zeal for the object would find difficulties in
the way, of a magnitude to require a great and persevering exertion of
power, were they only those opposed by the degraded condition of the
people themselves; by the utter carelessness of one part, and the
intractableness of another. Nor is it to be denied, that the differences
of religious opinion, among the promoters of the design, must create
considerable difficulty as to the mode and extent of religious
instruction, to form a part of a comprehensive system. But we are told,
besides, of we know not what obstruction to be encountered from prejudices
of prescription, privileged and peculiar interests, the jealous pride of
venerable institutions, assumed rights of station and rank, punctilios of
precedence, the tenacity of parties who find their advantage in things as
they are, and so forth; all to be deferentially consulted.

If this mean that the old horror of a bold experimental novelty is still
to be yielded to; that nothing in this so urgent affair is to be ventured
but in a creeping inch-by-inch movement; that the reign of gross
ignorance, with all its attendant vices, is to be allowed a very leisurely
retreat, retaining its hold on a large portion of the present and
following generations of the children, and therefore the adults; that
their condition and fate shall be mainly left at the discretion of
ignorant and often worthless parents; that there shall be no considerable
positive exaction of local provision for the institution, or of attendance
of those who should be benefited by it; that, in short, there shall not be
a comprehensive application of the national power through its organ, the
government, by authoritative, and, we must say, in some degree coercive
measures, to abate as speedily as possible the national nuisance and
calamity of such a state of the juvenile faculties and habits as we see
glaring around us; and all this because homage is demanded to anticipated
prejudices, selfishness of privilege, venerable institutions, pride of
station, jealousy of the well-endowed, and the like:--if this be what is
meant, we may well ask whether these factitious prerogatives, that would
thus interfere to render feeble, partial, and slow, any projected exertion
to rescue the nation from barbarism, turpitude, and danger, be not
themselves among the most noxious things in the land, and the most
deserving to be extirpated.

How readily will the proudest descend to the plea of impotence when the
exhortation is to something which they care not for or dislike, but to
which, at the same time, it would be disreputable to avow any other than
the most favorable sentiments, to be duly expressed in the form of great
regret that the thing is impracticable. Impracticable--and does the case
come at last to be this, that from one cause and another, from the
arrogance of the high and the untowardness of the low, the obstinacy of
prejudice, and the rashness of innovation, the dissensions among friends
of a beneficent design and the discountenance of those who are no better
than enemies, a mighty state, triumphantly boasting of every _other_
kind of power, absolutely _cannot_ execute a scheme for rescuing its
people from being what a great Authority on this subject has pronounced
"the worst educated nation in Europe?" Then let it submit, with all its
pomp, pride, and grandeur, to stand in derision and proverb on the face
of the earth.

* * * * *

With a view to a wider circulation than that which is limited by the price
of the volume published in an expensive form and style of printing, it has
been deemed advisable to publish a cheap edition of the "Essay on Popular
Ignorance." It is not in any degree an abridgment of the preceding
edition; the only omission, of the slightest consequence, being in a few
places where changes have been rendered necessary by the subsequent
conduct of our national authorities, as affecting our speculations and
prospects in relation to general education; while, on the other hand,
there are numerous little additions and corrections, in attempts to bring
out the ideas more fully, or with some little afterthought of
discrimination or exception. In some instances the connection and
dependence of the series of thoughts have been rendered more obvious, and
the sentences reduced to a somewhat more simple and compact construction;
but the principal object in this _final revised_ has been literary
correction, without any material enlargement or change.

It is hoped that this reprint in a popular form may serve the purpose of
contributing something, in co-operation with the present exertions, to
expose, and partially remedy, the lamentable and nationally disgraceful
ignorance to which the people of our country have been so long abandoned.


Section I.

Defect of sensibility in the view of the unhappiness of mankind.
--Ignorance one grand cause of that unhappiness.--Ignorance prevalent
among the ancient Jewish people.--Its injurious operation--and
ultimately destructive consequence.--More extended consideration of
ignorance as the cause of misery among the ancient heathens.

Section II.

Brief review of the ignorance prevailing through the ages subsequent to
those of ancient history.--State of the popular mind in Christendom
during the complete reign of Popery.--Supposed reflections of a
Protestant in one of our ancient splendid structures for ecclesiastical
use.--Slow progress of the Reformation, in its effects on the
understandings of the people.--Their barbarous ignorance even in the
time of Elizabeth, notwithstanding the intellectual and literary glories
of this country in that period.--Sunk in ignorance still in what has
often been called our Augustan age.--Strange insensibility of the
cultivated part of the nation with regard to the mental and moral
condition of the rest.--Almost heathen ignorance of religion at the time
when Whitefield and Wesley began to excite the attention of the
multitude to that subject.--Signs and means of a change for the better
in recent times.

Section III.

Great ignorance and debasement still manifest in various features of the
popular character.--Entire want, in early life, of any idea of a general
and comprehensive purpose to be pursued--Gratification of the senses
the chief good.--Cruelty a subsidiary resource.--Disposition to cruelty
displayed and confirmed by common practices.--Confirmed especially by
the manner of slaughtering animals destined for food.--Displayed in the
abuse of the laboring animals.--General characteristic of the people an
indistinct and faint sense of right and wrong.--Various
exemplifications.--Dishonor to our country that the people should have
remained in such a condition.--Effects of their ignorance as appearing
in several parts of the economy of life; in their ordinary occupations;
in their manner of spending their leisure time, including the Sunday; in
the state of domestic society; consequences of this last as seen in the
old age of parents.--The lower classes placed by their want of education
out of amicable communication with the higher.--Unhappy and dangerous
consequences of this.--Great decline of the respect which in former
times the people felt toward the higher classes and the existing order
of the community.--Progress of a contrary spirit.

Section IV.

Objection, that a material increase of knowledge and intelligence among
the people would render them unfit for their station, and discontented
with it; would excite them to insubordination and arrogance toward
their superiors; and make them the more liable to be seduced by the
wild notions and pernicious machinations of declaimers, schemers, and
innovators.--Observations in answer.--Special and striking absurdity
of this objection in one important particular.--Evidence from matter of
fact that the improvement of the popular understanding has not the
tendency alleged.--The special regard meant to be had to _religious_
instruction in the education desired for the lower classes, a security
against their increased knowledge being perverted into an excitement to
insubordination and disorder.--Absurdity of the notion that an improved
education of the common people ought to consist of instruction
specifically and almost solely religious.--The diminutive quantity of
religious as well as other knowledge to which the people would be
limited by some zealous advocates of order and subordination utterly
inadequate to secure those objects.--But, question what is to be
understood by order and subordination.--Increased knowledge and sense
in the people certainly not favorable to a credulous confidence and a
passive, unconditional submission, on their part, toward the presiding
classes in the community.--Advantage, to a wise and upright government,
of having intelligent subjects.--Great effect which a general
improvement among the people would necessarily have on the manner of
their being governed.--The people arrived, in this age, at a state
which renders it impracticable to preserve national tranquillity
without improving their minds and making some concession to their
claims.--Folly and probable calamity of an obstinate resolution to
maintain subordination in the nations of Europe in the arbitrary and
despotic manner of former times.--Facility and certain success of a
better system.

Section V.

Extreme poverty of religious knowledge among the uneducated people:
their notions respecting God, Providence, Jesus Christ, the invisible
world.--Fatal effect of their want of mental discipline as causing an
inaptitude to receive religious information.--Exemplifications,--in a
supposed experiment of religious instruction in a friendly visit to a
numerous uneducated family; in the stupidity and thoughtlessness often
betrayed in attendance on public religious services; in the
impossibility of imparting religious truths, with any degree of
clearness, to ignorant persons, when alarmed into some serious concern
by sickness; in the insensibility and invincible delusion sometimes
retained in the near approach to death.--Rare instances of the
admirable efficacy of religion to animate and enlarge the faculties,
even in the old age of an ignorant man.--Excuses for the intellectual
inaptitude and perversion of uncultivated religious
minds.--Animadversions on religious teachers.

Section VI.

Supposed method of verifying the preceding representation of the
ignorance of the people.--Renewed expressions of wonder and
mortification that this should be the true description of the English
nation.--Prodigious exertions of this nation for the accomplishment of
objects foreign to the improvement of the people.--Effects which might
have resulted from far less exertion and resources applied to that
object.--The contrast between what has been done, and what might have
been done by the exertion of the national strength, exposed in a series
of parallel representations.--Total unconcern, till a recent period, of
the generality of persons in the higher classes respecting the mental
state of the populace.--Indications of an important change in the manner
of estimating them.--Measures attempted and projected for their
improvement.--Some of these measures and methods insignificant in the
esteem of projectors of merely political schemes for the amendment of
the popular condition.--But questions to those projectors on the
efficacy of such schemes.--Most desirable, nevertheless, that the
political systems and the governing powers of states _could_ be
converted to promote so grand a purpose.--But expostulations addressed
to those who, desponding of this aid, despond therefore of the object
itself.--Incitement to individual exertion.--Reference to the sublimest
Example.--Imputation of extravagant hope.--Repelled; first, by a full
acknowledgment how much the hopes of sober-minded projectors of
improvement are limited by what they see of the disorder in the
essential constitution of our nature; and next, by a plain statement, in
a series of particulars, of what they nevertheless judge it rational to
expect from a general extension of good education.--Answer to the
question, whether it be presumed that any merely human discipline can
reduce its subjects under the predominance of religion.--Answer to the
inquiry, what is the extent of the knowledge of which it is desired to
put the common people in possession.--Observations on supposed degrees
of possible advancement of the knowledge and welfare of the community;
with reflections of astonishment and regret at the actual state of
ignorance, degradation, and wretchedness, after so many thousand years
have passed away.--Congratulatory notice of those worthy individuals who
have been rescued from the consequences of a neglected education by
their own resolute mental exertions.

Essay on Popular Ignorance.

"My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge."


Section I.

It may excite in us some sense of wonder, and perhaps of self-reproach, to
reflect with what a stillness and indifference of the mind we can hear and
repeat sentences asserting facts which are awful calamities. And this
indifference is more than the accidental and transient state, which might
prevail at seasons of peculiar heaviness or languor. The self-inspector
will often be compelled to acknowledge it as a symptom and exemplification
of the _habit_ of his mind, that ideas of extensive misery and
destruction, though expressed in the plainest, strongest language, seem to
come with but a faint glimmer on his apprehension, and die away without
awakening one emotion of that sensibility which so many comparatively
trifling causes can bring into exercise.

