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The Inner Life - THE AGENCY OF EVIL Post by :shashi Category :Essays Author :John Greenleaf Whittier Date :April 2012 Read :2769

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From the Supernaturalism of New England, in the Democratic Review for 1843.

IN this life of ours, so full of mystery, so hung about with wonders, so written over with dark riddles, where even the lights held by prophets and inspired ones only serve to disclose the solemn portals of a future state of being, leaving all beyond in shadow, perhaps the darkest and most difficult problem which presents itself is that of the origin of evil,--the source whence flow the black and bitter waters of sin and suffering and discord,--the wrong which all men see in others and feel in themselves,--the unmistakable facts of human depravity and misery. A superficial philosophy may attempt to refer all these dark phenomena of man's existence to his own passions, circumstances, and will; but the thoughtful observer cannot rest satisfied with secondary causes. The grossest materialism, at times, reveals something of that latent dread of an invisible and spiritual influence which is inseparable from our nature. Like Eliphaz the Temanite, it is conscious of a spirit passing before its face, the form whereof is not discerned.

It is indeed true that our modern divines and theologians, as if to atone for the too easy credulity of their order formerly, have unceremoniously consigned the old beliefs of Satanic agency, demoniacal possession, and witchcraft, to Milton's receptacle of exploded follies and detected impostures,

"Over the backside of the world far off,
Into a limbo broad and large, and called
The paradise of fools,"--

that indeed, out of their peculiar province, and apart from the routine of their vocation, they have become the most thorough sceptics and unbelievers among us. Yet it must be owned that, if they have not the marvellous themselves, they are the cause of it in others. In certain states of mind, the very sight of a clergyman in his sombre professional garb is sufficient to awaken all the wonderful within us. Imagination goes wandering back to the subtle priesthood of mysterious Egypt. We think of Jannes and Jambres; of the Persian magi; dim oak groves, with Druid altars, and priests, and victims, rise before us. For what is the priest even of our New England but a living testimony to the truth of the supernatural and the reality of the unseen,--a man of mystery, walking in the shadow of the ideal world,--by profession an expounder of spiritual wonders? Laugh he may at the old tales of astrology and witchcraft and demoniacal possession; but does he not believe and bear testimony to his faith in the reality of that dark essence which Scripture more than hints at, which has modified more or less all the religious systems and speculations of the heathen world,--the Ahriman of the Parsee, the Typhon of the Egyptian, the Pluto of the Roman mythology, the Devil of Jew, Christian, and Mussulman, the Machinito of the Indian,--evil in the universe of goodness, darkness in the light of divine intelligence,--in itself the great and crowning mystery from which by no unnatural process of imagination may be deduced everything which our forefathers believed of the spiritual world and supernatural agency? That fearful being with his tributaries and agents,--"the Devil and his angels,"--how awfully he rises before us in the brief outline limning of the sacred writers! How he glooms, "in shape and gesture proudly eminent," on the immortal canvas of Milton and Dante! What a note of horror does his name throw into the sweet Sabbath psalmody of our churches. What strange, dark fancies are connected with the very language of common-law indictments, when grand juries find under oath that the offence complained of has been committed "at the instigation of the Devil"!

How hardly effaced are the impressions of childhood! Even at this day, at the mention of the evil angel, an image rises before me like that with which I used especially to horrify myself in an old copy of Pilgrim's Progress. Horned, hoofed, scaly, and fire-breathing, his caudal extremity twisted tight with rage, I remember him, illustrating the tremendous encounter of Christian in the valley where "Apollyon straddled over the whole breadth of the way." There was another print of the enemy which made no slight impression upon me. It was the frontispiece of an old, smoked, snuff-stained pamphlet, the property of an elderly lady, (who had a fine collection of similar wonders, wherewith she was kind enough to edify her young visitors,) containing a solemn account of the fate of a wicked dancing-party in New Jersey, whose irreverent declaration, that they would have a fiddler if they had to send to the lower regions after him, called up the fiend himself, who forthwith commenced playing, while the company danced to the music incessantly, without the power to suspend their exercise, until their feet and legs were worn off to the knees! The rude wood-cut represented the demon fiddler and his agonized companions literally stumping it up and down in "cotillons, jigs, strathspeys, and reels." He would have answered very well to the description of the infernal piper in Tam O'Shanter.

To this popular notion of the impersonation of the principle of evil we are doubtless indebted for the whole dark legacy of witchcraft and possession. Failing in our efforts to solve the problem of the origin of evil, we fall back upon the idea of a malignant being,--the antagonism of good. Of this mysterious and dreadful personification we find ourselves constrained to speak with a degree of that awe and reverence which are always associated with undefined power and the ability to harm. "The Devil," says an old writer, "is a dignity, though his glory be somewhat faded and wan, and is to be spoken of accordingly."

