Religio Laici; Or, A Layman's Faith.

A poem by John Dryden



A Poem with so bold a title, and a name prefixed from which the handling of so serious a subject would not be expected, may reasonably oblige the author to say somewhat in defence, both of himself and of his undertaking. In the first place, if it be objected to me, that, being a layman, I ought not to have concerned myself with speculations which belong to the profession of divinity; I could answer, that perhaps laymen, with equal advantages of parts and knowledge, are not the most incompetent judges of sacred things; but in the due sense of my own weakness and want of learning, I plead not this: I pretend not to make myself a judge of faith in others, but only to make a confession of my own. I lay no unhallowed hand upon the ark, but wait on it, with the reverence that becomes me, at a distance. In the next place, I will ingenuously confess, that the helps I have used in this small treatise, were many of them taken from the works of our own reverend divines of the Church of England: so that the weapons with which I combat irreligion, are already consecrated; though I suppose they may be taken down as lawfully as the sword of Goliah was by David, when they are to be employed for the common cause against the enemies of piety. I intend not by this to entitle them to any of my errors, which yet I hope are only those of charity to mankind; and such as my own charity has caused me to commit, that of others may more easily excuse. Being naturally inclined to scepticism in philosophy, I have no reason to impose my opinions in a subject which is above it; but whatever they are, I submit them with all reverence to my mother church, accounting them no farther mine, than as they are authorised, or at least uncondemned by her. And, indeed, to secure myself on this side, I have used the necessary precaution of showing this paper, before it was published, to a judicious and learned friend, a man indefatigably zealous in the service of the church and state; and whose writings have highly deserved of both.
He was pleased to approve the body of the discourse, and I hope he is more my friend than to do it out of complaisance: it is true he had too good a taste to like it all; and amongst some other faults recommended to my second view, what I have written perhaps too boldly on St Athanasius, which he advised me wholly to omit. I am sensible enough that I had done more prudently to have followed his opinion: but then I could not have satisfied myself that I had done honestly not to have written what was my own. It has always been my thought, that heathens who never did, nor without miracle could, hear of the name of Christ, were yet in a possibility of salvation. Neither will it enter easily into my belief, that before the coming of our Saviour the whole world, excepting only the Jewish nation, should lie under the inevitable necessity of everlasting punishment, for want of that revelation, which was confined to so small a spot of ground as that of Palestine. Among the sons of Noah we read of one only who was accursed; and if a blessing in the ripeness of time was reserved for Japhet (of whose progeny we are), it seems unaccountable to me, why so many generations of the same offspring, as preceded our Saviour in the flesh, should be all involved in one common condemnation, and yet that their posterity should be entitled to the hopes of salvation: as if a bill of exclusion had passed only on the fathers, which debarred not the sons from their succession: or that so many ages had been delivered over to hell, and so many reserved for heaven; and that the devil had the first choice, and God the next. Truly I am apt to think, that the revealed religion which was taught by Noah to all his sons, might continue for some ages in the whole posterity. That afterwards it was included wholly in the family of Shem is manifest; but when the progenies of Ham and Japhet swarmed into colonies, and those colonies were subdivided into many others, in process of time their descendants lost by little and little the primitive and purer rites of divine worship, retaining only the notion of one Deity; to which succeeding generations added others: for men took their degrees in those ages from conquerors to gods. Revelation being thus eclipsed to almost all mankind, the light of nature, as the next in dignity, was substituted; and that is it which St Paul concludes to be the rule of the heathens, and by which they are hereafter to be judged.
If my supposition be true, then the consequence which I have assumed in my poem may be also true; namely, that Deism, or the principles of natural worship, are only the faint remnants or dying flames of revealed religion in the posterity of Noah: and that our modern philosophers--nay, and some of our philosophising divines--have too much exalted the faculties of our souls, when they have maintained that by their force mankind has been able to find out that there is one supreme agent or intellectual Being which we call God: that praise and prayer are his due worship; and the rest of those deducements, which I am confident are the remote effects of revelation, and unattainable by our discourse, I mean as simply considered, and without the benefit of divine illumination. So that we have not lifted up ourselves to God, by the weak pinions of our reason, but he has been pleased to descend to us; and what Socrates said of him, what Plato writ, and the rest of the heathen philosophers of several nations, is all no more than the twilight of revelation, after the sun of it was set in the race of Noah. That there is something above us, some principle of motion, our reason can apprehend, though it cannot discover what it is by its own virtue. And, indeed, it is very improbable, that we, who by the strength of our faculties cannot enter into the knowledge of any Being, not so much as of our own, should be able to find out by them, that supreme nature, which we cannot otherwise define than by saying it is infinite; as if infinite were definable, or infinity a subject for our narrow understanding. They who would prove religion by reason, do but weaken the cause which they endeavour to support: it is to take away the pillars from our faith, and to prop it only with a twig; it is to design a tower like that of Babel, which, if it were possible, as it is not, to reach heaven, would come to nothing by the confusion of the workmen. For every man is building a several way; impotently conceited of his own model and his own materials: reason is always striving, and always at a loss; and of necessity it must so come to pass, while it is exercised about that which is not its own proper object. Let us be content at last to know God by his own methods; at least, so much of him as he is pleased to reveal to us in the sacred Scriptures: to apprehend them to be the Word of God is all our reason has to do; for all beyond it is the work of faith, which is the seal of Heaven impressed upon our human understanding.

