At the end of three centuries we find Christianity, advanced by all these means, become a formidable party in the Roman empire. The sovereign power acknowledged the impossibility of stifling it; and Christians, scattered in great numbers through all the provinces, formed an imposing combination. Ambitious chiefs incessantly wrested from one another the right of reigning over the wrecks of an enslaved republic: each sought to encrease his own strength, and acquire an advantage over his rivals. It was in these circumstances that Constantine, to strengthen himself first against Maxentius, and thereafter against Licinius, thought it his interest, by a stroke of policy, to draw over all the Christians to his party. For this purpose he openly favored them, and thereby reinforced his army with all the soldiers of that numerous sect. In gratitude for the advantages they procured him, he concluded with embracing their religion, now become so powerful. He honored, distinguished, and enriched the Christian bishops, well assured of attaching them to himself by his liberality to their pastors and the favor he shewed them. Aided by their succors, he flattered himself with the disposal of the flock.
By this political revolution, so favorable to the clergy, the bashful chiefs of the Christians, who hitherto had reigned only in secret and without eclat, sprung out of the dust, and became men of importance. Seconded by a despotical em[Pg 202]peror, whose interests were linked with theirs, they soon used their influence to avenge their injuries, and return to their enemies, with usury, the evils which they had received. The unexpected change in the fortune of the Christians made them forget the mild and tolerating maxims of their legislator. They conceived, that these maxims, made for wretches destitute of power, could no longer suit men supported by sovereigns; they attacked the temples and gods of paganism; their worshipers were excluded from places of trust, and the master lavished his favors on those only who consented to think like him, and justify his change by imitating it. Thus, without any miracle, the court became Christian, or at least feigned to be so, and the descendants of hypocritical courtiers were Christians in reality.
Even before the time of Constantine, Christianity had been rent by disputes, heresies, schisms, and animosities between the Christian chiefs. The adherents of the different doctors had reviled, anathematised, and maltreated each other without their quarrels making any noise. The subtleties of Grecian metaphysics introduced into the Christian religion, had hatched an infinity of disputes, which had not hitherto been attended with any remarkable occurrence. All these quarrels burst forth in the reign of Constantine. The bishops and champions of different parties caballed to draw over the emperor to their side, and thus aid them in crushing their adversaries. At the same time a considerable party under the priest Arius, denied the divinity of Jesus. Little versed in the principles of the religion that party had embraced, but wishing to decide the question, Constantine referred it to the judgment of the bishops. He convened them in the city of Nice, and the plurality of suffrages regulated definitively the symbol of faith—Jesus became a God consubstantial with his father; the Holy Ghost was likewise a God, proceeding from the two others; finally, these three Gods combined made only one God!
Tumultuous clamors carried this unintelligible decision, and converted it into a sacred dogma notwithstanding the re[Pg 203]clamations of opponents, who were silenced by denouncing them blasphemers and heretics. The priests who had the strongest lungs, declared themselves orthodox. The emperor, little acquainted with the nature of the quarrel, ranged himself for the time on their side, and quitted it afterwards according as he thought proper to lend an ear sometimes to the bishops of one party, and sometimes to those of another. The history of the church informs us, that Constantine, whom we here see adhering to the decision of the council of Nice, made the orthodox and the heretics alternately experience his severities.
