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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 25136

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Lord Byron's Conversations on Religion with Dr Kennedy

While Lord Byron was hesitating, in the Island of Cephalonia, about proceeding to Greece, an occurrence took place, of which much has been made. I allude to the acquaintance he formed with a Dr Kennedy, the publication of whose conversations with him on religion has attracted some degree of public attention.

This gentleman was originally destined for the Scottish bar, but afterwards became a student of medicine, and entering the medical department of the army, happened to be stationed in Cephalonia when Lord Byron arrived. He appears to have been a man of kind dispositions, possessed of a better heart than judgment; in all places wherever his duty bore him he took a lively interest in the condition of the inhabitants, and was active, both in his official and private capacity, to improve it. He had a taste for circulating pious tracts, and zealously co-operated in distributing copies of the Scriptures.

Firmly settled, himself, in a conviction of the truth of Christianity, he was eager to make converts to his views of the doctrines; but whether he was exactly the kind of apostle to achieve the conversion of Lord Byron may, perhaps, be doubted. His sincerity and the disinterestedness of his endeavours would secure to him from his Lordship an indulgent and even patient hearing. But I fear that without some more effectual calling, the arguments he appears to have employed were not likely to have made Lord Byron a proselyte. His Lordship was so constituted in his mind, and by his temperament, that nothing short of regeneration could have made him a Christian, according to the gospel of Dr Kennedy.

Lord Byron had but loose feelings in religion-scarcely any. His sensibility and a slight constitutional leaning towards superstition and omens showed that the sense of devotion was, however, alive and awake within him; but with him religion was a sentiment, and the convictions of the understanding had nothing whatever to do with his creed. That he was deeply imbued with the essence of natural piety; that he often felt the power and being of a God thrilling in all his frame, and glowing in his bosom, I declare my thorough persuasion; and that he believed in some of the tenets and in the philosophy of Christianity, as they influence the spirit and conduct of men, I am as little disposed to doubt; especially if those portions of his works which only trend towards the subject, and which bear the impression of fervour and earnestness, may be admitted as evidence. But he was not a member of any particular church, and, without a reconstruction of his mind and temperament, I venture to say, he could not have become such; not in consequence, as too many have represented, of any predilection, either of feeling or principle, against Christianity, but entirely owing to an organic peculiarity of mind. He reasoned on every topic by instinct, rather than by induction or any process of logic; and could never be so convinced of the truth or falsehood of an abstract proposition, as to feel it affect the current of his actions. He may have assented to arguments, without being sensible of their truth; merely because they were not objectionable to his feelings at the time. And, in the same manner, he may have disputed even fair inferences, from admitted premises, if the state of his feelings happened to be indisposed to the subject. I am persuaded, nevertheless, that to class him among absolute infidels were to do injustice to his memory, and that he has suffered uncharitably in the opinion of "the rigidly righteous," who, because he had not attached himself to any particular sect or congregation, assumed that he was an adversary to religion. To claim for him any credit, as a pious man, would be absurd; but to suppose he had not as deep an interest as other men "in his soul's health" and welfare, was to impute to him a nature which cannot exist. Being, altogether, a creature of impulses, he certainly could not be ever employed in doxologies, or engaged in the logomachy of churchmen; but he had the sentiment which at a tamer age might have made him more ecclesiastical. There was as much truth as joke in the expression, when he wrote,

I am myself a moderate Presbyterian.

A mind constituted like that of Lord Byron, was little susceptible of impressions from the arguments of ordinary men. It was necessary that Truth, in visiting him, should come arrayed in her solemnities, and with Awe and Reverence for her precursors. Acknowledged superiority, yea, celebrated wisdom, were indispensable, to bespeak his sincere attention; and, without disparagement, it may be fairly said, these were not the attributes of Dr Kennedy. On the contrary, there was a taint of cant about him-perhaps he only acted like those who have it-but still he was not exactly the dignitary to command unaffected deference from the shrewd and irreverent author of Don Juan. The result verified what ought to have been the anticipation. The doctor's attempt to quicken Byron to a sense of grace failed; but his Lordship treated him with politeness. The history of the affair will, however, be more interesting than any reflections which it is in my humble power to offer.