And now for what concerns the holy bishop Athanasius; the preface of whose creed seems inconsistent with my opinion; which is, that heathens may possibly be saved. In the first place, I desire it may be considered that it is the preface only, not the creed itself, which, till I am better informed, is of too hard a digestion for my charity. It is not that I am ignorant how many several texts of Scripture seemingly support that cause; but neither am I ignorant how all those texts may receive a kinder and more mollified interpretation. Every man who is read in Church history, knows that belief was drawn up after a long contestation with Arius, concerning the divinity of our blessed Saviour, and his being one substance with the Father; and that thus compiled, it was sent abroad among the Christian Churches, as a kind of test, which whosoever took was looked upon as an orthodox believer. It is manifest from hence, that the heathen part of the empire was not concerned in it; for its business was not to distinguish betwixt Pagans and Christians, but betwixt Heretics and true Believers. This, well considered, takes off the heavy weight of censure, which I would willingly avoid, from so venerable a man; for if this proportion, "whosoever will be saved," be restrained only to those to whom it was intended, and for whom it was composed, I mean the Christians; then the anathema reaches not the heathens, who had never heard of Christ, and were nothing interested in that dispute.
After all, I am far from blaming even that prefatory addition to the creed, and as far from cavilling at the continuation of it in the Liturgy of the Church, where, on the days appointed, it is publicly read: for I suppose there is the same reason for it now, in opposition to the Socinians, as there was then against the Arians; the one being a heresy, which seems to have been refined out of the other; and with how much more plausibility of reason it combats our religion, with so much more caution it ought to be avoided: therefore the prudence of our Church is to be commended, which has interposed her authority for the recommendation of this creed. Yet to such as are grounded in the true belief, those explanatory creeds, the Nicene and this of Athanasius, might perhaps be spared; for what is supernatural will always be a mystery, in spite of exposition; and for my own part, the plain Apostles' creed is most suitable to my weak understanding, as the simplest diet is the most easy of digestion.

I have dwelt longer on this subject than I intended, and longer than perhaps I ought; for having laid down, as my foundation, that the Scripture is a rule; that in all things needful to salvation it is clear, sufficient, and ordained by God Almighty for that purpose, I have left myself no right to interpret obscure places, such as concern the possibility of eternal happiness to heathens: because whatsoever is obscure is concluded not necessary to be known.