After many years, and even ages of disputes, the bishops of Christendom have agreed in regarding Jesus as a true God. They felt that it was important for them to have a God for their founder, as this could not fail to render their own claims more respected. They maintained, that their authority was derived from the apostles, who held theirs directly from Christ; that is, from God himself. It would now-a-days be criminal to doubt the truth of this opinion, though many Christians are not yet convinced of it, and venture to appeal to the decision of the universal church. Except the English, all Protestant Christians reject Episcopacy, and regard it as an usurped power. Among the Catholics, the Jansenists think the same, which is the true cause of the enmity the Pope and Bishops display against them. It appears St. Jerome was, on this point, of the opinion of the Jansenists. Yet we see Paul at first much occupied in advancing the Episcopal dignity. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of the apostles, insinuates in his epistles, the high opinion which the Christians ought to have of a bishop; and the very ancient author of the Apostolic Constitutions, openly declares, that a bishop is a God on earth, destined to rule over all men, priests, kings, and magistrates. Though these Constitutions are reputed Apocryphal, the bishops have conformed their conduct to them more than to the canonical gospel, wherein Jesus, far from assigning prerogatives to bishops, declares, that in his kingdom there will be neither first nor last.[Pg 204]
The bishops assembled at Nice, decided also, as we have related, on the authenticity of the gospels and books ordained to serve as a rule to Christians. It is then to these doctors, as has been already remarked, that Christians owe their faith; which, however, was afterwards frequently shaken by disputes, heresies, and wars, and even by assemblies of bishops, who often annulled what other assemblies of bishops had decreed in the most solemn manner. From Constantine to our time, the interest of the heads of the church dictated every decree, and established doctrines wholly unknown to the founders of their religion. The universe became the arena of the passions, the disputes, intrigues, and cruelties of these holy gladiators, who treated each other with the utmost barbarity. Kings, united in interest with spiritual chiefs, or blinded by them, thought themselves at all times obliged to partake of their fury. Princes seemed to hold the sword for the sole purpose of cutting the throats of victims pointed out by the priests. These blinded rulers believed they served God, or promote the welfare of their kingdoms by espousing all the passions of the priests who were become the most arrogant, the most vindictive, the most covetous, and the most flagitious of men.
We shall not enter into a detail of all the quarrels which the Christian religion has produced. We shall merely observe, that they were continual, and have frequently been attended with consequences so deplorable that nations have had reason more than a hundred times every century to regret the peaceful paganism, and tolerating idolatry of their ancestors. The gospel, or the glad tidings, constantly gave the signal for the commission of crimes. The Cross was the Banner under which madmen assembled to glut the earth with blood. The will of heaven was understood by nobody: and the clergy disputed without end on the manner of explaining oracles, which the Deity had himself come to reveal to mortals. It was always indispensable to take a side in the most unintelligible quarrels: neutrality was regarded as impiety. The party for which the prince declared, was always orthodox,[Pg 205] and on that account, believed it had a right to exterminate all others: the orthodox in the church were those who had the power to exile, imprison, and destroy their adversaries. Lucifer Calaritanus, a most orthodox bishop, in several discourses addressed to the son of Constantine, did not scruple to tell the emperor himself that it was the duty of the orthodox to kill Constantius on account of his Arianism, which he called Idolatry; and for this he quoted Deut. xiii. 6., and I Maccab. i. 43, to v. 29 of c. ii.
The bishops, whom the puissance of an emperor had raised from the dust, soon became rebellious subjects; and, under pretence of maintaining their spiritual power, laboured to be independent of the sovereign, and even the laws of society. They maintained that princes themselves, "being subjects of Christ," ought to be subjected to the jurisdiction of his representatives on earth. Thus the pretended successors of some fishermen of Judea, whom Constantine had raised from obscurity arrogated to themselves the right of reigning over kings; and in this way the kingdom of heaven served to conquer the kingdoms of the earth.
Hitherto the Christians had been governed by bishops or chiefs independent of each other, and perfectly equal as to jurisdiction. This made the church an aristocratical republic; but its government soon became monarchial, and even despotical. The respect which was always entertained for Rome the capital of the world, seemed to give a kind of superiority to the bishop or spiritual head of the Christians established there. His brethren, therefore frequently showed a deference to him, and occasionally consulted him. Nothing more was wanting to the ambition of the bishops of Rome, to advance the right they arrogated of dictating to their brethren, and to declare themselves the monarchs of the Christian church. A very apocryphal tradition had made Peter travel to Rome, and had also made this chief of the apostles establish his see in that city. The Roman bishop therefore, pretended to have succeeded to the rights of Simon Peter, to whom Jesus in the gospel had entrusted more particularly[Pg 206] the care of feeding his sheep. He accordingly assumed the pompous titles of "Successor of St. Peter, Universal Bishop, and Vicar of Jesus Christ." It is true, these titles were often contested with him by the oriental bishops, too proud to bow under the yoke of their brother. But by degrees, through artifice, intrigue, and frequently violence, those who enjoyed the See of Rome, and prosecuting their project with ardor, succeeded in getting themselves acknowledged in the west as the heads of the Christian church.
