SIR JAMES STEPHEN'S ESSAYS ON ECCLESIASTICAL BIOGRAPHY..
THESE volumes differ from the other collections of essays which the Edinburgh Review has furnished to the public, by the unity of their subject and their spirit. However they may differ in form, and whatever difference of treatment may be enforced by difference of country and of creed, the lives and characters of religious men, from Pope Hildebrand to John Newton of Olney, are the topics of Sir' James Stephen's essays. The religious spirit throughout must for want of a more precise word be called Evangelical ; though we suppose that few of the sect will be anxious to claim the author to themselves. For the very best of them he will be too large and liberal in his estimate of Christians ; the bulk of them will be wroth with his keen perception of manners so open to ri- dicule and of a spirit so obnoxious to censure. But for the rich and. forcible piety in detached passages, and the unctuous manner in which the author, in a new paper, expounds the essential spirit of Christianity and the mode in which grace operates, to form the perfect Christian, one would rather have ascribed to him a free rationalistic spirit than any implicit submission to dogmas, doctrines, or sects ; since his free inquiry into the weaknesses and quackeries of the Evangelical saints may rival another Free Inquiry into the miracles of Primitive Christianity and the characters of the miracle-mongers.
The essays are of a threefold classification. The first class is his- torical; relating to individuals of a remote age, and to a system of life and opinion which we only know from study. Pope Gregory, (Hilde- brand,) St. Francis of Assisi, (the founder of the Franciscans,) Luther, and the leading persons among the earlier Jesuits, are of this category. To these articles may be added the papers on the French Benedictines and the Port Royalists, though there is in the latter more of literature, and less of unity and religious action, than in the preceding articles. Richard Baxter, and the Evangelical Succession,—erahracing Whitfield, and what Sir James considers his immediate successors, as Newton and Scott,— refer more directly to our real knowlgcle; ,for although the opinions of the Presbyterians and the Methodists of the seventeenth and eighteenth. centuries, with the persecution or opposition they encountered, do not fall within the actual experience of living men, yet we know much about the latter from direct tradition, and living opinion has been immediately influenced by the Nonconformist quarrels and controversies of the Com- monwealth and the later Stuarts. The third class comes down to our own age. The lapse of time, indeed, is even now removing Wilberforce, Zacariah Macaulay, and those coadjutors of theirs whom Sydney Smith described as the Clapham Sect, from the rank of contemporaries of the rising generation. But their names are familiar in the mouth as house- hold words; deeds, or rather the results of their deeds, are before. our eyes, ad still a matter of praotleal disputej. while their manners and opinions, if not quite contemporary, pass as suet in their absence from our actual presence. What is more than all, they were; contemporary with Sir James Stephen; and in this class he does not so much draw from books or study—from the combinations of the brain—as from the • observations of his eyes and ears. Notwithstanding the general unity of subject in the papers, a little more of extension and definite purpose would have imparted .a unity of a larger kind. A well-selected series of churchmen would enable a competent writer to furnish a coup d'oeil of the history of. the Church in the most popular form, by a.huccession of ecclesiastical biographies. For the primitive and Roman Churches, very many more subjects would be needed than Gregory, St. Francis; Loyale and his associates. But an additional paper or two between Luther and Baxter would have ena- bled Sir James to present a general survey of what may be 'called vital religion—that is, of those dogmas which require regeneration and grace and individual independence, in opposition to the rival views which look more to the efficacy of the sacraments, a good life, and the power of the Church. To do this was hardly to be expected from a series of mis- cellaneous articles published at distant and uncertain periods ; nor does the idea seem to have entered into the plan of the author. The century beginning with the ministry of Whitfield and ending with the death of Wilberforce almost seemed to suggest a coup d'mil of the revival of Christianity in England. But the biographical everywhere overrides the historical ; anecdotes, incidents, and character, predominating over action and the progress of opinion. Ecclesiastical history of course is not omitted; and on such a matter as the agitation of the Slave-trade in con- nexion with Wilberforce, there is a continuous though slight narrative; but a sketchy anecdotical sort of biography is the characteristic of the work. To single papers this doubtless gives a more attractive character than the larger treatment would have done. When the reader has at- tained to a survey of the whole, it leaves the impreasion of a somewhat fugitive or disjointed character. The execution is much superior to the plan, although in plan also the work is very superior to the other collections that have been published. Sir James Stephen may not have a high imagination, but he has as much as generally falls to the lot of an historian. Nature has probably not gifted him with a philosophical genius ; but she has given him sound sense and a penetrating judgment, which have been improved and sharp- ened by long exercise in affairs; while from this last he has derived a more tolerant and less exclusive spirit than often belongs to the sect among whom he was bred. The matter of his work is good. He selects from his authorities the most essential and striking facts; he combines them well together ; and he animates their narrative by spirit and a quiet but effective pleasantry. His diction is remarkably welirchosen ; his epithets are expressive, and frequently happy; the style is-ever full and equally flowing; the impression of the whole finished. Of the parts, the • Essays In Ecclesiastical BiograpliF. By the Bight lionourshle Sit asset! Stephen. K.C.B. In two voldmes. Published Inj Longman and Co.
