LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Lord Byron’s Theology.
Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature  Vol. NS 4  No. 46  (September 1830)  605-13.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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The forms under which religion has been seen in the world, are most multitudinous and diversified. They have varied with country, climate, age, and character. In no two periods, in no nation, scarcely in any two individuals have they been the same. Amidst this diversity it might seem at first sight difficult to determine what religion is. But the difficulty vanishes on a little attention. If, indeed, you consult the sectarian, he will involve you in inextricable labyrinths. I am right, he says, and all the world beside is wrong. Ask his fellow-bigot, and you have a similar answer and so onward, till having gone through a host of these short-sighted and narrow-minded creatures, you find that each condemning each in turn, error is everywhere and truth nowhere. The fact, however, is, that all are right and all are wrong. There are great features of religion as well as of our common humanity in which all agree, and all in the main are right; there are other minor diversities in which error generally prevails. It is the business of the wise man to abstract that which is wrong from that which is right; that which is accidental, local, and temporary, from that which is essential, universal, and eternal. The diversity is among the first, the agreement with the second. The first may change, decline, and perish, and religion remain without serious injury; the second cannot be impaired without loosening the bonds by which the creature is attached to the Creator. It is to be regretted, however, that men too generally identify religion with its accidental rather than with its essential features, and in consequence learn to feel as bigots rather than as brothers. One will tell you that religion is Calvinism when he should have said Christianity; another that it is Unitarianism, when he should have said the gospel; another that it is the system of Jesus, when speaking of the world at large he should have said the love and service of the Creator. Here it is works, there faith; with this man it is assurance, with that man fear, when it is not one of these, but all. This minister places it in the prostration of the intellect, that in the recital of creeds; this Christian finds it in a regular attendance on public worship, and that in the numbering of beads and the iteration of prayers, when these are but the forms and not the spirit of religion. This sect has its favourite notion, and that its favourite practice, when both deriving their importance solely from the imagination of their votaries, are, in the prominence they hold, the fictions of men and not the requirements of God. And so throughout the religious world you find men judging of religion as they do of the beautiful in form, extolling what they are accustomed to, and condemning what is strange, whereas religion is made for universal man, is a plant not of one but of every soil, and is found, not indeed in equal perfection, but still found, doubtless, in forms acceptable to the common Father, wherever a human mind thinks or a human bosom throbs. Religion may be contemplated as a principle, as a course of action, and as a sentiment. In this last aspect religion extends its influence over the whole of God’s intelligent creation. By a sentiment we mean, that religion consists (in part) in feeling, a recognition of superior power, and thus proves a mysterious but powerful link which unites the heart of the creature with the Creator. We hold it to be impossible for a human being in possession of his rational
* Conversations on Religion with Lord Byron and others. By the late James Kennedy, M. D., of His Majesty’s Medical Staff. London: Murray.
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powers to live in this world, without acquiring some idea of a superior power. The idea may be vague, it may in adverse circumstances be comparatively weak, it will in each case vary in its elements according to the aspects of nature with which the mind is familiar. Still the idea exists, and generates corresponding emotions. There may even be persons unable to explain their emotions respecting superior power, yet emotions of this nature they possess. The human being is made so as to feel his Creator’s existence, and in part his attributes; the world in which man is placed is fitted to communicate to him a feeling of superior power. This feeling rises up of necessity in the progress of life and the workings of nature’s frame. It descends into the human heart in the sun-beam and in the shower. The seasons bring it with them and place it in the bosom. The lightning strikes it into the soul, and the thunder makes it pervade the frame. The beasts of the field speak of it to the intelligent mind of man, and each human being, though in many cases unconsciously, breathes it into the bosom of his fellow. There is not a star twinkling in the arch of heaven, there is not a herb on the wide-spread earth, there is not a leaf on the trees of the field, there is not a voice in the vocal air, there is not a creature in the watery deep, but lends its aid to imbue the soul of man with the sentiment of religion. Whatever the devotees of system may say, we hold it to be an indubitable fact that religion is natural to man. The feeling, the silent recognition, the recognition of the heart, is universal. Wherever man is, there God is felt to be. That surely is natural to man which ill human natures, however diverse in situation and in culture, invariably feel. In fact, the religious sentiment is as natural as the love of parent and the love of kindred. Nay, these emotions, if the human being in its infancy be separated from its parents and its kind, may be prevented from coming into existence, but you cannot remove a living man from the universe of God, and cannot