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by the dim liglit of my catechism to grope my way to the chapel and communion table, where I was admitted without a question how far, or by what means, I might be qualified to receive the sacrament. Such almost incredible neglect was productive of the worst mischiefs. From my childhood I had been fond of religious disputation: my poor aunt has been often puzzled by the mysteries which she strove to believe; nor had the elastic spring been totally broken by the weight of the atmosphere of Oxford. The blind activity of idleness urged me to advance without armour into the dangerous mazes of controversy; and at the age of sixteen I bewildered myself into the errors of the church of Rome.
The progress of my conversion may tend to illustrate, at least, the history of my own mind. It was not long since Dr Middleton's Free Inquiry had sounded an • alarm in the theological world : much ink and much gall had been spilt in the defence of the primitive mi. racles; and the two dullest of their champions were crowned with academic honours by the university of Oxford. The name of Middleton was unpopular; and his proscription very naturally led me to peruse his writings, and those of his antagonists. His bold criticism, which approaches the precipice of infidelity, produced on my mind a singular effect; and had I persevered in the communion of Rome, I should now apply to my own fortune the prediction of the Sybil,
Via prima salutis, Quod minimè reris, Graia, pandetur ab urbe. The elegance of style and freedom of argument were repelled by a shield of prejudice. I still revered the character, or rather the names, of the saints and fathers whom Dr Middleton exposes ; nor could he destroy my implicit belief, that the gift of miraculous powers was continued in the church during the first four or five centuries of Christianity. But I was unable to resist the weight of historical evidence, that
within the same period most of the leading doctrines of popery were already introduced in theory and practice: nor was my conclusion absurd—that miracles are the test of truth, and that the church must be ortho. dox and pure, which was so often approved by the visible interposition of the Deity. The marvellous tales which are so boldly attested by the Basils and Chrysostoms, the Augustins and Jeromes, compelled me to embrace the superior merits of celibacy, the institution of the monastic life, the use of the sign of the cross, of holy oil, and even of images, the invocation of saints, the worship of relics, the rudiments of purgatory in prayers for the dead, and the tremendous mystery of the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ, which insensibly swelled into the prodigy of transubstantiation. In these dispositions, and already more than half a convert, I formed an unlucky intimacy with a young gentleman of our college. With a character less resolute, Mr Molesworth had imbibed the same religious opinions; and some Popish books, I know not through what channel, were conveyed into his possession. I read, I applauded, I believed; the English translation of two famous works of Bossuet bishop of Meaux, the ` Exposition of the Catholic Doctrine, and the History of the Protestant Variations,' achieved my conversion; and I surely fell by a noble hand.* I have since examined the originals with a more discerning eye, and shall not hesitate to pronounce, that Bossuet is indeed a master of all the weapons of controversy. In the Exposition, a specious apology, the orator assumes, with consummate art, the tone of candour and simplicity; and the tenhorned monster is transformed, at his magic touch,
. * Mr Gibbon never talked with me on the subject of his conversion to Popery but once: and then he imputed his change to the works of Parsons the Jesuit, who lived in the reign of Elizabeth, and who, he said, had urged all the best arguments in favour of the Roman Catholic religion. S.
into the milk-white hind who must be loved as soon as she is seen. In the History, a bold and well-aimed ' attack, he displays, with a happy mixture of narrative and argument, the faults and follies, the changes and contradictions, of our first reformers; whose variations (as he dexterously contends) are the mark of historical error, while the perpetual unity of the Catholic church is the sign and test of infallible truth. To my present feelings it seems incredible that I should ever believe that I believed in transubstantiation. But my conqueror oppressed me with the sacramental words, “Hoc est corpus meum,” and dashed against each other the figurative half-meanings of the Protestant sects : every objection was resolved into omnipotence ; and after repeating at St Mary's the Athanasian creed, I humbly acquiesced in the mystery of the real .presence. “To take up half on trust, and half to try, Name it not faith, but bungling bigotry. Both knave and fool the merchant we may call, To pay great sums, and to compound the small : For who would break with Heaven, and would not break
for all ?” No sooner had I settled my new religion, than I resolved to profess myself a Catholic. Youth is sincere and impetuous; and a momentary glow of enthusiasm had raised me above all temporal considerations.*
By the keen Protestants, who would gladly retaliate the example of persecution, a clamour is raised of the increase of Popery: and they are always loud to declaim against the toleration of priests and Jesuits, who pervert so many of his majesty's subjects from their religion and allegiance. On the present occasion the fall of one or more of her sons directed this clamour against the university; and it was confidently affirmed
He described the letter to his father, announcing his conversion, as written with all the pomp, the dignity, and self satisfaction, of a martyr. S.
that Popish missionaries were suffered, under various disguises, to introduce themselves into the colleges of Oxford. But justice obliges me to declare that, as far as relates to myself, this assertion is false; and that I never conversed with a priest, or even with i Papist, till my resolution from books was absolutely fixed. In my last excursion to London I addressed myself to Mr Lewis, a Roman Catholic bookseller in Russell street, Covent garden, who recommended me to a priest, of whose name and order I am at present ignorant.* In our first interview he soon discovered that persuasion was needless. After sounding the mo. tives and merits of my conversion, he consented to admit me into the pale of the church ; and at his feet, on the eighth of June 1753, I solemnly, though privately, abjured the errors of heresy. The seduction of an English youth of family and fortune was an act. of as much danger as glory; but he bravely overlooked the danger, of which I was not then sufficiently informed. “Where a person is reconciled to the sec of Rome, or procures others to be reconciled, the offence (says Blackstone) amounts to high treason.” And if the humanity of the age would prevent the execution of this sanguinary statute, there were other laws of a less odious cast, which condemned the priest to perpetual imprisonment, and transferred the proselyte's estate to his nearest relation. An elaborate controversial epistle, approved by my director, and addressed to my father, announced and justified the step which I had taken. My father was neither a bigot nor a philosopher; but his affection deplored the loss of an only son, and his good sense was astonished
* His name was Baker, a Jesuit, and one of the chaplains of the Sardinian ambassador. Mr Gibbon's conversion inade some noise; and Mr Lewis, the Roman Catholic bookseller of Russell street, Covent garden, was summoned before the privy council, and interrogated on the subject. This was communicated by Mr Lewis's son, 1814.
at my strange departure from the religion of my country. In the first sally of passion he divulged a secret which prudence might have suppressed, and the gates of Magdalen college were for ever shut against my return. Many years afterwards, when the name of Gibbon was become as notorious as that of Middleton, it was industriously whispered at Oxford, that the historian had formerly “ turned Papist;" my character stood exposed to the reproach of inconstancy; and this invidious topic would have been handled without mercy by my opponents, could they have separated my cause from that of the university. For my own part, I am proud of an honest sacrifice of interest to conscience. I can never blush, if my tender mind was entangled in the sophistry that seduced the acute and manly understandings of Chillingworth and Bayle, who afterwards emerged from superstition to scepticism.
While Charles the first governed England, and was himself governed by a Catholic queen, it cannot be denied that the missionaries of Rome laboured with impunity and success in the court, the country, and even the universities. One of the sheep,
- Whom the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said, is Mr William Chillingworth, Master of Arts, and Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford; who, at the ripe age of twenty-eight years, was persuaded to elope from Oxford to the English seminary at Douay in Flanders. Some disputes with Fisher, a subtle Jesuit, might first awaken him from the prejudices of education; but he yielded to his own victorious argument, “ that there must be somewhere an infallible judge; and that the church of Rome is the only Christian society which either does or can pretend to that character.” After a short trial of a few months, Mr Chillingworth was again tormented by religious scru