narrative is clear and vivid ; the criticism, whether on books, men, or events, generally just; and the characters, especially the author's con- temporary acquaintances, nicely discriminated and capitally portrayed. The weak part of the book is what may be called the outpourings; ge- aterally on religion, and most numerous in the later papers, where the author has reached the rise of his own sect. They are a mixture of re- flection and sermon, and consist of what Hamlet was reading—" words."
The most attractive papers are those which refer to contemporary topics, not merely for the interest that the reader feels in them, but that, being the result of actual observation or experience, they have greater freshness. And of these the most curious parts, to people who have ob- served the career of Sir James Stephen, are those which throw or seem to throw a light upon his own character. One trait perceptible through- out, is the puzzle or mystery he offers in himself, by the difficulty he frequently seems to feel in arriving at any settled conclusion upon a diffi- cult question : another is the indifference with which he will sometimes bring out the weaknesses of the most honoured among his own or his paternal friends, or land in some daring deduction. Thus, in the new paper which be calls "The Epilogue," he discusses the question that was dividing the serious when Humphrey Clinker and Mistress Tabitha Bramble arrived at Edinburgh ; and, in despite of the opinion of the churches, the divines, and the mass of Christians, Sir James Stephen puts a negative upon the eternity of hell-punishments. In the same essay, he throws out what look like doubts as to the possibility of any- body, simple or learned, arriving at the meaning of inspiration ; or, if we rightly understand the passage we quote in Italics, of knowing which part of Scriptures is inspired, which not: yet this is surrounded by pas- sages almost mystical, in which a state analogous to grace, or grace it- self, is held to enable the true Christian to do without the understanding.
"First, then, let it be considered that whenever the Divine voice breaks the otherwise uninterrupted silence between heaven and earth, such an occurrence supposes either that man shall be prepared for the reception of that voice by some organic change in his nature, or that his Creator should address him in human language. But human language being impressed with all the infirmities, and darkened by all the mental obscurities of those who have invented, employed, and modified it, mast be a moat imperfect vehicle and exponent of thought. Conse- quently, communications reaching us, even from the Deity himself, through the &mune] of our own words and ideas, must partake, more or less, of the indistinct- ness and ambiguity inseparable from all our thoughts and all our discourse. "Nor must it be forgotten that the Scriptures are written in languages totally unknown to the vast body of those who read them, and that incomparably the most important part of the Scriptures (that is, the words of our Lord and Sa- viour himself) are known to the most learned only by a translation. Here, then, is another source of the diversity of our judgments about the real sense of the Word of God. For example, the whole controversy regarding transubstantiation rests on the precise meaning of a Greek word, which it is perfectly certain that Christ never uttered. We can only conjecture what his very words were; and in the wide field of conjecture, it is morally impossible that a real unanimity of judgment should prevail. "There are also large opportunities for honest differences of interpretation, arising from the admitted variations betWeen the different books of the Bible, and the different parts of the same books, in what respects the plenitude of the inspi- ration of each. Without entering on a subject so replete with difficulty, it may sufficiently explain the disagreements of Christians in the conclusions which they gather from the Bible, that the Bible of the greater number of them contains many books which are excluded from the Bible of the minority; and that few if any educated men acknowledge the same authority in every part of what they receive as Holy Writ, or have come to any clear agreement as to the passages to which the highest sanction belongs."