therefore take him from the teachers of his Creator’s existence. As long as the heavens are above a rational creature’s head, and the earth under his feet, as long as the air surrounds him, and the sun warms him, as long as the deep gives him food, and the thicket gives him shelter, so long he cannot do otherwise than have a feeling of superior power; so long will there exist bonds of union between man and God, and so long will religion as a sentiment abound in the world. It is our firm belief that the man does not exist devoid of this feeling. The barbarian may be ignorant of, though strongly swayed by its influence, the hardy sceptic may try to reason himself out of a belief of God’s existence. Yet the feeling is in the heart, and neither inability to explain the emotion nor doubts of its existence can expel it from the bosom. There it is, and there it will remain, till the course of life be run, and many are the occasions when the tokens which it gives of its existence are so striking, that even the sceptic’s mind is forced to recognize its presence. Wherever man is and the universe around him, there God is recognized—recognized not merely with the lips, not merely in the mind, but in that which more or less influences all other faculties—recognized in the heart; all recognize a superior power, all are linked with the Creator by the golden chain of feeling. The worship of God is therefore co-extensive with the family of man, and religion bounded only by the limits of the habitable world. This being the case, the whole race of man is related not only to a common Father, but each to each. This world is a world of brothers. Vary it is true they do, but their points of agreement are more numerous, and we will add, more important, than their points of difference. They all recognize a common Creator, and
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though the recognition is made in different vestments the sentiment of the soul, and not the garb of the body, the great fact of recognition, and not the manner of its being made, is the object of chief consideration. Come, then, and let us elevate ourselves above the surrounding atmosphere of narrow-mindedness, and behold from our lofty station the whole race of man in adoration at the Almighty’s feet. The Greek, the Jew, the barbarian, Scythian, bond and free, a multitude which no man can number, tender their heart-felt recognition of the Creator’s greatness and supremacy. The words in which they address him are, it is true, diverse, but he judgeth not as man judgeth, and through the varying forms of language receives with pleasure the spirit of devotion, which they all are fitted to convey. On the view which has now been given, we for ourselves dwell with serene delight. We escape gladly from the trammels of bigotry, and revel at large in the expanded atmosphere of this universal church. There we behold in our gladdening visions Moses and the prophets, Jesus and his disciples,
Pythagoras and Socrates, the Hindoo and the Mohammedan, the Catholic and the Protestant, the Calvinist and the Arminian, the Trinitarian and the Unitarian, offering up a homage the same in essence, however different in form. There we see the whole race of man in all ages and all countries worshiping a common Creator, and the very forms by which they are distinguished become venerable in our eyes by reason of the common spirit of which they are the vehicle. The spirit, it is true, while it remains the same in kind, varies in the degree and the purity of its manifestations. But this does not annihilate the gratification which we feel; for the spirit of devotion we find age after age improving, till it reaches its fulness of perfection in Jesus Christ and in all his faithful followers. In every period of man’s history, and in every part of the globe at the present day, the sentiment of religion is proportionate to the ability of God’s creatures, and they have all been, and they all still are, making progress from one measure of devotion to another, growing in religious sentiment as rapidly as is consistent with the extent of human power and the great designs of the common Parent. How, we ask, can the man whose mind is thoroughly imbued with these views despond respecting the destiny of his fellow-creatures; above all, can he turn bigot and persecutor? Neither of these. All is well, all is for the best, all proceeds from good to good again. True, imperfections largely abound, but imperfection is the heritage of man. True, misery overspreads many portions of the world, but misery is gradually passing away, and the reign of peace is extending its gentle rule. The majority of the race are not, as some teach, hateful to God in this world, and about to be the objects of his vengeance in the next—are not living in pain and dropping into torment. The world is God’s family, each member as well off as God could make him, and preparing to enter into purer and larger measures of God’s benignity. The majority of our race are not a horde of practical Atheists, as system-mongers say, but the world is a church hymning in various strains, all imperfect and many poor and low, still all hymning in strains of grateful acknowledgment the praises of the Common Parent. How then can I persecute? True, all think not as I think, but that is God’s arrangement, and we will add in many respects man’s blessing. True, all worship not in my form, still all do worship. True, all use not my words, but all use the words or feel the emotions which their condition dictates and allows. But many possess emotions inferior to your own: that is a reason why I should use persuasion but not persecution. If I persecute a man I persecute a brother, I persecute a fellow-worshiper of a Common Creator. Away
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then with persecution in all its forms, of word as well as of deed, and let as strive to communicate by gentleness and intreaty, by argument and evidence, the higher blessings of which as Christians we are made partakers.