Will the hearers of the sentence just now repeated from the sacred book,
give a moment's attention to the effect it has on them? We might suppose
them accosted with the question, Would you find it difficult to say what
idea, or whether anything distinct enough to deserve the name of an idea,
has been impressed by the sound of words bearing so melancholy a
significance? And would you have to confess, that they excite no interest
which would not instantly give place to that of the smallest of your own
concerns, occurring to your thoughts; or would not leave free the tendency
to wander loose among casual fancies; or would not yield to feelings of
the ludicrous, at the sight of any whimsical incident? It would not
probably be unfair to suspect such faintness of apprehension, and such
unfixedness and indifference of thought, in the majority of any large
number of persons, though drawn together ostensibly to attend to matters
of gravest concern. And perhaps many of the most serious of them would
acknowledge it requires great and repeated efforts, to bring themselves to
such a contemplative realization of an important subject, that it shall
lay hold on the affections, though it should press on them, as in the
present instance, with facts and reflections of a nature the most strongly
appealing to a mournful sensibility.

That the "people are destroyed," is perceived to have the sound of a
lamentable declaration. But its import loses all force of significance in
falling on a state of feeling which, if resolvable into distinct
sentiments, would be expressed to some such effect as this:--that the
people's destruction, in whatever sense of the word, is, doubtless, a
deplorable thing, but quite a customary and ordinary matter, the
prevailing fact, indeed, in the general state of this world; that, in
truth, it would seem as if they were made but to be destroyed, for that
they have constantly been, in all imaginable ways, the subjects of
destruction; that, subjected in common with all living corporeal beings to
the doom of death, and to a fearful diversity of causes tending to inflict
it, they have also appeared, through their long sad history, consigned to
a spiritual and moral destruction, if that term be applicable to a
condition the reverse of wisdom, goodness, and happiness; that, in short,
such a sentence as that cited from the prophet, is too merely an
expression of what has been always and over the whole world self-evident,
to excite any particular attention or emotion.

Thus the destruction, in every sense of the word, of human creatures, is
so constantly obvious, as mingled and spread throughout the whole system,
that the mind has been insensibly wrought to that protective obtuseness
which (like the thickness of the natural clothing of animals in rigorous
climates) we acquire in defence of our own ease, against the aggrievance
of things which inevitably continue in our presence. An instinctive policy
to avoid feeling with respect to this prevailing destruction, has so
effectually taught us how to maintain the exemption, by all the requisite
sleights of overlooking, diverting, forgetting, and admitting deceptive
maxims of palliation, that the art or habit is become almost mechanical.
When fully matured, it appears like a wonderful adventitious faculty--a
power of evading the sight, of _not seeing_, what is obviously and
glaringly presented to view on all sides. There is, indeed, a dim general
recognition that such things are; the hearing of a bold denial of their
existence, would give an instant sense of absurdity, which would provoke a
pointed attention to them, the more perfectly to verify their reality; and
the perception how real and dreadful they are, might continue distinct as
long as we were in the spirit of contradicting and exploding that absurd
denial; but, in the ordinary state of feeling, the mind preserves an easy
dulness of apprehension toward the melancholy vision, and sees it as if it
saw it not.

This fortified insensibility may, indeed, be sometimes broken in upon with
violence, by the sudden occurrence of some particular instance of human
destruction, in either import of the word, some example of peculiar
aggravation, or happening under extraordinary and striking circumstances,
or very near us in place or interest. An emotion is excited of pity, or
terror, or horror; so strong, that if the person so affected has been
habitually thoughtless, and has no wish to be otherwise, he fears he shall
never recover his state of careless ease; or, if of a more serious
disposition, thinks it impossible he can ever cease to feel an awful and
salutary effect. This more serious person perhaps also thinks it must be
inevitable that henceforward his feelings will be more alive to the
miseries of mankind. But how obstinate is an inveterate habitual state of
the mind against any single impressions made in contravention to it! Both
the thoughtless and the more reflective man may probably find, that a
comparatively short lapse of time suffices, to relieve them from anything
more than slight momentary reminiscences of what had struck them with such
painful force, and to restore, in regard to the general view of the
acknowledged misery of the human race, nearly the accustomed tranquillity.
The course of feeling resembles a listless stream of water, which, after
being dashed into commotion, by a massive substance flung into it, or by
its precipitation at a rapid, relapses, in the progress of a few fathoms
and a few moments, into its former sluggishness of current.

But is it well that this should be the state of feeling, in the immediate
presence of the spectacle exhibiting the people under a process of being
destroyed? There must be a great and criminal perversion from what our
nature ought to be, in a tranquillity to which it makes no material
difference whether they be destroyed or saved; a tranquillity which would
hardly, perhaps, have been awaked to an effort of intercession at the
portentous sign of destruction revealed to the sight of Ornan; or which
might at the deluge have permitted the privileged patriarch to sink in a
soft slumber, at the moment when the ark was felt to be moving from its
ground. If the original rectitude of that nature had been retained by any
individual, he would be confounded to conceive how creatures having their
lot cast in one place, so near together, so much alike, and under such a
complication of connections and dependences, can yet really be so
insulated, as that some of them may behold, with immovable composure,
innumerable companies of the rest in such a condition, that it had been
better for them not to have existed.

To such a condition a vast multitude have been consigned by "the lack of
knowledge." And we have to appeal concerning them to whatever there is of
benevolence and conscience, in those who deem themselves happy instances
of exemption from this deplorable consignment; and are conscious that
their state of inestimable privilege is the result, under the blessing of
heaven, of the reception of information, of truth, into their minds.

If it were suggested to the well instructed in our companies to take an
account of the benefit they have received through the medium of knowledge,
they would say they do not know where to begin the long enumeration, or
how to bring into one estimate so ample a diversity of good. It might be
something like trying to specify, in brief terms, what a highly improved
portion of the ground, in a tract rude and sterile if left to itself, has
received from cultivation; an attempt which would carry back the
imagination through a progression of states and appearances, in which the
now fertile spots, and picture-like scenes, and commodious passes, and
pleasant habitations, may or must have existed in the advance from the
original rudeness. The estimate of what has ultimately been effected,
rises at each stage in this retrospect of the progress, in which so many
valuable changes and additions still require to be followed by something
more, to complete the scheme of improvement. In thus tracing backward the
condition of a now fair and productive place of human dwelling and
subsistence, it may easily be recollected, what a vast number of the
earth's inhabitants there are whose places of dwelling are in all those
states of worse cultivation and commodiousness, and what multitudes
leading a miserable and precarious life amidst the inhospitableness of the
waste, howling wilderness. Each presented circumstance of fertility or
shelter, salubrity or beauty, may be named as what is wanting to a much
greater number of the occupants of the world, than those to whom the
"lines are fallen in such pleasant places."

When, in like manner, a person richly possessed of the benefits imparted
by means of knowledge, finds, in attempting to recount them, that they
rise so fast on his view, in their variety, combinations, and gradations
from less to greater, as to overpower his computing faculty, he may be
reminded that this account of his wealth is, in truth, that of many other
men's poverty. And if, while these benefits are coming so numerously in
his sight, like an irregular crowd of loaded fruit-trees, one partially
seen behind the offered luxury of another, and others still descried,
through intervals, in the distance, he can imagine them all devastated and
swept away from him, leaving him in a scene of mental desolation,--and if
he shall then consider that nearly such is the state of the great
multitude,--he will surely feel that a deep compassion is due to so
depressed a condition of existence. And how strongly is its infelicity
shown by the very circumstance, that a being who is himself but very
imperfectly enlightened, and who is exposed to sorrow and doomed to death,
is nevertheless in a state to be able to look down upon the victims of the
"lack of knowledge" with profound commiseration. The degree of pity is the
measure of a conscious superiority.

We may say to persons so favored,--If knowledge has been made the cause
that you are, beyond all comparison, better qualified to make the short
sojourn on this earth to the greatest advantage, think what a fatal thing
that must be which condemns so many, whose lot is contemporary and in
vicinity with yours to pass through the most precious possibilities of
good unprofited, and at last to look back on life as a lost adventure. If
through knowledge you have been introduced into a new and superior world
of ideas and realities, and your intellectual being has there been brought
into exercise among the highest interests, and into communication with the
noblest objects, think of that condition of the soul to which this better
economy has no existence. If knowledge rendered efficacious has become, in
your minds, the light and joy of the Christian faith and hope, look at the
state of those, whose minds have never been cultivated to an ability to
entertain the principles of religious truth, even as mere intellectual
notions. You would not for the wealth of an empire consent to descend,
were it possible, from the comparative elevation to which you have been
raised by means of knowledge, into melancholy region of spirits abandoned
to ignorance.

But in this situation have the mass of the people been, from the time of
the prophet whose words we have cited, down to this hour.

The prophets had their exalted privilege of dwelling amidst the
illuminations of heaven effectually countervailed, as to any elation of
feeling it might have imparted, by the grief of beholding the daily
spectacle of the grossest manifestations and mischiefs of ignorance among
the people, for the very purpose of whose exemption from that ignorance it
was that they bore the sacred office. One of the most striking of the
characteristics by which their writings so forcibly seize the imagination
is, a strange continual fluctuation and strife of lustre and gloom,
produced by the intermingling and contrast of the emanations from the
Spirit of infinite wisdom, with those proceeding from the dark, debased
souls of the people. We are tempted to pronounce that nation not only the
most perverse, but the most unintelligent and stupid of all human tribes.
The revealed law of God in the midst of them; the prophets and other
organs of oracular communication; religious ordinances and emblems; facts,
made and expressly intended to embody truths, in long and various series;
the whole system of their superhuman government, constituted as a
school--all these were ineffectual to create so much just thought in their
minds, as to save them from the vainest and the vilest delusions and

But, indeed, this very circumstance, that knowledge shone on them from Him
who knows all things, may in part account for an intellectual perverseness
that appears so peculiar and marvellous. The nature of man is in such a
moral condition, that anything is the less acceptable for coming directly
from God; it being quite consistent, that the state of mind which is
declared to be "enmity against him," should have a dislike to his coming
so near, as to impart his communications by his immediate act, bearing on
them the fresh and sacred impression of his hand. The supplies for man's
temporal being are conveyed to him through an extended medium, through a
long process of nature and art, which seems to place the great First Cause
at a commodious distance; and those gifts are, on that account, more
welcome, on the whole, than if they were sent as the manna to the
Israelites. The manna itself might not have been so soon loathed, had it
been produced in what we call the regular course of nature. And with
respect to the intellectual communications which were given to constitute
the light of knowledge in their souls, there can, on the same principle,
be no doubt that the people would more willingly have opened their minds
to receive them and exercise the thinking faculties on them, if they could
have appeared as something originating in human wisdom, or at least as
something which, though primarily from a divine origin, had been long
surrendered by the Revealer, to maintain itself in the world by the
authority of reason only, like the doctrines worked out from mere human
speculation. But truth that was declared to them, and inculcated on them,
through a continual immediate manifestation of the Sovereign Intelligence,
had a glow of Divinity (if we may so express it) that was unspeakably
offensive to their minds, which therefore receded with instinctive recoil,
They were averse to look toward that which they could not see without
seeing God; and thus they were hardened in ignorance, through a reaction
of human depravity against the too luminous approach of the Divine
presence to give them wisdom.

