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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
H. S. A.
From The Baptist Magazine – Juvenile Department, 1817
At a time when knowledge is more generally diffused than at any former period, it may not be unprofitable to compare the present state of society with that which the earliest records of our history present. The taste for researches into antiquity has recently greatly prevailed, and, if indulged in inquiries of importance, it is truly laudable.
The early history of our favoured isle is confessedly involved in obscurity, and it is not intended to attempt a critical investigation of its aborigines; nor could such an investigation gratify the interesting class of readers, which it will be the design of these papers to please and benefit.
As religion and morality are the great objects we desire to recommend, these sketches will tend to illustrate and prove their importance, and the reader, however young, is affectionately invited earnestly to supplicate the blessing of Him, who alone can render effectual human exertion.
With this view, Druidism, which about fifty years before Christ, so generally prevailed in this country, seems first to invite our attention; and, if we endeavour to contrast it with Christianity, which is now so happily exemplified and extended, it may at least excite gratitude for the superior blessings it bath pleased our sovereign Benefactor to vouchsafe unto us, and animate our zeal, that those countries that are still enslaved by superstition, and sit in darkness, may, through our instrumentality, see the light, and enjoy the liberty, that have long distinguished Britain.
Julius Caesar, Pliny, Strabo, and Diodorus Siculus, afford the best accounts of this species of superstition. The frequent Roman invasions gave the intruders opportunities of witnessing its amazing influence.
The Druids were necessarily men of ability, of fortitude, perseverance, and self-denial; for although this supposed sacred profession was open to everyone, few could endure the labour and privations of fifteen or twenty years, in committing to memory their tedious regulations and maxims. For on no account was it permitted that their doctrines should be committed to writing, lest the vulgar should read and judge for themselves - so congenial, so inseparable, are superstition and ignorance.
They were the instructors of youth, but very little did they deem it right to teach. A reverence, therefore, of this delusion was early infused into the mind. Their influence was not confined to the young, nor to the concerns of religion, but they were judges of right and wrong, not only among individuals, but irritated states.
The terrible punishment of excommunication succeeded their displeasure—a punishment by some more dreaded than death itself. Cut off from all intercourse with his friends and neighbours, forbad the consolations of their religion, and denied even the protection of the laws, the individual was an outcast from society. And the awful refuge from misery, to which the irreligious so frequently flee, could not but be terrific to him who believed in the perpetual transmigration of souls. The power of these priests was therefore boundless, and it may be questioned whether even the Romish clergy ever obtained a more complete dominion over the minds of their votaries.
It is only real religion and virtue that will bear the light. The darkest groves, and most solitary retreats, particularly where spreading oaks were found, to which tree they ever paid an idolatrous regard, were the places selected for their ceremonies. Woods and forests were the depositaries of the spoils of war, which were generally consecrated to their gods, and sad was the fate of him who was tempted to secrete or purloin any part of such offerings.
Such booty required no other guardian than the terrors of this superstition. They had their sacrifices, nor did they scruple to immolate their fellow-creatures. Anglesey was the very nursery of this religion, being the residence of the grand Druid, and the most learned of their priests.
Suetonius Paulinus having observed the immense influence of these men on the inhabitants in general, with great policy concluded, the most effectual way to subdue the Britons would be to attack this druidical retreat, and destroy or disperse the Druids themselves.
This attempt and his singular reception, is most animatedly described by Tacitus, which passage also tends to illustrate the manners of the people at that period:
"On the shore stood a motley army, in close array, and well-armed, with women running wildly about, in black attire, with dishevelled hair, and like the furies brandishing their torches. They were surrounded by the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth the moat dreadful imprecations. The soldier stood astonished with the novelty of the sight. His limbs grew torpid, and his body remaining motionless, resigned to every wound.
“At length, animated by their leader, and exhorting each other not to be intimidated with a womanly and fanatic band, they displayed their ensigns, overthrew all who opposed them, and flung them into their own fires. After the battle, they placed garrisons in the towns, and cut down the groves, consecrated to the most horrible superstitions. For, they held it right to sacrifice on their altars with the blood of their enemies, and to consult the gods by the inspection of their entrails.”
While such was the religion of a people, we cannot be surprised to find them in a state of barbarism - not unlike the untutored Indians or Africans of our times, allowing for the diversities local circumstances were calculated to produce. Their towns were confused groups of huts, concealed in the bosom of some woods, the avenues to which were guarded by trees or mounds of earth.
They were in the habit of painting their bodies, rather than clothing them. They were very fond of divination- running waters, the flight of birds, and the neighing of horses, were regarded with ominous attention. The following lines well describe the ancient Briton:
"Rude as the wilds around his sylvan home,
In savage grandeur see the Briton roam:
Bare were his limbs, and strong with toil and cold,
By untam'd nature cast in giant mould.
O'er his broad brawny shoulders loosely flung,
Shaggy and long, his yellow ringlets hung
His waist an iron-belted falchion bore,
Massy, and purpl'd deep with human gore;
His scarr'd and rudely painted limbs around,
Fantastic horror-striking figures frown’d,
Which, monster-like, ev'n to the confines ran
Of Nature's work, and left him hardly man."
It would be needless to state, that courage and strength distinguished these early inhabitants; qualities for which their descendants have ever been deservedly famed to the present hour. The characters of Caractacus and Boadicea will never be forgotten.
Does the serious British youth contemplate such a state of society, and such superstition, with mingled emotions of surprise and horror? Let gratitude fill his heart that though such was the condition of his forefathers, their children's children enjoy- the advantages of civilization, heightened by the blessing of the gospel.
Instead of intolerant priests, the humble ministers of Christ; instead of a false religion, known only to its interested priests, a real religion, made known by the pages of inspiration, which he who runs may read, and in which the wayfaring man, though a fool, shall not err; instead of the gloom of a forest, in which to perform worship, the assurance of the divine presence where but two or three are met together to seek the Saviour, even though a barn or closet were the sequestered spot: instead of the degraded or merciless heroine, taught to delight in war, the affectionate, modest, and tender female, delighting in mercy.
Oh! Thou infinitely gracious God! What shall we render to thee for thy benefits? Take thou our hearts, and make us wholly thine!