Satyagraha

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A Beautiful Mind: Addison’s Religious Essays

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fancy_dropcase_READERS of this blog may download a free copy of my new book, a collection of religious and metaphysical essays by Joseph Addison which appeared in the The Spectator in 1711 and 1712. These are certain to delight and edify.  Addison is well known as one of the most skilled prose stylists in the English language; but few today are aware of the sublime quality of his religious essays.

Addison’s influence on both the English and American minds is considerable, yet largely unacknowledged today.

Download the ebook in pdf format here.

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A Meditation on Man’s Transcendent Dignity

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Pope Francis

On November 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, exhorting them to greater concern for what he called man’s transcendent dignity. The next day one newspaper ran the somewhat misleading headline, “Pope Calls for End to Hunger.” Now clearly ending hunger is a good thing, and the Pope did mention it. But this was not his core message, which considered not so much man’s needs and dignity at a material level, but man’s transcendent dignity.

What, then, is man’s transcendent dignity? This is clearly too large and involved a topic to pursue in detail here. Rather it is more fitting to call attention to the fact that it is a question. Our first task, that is, is to come to a more clear and explicit understanding of this term, transcendent dignity, which we seem to collectively intuit has some valid meaning even if we cannot at present say exactly what it is.

Here I would simply like to offer an example — a thought experiment, perhaps we could call it — that helps establish that human beings do have what can be properly called transcendent dignity.

Suppose, then, that some form of cosmic radiation were to kill all human beings on earth except one, but leaving all buildings, machines, plants and animals, etc., intact. Although this person would suffer aloneness, he or she would also be able to go anywhere and do anything. He or she could read every great book, see every magnificent building, painting, or sculpture, listen to every work of classical music ever recorded; visit every corner of the globe, see every magnificent spectacle of nature, learn about every animal and plant.   Let us add the further premise that this person could by some form of in vitro fertilization or cloning and advanced technology produce exactly one other human being to carry on after he or she died — so that the planet would always have one human being alive, and living the same kind of life.

What I propose is that the world would be a completely different and better place because of this one person. This single person would supply a depth and dignity to the world — a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual meaning — that would be absent otherwise.  Without this person the world might exist materially, but it would be spiritually and morally lifeless. In short, this example implies that the transcendent dignity of man is so great that a single human being is enough to supply moral, intellectual, and spiritual meaning to the entire universe!

The example also implies a moral mandate to give human beings the time, freedom, and opportunity to cultivate their higher nature. The hungry must be fed. But man does not live by bread alone. The European Parliament must also promote policies that allow man to nourish his soul.

A Transcendental Humanism

Plato-Aristotle-by-RaphaelSchool of Athens (detail)

school-of-athensSchool of Athens

I will also add that Pope Francis’ remarks about Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ were quite interesting.  They are worth quoting in full:

One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens.” Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems.

The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul.

What the Pope is suggesting is a form transcendental humanism which integrates the spiritual and the material dimensions of man’s nature.  This philosophical view has a long history, and a name:  Idealism, or Platonic Idealism.   It also corresponds to the Integral or Idealistic cultural mentality described by Pitirim Sorokin.

It also needs to be clearly stated that modern humanism — which views man only in material and biological terms — does not affirm man’s dignity, but arguably reduces it.

Philosophers today, in Europe and elsewhere,  need to direct their attention to these issues.   As always, we must begin with a careful consideration of terms and definitions.   Conventionally a distinction has been made between a religious or spiritually based humanism on the one hand, and what is called secular humanism on the other.  This terminology immediately paints us into a corner, because it supposes that secular culture and institutions must exclude anything having to do with religion and spirituality.  But secular doesn’t actually mean non-spiritual — it only means, in this context, that which pertains to institutions that are public, universal, and not affiliated with particular religious institutions.  In other words, it is perfectly feasible to envisage a humanism that recognizes dimensions of human experience beyond the material, but which is public, universal, and suitable for incorporation into our civil and government institutions.  The actual contrast, then, is between a purely materialistic humanism — which defines man only in terms of biology and physical needs — and one that allows for elements of man’s nature which go beyond the merely material.

We can, in other words, have a humanism that is both secular and transcendent.  To articulate and develop such an integral humanism should be our goal.  The Dalai Lama of Tibet has made repeated pleas for a universal secular humanism based on such principles as compassion and social justice.  But this suggestion is not, at least as it has been generally interpreted, sufficiently distinct from a merely materialistic humanism: after all, other animals also have compassion for each other; there is nothing unique to man’s dignity in that he cares about the hunger and suffering of other members of his species.

Distinctly European is the Renaissance heritage of a humanism that is truly secular and transcendent.  This development came to a halt when Enlightenment rationalism pushed it aside.  Now that the perils of unbridled rationalism are evident, we must again seek the more balanced and integral view of man.  We can do this by re-examining Renaissance philosophy, and even more so the classical philosophical underpinnings of the Renaissance, especially Platonism.

Also noteworthy is that the theme of individual responsibility, which is easily undermined by state nannyism, has been repeatedly emphasized by papal communications.  For example, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio, states the following:

15. … Endowed with intellect and free will, each man is responsible for his self-fulfillment even as he is for his salvation. He is helped, and sometimes hindered, by his teachers and those around him; yet whatever be the outside influences exerted on him, he is the chief architect of his own success or failure. Utilizing only his talent and willpower, each man can grow in humanity, enhance his personal worth, and perfect himself.

In 1987, marking the 20th anniversary of Populorum progression, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.  The encyclical was critical of the so-called liberation theology which seeks to improperly prioritize man’s material advancement ahead of his moral and spiritual advancement:

Development which is merely economic is incapable of setting man free, on the contrary, it will end by enslaving him further. Development that does not include the cultural, transcendent and religious dimensions of man and society, to the extent that it does not recognize the existence of such dimensions and does not endeavor to direct its goals and priorities toward the same, is even less conducive to authentic liberation. Human beings are totally free only when they are completely themselves, in the fullness of their rights and duties.

