PRACTICAL PIETY  by Hannah More, 1811

Chapter 16

One of the most important ends of cultivating self-knowledge is to discover what is the real bent of our mind and which are the strongest tendencies of our character; to discover where our disposition requires restraint, and where we may be safely trusted with some liberty of indulgence. Our religious fervor needs the most consummate prudence to restrain its excesses without freezing its energies.

If, on the contrary, timidity is our natural propensity, we shall be in danger of falling into coldness and inactivity with regard to ourselves, and into passive compliance with the request of others, or too easy a conformity with their habits. It will therefore be an evident proof of Christian self-government when a man restrains the outward expression of over-ardent zeal where it would be unseasonable or unsafe; while he will practice the same Christian self-denial if he has a fearful and diffident character, to burst the fetters of timidity where duty requires a holy boldness and when he is called upon to lose all lesser fears in the fear of God.

One of the first objects of a Christian is to get his understanding and his conscience thoroughly enlightened; to take an exact survey, not only of the whole comprehensive scheme of Christianity, but of his own nature; to discover, in order to correct, the defects in his judgment; and to ascertain the deficiencies even of his best qualities. Through ignorance in these respects, though he may be following up some good tendency, though he is even persuaded that he is not wrong in his motive or his purpose, he may yet be wrong in the scope, the mode, or in the application, though right in the principle. He must therefore watch over his better qualities with a suspicious eye and guard his very virtues from deviation and excess.

Zeal is an indispensable ingredient in the composition of a great character. Without it no great eminence, secular or religious, has ever been attained. It is essential to the acquisition of excellence in arts and arms, in learning and piety. Without it no man will be able to reach the perfection of his nature, or to animate others to aim at that perfection. Yet it will surely mislead the dedicated Christian if his knowledge of what is right and just does not keep pace with the principle itself.

Zeal, indeed, is not so much a single virtue, as it is the principle which gives life and coloring, grace and goodness, warmth and energy to every other virtue. It is that feeling which exalts the relish of every duty and sheds a luster in the practice of every virtue. It embellishes every image of the mind with its glowing tints and animates every quality of the heart with its invigorating motion. It may be said of zeal that though by itself it never made a great man, yet no man has ever made himself conspicuously great where it has been lacking.

Many things, however, must concur before we can determine whether zeal is really a virtue or a vice. Those who are contending for the one or for the other will be in the situation of the two knights who, meeting on a crossroad, were on the point of fighting about the composition of a cross that was between them. One insisted it was gold; the other maintained it was silver. The duel was prevented by the interference of a passenger who desired them to change their positions. Both crossed over to the opposite side and found that the cross was gold on one side and silver on the other. Each acknowledged his opponent to be right.

It may be disputed whether fire be a good or an evil. The man who feels himself cheered by its kindly warmth is assured that it is a benefit, but he whose house it has just burned down will give another verdict. Not only the cause, therefore, in which zeal is exercised must be good, but the zeal itself must be under proper regulation. If it is not, it will be like the rapidity of the traveler who gets on the wrong road, carrying him so much the farther out of his way, or if he be on the right road, will carry him involuntarily beyond his destination. That degree of zeal is equally misleading which detains us short of our goal, or which pushes us beyond it.

The Apostle suggests a useful precaution by expressly asserting that it is "in a good cause" that we "must be zealously affected." This implies a further truth, that where the cause is not good the mischief is proportionate with the zeal. But the possibility of misdirected zeal should not totally discourage us from being zealous.

If the injustice, the intolerance and persecution with which a misguided zeal has so often afflicted the Church of Christ be lamented as a deplorable evil, yet the overruling wisdom of Providence, fashioning good out of evil, made those very calamities the instruments of producing that true and lively zeal to which we owe the glorious band of martyrs and confessors, those brightest ornaments of the best periods of the Church. This effect, though a clear vindication of that divine goodness which allows evil, is no excuse for the one who perpetuates it.

It is curious to observe the contrary operations of true and false zeal, which though apparently only different modifications of the same quality, are, when brought into contact, repugnant and even destructive to each other. There is no attribute of the human mind where the different effects of the same principle have such a total opposition, for is it not obvious that the same principle which actuates the tyrant in dragging the martyr to the stake, can under another direction, enable the martyr to embrace it?

