Harriet Martineau

Spirit of religion

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
—Paul the Apostle.

Hands full of hearty labours: pains that pay
And prize themselves—do much that more they may.
No cruel guard of diligent cares, that keep
Crowned woes awake, as things too wise for sleep:
But reverend discipline, religious fear,
And soft obedience, find sweet biding here.
Silence, and sacred rest, peace and pure joys—
Kind loves keep house, lie close, and make no noise.
And room enough for monarchs, while none swells
Beyond the limits of contentful cells.
The self-remembering soul sweetly recovers
Her kindred with the stars: not basely lovers
Below—but meditates th’ immortal way
Home to the source of light and intellectual day.
—Crashaw .

Society in America is as much in a transition state about religion as France and England are about politics. The people are in advance of the clergy in America, as the English are in advance of such of their political institutions as are in dispute. Discouraging as the aspect of religious profession in America is on a superficial survey, a closer study will satisfy the observer that all will be well; that the most democratic of nations is religious at heart; and that its superstitions and offences against the spirit of Christianity are owing to temporary influences.

In order to ascertain what the spirit of religion really is in the country, we must not judge by the periodicals. Religious periodicals are almost entirely in the hands of the clergy, who are in no country fair representatives of the religion of the people. These periodicals are, almost without exception, as far as my knowledge of them goes, extremely bad. A very few have some literary and scientific merit; and many advocate with zeal particular methods of charity, and certainly effect a wide and beneficent co-operation for mutual help which could not be otherwise so well secured. But arrogance and uncharitableness, cant, exclusiveness, and an utter absence of sympathy with human interests and affections, generally render this class of publications as distasteful as the corresponding organs of religious bodies in the Old World. They are too little human in their character; from the books of the Sunday School Union to the most important of the religious reviews, to be by any possibility a fair expression of the spiritual state of some millions of persons. The acts of the laity, and especially of those who are least under the influence of the clergy, must be looked to as the only true manifestations.

If religion springs from morals, the religion must be most faulty where the morals are so. The greatest fault in American morals is an excessive regard to opinion. This is the reason of the want of liberality of which unbelievers, and unusual believers, have so much reason to complain. But the spirit of religion is already bursting through sectarian restraints. Many powerful voices are raised, within the churches as well as out of them, and even from a few pulpits, against the mechanical adoption and practice of religion, and in favour of individuality of thought, and the consequent spontaneousness of speech and action. Many indubitable Christians are denouncing cant as strongly as those whom cant has alienated from Christianity. The dislike of associations for religious objects is spreading fast; and the eyes of multitudes are being opened to the fact that there can be little faith at the bottom of that craving for sympathy which prevents men and women from cheerfully doing their duty to God and their neighbour unless sanctioned by a crowd. Some of the clergy have done away with the forms of admission to their churches which were formerly considered indispensable. There is a visible reaction in the best part of society in favour of any man who stands alone on any point of religious concern: and though such an one has the more regularly drilled churches against him, he is usually cheered by the grasp of some trusty right hand of fellowship.

The eagerness in pursuit of speculative truth is shown by the rapid sale of every kind of heretical work. The clergy complain of the enormous spread of bold books, from the infidel tract to the latest handling of the miracle question, as sorrowfully as the most liberal members of society lament the unlimited circulation of the false morals issued by certain Religious Tract Societies. Both testify to the interest taken by the people in religion. The love of truth is also shown by the outbreak of heresy in all directions. There are schisms among all the more strict of the religious bodies, and large secessions and new formations among those which are bound together by slight forms. There are even a few places to be found where Deists may come among Christians to worship their common Father, without fear of insult to their feelings, and mockery of their convictions.

I know also of one place, at least, and I believe there are now several, where the people of colour are welcome to worship with the whites,—actually intermingled with them, instead of being set apart in a gallery appropriated to them. This is the last possible test of the conviction of human equality entertained by the white worshippers. It is such a test of this, their Christian conviction, as no persons of any rank in England are ever called upon to abide. I think it very probable that the course of action which is common in America will be followed in this instance. A battle for a principle is usually fought long, and under discouragement: but the sure fruition is almost instantaneous, when the principle is but once put into action. The people of colour do actually, in one or more religious assemblies, sit among the whites, in token that the principle of human brotherhood is fully admitted. It may be anticipated that the example will spread from church to church—in the rural districts of the north first, and then in the towns*; so that the clergy will soon find themselves released from the necessity of veiling, or qualifying, the most essential truth of the gospel, from the pastoral consideration for the passions and prejudices of the white portion of their flocks, which they at present plead in excuse of their compromise.