But in whatever degree the case might be thus, as to the cause, the fact
is evident, that the Jewish people were not more remarkable for their
pre-eminence in privilege, than for their grossness of mental vision under
a dispensation specially and miraculously constituted and administered to
enlighten them. The sacred history of which they are the subject, exhibits
every mode in which the intelligent faculties may evade or frustrate the
truth presented to them; every way in which the decided preference for
darkness may avail to defy what might have been presumed to be
irresistible irradiations; every perversity of will which renders men as
accountable and criminal for being ignorant as for acting against
knowledge; and every form of practical mischief in which the natural
tendency of ignorance, especially wilful ignorance, is shown. A great part
of what the devout teachers of that people had to address to them,
wherever they appeared among them, was in reproach of their ignorance, and
in order, if possible, to dispel it. And were we to indulge our fancy in
picturing the forms and circumstances in which it was encountered by those
teachers, we might be sure of not erring much by figuring situations very
similar to what might occur in much later and nearer states of society. If
we should imagine one of these good and wise instructors going into a
promiscuous company of the people, and asking them, with a view at once to
see into their minds and inform them, say, ten plain questions, relative
to matters somewhat above the ordinary secular concerns of life, but
essential for them to understand, it would be a quite probable supposition
that he did not obtain from the whole company rational answers to more
than three, or two, or even one, of those questions; notwithstanding that
every one of them might be designedly so framed, as to admit of an easy
reply from the most prominent of the dictates of the "law and the
prophets," and from the right application of the memorable facts in the
national history of the Jews. In his earlier experiments he might be
supposed very reluctant to admit the fact, that so many of his countrymen,
in one spot, could have been so faithfully maintaining the ascendency of
darkness in their spirits, while surrounded by divine manifestations of
truth. He might be willing to suspect he had not been happy in the form of
words in which his queries had been conveyed. But it may be believed that
all his changes and adaptations of expression, to elicit from the contents
of his auditors' understandings something fairly answering to his
questions, might but complete the proof that the thing sought was not
there. And while he might be looking from one to another, with regret not
unmingled with indignation at an ignorance at once so unhappy and so
criminal, they probably might little care, excepting some slight feeling
of mortified pride, that they were thus proved to be nearly pagans in
knowledge within the immediate hearing of the oracles of God.

Or we may represent to ourselves this benevolent promoter of improvement
endeavoring to instruct such a company, not in the way of interrogation,
but in the ordinary manner of discourse, and _assuming_ that they actually
had in their minds those principles, those points of knowledge, which
would, on the former supposition of a course of questions, have qualified
them to make the proper replies. It may indeed be too much to imagine a
discerning man to entertain such a presumption; but supposing he did, and
proceeded upon it, you can well conceive what reception the reasonings,
advices, or reproofs, would find among the hearers, according to their
respective temperaments. Some would be content with knowing nothing at all
about the matter, which they would perhaps say, might be, for aught they
knew, something very wise; and, according to their greater or less degree
of patience and sense of decorum, would wait in quiet and perhaps sleepy
dulness for the end of the irksome lecture, or escape from it by a stolen
retreat, or a bold-faced exit. To others it would all seem ridiculous
absurdity, and they would readily laugh if any one would begin. A few,
possessed of some natural shrewdness, would set themselves to catch at
something for exception, with unadroit aim, but with good will for cavil.
While perhaps one or two, of better disposition, imperfectly descrying at
moments something true and important in what was said, and convinced of
the friendly intention of the speaker, might feel a transient regret for
what they would with honest shame call the stupidity of their own minds,
accompanied with some resentment against those to whose neglect it was
greatly attributable. The instructor also, as the signs grew evident to
him of the frustration of his efforts upon the invincible grossness of the
subjects before him, would become animated with indignation at the
incompetence or wicked neglect in the system and office of public
instruction, of which the intellectual condition of such a company of
persons might be taken as a proof and consequence. And in fact there is no
class more conspicuous in reprobation, in the solemn invectives of the
prophets, than those whose special and neglected duty it was to instruct
the Jewish people.

Now if such were the state of their intelligence, how would this friend of
truth and the people find, how would he have _expected_ to find, their
piety, their morals, and their happiness affected by such destitution of
knowledge? Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? We are
supposing them to be in ignorance of four parts out of five, or perhaps of
nine parts out of ten, of what the Supreme Wisdom was maintaining an
extraordinary dispensation to declare to them. Why to declare, but because
each particular in this divine promulgation was pointed to some
circumstance, some propensity, some temptation, in their nature and
condition, and was exactly fitted to be there applied as a rectifier and
guard? The revelations and signs from heaven were the sum of what the
Perfect Intelligence judged indispensable to be sent forth from him to his
subjects, as seen by him liable to be wrong; and could there be one
dictate or fact superfluous in such a communication? If not, consider the
case of minds in which one, and a second, and the far greater number, of
the points of information thus demonstrated to be necessary, had no place
to shine or exist; of which minds, therefore, the estimates, passions,
volitions, principles of action with the actions also, were in so many
instances abandoned to take their chance for good or evil. But _had_ they
any chance for good in such an abandonment? What principle in their nature
was to determine them to good, with an impulse that rendered needless the
rational discrimination of it by the light of truth? It were an
exceedingly probable thing truly, that some happy instinct, or some
guiding star of good fortune, should have beguiled into an unknowing
choice of what is right, that very nature which knowledge itself,
including a recognition of the will of God, is so often insufficient to
constrain to such a choice.

But further; the absence of knowledge is sure to be something more and
worse than simple ignorance. Even were that absence but a mere negation, a
vacancy of truth, (the terms truth and knowledge may be used for our
present purpose as nearly synonymous, for what is not truth is not
knowledge,) it would be by its effect as a _deficiency_, incalculably
injurious. But it could not remain a mere deficiency: the vacancy of truth
would commonly be found replenished with positive error. Not indeed
replenished, (we are speaking of uncultivated persons,) with a
comprehensive and arranged set of false notions; for there would not be
thinking enough to form opinions in any sufficient number to be distinctly
and specifically the opposites to the many truths that were absent; but a
few false notions, such as could hardly fail to take the place of absent
truth in the ignorant mind, however crude they might be, and however
deficient for constituting a full system of error, would be sure to dilate
themselves so as to have an operation at all the points where truth was
wanting. It is frightful to see what a space in an ignorant mind one false
notion can occupy, working nearly the same effect in many distinct
particulars, as if there had been so many distinct wrong principles, each
producing specifically its own bad effect. So that in that mind a few
false notions, and those the ones most likely to establish themselves
there, shall be virtually equivalent to a whole scheme of errors standing
formally in place of so many truths of which they are the reverse. And
thus the dark void of ignorance, instead of remaining a mere negation,
becomes filled with agents of perversion and destruction; as sometimes the
gloomy apartments of a deserted mansion have become a den of robbers and

Such a friend of the people, then, as we were supposing to expend his life
and zeal on the object of rescuing them from their ignorance, would see in
that ignorance not only the privation of all direction and impulsion to
good, but a great positive force of determination toward evil.

But it may be alleged, that he would not find them _wholly_ destitute of
right information. True; but he would find that the small portion of
knowledge which an ignorant people did really possess, could be of little
avail. It is not only that, from the narrowness of its scope, knowledge so
scanty as to afford no principles directly adapted for application to a
vast number of matters of judgment and conduct, would of course be of
small use, though it _were_ efficient as far as it reached--of small use
though it _did_ produce that very limited quantity of good which ought to
be its proper share, in a due proportion to the larger amount of good to
be produced by a larger knowledge. This is not the whole of the
misfortune; it would not produce that proportionate share. For the fewer
are the points to which there is knowledge that can be applied, the less
availing is its application even to those few points. It shall be the kind
of knowledge apposite to them, and yet be nearly useless; from the obvious
cause, that a few just notions existing disconnected and confused among
the mass of vain and false ones, which will, like noxious weeds, infest
minds left in ignorance, are not _permitted_ by those bad associates to do
their duty. Weak by being few, insulated, unsupported, and dwelling among
vicious neighbors, they not only cannot perform their own due service, but
are liable to be seduced to that of the evil principles whose company they
are condemned to keep. The _conjunction_ of truths is of the utmost
importance for preserving the genuine tendency, and securing the
appropriate efficacy, of each. It is an unhappy "lack of knowledge" when
there is not enough to preserve, to what there is of it, the honest
beneficial quality of knowledge. How many of the follies, excesses, and
crimes, in the course of the world, have taken their pretended warrant
from some fragment of truth, dissevered from the connection of truths
indispensable to its right operation, and in that detached state easily
perverted into coalescence with the most pernicious principles, which
concealed and gave effect to their malignity under the falsified authority
of a truth.

There were many and melancholy exemplifications of all we have said of
ignorance, in the conduct of that ancient people at present in our view.
Doubtless a sad proportion of the iniquities which, by their necessary
tendency and by the divine vindictive appointment, brought plagues and
destruction upon them, were committed in violation of what they knew. But
also it was in no small part from blindness to the manifestation of truth
and duty incessantly confronting them, that they were betrayed into crimes
and consequent miseries. This is evident equally from the language in
which their prophets reproached their intellectual stupidity, and from the
surprise which they sometimes seem to have felt on finding themselves
involved in retributive suffering, for what they could not conceive to be
serious delinquencies. It appeared as if they had never so much as dreamed
of such a-consequence; and their monitors had to represent to them, that
it had been through their thoughtlessness of divine dictates and warnings,
if they did not _know_ that such proceedings must provoke such an

How one portion of knowledge admitted, with the exclusion of other truths
equally indispensable to be known, may not only be unavailing, but may in
effect lend force to destructive error, is dreadfully illustrated in the
final catastrophe of that favored guilty nation. They were in possession
of the one important point of knowledge, that a Messiah was to come. They
held this assurance not slightly, but with strong conviction, and as a
matter of the utmost interest. But then, that this knowledge might have
its appropriate and happy effect, it was of essential necessity for them
to know also the character of this Messiah, and the real nature of his
great design. But this they closed up their understandings in a fatal
contentment not to know. Literally the whole people, with a diminutive
exception, had failed, or rather refused, to admit, as to that part of the
subject, the inspired declarations.