But, by asserting the Scripture to be the canon of oar faith, I have unavoidably created to myself two sorts of enemies: the Papists indeed, more directly, because they have kept the Scriptures from us what they could; and have reserved to themselves a right of interpreting what they have delivered under the pretence of infallibility: and the Fanatics more collaterally, because they have assumed what amounts to an infallibility, in the private spirit; and have detorted those texts of Scripture which are not necessary to salvation, to the damnable uses of sedition, disturbance, and destruction of the civil government. To begin with the Papists, and to speak freely, I think them the less dangerous, at least in appearance to our present state; for not only the penal laws are in force against them, and their number is contemptible, but also their peers and commons are excluded from parliament, and consequently those laws in no probability of being repealed. A general and uninterrupted plot of their clergy, ever since the Reformation, I suppose all Protestants believe; for it is not reasonable to think but that so many of their orders, as were outed from their fat possessions, would endeavour a re-entrance against those whom they account heretics.
As for the late design, Mr Coleman's letters, for aught I know, are the best evidence; and what they discover, without wiredrawing their sense, or malicious glosses, all men of reason conclude credible. If there be anything more than this required of me, I must believe it as well as I am able, in spite of the witnesses, and out of a decent conformity to the votes of parliament; for I suppose the Fanatics will not allow the private spirit in this case. Here the infallibility is at least in one part of the government; and our understandings as well as our wills are represented. But to return to the Roman Catholics, how can we be secure from the practice of Jesuited Papists in that religion? For not two or three of that order, as some of them would impose upon us, but almost the whole body of them are of opinion, that their infallible master has a right over kings, not only in spirituals but temporals. Not to name Mariana, Bellarmine, Emanuel Sa, Molina, Santare, Simancha,[1] and at least twenty others of foreign countries; we can produce of our own nation, Campian, and Doleman or Parsons; besides, many are named whom I have not read, who all of them attest this doctrine, that the pope can depose and give away the right of any sovereign prince, si vel paulum deflexerit, if he shall never so little warp: but if he once comes to be excommunicated, then the bond of obedience is taken off from subjects; and they may, and ought to drive him, like another Nebuchadnezzar, ex hominum Christianorum dominatu, from exercising dominion over Christians; and to this they are bound by virtue of divine precept, and by all the ties of conscience, under no less penalty than damnation.
If they answer me, as a learned priest has lately written, that this doctrine of the Jesuits is not de fide; and that consequently they are not obliged by it, they must pardon me, if I think they have said nothing to the purpose; for it is a maxim in their church, where points of faith are not decided, and that doctors are of contrary opinions, they may follow which part they please; but more safely the most received and most authorised. And their champion Bellarmine has told the world, in his Apology, that the king of England is a vassal to the pope, ratione directi domini, and that he holds in villanage of his Roman landlord: which is no new claim put in for England. Our chronicles are his authentic witnesses, that King John was deposed by the same plea, and Philip Augustus admitted tenant. And which makes the more for Bellarmine, the French king was again ejected when our king submitted to the church, and the crown was received under the sordid condition of a vassalage.

It is not sufficient for the more moderate and well-meaning Papists, of which I doubt not there are many, to produce the evidences of their loyalty to the late king, and to declare their innocency in this plot: I will grant their behaviour in the first to have been as loyal and as brave as they desire; and will be willing to hold them excused as to the second, I mean when it comes to my turn, and after my betters; for it is a madness to be sober alone, while the nation continues drank: but that saying of their father Cres. is still running in my head, that they may be dispensed with in their obedience to an heretic prince, while the necessity of the times shall oblige them to it: for that, as another of them tells us, is only the effect of Christian prudence; but when once they shall get power to shake him off, an heretic is no lawful king, and consequently to rise against him is no rebellion. I should be glad, therefore, that they would follow the advice which was charitably given them by a reverend prelate of our church; namely, that they would join in a public act of disowning and detesting those Jesuitic principles; and subscribe to all doctrines which deny the pope's authority of deposing kings, and releasing subjects from their oath of allegiance: to which I should think they might easily be induced, if it be true that this present pope has condemned the doctrine of king-killing, a thesis of the Jesuits maintained, amongst others, ex cathedra, as they call it, or in open consistory.

Leaving them, therefore, in so fair a way, if they please themselves, of satisfying all reasonable men of their sincerity and good meaning to the government, I shall make bold to consider that other extreme of our religion--I mean the Fanatics, or Schismatics, of the English Church. Since the Bible has been translated into our tongue, they have used it so, as if their business was not to be saved, but to be damned by its contents. If we consider only them, better had it been for the English nation that it had still remained in the original Greek and Hebrew, or at least in the honest Latin of St Jerome, than that several texts in it should have been prevaricated, to the destruction of that government which put it into so ungrateful hands.

How many heresies the first translation of Tindal produced in few years, let my Lord Herbert's history of Henry VIII. inform you; insomuch, that for the gross errors in it, and the great mischiefs it occasioned, a sentence passed on the first edition of the Bible, too shameful almost to be repeated. After the short reign of Edward VI., who had continued to carry on the Reformation on other principles than it was begun, every one knows that not only the chief promoters of that work, but many others, whose consciences would not dispense with Popery, were forced, for fear of persecution, to change climates: from whence returning at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth's reign, many of them who had been in France, and at Geneva, brought back the rigid opinions and imperious discipline of Calvin, to graft upon our Reformation: which, though they cunningly concealed at first, as well knowing how nauseously that drug would go down in a lawful monarchy, which was prescribed for a rebellious commonwealth, yet they always kept it in reserve; and were never wanting to themselves either in court or parliament, when either they had any prospect of a numerous party of fanatic members of the one, or the encouragement of any favourite in the other, whose covetousness was gaping at the patrimony of the Church. They who will consult the works of our venerable Hooker, or the account of his life, or more particularly the letter written to him on this subject by George Cranmer, may see by what gradations they proceeded: from the dislike of cap and surplice, the very next step was admonitions to the parliament against the whole government ecclesiastical: then came out volumes in English and Latin in defence of their tenets: and immediately practices were set on foot to erect their discipline without authority.
Those not succeeding, satire and railing was the next: and Martin Mar-prelate, the Marvel of those times, was the first Presbyterian scribbler, who sanctified libels and scurrility to the use of the good old cause: which was done, says my author, upon this account; that their serious treatises having been fully answered and refuted, they might compass by railing what they had lost by reasoning; and, when their cause was sunk in court and parliament, they might at least hedge in a stake amongst the rabble: for to their ignorance all things are wit which are abusive; but if Church and State were made the theme, then the doctoral degree of wit was to be taken at Billingsgate: even the most saint-like of the party, though they durst not excuse this contempt and vilifying of the government, yet were pleased, and grinned at it with a pious smile; and called it a judgment of God against the hierarchy. Thus sectaries, we may see, were born with teeth, foul-mouthed and scurrilous from their infancy: and if spiritual pride, venom, violence, contempt of superiors, and slander, had been the marks of orthodox belief, the presbytery and the rest of our schismatics, which are their spawn, were always the most visible church in the Christian world.

It is true, the government was too strong at that time for a rebellion; but, to show what proficiency they had made in Calvin's school, even then their mouths watered at it: for two of their gifted brotherhood, Hacket[2] and Coppinger, as the story tells us, got up into a pease-cart and harangue the people, to dispose them to an insurrection, and to establish their discipline by force: so that however it comes about, that now they celebrate Queen Elizabeth's birth-night as that of their saint and patroness; yet then they were for doing the work of the Lord by arms against her; and in all probability they wanted but a fanatic lord mayor and two sheriffs of their party to have compassed it.

Our venerable Hooker, after many admonitions which he had given them, towards the end of his preface breaks out into this prophetic speech:-- "There is in every one of these considerations most just cause to fear, lest our hastiness to embrace a thing of so perilous consequence (meaning the Presbyterian discipline) should cause posterity to feel those evils, which as yet are more easy for us to prevent, than they would be for them to remedy."

How fatally this Cassandra has foretold, we know too well by sad experience: the seeds were sown in the time of Queen Elizabeth, the bloody harvest ripened in the reign of King Charles the Martyr; and, because all the sheaves could not be carried off without shedding some of the loose grains, another crop is too like to follow; nay, I fear it is unavoidable, if the conventiclers be permitted still to scatter.

A man may be suffered to quote an adversary to our religion, when he speaks truth; and it is the observation of Maimbourg, in his "History of Calvinism," that wherever that discipline was planted and embraced, rebellion, civil war, and misery attended it. And how, indeed, should it happen otherwise? Reformation of Church and State has always been the ground of our divisions in England. While we were Papists, our holy father rid us, by pretending authority out of the Scriptures to depose princes; when we shook off his authority, the sectaries furnished themselves with the same weapons, and out of the same magazine, the Bible; so that the Scriptures, which are in themselves the greatest security of governors, as commanding express obedience to them, are now turned to their destruction; and never since the Reformation has there wanted a text of their interpreting to authorise a rebel. And it is to be noted, by the way, that the doctrines of king-killing and deposing, which have been taken up only by the worst party of the Papists, the most frontless flatterers of the pope's authority, have been espoused, defended, and are still maintained by the whole body of nonconformists and republicans. It is but dubbing themselves the people of God, which it is the interest of their preachers to tell them they are, and their own interest to believe; and, after that, they cannot dip into the Bible, but one text or another will turn up for their purpose: if they are under persecution, as they call it, then that is a mark of their election; if they flourish, then God works miracles for their deliverance, and the saints are to possess the earth.

They may think themselves to be too roughly handled in this paper; but I, who know best how far I could have gone on this subject, must be bold to tell them they are spared: though at the same time I am not ignorant that they interpret the mildness of a writer to them, as they do the mercy of the government; in the one they think it fear, and conclude it weakness in the other. The best way for them to confute me is, as I before advised the Papists, to disclaim their principles and renounce their practices. We shall all be glad to think them true Englishmen when they obey the king, and true Protestants when they conform to the church discipline.

It remains that I acquaint the reader, that these verses were written for an ingenious young gentleman,[3] my friend, upon his translation of "The Critical History of the Old Testament," composed by the learned Father Simon: the verses, therefore, are addressed to the translator of that work, and the style of them is, what it ought to be, epistolary.

If any one be so lamentable a critic as to require the smoothness, the numbers, and the turn of heroic poetry in this poem, I must tell him, that if he has not read Horace, I have studied him, and hope the style of his epistles is not ill imitated here. The expressions of a poem designed purely for instruction, ought to be plain and natural, and yet majestic: for here the poet is presumed to be a kind of lawgiver, and those three qualities which I have named, are proper to the legislative style. The florid, elevated, and figurative way is for the passions; for love and hatred, fear and anger, are begotten in the soul, by showing their objects out of their true proportion, either greater than the life or less: but instruction is to be given by showing them what they naturally are. A man is to be cheated into passion, but to be reasoned into truth.

Dim as the borrow'd beams of moon and stars
To lonely, weary, wandering travellers,
Is reason to the soul: and as on high,
Those rolling fires discover but the sky,
Not light us here; so reason's glimmering ray
Was lent, not to assure our doubtful way,
But guide us upward to a better day.
And as those nightly tapers disappear
When day's bright lord ascends our hemisphere;
So pale grows reason at religion's sight;
So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light.
Some few, whose lamp shone brighter, have been led
From cause to cause, to nature's secret head;
And found that one first principle must be:
But what, or who, that UNIVERSAL HE:
Whether some soul encompassing this ball,
Unmade, unmoved; yet making, moving all;
Or various atoms' interfering dance
Leap'd into form, the noble work of chance;
Or this Great All was from eternity;
Not even the Stagyrite himself could see;
And Epicurus guess'd as well as he:
As blindly groped they for a future state;
As rashly judged of providence and fate:
But least of all could their endeavours find
What most concern'd the good of human kind:
For happiness was never to be found,
But vanish'd from them like enchanted ground.
One thought Content the good to be enjoy'd--
This every little accident destroy'd:
The wiser madmen did for Virtue toil--
A thorny, or at best a barren soil:
In Pleasure some their glutton souls would steep;
But found their line too short, the well too deep;
And leaky vessels which no bliss could keep.
Thus anxious thoughts in endless circles roll,
Without a centre where to fix the soul:
In this wild maze their vain endeavours end:
How can the less the greater comprehend?
Or finite reason reach Infinity?
For what could fathom God were more than He.

The Deist thinks he stands on firmer ground;
Cries [Greek: eureka], the mighty secret's found:
God is that spring of good; supreme and best;
We made to serve, and in that service blest;
If so, some rules of worship must be given,
Distributed alike to all by Heaven:
Else God were partial, and to some denied
The means his justice should for all provide.
This general worship is to praise and pray:
One part to borrow blessings, one to pay:
And when frail nature slides into offence,
The sacrifice for crimes is penitence.
Yet since the effects of Providence, we find,
Are variously dispensed to human kind;
That vice triumphs, and virtue suffers here--
A brand that sovereign justice cannot bear--
Our reason prompts us to a future state:
The last appeal from fortune and from fate;
Where God's all-righteous ways will be declared--
The bad meet punishment, the good reward.

Thus man by his own strength to heaven would soar,
And would not be obliged to God for more.
Vain, wretched creature, how art thou misled,
To think thy wit these God-like notions bred!
These truths are not the product of thy mind,
But dropp'd from heaven, and of a nobler kind.
Reveal'd religion first inform'd thy sight,
And reason saw not, till faith sprung the light.
Hence all thy natural worship takes the source:
'Tis revelation what thou think'st discourse.
Else how com'st thou to see these truths so clear,
Which so obscure to heathens did appear?
Not Plato these, nor Aristotle found:
Nor he whose wisdom oracles renown'd.
Hast thou a wit so deep, or so sublime,
Or canst thou lower dive, or higher climb?
Canst thou by reason more of Godhead know
Than Plutarch, Seneca, or Cicero?
Those giant wits, in happier ages born,
When arms and arts did Greece and Rome adorn,
Knew no such system: no such piles could raise
Of natural worship, built on prayer and praise,
To one sole God.
Nor did remorse to expiate sin prescribe,
But slew their fellow-creatures for a bribe:
The guiltless victim groan'd for their offence;
And cruelty and blood was penitence.
If sheep and oxen could atone for men,
Ah! at how cheap a rate the rich might sin!
And great oppressors might Heaven's wrath beguile,
By offering His own creatures for a spoil!

Darest thou, poor worm, offend Infinity?
And must the terms of peace be given by thee?
Then thou art Justice in the last appeal;
Thy easy God instructs thee to rebel:
And, like a king remote, and weak, must take
What satisfaction thou art pleased to make.

But if there be a Power too just and strong
To wink at crimes, and bear unpunish'd wrong,
Look humbly upward, see His will disclose
The forfeit first, and then the fine impose:
A mulct thy poverty could never pay,
Had not Eternal Wisdom found the way:
And with celestial wealth supplied thy store:
His justice makes the fine, His mercy quits the score.
See God descending in thy human frame;
The Offended suffering in the offender's name:
All thy misdeeds to Him imputed see,
And all His righteousness devolved on thee.
For, granting we have sinn'd, and that the offence
Of man is made against Omnipotence,
Some price that bears proportion must be paid,
And infinite with infinite be weigh'd.
See then the Deist lost: remorse for vice
Not paid; or paid, inadequate in price:
What further means can reason now direct,
Or what relief from human wit expect?
That shows us sick; and sadly are we sure
Still to be sick, till Heaven reveal the cure:
If, then, Heaven's will must needs be understood
(Which must, if we want cure, and Heaven be good),
Let all records of will reveal'd be shown;
With Scripure all in equal balance thrown,
And our one Sacred Book will be that one.

Proof needs not here, for whether we compare
That impious, idle, superstitious ware
Of rites, lustrations, offerings, which before,
In various ages, various countries bore,
With Christian faith and virtues, we shall find
None answering the great ends of human kind,
But this one rule of life, that shows us best
How God may be appeased, and mortals blest.
Whether from length of time its worth we draw,
The word is scarce more ancient than the law:
Heaven's early care prescribed for every age;
First, in the soul, and after, in the page.
Or, whether more abstractedly we look,
Or on the writers, or the written book,
Whence, but from Heaven, could men unskill'd in arts,
In several ages born, in several parts,
Weave such agreeing truths? or how, or why
Should all conspire to cheat us with a lie?
Unask'd their pains, ungrateful their advice,
Starving their gain, and martyrdom their price.

If on the Book itself we cast our view,
Concurrent heathens prove the story true:
The doctrine, miracles; which must convince,
For Heaven in them appeals to human sense:
And though they prove not, they confirm the cause,
When what is taught agrees with Nature's laws.

Then for the style, majestic and divine,
It speaks no less than God in every line:
Commanding words; whose force is still the same
As the first fiat that produced our frame.
All faiths beside, or did by arms ascend;
Or, sense indulged, has made mankind their friend:
This only doctrine does our lusts oppose--
Unfed by Nature's soil, in which it grows;
Cross to our interests, curbing sense, and sin;
Oppress'd without, and undermined within,
It thrives through pain; its own tormentors tires;
And with a stubborn patience still aspires.
To what can reason such effects assign,
Transcending nature, but to laws divine?
Which in that sacred volume are contain'd;
Sufficient, clear, and for that use ordain'd.

But stay: the Deist here will urge anew,
No supernatural worship can be true:
Because a general law is that alone
Which must to all, and every where be known:
A style so large as not this Book can claim,
Nor aught that bears Reveal'd Religion's name.
'Tis said the sound of a Messiah's birth
Is gone through all the habitable earth:

But still that text must be confined alone
To what was then inhabited, and known:
And what provision could from thence accrue
To Indian souls, and worlds discover'd new?
In other parts it helps, that ages past,
The Scriptures there were known, and were embraced,
Till sin spread once again the shades of night:
What's that to these who never saw the light?

Of all objections this indeed is chief
To startle reason, stagger frail belief:
We grant, 'tis true, that Heaven from human sense
Has hid the secret paths of Providence:
But boundless wisdom, boundless mercy may
Find even for those bewilder'd souls a way.
If from His nature foes may pity claim,
Much more may strangers who ne'er heard His name.
And though no name be for salvation known,
But that of his Eternal Son alone;
Who knows how far transcending goodness can
Extend the merits of that Son to man?
Who knows what reasons may His mercy lead;
Or ignorance invincible may plead?
Not only charity bids hope the best,
But more the great apostle has express'd:
That if the Gentiles, whom no law inspired,
By nature did what was by law required;
They, who the written rule had never known,
Were to themselves both rule and law alone:
To nature's plain indictment they shall plead;
And by their conscience be condemn'd or freed.
Most righteous doom! because a rule reveal'd
Is none to those from whom it was conceal'd.
Then those who follow'd reason's dictates right,
Lived up, and lifted high their natural light;
With Socrates may see their Maker's face,
While thousand rubric-martyrs want a place.
Nor does it balk my charity to find
The Egyptian bishop[4] of another mind:
For though his creed eternal truth contains,
'Tis hard for man to doom to endless pains
All who believed not all his zeal required;
Unless he first could prove he was inspired.
Then let us either think he meant to say
This faith, where publish'd, was the only way;
Or else conclude that, Arius to confute,
The good old man, too eager in dispute,
Flew high; and as his Christian fury rose,
Damn'd all for heretics who durst oppose.

Thus far my charity this path has tried,
(A much unskilful, but well meaning guide:)
Yet what they are, even these crude thoughts were bred
By reading that which better thou hast read,
Thy matchless author's work: which thou, my friend,
By well translating better dost commend;
Those youthful hours which, of thy equals most
In toys have squander'd, or in vice have lost,
Those hours hast thou to nobler use employ'd;
And the severe delights of truth enjoy'd.
Witness this weighty book, in which appears
The crabbed toil of many thoughtful years,
Spent by thy author, in the sifting care
Of Rabbins' old sophisticated ware
From gold divine; which he who well can sort
May afterwards make algebra a sport:
A treasure, which if country curates buy,
They Junius and Tremellius[5] may defy;
Save pains in various readings, and translations;
And without Hebrew make most learn'd quotations.
A work so full with various learning fraught,
So nicely ponder'd, yet so strongly wrought,
As nature's height and art's last hand required:
As much as man could compass, uninspired.
Where we may see what errors have been made
Both in the copiers' and translators' trade;
How Jewish, Popish interests have prevail'd,
And where infallibility has fail'd.

For some, who have his secret meaning guess'd,
Have found our author not too much a priest:
For fashion-sake he seems to have recourse
To Pope, and Councils, and Tradition's force:
But he that old traditions could subdue,
Could not but find the weakness of the new:
If Scripture, though derived from heavenly birth,
Has been but carelessly preserved on earth;
If God's own people, who of God before
Knew what we know, and had been promised more,
In fuller terms, of Heaven's assisting care,
And who did neither time nor study spare,
To keep this Book untainted, unperplex'd,
Let in gross errors to corrupt the text,
Omitted paragraphs, embroil'd the sense,
With vain traditions stopp'd the gaping fence,
Which every common hand pull'd up with ease:
What safety from such brushwood-helps as these!
If written words from time are not secured,
How can we think have oral sounds endured?
Which thus transmitted, if one mouth has fail'd,
Immortal lies on ages are entail'd:
And that some such have been, is proved too plain,
If we consider interest, church, and gain.

O but, says one, tradition set aside,
Where can we hope for an unerring guide?
For since the original Scripture has been lost,
All copies disagreeing, maim'd the most,
Or Christian faith can have no certain ground,
Or truth in Church Tradition must be found.

Such an omniscient Church we wish indeed:
'Twere worth both Testaments, cast in the Creed:
But if this mother be a guide so sure,
As can all doubts resolve, all truth secure,
Then her infallibility, as well
Where copies are corrupt or lame, can tell;
Restore lost canon with as little pains,
As truly explicate what still remains:
Which yet no Council dare pretend to do;
Unless, like Esdras, they could write it new:
Strange confidence still to interpret true,
Yet not be sure that all they have explain'd
Is in the blest original contain'd!
More safe, and much more modest 'tis to say,
God would not leave mankind without a way:
And that the Scriptures, though not every where
Free from corruption, or entire, or clear,
Are uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, entire,
In all things which our needful faith require.
If others in the same glass better see,
'Tis for themselves they look, but not for me:
For my salvation must its doom receive,
Not from what others, but what I believe.

Must all tradition then be set aside?
This to affirm were ignorance or pride.
Are there not many points, some needful sure
To saving faith, that Scripture leaves obscure?
Which every sect will wrest a several way,
For what one sect interprets, all sects may.
We hold, and say we prove from Scripture plain,
That Christ is God; the bold Socinian
From the same Scripture urges he's but man.
Now, what appeal can end the important suit?
Both parts talk loudly, but the rule is mute.

Shall I speak plain, and in a nation free
Assume an honest layman's liberty?
I think, according to my little skill,
To my own Mother Church submitting still,
That many have been saved, and many may,
Who never heard this question brought in play.
Th' unletter'd Christian, who believes in gross,
Plods on to heaven, and ne'er is at a loss;
For the strait gate would be made straiter yet,
Were none admitted there but men of wit.
The few by nature form'd, with learning fraught,
Born to instruct, as others to be taught,
Must study well the sacred page; and see
Which doctrine, this or that, does best agree
With the whole tenor of the work divine:
And plainliest points to Heaven's reveal'd design:
Which exposition flows from genuine sense;
And which is forced by wit and eloquence.
Not that tradition's parts are useless here,
When general, old, disinteress'd, and clear:
That ancient Fathers thus expound the page,
Gives Truth the reverend majesty of age:
Confirms its force, by biding every test;
For best authority's next rules are best.
And still the nearer to the spring we go,
More limpid, more unsoil'd, the waters flow.
Thus first traditions were a proof alone,
Could we be certain such they were, so known:
But since some flaws in long descent may be,
They make not truth but probability.
Even Arius and Pelagius durst provoke
To what the centuries preceding spoke.
Such difference is there in an oft-told tale:
But Truth by its own sinews will prevail.
Tradition written, therefore, more commends
Authority, than what from voice descends:
And this, as perfect as its kind can be,
Rolls down to us the sacred history:
Which from the Universal Church received,
Is tried, and after for itself believed.

The partial Papists would infer from hence,
Their Church, in last resort, should judge the sense.
But first they would assume, with wondrous art,
Themselves to be the whole, who are but part,
Of that vast frame the Church; yet grant they were
The handers down, can they from thence infer
A right to interpret? or would they alone
Who brought the present, claim it for their own?
The Book's a common largess to mankind;
Not more for them than every man design'd:
The welcome news is in the letter found;
The carrier's not commissioned to expound;
It speaks itself, and what it does contain
In all things needful to be known is plain.

In times o'ergrown with rust and ignorance,
A gainful trade their clergy did advance:
When want of learning kept the laymen low,
And none but priests were authorised to know:
When what small knowledge was, in them did dwell;
And he a god, who could but read and spell:
Then Mother Church did mightily prevail;
She parcell'd out the Bible by retail:
But still expounded what she sold or gave;
To keep it in her power to damn and save.
Scripture was scarce, and as the market went,
Poor laymen took salvation on content;
As needy men take money, good or bad:
God's Word they had not, but th' priest's they had.
Yet, whate'er false conveyances they made,
The lawyer still was certain to be paid.
In those dark times they learn'd their knack so well,
That by long use they grew infallible.
At last a knowing age began to inquire
If they the Book, or that did them inspire:
And making narrower search, they found, though late,
That what they thought the priest's, was their estate;
Taught by the will produced, the written Word,
How long they had been cheated on record.
Then every man who saw the title fair,
Claim'd a child's part, and put in for a share:
Consulted soberly his private good,
And saved himself as cheap as e'er he could.

'Tis true, my friend, (and far be flattery hence),
This good had full as bad a consequence:
The Book thus put in every vulgar hand,
Which each presumed he best could understand,
The common rule was made the common prey;
And at the mercy of the rabble lay.
The tender page with horny fists was gall'd;
And he was gifted most that loudest bawl'd.
The spirit gave the doctoral degree:
And every member of a company
Was of his trade, and of the Bible free.

Plain truths enough for needful use they found;
But men would still be itching to expound:
Each was ambitious of the obscurest place,
No measure ta'en from knowledge, all from grace.
Study and pains were now no more their care;
Texts were explain'd by fasting and by prayer:
This was the fruit the private spirit brought;
Occasion'd by great zeal and little thought.
While crowds unlearn'd, with rude devotion warm,
About the sacred viands buzz and swarm.
The fly-blown text creates a crawling brood,
And turns to maggots what was meant for food.
A thousand daily sects rise up and die;
A thousand more the perish'd race supply;
So all we make of Heaven's discover'd will,
Is, not to have it, or to use it ill.
The danger's much the same; on several shelves
If others wreck us, or we wreck ourselves.

What then remains, but, waiving each extreme,
The tides of ignorance and pride to stem?
Neither so rich a treasure to forego;
Nor proudly seek beyond our power to know:
Faith is not built on disquisitions vain;
The things we must believe are few and plain:
But since men will believe more than they need,
And every man will make himself a creed;
In doubtful questions 'tis the safest way
To learn what unsuspected ancients say:
For 'tis not likely we should higher soar
In search of heaven, than all the Church before:
Nor can we be deceived, unless we see
The Scripture and the Fathers disagree.
If, after all, they stand suspected still,
(For no man's faith depends upon his will):
'Tis some relief, that points not clearly known,
Without much hazard may be let alone:
And after hearing what our Church can say,
If still our reason runs another way,
That private reason 'tis more just to curb,
Than by disputes the public peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But common quiet is mankind's concern.

Thus have I made my own opinions clear;
Yet neither praise expect, nor censure fear:
And this unpolish'd, rugged verse I chose,
As fittest for discourse, and nearest prose:
For while from sacred truth I do not swerve,
Tom Sternhold's or Tom Shadwell's rhymes will serve.

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