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LETTER XCVII.

CHRISTIANITY constantly addresses us as men, rarely as citizens; the only duty it requires of us under that character, is submission to the governing power in general; it prescribes no rule for our political conduct. The first Christians saw that their religion was not of this world, and refused to have any concern with public affairs, unless in obedience. They inquired not into the rights of those who ruled, nor of their own to liberty; and wished for nothing, but to pass through this life unincumbered with its business, and well prepared for a bet ter. So long as they were a small sect, dissenting from the religions of the countries in which they lived, this inoffensive conduct was easily preserved; but when their doctrines became al-. most universal, these principles of inactivity were no longer tenable, without the total dissolution of all order; for, if no man would govern, there could

could be no government. Necessity, therefore, obliged them to take a part; and this soon awakened ambition and love of power, those passions so natural to the human heart, 'and induced them to seize the whole; Christianity was thus established; in consequence, corrupted; and little of it shortly remained, except the

name.

To this opinion of the incompatibility of Christianity with the occupations and customs of the world, were many of those numerous monastic institutions, which every where accompanied its progress, indebted for their origin: institutions, at first certainly favourable to the genuine and unpresuming spirit of Christianity; and which, had they been confined to those few, who were capable of employing solitude to advantage, would undoubtedly have been conducive to the practice of every Christian virtue. But as all men were indiscriminately admitted, who pretended to sanctity, or who mistook enthusiasm for piety, and alienation from the world for the love of God; they could not fail, very soon, to become little better than retreats for discontent and indolence, or rather seminaries of superstition and prejudice. Yet, notwithstanding, they had not unfrequently, within Q 3 their

their walls, instances of patience and resignation, and of devotion and charity, carried to the highest perfection; and even cultivators of science, who have scarcely been eclipsed.

The persecution of Decius, which fell particularly hard upon Egypt, gave the first occasion to the rise of this perversion of Christianity, which, from small beginnings, extended itself over the whole Christian, world. I call it a perversion, because it induced the belief of the paramount merit of, bodily austerities, and excluded human beings from the common comforts and enjoyments of life, enjoining celibacy, and placing men in all respects, as far removed as possible from the most innocent commerce with the world. Nothing of this kind was ever prescribed by Christ or the Apostles. Every person is by them supposed to live in society. Celibacy, indeed, is recommended by the Apostle Paul, but only for prudential reasons, as subjecting men to less inconveniencies, in time of difficulty and persecution. The state of marriage is always spoken of in the Scripture as honourable.

The first hermits were men who had been driven by persecution to a distance from cities'; and being obliged to conceal themselves in de

sert

sert places; far from human society, but being able to subsist, either from the natural fruits of the earth, their own labour, or the charity of others, they by degrees acquired a fondness for it; and their satisfaction was augmented by the respect that was paid them on account of their great sanctity, as men who had abandoned the world, and all the enjoyments of it, for the sake of religion so that they were considered in the same light as martyrs and confessors; and such. some of them really were.

The same idea of sanctity became by degrees transferred to those who had chosen the society of these original hermits; who relieved their wants in their rigid mode of life; and who ultimately were induced to adopt the same regimen themselves. Every thing which tended to reconcile the soul to its material tabernacle, such as sensual indulgences of all kinds, even those which had always been deemed inoffensive, was to be carefully avoided. Whatever tended to mortify. the body, on the contrary, was conceived to be for the advantage of the soul; and the state nearest to this ideal perfection was thought to be that in which life could be supported with the fewest enjoyments, or corporeal gratifications. In all this, however, they only followed 0 4

the

the practice of many of their Heathen contemporaries, who, like the present Hindoos, voluntarily submit themselves to the most painful mortifications; and conformed to the doctrine of the Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy, which inculcated the belief, that by force of contemplation, the soul could be, in a great measure, detached from the body, and in such manper re-ascend to that state of union with God, which all souls were supposed to have had, before they were separated from that one great source of intelligence, and in which they expected to be absorbed, after undergoing a statę of discipline in this lower world.*

When they were at length formed into societies, they established ordinances, fixed a discipline, and bound themselves by positive, yet not, in all respects, similar regulations. But, in some of your Abbey excursions, you must have remarked this in its most striking form. I am not certain, however, that you are informed (and an instance from our own country, will serve our purpose as well as from any other) that our own common English law did not suffer those monastic personages to enjoy the benefits of society, who secluded themselves from it, and refused to

submit

* Priestley.

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