The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 5/The Advantages Proposed By Repealing the Sacramental Test







WHOEVER writes impartially upon this subject, must do it not only as a mere secular man, but as one who is altogether indifferent to any particular system of Christianity. And I think, in whatever country that religion predominates, there is one certain form of worship and ceremony, which is looked upon as the established; and consequently, only the priests of that particular form are maintained at the publick charge; and all civil employments bestowed among those who comply (at least outwardly) with the same establishment.

This method is strictly observed, even by our neighbours the Dutch; who are confessed to allow the fullest liberty of conscience of any Christian state, and yet are never known to admit any persons into civil offices, who do not conform to the legal worship. As to their military men, they are indeed not so scrupulous; being, by the nature of their government, under a necessity of hiring foreign troops of whatever religious denomination upon every great emergency, and maintaining no small number in time of peace.

This caution therefore of making one established faith, seems to be universal, and founded upon the strongest reasons; the mistaken, or affected zeal of obstinacy and enthusiasm, having produced such a number of horrible destructive events throughout all Christendom. For, whoever begins to think the national worship is wrong in any important article of practice or belief, will, if he be serious, naturally have a zeal to make as many proselytes as he can: and a nation may possibly have a hundred different sects with their leaders; every one of which has an equal right to plead, that they must "obey God rather than man;" must "cry aloud and spare not;" must "lift up their voice like a trumpet."

This was the very case of England during the fanatick times. And against all this there seems to be no defence, but that of supporting one established form of doctrine and discipline; leaving the rest to a bare liberty of conscience, but without any maintenance or encouragement from the publick.

Wherever this national religion grows so corrupt, or is thought to do so by a very great majority of landed people, joined to the governing party, whether prince or senate, or both, it ought to be changed, provided the work might be done without blood or confusion. Yet, whenever such a change shall be made, some other establishment must succeed, although for the worse; allowing all deviations, that would break the union, to be only tolerated. In this sense, those who affirm that every law, which is contrary to the law of God, is void in itself, seem to be mistaken: for many laws in popish kingdoms and states, many more among the Turks, and perhaps not a few in other countries, are directly against the divine laws; and yet, God knows, are very far from being void in the executive part.

Thus, for instance, if the three estates of parliament in England (whereof the lords spiritual, who represent the church, are one) should agree and obtain the royal assent to abolish episcopacy, together with the liturgy, and the whole frame of the English church, as burdensome, dangerous, and contrary to Holy Scripture; and that presbytery, anabaptism, quakerism, independency, Muggletonianism, Brownism, familism, or any other subdivided sect among us, should be established in its place: without question all peaceable subjects ought passively to submit, and the predominant sect must become the religion established; the publick maintaining no other teachers, nor admitting any persons of a different religious profession into civil offices, at least if their intention be to preserve the nation in peace.

Supposing then that the present system of religion were abolished; and presbytery, which I find stands the fairest, with its synods and classes, and all its forms and ceremonies, essential or circumstantial, were erected into the national worship: their teachers, and no others, could have any legal claim to be supported at the publick charge, whether by stipends or tithes; and only the rest of the same faith to be capable of civil employments.

If there be any true reasoning in what I have laid down, it should seem, that the project now in agitation for repealing the test act, and yet leaving the name of an establishment to the present national church, is altogether inconsistent; and may admit of consequences, which those who are the most indifferent to any religion at all, are possibly not aware of.

I presume, whenever the test shall be repealed, which obliges all men, who enter into office under the crown, to receive the sacrament according to the rites of the church of Ireland; the way to employments will immediately be left open to all dissenters (except papists) whose consciences can suffer them to take the common oaths in such cases prescribed; after which, they are qualified to fill any lay station in this kingdom, from that of chief governor to an exciseman.

Thus, of the three judges on each bench, the first may be a presbyterian, the second a freewill baptist, and the third a churchman; the lord chancellor may be an independent; the revenues may be managed by seven commissioners of as many different sects; and the like of all other employments: not to mention the strong probability, that the lawfulness of taking oaths may be revealed to the quakers, who then will stand upon as good a foot for preferment as any other loyal subjects. It is obvious to imagine, that under such a motley administration of affairs, what a clashing there will be of interest and inclinations; what pullings and hawlings backward and forward; what a zeal and bias in each religionist, to advance his own tribe, and depress the others. For I suppose nothing will be readier[1] granted, than that how indifferent soever most men are in faith and morals, yet, whether out of artifice, natural complexion, or love of contradiction, none are more obstinate in maintaining their own opinions, and worrying all who differ from them, than those who publickly show the least sense either of religion or common honesty.