Some of Dr Kennedy's acquaintances wished to hear him explain, in "a logical and demonstrative manner, the evidences and doctrines of Christianity"; and Lord Byron, hearing of the intended meeting, desired to be present, and was accordingly invited. He attended; but was not present at several others which followed; he however intimated to the doctor, that he would be glad to converse with him, and the invitation was accepted. "On religion," says the doctor, "his Lordship was in general a hearer, proposing his difficulties and objections with more fairness than could have been expected from one under similar circumstances; and with so much candour, that they often seemed to be proposed more for the purpose of procuring information, or satisfactory answers, than from any other motive."

At the first meeting, Dr Kennedy explained, becomingly, his views of the subject, and that he had read every work against Christianity which fell in his way. It was this consideration which had induced him with such confidence to enter upon the discussion, knowing, on the one hand, the strength of Christianity, and, on the other, the weakness of its assailants. "To show you, therefore," said the doctor, "the grounds on which I demand your attention to what I may say on the nature and evidence of Christianity, I shall mention the names of some of the authors whose works I have read or consulted." When he had mentioned all these names, Lord Byron asked if he had read Barrow's and Stillingfleet's works? The doctor replied, "I have seen them, but I have not read them."

After a disquisition, chiefly relative to the history of Christianity, Dr Kennedy observed, "We must, on all occasions, but more particularly in fair and logical discussions with sceptics, or Deists, make a distinction between Christianity, as it is found in the Scriptures, and the errors, abuses, and imperfections of Christians themselves." To this his Lordship remarked, that he always had taken care to make that distinction, as he knew enough of Christianity to feel that it was both necessary and just. The doctor remarked that the contrary was almost universally the case with those who doubted or denied the truth of Christianity, and proceeded to illustrate the statement. He then read a summary of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity; but he had not proceeded far, when he observed signs of impatience in Lord Byron, who inquired if these sentiments accorded with the doctor's? and being answered they did, and with those of all sound Christians, except in one or two minor things, his Lordship rejoined, that he did not wish to hear the opinions of others, whose writings he could read at any time, but only his own. The doctor then read on till coming to the expression "grace of God." His Lordship inquired, "What do you mean by grace?" "The primary and fundamental meaning of the word," replied the doctor, somewhat surprised at his ignorance (I quote his own language), "is favour; though it varies according to the context to express that disposition of God which leads Him to grant a favour, the action of doing so, or the favour itself, or its effects on those who receive it." The arrogance of the use of the term ignorance here, requires no animadversion; but to suppose the greatest master, then in existence, of the English language, not acquainted with the meaning of the word, when he asked to be informed of the meaning attached to it by the individual making use of it, gives us some insight into the true character of the teacher. The doctor closed the book, as he perceived that Lord Byron, as he says, had no distinct conception of many of the words used; and his Lordship subjoined, "What we want is, to be convinced that the Bible is true; because if we can believe that, it will follow as a matter of course, that we must believe all the doctrines it contains."

The reply to this was to the effect, that the observation was partly just; but though the strongest evidence were produced of the Scriptures being the revealed will of God, they (his Lordship and others present) would still remain unbelievers, unless they knew and comprehended the doctrines contained in the Scriptures. This was not conclusive, and Lord Byron replied, that they wished him to prove that the Scriptures were the Word of God, which the doctor, with more than apostolic simplicity, said that such was his object, but he should like to know what they deemed the clearest course to follow with that object in view. After some farther conversation-"No other plan was proposed by them," says the doctor; and he adds, "they had violated their engagement to hear me for twelve hours, for which I had stipulated." This may, perhaps, satisfy the reader as to the quality of the doctor's understanding; but as the subject, in its bearing, touches Lord Byron's character, I shall proceed a little farther into the marrow of the matter.