Pliant and submissive at first to sovereigns, whose power they dreaded, they soon mounted on their shoulders; and trampled them under their feet when they were certain of their power over the minds of devotees rendered frantic by superstition. Then indeed they threw off the mask, gave to nations the signal of revolt, incited Christians to their mutual destruction, and precipitated kings from their thrones. To support their pride, they shed oceans of blood: they made weak princes the vile sport of their passions, sometimes their victims and sometimes their executioners. Sovereigns, become their vassals, executed with fear and trembling the decrees Heaven pronounced against the enemies of the holy see which had created itself the arbiter of faith. In fact, these inhuman pontiffs immolated to their God a thousand times more human victims than paganism had sacrificed to all its divinities.
After having succeeded in subduing the bishops, the head of the church, with a view to establish and preserve his empire inundated the states of the princes attached to the sect with a multitude of sabaltern priests and monks, who acted as his spies, his emissaries, and the organs which he employed in making known his will at a distance. Thus nations were deluged with men useless or dangerous. Some, under pretext of attaining Christian perfection, astonished the vulgar with a frantic life, denied themselves the pleasures of existence, renounced the world, and languished in the recesses of a cloister awaiting the death which their disagreeable pursuits must have rendered desirable. They imagined to please[Pg 207] God by occupying themselves solely with prayers, and sterile and extravagant meditations; thus rendering themselves the victims of a destructive fanaticism. These, fools, whom Christianity esteems, may be considered as the victims and martyrs of the higher clergy, who take care never to imitate them.
Few however felt themselves inclined to aspire to this sublime perfection. Most of the monks, more indulgent, were content with renouncing the world, vegetating in solitude, languishing in sloth, and living in absolute idleness at the expence of nations who toil. If some among them were devoted to study, it was only with the vain subtleties of an unintelligible theology calculated to incite disturbances in society. Others more active spread themselves over the globe; and, under pretence of preaching the gospel, preached up themselves, the interests of the clergy, and especially the submission due to the Roman pontiff, who was always their true sovereign. These emissaries, indeed, never had any other country than the church, any other master than its head, or any other interest than that of disturbing the state, in order to advance the divine rights of the clergy. Faithful in following the example of Jesus, they brought the sword, sowed discord, and kindled wars, seditions, persecutions, and crusades. They sounded the tocsin of revolt against all princes who were disagreeable or rebellious to the haughty tyrant of the church; they frequently employed the sacrificing knife of fanaticism, and plunged it in the hearts of kings; and, to make the cause of God prosper, they justified the most horrible crimes, and threw the whole earth into consternation.
Such, especially in latter times, were the maxims and conduct of an order of monks, who, pretending to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, assumed the name of his Society. Solely and blindly devoted to the interests of the Roman pontiff, they seemed to have come into the world for the purpose of bringing the universe under his chains. They corrupted the youth, the education of whom they wished exclusively to engross; they strove to restore barbarism, knowing well that[Pg 208] want of knowledge is the greatest prop of superstition; they extolled ignorance and blind submission; they depraved morals for which they substituted vain usages and superstitions, compatible with every vice, and calculated to suppress the remorse which crime occasions. They preached up slavery and unbounded submission to princes, who themselves were their slaves, and who consented to become the instruments of their vengeance. They preached rebellion and regicide against the princes who refused to bend under the odious yoke of the successor of St. Peter, whom they had the effrontery to declare infallible, and whose decisions they preferred above those of the universal church. By their assistance the pope became not only the despot, but even the true God of the Christians.
