« PreviousContinue »
verse; I have chosen, on the contrary, to fill my pages even to redundance with quotations from Scripture, that so as little space as possible might be left for my own words, even where they arise from the context of revelation itself.'
In the course of so long a work, embracing such a variety of topics, many opportunities would often occur for allusion to the politics of the times, in which religion bore so important a part. To have abstained from any reference to these subjects, is no ordinary proof of discretion in one who had dedicated his time and talents with such unwearied zeal to promote the objects of his party. Scarcely a sentence, however, will be found, in which local or temporary interests can be suspected of having influenced the mind of the author. Sometimes indeed he lays a stress on certain particulars, to which the subjects then in dispute between the conflicting religious parties gave more importance than they now possess. The power of the keys, for instance, claimed by the Pope, was then a familiar topic of discussion. Hence he takes occasion to bring proof from Scripture, that the administration of ecclesiastical discipline is not committed exclusively to Peter and his successors, or to any individual pastor specifically, but to the whole particular church, whether consisting of few or of many members.* The subjects of Episcopacy and Covenants might have furnished him with opportunities not only of lashing the Royalists in general, but
* II. 205.
of renewing those attacks which he had formerly directed so pertinaciously against King Charles himself. It may be worth while to contrast his manner of treating the subject of Covenants in his political tracts, with some corresponding remarks in the following treatise. He says in his Eiconoclastes, Neither was the “covenant superfluous, though former engagements, both religious and legal, bound us before ;” but was the practice of all churches heretofore intending reformation. All Israel, though bound enough before by the law of Moses “ to all necessary duties,” yet with Asa their king entered into a new covenant at the beginning of a reformation : and the Jews after captivity, without consent demanded of that king who was their master, took solemn oath to walk in the commandments of God. All Protestant churches have done the like, notwithstanding former engagements to their several duties.'* Compare with this passage the observations to the same effect, in the beginning of the chapter on Church-discipline in this work, where, although the events of his own times could not but have been present to his mind during the composition of a passage so similar, he nevertheless entirely abstains even from the remotest reference to them. It is a prudent as well as a pious custom, to solemnize the formation or re-establishment of a particular church by a public renewal of the covenant, as was frequently done in the reformations of the Jewish church, Deut. xxix. 1. The same took place under Asa, Ezra, Nehemiah, and others. So also, when an individual unites himself to a particular church, it is requisite that he should enter into a solemn covenant with God and the church to conduct himself in all respects, both towards the one and the other, so as to promote his own edification, and that of his brethren.'* Again, speaking of the penitential meditations and vows of Charles at Holmby, Milton says, in the same treatise which has been already quoted, "It is not hard for any man who hath a Bible in his hands, to borrow good words and holy sayings in abundance ; but to make them his own, is a work of grace only from above.'t A sentiment precisely similar occurs in this work, but not the most covert allusion is added which can recal to the mind of the reader the charge of insincerity formerly advanced against the unfortunate monarch in nearly the same language. He is equally cautious where he argues that marriage is only a civil contract, an opinion acted upon by his party during the Interregnum. In vol. II. p. 323. a favourable opportunity presented itself for inveighing against Archbishop Laud's consecration of churches, at that time one of the favourite topics of abuse among the Puritanical party, and probably alluded to in Paradise Lost :
* Prose Works, III. 28.
........... God attributes to place
But neither in this place, nor in his remarks on the sanctification of the Sabbath, another of the contro
* II, 202.
† Prose Works, III. 69.
verted subjects of his day, and not avoided by the author in his political writings (see Eiconoclastes, II. 405.) is a single expression employed which can expose him to the charge of substituting the language of the polemic for that of the divine, or of forgetting the calmness befitting the character of an inquirer after religious truth, to indulge in a second triumph over a political adversary.
Many doubts hitherto entertained respecting the real opinions of Milton on certain subjects are removed by the present treatise, to which, as originally intended for a posthumous work, no suspicion of insincerity can attach. Of all the charges indeed which private or political prejudice has created against the author, that of being a 'time-server,' according to the reproach of Warburton, seems to have been the least deserved. The honesty of his sentiments is sufficiently vindicated by the boldness with which he uniformly expressed them in times when freedom of speech was more than ordinarily dangerous, as well as by his consistent exposure of what he conceived to be erroneous, whether advocated by his own friends or by his opponents. Thus on discovering that new presbyter was but old priest writ large,' he resisted the encroachments of the presbyterians, as resolutely as he had before contributed to overthrow prelacy; and, if it were necessary, his political independence might be no less successfully vindicated by adducing the spirited language which he addressed to Cromwell in the zenith of his power. He has however been
charged with concealing his opinions on a subject of po less importance than Popery, and even of entertaining a secret inclination in its favour. This imputation, considering the multifariousness of Milton's writings, may perhaps have received same colour from the silence which he generally observes with regard to the doctrines of the Church of Rome, althongh incidental phrases, sufficiently indicative of the soundness of his Protestant principles, sometimes occur. See particularly his · Treatise on true Religion,' in which he recommends the study of the Bible to all classes of men, as the best preservative against Popery. His reason for not entering upon the subject more at large is assigned in the preface to the present work, and it is simply this, that the cause of Protestantism appeared to be so firmly established as to stand in no need of his services. He professed to employ his pen, as we learn from his own testimony,* only where, in his judgement, the good of his country or the interests of religion required it. Acting on this principle, he undertook successively to oppose episcopacy, to advocate the cause of liberty, of education, and of a free press. But perceiving, as he tells us, that the strong holds of the reformed religion were sufficiently fortified, as far as they were exposed to danger from the Papists, he directed his attention to more neglected subjects, and exerted his talents in the defence of civil or of religious liberty.f Encouraged perhaps by this comparative silence, and pre
* Defensio Secunda pro Populo Anglicano. Prose Works, V. 233. † Preface, p. 4.