Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

to India, China, and Japan, — whole populations at a stroke converted and baptized, — frightful tortures undergone with the same calm patience as the most arduous fatigues, — zeal and perseverance equal to the conquest of the world. These missions were a monument of religious heroism and devoted obedience such as the world has scarce seen anywhere, and on a scale to which Protestantism has nothing to compare ; yet barren of any lasting fruit, sterile of all true civilizing influence, and foiled by the direct agency of the Devil (thought these pious men), who had prepared in those regions an elaborate system, that, in ritual, costume, hierarchy, and even doctrine, seemed a parody of their own: the holy orders of Buddhism seem to have foiled and baffled their antagonist in these densest populations of the world. Still the great College of Rome trains and sends forth its missionaries, men of almost every dialect and tribe and hue; and still, unwearied, makes the task of the world's conversion the grand field for the exercise of her power.

Next to missions, which spread world-wide the boundaries of that shadowy dominion, are the offices of spiritual rule at home: the sphere of education; the administering of charities; the conducting of religious ceremonial and the pomp of worship; the patronage of sacred art, in architecture, painting, and music; and, chief of all, the close, personal, subtle guidance of conscience and faith through the confessional. Each single act of authority so exerted may seem a very slight affair, but, taken in the mass, they build up a fabric of secret spiritual power, amazing for breadth, penetration, and strength. Rome may be no longer the head and leader of the world's civilization, but it is still undeniably one of the great forces that rule the world. Through the force of habit; through superstitious fear; through sagacious and gentle charities; through the infinite resources of its many-handed organization; through the undefinable, profound fascination it exerts upon a large class of minds; through its influence upon the young, the lonely, the grief-stricken, and pious, trustful women who throng to its altar, and crave the peace of its absolution ; through the family divisions it fosters, and the wealth it skilfully extracts from burdened consciences and tender hearts ; through its imposing ritual and its consummate schemes of education in moulding instruments of its will; — through all these agencies, Romanism becomes as it were an omnipresent force in society; and its shadowy sceptre still wields a spell almost as potent as when its vassals were emperors and kings. And one who has beheld its glorious temples stand with open doors as a home for the worship of all the earth, — who has seen (as we have seen) king and beggar, pope and peasant, noble and slave, white and black, kneeling on the equal level of its floor, — who has paced the vast hospitals where its trained skill brings to the task of mercy the delicate hand of the rich and beautiful, as well as the humbler ministrations of the hireling and the poor, — who has felt the powerful magic of its choral service, which is as it were the echo of the voice of the mighty past, — still feels that here is the grandest earthly embodiment of the religious Unity of Man ; that to this mighty organization is still given in charge an office which none other is yet competent to fulfil.

Its assumption to lead and control the destinies of mankind, history has declared henceforth and forever vain. Its arrogant claim of infallibility the intellect of the modern world laughs to scorn. Its shadowy threat of excommunication becomes a byword and a dream. No exclusive and sure salvation is reserved for those embraced within its fold and faithful to its creed; and so the fabric of its authority is hopelessly undermined. The Church, which was of old the embodiment of the world's best life, — boundless in its ambition, profoundly skilful in its policy, imposing in its creed and ritual, informed with the vital energy of a wonderful age, containing in itself the seed and forces of a new civilization, commissioned of God to subdue a barbaric heathenism, to guide for centuries the life of humanity, and to bridge the awful chasm between the ancient and modern world, — that Church proved herself unworthy, and forfeited her place and claim. Retaining the name without the substance, she has declined from her seat of power. She has disowned the glory of modern Intellect; challenged the impregnable advance of Truth ; crushed with borrid tortures its faithful witnesses; and divorced herself from the free and earnest workings of an instructed conscience.

The highest life, whether of thought or morals, is no longer hers. The place of spiritual empire she held so long is empty. No worthy rival or successor of her greatness is found as yet. Still slie keeps her supremacy in the realin of reverence and faith. In virtue of an historical position that finds no parallel, she is still one among the great political and social forces of the world, - such, that no equal is found among her rivals. In the great debate of the world's religious parliament, all others play but the part of a fragmentary opposition, while she holds the pride and prestige of the place of power. But her life belongs essentially to the past. It is not of the native, spontaneous, creative forces of the present day. Unseen and silent powers are working its dissolution. Its office, however important, nay, indispensable now, is yet provisional, and must pass away. The great Christian structure of the past figures itself to the imagination as one of those vast ice-mountains that float down from polar seas. It long keeps its stately shape, and loses nothing, apparently, from its mountain bulk. Yet slowly and irresistibly the forces of Nature are at work upon it. The tide of strange waters frets and chafes against it. The huge fabric parts in twain, and while one portion is presently broken up and floats freely in the dissolving stream, the other, which better keeps its coherence and outward shape, is softening and perishing within. The majestic unity with which this one Catholic Church of Western Europe floated forth from the mists of a darker age, is sundered into fragments, and dissolves in the turbulent flood that hides for the present the forming continents. And it is among these fragments of a mighty wreck that we seem to see, faintly, the gathering of what shall be the true spiritual power of the future, – that new revelation of the life of God in humanity which shall realize at length the strains of prophecy and the glorious visions of the past.