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What is True Charity?

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Charity

The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.

At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.

To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.

A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of the Form of a triangle. (This conceptual principle is a powerful and distinct asset to those who try to understand who or what God is – but that is a topic to take up another time.)

With this innovation, our definition becomes “Charity is the doing of good to others for the sake of the Good.”

How does this help? One way is with respect to the Platonic principle known as the unity of virtues. Because all virtues, and indeed all good things, are instances of the Good, a corollary is that pure virtue of any kind, i.e., pure Truth, pure Beauty, pure Justice, etc., must be compatible with every other pure virtue. One cannot, for example, act in a way that affirms Truth yet contradicts Justice or Beauty. This principle supplies a means by which we may test whether a given act is true Charity: the act must awaken in us an awareness of Goodness generally; contemplating or performing the proposed act should leave our mind ‘basking’ in the glow of the train of all divine virtues.

This has some very practical implications for modern social activism. It means that one cannot be motivated by Charity and yet act in a contentious way. Suppose a person is angry that poor people do not have adequate health care. This is certainly an important concern. But if this concern takes the form of hateful denunciation of other people – the greedy rich, selfish Republicans, whoever – then it is not a form of Charity. Because anger is not consistent, in fact it is incompatible, with the Virtues. This helps us see why St. Paul defined Charity as he did: Charity “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” (1 Corinthians 13 4–5)

The Platonic perspective also reveals four further attributes of Charity. First, it is it’s own reward. Plato had a name for that kind of experience where we suddenly we regain our ability to see truth: who we are, what really matters, what brings us happiness. He called it anamnesis, literally unforgetting (an = un, amnesis = forgetting). True Charity should have the quality of anamnesis: it realigns our mind such that we are again in touch with our true nature; we become properly oriented to ourselves, other people, Nature, and God.

Clearly this is much different from, say, sending money in a perfunctory way to a “charity” like Greenpeace. Sometimes such actions are performed out of a sense of mechanical duty. Other times they may be motivated by sentimentality – as when one feels sorrow at the plight of abused animals. There is nothing wrong with such actions. They are commendable, in fact, and may well constitute virtues in their own right; our only point here is Charity is something distinct and greater than these things, and to lose sight of the distinction is to risk losing sight of the full meaning and significance of Charity.

Second, the proposed definition shows how Charity is ultimately connected with our own salvation (understood in a broad, nondenominational, psychological sense). The truth is that, however much we may believe or protest otherwise, our ultimate instinctive concern is not with others, but for ourselves. Said another way, our first order of business is to help ourselves. History is full of examples of people who neglected their own moral development for the sake of busying themselves with other people’s problems. To such as these one might well say, “Physician, heal thyself,” or “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew16:26) We must be constantly aware, in whatever we think or do, or our own need of salvation in this broad sense. This is the meaning of humility. The moment we lose sight of our immense proclivity for error, much of which goes under the name of ‘egoism’, then our ego takes over and all manner of mischief is liable to occur. Unless God or the Good is in the picture, any action, even giving a million dollars to help others, will have a strong egoistic component.

Third, our Platonic perspective helps shows how Charity is contagious. If you act towards another with true Charity, the recipient knows, in their own soul, that your act is accompanied by your anamnesis. And since anamnesis always engenders feelings like trust, love, and hope, the person knows that you have gained a reward greater than any human being could give you.

This, in turn, produces a sympathetic anamnesis in the recipient. It reawakens in them a remembrance of what the important, the finer things in life are. And this is cause for them to affirm life and thank God – not so much for whatever charitable benefit they received, but because God made such a world where Charity itself exists. It may literally restore the other’s faith in humanity. Moreover, the recipient is presented with the fact that they too have the ability to show Charity to others. A quality of a truly Charitable act, then, is that it leaves the recipient in a frame of mind eager to show Charity to others. When you act with Charity to others, then, often more important than the physical gift to the other is the psychological gift.

Finally, the Platonic perspective helps us to see that Charity is different from other forms of helping, giving, sharing, etc., in terms of epistemology. True Charity, because it is consciously aligned with God and the Good, opens the mind to an influx of higher thoughts – the mode of knowledge Plato called noesis. This is distinct from our usual form of rationalistic thinking, called dianoia, or reasoning. Thus, a characteristic of true Charity is that it is frequently motivated by inspiration, often more an act of spontaneous creativity than cold calculation. Again, this is not to say that we should avoid applying our logical minds to helping others – only that Charity is something distinct from rationality alone.

 

America’s Covenant with God: John Winthrop’s ‘City on a Hill’ Speech (1630)

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7708df34bfc84e32ea97bdb060582c24N 1630, John Winthrop, who went on to become Governor of Massachusetts, delivered a famous sermon titled, A Model of Christian Charity, to the Puritans en route to New England.  This sermon is the proximal source (the actual origin is biblical, i.e., Matthew 5:14) of the phrase, “a city on a hill,” which both Presidents Kennedy and Reagan used to describe America.

The city on a hill metaphor has inspired many Americans, and perhaps irritated some others who claimed it expressed a dubious attitude of American exceptionalism.  But as I have studied this speech, it has come more and more to impress me as something profound and deeply significant.  America, indeed, for Winthrop, was to be a city placed on a hill for all to see.  But in what way was it to serve as a model?  Of democracy?  A land of liberty?  A land of productivity and commerce?  The answer is plainly revealed in Winthrop’s title:  America is to be a model of ‘Christian charity’.  And by this, Winthrop meant something very specific.  He meant that America needed to exemplify that particular kind of charity and love described by Saint Paul’s Epistles, in which a community is united by love, such that each person is as a different part of the body, and all work together for the common good.  In Winthrop’s words,

We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

This speech arguably ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as one of the foundational documents of the American people.  The Constitution is a compact we have made amongst ourselves.  But Winthrop’s speech outlines a compact or covenant made with the Supreme Being.

