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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1454. Robert Southey to James Grahame, [April 1808] ⁠* 

Your Siege of Copenhagen [1]  found me in London; – a well borne testimony against a most atrocious measure. I ought to have thanked you for it long ago, & the date of your letter makes me ashamed.

In that letter you say that our opinions on the most important of all subjects are not essentially different: it is in the belief that we agree in some of the most essential points, – that I proceed to speak of things which I regard with too sacred & deep a feeling ever to expose them to those who might treat it lightly. Many Xian sects, or societies, seem to me to have been founded upon a strong perception of part of the Xtian system; none to have a clear & steady comprehension of the whole, perfectly pure & simple as that system is. It is from the words of Christ that I collect it, setting all creeds, catechisms & commentators, however early aside. To me nothing can be clearer than that Christ Jesus has expressly forbidden his disciples to possess either riches or authority; that his words are to be received in their plain & incontrovertible meaning instead of being explained away into nothing; & that they lead to nothing short of a total revolution in the whole constitution of human governments, & the establishment of a new order of things, in which no man is to exercise authority over another; none are to be rich & none poor, but all do their part in the general labour & receive their portion of the produce. The Jewish dispensation in its Jubilee & its year of release [2]  bears the same relation to the feelings of Gospel truth here, as it does in other points. It is beyond a doubt that the primitive Christians understood their Master as I understand Him: the Mendicant Orders & the Moravians understood Him so at this day with respect to property:  [3]  the Quakers with respect to power.

This, James Grahame, I believe to be the political system of Christ Jesus, & any other system tends to counteract on the morals of Christianity: & little is it to be wondered at that the world is in the lamentable state it is when its main institutions are thus at war with the revealed will of its Maker. Were that will to be obeyed moral evil would be annihilated, & by far the greater part of physical evil with it.

My creed is what I cannot so explicitly lay down. That there was in Christ a far greater portion of the Divine Mind than has ever been imparted to any other of the sons of men, I believe. It may be that His birth was not after the ordinary manner of man: but this part of His history has too mythological an appearance, & the whole system of miracles appears to me untenable. Middleton’s Free Enquiry [4]  is the death blow to them. There is no touchstone to distinguish between a true miracle and a false miracle, & they who argue in their behalf come at last to prove the miracle by the doctrine, not the doctrine by the miracle. That Christ healed diseases instantaneously I can believe because I can understand it, – He himself said that faith had made the patients whole, & charged them to tell no man, – a remarkable expression, perfectly intelligible if it be supposed that He knew the power would be thought to have proceeded from Him, & foresaw the consequence of the mistake, – that is, the trade of deception, which the Catholic Church has carried on from the first ages to this very day. To give mankind the certain knowledge of a future state of retribution appears to be a worthy object for revelation, & Original Sin as it is commonly understood is not consistent with the Justice of the Creator, – nor indeed with the language of Christ, whose opinions seem to be faithfully delivered to us, tho’ the history of His life is corrupted with many human inventions. Redemption, in its usual acception also, is built upon Original Sin. I prefer Pelagius to St. Augustine. [5]  Of the Trinity I cannot discover a trace in the words of Christ, nor even in the whole New Testament, except in that text which is confessedly spurious. My heresy inclines rather to Arius than to Socinus, [6]  & with the true Quakers I would rather be reverently silent than dogmatize with either upon a subject which is out of our reach & which would not be out of it if it were of any consequence that we should understand it.

I cannot believe in Hell, – I do believe in Purgatory, & almost in the efficacy of prayers for the dead. When our fathers rebelled against the accursed superstitions of the Romish Church they served our faith, something in the same way that your Reformers served the churches. The Papists are beyond all doubt, Idolators in the strictest sense of the word; – but in flying from idolatry what a fearful chasm have we left between man & God! What a void have we made in the Universe! Had the senses & the imagination their wholesome food set before them, – they would not prey upon such garbage as that of the bedeadening & bedarkening sectaries, who are now gaining ground so rapidly as to threaten us with a second age of persecution.

These opinions have not been lightly taken up. Many of them you may perhaps think erroneous, – but you will see with how little justice I have been reviled as an unbeliever, & an Atheist. I care not what the world may think as yet: they will know me in due season, if it be God’s will. But I wish you to know me now, because we have many Xtian feelings & principles in common, whatever may be the difference on other points. I perceive your name in the Prospectus of the Edinburgh Encyclopoedia, [7]  where it seems to be in good company, the Editor has admitted Englishmen very sparingly, & this great preference of his own countrymen, would I should think, have rather an unfavourable effect. What department have you taken? The Spaniards & Port. are justifying the opinions which I have long entertained & expressed of their undegenerated spirit; & that spirit, whatever it may have to go thro, will I trust be ultimately successful. The Spirit of patriotism & of liberty is invincible: upon that ground Bonaparte will be beaten, perhaps will be destroyed: upon any other he would triumph. Another day of liberty has dawned upon us, & we shall yet say our Nunc dimittus. [8]  – Remember me to Mrs Grahame – & believe me yours with true esteem

R. Southey.


Notes

* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from typed copy of letter at National Library of Scotland, MS 20768
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 472–474.
Dating note: Curry dates the letter [April, 1808]. BACK

[1] The Siege of Copenhagen; a Poem (1808). BACK

[2] According to biblical law, every seventh year since the Jewish exodus of Egypt is known as Shemitah in Hebrew, or ‘Release’, and in this year fields are to be left fallow and debts are cancelled. The seven years are counted in a cycle, with the fiftieth year being the Jubilee (or Yovel) year, in which according to tradition, there is no agricultural work, all landed property reverts to its original owner, and slaves are set free. BACK

[3] Mendicant religious orders own no property and are dependent on charity for their support. The Moravian Church is an evangelical Protestant denomination whose settlements are organised on a communal structure that aimed to eradicate divisions between social groups based on wealth. BACK

[4] Conyers Middleton (1683–1750; DNB), Church of England clergyman and author, whose A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (1749) argued against the testimonies of miracles. BACK

[5] Pelagius (c. AD 354–c. AD 420–440) was a religious thinker who was branded a heretic for challenging Christian doctrine, including the concept of original sin framed by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (AD 354–430). BACK

[6] Arius (AD 250/256–336) was a Christian leader from Alexandria who believed in God’s divinity over his son’s, seeing him as a subordinate entity and so opposing Athanasian or Trinitarian Christology; Laelius Socinus (1525–1562), an Italian Renaissance humanist thinker was also an anti-Trinitarian. BACK

[7] David Brewster (1781–1868; DNB), was the editor of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia which was published in 18 volumes between 1808 and 1830. BACK

[8] Meaning ‘night prayer’. BACK

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August 2013