Now comes the consequence of knowing only one thing of several that
require to be inseparable in knowledge. They formed to themselves a false
idea of the Messiah, according to their own worldly imaginations; and
they extended the full assurance which they justly entertained of his
coming, to this false notion of what he was to be and to accomplish when
he should come. From this it was natural and inevitable that when the
true Messiah should come they would not recognize him, and that their
hostility would be excited against a person who, while demanding to be
acknowledged in that capacity, appeared without the characteristics
pictured in their vain imagination, and with directly opposite ones. And
thus they were placed in an incomparably worse situation for receiving
him with honor when he did appear, than if they had had no knowledge that
a Messiah was to come. For on that supposition they might have regarded
him as a most striking phenomenon, with curiosity and admiration, with
awe of his miraculous powers, and as little prejudice as it is possible
in any case for depravity and ignorance to feel toward sanctity and
wisdom. But this delusive pre-occupation of their minds formed a direct
grand cause for their rejecting Jesus Christ. And how fearful was the
final consequence of _this_ "lack of knowledge!" How truly, in all
senses, the people were destroyed! The violent extermination at length of
multitudes of them from the earth, was but as the omen and commencement
of a deeper perdition. And the terrible memorial is a perpetual
admonition what a curse it is _not to know_. For He, by the rejection of
whom these despisers devoted themselves to perish, while he looked on
their great city, and wept at the doom which he beheld impending, said,
_If_ them hadst _known_, even thou in this thy day.----

So much for that selected people:--we may cast a glance over the rest of
the ancient world, as exemplifying the pernicious effect of the want of

The ignorance which pervaded the heathen nations, was fully equal to the
utmost result that could have been calculated from all the causes
contributing to thicken the mental darkness. The traditional glimmering of
that knowledge which had been originally received by divine communication,
had long since become nearly extinct, having gone out in the act, as it
were, of lighting up certain fantastic inventions of doctrine, by ignition
of an element exhaled from the corruptions of the human soul. In other
words, the primary truths, imparted by the Creator to the early
inhabitants of the earth, gradually losing their clearness and purity, had
passed, by a transition through some delusive analogies, into the vanities
of fancy and notion which sprang from the inventive depravity of man;
which inventions carried somewhat of an authority stolen from the grand
truths they had superseded. And thus, if we except so much instruction as
we may conceive that the extraordinary and sometimes dreadful
interpositions of the Governor of the world might convey, unaccompanied
with declarations in language, (and it was in but an extremely limited
degree that these had actually the effect of illumination,) the human
tribes were surrendered to their own understanding for all that they were
to know and think. Melancholy predicament! The understanding, the
intellect, the reason, which had not sufficed for preserving the true
light from heaven, was to be competent to give light in its absence. Under
the disadvantage of this loss--after the setting of the sun--it was to
exercise itself on an unlimited diversity of important things, inquiring,
comparing, and deciding. All those things, if examined far, extended into
mystery. All genuine thinking was a hard repellent labor. Casual
impressions had a mighty force of perversion. The senses were not a medium
through which the intellect could receive ideas foreign to material
existence. The appetites and passions would infallibly occupy and actuate
the whole man. When by these his imagination was put in activity, its
gleams and meteors would be anything rather than lights of truth. His
interest, according to his gross apprehension of it, would in numberless
instances require, and therefore would gain, false judgments for
justification of the wrong manner of pursuing that interest. And all this
while, there was no grand standard and test to which the notions of things
could be brought. If there were some spirits of larger and purer thought,
that went out in the honest search of truth, they must have felt an
oppression of utter hopelessness in looking round on a world of doubtful
things, on no one of which they could obtain the dictate of a supreme
intelligence. There was no sovereign demonstrator in communication with
the earth, to tell benighted man what to think in any of a thousand
questions which arose to confound him. There were, instead, impostors,
magicians, vain theorists, prompted by ambition and superior native
ability to abuse the credulity of their fellow-mortals, which they did
with such success as to become their oracles, their dictators, or even
their gods. The multitude most naturally surrendered themselves to all
such delusions. If it may be conceived to have been possible that their
feeble and degraded reason, in the absence of divine light and of sound
human discipline, might by earnest exertion have attained in some small
degree to judge better that exertion was precluded by indolence, by the
immediate wants and unavoidable employments of life, by sensuality, by
love of amusement, by subjection, even of the mind, to superiors and
national institutions, and by the tendency of human individuals to fall,
if we may so express it, in dead conformity and addition to the lump.

The result of all these causes, the sum of all these effects, was, that
unnumbered millions of beings, whose value was in their intelligent and
moral nature, were, as to that nature, in a condition analogous to what
their physical existence would have been under a total and permanent
eclipse of the sun. It was perpetual night in their souls, with all the
phenomena incident to night, except the sublimity. While the material
economy, constituting the order of things which belonged to their temporal
existence, was in conspicuous manifestation around them, pressing with its
realities on their senses; while nature presented to them its open and
distinctly-featured aspect; while there was a true light shed on them
every morning from the sun; while they had constant experimental evidence
of the nature of the scene; and thus they had a clear knowledge of one
portion of the things connected with their existence--that portion which
they were soon to leave, and look back upon as a dream when one
awaketh;--all this while there was subsisting, present with them,
unapprehended except in faint and delusive glimpses, another order of
things involving their greatest interest, with no luminary to make that
apparent to them, after the race had willingly forgotten the original
instructions from their Creator.

The dreadful consequences of this "lack of knowledge," as appearing in the
religion and morals of the nations, and through these affecting their
welfare, equalled and even surpassed all that might by theory have been
presaged from the cause.

This ignorance could not annihilate the _principle_ of religion in the
spirit of man; but in taking away the awful repression of the idea of one
exclusive sovereign Divinity, it left that spirit to fabricate its
religion in its own manner. And as the creating of gods might be the most
appropriate way of celebrating the deliverance from the most imposing idea
of one Supreme Being, depraved and insane invention took this direction
with ardor. [Footnote: Those who have read Goethe's Memoirs of Himself,
may recollect the part where that late idolized "patriarch" of German
literature tells of the lively interest he had at one time felt in shaping
out of his imagination and philosophy a theology, beginning with the
fabrication of a god (or gods,) and amplified into a system of principles,
existences, and relations.] The mind threw a fictitious divinity into its
own phantasms, and into the objects in the visible world. It is amazing to
observe how, when one solemn principle was taken away, the promiscuous
numberless crowd of almost all shapes of fancy and of matter became, as it
were, instinct with ambition, and mounted into gods. They were alternately
the toys and the tyrants of their miserable creator. They appalled him
often, and often he could make sport with them. For overawing him by their
supposed power, they made him a compensation by descending to a fellowship
with his follies and vices. But indeed this was a condition of their
creation; they _must_ own their mortal progenitor by sharing his
depravity, even amidst the lordly domination assigned to them over him and
the universe. We may safely affirm, that the mighty artificer of
deifications, the corrupt soul of man, never once, in its almost infinite
diversification of device in their production, struck out a form of
absolute goodness. No, if there were ten thousand deities, there should
not be one that should be authorized by perfect rectitude in itself to
punish _him_; not one by which it should be possible for him to be rebuked
without having a right to recriminate.

Such a pernicious creation of active delusions it was that took the place
of religion in the absence of knowledge. And to this intellectual
obscuration, and this legion of pestilent fallacies, swarming like the
locusts from the smoke of the bottomless pit in the vision of St. John,
the fatal effect on morals and happiness corresponded. Indeed the mischief
done there, perhaps even exceeded the proportion of the ignorance and the
false theology; conformably to the rule, that anything wrong in the mind
will be the _most_ wrong where it comes the nearest to its ultimate
practical effect--except when in this operation outward it is met and
checked by some foreign counteraction.

The people of those nations (and the same description is applicable to
modern heathens) did not know the essential nature of perfect goodness, or
virtue. How should they know it? A depraved mind would not find in itself
any native conception to give the bright form of it. There were no living
examples of it. The men who held the pre-eminence in the community were
generally, in the most important points, its reverse. It was for the
_Divine_ nature to have presented, in a manifestation of itself, the
archetype of perfect rectitude, whence might have been derived the
modified exemplar for human virtue. And so _would_ the idea of perfect
moral excellence have come to dwell and shine in the understanding, if it
had been the True Divinity that men beheld in their contemplations of a
superior existence. But when the gods of their heaven were little better
than their own evil qualities, exalted to the sky to be thence reflected
back upon them invested with Olympian charms and splendors, their ideas of
deity would evidently combine with the causes which made it impossible for
them to conceive a perfect model for human excellence. See the mighty
labor of human depravity to confirm its dominion! It would translate
itself to heaven, and usurp divinity, in order to come down thence with a
sanction for man to be wicked,--in order, by a falsification of the
qualities of the Supreme Nature, to preclude his forming the true idea of
what would be perfect rectitude in his own.

A system which could thus associate all the modes of turpitude with the
most lofty and illustrious forms of existence, would go far toward
vitiating essentially the entire theory of moral good and evil. And it
would in a great measure defraud of their practical efficacy any just
principles that might, after all, maintain their place in the convictions
of the understanding, and assert at times their claim with a voice which
not even all this ruination could silence.

But, how small was the number of pure moral principles, (if indeed any,)
that among the people of the heathen nations _did_ maintain themselves in
the convictions of the understanding. The privation of divine light gave
full freedom, if there was any disposition to take such license, for every
perverse speculation which could operate toward abolishing those
principles in the natural reason of the species. What disposition there
would be to take it may be imagined, when the abolishing of those
principles was evidently to be also the destruction of all intrinsic
authority in the practical rules founded on them, which destruction would
confer an exemption infinitely desirable. The freedom for such thinking
would infallibly be taken, in its utmost extent; and in fact the
speculation was stimulated by so mighty a force of the depraved passions,
that it went beyond the primary intention: it not only annulled the right
principles and rules, but, not stopping at such negation, presumed to set
forth opposite ones, so that the name and repute of virtues was given to
iniquities without number. It is deplorable to consider how large a
proportion of all the vices and crimes of which mankind were ever guilty,
have actually constituted, in some or other of their tribes and ages, a
part of the approved moral and religious system. It is questionable
whether we could select from the worst forms of turpitude any one which
has not been at least admitted among the authorized customs, if not even
appointed among the institutes of the religion, of some portion of the
human race. And depravities thus become licensed or sacred would have a
fatal facility of communicating somewhat of their quality to all the other
parts of the moral system. For this sanction both would reinforce their
own power of infection, and would so beguile away all repugnance and
counteraction, that the rest of the customs and institutes would readily
admit the contamination, and become assimilated in evil; as the Mohamedans
have no care to avoid contact with their neighbors who are ill of the
plague, since the plague has the warrant of heaven. Wherever, therefore,
in the imperfect notices afforded us of ancient nations, we find any one
virulent iniquity holding an authorized place in custom or religion, we
may confidently make a very large inference, though record were silent, as
to the corresponding quality that would pervade the remainder of the moral
system of those nations. Indeed the inference is equally justified whether
we regard such a sanction and establishment of a flagrant iniquity as a
cause, or as an effect. Suppose this sanction of some one enormity to
_precede_ the general and equal corruption of morals,--how powerfully
would it tend to bear them all down to a conformity in depravation.
Suppose it to be (the more natural order) the result and completion of
that corruption--how vicious must have been the previous state which could
go easily and consistently to such a consummation.