Had such been the views of the priesthood of this kingdom they would have better appreciated than they did the character of Lord Byron in respect to religion—they would have persecuted him less with their scorpion-tongues—his name would have stood higher in the estimation of the people, and his heart been saved from many a depraving influence. Outlawed by the clergy the noble poet was driven to defy in word that which he felt strongly in his soul, and by efforts to represent himself as bad at least as he was represented by the priests; and thus he actually rendered himself worse than he otherwise would have been. Still Lord Byron was not destitute at any period of his life of the power of religion. As a sentiment he felt it in his earliest—in his worst—in his best, that is, his latest days. Nor do we doubt that he knew more of the power of religious emotion than many of those who misunderstood and maligned his character. A true poet must be devotional. The religious feelings are an inherent element in the poet’s soul. The spirit of poetry is intimately allied with the spirit of religion; they are based on the same lofty susceptibilities; they are kindled by the same imagination, and fed by the same affluence of feeling. Inspiration transmutes the man into the poet, and without inspiration no one can be fervently devotional. The fine susceptibilities of Byron’s soul received, at an early period of his life, a devotional dye from those fountains of devotional feeling which many of the writings of the Old-Testament Scriptures so abundantly supply. This baptism into religion was too congenial with his innate dispositions, and too pervasive in its influence for him ever in after life to lose its sanctifying power. At an early period indeed he was led by the strength of his native genius to shake himself free from the shackles of human creeds with their absurd and stultifying dogmas. Yet evidence is not wanting to shew that he even then knew how to discriminate between religion and its forms, reverencing his Maker while he renounced the impositions of his fellow-mortals. During his youth and his early manhood, the friends of his bosom were men fitted not to strengthen but impair his religious convictions, and at this period of his life he indulged in a style of speaking on religious matters, reckless, offensive, and disgusting. Often we doubt not his heart belied his tongue—
ή γλωσσ όμώοχ΄, ή δε ϕρήν ανώμοτος.
In his detestation of hypocrisy Lord Byron ran into the opposite extreme of self-depreciation, and especially on subjects of religion, took a strange and a culpable pleasure in exhibiting himself in the darkest colours. But even in his wildest excesses he was not destitute of religious feeling. He denied, we know, the current opinions of the religious world; he doubted of the soul’s immortality; but he was never without God in the midst of his own creation; he was not, as his enemies asserted, an Atheist; he was not an Atheist even in profession, much less in feeling. No; his soul was too keenly alive to the beautiful and the sublime in the works of creation to allow him to entertain serious doubts of the existence of a Creator. Nor was he a willing believer in the mortality of man. He felt his creed to be cold and uncomforting—he felt the insufficiency of this world to satisfy the wants of his soul. There was in him an intense and incessant craving after a higher and purer and richer happiness than is here to be found—after a world of sunnier skies, and less misery—of fuller bliss and less alloy, than are even his