Thus stands the cause between God and us: we are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord has given us leave to draw our own articles; we have professed to enterprise these actions upon these [articles], and these ends; we have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing.

The terms are that Americans will be a community united in charity.

For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.

If this is accomplished, God’s blessing is anticipated.

The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as His own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with.

But should we fail to uphold our terms of the covenant, and turn from God and charity to materialism and selfishness, a “shipwreck” is portended.

I believe as many Americans as are able, especially Christians, should read and reflect on this marvelous sermon.  I would, however, suggest that new readers may wish to read only the last 60% of the sermon (which begins, “Having already set forth the practice of mercy…”), which contains the heart and soul of Winthrop’s message.  The first 40%, very dissimilar in style, gets into specific recommendations for how lending and borrowing should be conducted in the new colony; it lacks the inspired eloquence, timelessness, and prophetic character of the second part of the sermon.  Read the first part another time if you wish; but don’t let it dilute or distract your attention from the inspired message of the second half, which is the basis of the sermon’s fame, cultural importance, and modern relevance.

A Modern Edition

Errors in and discrepancies amongst published versions and lack of a canonical edition in modern English have posed a considerable hindrance to the contemporary reading and appreciation of this important work.  I have therefore consulted the published versions, as well as the scanned images of the manuscript copy, and prepared a more accurate and readable version.  Explanatory footnotes are supplied, spelling of archaic words has been modernized, and many scriptural citations overlooked in the previous editions have been added. The new edition can be downloaded for free as a pdf document or in MS Word format.

Historical Versions

No original of the sermon in Winthrop’s handwriting exists, and it was not published until the 19th century.  It is believed the sermon was circulated amongst Puritans in England and Massachusetts, hand-written copies being made for this purpose.  One such manuscript copy is known to exist, now in the possession of the New York Historical Society.

Two published transcriptions have been made from this manuscript copy by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The later transcription improves considerably over the earlier one, but still has errors.  Both transcriptions can be found online in pdf format:

Another transcription, of intermediate quality relative to the other two, is:

  • Morison, Samuel Eliot (ed.). “A Modell of Christian Charity.” Old South Leaflets, Vol. 9, No. 207. Boston: Old South Association, 1916, pp. 7–22.

There are several online versions based on the faulty 1838 transcription.

Scanned images of the manuscript copy (not very easy to read, the ornate script being indistinct in places) are available online at the New York Historical Society website.

Additional Reading

A book to recommend: Matthew S. Holland, Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America, Georgetown University, 2007. 

Bonds of Affection cover

Credits:  Thanks to staff at the Library of Congress and the New York Historical Society for help in compiling this information.

Moulding a Nation’s Heart

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The magnificent paragraphs below must surely rank among the best writings of the Anglo-American peace movement.

Their history is interesting.  They come from a sermon delivered by the Rev. Richard Ramsden (1761–1831) of Cambridge on March 12, 1800, on the occasion of a General Fast associated with hostilities between Great Britain and Napoleon’s France. The  sermon made a great impression on the renowned jurist, Basil Montagu (1770–1851), who by chance happened to be in attendance.  Through Montagu they found their way into the annals of the British Parliament (London, 1814). Montagu later, describing the words as “abounding with deep thought,” quoted them in a letter to his friend, Sir James Mackintosh, which appeared in Mackintosh’s published Memoirs (Mackintosh, 1836).  There they were read by the eminent statesman William Gladstone (1809–1898), who quoted them in his book, The State in Its Relations with the Church (1841), remarking of them: “If there be no full record of this magnificent production, it does not speak well for the generation to which it was given.”  Possibly from the same source they also came to the attention of the American Unitarian minister, Abiel Abbot Livermore (1864–1934), who quoted them in his work, The War with Mexico Reviewed (1850, pp. 281), the prize-winning submission in an essay competition sponsored by the American Peace Society for the best review and analysis of the much hated Mexican-American war.  Still later we find them reproduced in an installment of A Christian Treasury (Bonar, 1878); there the author is simply given as ‘Old Christian’, marking the passage of these profound and edifying words to the realm of cultural lore.

Gladstone would be heartened to know that the sermon was in fact published – once shortly after its delivery (Ramsden, 1800) and later in a collection (Ramsden, 1827).

Based on an exegesis of the vision of the four beasts in the Chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel, Ramsden likens the nations of the earth to great beasts of prey that fight against and seek to devour one another.  Nations are by nature amoral, just like lions and tigers: they have no innate law beyond that of self-interest.  We today might describe them as operating in a purely Darwinistic framework, governed by the rule of survival of the fittest.  This is the political universe of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and modern neoconservativism and realism.

Were this all to the story, it would be a bleak and nihilistic picture.  But Ramsden sees something more, and points the way to a solution suggested by Daniel 7:3-4.

