Cato's Letter No. 136

The Popish Hierarchy deduced in a great Measure from that of the Pagans.

John Trenchard (Saturday, July 13, 1723)

SIR, In my last I endeavoured to give you a true anatomy of the indelible character, and of the uninterrupted succession, from whence are derived most of the absurdities of the Romish Church, with all the spiritual equipages of their popes, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, parish-priests, &c. as well as all the powers claimed by them in the Church. In this I shall give you their genealogy; as also the genealogy of their cathedrals, their altars, their lighted candles upon them at noonday, their worshipping God towards the east; and a great deal more of their religious trumpery. I cannot, after the most diligent enquiry, find out the least countenance for most, if any, of these fine things, in the Christian religion, and the Jewish is long since abolished. Our Saviour plainly intended to reduce men to natural religion, which was corrupted and defaced by the numerous superstitions of the Jews, and by the absurd idolatries of the Gentiles. The doctrine which he taught, consisted only in worshipping one god, and in doing good to men; and therefore he instituted a religion without priests, sacrifices, and ceremonies; a religion which was to reside in the heart, to consist in spirit, and in truth; and to shew itself outwardly in virtuous actions: But such a religion would not gratify the ambition and pride of those who desired to domineer over their brethren, and to acquire from their ignorance and fears, riches and authority.

As therefore the Jewish priests had, by their traditions, and their fabulous legends, corrupted the law of Moses; so the Christian clergy did by degrees blend the gospel, and the plain and easy precepts of Christianity, with the most absurd parts of the Jewish traditions, and with the ridiculous foppery of the religion of the Gentiles; insomuch, that at the Reformation there was not left in the world any thing that looked like Christianity. The Pope and his priests had picked out from all other superstitions their most absurd, cruel, and wicked parts and principles; and having incorporated the same with peculiar absurdities of their own, made out of all such a wild jumble of nonsense and impieties, as has driven virtue, good government, and humanity, almost out of the world; given rise to Mahometanism; and both together have almost extinguished the human race; since there is not in those countries, where these religions entirely prevail, the tenth part of the people that they could boast in the times of the old Romans, nor in proportion to the numbers which China and Holland can now boast; where the priests have no power, and but little influence.

It would be endless to trace all the numerous absurdities of the Romish Church, and to search the sources from whence they are all taken and stolen. I shall content myself here, to shew that their whole machinery is copied from the religion of Zoroaster and the Persian Magi; and shall quote no other authority than the excellent and learned Dr. Prideaux, but give an account of that impostor and his Magi, altogether in the doctorís own words.

He tells us, that Zoroaster flourished in the reign of Darius Hystaspes (though others say, very long before, as he says, the Magi did, who, without doubt, held many of the same opinions, he having only revived their sect with some alterations), and he taught, that there was one Supreme Being, independent and self-existent from all eternity: That under him there were two angels; one the Angel of Light, and the author and director of all good; the other the Angel of Darkness, the author and director of all evil; that this struggle shall continue to the end of the world, and then there should be a general resurrection, and a Day of Judgment, wherein just retribution should be rendered to all, according to their works; and the Angel of Darkness and his disciples should go into a world of their own, where they should suffer in everlasting darkness the punishment of their ill deeds; and the Angel of Light and his disciples should go into a world of their own, and receive in everlasting light, the rewards due to their good deeds.

This impostor pretended to have been taken up to heaven, and there to have heard God speak to him out of the midst of the fire; and therefore he ordered fire-temples to be built, and erected altars in them, upon which sacred fires were kept and preserved, without being suffered to go out; and all the parts of their publick worship were performed before these publick sacred fires, as all their private devotions were before private fires in their own houses: Not that they worshipped the fire, but God in the fire; for God having spoken out of the fire, he said, that it was the surest Shechinah of the Divine Presence; that the sun being the perfectest fire that God had made, there was the throne of his glory, and the evidence of his Divine Presence, in a more especial manner than any where else; for which reason he ordered them to direct all their worship towards the sun, and next towards their sacred fires; and therefore, they always approached them from the west-side; that having their faces towards them, and also towards the rising sun at the same time, they might direct their worship towards both; for the kebla of the Magians being the rising sun, they always worshipped with their faces towards the east.

To gain the greater reputation to his pretensions, he retired to a cave, and there lived a recluse, pretending to be abstracted from all worldly considerations, and to be wholly given up to prayer and divine meditations. Whilst he was in his retirement, he composed the book wherein his pretended revelations are contained; which consisted of twelve volumes. The first contains the liturgy of the Magi, and the rest treat of the other parts of their religion. In this book he commands the same observances about beasts; clean and unclean, which Moses commands; gives the same law of paying tithes to the sacerdotal order; enjoins the same care of avoiding all external and internal pollutions; the same way of cleansing and purifying themselves by frequent washings; the same keeping the priesthood always within one tribe; and several other institutions are also therein contained, of the same Jewish extraction. The rest of its contents are an historical account of the life, actions, and prophecies of its author; the several branches and particulars of his new-reformed superstition; and rules and exhortations to holy living; in which he is very pressing, and sufficiently exact, saving only in one particular, which is about incest, which (the Doctor supposes) is allowed by him out of flattery to the Persian kings, who were exceedingly given to incestuous marriages. This book he pretends to have received from heaven; and according as the actions of his sect agree or disagree with it, they are esteemed either good or evil.