Or, to quit the figure, and return to fact. By the great shock of the Protestant Reformation, the Christian empire of the Middle Age was cleft in two almost equal portions, corresponding nearly with the Latin and German races of Western Europe, and of course mingling freely in the colonization of America. In the struggle of a hundred and twenty years that followed, and in more than two centuries since, neither part has gained any lasting advantage upon the other; and the two stand now almost as nearly balanced as they were in the Conference at Augsburg, or on the morning of Lützen. Neither has inherited the dominion of that vast spiritual Power from which both alike descend ; and the name Catholic is virtually no more extant. One portion, which still claims that name, but which we know more truly as Modern Romanism, we have spoken of already. It remains now to consider the other elements set free by the decomposition of that mighty structure, – the other agencies, living and powerful, which are at work to guide the conscience, shape the convictions, and influence the destinies of the race.

The Protestant Reformation was at first simply a protest, in the name of free conscience and individual conviction, against the oppression of corrupt and despotic authority. If we judge by that fact alone, it is simply the negative, dispersive, destructive element, — chafing and fretting upon the fabric of authority, like waves upon a sea-wall, until it is ruined and undermined. There will be as many protests as there are styles of mind and conscience. Each will take its own point of attack, and each is independent of all the rest. At first, Luther stands alone; and when he is no longer alone, but captain of a great host, he finds the errors of his allies as dangerous as those of the common enemy. Zwingli, Carlstadt, Calvin, have a conscience as well as he, and respect his decision no more than he the Pope's. So come protest, counter-protest, and an infinite subdividing of the forces, till in theory each man stands by his individual rights, and all unity is broken up. As the first Reformer stood alone, confronting the great Church of Catholic Christendom, and meeting the Pope's excommunication with an excommunication of his own, so Protestantism must at length find itself in the pitiful condition of mere jealous individualism, and have as many disputing sects as there are men to make them or names to call them by ; and all its churches be cut down to the Gospel minimum of two or three.* This is the state to which Protestantism, merely as such, always tends. The tendency was seen clearly from the first. Luther himself was bitterly grieved, perplexed, and baffled by it. The enemies of Reform seized upon it as the weak point, the joint in the harness, where their keenest darts might strike. Bossuet, whose domineering temper attacked as haughtily the gentle spiritualism of Fénelon and Madame Guyon as the vigorous dogmatics of Calvin, considered that he had damaged fatally the cause of the enemy, by exposing some two hundred “ Variations of Protestants,” into which they had diverged, in parting from the Roman See. Yet still the spirit remains unsubdued, and the work of disintegration goes on. The variations may be by this time as many thousand ; yet the essential nature of Protestantism remains unchanged. And if this one tendency were followed freely out, the result could only be — what some have anticipated and even longed for — that I all bands of religious fellowship should be dissolved, and every man stand absolutely alone before his God.

* We use the word Protestantism in its ordinary popular sense, as meaning the aggregate of religious sects opposed to Rome, founded on the profession of a distinct theological creed. Where it is used in a broader acceptation, the connection will show sufficiently.

But, if it were only to make an organized opposition possible, some check must be found to this centrifugal force ; some common ground must be chosen, where men may waive their differences, and act together for the cause. Accordingly, the history of Protestantism is not so simple a thing as the history of opinions branching out more and more widely asunder, and tapering from dogmatism towards scepticism at one pole, and sentimental mysticism at the other. It is the history of a conflict between two opposite tendencies, and perpetual attempts at compromise. On the one hand liberty of thought, on the other the need of union; the dissolving and the organizing tendency, — these are what the history of Protestantism exhibits from the first. It is not crude and chaotic, as might seem at first, but is eminently dramatic, — all the more so, because of the free and open field in which the two contend. Leaving out the era of the Reformation, — when the mere need of self-defence necessitated some sort of armed union, and as it were a military discipline, - Modern Protestantism shows itself as a force acting perpetually in two different directions, and perpetually conflicting with itself: on the one hand, professing liberty of conscience and thought, the essential princi

« ElőzőTovább »