From 'On the Study of History' (1895)

The first of human concerns is religion, and it is the salient feature of the modern centuries. They are signalised as the scene of Protestant developments. Starting from a time of extreme indifference, ignorance, and decline, they were at once occupied with that conflict which was to rage so long, and of which no man could imagine the infinite consequences. Dogmatic conviction— for I shun to speak of faith in connection with many characters of those days— dogmatic conviction rose to be the centre of universal interest, and remained down to Cromwell the supreme influence and motive of public policy. A time came when the intensity of prolonged conflict, when even the energy of antagonistic assurance abated somewhat, and the controversial spirit began to make room for the scientific; and as the storm subsided, and the area of settled questions emerged, much of the dispute was abandoned to the serene and soothing touch of historians, invested as they are with the prerogative of redeeming the cause of religion from many unjust reproaches, and from the graver evil of reproaches that are just. Ranke used to say that Church interests prevailed in politics until the Seven Years' War, and marked a phase of society that ended when the ghosts of Brandenburg went into action at Leuthen, chaunting their Lutheran hymns.[*]29 Die Schlacht bei Leuthen ist wohl die letzte, in welcher diese religi�sen Gegens�tze entscheidend eingewirkt haben.— Ranke, Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, vii. 70. That bold proposition would be disputed even if applied to the present age. After Sir Robert Peel had broken up his party, the leaders who followed him declared that no popery was the only basis on which it could be reconstructed.[*]30 The only real cry in the country is the proper and just old No Popery cry.— Major Beresford, July 1847. Unfortunately the strongest bond of union amongst them is an apprehension of Popery.— Stanley, 12th September 1847. The great Protectionist party having degenerated into a No Popery, No Jew Party, I am still more unfit now than I was in 1846 to lead it.— G. Bentinck, 26th December 1847; Croker's Memoirs, iii. 116, 132, 157. On the other side may be urged that, in July 1870, at the outbreak of the French war, the only government that insisted on the abolition of the temporal power was Austria; and since then we have witnessed the fall of Castelar, because he attempted to reconcile Spain with Rome.

Soon after 1850 several of the most intelligent men in France, struck by the arrested increase of their own population and by the telling statistics from Further Britain, foretold the coming preponderance of the English race. They did not foretell, what none could then foresee, the still more sudden growth of Prussia, or that the three most important countries of the globe would, by the end of the century, be those that chiefly belonged to the conquests of the Reformation. So that in Religion, as in so many things, the product of these centuries has favoured the new elements; and the centre of gravity, moving from the Mediterranean nations to the Oceanic, from the Latin to the Teuton, has also passed from the Catholic to the Protestant.[*]31 In the case of Protestantism, this constitutional instability is now a simple matter of fact, which has become too plain to be denied. The system is not fixed, but in motion; and the motion is for the time in the direction of complete self-dissolution.— We take it for a transitory scheme, whose breaking up is to make room in due time for another and far more perfect state of the Church.— The new order in which Protestantism is to become thus complete cannot be reached without the co-operation and help of Romanism.— Nevin, Mercersberg Review, iv. 48.