The inculcation being finished for that evening, Lord Byron said, that when he was young his mother brought him up strictly; and that he had access to a great many theological works, and remembered that he was particularly pleased with Barrow's writings, and that he also went regularly to church. He declared that he was not an infidel, who denied the Scriptures and wished to remain in unbelief; on the contrary, he was desirous to believe, as he experienced no happiness in having his religious opinions so unsteady and unfixed. But he could not, he added, understand the Scriptures. "Those people who conscientiously believe, I always have respected, and was always disposed to trust in them more than in others." A desultory conversation then ensued, respecting the language and translations of the Scriptures; in the course of which his Lordship remarked, that Scott, in his Commentary on the Bible, did not say that it was the devil who tempted Eve, nor does the Bible say a word about the devil. It is only said that the serpent spoke, and that it was the subtlest of all the beasts of the field.-Will it be said that truth and reason were served by Dr Kennedy's {319} answer? "As beasts have not the faculty of speech, the just inference is, that the beast was only an instrument made use of by some invisible and superior being. The Scriptures accordingly tell us, that the devil is the father of lies-the lie made by the serpent to Eve being the first we have on record; they call him also a murderer from the beginning, as he was the cause of the sentence of death which was pronounced against Adam and all his posterity; and still farther, to remove all doubt, and to identify him as the agent who used the serpent as an instrument, he is called the serpent-the devil."

Lord Byron inquired what the doctor thought of the theory of Warburton, that the Jews had no distinct idea of a future state? The doctor acknowledged that he had often seen, but had never read The Divine Legation. And yet, he added, had Warburton read his Bible with more simplicity and attention, he would have enjoyed a more solid and honourable fame.

His Lordship then said, that one of the greatest difficulties he had met with was the existence of so much pure and unmixed evil in the world, and which he could not reconcile to the idea of a benevolent Creator. The doctor set aside the

question as to the origin of evil; but granted the extensive existence of evil in the universe; to remedy which, he said, the Gospel was proclaimed; and after some of the customary commonplaces, he ascribed much of the existing evil to the slackness of Christians in spreading the Gospel.

"Is there not," said his Lordship, "some part of the New Testament where it appears that the disciples were struck with the state of physical evil, and made inquiries into the cause?"-"There are two passages," was the reply. The disciples inquired, when they saw a man who had been born blind, whether it was owing to his own or his parents' sin?-and, after quoting the other instance, he concludes, that moral and physical evil in individuals are not always a judgment or punishment, but are intended to answer certain ends in the government of the world.

"Is there not," said his Lordship, "a prophecy in the New Testament which it is alleged has not been fulfilled, although it was declared that the end of the world would come before the generation then existing should pass away?"-"The prediction," said Dr Kennedy, "related to the destruction of Jerusalem, which certainly took place within the time assigned; though some of the expressions descriptive of the signs of that remarkable event are of such a nature as to appear to apply to Christ's coming to judge the world at the end of time."

His Lordship then asked, if the doctor thought that there had been fewer wars and persecutions, and less slaughter and misery, in the world since the introduction of Christianity than before? The doctor answered this by observing, that since Christianity inculcates peace and good-will to all men, we must always separate pure religion from the abuses of which its professors are guilty.

Two other opinions were expressed by his Lordship in the conversation. The doctor, in speaking of the sovereignty of God, had alluded to the similitude of the potter and his clay; for his Lordship said, if he were broken in pieces, he would say to the potter, "Why do you treat me thus?" The other was an absurdity. It was-if the whole world were going to hell, he would prefer going with them than go alone to heaven.

Such was the result of the first council of Cephalonia, if one may venture the allusion. It is manifest, without saying much for Lord Byron's ingenuity, that he was fully a match for the doctor, and that he was not unacquainted with the subject under discussion.