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once favourite eastern climes. Lord Byron’s temperament was one fitted by nature to be eminently devout; and had it not been so perverted by Calvinism in his childhood, and by scepticism in his youth; had he possessed the advantage of a judicious and enlightened Christian for a guide—of one who could separate the chaff of religion from the wheat, and would have formed his pupil s creed by evidence, not by injunction, and have nurtured, not outraged the Poet’s religious emotions, he would, we are assured, have been as eminent for his piety as he is for his poesy. We are not the apologist, but the judge of Byron, and this is our verdict—a verdict compelled against our prejudgments by the force of the evidence as it appears in the
memoir of him, written by his friend Mr. Moore. The opinion we have pronounced falls short of that given by one who may possess some claims to speak on the subject, Sir Walter Scott. “I remember saying to him, (in an interview they had in London,) that I really thought, that if he lived a few years he would alter his sentiments. He answered rather sharply, ‘I suppose you are one of those who prophesy I will (shall) turn Methodist.’ I replied, ‘No; I dont expect your conversion to be of such an ordinary kind. I would (should) rather look to see you retreat upon the Catholic faith and distinguish yourself by the austerity of your penances. The species of religion to which you must or may one day attach yourself must exercise a strong power on the imagination.’ He smiled gravely and seemed to allow I might be right.”* The work of Dr. Kennedy supplies abundant materials for the confirmation, if not the expansion, of the views we have now given. The author was situated as an army physician at Cephalonia during the period of Lord Byron’s stay at that island, prior to his fatal visit to Greece, four of the author’s associates, natives, as well as himself, of Scotland, had been driven, as have many others, among whom Byron himself is to be reckoned, by the revolting absurdities of Calvinism, to the reception of infidelity. Dr. Kennedy having received a liberal education, and having directed especial attention to the subject of religion, undertook to lay before his friends, in a private conference, the evidences in favour of what he thought Christianity. Of this design Byron becoming apprized, expressed a desire to be allowed to join the party. Notwithstanding a report that his Lordship’s object was in this overture to gain an opportunity to study “a Methodist,” with a view to his exhibition in Don Juan, there is no good reason for disbelieving his sincerity, and the fact of his desiring to make one in a conference of this nature shews that he was not satisfied with his actual opinions. Some of the objections which Byron made to the truth of Christianity prove his unacquaintedness with the subject, and were, perhaps, solely intended to draw Dr. Kennedy into explanations. We cannot think that a mind such as Byron’s could lay much stress on the objection that many fine writers had rejected Christianity, or on the allegation that the apostles did not write good Greek. Other difficulties there were, however, the result of the action of his own powerful mind on prevailing dogmas which Dr. Kennedy was little fitted to remove, and which proved the great barriers in Byron’s mind to a conversion to orthodoxy. Dr. Kennedy opens the conference by a long address on the corruptions of Christianity and the necessity of distinguishing between these and the vital parts of the Gospel; but he ends with retaining nearly all the absurdities which obstruct the entrance of Unbelievers into the pale of Christ’s fold. At the reading of a summary of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, to which Byron must be converted,
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containing, from “the works of
John Newton,” an exposition of Original Sin, the Trinity, the Atonement, &c., &c., his Lordship took the alarm, interrupted the reader, and alleged with much pertinency,