Something like an hallucination, or as if the principles of good and evil were contending for mastery in the mind of Sir James, or as if Dr. 'Wigan's Duality of the Brain, or our author's own joke upon it, were a verity, is visible in the following passage on Indian government. It is from his estimate of the Claphamite Lord Teignmouth ; and has, by the by, a strong resemblance to the ethics of The Statesman.
"Whea Napoleon wrote bulletins about the star of Austerlitz and the fulfil- ment of his destiny, we were all equally shocked at his principles and his style. Yet the apologies still ringing in our ears for the wars of Affghanistan, of Scinde, and of Gwalior, though made but yesterday by the highest authorities on either aide of the House of Commons, were but a plagiarism from the Emperor of the French, in more correct though less animated language. Nor could it be other- Wise. Empire cannot be built up, either in the West or in the East, in contempt of the laws of God, and then be maintained according to the Decalogue. When the vessel must either drive before the gale or founder, the helmsman no longer looks at the chart. When the pedestals of the throne are terror and admiration, he who would sit there securely must consult other rules than those of the Evan- gelists. Sir John Shore was the St. Louis of Governors-Generals. But if Clive had been like-minded, we should have had no India to govern. If Hastings had aspired to the title of ' The Just,' we should not have retained our dominion. If Wellesley had ruled in the spirit of his conscientious predecessor, we should in- fallibly have lost it. With profound respect for the contrary judgment of so good a man, we venture to doubt whether the severe integrity which forbade him to i bear the sceptre of the Moguls as others had borne it, should not have also for- bidden his bearing it at all. Needlessly to assume incompatible duties, is per- mitted to no man. Cato would have °eased to be himself had he consented to act as a lieutenant of the usurper. The British Viceroy who shall at once be true to his employers, and strictly equitable to the Princes of India and their subjects, need not despair of squaring the circle?
There is something of the anti-humbug in politics here ; it is, in fact, what may be called plain-spoken. There is throughout a kindred inde- pendence in estimating the genii of Clapham and Exeter Hall, with the exception perhaps of e'Wilberforce. The lifelong labours of Sir James in piing so many states and embryo empires, not only in their govern- ments, so to speak, but their quarrels and their scandals, have given him, we think, an undue contempt for the toils of oratorical workmen. This is hard upon agitators, whether Parliamentary or Itinerant, or combining
"Neither let it be concealed that the 'philanthropy of agitation' is not gene- rally entitled to much higher esteem. It is for the common good that the merit of all such services should be brought down from the illuminated pinnacles of hy- perbole to the level of unadorned truth.
We claim no place for Mr. Wilberforce among the heroes of benevolence on the ground of his Parliamentary labours in the cause of Africa. Why not frankly admit, what everybody knows, that the conduct of any great cause in the House of Commons is contended for by the Members of it with eager rivalry, and that the celebrity and the influence which wait on the successful competitor are such as might vanquish any common amount of apathy or of idleness. A- gentleman of fortune may give himself up to labour during half his life in that assembly to emancipate a continent, or to repeal a corn-law, without making one formidable enemy, or losing a single friend, or missing one night's rest, or foregoing a soli- tary dinner. Neither is the noble army of martyrs recruited from that busy class who taking for their point of departure some central committee in London, and for their periphery the circuit of our provincial cities, and for their conveyance our commodious public vehicles, and for their solace much local hospitality, and for their support a reasonable salary, are thus enabled to earn the applanses of crowds and the eulogies of poets.
