A Jansenist Dictionary by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

When L’Advocat published his concise Biographical Dictionary, the Jansenists, the methodists of France, considered it as having been written with a view to depreciate the merit of their friends. The spirit of party is too soon alarmed. The Abbe Barral undertook a dictionary devoted to their cause. In this labour, assisted by his good friends the Jansenists, he indulged all the impetuosity and acerbity of a splenetic adversary. The Abbe was, however, an able writer; his anecdotes are numerous and well chosen; and his style is rapid and glowing. The work bears for title, “Dictionnaire Historique, Litteraire, et Critique, des Hommes Celebres,” 6 vols. 8vo. 1719. It is no unuseful speculation to observe in what manner a faction represents those who have not been its favourites: for this purpose I select the characters of Fenelon, Cranmer, and Luther.

Of Fenelon they write, “He composed for the instruction of the Dukes of Burgundy, Anjou, and Berri, several works; amongst others, the Telemachus–a singular book, which partakes at once of the character of a romance and of a poem, and which substitutes a prosaic cadence for versification.”

But several luscious pictures would not lead us to suspect that this book issued from the pen of a sacred minister for the education of a prince; and what we are told by a famous poet is not improbable, that Fenelon did not compose it at court, but that it is the fruits of his retreat in his diocese. And indeed the amours of Calypso and Eucharis should not be the first lessons that a minister ought to give his scholars; and, besides, the fine moral maxims which the author attributes to the Pagan divinities are not well placed in their mouth. Is not this rendering homage to the demons of the great truths which we receive from the Gospel, and to despoil J. C. to render respectable the annihilated gods of paganism? This prelate was a wretched divine, more familiar with the light of profane authors than with that of the fathers of the church. Phelipeaux has given us, in his narrative of Quietism, the portrait of the friend of Madame Guyon. This archbishop has a lively genius, artful and supple, which can flatter and dissimulate, if ever any could. Seduced by a woman, he was solicitous to spread his seduction. He joined to the politeness and elegance of conversation a modest air, which rendered him amiable. He spoke of spirituality with the expression and the enthusiasm of a prophet; with such talents he flattered himself that everything would yield to him.

In this work the Protestants, particularly the first Reformers, find no quarter; and thus virulently their rabid catholicism exults over the hapless end of Cranmer, the first Protestant archbishop:–

“Thomas Cranmer married the sister of Osiander. As Henry VIII. detested married priests, Cranmer kept this second marriage in profound secrecy. This action serves to show the character of this great reformer, who is the hero of Burnet, whose history is so much esteemed in England. What blindness to suppose him an Athanasius, who was at once a Lutheran secretly married, a consecrated archbishop under the Roman pontiff whose power he detested, saying the mass in which he did not believe, and granting a power to say it! The divine vengeance burst on this sycophantic courtier, who had always prostituted his conscience to his fortune.”

Their character of Luther is quite Lutheran in one sense, for Luther was himself a stranger to moderate strictures:–

“The furious Luther, perceiving himself assisted by the credit of several princes, broke loose against the church with the most inveterate rage, and rung the most terrible alarum against the pope. According to him we should have set fire to everything, and reduced to one heap of ashes the pope and the princes who supported him. Nothing equals the rage of this phrenetic man, who was not satisfied with exhaling his fury in horrid declamations, but who was for putting all in practice. He raised his excesses to the height by inveighing against the vow of chastity, and in marrying publicly Catherine de Bore, a nun, whom he enticed, with eight others, from their convents. He had prepared the minds of the people for this infamous proceeding by a treatise which he entitled ‘Examples of the Papistical Doctrine and Theology,’ in which he condemns the praises which all the saints had given to continence. He died at length quietly enough, in 1546, at Eisleben, his country place–God reserving the terrible effects of his vengeance to another life.”

Cranmer, who perished at the stake, these fanatic religionists proclaim as an example of “divine vengeance;” but Luther, the true parent of the Reformation, “died quietly at Eisleben:” this must have puzzled their mode of reasoning; but they extricate themselves out of the dilemma by the usual way. Their curses are never what the lawyers call “lapsed legacies.”

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