*Note: When I visited the New York House of Refuge for the reformation of juvenile delinquents, one of the officers showed me, with complacency, that children of colour were sitting among the whites, in both the boys’ and girls’ schools. On explaining to me afterwards the arrangements of the chapel, he pointed out the division appropriated to the pupils of colour. “Do you let them mix in school, and separate them at worship?” I asked. He replied, with no little sharpness “We are not amalgamationists, madam.” The absurdity of the sudden wrath, and of the fact of a distinction being made at worship (of all occasions) which was not made elsewhere, was so palpable, that the whole of our large party burst into irresistible laughter.

The noble beneficence of the whole community shows that the spirit of the gospel is in the midst of them, as it respects the condition of the poor, ignorant, and afflicted. Of the generosity of society there can be no question; and if it were only accompanied with the strict justice which the same principles of Christian charity require; if there were as zealous a regard to the rights of intellect and conscience in all as to the wants and sufferings of the helpless, such a realisation of high morals would be seen as the world has not yet beheld. I have witnessed sights which persuade me that the principle of charity will yet be carried out to its full extent. It gave me pleasure to see the provisions made for every class of unfortunates. It gave me more to see young, men and women devoting their evening and Sunday leisure to fostering, in the most benignant manner, the minds of active and trustful children. But nothing gave me so much delight as what was said by a young physician to a young clergyman, on their entering a new building prepared as a place of worship for children, and also as a kind of school: as a place where religion might have its free course among young and free minds. “Now,” said the young physician, “here we are, with these children dependent upon us. Never let us defile this place with the smallest act of spiritual tyranny. Watch me, and I will watch you, that we may not lay the weight of a hair upon these little minds. If we impose one single opinion upon them, we bring a curse upon our work. Here, in this one place, let minds be absolutely free.” This is the true spirit of reverence. He who spoke those words may be considered, I believe and trust, as the organ of no few, who are aware that reverence is as requisite to the faithful administration of charity, as to the acceptable offering of prayer.

The asceticism which pervades large sections of society in America, testifies to the existence of a strong interest in religion. Its effects are most melancholy; but they exhibit only the perversion of that which is, in itself, a great good.—The asceticism of America is much like that of every other place. It brings religion down to be ceremonial, constrained, anxious, and altogether divested of its free, generous, and joyous character. It fosters timid selfishness in some; and in others a precise proportion of reckless licentiousness. Its manifestations in Boston are as remarkable as in the strictest of Scotch towns. Youths in Boston, who work hard all the week, desire fresh air and exercise, and a sight of the country, on Sundays. The country must be reached over the long bridges before-mentioned, and the youths must ride to obtain their object. They have been brought up to think it a sin to take a ride on Sundays. Once having yielded, and being under a sense of transgression for a wholly fictitious offence, they rarely stop there*.

*Note: The author of “Home” arranged the Sunday, in her book, somewhat differently from the usual custom; describing the family whose home she pictured as spending the Sunday afternoon on the water, after a laborious week, and an attendance on public worship in the morning. Religious conversation was described as going on throughout the day. So much offence was taken at the idea of a Sunday sail, that the editor of the book requested the author to alter the chapter; the first print being proposed to be cancelled. I am sorry to say that she did alter it. If she was converted to the popular superstition, (which could scarcely be conceived,) no more is to be said. If not, it was a matter of principle which she ought not to have yielded. If books are to be altered, an author’s convictions to be unrepresented, to avoid shocking religious prejudices, there is a surrender, not only of the author’s noblest prerogative, but of his highest duty.

