Letters concerning the English Nation/Letter I

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Concerning the

English Nation.




I Was of opinion, that the doctrine and history of so extraordinary a people, were worthy the attention of the curious. To acquaint myself with them, I made a visit to one of the most eminent Quakers in England, who after having traded thirty years, had the wisdom to prescribe limits to his fortune and to his desires, and was settled in a little solitude not far from London. Being come into it, I perceiv'd a small, but regularly built house, vastly neat, but without the least pomp of furniture. The Quaker who own'd it, was a hale ruddy complexion'd old man, who had never been afflicted with sickness, because he had always been insensible to passions, and a perfect stranger to intemperance. I never in my life saw a more noble or a more engaging aspect than his. He was dress'd like those of his persuasion, in a plain coat, without pleats in the sides, or buttons on the pockets and sleeves; and had on a beaver, the brims of which were horizontal, like those of our clergy. He did not uncover himself when I appear'd, and advanc'd towards me without once stooping his body; but there appear'd more politeness in the open, humane air of his countenance, than in the custom of drawing one leg behind the other, and taking that from the head, which is made to cover it. Friend, says he to me, I perceive thou art a stranger, but if I can do any thing for thee, only tell me. Sir, says I to him, bending forwards, and advancing as is usual with us, one leg towards him, I flatter myself that my just curiosity will not give you the least offence, and that you'll do me the honour to inform me of the particulars of your religion. The people of thy country, replied the Quaker, are too full of their bows and compliments, but I never yet met with one of them who had so much curiosity as thy self. Come in, and let us first dine together. I still continued to make some very unseasonable ceremonies, it not being easy to disengage one's self at once from habits we have been long us'd to; and after taking part of a frugal meal, which began and ended with a prayer to God, I began to question my courteous host. I open'd with that which good Catholicks have more than once made to Huguenots. My dear sir, says I, were you ever baptiz'd? I never was, replied the Quaker, nor any of my brethren. Zouns, says I to him, you are not Christians then. Friend, replies the old man in a soft tone of voice, swear not; we are Christians, and endeavour to be good Christians, but we are not of opinion, that the sprinkling water on a child's head makes him a Christian. Heavens! says I, shock'd at his impiety, you have then forgot that Christ was baptiz'd by St. John. Friend, replies the mild Quaker once again, swear not. Christ indeed was baptiz'd by John, but he himself never baptiz'd any one. We are the disciples of Christ, not of John. I pitied very much the sincerity of my worthy Quaker, and was absolutely for forcing him to get himself christned. Were that all, replied he very gravely, we would submit chearfully to baptism, purely in compliance with thy weakness, for we don't condemnn any person who uses it; but then we think, that those who profess a religion of so holy, so spiritual a nature as that of Christ, ought to abstain to the utmost of their power from the Jewish ceremonies. O unaccountable! says I, what! baptism a Jewish ceremony? Yes, my friend says he, so truly Jewish that a great many Jews use the baptism of John to this day. Look into ancient authors, and thou wilt find that John only reviv'd this practice; and that it had been us'd by the Hebrews, long before his time, in like manner as the Mahometans imitated the Ishmaelites in their pilgrimages to Mecca. Jesus indeed submitted to the baptism of John, as he had suffer'd himself to be circumcis'd; but circumcision and the washing with water ought to be abolish'd by the baptism of Christ, that baptism of the spirit, that ablution of the soul, which is the salvation of mankind. Thus the forerunner said, I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance; but he that cometh after me, is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire[1]. Likewise Paul the great apostle of the Gentiles, writes as follows to the Corinthians; Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel[2]; and indeed Paul never baptiz'd but two persons with water, and that very much against his inclinations. He circumcis'd his disciple Timothy, and the other disciples likewise circumcis'd all who were willing to submit to that carnal ordinance. But art thou circumcis'd, added he? I have not the honour to be so, says I. Well, friend, continues the Quaker, thou art a Christian without being circumcis'd, and I am one without being baptiz'd. Thus did this pious man make a wrong, but very specious application, of four or five texts of scripture which seem'd to favour the tenets of his sect; but at the same time forgot very sincerely an hundred texts which made directly against them. I had more sense than to contest with him, since there is no possibility of convincing an enthusiast. A man shou'd never pretend to inform a lover of his mistress's faults, no more than one who is at law, of the badness of his cause; nor attempt to win over a fanatic by strength of reasoning. Accordingly I wav'd the subject.