As a striking proof that the necessity for caution is not imaginary, it has been observed that the Holy Scriptures record more instances of bad zeal than of good zeal. This furnishes the most authoritative argument for regulating this impetuous principle, and for governing it by all those restrictions demanded by a feeling so calculated for good and so capable of evil.

It was zeal, but of a blind and furious character, which produced the massacre on the day of St. Bartholomew, a day to which the mournful strains of job have been so well applied: "Let that day perish. Let it not be joined to the days of the year. Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it." It was zeal most bloody, combined with a perfidy the most detestable, which inflamed the detestable Catherine de Medici, when she, under the alluring mask of a public festivity, contrived a general mass of wholesale destruction of some twenty-five to fifty thousand French Protestants. The royal and pontifical assassins, not satisfied with the sin, converted it into a triumph. Medals were struck in honor of a deed which has no parallel in the annals of pagan persecution.

Even glory did not satisfy the pernicious plotters of this direful tragedy. Devotion was called in to be the crown and consummation of their crime. The blackest hypocrisy was made use of to sanctify the foulest murder. The iniquity could not be complete without solemnly thanking God for its success. The Pope and Cardinals proceeded to St. Mark's Church, where they praised the Almighty for so great a blessing conferred on the Pope of Rome and the Catholic world. A solemn jubilee completed the preposterous pretense. This zeal of devotion was much worse than even the zeal of murder, as thanking God for enabling us to commit a sin is worse than the commission itself. A wicked piety is still more disgusting than a wicked act. God is less offended by the sin itself than by the thank-offering of its perpetrators. It looks like a black attempt to involve the Creator in the crime.

For a complete contrast to this pernicious zeal we need not, blessed be God, travel back into remote history, nor abroad into distant realms. This happy land of civil and religious liberty can furnish a countless catalog of instances of a pure, a wise, and a well directed zeal. Not to swell the list, we will only mention that it has in our own age produced the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the abolition of the African slave trade. Three as noble and, we trust, as lasting monuments as ever national virtue erected in true piety. These are institutions which bear the authentic stamp of Christianity and embrace the best interests of almost the whole of the habitable globe "without partiality and without hypocrisy."

Why we hear so much in praise of zeal from a certain class of religious characters is partly owing to their having taken up a notion that zeal is necessary for the care of other people's salvation, rather than for their own. Indeed the casual prying into a neighbor's house, though much more entertaining, is not nearly as troublesome as the constant inspection of one's own. It is observable that the outcry against zeal among the irreligious is raised on nearly the same ground as the clamor in its favor by these professors of religion. The former suspect that the zeal of the religionists is consumed in censuring their impiety, and in eagerness for their conversion, instead of being directed to themselves. This supposed anxiety they resent, and they give a practical proof of their resentment by resolving not to profit by it.

Two very erroneous opinions exist respecting zeal. It is commonly supposed to indicate a lack of charity; actually it is a firm friend rather than an enemy. Indeed, charity is such a reliable criterion of its sincerity, that we should be suspect of zeal which is unaccompanied by this fair ally.

Another opinion equally erroneous is prevalent—that where there is much zeal, there is little or no prudence. Now a sound and sober zeal is not such an idiot as to neglect to provide for its own success by taking every precaution which prudence can suggest. True zeal therefore will be as discreet as it is fervent, well knowing that its warmest efforts will be neither effectual, nor lasting, without those provisions which discretion alone can make. No quality is ever possessed in perfection where its opposite is lacking; zeal is not Christian fervor, but animal heat, if not associated with charity and prudence.

That most valuable faculty of intellectual man, the judgment, the enlightened, impartial, unbiased judgment must be kept in perpetual use, both to ascertain that the cause be good, and to determine the degree of its importance in any given case, so that we may not blindly assign an undue value to an inferior good. Without the discrimination we may be fighting a windmill when we fancy we are attacking a fort! We must prove not only whether the thing contended for be right, but whether it be essential; whether in our eagerness to attain this lesser good we may not be sacrificing or neglecting things of more real consequence; whether the value we assign to it may not be even imaginary.