They next join parties to smoke, and perhaps to drink, and so on. If they had but been brought up to know that the Sabbath, like all times and seasons, was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath; that their religion is in their state of mind, and not in the arrangement of their day, their Sabbaths would most probably have been spent as innocently as any other day; and the chances would have been much increased of their desiring the means of improving their religious knowledge, and cherishing their devotional affections, by social worship. I was struck by the fact, that at the Jefferson University, at Charlottesville, Virginia, where no fundamental provision is made for worship, where not the slightest authority is exercised over the students with regard to religious observances, there is not only a most regular administration of religion, but the fullest attendance upon it. Every one knows what a burden and snare the public prayers are at our English Universities, where the attendance is compulsory. At Charlottesville, where the matter is left to the inclination of the students, the attendance is punctual, quiet, and absolutely universal*.

*Note: Ministers of four denominations undertake the duty in rotation, in terms of a year each. The invitation, and the discharge of the duty, are as purely voluntary as the attendance upon the services.

The ascetic proscription of amusements extends to the clergy throughout the country; and includes the whole of the religious world in New England. As to the clergy, the superstition can scarcely endure long, it is so destitute of all reason. I went to a large party at Philadelphia, with a clergyman and other friends. Dancing presently began. I was asked a question, which implied that my clerical friend had gone home. “There he is,” I replied. “O, I concluded that he went away when the dancing began;” said the lady, in a tone which implied that she thought he ought to have gone home. It was observed of this gentleman, that he could not be a religious man, he was seen at so many parties during my visit to his house. No clergyman ever enters the theatre, or touches a card. It is even expected that he should go away when cards are introduced, as from the ball-room. The exclusion from the theatre is of the least consequence, as large portions of society have reasonable doubts about the encouragement of an amusement which does seem to be vitiated there, almost to the last degree. The Americans have little dramatic taste: and the spirit of Puritanism still rises up in such fierce opposition to the stage, as to forbid the hope that this grand means of intellectual exercise will ever be made the instrument of moral good to society there that it might be made: and the proscribed race of dramatic artists is, in talent and in morals, just what a proscribed and depressed class might be expected to be. The attempt to raise their condition and their art has been strenuously made by the manager of the Boston theatre, who has sternly purified his establishment, excluding from his stage everything that could well give offence even to Boston prudery. But it is in vain. The uncongeniality is too great: and those who respect dramatic entertainments the most highly, will be the most anxious that the American theatres should be closed. I even know of more families than one, unconnected with clergy, and not making any strict religious profession, where Shakespeare is hidden, for prudish reasons. I need not add, that among such persons there is not the remotest comprehension of what the drama is. If a reader of Shakespeare occurs, here and there, it usually turns out that he considers the plays as collections of passages, descriptive, didactic, &c. &c. Such being the state of things, it is no matter of surprise and regret that the clergy, among others, abstain from the theatre. But, as to the dancing,—either dancing is innocent, or it is not. If not, nobody should dance: if innocent, the clergy should dance, like others, as they have the same kind of bodies to be animated, and of minds to be exhilarated. Once admit any distinction on account of their office, and there is no stopping short, in reason, of the celibacy of the clergy, and the other gloomy superstitions by which the free and genial spirit of Christianity has been grieved.

This ascetic practice of taking care of one another’s morals has gone to such a length in Boston, as to excite the frequent satire of some of its wisest citizens. This indicates that it will be broken through. When there was talk of attempting to set up the Italian opera there, a gentleman observed that it would never do: people would be afraid of the very name. “O!” said another, “call it Lectures on Music, with illustrations, and everybody will come.”

Lectures abound in Boston: and I am glad of it; at least in the interval before the opening of the public amusements which will certainly be required, sooner or later. These lectures may not be of any great use in conveying science and literature: lectures can seldom do more than actuate to study at home. But in this case, they probably obviate meetings for religious excitement, which are more hurtful than lectures are beneficial. The spiritual dissipations indulged in by the religious world, wherever asceticism prevails, are more injurious to sound morals than any public amusements, as conducted in modern times, have ever been proved to be. It is questionable whether even gross licentiousness is not at least equally encouraged by the excitement of passionate religious emotions, separate from action: and it is certain that rank spiritual vices, pride, selfishness, tyranny, and superstition, spring up luxuriantly in the hotbeds of religious meetings. The odiousness of spiritual vices is apt to be lost sight of in the horror of sensual transgressions. If a pure intelligence, however, had to decide between the two, he would probably point out that the vices which arise from the frailty of nature are less desperate and less revolting than those which are mainly factitious, and which arise from a perversion of man’s highest relation. It is difficult to decide which set of vices (if indeed the line can be drawn between them) spreads the most extensive misery, and most completely ruins the unhappy subjects of them; but it is certain that the sympathies of unsophisticated minds turn more readily to the publicans and sinners, than to the Pharisees of society: and they have high authority for so doing.