The evil principle of Zoroaster was from eternity self-created and existent, and some of the early Christian sects held the same opinion. The gospel, however, affords no countenance to this notion of a divided sovereignty of the universe. The Divine Teacher, it is true, in discoursing of evil, made use of the language prevalent in His time, and which was adapted to the gross conceptions of His Jewish bearers; but He nowhere presents the embodiment of sin as an antagonism to the absolute power and perfect goodness of God, of whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things. Pure himself, He can create nothing impure. Evil, therefore, has no eternity in the past. The fact of its present actual existence is indeed strongly stated; and it is not given us to understand the secret of that divine alchemy whereby pain, and sin, and discord become the means to beneficent ends worthy of the revealed attributes of the Infinite Parent. Unsolved by human reason or philosophy, the dark mystery remains to baffle the generations of men; and only to the eye of humble and childlike faith can it ever be reconciled to the purity, justice, and mercy of Him who is "light, and in whom is no darkness at all."

"Do you not believe in the Devil?" some one once asked the Non-conformist Robinson. "I believe in God," was the reply; "don't you?"

Henry of Nettesheim says "that it is unanimously maintained that devils do wander up and down in the earth; but what they are, or how they are, ecclesiasticals have not clearly expounded." Origen, in his Platonic speculations on this subject, supposed them to be spirits who, by repentance, might be restored, that in the end all knees might be bowed to the Father of spirits, and He become all in all. Justin Martyr was of the opinion that many of them still hoped for their salvation; and the Cabalists held that this hope of theirs was well founded. One is irresistibly reminded here of the closing verse of the _Address to the Deil_, by Burns:--

"But fare ye weel, Auld Nickie ben!
Gin ye wad take a thought and mend,
Ye aiblins might--I dinna ken--
Still has a stake
I'm was to think upon yon den
Fen for your sake."

The old schoolmen and fathers seem to agree that the Devil and his ministers have bodies in some sort material, subject to passions and liable to injury and pain. Origen has a curious notion that any evil spirit who, in a contest with a human being, is defeated, loses from thenceforth all his power of mischief, and may be compared to a wasp who has lost his sting.

"The Devil," said Samson Occum, the famous Indian preacher, in a discourse on temperance, "is a gentleman, and never drinks." Nevertheless it is a remarkable fact, and worthy of the serious consideration of all who "tarry long at the wine," that, in that state of the drunkard's malady known as delirium tremens, the adversary, in some shape or other, is generally visible to the sufferers, or at least, as Winslow says of the Powahs, "he appeareth more familiarly to them than to others." I recollect a statement made to me by a gentleman who has had bitter experience of the evils of intemperance, and who is at this time devoting his fine talents to the cause of philanthropy and mercy, as the editor of one of our best temperance journals, which left a most vivid impression on my mind. He had just returned from a sea-voyage; and, for the sake of enjoying a debauch, unmolested by his friends, took up his abode in a rum-selling tavern in a somewhat lonely location on the seaboard. Here he drank for many days without stint, keeping himself the whole time in a state of semi-intoxication. One night he stood leaning against a tree, looking listlessly and vacantly out upon the ocean; the waves breaking on the beach, and the white sails of passing vessels vaguely impressing him like the pictures of a dream. He was startled by a voice whispering hoarsely in his ear, _"You have murdered a man; the officers of justice are after you; you must fly for your life!" Every syllable was pronounced slowly and separately; and there was something in the hoarse, gasping sound of the whisper which was indescribably dreadful. He looked around him, and seeing nothing but the clear moonlight on the grass, became partially sensible that he was the victim of illusion, and a sudden fear of insanity thrilled him with a momentary horror. Rallying himself, he returned to the tavern, drank another glass of brandy, and retired to his chamber. He had scarcely lain his head on the pillow when he heard that hoarse, low, but terribly distinct whisper, repeating the same words. He describes his sensations at this time as inconceivably fearful. Reason was struggling with insanity; but amidst the confusion and mad disorder one terrible thought evolved itself. Had he not, in a moment of mad frenzy of which his memory made no record, actually murdered some one? And was not this a warning from Heaven? Leaving his bed and opening his door, he heard the words again repeated, with the addition, in a tone of intense earnestness, "Follow me!" He walked forward in the direction of the sound, through a long entry, to the head of the staircase, where he paused for a moment, when again he heard the whisper, half-way down the stairs, "Follow me!"