[3] And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another.
[4] The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it. (Dan 7:2-4; KJV)

Ramsden then proceeds explain how a “a man’s heart” may be given to nations, to soften and humanize them and mitigate their beastliness.  First he describes how, in God’s mercy, a human heart may come to a nation:

“It comes by priests, by lawgivers, by philosophers, by schools, by education, by the nurse’s care, the mother’s anxiety, the father’s severe brow. It comes by letters, by science, by every art, by sculpture, painting, and poetry; by the song on war, on peace, on domestic virtue, on a beloved and magnanimous King; by the Iliad, by the Odyssey, by tragedy, by comedy. It comes by sympathy, by love, by the marriage union, by friendship, generosity, meekness, temperance; by every virtue and example of virtue. It comes by sentiments of chivalry, by romance, by music, by decorations, and magnificence of buildings; by the culture of the body, by comfortable clothing, by fashions in dress, by luxury and commerce. It comes by the severity, the melancholy, and benignity of the countenance; by rules of politeness, ceremonies, formalities, solemnities. It comes by the rites attendant on law and religion; by the oath of office, by the venerable assembly, by the judge’s procession and trumpets, by the disgrace and punishment of crimes; by public prayer, public fasts; by meditation, by the Bible, by the consecration of churches, by the sacred festival, by the cathedral’s gloom and choir; by catechizing, by confirmation, by the burial of the dead, by the observance of the sabbath, by the sacraments, by the preaching of the Gospel, by faith in the atonement of the cross, by the patience and martyrdom of the Saints, by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Ghost.”

He next describes what this heart does, or, in his words, “how its exercise, or affection appears,” and with particular attention to tempering the warlike tendency of a nation:

The exercise of a nation’s heart appears, in its imposing on its own ferocity restraints, in its submitting to checks on the levers and limbs of its strength, in its consenting to be one of the aggregate commonwealth of nations, in its conforming to a public, general law…. It appears in the sending and receiving of embassies, and in the forming of treaties of intercourse. It appears in allowing the soldier to judge of the pleas of humanity, in not putting to death the prisoner taken in battle, in alleviating the horrors of the prison, in healing the wounded enemy, in shewing the white banner, in signing of capitulations.

And:

It deepens the lines of the impression, it has received. It goes to the temple before battle. It prays against the visitation of the sword, as a plague of God. It mourns over that, which it is about to take into its hands. It prays for forgiveness of the breaches of the public law, it has consented to be under, though not bound to such consent. In this sense it prays against its own ambition, injustice, and love of rapine. It appoints fasts before battle. It fasts against its own strength; it weakens itself, and then, so weakened, lies prostrate before the superior strength of God. It seeks in this humiliation and acknowledgment the anointing from above, before it descend on the plain to wrestle.

The human heart of a nation improves itself by promoting virtue:

Like the heart of a man, this heart of a nation inculcates on itself, what promotes the habit of its virtue. It brightens the polish, it has taken. It cherishes the science, law, and religion, by which its softness comes.

Finally, Ramsden describes whose responsibility is the moulding of this heart, or “from whom this heart takes its texture and shape”:

“Whence the heart of a nation comes, we have perhaps, sufficiently explained. And it must appear, to what most awful obligations and duty are held all those, from whom this heart takes its texture and shape, our King, our Princes, our Nobles, all, who wear the badge of office or honour; all priests, judges, senators, pleaders, interpreters of law; all instructers of youth, all seminaries of education, all parents, all learned men, all professors of science and art, all teachers of manners. Upon them depends the fashion of the nation’s heart. By them it is to be chastised, refined, and purified. By them is the state to lose the character and title of the beast of prey. By them are the iron scales to fall off, and a skin of youth, beauty, freshness and polish to come upon it. By them it is to be made so tame and gentle, as that a child may lead it….

“How ought they then to consider, what their temper and conduct are; how ought they to reflect, that by mistake, by folly, by rudeness, by bad example, by corrupt sentiment, by false philosophy, by heresy, by impenitence, by contempt of law and religion, by any sentiment or action, which is base, mean, or evil, they are fostering the brutishness of the nation, keeping up contention and strife throughout the world, encouraging war and shedding of blood, barring from God’s mercy their fellow men, the poor, their own dependants, their own sons and daughters, hindering the descent of the Holy Ghost upon earth, delaying the reign of him, who died to save and bless the world.

“How ought they to reflect on the guilt of such conduct, which is not confined to one little spot or corner, but reaches and touches by links, which go round the globe, the happiness, the refinement, the peace, the salvation of all mankind now living, and of all future generations. How ought they to reflect on the blessing and reward of a contrary conduct, which is ever contributing to banish to their own place, all malice, wrath, jealousy, envy, revenge, cruelty, which heaps coals of fire on every hard mass, and from iron brings out gold, from brass silver, from stones gems; the gold, the silver, and the gems, which form the walls, the gates, and the battlements of the last city to be built, the city of God and of his Christ.”

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References

Ed. Bonar, Horatius. The Christian Treasury. Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter & Co., 1872. (see p. 395).

Gladstone, William. E. The State in Its Relations with the Church. Fourth edition. London: John Murray, 1841. Vol. 1. Section 3.2.23. (see pp. 169-171).

Ed. Hansard, T. C. The Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Time. Vol. 28 (June 7 to July 30, 1814). Appendix. London: 1814. (see pp. 137-140).

Livermore, Abiel A. The War with Mexico Reviewed.  Boston: American Peace Society, 1850.

Ed. Mackintosh, Robert James. Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Mackintosh. Vol. 1. London: Edward Moxon, 1836. (see pp. 158-161).

Ramsden, Richard.  Reflections on War and the Final Cessation of All Hostility: A Sermon Preached before the University of Cambridge, on Wednesday, March 12, 1800, Being the Day Appointed for a General Fast. Cambridge: J. Burges, 1800.

Ramsden, Richard. War and the Final Cessation of all Hostility.  In: Richard Ramsden, D. D., Twenty-Six Sermons, London: 1827,  pp. 237-256.