Everything that, under the advantage given by this destitution of
knowledge, operated to the destruction of the true morality, both in
theory and practice, must have had a fatal augmentation of its power in
that part especially of this ignorance which respected hereafter. The
doctrine of a future existence and retribution did not, in any rational
and salutary form, interfere in the adjustment of the economy of life. The
shadowy notion of a future state which hovered about the minds of the
pagans, a vague apparition which alternately came and vanished, was at
once too fantastic and too little of a serious belief to be of any avail
to preserve the rectitude, or to maintain the authority, of the
distinction between right and wrong. It was not denned enough, or noble
enough, or convincing enough, or of judicial application enough, either to
assist the efficacy of such moral principles as might be supposed to be
innate in a rational creature, and competent for prescribing to it some
virtues useful and necessary to it even if its present brief existence
were all; or to enjoin effectually those higher virtues to which there can
be no adequate inducement but in the expectation of a future life.

Imagine, if you can, the withdrawment of this doctrine from the faith of
those who have a solemn persuasion of it as a part of revealed truth.
Suppose the grand idea either wholly obliterated, or faded into a dubious
trace of what it had been, or transmuted into a poetic dream of classic or
barbarian mythology,--and how many moral principles will be found to have
vanished with it. How many things, before rendered imperative by this
great article of faith, would have ceased to be duties, or would continue
such only on the strength, and to the extent of the requirement, of some
very minor consideration which might remain to enforce them, and that
probably in a most deteriorated practical form. The sense of obligation,
if continuing to recognize the nature of duty in things which could then
no longer retain any such quality, otherwise than as looking to the most
immediate and tangible benefit or harm, the lowest of moral calculations,
would be reduced to a vulgar and reptile principle. The best of its
strength, and all its dignity, would be departed from it when it could
refer no more to eternity, an invisible world, and a judgment to come. It
would therefore have none of that emphasis of impression which can
sometimes dismay and quell the most violent passions, as by the mysterious
awe of the presence of a spirit. It would be deprived of that which forms
the chief power of conscience. And it would be impotent in any attempt--if
so absurd an attempt could be dreamed of--to uphold, in the more dignified
character of _principle_, that care of what is right which would be
constantly degenerating into mere policy, and rationally justifying itself
in doing so.

The withdrawment, we said, of the grand truth in question, from a man's
faith, (together with everything of taste and _habit_ which that faith
might have created,) would necessarily break up the government over his
conscience. How evident then is it, that among the people of the heathen
lands, under a disastrous ignorance of this and all the other sublime
truths, that are the most fit to rule an immortal being during his sojourn
on earth, no man could feel any peremptory obligation to be universally
virtuous, or adequate motives to excite an endeavor to approach that high
attainment, even were there not a perfect inability to form the true
conception of it. And then how much of course it was that the general mass
would be dreadfully depraved. Though a momentary surprise may at times
have seized us on the occurrence, in their history, of some monstrous form
of flagitiousness, we do not wonder at beholding a state of the people
such in its general character as the sacred writers exhibit, in
descriptions to which the other records of antiquity add their confirming
testimony and ample illustrations. For while the immense aggregate is
displayed to the mental view, as pervaded, agitated, and stimulated, by
the restless forces of appetites and passions, and those forces operating
with an impulse no less perverted than strong, let it be asked what kinds
and measure of restraint there could be upon such a world of creatures so
actuated, to keep them from rushing in all ways into evil. Conceive, if
you can, the fiction of such a multitude, so actuated, having been placed
under an adjustment of restraints competent to withhold them. And then
take off, in your imagination, one after another of these, to see what
will follow. Take off, at last, all the coercion that can be applied
through the belief of a judgment to come, and a future state of
retribution;--by doing which you would also empower the race to defy, if
any recognition of him remained, the Supreme Governor, whose possible
inflictions, being confined to the present life, might at any time be
escaped by shortening it. All these sacred bonds being thus dissolved,
behold this countless multitude abandoned to be carried or driven the
whole length to which the impulses of their appetites and passions would
go,--or could go before they were arrested by some obstruction opposed to
them from a quarter foreign to conscience. And the main and final thing in
reserve to limit their career, after all the worthier restraints were
annihilated, would be only this,--the resistance which men's self-interest
opposes to one another's bad inclinations. A gloomy and humiliating
spectacle truly it is, to be offered by a world of rational and moral
agents, if we see that, instead of a repression of the propensity to
wickedness by reverence of the Sovereign Judge, and the anticipation of a
future life, there is merely a restraint put on its external activity, and
that by the force of men's fears of one another. But nearly to this it
was, as the only strong restraint, that those heathens were left by their
ignorance, or a notion so slight as to be little better, of a future
existence and judgment.

Not but that it has been, in all nations and times, of infinite practical
service that there is involved in the constitution of the world a law by
which a coarse self-interest thus interposes to obstruct in a degree the
violent propensity to evil; for it has prevented, under Providence, more
actual mischief, beyond comparison more, than all other causes together.
The man inclined to perpetrate an iniquity, of the nature of a wrong to
his fellow-mortals, is apprized that he shall provoke a reaction, to
resist or punish him; that he shall incur as great an evil as that he is
disposed to do, or greater; that either a revenge regardless of all
formalities of justice will strike him, or a process instituted in
organized society will vindictively reach his property, liberty, or life.
This defensive array, of all men against all men, compels to remain shut
up within the mind an immensity of wickedness which is there burning to
come out into action. But for this, Noah's flood had been rendered
needless. But for this, our planet might have been accomplishing its
circles round the sun for thousands of years past without a human
inhabitant. Through the effect of this essential law, in the social
economy, it was possible for the race to subsist, notwithstanding all that
ignorance of the Divine Being, of heavenly truth, and of uncorrupt
morality, in which we are contemplating the heathen nations as benighted.
But while thus it prevented utter destruction, it had no corrective
operation on the depravity of the heart. It was not through a judgment of
things being essentially evil that they were forborne; it was not by the
power of conscience that wicked propensity was kept under restraint. It
was only by a hold on the meaner principles of his nature, that the
offender in will was arrested in prevention of the deed. And so the race
were such virtually, as they would have hastened to become actually, could
they have ceased to be afraid of one another's strength and retaliation.'
[Footnote: It is not very uncommon to hear credit given to human nature
apparently in sober simplicity, for the whole amount of the negation of
bad actions _thus_ prevented, as just so much genuine virtue, by some
dealers in moral and theological speculation.] But even this restraint
imposed by mutual apprehension, important as its operation was in the
absence of nobler influences, was yet of miserably partial efficacy. Men
were continually breaking through this protective provision, and committed
against one another a stupendous amount of crimes. And no wonder, when we
consider that the evil passions, endowed as they seem to be with a
portentous excess of vigor by the very circumstance of _being_ evil, (as
the demoniacs were the strongest of men,) are exasperated the more by a
certain degree of awe impressed on them by the defensive attitude of their
objects. When strength so great might thus be irritated to greater, and
when there were no "powers of the world to come," to invade the dreadful
cavern of iniquity in the mind, and there combat and subdue it, there
would often be no want of the audacity to send it forth into action at all
hazards, and in defiance and contempt of the restraining force which
operated through mutual fear of vindictive reaction.

But it may be said, perhaps, that in thus representing the people who were
destitute of divine knowledge, as left with hardly any other control on
their bad dispositions than one of a quality little more dignified than
fetters literally binding the limbs, we are underrating what there still
was among them to take effect in the way of _instruction_. Even this
coarse principle of control itself, it may be alleged, this prudence of
reciprocal fear became refined into something worthier of moral agents.
For it passed, by a compromise among the species, from the form of
individual self-defence and revenge into that of institutions of _law_;
and legislation, it will be said, is a teacher of morals. Retaining,
indeed, the rough expedient of physical force, in readiness to coerce or
punish where it cannot deter by warning, it yet strongly endeavors the
repression of evil emotions by means of right _principles_, marked out,
explained, and inculcated. It _teaches_ these principles as dictates of
reason and justice, while it embodies them in the menacing authority of
enactments. There was therefore, it may be pleaded, as much _instruction_
among the ancient heathen as there was legislation.

In answering this, we may forego any rigorous examination of the quality
of principles and precepts enunciated by legislators who themselves, in
common with the people, looked on human existence and duty through a worse
than twilight medium; who had no divine oracles to impart wisdom, and
were, some of them, reduced to begin their operations with the lie that
pretended they had such oracles; from all which it was inevitable that
some of their maxims and injunctions would even in their efficacy be
noxious, as being at variance with eternal rectitude. It is enough to
observe, on the claims of legislation to the character of a moral
preceptor, that it retained so palpably, after all, the nature of the
gross element from which it was a refinement or transfusion, that even
what it might teach right, as to the matter, it was unable to teach with
the right moral impression. With all its gravity, and phrases of wisdom,
and show of homage to virtue, it was, and was plainly descried to be, that
very same _Noli me tangere,_ in a disguised form; a less provoking and
hostile manner only of keeping up the state of preparation for defensive
war. Every one knew right well that the pure approbation and love of
goodness were not the source of law; but that it was an arrangement
originating and deriving all its force from self-interest; a contrivance
by which each man was glad to make the collective strength of society his
guarantee against his neighbor's interest and wish to do him wrong. While
pleased that others were under this restraint, he was often vexed at being
under it also himself; but on the whole deemed this security worth the
cost of suffering the interdict on his own inclinations,--perhaps as
believing other men's to be still worse than his, or seeing their strength
to be greater. We repeat that a preceptive system thus estimated could
not, even had the principles to which it gave expression in the mandates
of law been no other than those of the soundest morality, have impressed
them with the weight of sanctity on the conscience. And all this but tends
to show the necessity that the rules and sanctions of morality, to come
with simplicity and power on the human mind, should primarily emanate, and
be acknowledged as emanating, from a Being exalted above all implication
and competition of interest with man.