Trembling with terror, he passed down two flights of stairs, and found himself treading on the cold brick floor of a large room in the basement, or cellar, where he had never been before. The voice still beckoned him onward; and, groping after it, his hand touched an upright post, against which he leaned for a moment. He heard it again, apparently only two or three yards in front of him "You have murdered a man; the officers are close behind you; follow me!" Putting one foot forward while his hand still grasped the post, it fell upon empty air, and he with difficulty recovered himself. Stooping down and feeling with his hands, he found himself on the very edge of a large uncovered cistern, or tank, filled nearly to the top with water. The sudden shock of this discovery broke the horrible enchantment. The whisperer was silent. He believed, at the time, that he had been the subject, and well-nigh the victim, of a diabolical delusion; and he states that, even now, with the recollection of that strange whisper is always associated a thought of the universal tempter.

Our worthy ancestors were, in their own view of the matter, the advance guard and forlorn hope of Christendom in its contest with the bad angel. The New World, into which they had so valiantly pushed the outposts of the Church militant, was to them, not God's world, but the Devil's. They stood there on their little patch of sanctified territory like the gamekeeper of Der Freischutz in the charmed circle; within were prayer and fasting, unmelodious psalmody and solemn hewing of heretics, "before the Lord in Gilgal;" without were "dogs and sorcerers, red children of perdition, Powah wizards," and "the foul fiend." In their grand old wilderness, broken by fair, broad rivers and dotted with loveliest lakes, hanging with festoons of leaf, and vine, and flower, the steep sides of mountains whose naked tops rose over the surrounding verdure like altars of a giant world,--with its early summer greenness and the many-colored wonder of its autumn, all glowing as if the rainbows of a summer shower had fallen upon it, under the clear, rich light of a sun to which the misty day of their cold island was as moonlight,--they saw no beauty, they recognized no holy revelation. It was to them terrible as the forest which Dante traversed on his way to the world of pain. Every advance step they made was upon the enemy's territory. And one has only to read the writings of the two Mathers to perceive that that enemy was to them no metaphysical abstraction, no scholastic definition, no figment of a poetical fancy, but a living, active reality, alternating between the sublimest possibilities of evil and the lowest details of mean mischief; now a "tricksy spirit," disturbing the good-wife's platters or soiling her newwashed linen, and anon riding the storm-cloud and pointing its thunder-bolts; for, as the elder Mather pertinently inquires, "how else is it that our meeting-houses are burned by the lightning?" What was it, for instance, but his subtlety which, speaking through the lips of Madame Hutchinson, confuted the "judges of Israel" and put to their wits' end the godly ministers of the Puritan Zion? Was not his evil finger manifested in the contumacious heresy of Roger Williams? Who else gave the Jesuit missionaries--locusts from the pit as they were--such a hold on the affections of those very savages who would not have scrupled to hang the scalp of pious Father Wilson himself from their girdles? To the vigilant eye of Puritanism was he not alike discernible in the light wantonness of the May-pole revellers, beating time with the cloven foot to the vain music of obscene dances, and in the silent, hat-canopied gatherings of the Quakers, "the most melancholy of the sects," as Dr. Moore calls them? Perilous and glorious was it, under these circumstances, for such men as Mather and Stoughton to gird up their stout loins and do battle with the unmeasured, all-surrounding terror. Let no man lightly estimate their spiritual knight-errantry. The heroes of old romance, who went about smiting dragons, lopping giants' heads, and otherwise pleasantly diverting themselves, scarcely deserve mention in comparison with our New England champions, who, trusting not to carnal sword and lance, in a contest with principalities and powers, "spirits that live throughout, Vital in every part, not as frail man,"-- encountered their enemies with weapons forged by the stern spiritual armorer of Geneva. The life of Cotton Mather is as full of romance as the legends of Ariosto or the tales of Beltenebros and Florisando in Amadis de Gaul. All about him was enchanted ground; devils glared on him in his "closet wrestlings;" portents blazed in the heavens above him; while he, commissioned and set apart as the watcher, and warder, and spiritual champion of "the chosen people," stood ever ready for battle, with open eye and quick ear for the detection of the subtle approaches of the enemy. No wonder is it that the spirits of evil combined against him; that they beset him as they did of old St. Anthony; that they shut up the bowels of the General Court against his long-cherished hope of the presidency of Old Harvard; that they even had the audacity to lay hands on his anti-diabolical manuscripts, or that "ye divil that was in ye girl flewe at and tore" his grand sermon against witches. How edifying is his account of the young bewitched maiden whom he kept in his house for the purpose of making experiments which should satisfy all "obstinate Sadducees"! How satisfactory to orthodoxy and confounding to heresy is the nice discrimination of "ye divil in ye girl," who was choked in attempting to read the Catechism, yet found no trouble with a pestilent Quaker pamphlet; who was quiet and good-humored when the worthy Doctor was idle, but went into paroxysms of rage when he sat down to indite his diatribes against witches and familiar spirits!

