The Causes of Infidelity at the Close of the Eighteenth Century
France's jealousy of England induced the French people to aid the American colonists in breaking off the British yoke, and establishing their independence. This established a warm friendship between the United States and France. The friendship of so powerful an ally as the latter, was of incalculable advantage to the former, while the war for independence continued. But when the war was over, France was the very worst of companions for grateful and impressible young America. The Americans were chiefly of English extraction. They spoke the English language, read English books, adopted English morals and religion, and were as much like the English as parent and child.
England, whose morals were far from perfect, was nevertheless, the most moral State in Europe. Her men possessed a higher sense of honor and integrity, and her women a purer virtue than those of any other country in the Old World. Her religion, too, defective as it was, conserved a better code of morals than any other State religion in Europe. The American colonists were of the very best of the English people, as to morals and religion. As long, therefore, as a friendly intercourse was kept up with the mother country, the Americans were a highly moral and Christian people. But when a quarrel separated them, and engendered an almost universal feeling of hatred between the Americans and the British oppressors, France espoused the cause of the oppressed in the hour of their greatest need. The affections of the Americans were transferred from England to France, and the latter became the intimate and trusted friend of America, and henceforth, for many years, exercised a powerful influence over her people.
The morals of the French had never been good, at any period of their history. They were passionate, cunning, intriguing and vascillating. Their code of morals, when compared with that of England, was very corrupt in its best estate. Gambling was not only tolerated in their men, but was extensively indulged in by their women. Licentiousness, according to their most gifted writers, ceased to a virtue, even among the most noble of their women, only when it was detected. Their religion, when France was regarded a Christian nation, was little better than their morals. Its claims against heretics were, indeed, insatiable by anything less than the life blood of the offenders; but all its demands against the most foul and loathsome immoralities, could be satisfied by the payment of a few francs, to the avaricious priests.
But even this feeble restraint on the vices of the French people had been, in a large measure removed, at the time of the establishing of friendly relationsbetween them and the Americans At this time the religion of France was held in utter contempt by most of her cultured and influential people, including many of her priests. This state of affairs had been brought about by one of her own most gifted sons.
VOLTAIR was born, February 20, 1694. He was thoroughly educated, and developed a most brilliant genius. Disgusted with the corruptions and oppressions of the religion of his country, and naturally enough supposing this to be Christianity, since it was called by that name, he formed the purpose of overthrowing the religion of Christ, not only in France, but in the whole of Europe. He was a brilliant and rapid writer, a good judge of human nature, a man of keen foresight and wonderful energy, and pursued his purpose with the full measure of all his great powers. He formed infidel societies of multitudes of men of wealth, learning and influence, and doubtless, exerted a powerful influence against religion in the whole of Europe. But France, his own country, he made essentially, an infidel nation. He died May 30, 1778, in his 85th year, being immensely popular in his own country This was during the American Revolution. France, though herself a monarchy, was, even at this time, aiding the Americans in securing their freedom. When the United States had established a republican government, and her people seemed to be living, happy and contented, under it,
France became restless and revolutionary in spirit, and, on the 21st of September, 1792, declared herself a Republic. This kindled a general enthusiasm in the United States. To the people of this country, liberty was the dearest boon of man. France was now not only determined to be free herself, but was equally determined that all Europe should be free from the thralldom of kingscraft and priest craft. To Americans this looked like the dawning of apolitical millennium. France -- profligate, licentious, infidel France-- the glorious French Republic was taken right to the heart of the American Republic. In proportion as France was loved, England was hated. Whatever was good and pure in the morals and religion of England, was spurned because it was English, while the wretched licentiousness and bold, outspoken infidelity of France were sanctified by the charming euphony of the French Republic.
Certain local causes induced a stronger attachment to France in the West than in the Last. Kentucky was probably more enthusiastically and blindly attached to the French than was any other part of the United States. The hope and purposes of the Kentuckians to form an alliance with the French Republic and share with it the glory of giving liberty to an enslaved world, in general, and to the Spanish settlers of Louisiana, in particular, were defeated by the recall of the French minister, Genet. But that did not lessen the affection which they felt for France, nor diminish the influence of that Republic over them.
It has been observed that France had become an infidel nation. At the period under consideration, she was avowedly such, and seemed as anxious to free men from the thraldom of religion, as to break from their necks the yoke of political bondage. For the display of her benevolence in the former work, Kentucky presented a most promising field.
