Page images
PDF
EPUB

had been founded in 1783, and every year gave degrees to an average class of two doctors of medicine. Science had already a firm hold on the college, and a large part of the conservative clergy were distressed by the liberal tendencies which the governing body betrayed. This was no new thing. The college always stood somewhat in advance of society, and never joined heartily in dislike for liberal movements ; but unfortunately it had been made for an instrument, and had never enjoyed the free use of its powers. Clerical control could not be thrown off, for if the college was compelled to support the clergy, on the other hand the clergy did much to support the college; and without the moral and material aid of this clerical body, which contained several hundred of the most respected and respectable citizens, clad in every town with the authority of spiritual magistrates, the college would have found itself bankrupt in means and character. The graduates passed from the college to the pulpit, and from the pulpit attempted to hold the college, as well as their own congregations, facing toward the past. guard against the insidious encroachments of innovation," they preached, -" that evil and beguiling spirit which is now stalking to and fro through the earth, seeking whom he may destroy." These words were spoken by Jedediah Morse, a graduate of Yale in 1783, pastor of the church at Charlestown, near Boston, and still known in biographical dictionaries as “ the father of American geography.” They were contained in the Election Sermon of this worthy and useful man, delivered June 6, 1803; but the sentiment was not peculiar to him, or confined to the audience he was then addressing, - it was the burden of a thousand discourses enforced by a formidable authority.

66 Let us

The power of the Congregational clergy, which had lasted unbroken until the Revolution, was originally minute and inquisitory, equivalent to a police authority. During the last quarter of the century the clergy themselves were glad to lay aside the more odious watchfulness over their parishes, and to welcome social freedom within limits conventionally fixed; but their old authority had not wholly disappeared. In country parishes they were still autocratic. Did an individual defy their authority, the minister put his three-cornered hat on his head, took his silvertopped cane in his hand, and walked down the village street, knocking at one door and another of his best parishioners, to warn them that a spirit of license and of French infidelity was abroad, which could be repressed only by a strenuous and combined effort. Any man once placed under this ban fared badly if he afterward came before a bench of magistrates. The temporal arm vigorously supported the ecclesiastical will. Nothing tended so directly to make respectability conservative, and conservatism a fetich of respectability, as this union of bench and pulpit. The democrat had no caste; he was not respectable; he was a Jacobin, — and no such character was admitted into a Federalist house. Every dissolute intriguer, loose-liver, forger, false-coiner, and prisonbird ; every hair-brained, loud-talking demagogue ; every speculator, scoffer, and atheist, - was a follower of Jefferson ; and Jefferson was himself the incarnation of their theories.

A literature belonging to this subject exists, stacks of newspapers and sermons, mostly dull, and wanting literary merit. In a few of them Jefferson figured under the well-remembered disguises of Puritan politics : he was Ephraim, and had mixed himself among the people ; had apostatized from his God and religion ; gone to Assyria, and mingled himself among the heathen ; “gray hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knoweth not;" or he was Jeroboam, who drave Israel from following the Lord, and made them sin a great sin. He had doubted the authority of revelation, and ventured to suggest that petrified shells found embedded in rocks fifteen thousand feet above sea-level could hardly have been left there by the Deluge, because if the whole atmosphere were condensed as water, its weight showed that the seas would be raised only fifty-two and a half feet. Sceptic as he was, he could not accept the scientific theory that the ocean-bed had been uplifted by natural forces ; but although he had thus instantly deserted this battery raised against revelation, he had still expressed the opinion that a universal deluge was equally unsatisfactory as an explanation, and had avowed preference for a profession of ignorance rather than a

[ocr errors]

belief in error. He had said, “ It does me no injury for my neighbors to say there are twenty gods, or no god," and that all the many forms of religious faith in the Middle States were “good enough, and sufficient to preserve peace and order.” He was notoriously a deist; he probably ridiculed the doctrine of total depravity; and he certainly would never have part or portion in the blessings of the New Covenant, or be saved because of grace.

No abler or more estimable clergyman lived than Joseph Buckminster, the minister of Portsmouth, in New Hampshire, and in his opinion Jefferson was bringing a judgment upon the people.

I would not be understood to insinuate,” said he in his sermon on Washington's death, “ that contemners of religious duties, and even men void of religious principle, may not have an attachment to their country and a desire for its civil and political prosperity, — nay, that they may not even expose themselves to great dangers, and make great sacrifices to accomplish this object; but by their impiety ... they take away the heavenly defence and security of a people, and render it necessary for him who ruleth among the nations in judgment to testify his displeasure against those who despise his laws and contemn his ordinances."

Yet the congregational clergy, though still greatly respected, had ceased to be leaders of thought. Theological literature no longer held the prominence it had enjoyed in the days of Edwards and Hopkins. The popular reaction against Calvinism, felt rather

VOL. I. - - 6

than avowed, stopped the development of doctrinal theology; and the clergy, always poor as a class, with no weapons but their intelligence and purity of character, commonly sought rather to avoid than to challenge hostility. Such literary activity as existed was not clerical but secular. Its field was the Boston press, and its recognized literary champion was Fisher Ames.

The subject of Ames's thought was exclusively political. At that moment every influence combined to maintain a stationary condition in Massachusetts politics. The manners and morals of the people were pure and simple; their society was democratic; in the worst excesses of their own revolution they had never become savage or bloodthirsty; their experience could not explain, nor could their imagination excuse, wild popular excesses ; and when in 1793 the French nation seemed mad with the frenzy of its recovered liberties, New England looked upon the bloody and blasphemous work with such horror as religious citizens could not but feel. Thenceforward the mark of a wise and good man was that he abhorred the French Revolution, and believed democracy to be its cause. Like Edmund Burke, they listened to no argument: “ It is a vile, illiberal school, this French Academy of the sans-culottes ; there is nothing in it that is fit for a gentleman to learn.” The answer to every democratic suggestion ran in a set phrase, “ Look at France !” This idea became a monomania with the New England leaders, and took exclusive

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »