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The modern period of ecclesiastical history may be conveniently dated from the beginning of the seventeenth century. It was then that the principles of the Reformation were found firmly rooted, and the existing boundaries of their influence defined. It is true, indeed, that they were then extensively prevalent in the Austrian states, from which they were subsequently, in a very great measure, expelled. But the imperial court had never forsaken Rome, and it was supported in this adherence by a majority of the people, together with a great preponderance of the aristocracy. Austria, therefore, must be considered as entering upon the seventeenth century in that theological position which she has occupied ever since. The same may be said of France. Her powerful and intelligent population was pervaded by protestantism when the sixteenth century closed, and it so continued long afterwards. But in this case, too, the government, backed by a formidable array of aristocratic and popular support, was Romish. Hence patronage and fashion enabled papal divinity to encroach incessantly on the rival creed, until the revocation of the edict of Nantes would no longer suffer a Huguenot's voice to be openly heard in France. In most other parts of Europe the religion both of prince and people remains much as the sixteenth century left it. The electoral house of Saxony, lately become royal, is, indeed, an exception. The prospect of a crown in Poland offered a strong temptation, at the close of the seventeenth century, to the religious constancy of its head, and he forsook the reformed faith, which, in former days, his family had taken the lead in protecting and nurturing. But a defection, so little to be expected from such a quarter, and rendered so suspicious by the secular ends that it secured, merely excited general regrets. It was almost powerless upon the religious aspect of Saxony, which, in spite of the Romish example still set at court, continues in the principles that Luther's own teaching rooted.
When, however, the seventeenth century opened, Romish ascendancy had been recently established every where ; hence its friends fully reckoned upon the recovery of their lost ground. At the same time, they saw this occupied by their adversaries so firmly as to leave no hope of regaining it, without overstrained and unscrupulous exertions. From such arose the thirty years' war that desolated Germany, and the religious troubles which long filled France with dissension and misery. In countries where the government was protestant, Romish efforts for a re-conquest were only felt from domestic intrigues and interference with foreign politics. These things were, however, quite enough to sharpen religious animosity. Men were exasperated by the probable suspicion, and occasional discovery of treacherous movements among themselves to reestablish a creed which they detested as a national crime and pollution. England especially drew from Romish continental struggles the most unhesitating conviction of its inherent and sanguinary intolerance. Hence protestant vied with Romanist in devising cruel schemes of mutual extermination. The only advantage that the former's intolerance could claim over the latter's, was its operation within a narrower and less-disputable field. Protestant persecution was limited by Scripture and primitive antiquity. Romish, on the contrary, raged most frequently and fiercely in defence of principles that can bring no proof either from the written word, or from the most venerable among uninspired records. Its ordinary object was, in fact, a denial of transubstantiation, one of the papal peculiarities which labours most under the disadvantage of late authentication. But with such a mitigation of her guilt and folly in entering upon the race of intolerance, protestantism must rest contented. History here can do no more for her than detail the alarms felt, difficulties undergone, provocations received, and poisonous lessons learnt, from her elder and rival sister.
When the peace of Westphalia, in 1648, secured the rights of German protestantism, the revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685 crushed those of French, and the expulsion of James II. in 1688 made British allegiance conditional on the sovereign's alienation from Rome, a foundation was laid for those principles which gradually sprang up in Europe during the following century. Men could not, indeed, at first, lay aside inveterate habits, or forget recent dangers. Hence they entered upon a new age with all the prejudices, animosities, apprehensions, and oppressive maxims, that had prevailed in the last. But a few able writers taught a different lesson, and every day made additions to the number of its learners. It owed not, however, its popularity only to the intellectual progress of the times. The dangers and consequent apprehensions of former days were gone. Both Romish and protestant communities were organised upon a footing of apparent permanence that offered hardly a hope of encroachment upon each other. Hence there was very rarely any hostile movement on either side. Men looked upon themselves no longer as a body that had recently been one, and might soon be one again, if proper energy were used. They rather thought of themselves as parted by a broad line of demarcation, strongly drawn by those who went before them, and utterly beyond any power of their own to obliterate. Hence much of the intolerant legislation of their fathers rapidly fell into desuetude. The minority liable to its lash gave no provocation; therefore it was deemed uncalled-for by the times, and its harshest provisions slumbered in the statute book. Men who thought it unsafe to surrender any of its provisions, would loudly join a public outcry whenever they saw one of much severity likely to be carried into practice. It was impossible that such a state of public feeling should long continue without leading to that general admission of an inherent right to liberty of conscience, which ultimately distinguished the seventeenth century from any that preceded it.
Unhappily, this disposition to a liberal judgment of other men degenerated in many minds into latitudinarian indifference, and in not a few into open infidelity. These perversions, accordingly, are among the distinguishing features of modern ecclesiastical history. The student sees with pain, that as intolerance declined, a reckless appetite for speculation advanced. It must be owned, that England rushed first upon this licentious course. The re-action under Charles II. which thrust aside puritanical austerity, was aided by subtle and scoffing wits, anxious to supersede religion by a philosophy of their own, or to laugh its restraints altogether out of counte
But the English character is naturally serious, and the national religion is established upon foundations of more than usual solidity. Hence it was quickly seen that nothing was more unlikely than any great success from infidel assaults, whether grave or gay. The enemies of revelation did little more in England than earn contempt for themselves, and give occasion for successive masterly refutations of their principles. Among the people generally the belief of scriptural truth has never been perceptibly shaken. It has ever stood as firmly in public opinion, amidst all the experiments of argument or