Rev. James Bicheno — The Consequences of Unjust War (1810)

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THE Rev. James Bicheno (1751-1831) was the father of James Ebenezer Bicheno, a British author, naturalist and colonial official in Australia (Tasmania).  The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1851 (Vol. 190, p. 436) describes the elder Bicheno as “an eminent dissenting minister of the Baptist persuasion and was the author of several publications of a politico-religious character.”   From the website Dissenting Academies Online we learn that Rev. Bicheno studied at Cambridge and the Bristol Baptist Academy, and are told this interesting detail: “kidnapped to America and sold to a planter in Virginia. Returned around 1774.”  His discourse on ‘The Consequences of Unjust War’ shows his eloquence and piety, as well as his knowledge of the Bible.  The work is somewhat peculiar in the strong anti-Catholic sentiments it expresses throughout.  For example, one of his concerns about the British war against Napoleon is that the French Republic had at least been a victory against “Popery.”  These expressions of personal prejudice, which remind us that even the saintliest and noblest writers retain a capacity for human error, do not, however, detract from the substance of the sermon’s message — a message clearly relevant for Americans today.

Source: Rev. James Bicheno.  The Consequences of Unjust War. London:  J. Johnson & Co., 1810.  (Subtitle:  A Discourse Delivered at Newbury, February 28, 1810, being the Day appointed by Proclamation for a General Fast.)

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“The duty of religious fasting, on suitable occasions, has been sanctioned by the practice of all ages, and is inculcated in the New Testament, as well as in the Old; and [that] national fasts, when kept without hypocrisy, and for ends worthy of God, possess that peculiar solemnity, which is calculated to impress the mind with extraordinary judgments, no enlightened Christian can doubt. And I hope there is no one here, who does not think it his duty to pray for our … government, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty. [1Tim 2] There is not one of us, I hope, who does not consider it as his duty, habitually to pray for the peace and prosperity of our beloved country. This is an essential duty of religion; but, convinced that nothing so contaminates devotion as the passions which spring from partial self-love; knowing, that he to whom we pray is equally the father of all, and no respecter of persons or nations, neither the love of our country, nor the power of self-interest, can exclude even our enemies from an interest in our prayers; nor induce us anxiously to solicit any favour at his hand, which is inconsistent with universal charity.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 1-2)

If we come with hearts fired with anger and revenge against our enemies, and, perverted by pride and self-love, call for fire from heaven to destroy them we hate; or, without devout consideration, not caring whether our cause be just or unjust, pray to the Father of mercies, because we may think we are commanded to do so, to go forth with our fleets and armies, and enable them to kill and burn and destroy; such services will be despised, and be more likely to bring down judgments than to avert them.
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 2-3)

“Our business to-day, then, is to satisfy ourselves (if we have not already done so) as to the character of the war we are engaged in, and what part of our conduct it is, that has been the more immediate cause of exposing us to those judgments which we are called upon to deprecate; that thus our devotions may be guided by that reason, which our Maker has given us to exercise; and have their foundation in that genuine, enlightened, piety, without which our religious services are mockery. If it should appear, on a candid examination, that our cause is decidedly just, and the war originally necessary for the defence of our country, our lives, and liberties; or should it appear to be quite the reverse, neither just nor necessary; or should the question be involved in doubt; in either of these cases, we shall then know how to order our speech before our judge [Job 37:19]; and, what to pray for as we ought [Rom 8:26].”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 3)

“It appears to me to be the duty … of every man, however humble his station, who knows any thing of the worth of our constitution and liberties; and particularly of the ministers of religion, on such a day as this, to do all in their power to enable the people to form a right judgment as to the character of the present war and times; and to show them their errors and transgressions, that high and low may be undeceived, and repent, and turn, and live [cf. Ezek 18:32]. This would be to keep an acceptable fast to the Lord [cf. Isa 58:5]. But woe to them who endeavour to prolong and propagate delusion! woe to them who wish to deceive, or who are willing to be deceived!”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 4)

“Now, though the dispensation of God, in different ages, and towards different people, may be dissimilar; yet he is, through all generations, the righteous governor among the nations, and the principles of his government must always be essentially the same; making a difference between the righteous and the wicked, as it respects nations, as well as individuals. And the people who maintain the purity of God’s worship and the freedom of conscience, and whose political institutions promote the distribution of impartial justice, and which are formed for the promotion of general good and happiness, may for ever be said to be on the Lord’s side; whilst the corrupters of his worship, the persecutors of conscience, and the people whose institutions are formed for the oppression of mankind, must ever be considered as the ungodly, and as those who hate the Lord.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 10)

“National departures from humanity and justice; forgetfulness of God, and contempt of the obligations of religion, we may expect to be followed by national calamities. Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people [Prov 14:34]. They bend their tongues, like their bow, for lies; but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the Lord [Jer 9:3].  — Shall I not visit them for these things? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this? [Jer 9:9]”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 18)

“Never was the hand of God more evidently displayed, than in the surprising occurrences which have so rapidly succeeded each other in the course of the last twenty years…. If events have not convinced us that the providence of God is against us, then nothing can. Would you war yet seventeen years more to ascertain the fact? … Every expectation has been disappointed. By every effort which we have made, we have contributed to the aggrandizement of the enemy, and hastened the ruin of those we attempted to help. Calamity or dishonour has been the only fruit of all our measures. Every new exertion has only served to place us at a greater distance from every object of the war.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 18-19)

“And after all this, are we still unconvinced, or without suspicion, that we have been fighting against the providence of God? Must you see greater calamities than you have seen, and still more striking accomplishments of God’s word, before you believe? Then, neither would you believe, though one rose from the dead [Luke 16:31]. ”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 20)

