“Nothing could justify the Church of England in trampling under foot the doctrines which had been held sacred by all Europe for so many centuries, but the right of private judgment.” As the Church of England was under no special disqualifications, this implies the general proposition that nobody can ever be 'justified in refuting and opposing doctrines generally held sacred except upon the principle of the right of private judgment. The form of the sentence also implies that there is a principle, called the right of private judgment, which will always justify anybody in trampling under foot doctrines previously held sacred by the world at large tor a great length of time. Consider what these propositions imply. The early Christians train led under foot doctrines held sacred for centuries by the world at large. So did Moses; so did the founders of Buddhism and Brahminism; so did Mahomet. Unless, therefore, it can be shown that all these persons held the principle of private judgment, it follows that nothing could justify their conduct. But is them the least reason to suppose that any one of them held any doctrine which would always justify everybody in trampling under foot every doctrine previously received, including their own after it became established and ancient? Is not the very opposite the case? Have not all new religions made the acceptance or rejection of their doctrines the one condition of happiness and virtue? The Christian maxim was, for centuries, nulla salus extra ecclesiam: and Mahomet presented to mankind the famous alternative of the Koran, the tribute, or the sword. Was this conduct inconsistent, self-contradictory, incapable of being explained upon any intelligible principle, or was it based upon the principle of the right of private judgment? Unless Mr. Phillimore takes refuge under his right as an Englishman to despise logic, he must either give up the proposition quoted above, or maintain one or the other of these propositions.
Mr. Phillimore's proposition that nothing could justify the Church of England in trampling, &c., except the right of private judgment is clearly unsound, whatever meaning we may attach to the word “justify.” If to “justify” means to prove that the conduct in question was right, it is obvious that the fact that the opinions trampled on were false would justify those who rejected hem as well as the doctrine of the right of private judgment, whatever that may be. Mr. Phillimore would hardly doubt that the fact that a document presented to a banker, and purporting to be a cheque, was really a forgery, would justify him in refusing to cash it, as well as the absence of any balance to the credit of the supposed drawer. This, however, is probably not the sense in which the word “justify" was used. It was probably meant to assert that nothing but an admission of the right of private judgment could render the line of conduct in question plausible and consistent with the other principles of those who adopted it—could make it, so to say, good on the face of it. The proposition will then be that nobody can have plausible prima facie grounds for rejecting ancient and common opinions unless he is prepared to assert the right of private judgment. But the whole history of the world rebuts this notion. A religious innovation, and all the intolerance which religious innovation almost invariably produces proceeds on the assumption that the innovator is right, and that the system against which he rebels is wrong. If he is able to convince mankind that he has any plausible grounds for thinking so, they see nothing strange—or, to use Mr. Phillimore’s favourite phrase, nothing “illogical"—in his conduct, even when it tends to persecution. On the contrary, they often regard the fact that he is willing to go the length of persecution as a ledge of sincerity, and consequently as evidence of the truth of his opinions. When Mahomet declared that he had a divine commission to preach the unity of God and to destroy idolatry, no one said, “Nothing can justify you in trampling on idols except an assertion of that right of private judgment which you deny to idolaters." On the contrary, people felt that, if he really meant what he said, he could not act otherwise. He gave what seemed to those who heard it a probable and natural account of himself and his belief, and it was for this reason that the abetted him in his intolerance. The same may be said of the growth of Christianity in the early ages of the Church. Those to whom the Christian faith was first preached thought it true, and under that conviction trampled on the venerable creed of Paganism, and threatened, first, hell-fire, and afterwards earthly fire too, against all who thought otherwise. The spiritual empire of the Roman Catholic Church was built on precisel y the same foundation. It depended on the belief in its claims of those to whom they were addressed, and that belief rendered intolerance possible, and excluded the doctrine of the right of private judgment. Produce ardent enthusiastic belief, no matter how—by a real or by a false revelation from God, by real or pretended miracles, by arguments addressed to the reason, by appeals addressed to the passions—and the same effect almost universally follows. The disciples, if not the leaders, exclaim—“We are right, our opponents are wrong; they are the enemies of the truth, and they must be restrained by such punishments, temporal or spiritual, as we can inflict or threaten. The only case in which persecuting innovators can fairly be taxed with absurdity—they can hardly ever be taxed with inconsistency—is the case in which their conviction of the truth of their own views has been produced by evidence so slight as, in the general opinion of the world, to justify contempt for those who are convinced by it. For instance, we would despise a modern Ultramontanist who wished to persecute on behalf of the Pope, not for wishing to persecute on behalf of a deputy God, but or being weak enough to believe in the claims of the Pope to be a deputy God.