There were some however, who ventured to protest against the violences, extortions, and usurpations of this spiritual tyrant. There were sovereigns who ventured to struggle with him; but in times of ignorance, the contest is always unequal between the temporal and spiritual power. At last preachers discontented with the Roman pontiff, opened the eyes of many; they preached reformation, and destroyed some abuses and dogmas which appeared to them that the most disgusting. Some princes seized this opportunity to break the chains wherewith they had been so long oppressed. Without renouncing Christianity, which they always regarded as a divine religion, they renounced Romish Christianity, which they considered a superstition corrupted through the avarice, influence, and passions of the clergy. Content with merely loping off some branches of a poisoned tree, which its bitter fruits should have discovered, our reformers did not perceive that even the principles of a religion, founded on fanaticism and imposture, must of necessity produce fanatics and knaves. They did not observe, that religion, which pretends to enjoy exclusively the approbation of the Most High, must be from its essence arrogant and proud, and become at last tyrannical, intolerant, and sanguinary. They did not perceive that the mania of proselytism, the pretended zeal for the salvation of souls, the passion of the priests for dominion over conscien[Pg 209]ces, must, sooner or later, create devastation. Christianity reformed, pretending to resemble the pure Christianity of the first days of the church, produced fiery preachers, persons illuminated, and public incendiaries, who under pretence of establishing the kingdom of Christ excited endless troubles, massacres, and revolts. Christian Princes of every sect thought themselves obliged to support the decisions of their doctors. They regarded as infallible opinions which they themselves had adopted; they enforced them by fire and sword; and were every where in confederacy with their priests to make war on all who did not think like them.
We see, especially, the intolerant and persecuting spirit reigning in countries which continue subject to the Roman pontiff. It was there that priests, nurtured in the maxims of a spiritual despotism, dared with most insolence to tyrannize over minds. They had the effrontery to maintain, that the prince could not without impiety dispense with entering into their quarrels, share their frenzy, and shed the blood of their enemies. Contrary to the express orders of Jesus, the emissaries of his vicar preached openly in his name persecution, revenge, hatred, and massacre. Their clamors imposed on sovereigns; and the least credulous trembled at sight of their power, which they dared not curb. A superstitious and cowardly policy made them believe, that it was the interest of the throne to unite itself for ever with these inhuman and boisterous madmen. Thus princes, submissive to the clergy, and making common cause with them, became the ministers of their vengeance, and the executors of their will. These blind rulers were obliged to support a power the rival of their own; but they did not perceive, that they injured their own authority by delivering up their subjects to the tyranny and extortions of a swarm of men, whose interest it was to plunge them into ignorance, incite their fanaticism, control their minds, domineer over their consciences, make them fit instruments to serve their pride, avarice, and revenge. By this worthless policy, the liberty of thinking was proscribed with fury, activity was repressed, science was punished, and indus[Pg 210]try crushed, while morals were neglected, and their place supplied by traditional observances. Nations vegetated in inactivity; men cultivated only monastic virtues, grievous to themselves and useless to society. They had no other impulse than what their fanaticism afforded, and no other science than an obscure jargon of theology. Their understandings were constantly occupied with puerile disputes on mysterious subtleties, unworthy of rational beings. Those futile occupations engrossed the attention of the most profound genius, whose labors would have been useful if they had been directed to objects really interesting.
Under the despotism of priestcraft, nations were impoverished to foster, in abundance, in luxury, and often in drunkenness, legions of monks, priests, and pontiffs, from whom they derived no real benefit. Under pretence of supporting the intercessors with God, they richly endowed a multitude of drones, whose prayers and reveries procured only misery and dissensions. Education, entrusted throughout Christendom, to base or ignorant priests, formed superstitious persons only, destitute of the qualities necessary to make useful citizens. The instructions they gave to Christians were confined to dogmas and mysteries which they could never comprehend; they incessantly preached evangelical morality; but that sublime morality which all the world applauds, and which so few practise, because it is compatible with the nature and wants of man, did not restrain the passions, or check their irregularities. When that Stoical morality was attempted to be practised, it was only by imbecile fanatics or fiery enthusiasts, whom the ardour of their zeal rendered dangerous to society. The saints of Christianity were either the most useless or most flagitious of men.
