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METHODIST QUARTERLY REVIEW.
EDITED BY GEORGE PECK, D. D.
Art. I.-Life and Religious Opinions and Experience of Madame
de la Mothe Guyon: together with some Account of the Personal History and Religious Opinions of Fenelon, Archbishop of Cambray. By Thomas C. Upham, Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy in Bowdoin College. In 2 vols. Vol. 1. NewYork: Harper & Brothers. 1847.
A LOVE for the mysterious is among the original instincts of our nature. Whatever is detected by our senses, or comprehended by our reason, is esteemed common, and fails to give interest. Though a thousand known divinities were confessed and duly worshiped, the soul were yet unsatisfied, and would secretly breathe out its aspirations to the unknown God. Nor should these emotions be accounted the mere vagaries of an ill-disciplined fancy. Their source lies deeper; and they argue, not the wreck of man's original character, but his essential spirituality, by virtue of which he is, in all the phases of his social and intellectual condition, a religious being. Endowed with powers of cognizance beyond those of sense, and of perception above reason, the requirements of his nature can be satisfied only by communion with the spirit world. Conscious, from the instinctive intimations of his own heart, of his dependence upon a superior power, he requires as the object of his confidence and worship a being of a superior nature. It is, therefore, as repugnant to sound philosophy as it is to the dictates of divine Wisdom, to require a merely rational theology, or to submit the subtil doctrines of experimental religion to the inadequate tests of reason.
It is sometimes assumed with much apparent confidence that religious zeal is a sign of little learning, and want of mental acumen; but we believe that facts disprove the assumption. Dullness may doubt against evidence, and deny the truth, however plainly
proved; but it never goes beyond the truth, nor seizes that which is too subtil for the grosser senses. Ignorance may wrap itself in its own imaginary greatness, and fancy itself to be the centre of the universe, for which all things exist and around which they move; but religion leads the spirit out of its snail-like seclusion of selfishness, to commune with other natures, and to converse with superior beings. Such intercourse enlarges the views and perceptions of the soul ; and as it tends to increase the scope of the understanding, so it indicates a somewhat elevated cast of the mind. Biographical history strongly corroborates these statements. Many of those who have been distinguished as mystics, have evinced extraordinary powers of intellect. As a class they have been remarkable for vigor of understanding, and, in many instances, for extensive erudition. It should indeed be added, that for the most part they have been persons of ill-balanced minds, whose imaginations were but partially subjected to the judgment. This is, indeed, characteristic of the class; for by this alone is the enthusiast distinguished from the devout but sober Christian. The impulses of a glowing heart, operating upon a strong and susceptible imagination, over which the judgment has but little control, occasion intemperate fervors, and sometimes lead to that voluntary faith which is properly the basis of enthusiasm. And yet we are not prepared to pronounce an unqualified condemnation of this enthusiastic fervor. Compared with its opposite,-a cheerless skepticism,-it is to be cherished as a real good. Many of the most illustrious names in the annals of the church, are those of persons who are known as mystics,—through whose agency the declining cause of piety has been revived, and the church brought back to recognize the essential spirituality of religion.
Among persons of this class, few are better known, or have made a more conspicuous figure in religious literature, than the principal subject of the work whose title stands at the head of this article. Many have admired her character, and some have in part adopted her notions, though she had had but few disciples. That work, however, shows, that even at this distant period, and in Protestant America, and, strangest of all, in Puritanical New-England, she has made a convert worthy of her largest ambition. The author of these volumes is favorably known in the republic of letters as the compiler of several treatises on mental philosophy,—some of which are extensively used as text-books in colleges and schools, -and recently he has sent forth a number of works on practical and experimental divinity. By means of these he has gained for himself a place in the affections of many devout Christians of dif
ferent denominations ; for in writing them he has carefully shunned a controversial style, and has maintained throughout a deep tone of devotion to God, and charity to all mankind. It was impossible, however, for him wholly to avoid the promulgation, by implication at least, of certain theological opinions; but in doing this he has generally chosen to set forth only fundamental catholic truths, and has skillfully separated the essential from the nonessential. He has evidently read much in works on experimental divinity, and the mystical writers of the Romish Church during the seventeenth century seem to have both engaged his attention and captivated his heart. A shading of mysticism is plainly perceptible in his former religious works, but they contain so much that is really excellent that their incidental defects have been overlooked; and coming from a source whence very little of the kind has emanated for a long time, they have been hailed as an indication of a struggling for a higher religious experience in that quarter. The mystical character of these works is, however, only partially developed ; (though clearly visible to any discriminating reader ;) but the Life of Madame Guyon gave occasion to complete what before was only in embryo. As therein exhibited, Professor Upham is unquestionably a mystic,-using that term as contradistinguished from sober but devout and evangelical Christians,and this fact, thus exhibited, must greatly circumscribe the influence of his religious works. The judicious religious instructor, though he may still regard their author as a good man, and especially commend the devout spirit that pervades his writings, will, nevertheless, hesitate to recommend them as guides to the untaught but inquiring spirit. Compared with the experimental writings of British divines of the seventeenth century, they have many defects with very few compensating advantages; and, viewed by the side of the standards of Wesleyan theology, as set forth during the last century, their light is as the glare of the meteor compared with the steady radiance of the mid-day sun.