Can, then, any one seriously maintain that the claims advanced by the Church of England, in the time of Queen Elizabeth, to be right as against the Church of Rome, were not sufficiently plausible to be held in good faith by a considerable number of people? They did not admit, as Mr. Phillimore’s language implies, that they were trampling on doctrines held sacred for centuries. They viewed their conduct in quite another light. Their general position was something of this kind:—The whole Christian world agrees in believing that a supernatural revelation was made by God to man. We Protestants say that you Roman Catholics took advantage of this to usurp by certain means a power to which you had no right, and to introduce various corruptions into the original creed. We consider that the power which you so unlawfully usurped is lawfully in us, the Queen and Parliament of England, and in others—to wit, foreign nations in their own bounds; and we mean to act upon this view by exercising that power, by deciding what are corruptions and what is the true faith, and enforcing our own views by legal penalties. Mr. Phillimore cries out against the “logic” of this. How, he would probably ask, could the Church of England justify itself against the Brownist or Anabaptist, who claimed to differ from the Tudors and Stuarts as they had differed from Rome? He does not see that the Church of England might with equal justice say to the Church of Rome, What right had you to assert supremacy as against the Greek Church? What right had the Christians to assert themselves against the Pagans? The only possible answer, in every case, is the right of truth. We say that we are right, you say that you are right, the Anabaptists say that they are right; nor do we deny that, if you or they were right in your claims, you would be right in your conduct. We are so situated that no external visible authority except force can decide between us, and to that we are quite ready to appeal. We shall hang you if we can; you probably will burn us; but inasmuch as we believe ourselves to be right, we also believe that you will be eternally damned for burning us, and that we shall go to heaven for hanging you or being burnt by you. All this is perfectly consistent. It me be right or wrong, but if it is “illogical,” all war is illogical, an all government depending on and supporting itself by physical force is illogical; no room is left in the world for such a thing as difference of opinion and collision in practice. Mr. Phillimore’s principles would tend to the conclusion that there is no logical way in which the truth of an established religion can be put in issue by any one who believes that religious truth is attainable at all; for his charge against the Church of England is that, by claiming to be right as against an established creed, it estopped itself from acting on the assumption that those who differed from it were wrong. If this is French logic, it is very like English nonsense. Does anyone suppose that there neither is not can be any case in which the United States could properly enforce their authority against rebels because they began by rebelling against us, or that a man who has once failed in an action at law can never recover damages from anybody else? Mr. Phillimore’s view about the Church of England is just as unmeaning as if he had said, “How can A., who had to pay damages to B., venture to urge a claim against C.?” Nothing at the right of private judgment could justify his denial of B’s claim. How, then, can he deny to C. the liberty of denying his own? The answer is, that he does permit C. to deny it at his peril; and that is just what is done by a persecuting Church, or a nation when it goes to war. The litigant, the Church, and the nation, each at a certain point, leaves off arguing, and acts upon the opinion that he or it is right and its antagonist wrong.
The truth is, that the proposition which Mr. Phillimore's argument implies—namely, that there is a principle, called the right of private judgment, which will always justify anybody in trampling under foot doctrines previously held sacred—is alto ether unfounded; and its incorrectness shows the mischief of such wide and indefinite phrases as “the right of private judgment”—phrases which give to modern French writing much of that air of system and logic which Mr. Phillimore seems to admire. Experience has no doubt shown that to abstain from interference with all kinds of inquiry is the best way of arriving at truth; but so far is this from being a self-evident fact which the founders of the Church of England ought to have known by the light of nature, that nothing but long and varied experience can convince men that it is a fact at all, and it is even now doubtful whether the proposition ought not to be confined to particular subjects, particular ages of the world, and particular states of society. Unlimited freedom of inquiry amongst the private soldiers in a besieged town or on a battle-field might be an awkward thing, and not conducive to the formation of true opinions as to the best course to be taken. No competent judge will deny that there is a moral element in the formation of opinion—that there are opinions which it is morally wrong to hold, and which are held by reason of the moral obliquity of those who hold them.