“What we want is to be convinced that the Bible is true, because, if we can believe this, it will follow as a matter of course, that we must believe all the doctrines it contains.”

In some matters Byron seems to have been better informed than his teacher.

“Your favourite Scott does not say that it was the Devil who tempted Eve, nor does the Bible say a word about the Devil. It is only said that the serpent spoke, and that it was the subtlest of all the beasts of the field.”

The following contains “one of the greatest difficulties which he had met with, and which he could not overcome:” “the existence of so much pure evil in the world as he had witnessed, and which he could not reconcile to the idea of a benevolent Creator.” Dr. Kennedy tried, but in vain, to solve his difficulties. We read, however, with great satisfaction, that a few months after this Byron did find, at least, some relief to his mind from a work of a brother physician, a work uniting religion and philosophy, philanthropy and devotion, poetry and feeling, in most felicitous harmony,—a work to which we, and doubtless hundreds besides, owe some of our dearest and best impressions, we mean Dr. Southwood Smith’s on the Divine Government. We extract all that his Lordship is recorded to have said on the subject, omitting Dr. Kennedy’s interlocutions, as containing nothing new to our readers.

“The author proves that the punishment of hell is not eternal—it will have a termination.”—“They sent it out to me from England to make a convert of me, I suppose: the arguments be uses are strong. He draws them from the Bible itself, and by shewing that a time will come when every intelligent creature shall be supremely happy, and eternally so, he expunges that shocking doctrine that sin and misery will for ever exist under the government of a God whose highest attribute is love and goodness; and thus, by removing one of the greatest difficulties, reconciles us to the wise and good Creator whom the Scriptures reveal.”—“Nay,” he said, “that is not a strong argument, for a good God can permit sin to exist for a while, but evince his goodness and power at last by rooting it all out and rendering all bis creatures happy.”—“Well, it proves the goodness of God, and is more consistent with the notions of our reason to believe, that if God, for wise purposes, permitted sin to exist for a while, in order, perhaps, to bring about a greater good than could have been effected without it, his goodness will be more strikingly manifested in anticipating the time when every intelligent creature will be purified from sin and relieved from misery and rendered permanently happy.”—“Come,” said his Lordship, “the author founds his belief on the very scriptures themselves.”—“You may find many passages in the Bible where the word everlasting or eternal signifies limited duration.”—“But why are you so anxious to maintain and prove the eternity of hell punishments? It is certainly not a humane doctrine, and appears very inconsistent with the mild and benevolent doctrines of Christ.”—“To my present apprehension it would be a most desirable thing, could it be proved, that ultimately all created beings were to he happy. This would appear most consistent with the nature of God, whose power is omnipotent, and whose principal attribute is love. I cannot yield to your doctrine of the eternal duration of punishment; this author’s opinion is more humane, and I think he supports it very strongly from Scripture.”

The influence of this delightful work on Byron’s mind had evidently been
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very great, and had
Dr. Smith been in the place of Dr. Kennedy, the result would, no doubt, have been far different from what it was. The conference did not continue. Dr. Kennedy’s friends remained unconverted. With Lord Byron in private he had one or two interviews; but having the overwhelming load of Calvinism on his back, he made but slow progress in his labours. Having remarked that “the mass of superstition and hypocrisy which exists, not only on the continent, but even to some extent in England, is the cause of the infidelity of thousands,” Byron adds, in reply to a remark of Dr. Kennedy,

“I know the Scriptures sufficiently well to acknowledge, that if the mild and benignant spirit of this religion were believed and acted on by all, there would be a wonderful change in this wicked world; and I have always made it a rule to respect every man who conscientiously believes the Scriptures, whatever external creed he may profess; and most cordially do I detest hypocrites of all sorts, especially hypocrites in religion.”

His attention to the Scriptures was in fact considerable. More than once he expressly says that he was a reader of them, and it appears from the following that the Bible was his companion. “I read more of the Bible than you are aware,” said Lord B., “I have a Bible which my sister gave me, who is an excellent woman, and I read it very often.” “He went into Aw bed-room, and brought out a pocket Bible,” and by the readiness with which he turned to a passage which Dr. Kennedy wished to refer to, but which he could not at the moment find, he shewed that he was not a little conversant with the contents of the New Testament. Dr. Kennedy chided him for writing his Cain, and stated that it had been productive of mischief.

“To myself it has,” said Lord B., “for it has raised such an outcry against me from the bigots in every quarter, both in the church and out of the church, that they have stamped me an infidel without mercy and without ceremony; but I do not know that it has been or ever can be injurious to others.”—“They have all mistaken my object in writing Cain. Have I not a right to draw the characters with as much fidelity, and truth, and consistency as history or tradition fixes on them? Now it is absurd to expect from Cain sentiments of piety and submission when he was a murderer of his brother, and a rebel against his Creator.”

The ensuing words merit attention:

“I do not reject the doctrines of Christianity; I want only sufficient proofs of it to take up the profession in earnest, and I do not believe myself to be so bad a Christian as many of those who preach against me with the greatest fury, many of whom I have never seen nor injured. They furnish the suspicion of being latent hypocrites themselves, else why not use gentler and more Christian means.”