The writings of Voltair were translated into English, and with those of the elegant Volney, were circulated among the more cultivated classes of the western people. Volney’s works were read with more interest, on account of his visiting the United States, in 1795, and remaining some three years. But of all the infidel books circulated in the country about this time, the “Age of Reason” was the most widely influential and mischievous. It was written by Thomas Paine, an illiterate man, whose style was coarse and vulgar, but who wrote in a direct,
homely phraseology, which was very pleasing to illiterate people, who could not understand abstruse reasoning.
"TOM PAINE" was personally popular with the American people. He was born and raised in England. His parents were pious Quakers. He came to America just before the beginning of the Revolutionary War, espoused the cause of the colonies with much zeal, and, early in the year 1776, published a pamphlet under the title of "Common Sense," in which he advocated the propriety of the colonies declaring themselves independent of the mother country.
When the Revolution began in France, Mr. Paine hastened thither to aid in the cause of universal liberty. He found the French people in every way different from what he had found the Colonists. He found the Americans, in 1975, resisting the encroachments on their rights, and determined to have "liberty or death." He hastened to publish a pamphlet, exhorting them to do what he saw they had already determined to do. This pleased them, and they honored him as a patriot. When he reached France, near the beginning of her revolution, he found the strongest passion of the French people to be hatred of revealed religion. He hastened to write a book against the Bible. It was titled "The Age of Reason," and was published in 1794. The book was of no consequence in France, since the French people had the works of their own eminent men on the same subject. But the Age of Reason was just the book for the backwoods of America, and was just from the source to make it most popular. It was written in the darling French Republic, and by the honored patriot, Paine. It was printed in cheap pamphlet form, and circulated in the Mississippi Valley in immense numbers. It could be seen in the cabin of the farmer, on the bench of the tailor, in the shops of the smith and the carpenter, on the table of the lawyer, and at the desk of the physician. It was not put by the side of the Bible, but it was used instead of the Bible. Bibles and all other religious books wereextremely scarce in the west at that period. "In those early times," says John Taylor, "it was not easy to get a pocket Bible in Kentucky." J.M. Peck, speaking of the scarcity of religious books, in those days, says: "The only Bibles in the country were those brought by immigrants. If a young couple, who were Christian professors, had formed
the domestic relationship in a log cabin in the west, they had no Bible to read until perchance, after many months waiting, some kind friend brought one in his saddle-bags, across the mountains, from the old States. A manuscript volume of hymns is in our possession, compiled by one of the pioneer preachers of Kentucky for his own use as an itinerant, and it bears marks of being well thumbed by the preacher. Nor were tracts then circulated; and few books of any kind had found their way to this Valley."
At this period, "infidel principles prevailed to an alarming extent in the eastern states." They were fashionable in the gay and literary circles of society; they were prevalent in Yale College and other similar institutions, and a very general impression existed, that Christianity was supported by human authority, and not by argument. But infidelity prevailed in a cruder form, and to a much greater extent in the west. Mr. Peck says: "Infidelity became prevalent in high places, and was identified with liberal principles in government. It was the general opinion among intelligent Christians, that toward the close of the century, a majority of the population were either avowedly infidels, or skeptically inclined. There were few men of the professions of law or physic, who would avow their belief in the truth of Christianity." It is scarcely necessary to add what is a universal concomitant, that immorality abounded among the people in proportion to the prevalency of infidelity. Drunkenness, licentiousness, and gambling, prevailed to an alarming extent, and were often made subjects of merriment and shameless boasting, rather than occasions for shame and sorrow.