Above all we should examine if we contend for a cause chiefly because it happens to fall in with our own feelings or our own party, more than for its intrinsic worth. We should also consider whether we do not wish to distinguish ourselves by our tenacity, rather than being committed to the principle itself.

This zeal, hotly exercised over mere circumstantial or ceremonial differences, has unhappily helped in causing irreparable separations and dissensions in the Christian world, even where the champions on both sides were great and good people. Many of the points over which they have argued were not worth insisting upon where the opponents agreed in the grand fundamentals of faith and practice.

But to consider zeal as a general question, as a thing of everyday experience, we can say that he whose religious devotion is most sincere is likely to be the most zealous. But though zeal is an indication, and even an essential part of sincerity, a burning zeal is sometimes seen where the sincerity is somewhat questionable.

For where zeal is generated by ignorance, it is commonly fostered by self-will. That which we have embraced through false judgment we maintain through false honor. Pride is generally called in to nurse the offspring of error. We frequently see those who are perversely zealous for points which can add nothing to the cause of Christian truth, while they are cold and indifferent about the great things which involve the salvation of man.

Though all significant truths and all indispensable duties are made so obvious in the Bible that those "may run who read it," people tend to argue over issues that are unworthy of the heat they excite. Different systems are built on the same texts, so that he who fights for them is not always sure whether he is right or not, and if he wins his point, he can make no moral use of his victory. The correctness of his argument indeed is not his concern. It is enough that he has conquered. The importance of the object never depended on its worth, but on the opinion of his right to maintain that worth.

The Gospel assigns very different degrees of importance to allowed practices and commanded duties. It by no means censures those who were rigorous in their payment of the most inconsiderable tithes; but since this duty was not only competing with, but preferred before the most important duties, even justice, mercy and faith, the flagrant hypocrisy was pointedly censured by Meekness itself. This opposition of a scrupulous exactness in paying the petty demand on three paltry herbs to the neglect of the three cardinal Christian virtues, exhibits as complete and instructive a specimen as can be imagined of that frivolous and false zeal which, vanishing in trifles, wholly overlooks those grand points on which hangs eternal life. This passage serves to corroborate a striking fact, that there is scarcely in Scripture any precept enforced which has not some actual example attached to it. The historical parts of the Bible, therefore, are of inestimable value, were it only on this single ground, that the appended truths and principles so abundantly scattered throughout them are in general so happily illustrated by them. They are not dry aphorisms and cold propositions, which stand singly and disconnected, but precepts growing out of the occasion. The recollection of the principles recalls to mind the instructive story which they enrich, while the reminder of the circumstance impresses the lesson upon the heart. Thus the doctrine like a precious gem is at once preserved and embellished by the narrative being made a frame in which to enshrine it.

True zeal will first exercise itself in the earnest desire to obtain greater illumination in our own minds; in fervent prayer that the growing light may operate to the improvement of our conduct; that the influences of divine grace may become more outwardly perceptible by the increasing correctness of our behavior; that every holy affection may be followed by its correspondent act, whether of obedience or of resignation, of doing, or of suffering.

But the effects of a genuine and enlightened zeal will not stop here. It will be visible in our discourse with those to whom we may possibly be of help. The exercise of our zeal, when not done with a bustling kind of interference and offensive forwardness, is proper and useful. Wherever zeal appears, it will be clearly visible, in the same way that a fire will emit both light and heat. We should labor principally to maintain in our own minds the attitudes which our faith has initiated there. The brightest flame will decay if no means are used to keep it alive. Pure zeal will cherish every holy affection, and by increasing every pious disposition will move us to every duty. It will add new force to our hatred of sin, fresh contrition to our repentance, additional vigor to our resolutions, and will impart increased energy to every virtue. It will give life to our devotions, and spirit to all our actions.