Thus we see, that the pagan ignorance precluded one grand requisite for
crushing the dominion of iniquity; for there was nothing to insinuate or
to force its way into the recesses of the soul, to apply _there_ a
repressive power to the depraved ardor which glowed in the passions. That
was left, inaccessible and inextinguishable, as the subterranean fires in
a volcanic region. And in the mighty impulse to evil with which it was
continually operating as an energy of feeling, it compelled the
subservience of the intellect; and thus combined the passions with a
faculty skilful to guide their direction, to diversify their objects, to
invent expedients, and to seize and create occasions. What was it that
this intelligent depravity would stop short of accomplishing? Reflect on
the extent of human genius, in its powers of invention, combination, and
adaptation; and then think of all this faculty, in an immense number of
minds, through many ages, and in every imaginable variety of situation,
exerted with unremitting activity in aid of the wrong propensities.
Reflect how many ideas, apt and opportune for this service, would spring
up casually, or be suggested by circumstances, or be attained by the
earnest study of beings goaded in pursuit of change and novelty. The
simple modes of iniquity were put under an active ministry of art, to
combine, innovate, and augment. And so indefatigable was its exercise,
that almost all conceivable forms of immorality were brought to
imagination, most of them into experiment; and the greater number into
prevailing practice, in those nations: insomuch that the sated monarch
would have imposed as difficult a task on ingenuity in calling for the
invention of a new vice, as of a new pleasure. They would perhaps have
been nearly identical demands when he was the person to be pleased.

Such are some of the most obvious illustrations that the absence of
knowledge was a cause, and added in an unknown measure to the strength of
all other causes, of the excessive corruption in the heathen nations. And
if this depravity of a world of moral agents did not, contemplated simply
as a destruction of their _rectitude_, appear equivalent to the gravest
import of the terms "the people are destroyed," the _misery_ inseparable
from the depravity instantly comes in our view to complete their

We are aware that the wickedness and misery of the ancient world, as
asserted in illustration of the natural effect of estrangement from divine
truth, are apt to be regarded as of the order of topics which have
dwindled into insignificance, worn out by being repeated just because they
have often been repeated before; a sort of exhausted quarries and dried-up
wells. There is a certain class of vain and sneering mortals, in whose
conceit nothing is such proof of superior sense as discarding the
greatest number of topics and arguments as obsolete or impertinent. It is
to be reckoned on that some of these, on hearing again the old maxims,
that a people without divine instruction must be a vicious one, and that a
vicious people must be an unhappy one,--and those maxims accompanied with
a description of the old pagan world as illustrative evidence,--will be
prompt to let forth their comments in some such strain as the
following:--"The state of the ancient heathens, thus brought upon us in
one cheap declamation more, is now a matter of trivial import, just fit to
give some show and exaggeration to the stale common-place, that ignorance
is likely to produce depravity, and that depravity and misery are likely
enough to go together. The pagans might be wretched enough; and perhaps
also the matter has been extravagantly magnified for the service of a
favorite theme, or to make a rhetorical show. At any rate, it is not now
worth while to go so far back to concern ourselves about it. The ancient
heathens had their day and their destiny, and it is of little importance
to us what they were or suffered."

It is fortunate, we may reply, to be "wiser than the ancients," without
the trouble of _learning_ anything by means of them. It is fortunate,
also, to have ascertained how much of all that ever existed can teach us
nothing. We have a signal improvement in the fashion of wisdom, when that
high endowment may be possessed as a thing distinct from compass of
thought, from study of causes and effects as illustrated on the great
scale, from aptitude to be instructed by the past, and from contemplation
of the divine government as carried over a wide extent of time. But indeed
this is not a privilege peculiar to this later day. In any former age
there were men in sufficient number who were wise enough to be indifferent
to all but immediate passing events, as knowing no lessons that persons
like them had to learn from remoter views, looking either into the past or
the future; who could even have before them the very monuments of awful
events that were gone by, without perceiving inscribed on them any
characters for contemplation to read. It is not impossible there might be
persons who could plan their schemes, and debate their questions, and even
follow their amusements, quite exempt from solemn reflections, within view
of the ruins of Jerusalem, after the Roman legions had left it and its
myriads of dead to silence. Any reference to that dreadful spectacle, as
an example of the consequences of the ignorance and wickedness of a
people, might have been heard with unconcern, and lightly passed over as
foreign to the matters requiring their attention: it was all over with the
people dead, and the people alive had their own concerns to mind. But
would not exactly such as these have been the men most likely to fall into
the vices and impieties which would provoke the next avenging visitation,
and to perish in it? In all times, the triflers with the great
exemplifications of the connection of depravity with misery and ruin, who
thought it but an impertinent moralizing that attempted to recall such
funereal spectacles for admonition, were fools, whatever self-complacency
they might feel in a habit of thinking more fitted, they would perhaps
say, for making our best advantage of the world as we find it. And we of
the present time are convicted of exceeding stupidity, if we think it not
worth while to go a number of ages back to contemplate the mass of
mankind, the wide world of beings such as ourselves, sunk in darkness and
wretchedness, and to consider what it is that is taught by so melancholy
an exhibition. What is to give fulness of evidence to an instruction, if a
world be too narrow; what is to give it weight, if a world be too light?

It is to be acknowledged, that the mental darkness which we are
representing as so greatly the cause of the wickedness and unhappiness of
those nations of old, had the effect of protecting them, in a measure,
from some kinds of suffering. They had not, as we have been observing,
illumination enough, to have conscience enough, for inflicting the
severest pains of remorse; and for oppressing them with a distinct
alarming apprehension of a future account. But that they were unhappy,
was practically acknowledged in the very quality of what they ardently
and universally sought as the highest felicities of existence. Those
delights were violent and tumultuous, in all possible ways and degrees
estranged from reflection, and adverse to it. The whole souls of great
and small, in the most barbarous and in the more polished state, were
passionately set on revelry, on expedients for inflaming licentiousness
to madness; or concourses of multitudes for pomps, celebrations, shows,
games, combats; on the riots of exultation and revenge after victories.
The ruder nations had, in their way, however pitiable on the score of
magnificence, their grand festive, triumphal, and demoniac confluxes and
revellings. To these joys of tumult, the people of the savage and the
more cultivated nations sacrificed everything belonging to the peaceful
economy of life, with a desperate, frantic fury. All this was the
confession that there was little felicity in the heart or in the home.
Nor was it found in these resources; if the wild elation might be
mistaken for happiness while it lasted, it was brief in each instance,
and it subsided in an aggravated dreariness of the soul.

The fact of their being unhappy had a still more gloomy attestation in the
mutual enmity which seems to have been of the very essence of life so
vital a principle, that it could not be spared for an hour. No, they could
not live without this luxury drawn from the fountains of death! What is
the most conspicuous material of ancient history, what is it that glares
out the most hideously from that darkness and oblivion in which the old
world is veiling its aspect, but the incessant furies of miserable mortals
against their fellow-mortals, "hateful and hating one another?" We cannot
look that way but we see the whole field covered with inflicters and
sufferers, not seldom interchanging those characters. If that field widens
to our view, it is still, to the utmost line to which the shade clears
away, a scene of cruelty, oppression, and slavery; of the strong trampling
on the weak, and the weak often attempting to bite at the feet of the
strong; of rancorous animosities and murderous competitions of persons
raised above the mass of the community; of treacheries and massacres; and
of war between hordes, and cities, and nations, and empires; war _never_,
in spirit, intermitted, and suspended sometimes in act only to acquire
renewed force for destruction, or to find another assemblage of hated
creatures to cut in pieces. Powerful as "the spirit of the first-born
Cain" has continued, down to our age, and in the most improved divisions
of mankind, there was, nevertheless, in the ancient pagan race, (as there
is in some portions of the modern,) a more complete, uncontrolled
actuation of the all-killing, all-devouring fury, a more absolute
possession of Moloch.

Now it is _as misery_ that we are exhibiting all this depravity. To be
thus, _was suffering_. The disease and the pain are inseparable in the
description, and they were so in the reality. And both together,
inevitably seizing on beings who had rejected or lost divine knowledge,
maintained a hold as fatal and invincible as that of the intervolved
serpents of Laocoon.

It is true, that a comprehensive estimate of the state of the people we
are contemplating, would bring in view several minor circumstances which,
though not availing to change materially the effect of the picture, are
themselves of less gloomy color. But at the same time such an estimate
would include other forms also of infelicity, besides those which were at
once the result and punishment of depravity, the stings with which sin
rewarded the infatuation that loved it. If the design had been to exhibit
anything like a general view, we must have taken account of such
particulars as these: the unhappiness of being without an assurance of an
all-comprehending and merciful Providence, and of wanting therefore the
best support in sorrow and calamity; the insuppressible impatience, or the
deep melancholy, with which the more thoughtful persons must have seen
departing from life, leaving them hopeless of ever meeting again in a life
elsewhere, the relations or associates who were dear to them in spite of
the prevailing effect of paganism to destroy philanthropy; and the gloomy
sentiment with which they must have thought of their own continual
approach toward death; a sentiment not always unaccompanied with certain
intimidating hints and hauntings of possibilities in the darkness beyond
that confine. But the more limited intention in the preceding description
has been to illustrate their unhappiness as inflicted by their depravity,
necessarily consequent on their ignorance. And what words so true, so
irresistibly prompted at the view of such a scene, as those pronounced of
a nation that at once despised the pagans and imitated them,--"The people
are destroyed for lack of knowledge."

* * * * *

Let us not be suspected of having lost sight of the fact, that vice and
misery have, in our nature, a deeper source than ignorance; or of being so
absurd as to imagine that if the inestimable truths unknown to the heathen
world had been, on the contrary, in all men's knowledge, but a slight
portion of the depravity and wretchedness we have described could then
have had an existence. To say, that under long absence of the sun any
tract of terrestrial nature _must infallibly_ be reduced to desolation, is
not to say or imply, that under the benignant influence of that luminary
the same region must, as necessarily and unconditionally, be a scene of
beauty; but the only hope, for the only possibility, is for the field
visited by much of that sweet influence. And it were an absurdity no less
gross in the opposite extreme to the one just mentioned, to assert the
uselessness, for rectifying the moral world, of a diffusion of the
knowledge which shall compel men to see what is wrong; to deny that the
impulses of the corrupt passions and will must suffer some abatement of
their force and daring when encountered, like Balaam meeting the angel, by
a clear manifestation of their bad and ruinous tendency, by a convinced
judgment, a protesting conscience, and the aspect of the Almighty
Judge,--instead of their being under the tolerance of a judgment not
instructed to condemn them, or, (as ignorance is sure to quicken into
error,) perverted to abet them.

Section II.

From this view of the prevalence and malignant effects of ignorance among
the people of the ancient world, both Jews and Gentiles, we may come
down, with a few brief notices in passing over the long subsequent
periods, towards our own times. For any attempt to prosecute the object
through the ages and regions of later heathenism, (with the infatuated
Judaism still more destructive to its subjects,) would be to lose
ourselves in a boundless scene of desolation, an immense amplitude of
darkness, frightfully alive throughout with the activity of all noxious
and hideous things.