The literary character of the work requires but a passing remark. Professor Upham is so well known as a writer, that no notice of the style of this work is necessary, further than to say that in this particular it is not unlike its predecessors. A verbose style, burdened with expletives and explanatory clauses, is made the vehicle of thoughts generally simple and intelligible in themselves, and, whenever the subject admits of it, despite of these disadvantages, expressed with a good degree of clearness. The conduct of the narrative is commendable. A gentle vivacity pervades the whale, and the reader's interest is seldom permitted to decline;
and it may be presumed, that whoever begins the perusal of these volumes will not choose to lay them aside till he has read the last page.
In this work our author comes before the public, not merely as the biographer of Madame Guyon, but as her apologist and interpreter also. He seems to concede her unfitness to speak for herself, and, by implication, declares the public incapable of understanding the depths of her half-expressed doctrines; but being himself perfectly instructed in these mysteries, and having also the power to render them intelligible to the uninitiated, he has kindly undertaken to interpret them, and to exhibit as high and holy truth what would otherwise appear as nonsense or falsehood. Such apologists have been seen in other instances; and if Madame Guyon would recognize herself in her modern attire, she might congratulate herself that it has fared better with her than with some others.
Before proceeding to a more particular analysis of the work under review, we will pause to notice a peculiarity that pervades all the religious works of this author, but is especially prominent in this one. A peculiar dialect, differing very considerably from the language of the Scriptures, or that of the most approved Protestant writers on experimental divinity, is adopted and maintained throughout. St. Paul speaks of "the carnal mind,” Prof. Upham of “the life of nature ;" the apostle exhorts to "put off the old man,” our author to the “annihilation of self;" the former sets forth the Christian's privilege to be “filled with all the fullness of God,” the latter to become “one with God." If it should be contended that the terms of the second class are only synonyms of those of the first, the defense were insufficient. Why should we introduce a new and unnecessary nomenclature in religious discourse, thus obscuring the sense that should be made clear? The reader of works of this class, if hitherto he has learned only the proper meaning of words, must begin by learning a new language, and at last remain in doubt whether he has correctly interpreted the occult sense of the writer. We cannot but consider it a capital mistake in Prof. Upham to adopt the cabalistic language, the cant, -as it may be styled, without intending any opprobrium, -of the Mystics and Quietists of the Romish Church in former times. It is granted that words may obtain a peculiar signification in certain circles, within which that sense may be sufficiently intelligible ; and also that when a subject lying beyond the usual limits of thought and discourse is made the theme of conversation, language must be accommodated to that subject, and words used in a new and
peculiar sense. Hence it will always seem to those who have no perception of spiritual things, that those who speak of them use cant and cabalistic language. But as every science has its appropriate forms of speech, so has experimental divinity; nor are its peculiar forms and phraseology to be chosen at the caprice of individuals, or exchanged by them at pleasure. It is no less important to “hold fast the form of sound words,” than to set forth sound doctrine; for that is essential to this. The Bible should be the rule and standard of our religious language, as well as of our faith and morals; nor can we too decidedly condemn his course, who seeks to substitute for its universally intelligible terminology the dialect of a sect or party. Words are things; and he who adopts a new verbiage in religious discourse will soon be found to have changed his doctrines too. This whole affair looks suspicious, and if it does not originate in doctrinal error, (as is generally the case,) it necessarily tends to that end.
In using the writings of Madame Guyon our author has pursued a somewhat novel process. Her language is not translated according to its verbal signification, but interpreted as he chooses to understand her meaning, though quite differently from its literal sense. Her phraseology, however, is retained, as too valuable to be dispensed with, and so nearly are the style and expressions of the biographer assimilated to those of his subject, that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the language of one from that of the other. But a more objectionable feature is his affectation of metaphysical acumen in illustrating the phenomena of religious experience. We call this an affectation; for, though use may have rendered it most familiar to him, it is, nevertheless, unnatural; and, if so, habit can not make it anything else than an affectation. That this mode of conveying religious instruction is not the most excellent, will be readily granted by all who regard our Lord Jesus Christ as the great Teacher. But few minds can appreciate such teachings; and if our author wrote only for the favored few, he was poorly employed. It is but justice to presume that such was not his design, and we gladly charge the infelicity of his manner to error of judgment, rather than to a defect of his heart. Still it is to be regretted that so decidedly respectable a writer should permit himself to adopt a manner by which he is perpetually reminding his readers that he is a professor of mental philosophy, and author of certain treatises on that subject. Simplicity of style is a cardinal excellence in practical religious instruction, for the want of which nothing else can compensate.
Having made these preliminary observations, we will now pro