Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The National Blessing of Religion
By Gilbert Burnet (16431715)
From History of my own Time
THUS religion, if truly received and sincerely adhered to, would prove the greatest of all blessings to a nation; but by religion I understand somewhat more than the receiving some doctrines, though ever so true, or the professing them, and engaging to support them, not without zeal and eagerness. What signify the best doctrines, if men do not live suitably to them; if they have not a due influence upon their thoughts, their principles, and their lives? Men of bad lives, with sound opinions, are self-condemned, and lie under a highly aggravated guilt; nor will the heat of a party, arising out of interest, and managed with fury and violence, compensate for the ill lives of such false pretenders to zeal; while they are a disgrace to that which they profess, and seem hot for. By religion, I do not mean an outward compliance with form and customs, in going to church, to prayers, to sermons, and to sacraments, with an external show of devotion, or, which is more, with some inward forced good thoughts, in which many may satisfy themselves, while this has no visible effect upon their lives, nor any inward force to subdue and rectify their appetites, passions, and secret designs. Those customary performances, how good and useful soever, when well understood and rightly directed, are of little value when men rest on them, and think that, because they do them, they have therefore acquitted themselves of their duty, though they continue still proud, covetous, full of deceit, envy, and malice; even secret prayer, the most effectual of all other means, is designed for a higher end, which is, to possess our minds with such a constant and present sense of divine truths, as may make these live in us, and govern us, and may draw down such assistances as may exalt and sanctify our natures.
So that by religion, I mean such a sense of divine truth as enters into a man, and becomes a spring of a new nature within him; reforming his thoughts and designs, purifying his heart, and sanctifying him, and governing his whole deportment, his words as well as his actions: convincing him, that it is not enough not to be scandalously vicious, or to be innocent in his conversation, but that he must be entirely, uniformly, and constantly pure and virtuous, animating him with a zeal to be still better and better, more eminently good and exemplary, using prayers and all outward devotions, as solemn acts testifying what he is inwardly and at heart, and as methods instituted by God, to be still advancing in the use of them further and further into a more refined and spiritual sense of divine matters. This is true religion, which is the perfection of human nature, and the joy and delight of every one that feels it active and strong within him: it is true, this is not arrived at all at once; and it will have an unhappy allay, hanging long even about a good man; but, as those ill mixtures are the perpetual grief of his soul, so it is his chief care to watch over and to mortify them; he will be in a continual progress, still gaining ground upon himself; and, as he attains to a good degree of purity, he will find a noble flame of life and joy growing upon him. Of this I write with the more concern and emotion, because I have felt this the true, and, indeed, the only joy which runs through a mans heart and life; it is that which has been for many years my greatest support; I rejoice daily in it; I feel from it the earnest of that supreme joy which I pant and long for; I am sure there is nothing else that can afford any true or complete happiness. I have, considering my sphere, seen a great deal of all that is most shining and tempting in this world: the pleasures of sense I did soon nauseate; intrigues of state, and the conduct of affairs, have something in them that is more specious; and I was for some years deeply immersed in these, but still with hopes of reforming the world, and of making mankind wiser and better; but I have found that which is crooked cannot be made straight. I acquainted myself with knowledge and learning, and that in a great variety and with more compass than depth; but though wisdom excelleth folly as much as light does darkness, yet as it is a sore travail, so it is so very defective, that what is wanting to complete it cannot be numbered. I have seen that two were better than one, and that a three-fold cord is not easily loosed; and have therefore cultivated friendship with much zeal, and a disinterested tenderness; but I have found this was also vanity and vexation of spirit, though it be of the best and noblest sort. So that, upon great and long experience, I could enlarge on the preachers text, Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity; but I must also conclude with himFear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the all of man, the whole both of his duty and his happiness. I do therefore end all in the words of David, of the truth of which, upon great experience and a long observation, I am so fully assured, that I leave these as my last words to posterity:Come, ye children, hearken unto me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good? Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry. The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. The righteous cry, and the Lord heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles. The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.