When a true zeal has fixed these right affections in our own hearts, the same principle will, as we have already observed, make us earnest to excite them in others. No good man wishes to go to heaven alone, and none ever wished others to go there without earnestly endeavoring to awaken right affections in them. That will be a false zeal which does not begin with the regulation of our own hearts. That will be a narrow zeal which stops where it begins. A true zeal will extend itself through the whole sphere of its possessor's influence. Christian zeal, like Christian charity, will begin at home, but neither the one nor the other must end there.

But that we must not confine our zeal to mere conversation is not only implied but expressed in Scripture. The apostle does not exhort us to be zealous only of good words but or good works. True zeal ever produces true benevolence. It would extend the blessings which we ourselves enjoy to the whole human race. It will consequently stir us up to exert all our influence to the extension of religion, to the advancement of every well conceived and well conducted plan, calculated to enlarge the limits of human happiness, and more especially to promote the eternal interests of humankind.

But if we do not first strenuously labor for our own illumination, how shall we presume to enlighten others? It is a dangerous presumption to busy ourselves in improving others before we have diligently sought our own improvement. Yet it is a vanity not uncommon that the first feelings, be they true or false, which resemble devotion, the first faint ray of knowledge which has imperfectly dawned, excites in certain raw minds an eager impatience to communicate to others what they themselves have not yet attained. Hence the novel swarms of uninstructed instructors, of teachers who have had no time to learn. The act previous to the imparting knowledge should seem to be that of acquiring it. Nothing would so effectually check an irregular zeal for a temperate zeal, as the personal discipline, the self-acquaintance which we have so repeatedly recommended.

True Christian zeal will always be known by its distinguishing and inseparable properties. It will be warm indeed, not from temperament but principle. It will be humble, or it will not be Christian zeal. It will restrain its impetuosity that it may the more effectually promote its object. It will be temperate, softening what is strong in the act by gentleness in the manner. It will be tolerating, willing to grant what it would itself desire. It will be forbearing, in the hope that the offence it seeks to correct may be an occasional lapse rather than a habit of the mind. It will be candid, making a tender allowance for those imperfections which beings, fallible themselves, ought to expect from human infirmity. It will be a friendly admonishment, instead of irritating by the adoption of violence, instead of mortifying by the assumption of superiority.

He, who in private society allows himself in violent anger or unhallowed bitterness or acrimonious railing to reprehend the faults of another, might, did his power keep pace with his inclination, have recourse to other weapons. He would probably banish and burn, confiscate and imprison, and think then, as he thinks now, that he is doing God service.

If there be any quality which demands clear sight, a tight rein and a strict watchfulness, zeal is that quality. The heart where zeal is lacking has no true life, where it is not guarded, no security. The prudence with which zeal is exercised is the surest evidence of its integrity; for if intemperate, it raises enemies not only to ourselves but to God. It augments the natural enmity to religion instead of increasing her friends.

But if tempered by charity, if blended with benevolence, if sweetened by kindness, if shown to be honest by its influence on your own conduct, and gentle by its effect on your manners, zeal may lead your irreligious acquaintance to inquire more closely to what distinguishes them from you. You will already by this mildness have won their affections. Your next step may be to gain over their judgment. They may be led to examine what solid grounds of difference exist between us and them, what substantial reason you have for not going their way, and what sound argument they can offer for not going yours.

But it may possibly be asked, after all, where do we perceive any symptoms of this inflammatory distemper? Should not the prevalence, or at least the existence of a disease be ascertained before applying the remedy? That an illness exists is sufficiently obvious, though it must be confessed that among the higher classes it has not hitherto spread very widely. Its progress is not likely to be very alarming, nor its effects very malignant. It is to be lamented that in every class indeed, coldness and indifference, carelessness and neglect, are the reigning epidemics. These are diseases far more difficult to cure, diseases as dangerous to the patient as they are distressing to the physician, who generally finds it more difficult to raise a sluggish habit than to lower an occasional heat. The imprudently zealous man, if he be sincere, may by a discreet regimen, be brought to a state of complete sanity; but to rouse from a state of morbid indifference, to brace from a total relaxation of the system, must be the immediate work of the Great Physician of souls; of Him who can effect even this, by His spirit accompanying this powerful word: "Awake, you that sheep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light."