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Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, Volume 11, Slice 8 "Germany" to "Gibson, William"

Parsons the Jesuit appears to have had a considerable share


But

thus "idle" though he may have been as a "student," he already meditated authorship. In the first long vacation--during which he, doubtless with some sarcasm, says that "his taste for books began to revive"--he contemplated a treatise on the age of Sesostris, in which (and it was characteristic) his chief object was to investigate not so much the events as the probable epoch of the reign of that semi-mythical monarch, whom he was inclined to regard as having been contemporary with Solomon. "Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book"; but the discovery of his own weakness, he adds, was the first symptom of taste. On his first return to Oxford the work was "wisely relinquished," and never afterwards resumed. The most memorable incident, however, in Gibbon's stay at Oxford was his temporary conversion to the doctrines of the church of Rome. The bold criticism of Middleton's recently (1749) published _Free Enquiry into the Miraculous Powers which are supposed to have subsisted in the Christian Church_ appears to have given the first shock to his Protestantism, not indeed by destroying his previous belief that the gift of miraculous powers had continued to subsist in the church during the first four or five centuries of Christianity, but by convincing him that within the same period most of the leading doctrines of popery had been already introduced both in theory and in practice. At this
stage he was introduced by a friend (Mr Molesworth) to Bossuet's _Variations of Protestantism_ and _Exposition of Catholic Doctrine_ (see Gibbon, _Decline and Fall_, c. xv., note 79). "These works," says he, "achieved my conversion, and I surely fell by a noble hand." In bringing about this "fall," however, Parsons the Jesuit appears to have had a considerable share; at least Lord Sheffield has recorded that on the only occasion on which Gibbon talked with him on the subject he imputed the change in his religious views principally to that vigorous writer, who, in his opinion, had urged all the best arguments in favour of Roman Catholicism. But be this as it may, he had no sooner adopted his new creed than he resolved to profess it; "a momentary glow of enthusiasm" had raised him above all temporal considerations, and accordingly, on June 8, 1753, he records that having "privately abjured the heresies" of his childhood before a Catholic priest of the name of Baker, a Jesuit, in London, he announced the same to his father in an elaborate controversial epistle which his spiritual adviser much approved, and which he himself afterwards described to Lord Sheffield as having been "written with all the pomp, the dignity, and self-satisfaction of a martyr."

The elder Gibbon heard with indignant surprise of this act of juvenile apostasy, and, indiscreetly giving vent to his wrath, precipitated the expulsion of his son from Oxford, a punishment which the culprit, in after years at least, found no cause to deplore. In his _Memoirs_ he speaks of the results of his "childish revolt against the religion of his country" with undisguised self-gratulation. It had delivered him for ever from the "port and prejudice" of the university, and led him into the bright paths of philosophic freedom. That his conversion was sincere at the time, that it marked a real if but a transitory phase of genuine religious conviction, we have no reason to doubt, notwithstanding the scepticism he has himself expressed. "To my present feelings it seems incredible that I should ever believe that I believed in transubstantiation," he indeed declares; but his incredulous astonishment is not unmixed with undoubting pride. "I could not blush that my tender mind was entangled in the sophistry which had reduced the acute and manly understandings of a Chillingworth or a Bayle." Nor is the sincerity of the Catholicism he professed in these boyish days in any way discredited by the fact of his subsequent lack of religion. Indeed, as one of the acutest and most sympathetic of his critics has remarked, the deep and settled grudge he has betrayed towards every form of Christian belief, in all the writings of his maturity, may be taken as evidence that he had at one time experienced in his own person at least some of the painful workings of a positive faith.


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