As to the latter, bishop Burnet tells us, that the presbyterians, in the fanatick times, professed themselves to be above morality; which, as we find in some of their writings, was numbered among the beggarly elements: and accordingly at this day, no scruples of conscience with regard to conformity, are, in any trade or calling, inconsistent with the greatest fraud, oppressions, perjury, or any other vice.

This brings to my memory a passage in Montaigne, of a common prostitute, who in the storming of a town, when a soldier came up to her chamber and offered violence to her chastity, rather chose to venture her neck by leaping out of the window, than suffer a rape; yet still continued her trade of lewdness, while she had any customers left.

I confess, that in my private judgment, an unlimited permission of all sects whatsoever (except papists) to enjoy employments, would be less pernicious to the publick, than a fair struggle between two contenders; because, in the former case, such a jumble of principles might possibly have the effect of contrary poisons mingled together which a strong constitution might perhaps be able for some time to survive.

But however I shall take the other and more probable supposition, that this, battle for employments is to be fought only between the presbyterians, and those of the church yet established. I shall not enter into the merits of either side, by examining which of the two is the better spiritual economy, or which is most suited to our civil constitution: but the question turns upon this point: when the presbyterians shall have got their share of employments (which must be one full half, or else they cannot look upon themselves as fairly dealt with) I ask, whether they ought not, by their own principles, and by the strictest rules of conscience, to use the utmost of their skill, power, and influence, in order to reduce the whole kingdom to a uniformity in religion, both as to doctrine and discipline, most agreeable to the word of God. Wherein if they can succeed without blood (as under the present disposition of things it is very possible they may) it is to be hoped they will at last be satisfied: only I would warn them of a few difficulties. The first is, of compromising among themselves, that important controversy about the old light and the new; which otherwise may, after this establishment, split them as wide as papist and protestant, whig and tory, or churchman and dissenter; and consequently the work will be to begin again: for, in religious quarrels, it is of little moment how few or small the differences are; especially when the dispute is only about power. Thus, the zealous presbyterians of the north are more alienated from the established clergy, than from the Romish priests; taxing the former with idolatrous worship, as disguised papists, ceremony-mongers, and many other terms of art and this for a very powerful reason; because the clergy stand in their way, which the popish priests do not. Thus, I am assured, that the quarrel between old and new light men is managed with more rage and rancour, than any other dispute of the highest importance; and this, because it serves to lessen or increase their several congregations, from whom they receive their contributions.

Another difficulty, which may embarrass the presbyterians after their establishment, will be, how to adjust their claim of the kirk's independency on the civil power, with the constitution of this monarchy? a point so delicate, that it has often filled the heads of great patriots with dangerous notions of the church-clergy, without the least ground of suspicion.

As to the presbyterians allowing liberty of conscience to those episcopal principles, when their own kirk shall be predominant; their writers are so universally agreed in the negative, as well as their practice during Oliver's reign, that I believe no reasonable churchman (who must then be a dissenter) will expect it.

I shall here take notice, that in the division of employments among the presbyterians, after this approaching repeal of the test act, supposing them in proper time to have an equal share, the odds will be three or four to one on their side, in any farther scheme they may have toward making their religion national. For, I reckon all those gentlemen sent over from England, whatever religion they profess, or have been educated in, to be of that party: since it is no mark of prudence for any persons to oppose the current of a nation, where they are in some sort only sojourners; unless they have it in direction. If there be any maxim in politicks not to be controlled, it must be the following: that those, whose private interest is united with the interest of their country, supposing them to be of equal understanding with the rest of their neighbours, will heartily wish that the nation should thrive. Out of these, are indubitably excepted, all persons who are sent from another kingdom to be employed in places of profit or power; because they cannot possibly bear any affection to the place where they sojourn, even for life; their sole business being to advance themselves, by following the advice of their principals. I except likewise those persons who are taken into office, although natives of the land; because they are greater gainers, while they keep their offices, than they could possibly be, by mending the miserable condition of their country.

I except, thirdly, all hopers, who by balancing accounts with themselves turn the scale on the same side; because the strong expectation of a good certain salary, will outweigh the loss by bad rents, received out of lands in moneyless times.

If my lords the bishops, who I hear are now employed in a scheme for regulating the conduct and maintenance of the inferiour clergy, shall in their wisdom, and piety, and love of the church, consent to this repeal of the test, I have not the least doubt that the whole reverend body will cheerfully submit to their spiritual fathers; of whose paternal tenderness for their welfare, they have found so many amazing instances.