In the next conversation Lord Byron repeated, "I have no wish to reject Christianity without investigation; on the contrary, I am very desirous of believing. But I do not see very much the need of a Saviour, nor the utility of prayer. Devotion is the affection of the heart, and this I feel. When I view the wonders of creation, I bow to the Majesty of Heaven; and when I feel the enjoyments of life, I feel grateful to God for having bestowed them upon me." Upon this some discussion arose, turning chiefly on the passage in the third chapter of John, "Unless a man is converted, he cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven"; which naturally led to an explanatory interlocutor, concerning new birth, regeneration, etc.; and thence diverged into the topics which had been the subject of the former conversation.

Among other things, Lord Byron inquired, "if the doctor really thought that the devil appeared before God, as is mentioned in the Book of Job, or is it only an allegorical or poetical mode of speaking?"-The reply was, "I believe it in the strict and literal meaning."

"If it be received in a literal sense," said his Lordship, "it gives me a much higher idea of the majesty, power, and wisdom of God, to believe that the devils themselves are at His nod, and are subject to His control, with as much ease as the elements of nature follow the respective laws which His will has assigned them."

This notion was characteristic, and the poetical feeling in which it originated, when the doctor attempted to explain the doctrine of the Manicheans, was still more distinctly developed; for his Lordship again expressed how much the belief of the real appearance of Satan, to hear and obey the commands of God, added to his views of the grandeur and majesty of the Creator.

This second conversation was more desultory than the first; religion was brought in only incidentally, until his Lordship said, "I do not reject the doctrines of Christianity; I want only sufficient proofs of it, to take up the profession in earnest; and I do not believe myself to be so bad a Christian as many of them who preach against me with the greatest fury-many of whom I have never seen nor injured."

"You have only to examine the causes which prevent you" (from being a true believer), said the doctor, "and you will find they are futile, and only tend to withhold you from the enjoyment of real happiness; which at present it is impossible you can find."

"What, then, you think me in a very bad way?"

"I certainly think you are," was the reply; "and this I say, not on my own authority, but on that of the Scriptures.-Your Lordship must be converted, and must be reformed, before anything can be said of you, except that you are bad, and in a bad way."

"But," replied his Lordship, "I already believe in predestination, which I know you believe, and in the depravity of the human heart in general, and of my own in particular; thus you see there are two points in which we agree. I shall get at the others by-and-by. You cannot expect me to become a perfect Christian at once."

And farther his Lordship subjoined:

"Predestination appears to me just; from my own reflection and experience, I am influenced in a way which is incomprehensible, and am led to do things which I never intended; and if there is, as we all admit, a Supreme Ruler of the universe; and if, as you say, he has the actions of the devils, as well as of his own angels, completely at his command, then those influences, or those arrangements of circumstances, which lead us to do things against our will, or with ill-will, must be also under his directions. But I have never entered into the depths of the subject; I have contented myself with believing that there is a predestination of events, and that predestination depends on the will of God."

Dr Kennedy, in speaking of this second conversation, bears testimony to the respectfulness of his Lordship's attention. "There was nothing in his manner which approached to levity, or anything that indicated a wish to mock at religion; though, on the other hand, an able dissembler would have done and said all that he did, with such feelings and intentions."

Subsequent to the second conversation, Dr Kennedy asked a gentleman who was intimate with Lord Byron, if he really thought his Lordship serious in his desire to hear religion explained. "Has he exhibited any contempt or ridicule at what I have said?" This gentleman assured him that he had never heard Byron allude to the subject in any way which could induce him to suspect that he was merely amusing himself. "But, on the contrary, he always names you with respect. I do not, however, think you have made much impression on him: he is just the same fellow as before. He says, he does not know what religion you are of, for you neither adhere to creeds nor councils."

It ought here to be noticed, as showing the general opinion entertained of his Lordship with respect to these polemical conversations, that the wits of the garrison made themselves merry with what was going on. Some of them affected to believe, or did so, that Lord Byron's wish to hear Dr Kennedy proceeded from a desire to have an accurate idea of the opinions and manners of the Methodists, in order that he might make Don Juan become one for a time, and so be enabled to paint their conduct with greater accuracy.