But by this time we are become aware how continually we are driven upon
what will be in hazard of appearing an exaggerated phraseology; insomuch
that we are almost afraid of accepting the epithets of description and
aggravation which offer themselves as most appropriate to the subject.
There are some self-complacent persons whose minds are so unapt to
recognize the magnitude of a subject, or so averse perhaps to the
contemplation of it if it be of tragical aspect, that strong terms
accumulated to exhibit even what surpasses in its plain reality all the
powers of language, offend them as declamatory exaggeration. Let it then
be just observed, without one ambitious epithet, that since that period
when ancient history, strictly so named, left off describing the state of
mankind, more than a myriad of millions of our race have been on earth,
and quitted it without one ray of the knowledge the most important to
spirits sojourning here, and going hence.

But while any attempt to carry the representation of the fatal effects of
ignorance over the extent of so dreary a scene is declined, let it not be
forgotten that they have been an awful reality; that they have actually
existed, in time, and place, and number of victims; that there actually
_were_ the men, and so many men, who exemplified, and in so many ways, the
truth we are illustrating. And a truth which has its demonstration in
facts ought to come with the weight of all the facts that we believe ever
_did_ demonstrate it. When they are not presented in breadth and detail
prominently in our view, we are apt to lose the due effect of our knowing
them to have existed.

It will be enough to advert very briefly to the Mohammedan imposture,
though that is perhaps the most signal instance within all time, of a
malignant delusion maintained directly and immediately by ignorance, by an
absolute determination and even a fanatic zeal not to receive one new
idea. Tenets involving the most palpable impossibilities, and asserted in
self-contradictory terms, must stand inviolable to all question or
controversy; literature must be scouted as a profane folly; not a
principle of true philosophy is to be admitted; hardly is an application
of the plainest mechanics to improve a machine or implement to be
tolerated; or an infidel is to be only _pardoned_, through contempt, for a
successful obtrusion of science to render the most important service,--to
save, for instance, a Mussulman ship-with its proud, besotted commander
and crew from destruction, [Footnote: There is a very curious example of
this related in Dr Clarke's Travels.] lest an acknowledgment made to
science should allow one momentary surmise of imperfection to insult the
all-sufficiency and sanctity of the unalterable creed and institutes; lest
any diminutive crevice should be made on any side of the temple of the
vile superstition, for the passage of one glimpse of true light to annoy
the foul fiend that dwells there, invested "in the dunnest smoke of hell."
Not, however, that this is the policy of doubt and apprehension, the
evading and repelling caution of men who suspect themselves to be wrong
and dread being forced to meet the proof. For the subjects of this
execrable usurpation on the human understanding have, in general, the
firmest assurance that all things in the system are right: it has itself
secured them against _knowing_ anything that could discompose their sense
of certainty. No fell savage, or serpent, or monster, ever had a more
perfect instinct to avail itself of an impervious obscurity for its
lurking-place, than this imposture has shown to keep out all mental light
from its realm. The delusion is so strong and absolute in ignorance, is so
identified with it, and so systematically repels at all points the
approach of knowledge, that it is difficult to conceive a mode of its
extermination that shall not involve some fearful destruction, in the most
literal sense, of the people whom it possesses. And such a catastrophe it
is probable the great body of them, in the temper of mind prevailing among
them at this hour, would choose to incur by preference, we do not say to a
serious, patient consideration of the true religion, but even to the
admission among them of a system merely favoring knowledge in general, an
order of measures which should urge upon the adults, and peremptorily
enforce for the children, a discipline of intellectual improvement. There
would be little national hesitation of choice, (at least in the central
regions of the dominion of this hateful imposture,) between the
introduction of any general system of expedients for driving them from
their stupefaction into something like thinking and learning, and a
general plague, to rage as long as any remained for victims. [Footnote: In
the interval since this was written, some change has taken place in favor
of the admission of the elements of knowledge, in the capital, and in the
second city of the Mohammedan regions; but with very slight alterative
influence on the mass; and with respect to the faith, probably none at
all. Within this interval, also, the central power has been hastening
rapidly to its catastrophe.]

* * * * *

But let us now look, for a moment, at the intellectual state of the people
denominated Christian, during the ages preceding the Reformation. The best
of all the acquisitions by earth from heaven, Christianity, might have
seemed to bring with it an inevitable necessity of a great and permanent
difference soon to be effected, in regard to the competence of men's
knowledge to prevent their destruction. It was as if, in the physical
system, some one production, far more salutary to life than all the other
things furnished from the elements, had been reserved by the Creator to
spring up in a later age, after many generations of men had been
languishing through life, and prematurely dying, from the deficient virtue
of their sustenance and remedies. The image of the inestimable plant had
been shown to the prophets in their visions, but the reality was now given
to the world; it was of "wholly a right seed," "had the seed in itself,"
and claimed to be cultivated by the people, who in every land were
suffering the maladies which it had the properties to heal. But, while by
the greater part of mankind it was not accounted worth admission to a
place on their blasted, desolated soil, the manner in which its virtue was
frustrated among those who pretended to esteem it, as it was, the best
gift of the divine beneficence, is recorded in eternal reproach of the
Christian nations.

As the hostility of heathenism, in the direct endeavors to extirpate the
Christian religion, became evidently hopeless, in the nations within the
Roman empire, there was a grand change of the policy of evil; and all
manner of reprobate things, heathenism itself among them, rushed as by
general conspiracy into treacherous conjunction with Christianity,
retaining their own quality under the sanction of its name, and by a rapid
process reducing it to surrender almost everything distinctive of it but
that dishonored name: and all this under protection of the "gross darkness
covering the people." There were indeed in existence the inspired oracles,
and these could not be essentially falsified. But there was no lack of
expedients and pre-texts for keeping them in a great measure secreted. It
might be done under a pretence that reverence for their sanctity required
they should be secluded as within the recesses of a temple, nor be there
consulted but by consecrated personages; a pretence excellently contrived,
since it was its own security against exposure, the people being thus kept
unaware that the sacred writings themselves expressly invited popular
inspection, by declaring themselves addressed to mankind at large. The
deceivers were not worse off for the other facilities. In the progress of
translation, the holy Scriptures could be intercepted and stopped short in
a language but little less unintelligible than the original ones to the
bulk of the people, in order that this "profane vulgar" might never hear
the very words of God, but only such report as it should please certain
men, at their discretion, to give of what he had said; men, however, of
whom the majority were themselves too ignorant to cite it in even a
falsified import. But though the people had understood the language, in
the usage of social converse, there was a grand security against them in
keeping them so destitute of the knowledge of letters, that the Bible, if
such a rare thing ever could happen to fall into any of their hands, would
be no more to them than a scroll of hieroglyphics. When to this was added,
the great cost of a copy of so large a book before the invention of
printing, it remained perhaps just worth while, (and it would be a matter
of no difficulty or daring,) to make it, in the maturity of the system, an
offence, and sacrilegious invasion of sacerdotal privilege, to look into a
Bible. If it might seem hard thus to constitute a new sin, in addition to
the long list already denounced by the divine law, amends were made by
indulgently rescinding some articles in that list, and qualifying the
principles of obligation with respect to them all.

In this latency of the sacred authorities, withdrawn from all
communication with the human understanding, there were retained still many
of the terms and names belonging to religion. They remained, but they
remained only such as they could be when the departing spirit of that
religion was leaving them void of their import and solemnity, and so
rendered applicable to purposes of deception and mischief. They were as
holy vessels, in which the original contents might, as they were escaping,
be clandestinely replaced by the most malignant preparations. And as
crafty and wicked men had a direct interest in this substitution, the
pernicious operation went on incessantly; and with an ability, and to an
extent to evince that the utmost barbarism of the times cannot extinguish
genius, when it is iniquity that sets it on fire. How prolific was the
invention of the falsehoods and absurdities of notion, and of the vanities
and corruptions of practice, which it was devised to make the terms and
names of religion designate and sanction! while it was also managed, with
no less sedulity and success, that the inventors and propagators should be
held in submissive reverence by the community, as the oracular
depositaries of truth. That community had not knowledge enough of any
other kind, to create a resisting and defensive power against this
imposition in the concern of religion. A sound exercise of reason on
subjects out of that province, a moderate degree of instruction in
literature and science rightly so called, might have produced, in the
persons of superior native capacity, somewhat of a competency and a
disposition to question, to examine, to call for evidence, and to detect
some of the fallacies imposed for Christian faith. But in such
completeness of ignorance, the general mind was on all sides pressed and
borne down to its fate. All reaction ceased; and the people were reduced
to exist in one huge, unintelligent, monotonous substance, united by the
interfusion of a vile superstition, which permitted just enough mental
life in the mass to leave it capable of being actuated to all the purposes
of cheats, and tyrants,--a proper subject for the dominion of "our Lord
God the Pope," as he was sometimes denominated; and might have been
denominated without exciting indignation, in the hearing of millions of
beings bearing the form of men and the name of Christians.

Reflect that all this took place under the nominal ascendency of the best
and brightest economy of instruction from heaven. Reflect that it was in
nations where even the sovereign authority professed homage to the
religion of Christ, and adopted and enforced it as a grand national
institution, that the popular mass was thus reduced to a material fit for
all the bad uses to which priestcraft could wish to put the souls and
bodies of its slaves. And then consider what _should_ have been the
condition of this great aggregate, wherever Christianity was acknowledged
by all as the true religion. The people _should_ have consisted of so many
beings having each, in some degree, the independent, beneficial use of his
_mind_; all of them trained with a reference to the necessity of their
being apprized of their responsibility to their Creator, for the exercise
of their reason on the matters of belief and choice; all of them
capacitated for improvement by being furnished with the rudiments and
instrumental means of knowledge; and all having within their reach, in
their own language, the Scriptures of divine truth, some by immediate
possession, the rest by means of faithful readers, while the book existed
only in manuscript; all of them after it came to be printed.