The remainder of Mr. Phillimore’s criticism is as unjust as the sentence which has been already discussed. He says, “If the Church of Rome persecuted, it was to uphold opinions that had been supposed for centuries to be the basis of social life, that were incorporated with the manners, the usages, the institutions of Christian Europe, &c. If the Church of England persecuted in Elizabeth‘s time, it was to support a creed unknown till it had been established by the Queen and her counsellors.” The great object of the persecution on each side was to maintain or to repel the pretensions of the Roman Catholics to universal authority. It is monstrous to describe the religion of England in the sixteenth century as “a creed unknown till it had been established by the Queen and her counsellors.” Did they invent the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Sacraments? Were they the authors of the Bible? The ground on which they went, right or wrong, was that they had freed the Christian religion from Romish corruptions and brought it back to something like its original purity. This may have been false, but it is childish to treat the pretension as so monstrously absurd that it could not at that time be made in good faith. It was made, in one shape or another, by half, and that the most intelligent half, of Europe. It was certainly much more reasonable than the Papal claim to infallibility; nor, after all, was it so very much more modern.
Mr. Phillimore proceeds:—“To say nothing of the want of logic in such conduct, until the mind of man be moulded anew, he will bear the arbitrary measures of a long-established dominion with much less impatience than the shameless tyranny of an upstart sect, crying out for toleration when it was weak and insisting on absolute submission when it was strong.” The fallacy which pervades the whole of Mr. Phillimore’s theory is sufficiently obvious. He cannot understand that any one can believe himself to be right and try to force his opinion on others. For several centuries, Christianity itself was an upstart sect crying out for toleration when it was weak and insisting on absolute submission when it was strong. Almost every sect naturally uses the language to which Mr. Phillimore objects. Their fundamental principle, the reason why they exist at all as distinct bodies, always is that they are right; anti assuming that to be so, the inference is irresistible that they ought to be spared in their weakness and obeyed in their strength. Is there anything absurd in the conduct of a man who says to the occupier of a house, “This is my house, though I am at present out of possession; keep it in good repair, or I shall turn you out when I have established my right; respect my interests when I am weak, for you will have to respect them when I am strong, and strong I shall be, for I have the law on my side, whatever you may think.” He may be mistaken, but he is not inconsistent.
Apart from this, does human nature not as Mr. Phillimore says it does? Is the tyranny of an established power submitted to more cheerfully than that of a new sect? The reverse is the fact. The French submitted cheerfully to the tyranny of the revolutionary Government, after destroying Louis XVI. and his noblesse. The Americans broke with Great Britain for a trifle; they bear almost anything from Mr. Lincoln. The Puritans crossed the Atlantic to avoid the tyranny of the Stuarts, but they enacted and maintained, in the “blue laws” of Connecticut, a code which was to the statute-book as scorpions to whips. Geneva broke loose from Rome, but Calvin had no difficulty in burning Servetus. The reason of this is not difficult to discover. Mankind are not of Mr. Phillimore's way of thinking. There is nothing which people in general understand better or like more than a sturdy claim of right vigorously upheld and pushed to all lengths. A man who is prepared to burn and be burnt may do almost what he likes with his fellow-men if he has any sort of plausibility about him. Any number of volunteers are ready to follow a good fierce, positive apostle, with a vigorous creed which he applies unflinchingly. The friends of old, respectable, easy-going institutions are to be found either amongst those who do not think at all, or among those who think a great deal and have no objection to arrive at qualified and intricate opinions which it requires some pains and attention to understand.
Of course we do not mean to defend the intolerance of the Tudors and Stuarts. It was every bad thing, but it should be attacked on right grounds; and, above all, it ought not to be called “illogical” by any one who knows enough of logic to be aware that its essence consists in drawing sound conclusions and not in forming showy premisses.
Saturday Review, February 13, 1864.