The indifference of professed Christians during those days of darkness was about as discouraging an aspect of the social campact, as the grosser immorality and skepticism of those who had made no pretention to piety in the past. As stated before, the Baptists maintained a strict discipline, and the immoral were promptly expelled from their membership. The Presbyterians do not claim to have done this. They complain of much immorality among their preachers and their people, during the trying season under review. Professor Bishop says: "A melancholy prospect indeed to a pious mind. Like priest, like people -- genuine piety scarcely discernable in either -- the spirit
of the world animating all."1 But whether discipline was enforced or not, the spirit of religion seemed almost banished from the land. The most faithful preachers complained of a death-like coldness in themselves as well as their people. "The church was under a decline; Zion had got into her slumbers," said the famous William Hickman. John Taylor, speaking of the condition of Bullittsburg church, in the spring of 1800, says: "Many feared they would never hear the joyful tidings of the conversion of sinners, or see any more people baptized." "For five years," he tells us, in the same connection, "only one man was baptized," and he was excluded two months after his baptism. Mr. Taylor greatly deplores the hardness of his own heart at this period. "Death itself about this time," says he, "would have been a relief to me, and great gain." Again: "My own heart [was] so barren and hard that I wished myself out of sight, or lying under the seats where the people sat, or trodden under their feet." The Venerable David Rice is represented by his biographer, at this same period, thus: "He had to lament the want of personal and family religion . . . . even among those who were in good standing in the church. A vast portion of the youth grew up quite careless, and some of them became avowed infidels." Again, Mr. Rice, speaking of the Green River county, in 1800, says: "I found that there were but few of reputable characters as Christians. There were a few Presbyterians, a few Baptists, and a few Methodists, and but few upon the whole." Gideon Blackburn, an eminent Presbyterian minister, writes to a New York magazine, from Blount county, East Tennessee, September 25, 1800: "In the years 1798 and 1799, my labors were attended with the least success. Christians appeared cold and indifferent; fewer impressions were made than formerly, the youth became more dissolute, and levity and dissipation prevailed."
Such was the moral and religious condition of the people of the great valley of the Mississippi, when the sun of the eighteenth century sat behind a gloomy cloud. All Christians, who were still interested in the cause of the Redeemer, were overwhelmed with a sadness and anxiety, bordering on despair. The religious dearth was not confined to any locality on the
American continent. It was, indeed, more marked in the newer settlements of the Great West, but it was deeply felt all over the settled portions of the continent, although the great revival began somewhat earlier in New England. It might justly have been said of the American people, as it was said of the English, by Bishop Butler, some sixty years before: "It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted, by many persons, that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious; and accordingly they treat it as if in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment, and nothing remained but to set it up a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals, for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world."2 Infidelity had taken deep root in this fair land of liberty, from the District of Maine to the farthest log cabin in the great western wilderness. God had reserved to himself faithful witnesses in all the land; but their testimony seemed to be unheeded, and the most earnest advocate of his claims "was made the song of the drunkard," and the by-word of the dissolute and debauched. During the last ten years, the number of Christians in the west had been reduced nearly one-half, in proportion to the population. "Only one person was baptized in five long years" in one of the best churches in Kentucky, "and that one excluded from the church only two months after his baptism," told the sad tale that might have been repeated with sighs and tears by the pious, or re-echoed with jeers and scoffings by the profligate all over the most highly favored country that God ever bestowed on fallen men. No wonder the timid and faithless Christian feared he would never again see a sinner, converted, or a genuine convert baptized. No wonder the proud, defiant infidel began to boast that, while Christians had been 1800 800 years in building up Christianity, he would "destroy it in one generation."3
Poor revolutionary, storm-wrecked, infidel France had asserted that human liberty and infidelity were inseparable, and multitudes of her fond admirers in America had re-echoed the blasphemous sentiment until it had become a principle of the
[p. 504] political philosophy of the country, and it was believed by many of the statesmen, especially of the West, that to yield it up would be to endanger the liberties of the people. It was even believed that the liberties of the people would not be fully secured till they were entirely absolved from all religious obligation.
Under these gloomy circumstances, the devout and intelligent Christian could see no grounds of hope except in the mighty power of God, exerted on the minds, and hearts of the people. Surely now, if a great religious revivalsuddenly pervades all the broad land, without the use of any visible extraordinary means, if multitudes of the profane and profligate are suddenly converted to the religion they now hold in contempt, if proud, boasting infidels are brought to cry for mercy at the feet of Jesus, if the number of Christians are trebled within the brief space of two years, if the bold scoffers become zealous ministers of the meek and lowly Jesus, the astonished multitudes, as well as the grave thinking philospher, will acknowledge that the power which shall have wrought this mighty work is of God. Yet all this shall have been accomplished within the next two years, and surely, the wise will give the glory to God. ________________
1 Rice's Memoir's, pp. 69-70.
2 Butler's Anology, preface.
3 The saying attributed to "Tom Payne."
[John Henderson Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists, 1885; rpt. CHR&A, 1984.]
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