Can any doubt arise, whether there were in the Christian states resources
competent, if so applied, to secure to all the people an elementary
instruction, and the possession of the printed Bible? Resources competent!
All nations, sufficiently raised above barbarism to exist as states, have
consumed, in uses the most foreign and pernicious to their welfare, an
infinitely greater amount of means than would have sufficed, after due
provision for comfortable physical subsistence, to afford a moderate share
of instruction to all the people. And in those popish ages, that
expenditure alone which went to ecclesiastical use would have been far
more than adequate to this beneficent purpose. Think of the boundless cost
for supporting the magnificence and satiating the rapacity of the
hierarchy, from its triple-crowned head, down through all the orders
branded with a consecration under that head to maintain the delusion and
share the spoil. Recollect the immense system of policy for jurisdiction
and intrigue, every agent of which was a devourer. Recollect the pomps and
pageants, for which the general resources were to be taxed: while the
general industry was injured by the interruption of useful employment, and
the diversion of the people to such dissipation as their condition
qualified and permitted them to indulge in. Think also of the incalculable
cost of ecclesiastical structures, the temples of idolatry as in truth
they were. One of the most striking situations for a religious and
reflective Protestant is, that of passing some solitary hour under the
lofty vault, among the superb arches and columns, of any one of the most
splendid of these edifices remaining at this day in our own country. If he
has sensibility and taste, the magnificence, the graceful union of so many
diverse inventions of art, the whole mighty creation of genius that
quitted the world without leaving even a name, will come with magical
impression on his mind, while it is contemplatively darkening into the awe
of antiquity. But he will be recalled--the sculptures, the inscriptions,
the sanctuaries enclosed off for the special benefit, after death, of
persons who had very different concerns during life from that of the care
of their salvation, and various other insignia of the original character
of the place, will help to recall him--to the thought, that these proud
piles were in fact raised to celebrate the conquest, and prolong the
dominion, of the Power of Darkness over the souls of the people. They were
as triumphal arches, erected in memorial of the extermination of that
truth which was given to be the life of men.

As he looks round, and looks upwards, on the prodigy of design, and skill,
and perseverance, and tributary wealth, he may image to himself the
multitudes that, during successive ages, frequented this fane in the
assured belief, that the idle ceremonies and impious superstitions, which
they there performed or witnessed, were a service acceptable to heaven,
and to be repaid in blessings to the offerers.

He may say to himself, Here, on this very floor, under that elevated and
decorated vault, in a "dim religious light" like this, but with the
darkness of the shadow of death in their souls, they prostrated themselves
to their saints, or their "queen of heaven;" nay, to painted images and
toys of wood or wax, to some ounce or two of bread and wine, to fragments
of old bones, and rags of cast-off vestments. Hither they came, when
conscience, in looking back or pointing forward, dismayed them, to
purchase remission with money or atoning penances, or to acquire the
privilege of sinning with impunity in a certain manner, or for a certain
time; and they went out at yonder door in the perfect confidence that the
priest had secured, in the one case the suspension, in the other the
satisfaction, of the divine law. Here they solemnly believed, as they were
taught, that, by donatives to the church, they delivered the souls of
their departed sinful relations from their state of punishment; and they
went out of that door resolved, such as had possessions, to bequeath some
portion of them, to operate in the same manner for themselves another day,
in the highly probable case of similar need. Here they were convened to
listen in reverence to some representative emissary from the Man of Sin,
with new dictates of blasphemy or iniquity promulgated in the name of the
Almighty: or to witness the trickery of some farce, devised to cheat or
frighten them out of whatever remainder the former impositions might have
left them of sense, conscience, or property. Here, in fine, there was
never presented to their understanding, from their childhood to their
death, a comprehensive, honest declaration of the laws of duty, and the
pure doctrines of salvation. To think! that they should have mistaken for
the house of God, and the very gate of heaven, a place where the Regent of
the nether world had so short a way to come from his dominions, and his
agents and purchased slaves so short a way to go thither. If we could
imagine a momentary visit from Him who once entered a fabric of sacred
denomination with a scourge, because it was made the resort of a common
traffic, with what aspect and voice, with what infliction but the "rebuke
with flames of fire," would he have entered this mart of iniquity,
assuming the name of his sanctuary, where the traffic was in delusions,
crimes, and the souls of men? It was even as if, to use the prophet's
language, the very "stone cried out of the wall, and the beam out of the
timber answered it," in denunciation; for a portion of the means of
building, in the case of some of these edifices, was obtained as the price
of dispensations and pardons. [Footnote: That most superb Salisbury
Cathedral, for example.]

In such a hideous light would the earlier history of one of these mighty
structures, pretendedly consecrated to Christianity, be presented to the
reflecting Protestant; and then would recur the idea of its cost, as
relative to what that expenditure might really have done for Christianity
and the people. It absorbed in the construction, sums sufficient to have
supplied, costly as they would have been, even manuscript Bibles, in the
people's own language, (as a priesthood of truly apostolic character would
have taken care the Scriptures should speak,) to all the families of a
province; and in the revenues appropriated to its ministration of
superstition, enough to have provided men to teach all those families to
read those Bibles.

In all this, and in the whole constitution of the Grand Apostasy,
involving innumerable forms of abuse and abomination, to which our object
does not require any allusion, how sad a spectacle is held forth of the
people destroyed for lack of knowledge. If, as one of their plagues, an
inferior one in itself, they were plundered as we have seen, of their
worldly goods, it was that the spoil might subserve to a still greater
wrong. What was lost to the accommodation of the body, was to be made to
contribute to the depravation of the spirit. It supplied means for
multiplying the powers of the grand ecclesiastical machinery, and
confirming the intellectual despotism of the usurpers of spiritual
authority. Those authorities enforced on the people, on pain of perdition,
an acquiescence in notions and ordinances which, in effect, precluded
their direct access to the Almighty, and the Saviour of the world;
interposing between them and the Divine Majesty a very extensive,
complicated, and heathenish mediation, which in a great measure
substituted itself for the real and exclusive mediation of Christ,
obscured by its vast creation of intercepting vanities the glory of the
Eternal Being, and thus almost extinguished the true worship. But how
calamitous was such a condition!--to be thus intercepted from direct
intercourse with the Supreme Spirit, and to have the solemn and elevating
sentiment of devotion flung downward, on objects to some of which even the
most superstitious could hardly pay homage without a sense of degradation.

It was, again, a disastrous thing to be under a directory of practical
life framed for the convenience of a corrupt system; a rule which enjoined
many things wrong, allowed a dispensation from nearly everything that was
right, and abrogated the essential principle and ground-work of true
morality. Still again, it was an unhappy thing, that the consolations in
sorrow and the view of death should either be too feeble to animate, or
should animate only by deluding. And it was the consummation of evil in
the state of the people of those dark ages, it was, emphatically to be
"destroyed," that the great doctrines of redemption should have been
essentially vitiated or formally supplanted, so that multitudes of people
were betrayed to rest their final hopes on a ground unauthorized by the
Judge of the world. In this most important matter, the spiritual
authorities might themselves be subjects of the fatal delusion in which
they held the community; and well they deserved to be so, in judicial
retribution of their wickedness in imposing on the people, deliberately
and on system, innumerable things which they knew to be false.

We have often mused, and felt a gloom and dreariness spreading over the
mind while musing, on descriptions of the aspect of a country after a
pestilence has left it in desolation, or of a region where the people are
perishing by famine. It has seemed a mournful thing to behold, in
contemplation, the multitude of lifeless? forms, occupying in silence the
same abodes in which they had lived, or scattered upon the gardens,
fields, and roads; and then to see the countenances of the beings yet
languishing in life, looking despair, and impressed with the signs of
approaching death. We have even sometimes had the vivid and horrid picture
offered to our imagination, of a number of human creatures shut up by
their fellow mortals in some strong hold, under an entire privation of
sustenance; and presenting each day their imploring, or infuriated, or
grimly sullen, or more calmly woful countenances, at the iron and
impregnable gates; each succeeding day more haggard, more perfect in the
image of despair; and after awhile appearing each day one fewer, till at
last all have sunk. Now shall we feel it as a _relief_ to turn in thought,
as to a sight of less portentous evil, from the inhabitants of a country,
or from those of such an accursed prison-house, thus pining away, to
behold the different spectacle of national tribes, or any more limited
portion of mankind, on whose _minds_ are displayed the full effects of
knowledge denied; who are under the process of whatever destruction it is,
that spirits can suffer from want of the vital aliment to the intelligent
nature, especially from "a famine of the words of the Lord?"

To bring the two to a close comparison, suppose the case, that some of the
persons thus doomed to perish in the tower were in the possession of the
genuine light and consolations of Christianity, perhaps even had actually
been adjudged to this fate, (no extravagant supposition,) for zealously
and persistingly endeavoring the restoration of the purity of that
religion to the deluded community. Let it be supposed that numbers of that
community, having conspired to obtain this ad-judgment, frequented the
precincts of the fortress, to see their victims gradually perishing. It
would be quite in the spirit of the popish superstition, that they should
believe themselves to have done God service, and be accordingly pleased at
the sight of the more and more deathlike aspect of the emaciated
countenances. The while, they might be themselves in the enjoyment of
"fulness of bread," We can imagine them making convivial appointments
within sight of the prison gates, and going from the spectacle to meet at
the banquet. Or they might delay the festivity, in order to have the
additional luxury of knowing that the tragedy was consummated; as Bishop
Gardiner would not dine till the martyrs were burnt.--Look at these two
contemporary situations, that of the persons with truth and immortal hope
in their spirits, enduring this slow and painful reduction of their bodies
to dissolution,--and that of those who, while their bodies fared
sumptuously, were thus miserably perishing in soul, through its being
surrendered to the curse of a delusion which envenomed it with such a
deadly malignity: and say which was the more calamitous predicament.

If we have no hesitation in pronouncing, let us consider whether we have
ever been grateful enough to God for the dashing in pieces so long since
in this land, of a system which maintains, to this hour, much of its
stability over the greater part of Christendom. If we regret that certain
fragments of it are still held in veneration here, and that so tedious a
length of ages should be required, to work out a complete mental rescue
from the infatuation which possessed our ancestors, let us at the same
time look at the various states of Europe, small and great, where this
superstition continues to hold the minds of the people in its odious
grasp; and verify to ourselves what we have to be thankful for, by
thinking what reception _our_ minds would give to an offer of subsistence
on their mummeries, masses, absolutions, legends, relics, mediation of
saints, and corruptions, even to complete reversal of the evangelic

* * * * *

It was, however, but very slowly that the people of our land realized the
benefits of the Reformation, glorious as that event was, regarded as to
its progressive and its ultimate consequences. Indeed, the thickness of
the preceding darkness was strikingly manifested by the deep shade which
still continued stretched over the nation, in spite of the newly risen
luminary, whose beams lost their brightness in pervading it to reach the
popular mind, and came with the faintness of an obscured and tedious dawn.

A long time there lingered enough of night for the evil spirit of popery
to be at large and in power, not abashed, as Milton represents the Evil
Angel on his being surprised by the guardians of paradise. Rather the case
was that the vindicator itself of truth and holiness, the true Lucifer,
shrunk at the rencounter and defiance of the old possessor of the gloomy
dominion. The Reformation was not empowered to speak with a voice like
that which said, "Let there be light--and there was light." Consider what,
on its avowed national adoption in our land, were its provisions for


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