Princes, the great, the rich, and even the heads of the church, considered themselves excused from the literal practice of precepts and counsels, which a God himself had come to communicate. They left Christian perfection to some miserable monks, for whom alone it seemed originally destined. Complaisant guides smoothed for others the to Para[Pg 211]dise, and, without bridling the passions, persuaded their votaries that it was sufficient to come at stated times to confess their faults to them, humble themselves at their feet, undergo the penances and ceremonies which they should impose, and especially make donations to the church, in order to obtain from God remission of the outrages they committed on his creatures. By these means, in most Christian countries, people and princes openly united devotion with the most hideous depravity of manners, and often with the blackest crimes. There were devout tyrants and adulterers, oppressors and iniquitous ministers, courtiers without morals, and public depredators—all very devout. There were knaves of every kind displaying the greatest zeal for a religion, the ministers of which imposed easy expiations even on those who violated its most express precepts. Thus, by the cares of the spiritual guides of Christians, concord was banished from states; princes sunk into bondage; the people were blinded; science was stifled; nations were impoverished; true morality was unknown; and the most devout Christians were devoid of those talents and virtues which are indispensably necessary for the support of society.
Such are the immense advantages which the religion of Jesus has procured to the world! Such are the effects we see resulting from the gospel, or the glad tidings which the Son of God came in person to announce! To judge of it by its fruits; that is, according to the rule which the messiah himself has given, the incredulous find that Christianity was allegorically represented by the fig tree accursed. But those who have faith assure us, that in the other world this tree will produce delicious fruits. We must therefore wait for them in patience, for every thing evinces that the great benefits promised by this religion are very little perceptible in the present world.
There are, however, some who carry incredulity so far as to think, that if there exists a God really jealous of his rights, he will confer no reward on those who are so impious as to associate with him a man, a Jew, and a Charlatan; and to pay him honors which are due only to the divinity. Indeed, in supposing that God is offended with the actions of his creatures, and concerns himself with their behaviour, he must be irritated at the odious conduct of many Christians, who, under pretence of devotion and zeal, believe themselves permitted to violate the most sacred duties of nature of which they make the Deity the author.[Pg 212]
It is, add our unbelievers, very difficult to calculate the duration of human extravagancies; but they flatter themselves that the reign of falsehood and error will terminate at some period, and give place to reason and truth. They hope, the nations and their chiefs will one one day perceive the danger resulting from their prejudices; that they will blush at having prostituted their praises on objects deserving sovereign contempt; that they will regret the blood and treasure which baneful fables and reveries have cost them; and that they will be at last ashamed of having been the dupes and victims of a mass of romances, destitute of probability, at never possessing a more solid foundation than the astonishing credulity of men, and the astonishing impudence of those who preach them. These unbelievers venture at least a glimpse at a time when men, become more sensible of their own interest, will acknowledge the truly barbarous folly of hating and tormenting themselves, and cutting one another's throats for obscure dogmas, puerile opinions, and ceremonially unworthy of rational beings, and on which it is impossible to be ever unanimous. They even have the temerity to maintain, that it is very possible sovereigns and subjects may one day loathe a religion burdensome to the people, and producing real advantages only to the priests of a beggarly and crucified God. They think, that the profane laity, if undeceived, could easily bring their priests back to the frugal life of the apostles or of Jesus whom they ought to regard as a model at least, these unbelievers imagine that the ministers of the God of peace would be obliged to live more peaceably, and follow some occupation more honest than that of deceiving, and tearing to pieces the society which fosters them.
If it is demanded of us what can be substituted for a religion which at all times has produced effects pernicious to the happiness of the human race, we will bid men cultivate the reason, which, much better than absurd and deceptive systems, will advance their welfare, and make them sensible to the value of virtue. Finally, we will tell them with Tertullian, Why pain yourselves in seeking for a divine law, when you have that which is common to mankind, and engraven on the tablets of NATURE.