I am not therefore under the least concern about the clergy on this account. They will (for some time) be no great sufferers by this repeal; because I cannot recollect, among all our sects, any one, that gives latitude enough to take the oaths required an institution to a church-living; and until that bar shall be removed, the present episcopal clergy are safe for two years. Although it may be thought somewhat unequal, that in the northern parts, where there may be three dissenters to one churchman, the whole revenue shall be engrossed by him, who has so small a part of the cure.

It is true indeed, that this disadvantage, which the dissenters at present lie under, of a disability to receive church-preferments, will be easily remedied by the repeal of the test. For, the dissenting teachers are under no incapacity of accepting civil and military employments; wherein they agree perfectly with the popish clergy; among whom, great cardinals and prelates have been commanders of armies, chief ministers, knights of many orders, ambassadors, secretaries of state, and in most high offices under the crown; although they assert the indelible character, which no sectaries among us did ever assume. But that many, both presbyterians and independents, commanders as well as private soldiers, were professed teachers in the time of their dominion, is allowed by all. Cromwell himself was a preacher; and has left us one of his sermons in print, exactly in the same style and manner with those of our modern presbyterian teachers: so was colonel Howard, sir George Downing, and several others, whose names are on record. I can therefore see no reason, why a painful presbyterian teacher, as soon as the test shall be repealed, may not be privileged to hold, along with the spiritual office and stipend, a commission in the army or the civil list, in commendam: for, as I take it, the church of England is the only body of christians, which in effect disqualifies those, who are employed to preach its doctrine, from sharing in the civil power, farther than as senators: yet this was a privilege began in times of popery, many hundred years before the reformation, and woven with the very institution of our limited monarchy.

There is indeed another method, whereby the stipends of dissenting teachers may be raised, and the farmer much relieved; if it should be thought proper to reward a people so deserving, and so loyal by their principles. Every bishop, upon the vacancy of a church-living, can sequester the profits for the use of the next incumbent. Upon a lapse of half a year, the donation falls to the archbishop, and after a full year to the crown, during pleasure. Therefore it would be no hardship for any clergyman alive, if (in those parts of Ireland, where the number of sectaries much exceeds that of the conformists) the profits, when sequestered, might be applied to the support of the dissenting teacher, who has so many souls to take care of: whereby the poor tenants would be much relieved in those hard times, and in a better condition to pay their rents.

But there is another difficulty in this matter, against which a remedy does not so readily occur. For, supposing the test act repealed, and the dissenters, in consequence, fully qualified for all secular employments; the question may still be put, whether those of Ireland will be often the persons on whom they shall be bestowed; because it is imagined, there may be another seminary[2] in view, more numerous, and more needy, as well as more meriting, and more easily contented with such low offices; which some nearer neighbours, hardly think it worth stirring from their chimney-sides to obtain. And I am told, it is the common practice of those who are skilled in the management of bees, that when they see a foreign swarm at some distance, approaching with an intention to plunder their hives, these artists have a trick to divert them into some neighbouring apiary, there to make what havock they please. This I should not have hinted, if I had not known it already to have gotten ground in many suspecting heads; for it is the peculiar talent of this nation to see dangers afar off: to all which I can only say, that our native presbyterians must, by pains and industry, raise such a fund of merit, as will answer to a birth six degrees more to the north. If they cannot arrive at this perfection, as several of the established church have compassed by indefatigable pains, I do not well see how their affairs will much mend by repealing the test: for, to be qualified by law to accept an employment, and yet to be disqualified in fact, as it will much increase the mortification, so it will withdraw the pity of many among their well wishers, and utterly deprive them of that merit they have so long made, of being a loyal true protestant people, persecuted only for religion.

If this happen to be their case, they must wait maturity of tmie; until they can, by prudent gentle steps, make their faith become the religion established in the nation; after which, I do not in the least doubt that they will take the most effectual methods to secure their power, against those who must then be dissenters in their turn; whereof, if we may form a future opinion from present times, and the dispositions of dissenters, who love to make a thorough reformation, the number and qualities will be very inconsiderable.

Thus I have, with the utmost sincerity, after long thinking, given my judgment upon this arduous affair; but with the utmost deference and submission to publick wisdom and power.

  1. ' Readier ' granted a bad idiom; it should be ' more readily granted.'
  2. Scotland.