“The success, or non-success, of a cause, simply and alone, proves nothing. The cause itself must be examined, and judged of by the principles of eternal wisdom and justice. This being done, then, if there appear to be those remarkable interpositions, which, as far as mortals are able to judge, bespeak the finger of God, piety will allow them their due weight. And if the judgment hang in doubt, as, to the justice or injustice of a cause, a course of very extraordinary occurrences, such as we have seen, will weigh much with every man who feels the presence of the Deity, and truly believes in this moral and Providential government.  The ways of Providence are unsearchable. The designs of Heaven are operated by a complication of means, which human penetration can but very imperfectly trace, or comprehend. We ought to adore the long-suffering mercy of God for the exclusive protection we have hitherto experienced; and we cannot be too thankful for the safety we have thus far enjoyed, from the protection of our navy. But we cannot hence conclude, either that our cause is originally or essentially good; or that our safety is likely to be perpetual. I wish not to discourage the humble hopes of the good, but it would be criminal to flatter the confidence of the presumptuous, who are ingenious to find out arguments to encourage the continuance of those measures, which have brought the nation to the brink of ruin. But is it not easy to suppose, that our temporary preservation, and naval successes, may make a part of the great scheme of divine Providence, without implying either the justice of our cause, or our perpetual safety. It is probable that, whilst our enemy is the great instrument to break to pieces the nations, we may be the instrument of Providence, at once to chastise him, and, by the aid which we afford to those to be destroyed, and by the measures we pursue, to operate, indirectly, the destruction of those whom we intended to help. They who have attentively observed the progress of things, for the last seventeen years, will not be disposed to reject this hypothesis, as undeserving of all notice.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 21-22)

“If mere preservation and partial success be the marks of divine favour, what favourites must our enemies be!”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 23)

“Let me intreat you to turn your attention to those intimations of Divine displeasure, and to those signs of hastening calamities, which exist in the very bowels of the empire, and affect its most vital parts…. Reflect on the vast accumulation of our national debt; the immensity of our annual expenditure … and the consequent burdens under which the nation groans.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 23-24)

“Reflect on the obstinate resistance which is made to all that reform, which might preserve our constitution from degenerating into tyranny; and restore it to be in practice, what it is in theory: and thus prevent that indifference to the public welfare, in the mass of the people, which is more to be dreaded than all the legions of the enemy.—Reflect on the infatuation and imbecility which seems to direct our public affairs, and on the narrow policy and ill-timed bigotry, which insults and divides, when the common danger so imperiously demands measures of conciliation and union. Are liberal measures proposed for uniting the energies of men, of all religious opinions, and for extinguishing in the common flood of patriotism, that spirit of discord which divides and weakens?
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 24-25)

“Reflect on the general insensibility of the people, both to their danger, and to their public duties; on the dissipation and universal corruption of manners; on the great forgetfulness of God, and neglect of religious duties; and say, are there no signs of hastening ruin? are there no reasons to fear that the wrath of God is upon us, and that he hath, turned our wise men backward, and made their knowledge foolishness [Isa 44:25]? “Although the great body of the people are still blind to the hand of God; and although too many still cry for war, yet the more thoughtful are recovering from their delusion: — the mists have begun to disperse. You begin to perceive the mighty danger, as a giant advancing towards you; you feel the hollow ground on which you stand tremble; you begin to perceive the peril into which our country is brought. Ah! our Sion spreadeth forth her hands, and there is none to comfort her [Lam 1:17a]. There is none to guide her among all the sons she hath brought forth; neither is there any that taketh her by the hand of all the sons that she hath brought up [Isa 51:18]. “O my country! when we contemplate thy varied character, thy conduct, and the dangers which threaten thee, how mingled are our sensations? How many are thy charms to inspire our love, and make us cling to thy destinies! But many are the blemishes which deface thy beauty, and the magnitude of thy vices threatens thy life! — How many great and amiable qualities adorn thy character! How wise are many of thy institutions! — How pure thy courts of justice! — How numerous and extensive are thy charities! — How great thy care for the poor and needy! — But, thy children in the midst of thee, have forgotten God. There is a conspiracy of thy prophets, like a roaring lion; and thy great men are like the wolves, ravening the prey [Ezek 22:25]. — How charming are thy precepts of liberty: and under the protection of thy shield, the persecuted have found safety! But, thou hast forgotten thine own precepts, and what it was that made thee great; and for which we chiefly loved thee.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 25-27)

I think I should sin against God and my country, if on this day, I were not to bear a faithful testimony, and say, that, unless we cleanse ourselves from our corruptions, personal and national, in church and state; unless we cease from the career we have long been running, and are directed by wiser counsels than those which have brought us to the brink of ruin, a heavy visitation must be expected.  Yes, it is our duty to humble ourselves before God, against whom we have sinned by the misimprovement of the extraordinary light with which he has distinguished us, and the abuse of our power and wealth. It is our duty to pray to God, that that delusion, which has led the nation astray, may be dissipated before it be too late; that the errors into which the nation or government may have fallen, may be pardoned; and that our great and many sins may not issue in our ruin; that all may be enlightened to know what is good to be done in this time of danger, and that every heart may be inspired with those just sentiments which are necessary to a right conduct. It is our duty to repent, and immediately enter on a thorough reformation, as the best means of averting those judgments which have fallen upon the surrounding nations…. By such a conduct, if general and sincere, we might derive a good hope that these judgments will not be necessary to our renovation; will not be necessary to bring us to that purity of manners, and to reduce us to that just and benevolent temper, that piety towards God and charity to all mankind, which our religion inculcates, as essential to the favor of God; and without which, no nation can be truly and permanently happy and prosperous; without which, wars, and commotions, and revolutions, must be expected, as the fruit and chastisement of their follies and sins.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 27-28)

“It is incumbent on us, also, to rouse ourselves to an active attention to the duties of our several stations; and not only to those more common duties of life which occur every day, but to those political obligations that we are under…. Our duty is to bear testimony, in every legal way we can, against corruptions and war; and to lift up our voice for that political reformation, without which, neither our property, nor our liberties, nor our country, can long be safe.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 29)