The third conversation took place soon after this comment had been made on Lord Byron's conduct. The doctor inquired if his Lordship had read any of the religious books he had sent. "I have looked," replied Byron, "into Boston's Fourfold State, but I have not had time to read it far: I am afraid it is too deep for me."

Although there was no systematic design, on the part of Lord Byron, to make Dr Kennedy subservient to any scheme of ridicule; yet it is evident that he was not so serious as the doctor so meritoriously desired.

"I have begun," said his Lordship, "very fairly; I have given some of your tracts to Fletcher (his valet), who is a good sort of man, but still wants, like myself, some reformation; and I hope he will spread them among the other servants, who require it still more. Bruno, the physician, and Gamba, are busy, reading some of the Italian tracts; and I hope it will have a good effect on them. The former is rather too decided against it at present; and too much engaged with a spirit of enthusiasm for his own profession, to attend to other subjects; but we must have patience, and we shall see what has been the result. I do not fail to read, from time to time, my Bible, though not, perhaps, so much as I should."

"Have you begun to pray that you may understand it?"

"Not yet. I have not arrived at that pitch of faith yet; but it may come by-and-by. You are in too great a hurry."

His Lordship then went to a side-table, on which a great number of books were ranged; and, taking hold of an octavo, gave it to the doctor. It was Illustrations of the Moral Government of God, by E. Smith, M.D., London. "The author," said he, "proves that the punishment of hell is not eternal; it will have a termination."

"The author," replied the doctor, "is, I suppose, one of the Socinians; who, in a short time, will try to get rid of every doctrine in the Bible. How did your Lordship get hold of this book?"

"They sent it out to me from England, to make a convert of me, I suppose. The arguments are strong, drawn from the Bible itself; and by showing that a time will come when every intelligent creature shall be supremely happy, and eternally so, it expunges that shocking doctrine, that sin and misery will for ever exist under the government of God, Whose highest attribute is love and goodness. To my present apprehension, it would be a most desirable thing, could it be proved that, alternately, all created beings were to be happy. This would appear to be most consistent with the nature of God.-I cannot yield to your doctrine of the eternal duration of punishment.-This author's opinion is more humane; and, I think, he supports it very strongly from Scripture."

The fourth conversation was still more desultory, being carried on at table amid company; in the course of it Lord Byron, however, declared "that he was so much of a believer as to be of opinion that there is no contradiction in the Scriptures which cannot be reconciled by an attentive consideration and comparison of passages."

It is needless to remark that Lord Byron, in the course of these conversations, was incapable of preserving a consistent seriousness. The volatility of his humour was constantly leading him into playfulness, and he never lost an opportunity of making a pun or saying a quaint thing. "Do you know," said he to the doctor, "I am nearly reconciled to St Paul; for he says there is no difference between the Jews and the Greeks, and I am exactly of the same opinion, for the character of both is equally vile."

Upon the whole it must be conceded, that whatever was the degree of Lord Byron's dubiety as to points of faith and doctrine, he could not be accused of gross ignorance, nor described as animated by any hostile feeling against religion.

In this sketch of these conversations, I have restricted myself chiefly to those points which related to his Lordship's own sentiments and belief. It would have been inconsistent with the concise limits of this work to have detailed the controversies. A fair summary of what Byron did not believe, what he was disposed to believe but had not satisfied himself with the evidence, and what he did believe, seemed to be the task I ought to undertake. The result confirmed the statement of his Lordship's religious condition, given in the preliminary remarks which, I ought to mention, were written before I looked into Dr Kennedy's book; and the statement is not different from the estimate which the conversations warrant. It is true that Lord Byron's part in the conversations is not very characteristic; but the integrity of Dr Kennedy is a sufficient assurance that they are substantially correct.

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