His priests, as is said, are to be all of one tribe, and none but the son of a priest was capable of being a priest; and his priesthood he divided into three tribes. The lowest were the inferior clergy, who served in all the common offices of their divine worship. Next above these were the superintendents, who in their several districts governed the inferior clergy, as the bishops do amongst us; and above all was the Archimagus, or arch-priest, who was the same as the high-priest amongst the Jews, or the Pope now amongst the Romanists, and is the head of the whole religion: And, according to the number of their orders, the temples and churches in which they officiated, were of three sorts. The lowest sort, were their parochial churches, or oratories, which were served by their inferior clergy, as the parochial churches are now with us; and the duties which they there performed, were to read the daily offices out of their liturgy, and at stated and solemn times to read some part of their sacred writings to the people. In these churches there were no fire-altars; but the sacred fire before which they worshipped, was maintained only with a lamp. Next above these were the fire-temples, in which fire was continually kept burning on a sacred altar; and these were in the same manner as cathedrals with us, the churches or temples, where the superintendent resided. In every one of these were also several of the inferior clergy entertained, who, in the same manner as the choral vicars with us, performed all the divine offices under the superintendent, and also took care of the sacred fire, &c.

The highest church above all, was the fire-temple where the Archimagus resided, which was had in the same veneration with them, as the temple of Mecca among the Mahometans, to which every one of that sect thought themselves obliged to make a pilgrimage once in their lives. Zoroaster settled at Balch, and he and the Archimagus his successors had their residence there; but afterwards it was removed to Herman. This temple of the Archimagus, as also their other fire-temples, were endowed with large revenues in lands; but the parochial clergy depended only upon the tithes and offerings of the people. The Doctor observes afterwards, that this impostor having wonderful success in causing this imposture to be received by the King, the great men, and the generality of the whole kingdom, he returned to Balch; where, according to his institution, he was obliged to have his residence, as Archimagus, or head of the sect; and there he reigned with the same authority in spirituals over the whole empire, as the King did in temporals.

The Doctor observes, and perhaps with truth, that Zoroaster borrowed a great part of his new religion from the Jews, especially if he lived so late as he supposes him to have done, with some appearance of reason. But if the impostor took his doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and of rewards and punishments from them too (which he also supposes), it must have been from the Essenes, a sect among the Jews, not exceeding four thousand: For I cannot find any mention made of that doctrine in the books of Moses, which contain their laws, and promise only temporal blessings and punishments: And the Doctor himself, in another place, tells us, that the Sadducees, who were the gentlemen, and men of learning amongst them, did wholly disbelieve the resurrection, future rewards and punishments, angels and spirits, and rejected all the scriptures but the law; and that the Pharisees, though they believed the resurrection, yet only thought it a Pythagorean resurrection, or transmigration of the same soul into another body: And I think it is plain from the New Testament, that the full revealing of this truth was reserved to our blessed Saviour, who brought life and immortality to light: Though it is undoubtedly true, that some of the Jews held it as a philosophical opinion, probably taken from the nations whom they conversed with: But it does not appear to me, that Moses established it as a sanction to the religion which he revealed, or that it was any part of the Jewish religion to believe it.

But admitting that Zoroaster took the best parts of his religion from the Jews, I think it is much plainer that the Romanists have taken the worst parts of theirs from him; or else they have very luckily or unluckily jumped in the same thoughts. Their Archimagus, high-priest or pope, they can have no where else, unless they borrowed him from the Jews, which would be extremely impudent, since the Christian religion is built upon the ruins of theirs. Their superintendents, whom they call archbishops and bishops, and their parochial priests, whom they do not borrow from the Jews, and who, they say, are not derived from human institution, cannot be derived, in my opinion, from any other source than that of Zoroaster. Where else do they find the division of their priests into several orders, which exactly resemble his, namely, the lower order in parochial temples, to read offices out of their liturgies, or mass-books, and portions of their sacred writings at appointed times? for the Jews had not that oeconomy, nor indeed any synagogue-worship, till long after Zoroasterís time. Where else do they find cathedrals with altars in them, and lighted candles upon these altars, in imitation of the sacred fire of the Magi; and these altars standing to the east, and the worship in them performed with the face towards it? Where else the many inferior priests officiating in such temples, subordinate to the superintendent, and in ease to him? And where else the endowing these temples with lands, and revenues?

Where do they find their uninterrupted succession &c. and in consequence their indelible character, but in the succession of Zoroasterís priests in one tribe only, who without doubt were all holy, had all a divine right, were particularly favourites of the Divine Being, and clothed with peculiar powers and dispensations? Where had they the absurd and blasphemous opinion of Godís being more immediately at the altar, or in the east, than in any other place; unless from the notion and dreams of the Magi, that the Divine Presence was in an especial manner in the sun, or in the fire? Where do they find that the deity is pleased with menís retiring into caves, corners, and monasteries; with their neglecting the affairs of the world, and of their families; with their being useless to society; and with their indulging meditation and the spleen; but in the example and authority of Zoroaster? Where do they find any command for wild jaunts in pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and for idle and enthusiastick devotions to shrines, altars, and chappels, unless in the injunctions of this impostor to all his votaries to visit the temple of Balch? And where else did they adopt the absurd, monstrous, and wicked hypothesis, of the Churchís having a different head from the state, and of the independence of the priests upon the civil power?

Most of these opinions and practices are parts of the religion of the ancient Magi; and from thence it is reasonable to presume that the Romish priests have copied them, unless they can shew where else they had them. They cannot, with the appearance of common sense, be deduced from the New Testament; and the Jewish religion has been long since abolished. They have therefore the honour of having restored the old superstition of the Magi, with this material difference, that the latter had more learning, and much more integrity; that they did not do, by the hundredth part, so much mischief; and treated with more humanity those who differed from them.

T I am, &c.

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