" The fact is, and we may all as well avow it, that the moral sublime does not belong to our age and country."
One of the most original papers—the most complete and independent in structure, and the most equally sustained, that which has most of the essay and nothing of the article—is an imaginary autobiography of Isaac Taylor, the anther of the Natural History of Enthusiasm. The order of the career, the tone of the sentiments, and much of the sub- stance, are no doubt drawn, as Sir James professes, from Isaac's various publications. It seems equally impossible to doubt that they are at one in their estimate of the professions ; or that Sir James has added spirit, point, and pleasantry to the style. Our author was at the bar before he went to the Colonial Office, and there is little doubt but he is here mingling his own with the imaginary reminiscences of Isaac Taylor.
"At this distance of time I never tread the flag-stones of Fig Tree Court, in the Inner Temple, without feelings akin to those with which Gil Bias revisited the scene of the therapeutic labours in which he assisted the learned Dr. San- grado. With what eagerness did I join in the onslaught on the purses and the reputations of mankind, under the guidance of the atrabilious skeleton my tutor, whose keen eye twinkled from its deep socket as it lit on a point of law fatal to some unlucky litigant! To lie down at night with the conviction that since daybreak I bad been working harder than any other intellectual operative in London, was in those times among my luxuries. It was a sturdy and invigora- ting discipline. It taught me a logic of more practical utility that I could have acquired at Edinburgh or at Oxford. If the pleadings which I drew, in those murky chambers, contributed (as is but too probable) to damage any honest man, they were at least of singular advantage to myself. They placed a curb on a vagrant imagination, and prepared me for controversies far more perilous than the interminable hostilities between John Doe and Richard Roe, in which I was then so zealous a partisan.
" At the end of my noviciate I took the gown, and, like other barristers, tra- versed Westminster Hall, swinging to and fro an empty bag. • * • Over the gate of Westminster Hall was the inscription, visible at least to my own eyes, All ye who enter here abandon modesty.' I found that it was well to possess virtue, talents, scholarship; well to know some little law; well to be eloquent; and better still to be closely connected with attornies and their clients; but that the one thing needful was intrepid assurance, animated by constitutional vivacity. So gifted, knavery, ignorance, and incapacity fattened. Without this gift, worth, learning, and genius starved. What the plain of Elis was to Greece, such is that venerable Hall to England; and its Pindar must sing of combatants who have rejoiced in the dust, the sweat, the strife, and the turmoil of the contests. His heroes must be painted with thick skins and hardy consciences, buoyant and fearless, prompt in re-sources, and unscrupulous in the use of them. No place or vocation there for men of pensive spirits, delicate nerves, and high-wrought sensibilities! When my mind at length opened to this great truth, I threw aside my unprofitable gown, repeating the old exclamation, What business have I at Rome—I cannot lie!'" We are tempted to extend these extracts by many passages of various attraction, especially by some of the characters of Clapham ; in painting which, as already observed, Sir James excels. He has a quick eye for the distinguishing traits of men, above all for their weaknesses • and he brings them before the mind in the happiest manner, a single epithet sometimes doing the work of a description. When we consider his habits and powers of labour, and his obvious liking for portraiture, the question naturally rises, has Sir James Stephen kept a journal? What a treat for posterity, if the Secretaries and Governors and great men, whom our author encountered in the day, have been sketched at night, in their pomposity, incapacity, freshness, or ignorance, wishing to get his opinion without asking for it, and tickled into being his tool, whilst they flattered themselves they were making use of him ! If Reminiscences of the Colonial Office exists in some snug pigeon-hole, it would be almost a fortune to a family. With the bibliopolic caterers competing on one hand, and on the other those who-might not wish to be seen as others see them, the manuscript would be worth more than its weight in gold.
Good, as Sir James would say, comes out of evil ; and even the roguery of the pirates of America is overruled for wise purposes. But for their haphazard reprints this republication would not have taken place. In collecting his articles, however, Sir James Stephen has corrected them all, and considerably enlarged some of them, especially those which relate to English Evangelism and its distinguished men.