“But my voice is too feeble to be heard; my efforts can be but of little use in so great a work as the salvation of [a nation] ….” True, if there were no voice but yours, it would be better to fly from danger than oppose it. But, let all the thousands who complain and murmur in solitude, discharge the duty which the constitution directs, and their voice will be powerful as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings [Rev 19:6], to appal corruption, and awake the nation from its fatal slumber. But does each, from motives of indolence, or of interest, or of fear, draw back from his duty? Of what practical worth, then, are the rights which we have received from our ancestors? If, absorbed in self, and dead to all public spirit, we fold our arms and stand silent, when the safety or the liberty of our country calls for our help, whom shall we have to accuse when the awful moment arrives, and calamities burst upon us as a flood? And whom will our children, and children’s children, have to accuse, if, regardless of our duty, and insensible to the value and use of our rights, we silently contemplate the approaching ruin without an attempt to repel its progress?”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 29-30)

Abiel A. Livermore — Learning the Lessons of War to Prevent Them in the Future

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AFTER the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1847), the American Peace Society  sponsored an essay competition, with $500 (roughly equivalent to $15,000 today) to be awarded for the best “Review of the Mexican War on the principles of Christianity, and an enlightened statesmanship.”  The competition was won by the Unitarian minister, Abiel Abbott Livermore (1811-1892).

The following paragraphs, taken from the closing pages of Livermore’s essay, apply as much today as then.

Source:  Abiel A. Livermore, The War with Mexico Reviewed, Boston, American Peace Society, 1850, pp. 280-286.

[Note:  the material below has been slightly re-arranged, viz. the powerful last two paragraphs come from the chapter preceding the Conclusion in Livermore’s essay.]

CONCLUSION

I have been apt to think there never has been, nor ever will be, any such thing as a good war, or a bad peace.” — FRANKLIN.

Then, at least shall it be seen, that there can be no peace that is not honorable, and there can be no war that is not dishonorable.” — CHARLES SUMNER.

AN able writer of the present day has said, that “the philosophical study of facts may be undertaken for three different purposes; the simple description of the facts; their explanation; or prediction, meaning by prediction, the determination of the conditions under which similar facts may be expected again to occur.” The Mexican War is now numbered among the things of the past. What has been done, is done; and what has been written, is written. Its consequences, however, will long remain, and will mingle with future events and influences materially to affect our national prospects. A treaty may stop the war, though some symptoms are unfavorable, but it cannot stop the war-results. The question then is, how can this great evil be turned to the best account. After narrating and explaining its events, so as to get a clear idea of its origin, causes, losses of life and treasure, and its social, political, and moral evils, the next step is to state the conditions on which we may predicate the recurrence of similar mischiefs; or draw such lessons of warning and encouragement, as will tend to prevent them. This end the American Peace Society propose to accomplish by publishing a Review of the War, and pointing out clearly and impressively to the citizens of our land, what measures should be taken to save us from plunging again into like calamities. Thus reviewed, and exposed, this darkest of all the passages in our country’s history, and most ominous of evil to come, in the judgment of wise statesmen, and sage moralists, may be converted into an unexpected blessing. The wars, consequent upon the French Revolution, aroused the friends of Peace on both sides of the ocean to more positive and combined action in behalf of this cause, and induced the formation of associations to work for the grand object of a universal and perpetual pacification of the world. Much has thus been effected to enlighten both rulers and people, and to impress upon both their solemn duties. Much has been done by the devoted and untiring laborers in this department of Christian philanthropy, over which angels must rejoice, and the King of kings extend his benediction.

But the great work has but just been commenced. We cannot suppose that so “splendid” a sin as war can at once be stripped of its false and fascinating garb, that the deeply-rooted and long-revered customs of nations can be torn up in a day, martial passions and habits be checked, and a public opinion, and a public conscience and heart too be formed on the subject, of sufficient potency to sheathe the sword for-ever. But the slowness of progress, the discouragements of efforts, the violent opposition with which a good cause and its advocates meet, do not release us from our duty to that cause, or furnish in reality a solitary reason why we should fold our arms in despair. The cause of Peace only suffers a like fate from opposition, misconstruction and misrepresentation, as the other glorious causes of philanthropy, and as that parent religion of which these causes are the legitimate and hopeful offspring. We may be sure that nothing is lost, that is done in a true spirit and a high aim for the furtherance of human good, and the divine glory. God forbid that we should ever fear that “His ear is heavy that it cannot hear, or His hand shortened, that it cannot save!”

In this faith, the Mexican war is a new weapon, put into the hands of peace, wherewith to win her bloodless victories. It teaches us, were lessons wanting, the folly of all war, its sin against God, and its subversion of His great plan. It teaches us by its gory fields of carnage, and the screaming hells of its hospitals, that a retributive God sits in the heavens, and that those “who take the sword, shall perish by the sword.” If rightly interpreted and faithfully laid to heart, it is capable of showing us the emptiness of military glory, the contentious and unchristian spirit which it cherishes among the officers and soldiers of the same side, the torrent of vices that is let loose in the path of armies, and the pro-fuse waste that is made of all that men hold dear, or labor most industriously to attain. It is a lesson at home, a republican, an American lesson. It has been brought nigh to many a heart, alas, and many a home, and burnt as with a red-hot branding-iron upon the memory of thousands, by bereavements and pains, such as God only can know, and eternity measure. And we believe that all the warnings and forebodings of the opponents to the annexation of Texas now stand vindicated in the light of a fearful and guilty history. Their prophecy is now fact. They predicted a war with Mexico, the extension of slavery and the slave-power, and infuriate lust of territory, the hatching of new schemes of war and plunder, and a headlong course of conquest and aggrandizement. We are deep in these evils and their results, or waver on the brink, apparently about to plunge in deeper than ever. If these things be so, then let the predictions and warnings of the friends of peace at this time not fall, Cassandra-like, on cold hearts and insensible con-sciences. But let every patriot and Christian, every lover of liberty and man, study what he can do to help stay the hour of his country’s danger, and, perhaps, ruin. It profits little to sit still and croak, like the ill-boding raven, of ills to come; but we must forth into the field of duty, action, and influence, and by voice and vote, by pen and purse, by example and precept, by a living and by a dying testimony, whether ours be the widow’s mite or the rich man’s offering, the influence of the high, or the word of the humble, strive, as for life, to arrest the downward tendency of things, recall the promise of our young republic, relight the torch of freedom, shame modern degeneracy with the early doctrines of our history, and set in vivid contrast the heathen nation we are in danger of becoming, with the glory of a true Christian commonwealth.

