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STRICTURES ON THE EDINBURGH REVIEW
OF THE HISTORICAL VIEW OF
A CONSIDERABLE portion of this paper is occupied with a review of the growth, dominion, and decline of the mythological creed of the heathens; its acceptation in early ages by the vulgar without doubt or inquiry; its subsequent rejection by philosophers of every denomination; and the diminished credit into which it gradually fell in the estimation of all classes, as knowledge spread farther, and descended lower. All this is stated with great plausibility; and the obvious issue of the argument is, that the heathen superstition died a natural death; that Christianity seized indeed a vacant throne, but must not boast of ejecting a powerful rival. Neither the texture nor application of this reasoning, after Mr. Gibbon's celebrated chapters, can be said to be very original; I acknowledge however the ability with which the materials for induction are combined, and in a qualified degree I admit the force of the inference. But a phenomenon still remains to be explained, which these philosophers have been at no pains to notice. The fall of Paganism may have been the natural effect of natural causes, but how did it happen that the causes which produced that effect should so marvellously coincide? How did it happen that precisely at the time when Paganism had become weak, Christianity should appear? If the new religion had arisen a few centuries sooner, it would have presented itself to mankind when they were so enslaved by superstition, that, according to the mode of judging usual with these gentlemen, it never could have prevailed. If it had been introduced into the world a few centuries later, it would have found the world convulsed in every quarter, and its inhabitants wholly engrossed by their own miseries. Infidels, though they will not allow the establishment of Christianity to have been a miracle, ought to own at least that she was produced to the world at that period at which alone such establishment could best be effected without a miracle. If indeed various religions had from time to time offered themselves for acceptance, and been crushed by Paganism, while its power was in the zenith, the birth of Christianity in its declining years, and her final triumph over its dotage, might be matter of no surprize; but the instance is solitary. The simple statement of the case is this. During 5,500 years (or any other unlimited era which infidels may prefer) we know but of two centuries in which knowledge, repose, and free internal communication were enjoyed by a large portion of the world; and in which therefore, according to ordinary probabilities, the truth of Christianity could be ascertained by enlightened investigation, and its testimonies authenticated for transmission to posterity. The period to which I allude commences with the sole government of Augustus, and closes with the death of Aurelius. The fact admitted on all sides is this; that early in that period a new religion appeared, whose theology is the most pure, whose morality is the most perfect, and whose motives are the most powerful, that have ever been proposed for the acceptance of mankind; and that this religion gradually gained ground during the whole of the above period, and before its close had taken such deep root, that its final triumph was certain. If any infidel will say, there is nothing in all this, I must doubt either his honesty or his understanding: a pious mind will not fail to perceive in it the hand of God. The Edinburgh Review has stated all the circumstances which can abate our surprize at the establishment of Christianity, with the most laudable precision; but he has uncandidly forgot to look at the reverse of the medal.
In the same article we have the following extract from Mr. Gibbon. “ The contemporaries of Moses and Joshua had beheld with careless indifference the most amazing miracles. Under the pressure of every calamity, the belief of those miracles has preserved the Jews of a later period from the universal contagion of idolatry;" upon which the commentary of the Reviewer is this: “ The incredulity of the Jews amidst the signs and the wonders, the miracles and the prodigies which happened among them, is indeed one of the stumbling blocks which the infidel is ever ready to pretend he cannot remove;" and so proceeds to illustrate the objection by expanding it. Is this rock of offence indeed so formidable? Then what a noble opportunity has the Reviewer lost, of proving the strength of his understanding by its removal; and how much more unequivocal an evidence of his sincerity would this have been, than can ever be found in general declarations? If, however, Achilles will slumber in his tent, some minor chieftain must march to the battle. If the giants of the North refuse the combat, some poor peaceful Suthron must take up the gauntlet.
In the first place then I must observe, that neither Mr. Gibbon nor his commentators seem to have considered accurately the story, the credibility of which they arraign. Idolatry, which both the text and the comment charge on the Israelites in the wilderness, was not exactly the crime in which they most offended. In truth, we read but of two occasions during a sojourn in the desert of forty years, in which they stand convicted of this sin; once before Mount Sinai, after the Exodus from Egypt, and a second time in their intercourse with the Moabites, just before their entry on the promised land. In the first of these instances they made and worshipped a visible image of the true God; for they cryed, “These are thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” In the second, idolatry was only an accessary offence; lust was the principal. They worshipped the images of Moab, as an apprentice robs his master, to satisfy the demands of an harpy courtezan. In neither of these instances were the Israelites guilty of a deliberate rejection of their God, to place themselves under the government of a foreign deity; and this, be it remembered, is the only offence of which the commission is at all inconsistent with the miracles we are told they witnessed. That they should be subdued by the tyranny of their passions, or yield to the instigation of their appetites, even while they beheld the prodigies which avenged their crimes, the earthquake, the plague, and the fiery serpents, can be natter of little surprize to those who see the drunkard return to his debauch, and the glutton to his surfeit, though visited by disease and torture, infamy and ruin. That a people should continually revolt from their God amid the miraculous displays of his power, in order to swear allegiance to spurious deities, I am willing to concede to Mr. Gibbon and his friends, would indeed be a singular fact; but to forge the fact which is the keystone of their cavil, is neither very philosophical nor very honest. So much for the incredible idolatry of the Israelites in defiance of present miracles. Where Mr. Gibbon and the Reviewer learnt, that the reference to those miracles when past, preserved the Jews from the same offence, it is for them to inform us; certainly not from the Holy Scriptures.
But I cannot yet quite dismiss the present objection. It does certainly at the first view appear surprizing, that the children of Israel in the wilderness, while they enjoyed such singular privileges, should evince on their part such incurable perverseness; but a little reflection clears the difficulty. A long period is comprized in a short narrative, which is greatly made up of prodigies and crimes; and the assemblage at first seems to overpower the understanding, as the eye is unable to endure the rays of light when converged in the focus of a burning glass. The doubting astonishment however, which this history at first excites, is not owing to its substance, but to its conciseness. We pass at once from a display of heavenly beneficence to an act of flagrant provocation, from the punishment of one sin to the commission of another; the contrast is great from their apparent proximity, and we do not recollect that considerable intervals must have elapsed between many of these events. In fact we are apt to overcalculate the number of the miracles which were wrought during the journeyings in the wilderness, as well as to over-rate their probable effects. Those miracles were either occasional