Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Flowers of Freethought

MR. GLADSTONE ON DEVILS.

When the Grand Old Man crossed swords with Professor Huxley on the miracle of Gadara, he spent all his time in discussing whether the pigs belonged to Jews or Gentiles. The more serious point, whether a legion of devils were actually cast out of one or two men and sent into a herd of swine, he sedulously avoided. Professor Huxley, however, is too wide-awake to be drawn off the scent; and while he disputed the points of geography and ethnology, he insisted upon the fact that their only importance was their relation to a miraculous story, which marked the parting of the ways between Science and Christianity.

The demonic theory of disease, including insanity, is universal among savages. For proof and illustration the reader has only to consult Dr. Tylor's splendid work on Primitive Culture. There are special demons for every malady, and the way to cure the disease is to cast out the evil spirit. Of course insanity is a striking disorder, and in default of the pathological explanation the savage regards the wild, wandering words and inexplicable actions of the sufferer as the words and actions of a demon, who has taken possession of the man's body, and driven his soul abroad or put it in abeyance. This theory of madness survived through all the centuries of Christian history until the advent of modern science. Mad people were chained up, exhibited as objects of derision, and often beaten unmercifully. It was the devil in them, as in the poor witches, that was treated in this fashion. And it was a recognised part of a clergyman's business to cast out devils. The Church of England canon is still unrepealed which provides that the clergy, before engaging in this useful if not agreeable occupation, must obtain the written authority of their bishops.

Laugh or smile as we will at this superstition, it is an integral part of the New Testament. The demonic theory of disease is confessed in the story of Jesus rebuking the fever of Peter's mother-in-law, so that it left her instantaneously, flying out of the door or window, or up the chimney. Jesus repeatedly cast out devils. He expelled seven, in succession or at one fell swoop, from Mary Magdalene. He turned a legion -- that is, several thousands -- out of the possessed Gadarenes; there being at least one apiece for the bedevilled swine who were driven to destruction. Paul likewise cast out devils. Indeed, if demonic possession in the New Testament is explained away, there is no reason why every other miraculous element should not be dealt with in the same manner.

Mr. Gladstone perceives this, although he does not commit himself in his Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture. "I am afraid," he says, in a letter to the Rev. J. W. Belcher, "that the objections to demoniacal possession involve in germ the rejection of all belief in the supernatural." This is wonderfully clear and straightforward for the Grand Old Man. Give up the belief that mad people may be tenanted by devils, and you should immediately join the National Secular Society. You have taken the first decisive step on the broad road of "infidelity," and nothing but a want of logic or courage prevents you from hastening to the inevitable conclusion.

Archbishop Trench, in his Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord, rejects the theory that the "demoniacs" were simply insane. No doubt, he says, there was "a substratum of disease, which in many cases helped to lay open the sufferer to the deeper evil." But "our Lord Himself uses language which is not reconcileable" with the naturalist theory. "It may well be a question moreover," says Trench, "if an Apostle, or one with apostolic discernment of spirits, were to enter now into one of our madhouses, how many of the sufferers there he might not recognise as thus having more immediately fallen under the tyranny of the powers of darkness."

Dean Milman, the discreet, plausible, and polished historian of the Christian superstition, did not shrink from regarding the New Testament demoniacs as merely insane; and "nothing was more probable," he remarked, "than that lunacy should take the turn and speak the language of the prevailing superstition of the times." Precisely so. But why did Jesus imitate the lunatics? He addresses the evil spirit and not the madman. "Hold thy peace," he says, "and come out of him." No doubt the demoniacs were simply insane; but in that case Jesus himself was mistaken, or the evangelists put into his mouth words that he never used. The first alternative destroys the divinity of Jesus; the second destroys the authority of the evangelists.

Mr. Gladstone's position is the only honest and logical one for a professed Christian. Demonic possession cannot be cut out of the New Testament without leaving a gap through which all the "infidelity" in the world might pass freely. Devils are not confined to hell. They are commercial travellers in brimstone and mischief. They go home occasionally; the rest of the time they are abroad on business. When they see a promising madman they get inside him, and find warmer quarters than the universal air. Very likely they have started Theosophy, in order to provide themselves with fresh residences.

Little devils of course involve the big Devil -- Apollyon, Beelzebub, Abaddon, Satan, Lucifer, Old Nick. He commands the infernal armies, and is one of the deities in Mr. Gladstone's pantheon. He is even embedded in the revised version of the Lord's Prayer -- like a fly in amber. "Deliver us from evil" now reads "Deliver us from the Evil One." Thus the Devil triumphs, and the first of living English statesmen is reduced by Christian superstition to the level of modern savages and ancient barbarians. Mr. Gladstone is perhaps the highest type of the Christian statesman. But how small and effeminate he appears, after all, in comparison with a great Pagan statesman like Julius Caesar, whose brain was free from all superstition! Were the "mighty Julius" to re-appear on earth, and see a great statesman believing the story of devils being turned out of men into pigs, he would wonder what blight had fallen upon the human intellect in two thousand years.
 


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