In reply to a question from his instructor, “What are your difficulties?” “it is not necessary,” he said, “to mention more when I find sufficient already: there is, for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity, which is alone quite appalling.” The beginning of the reply of the learned Doctor contains so much simplicity that we cannot refrain from quoting it “There is no more difficulty about this than about any of the others” (scil. doctrines of Calvinism). The mention of this difficulty leads Dr. K. to abuse those terrible misbelievers the Socinians. This the learned Doctor seems to have been rather addicted to; but, on one occasion, Byron and his friends read him thereon a severe lesson, accusing “him of being too severe on this
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sect”—“that my opinions were too exclusive and narrow, and less candid and charitable in judging of others than they should be.” If so, Dr. Kennedy has met with retribution, not (God forbid) at the hands of Unitarians, but of orthodoxy higher and purer than his, the
Monthly Review for August having declared that he had “no religion;” and why? because, as far as appears from his book, he did not belong to any of the prevailing sects. After having, on another occasion, indulged in a bitter invective against “Arians, Socinians, Swedenborgians, and fanatics of all descriptions,” he is thus taken up by Lord Byron:

“You seem to hate the Socinians. Is this charitable? Why would you exclude a sincere Socinian from the hope of salvation? They draw their doctrine from the Bible. Their religion,” said his Lordship, “seems to be spreading very much. Lady B. is a great one among them, and much looked up to. She and I used to have a great many discussions on religion, and some differences arose from this point; but on comparing all the points together, I found that her religion was very similar to mine.”

Among the works which Dr. Kennedy supplied Lord Byron with, in order to convert him, were Boston’s Fourfold State, and Jones on the Trinity. Of the former his Lordship has expressed his opinion: “I am afraid it is too deep for me.” The latter may be characterized as making by its “clear display,” “darkness visible.” During the several conversations in which Dr. K. engaged with Byron, his Lordship always shewed a disposition to hear what could be stated, and to read, as he had time, what was supplied to him in defence of the Christianity of his sincere, well-intentioned, but mistaken instructor. “There was nothing,” says Dr. K., “in his manner which approached to levity, or any thing which indicated a wish to mock at religion.” In quilting Cephalonia for Greece his Lordship took with him the religious books with which Dr. K. was able to furnish him, intimating, as indeed he had done throughout his intercourse with Dr. K., his purpose to study the subject of religion with attention. His mournful story is well known. Whilst doing something to redeem his faults, and promising much more, he met with a premature death in a land which he wished to liberate and enlighten. Dr. Kennedy does not supply us with any very important information respecting his religious feelings in his dying hour. He was always a believer in Predestination, and was influenced by it to the last. “Dr. Bruno wished to bleed him. ‘No,’ said he, ‘if my hour is come, I shall die whether I lose my blood or keep it.’” Afterward his servant having said, “the Lord’s will be done,” his Lordship added, “Yes, not mine.” The following trait of domestic affection we cannot withhold. “He then tried to utter a few words, of which none were intelligible, except “My sister, my child.” Among Dr. Kennedy’s concluding remarks are the following:

“There are circumstances which induce me to believe that Lord Byron never doubted the divine authenticity of the Scriptures, arising probably from the influence of early education, if no higher principle was in operation, and that those hints of infidelity were thrown out by way of desperate or contemptnous bravado.”—“He felt and acknowledged that he was not happy in his unsettled notions of religion. He vaguely hoped that if the Scriptures were true, he should ascertain the truth of them some time or other.”—“His patience in listening to me, his candour in never putting captious objections, his acknowledgment of his own sinfulness, gave hope that the blessing of religious truth might be opened to his understanding, and though these were
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damped by an occasional levity, at least by the want of that seriousness which the subject required, yet, on the whole, the general result was favourable.”—“With respect to religion, we find nothing like a settled enmity to it, or a settled conviction that it was an imposture.”—“He was, in fact, what he represented himself to be when I saw him, unsettled in his religious opinions. He rejected the appellation of infidel; he said it was a cold and chilling word. He confessed he was not happy; he said he wished to be convinced of the truth of religion.”