(The Quakers appear to have, at a comparatively early period, emancipated themselves in a great degree from the grosser superstitions of their times. William Penn, indeed, had a law in his colony against witchcraft; but the first trial of a person suspected of this offence seems to have opened his eyes to its absurdity. George Fox, judging from one or two passages in his journal, appears to have held the common opinions of the day on the subject; yet when confined in Doomsdale dungeon, on being told that the place was haunted and that the spirits of those who had died there still walked at night in his room, he replied, "that if all the spirits and devils in hell were there, he was over them in the power of God, and feared no such thing."

The enemies of the Quakers, in order to account for the power and influence of their first preachers, accused them of magic and sorcery. "The Priest of Wakefield," says George Fox (one trusts he does not allude to our old friend the Vicar), "raised many wicked slanders upon me, as that I carried bottles with me and made people drink, and that made them follow me; that I rode upon a great black horse, and was seen in one county upon my black horse in one hour, and in the same hour in another county fourscore miles off." In his account of the mob which beset him at Walney Island, he says: "When I came to myself I saw James Lancaster's wife throwing stones at my face, and her husband lying over me to keep off the blows and stones; for the people had persuaded her that I had bewitched her husband."

Cotton Mather attributes the plague of witchcraft in New England in about an equal degree to the Quakers and Indians. The first of the sect who visited Boston, Ann Austin and Mary Fisher,--the latter a young girl,--were seized upon by Deputy-Governor Bellingham, in the absence of Governor Endicott, and shamefully stripped naked for the purpose of ascertaining whether they were witches with the Devil's mark on them. In 1662 Elizabeth Horton and Joan Broksop, two venerable preachers of the sect, were arrested in Boston, charged by Governor Endicott with being witches, and carried two days' journey into the woods, and left to the tender mercies of Indians and wolves.)

All this is pleasant enough now; we can laugh at the Doctor and his demons; but little matter of laughter was it to the victims on Salem Hill; to the prisoners in the jails; to poor Giles Corey, tortured with planks upon his breast, which forced the tongue from his mouth and his life from his old, palsied body; to bereaved and quaking families; to a whole community, priest-ridden and spectresmitten, gasping in the sick dream of a spiritual nightmare and given over to believe a lie. We may laugh, for the grotesque is blended with the horrible; but we must also pity and shudder. The clear-sighted men who confronted that delusion in its own age, disenchanting, with strong good sense and sharp ridicule, their spell-bound generation,--the German Wierus, the Italian D'Apone, the English Scot, and the New England Calef,--deserve high honors as the benefactors of their race. It is true they were branded through life as infidels and "damnable Sadducees;" but the truth which they uttered lived after them, and wrought out its appointed work, for it had a Divine commission and Godspeed.

"The oracles are dumb;
No voice nor hideous hum
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving;
Apollo from his shrine
Can now no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphns leaving."

Dimmer and dimmer, as the generations pass away, this tremendous terror, this all-pervading espionage of evil, this active incarnation of motiveless malignity, presents itself to the imagination. The once imposing and solemn rite of exorcism has become obsolete in the Church. Men are no longer, in any quarter of the world, racked or pressed under planks to extort a confession of diabolical alliance. The heretic now laughs to scorn the solemn farce of the Church which, in the name of the All-Merciful, formally delivers him over to Satan. And for the sake of abused and long-cheated humanity let us rejoice that it is so, when we consider how for long, weary centuries the millions of professed Christendom stooped, awestricken, under the yoke of spiritual and temporal despotism, grinding on from generation to generation in a despair which had passed complaining, because superstition, in alliance with tyranny, had filled their upward pathway to freedom with shapes of terror,--the spectres of God's wrath to the uttermost, the fiend, and that torment the smoke of which rises forever. Through fear of a Satan of the future,--a sort of ban-dog of priestcraft, held in its leash and ready to be let loose upon the disputers of its authority,--our toiling brothers of past ages have permitted their human taskmasters to convert God's beautiful world, so adorned and fitted for the peace and happiness of all, into a great prison-house of suffering, filled with the actual terrors which the imagination of the old poets gave to the realm of Rhadamanthus. And hence, while I would not weaken in the slightest degree the influence of that doctrine of future retribution,--the accountability of the spirit for the deeds done in the body,--the truth of which reason, revelation, and conscience unite in attesting as the necessary result of the preservation in another state of existence of the soul's individuality and identity, I must, nevertheless, rejoice that the many are no longer willing to permit the few, for their especial benefit, to convert our common Father's heritage into a present hell, where, in return for undeserved suffering and toil uncompensated, they can have gracious and comfortable assurance of release from a future one. Better is the fear of the Lord than the fear of the Devil; holier and more acceptable the obedience of love and reverence than the submission of slavish terror. The heart which has felt the "beauty of holiness," which has been in some measure attuned to the divine harmony which now, as of old in the angel-hymn of the Advent, breathes of "glory to God, peace on earth, and good-will to men," in the serene atmosphere of that "perfect love which casteth out fear," smiles at the terrors which throng the sick dreams of the sensual, which draw aside the nightcurtains of guilt, and startle with whispers of revenge the oppressor of the poor.