Out of these controversies proceeded political as well as historical science. It was in the Puritan phase, before the restoration of the Stuarts, that theology, blending with politics, effected a fundamental change. The essentially English reformation of the seventeenth century was less a struggle between churches than between sects, often subdivided by questions of discipline and self-regulation rather than by dogma. The sectaries cherished no purpose or prospect of prevailing over the nations; and they were concerned with the individual more than with the congregation, with conventicles, not with State churches. Their view was narrowed, but their sight was sharpened. It appeared to them that governments and institutions are made to pass away, like things of earth, whilst souls are immortal; that there is no more proportion between liberty and power than between eternity and time; that, therefore, the sphere of enforced command ought to be restricted within fixed limits, and that which had been done by authority, and outward discipline, and organised violence, should be attempted by division of power, and committed to the intellect and the conscience of free men.[*]32 Diese Heiligen waren es, die aus dem unmittelbaren Glaubensleben und den Grundgedanken der christlichen Freiheit zuerst die Idee allgemeiner Menschenrechte abgeleitet und rein von Selbstsucht vertheidigt haben. — Weingarten, Revolutionskirchen, 447. Wie selbst die Idee allgemeiner Menschenrechte, die in dem gemeinsamen Character der Ebenbildlichkeit Gottes gegr�ndet sind, erst durch das Christenthum zum Bewusstsein gebracht werden, wahrend jeder andere Eifer f�r politische Freiheit als ein mehr oder weniger selbsts�chtiger und beschrankter sich erwiesen hat— Neander, Pref. to Uhden's Wilberforce, p. v. The rights of individuals and the justice due to them are as dear and precious as those of states; indeed the latter are founded on the former, and the great end and object of them must be to secure and support the rights of individuals, or else vain is government.— Cushing, in Conway, Life of Paine, i. 217. As it is owned the whole scheme of Scripture is not yet understood; so, if it ever comes to be understood, before the restitution of all things, and without miraculous interpositions, it must be in the same way as natural knowledge is come at— by the continuance and progress of learning and liberty.— Butler, Analogy, ii 3. Thus was exchanged the dominion of will over will for the dominion of reason over reason. The true apostles of toleration are not those who sought protection for their own beliefs, or who had none to protect; but men to whom, irrespective of their cause, it was a political, a moral, and a theological dogma, a question of conscience involving both religion and policy.[*]33 Comme les lois elles-m�mes sont faillibles, et qu'il peut y avoir une autre justice que la justice �crite, les soci�t�s modernes ont voulu garantir les droits de la conscience � la poursuite d'une justice meilleure que celle qui existe; et l� est le fondement de ce qu'on appelle libert� de conscience, libert� d'�crire, libert� de pens�e.— Janet, Philosophie Contemporaine, 308. Si la force mat�rielle a toujours fini par c�der � l'opinion, combien plus sera-t-elle pas contrainte de c�der � la conscience? Car la conscience, c'est l'opinion renforc�e par le sentiment de l'obligation.— Vinet, Libert� Religieuse, 3. Such a man was Socinus; and others arose in the smaller sects,— the Independent founder of the colony of Rhode Island, and the Quaker patriarch of Pennsylvania. Much of the energy and zeal which had laboured for authority of doctrine was employed for liberty of prophesying. The air was filled with the enthusiasm of a new cry; but the cause was still the same. It became a boast that religion was the mother of freedom, that freedom was the lawful offspring of religion; and this transmutation, this subversion of established forms of political life by the development of religious thought, brings us to the heart of my subject, to the significant and central feature of the historic cycles before us. Beginning with the strongest religious movement and the most refined despotism ever known, it has led to the superiority of politics over divinity in the life of nations, and terminates in the equal claim of every man to be unhindered by man in the fulfilment of duty to God [*]34 Apr�s la volont� d'un homme, la raison d'�tat; apr�s la raison d'�tat, la religion; apr�s la religion, la libert�. Voil� toute la philosophie de l'histoire.— Flottes, La Souverainet� du Peuple, 1851, 192. La r�partition plus �gale des biens et des droits dans ce monde est le plus grand objet que doivent se proposer ceux qui m�nent les affaires humaines. Je veux seulement que l'�galit� en politique consiste � �galement libre.— Tocqueville, 10th September 1856. Mme Swetchine, i. 455. On peut concevoir une l�gislation tr�s simple, lorsqu'on voudra en �carter tout ce qui est arbitraire, ne consulter que les deux premi�res lois de la libert� et de la propri�t�, et ne point admettre de lois positives qui ne tirent leur raison de ces deux lois souveraines de la justice essentielle et absolue— Letrosne, Vues sur la Justice Criminelle, 16. Summa enim libertas est, ad optimum recta ratione cogi.— Nemo optat sibi hanc libertatem, volendi quae velit, sed potius volendi optima.— Leibniz, De Fato. Trendelenburg Beitr�ge zur Philosophie, ii. 190. — a doctrine laden with storm and havoc, which is the secret essence of the Rights of Man, and the indestructible soul of Revolution.

Cut-in notes are less distracting to readers than interleaved ones, since the text flows down the page without any breaks. The paragraph structure of the main text is kept visible, but the greyness of the page is loosened up. Text: By Lord Acton. Full title: Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History delivered at Cambridge, June 1895. Home