Still, the asceticism shows that a strong religious feeling, a strong, sense of religious duty exists, which has only to be enlarged and enlightened. A most liberal-minded clergyman, a man as democratic in his religion, and as genial in his charity, as any layman in the land, remarked to me one day of the existence of this strong religious sensibility in the children of the Pilgrims, and asked me what I thought should be done to cherish and enlarge it, we having been alarming each other with the fear that it would be exasperated by the prevalent superstition, and become transmuted, in the next generation, to something very unlike religious sensibility. We proposed great changes in domestic and social habits: less formal religious observance in families, and more genial interest in the intellectual provinces of religion: more rational promotion of health, by living according to the laws of nature, which ordain bodily exercise and mental refreshment. We proposed that new temptations to walking, driving, boating, &c. should be prepared, and the delights of natural scenery laid open much more freely than they are: that social amusements of every kind should be encouraged, and all religious restraints upon speech and action removed: in short, that spontaneousness should be reverenced and approved above all things, whatever form it may take. Of course, this can only be done by those who do approve and reverence spontaneousness: but I am confident that there are enough of them, in the very heart of the most ascetic society in America, to make it unreasonable that they should any longer succumb to the priests and devotees of the community.

Symptoms of the breaking out of the true genial spirit of liberty were continually delighting me. A Unitarian clergyman, complaining of the superstition of the body to which he belonged, while they were perpetually referring to their comparative freedom, observed, “We are so bent on standing fast in our liberty, that we don’t get on.” Another remarked upon an eulogy bestowed on some one as a man and a Christian: “as if,” said the speaker, “the Christian were the climax! as if it were not much more to be a man than a Christian!”

The way in which religion is made an occupation by women, testifies not only to the vacuity which must exist when such a mistake is fallen into, but to the vigour with which the religious sentiment would probably be carried into the great objects and occupations of life, if such were permitted. I was perpetually struck with this when I saw women braving hurricane, frost, and snow, to flit from preaching to preaching; and laying out the whole day among visits for prayer and religious excitement, among the poor and the sick. I was struck with this when I saw them labouring at their New Testament, reading superstitiously a daily portion of that which was already too familiar to the ear to leave any genuine and lasting impression, thus read. Extraordinary instances met my knowledge of both clergymen and ladies making the grossest mistakes about conspicuous facts of the gospel history, while reading it in daily portions for ever. It is not surprising that such a method of perusal should obviate all real knowledge of the book: but it is astonishing that those who feel it to be so should not change their methods, and begin at length to learn that which they have all their lives been vainly trusting that they knew.

The wife of a member of Congress, a conscientious and religious woman, judges of persons by one rule,—whether they are “pious.” I could never learn how she applied this; nor what she comprehended under her phrase. She told me that she wished her husband to leave Congress. He was no longer a young man, and it was time he was thinking of saving his soul. She could not, after long conversation on this subject, realise the idea that religion is not an affair of occupation and circumstance, but of principle and temper; and that, as there is no more important duty than that of a member of Congress, there is no situation in which a man can attain a higher religious elevation, if the spirit be in him.

The morality and religion of the people of the United States have suffered much by their being, especially in New England, an ostensibly religious community. There will be less that is ostensible and more that is genuine, as they grow older. They are finding that it is the possession of the spirit, and not the profession of the form, which makes societies as well as individuals religious. All they have to do is to assert their birth-right of liberty; to be free and natural. They need have no fear of licence and irreligion. The spirit of their forefathers is strong in them: and, if it were not, the spirit of Humanity is in them; the very sanctum of religion. The idea of duty (perverted or unperverted) is before them in all their lives; and the love of their neighbour is in all their hearts. As surely then as they live and love, they will be religious. What they have to look to is, that their religion be free and pure.


MLA Citation

Martineau, Harriet. “Spirit of religion.” 1837. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 12 Feb 2007. 18 Jul 2024 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/martineau/spirit_of_religion/>.

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