There is a beautiful moral in one of Fouque's miniature romances,--_Die Kohlerfamilie_. The fierce spectre, which rose giant-like, in its bloodred mantle, before the selfish and mercenary merchant, ever increasing in size and, terror with the growth of evil and impure thought in the mind of the latter, subdued by prayer, and penitence, and patient watchfulness over the heart's purity, became a loving and gentle visitation of soft light and meekest melody; "a beautiful radiance, at times hovering and flowing on before the traveller, illuminating the bushes and foliage of the mountain-forest; a lustre strange and lovely, such as the soul may conceive, but no words express. He felt its power in the depths of his being,--felt it like the mystic breathing of the Spirit of God."

The excellent Baxter and other pious men of his day deprecated in all sincerity and earnestness the growing disbelief in witchcraft and diabolical agency, fearing that mankind, losing faith in a visible Satan and in the supernatural powers of certain paralytic old women, would diverge into universal skepticism. It is one of the saddest of sights to see these good men standing sentry at the horn gate of dreams; attempting against the most discouraging odds to defend their poor fallacies from profane and irreverent investigation; painfully pleading doubtful Scripture and still more doubtful tradition in behalf of detected and convicted superstitions tossed on the sharp horns of ridicule, stretched on the rack of philosophy, or perishing under the exhausted receiver of science. A clearer knowledge of the aspirations, capacities, and necessities of the human soul, and of the revelations which the infinite Spirit makes to it, not only through the senses by the phenomena of outward nature, but by that inward and direct communion which, under different names, has been recognized by the devout and thoughtful of every religious sect and school of philosophy, would have saved them much anxious labor and a good deal of reproach withal in their hopeless championship of error. The witches of Baxter and "the black man" of Mather have vanished; belief in them is no longer possible on the part of sane men. But this mysterious universe, through which, half veiled in its own shadow, our dim little planet is wheeling, with its star worlds and thought-wearying spaces, remains. Nature's mighty miracle is still over and around us; and hence awe, wonder, and reverence remain to be the inheritance of humanity; still are there beautiful repentances and holy deathbeds; and still over the soul's darkness and confusion rises, starlike, the great idea of duty. By higher and better influences than the poor spectres of superstition, man must henceforth be taught to reverence the Invisible, and, in the consciousness of his own weakness, and sin, and sorrow, to lean with childlike trust on the wisdom and mercy of an overruling Providence,--walking by faith through the shadow and mystery, and cheered by the remembrance that, whatever may be his apparent allotment,--

"God's greatness flows around our incompleteness;
Round our restlessness His rest."

It is a sad spectacle to find the glad tidings of the Christian faith and its "reasonable service" of devotion transformed by fanaticism and credulity into superstitious terror and wild extravagance; but, if possible, there is one still sadder. It is that of men in our own time regarding with satisfaction such evidences of human weakness, and professing to find in them new proofs of their miserable theory of a godless universe, and new occasion for sneering at sincere devotion as cant, and humble reverence as fanaticism. Alas! in comparison with such, the religious enthusiast, who in the midst of his delusion still feels that he is indeed a living soul and an heir of immortality, to whom God speaks from the immensities of His universe, is a sane man. Better is it, in a life like ours, to be even a howling dervis or a dancing Shaker, confronting imaginary demons with Thalaba's talisman of faith, than to lose the consciousness of our own spiritual nature, and look upon ourselves as mere brute masses of animal organization,--barnacles on a dead universe; looking into the dull grave with no hope beyond it; earth gazing into earth, and saying to corruption, "Thou art my father," and to the worm, "Thou art my sister."

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