Well, says I to him, what sort of a communion have you? We have none like that thou hintest at among us, replied he. How! no communion, says I? Only that spiritual one, replied he, of hearts. He then began again to throw out his texts of scripture; and preach'd a most eloquent sermon against that ordinance. He harangued in a tone as tho' he had been inspir'd, to prove that the sacraments were merely of human invention, and that the word sacrament, was not once mention'd in the gospel. Excuse, says he, my ignorance, for I have not employ'd an hundredth part of the arguments which might be brought, to prove the truth of our religion, but these thou thy self mayest peruse in the Exposition of our Faith written by Robert Barclay. 'Tis one of the best pieces that ever was penn'd by man; and as our adversaries confess it to be of dangerous tendency, the arguments in it must necessarily be very convincing. I promis'd to peruse this piece, and my Quaker imagin'd he had already made a convert of me. He afterwards gave me an account in few words, of some singularities which make this sect the contempt of others. Confess, says he, that 'twas very difficult for thee to refrain from laughter, when I answer'd all thy civilities without uncovering my head, and at the same time said Thee and Thou to thee. However, thou appearest to me too well read, not to know that in Christ's time no nation was so ridiculous as to put the plural number for the singular. Augustus Caesar himself was spoke to in such phrases as these, I love thee, I beseech thee, I thank thee; but he did not allow any person to call him Domine, Sir. 'Twas not till many ages after, that men wou'd have the word You, as tho' they were double, instead of Thou employ'd in speaking to them; and usurp'd the flattering titles of lordship, of eminence, and of holiness, which mere worms bestow on other worms, by assuring them that they are with a most profound respect, and an infamous falshood, their most obedient, humble servants. 'Tis to secure our selves more strongly from such a shameless traffick of lies and flattery, that we thee and thou a king with the same freedom as we do a beggar, and salute no person; we owing nothing to mankind but charity, and to the laws respect and obedience.

Our apparel is also somewhat different from that of others, and this purely, that it may be a perpetual warning to us not to imitate them. Others wear the badges and marks of their several dignities, and we those of christian humility. We fly from all assemblies of pleasure, from diversions of every kind, and from places where gaming is practis'd; and indeed our case wou'd be very deplorable, should we fill with such levities as those I have mention'd, the heart which ought to be the habitation of God. We never swear, not even in a court of justice, being of opinion that the most holy name of God ought not to be prostituted in the miserable contests betwixt man and man. When we are oblig'd to appear before a magistrate upon other people's account, (for law-suits are unknown among the friends) we give evidence to the truth by sealing it with our yea or nay; and the judges believe us on our bare affirmation, whilst so many other Christians forswear themselves on the holy Gospels. We never war or fight in any case; but 'tis not that we are afraid, for so far from shuddering at the thoughts of death, we on the contrary bless the moment which unites us with the Being of Beings; but the reason of our not using the outward sword is, that we are neither wolves, tygers, nor mastiffs, but men and Christians. Our God, who has commanded us to love our enemies, and to suffer without repining, would certainly not permit us to cross the seas, merely because murtherers cloath'd in scarlet, and wearing caps two foot high enlist citizens by a noise made with two little sticks on an ass's skin extended. And when, after a victory is gain'd, the whole city of London is illuminated; when the sky is in a blaze with fireworks, and a noise is heard in the air of thanksgivings, of bells, of organs, and of the cannon, we groan in silence, and are deeply affected with sadness of spirit and brokenness of heart, for the sad havock which is the occasion of those public rejoycings.

  1. St Matth. iii. 11.
  2. 1 Cor. i. 17.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.