Let, therefore, these awful lapses in national virtue only serve to arouse to a more comprehensive and resolute course of action the disciples of the Prince of Peace. Let them thank God and take courage, that if they cannot wholly extinguish the wide-spread conflagration of war, they can yet rescue many victims from its fiery passions and its corrupting moral code. Let them bear their testimony against evils, still too powerful to be subdued at once. Let them see the hope and beauty of a brighter to-morrow symbolized in the rainbow that spans the departing thunder-cloud. War is but one section of the kingdom of Satan that is doomed to be overthrown by the kingdom of God. There is as much encouragement in laboring to remove this sin as any other of the gigantic evils that prey upon humanity. Faith, there-fore, faith is the word; faith vivified and illuminated by hope; faith made strong, and gentle, and patient by charity; faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord, the spiritual Governor of men, in whose kingdom of liberty, righteousness, and love, all nations, races, colors, clans, and sects, will at last be harmonized, and God shall be all in all.

Yea, despite the late war, despite the belligerent symptoms of the day at home, despite the warlike aspect of Christendom abroad, though all Europe seems to be turned into barracks and camps, and every country to be resounding with the march of armies hastening to the combat, our just and reasonable confidence in the ultimate triumph of the Gospel of peace is not in the least shaken. The last thirty years of comparative pacification have not passed in vain. Darker clouds than now overhang our horizon, have in former times shut out the light of heaven and hope. If in the solid midnight of sin and superstition, when the whole world lay bound at the chariot wheels of a military despot-ism, Jesus and his apostles knew that a better day was coming, how undying should be our faith amid the breaking of the morning light! For the truth is great, and it will prevail. God is faithful, and his promise will be redeemed. The Gospel is from the Almighty, and it must prevail over man. It is light from heaven, and the darkness of earth must flee before it. Its power is infinite, and its obstacles only finite.

Though for a season then, or for ages its victory may be delayed, the final result is none the less certain, for it is guaranteed by Him who alone is True. Verily, though the world should again plunge into that gulf of horrors, called a general war; though Christian nations should apostatize, and the churches sink into corruption; though the mighty impulses of philanthropy should fail, and the missionaries of the cross should return home, and renounce the sublime hope of evangelizing the world; though our holy faith should retire from the city and the assembly of men, and hide itself from the gaze of the world, we would yet follow her in fear and darkness to her last holy retreat on earth, to the spot, where a mother was kneeling over her new-born infant, and offering up to the Father of spirits her thanks and supplications, and even there catch a new inspiration of faith and hope for the revival of Christianity. For we should remember the sacred scene, eighteen hundred years ago, when the mother of Bethlehem prayed over the babe in the manger, and blessed her Saviour-child; and angels from heaven sang the anthem of his birth; “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Pacification of the World

And if we would inquire, how the heart of the world can be calmed, and enlarged, and inspired with the life-breath of peace; we can only say that such a heart comes from the nurture of home, and the solemnity of the church, and the tomb of the loved and gone. It comes by the closet of prayer, and the communion of nature, and the table of the Lord. It comes by a sister’s love and a brother’s example, and the memory of “the good old place.” It comes in the distilling dew of Christian instruction and the infinite sanctions of death, judgment, and eternity. It comes by the sweetness of Fenelon, and the love of Scougal ; by the majesty of Luther, and the humanity of Penn. It comes by the horror of blood, and the courage to be [wrongly] called a coward…. It comes by the testimonies of the wise, and the heroism of the good. It comes by the Beatitudes of the New Testament, and the Lord’s Prayer, and Paul’s masterpiece of Charity, and John’s epistle of Love. It comes by him who was born in a manger and died on a cross, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Saviour of sinners.

By these means the weaker spirit of war may be made to yield to the mightier spirit of peace. “And,” in the words of an English divine [Rev. Richard Ramsden of Cambridge (1761-1831)], suggestive of some of the foregoing remarks, “it must appear to what most awful obligation and duty we hold all those from whom this heart takes its nature and shape, our king, our princes, our nobles, all who wear the badge of office, or honor; all priests, judges, senators, pleaders, interpreters of law, all instructors of youth, all seminaries of education, all parents, all learned men, all professors of science and art, all teachers of manners. Upon them depends the fashion of the nation’s heart. By them it is to be chastised, refined, and purified. By them is the state to lose the character and title of the beast of prey. By them are the iron scales to fall off, and a skin of youth, beauty, freshness, and polish, to come upon it. By them it is to be made so tame and gentle as that a child may lead it.”*

* Of the sermon of Richard Ramsden from which this quote comes Gladstone wrote, “If there be no full record of this magnificent production, it does not speak well for the generation to which it was given.”  Gladstone supplies a longer quote that rewards thoughtful reading.  [Update:  a later post on Satyagraha discusses this 1800 sermon of Richard Ramsden.]