The Spirit of the Times

by Josiah Audette

The following is from Samuel Rutherford’s 1664 book, “Lex, Rex.”

The more prominent features of a man’s public life are generally characterized by the spirit of the times in which he lived. If the period has been peaceful and undisturbed by party controversy and the disputes of opposing factions, then all flows smoothly and quietly on; the minds of the people repose unhar- assed and unexcited by public contentions and quarrels; there is opportunity for the cultivation of the useful arts; a taste is displayed in the pursuit of learning and literature, and improvements and discoveries, in every branch of science and art, advance with rapid strides. Such a state of things men of civilized nations in general desire. Yet a period like this, when there has been “peace in the land,” looked back upon from a succeeding age, or read as a chapter of history, appears tame and monotonous. There is nothing to arouse the attention or awaken the feelings, when the only record we have of a man is, that he lived, died, and was buried. But it is otherwise when the times have been the scene of anarchy, civil war, or persecution. Then the calmness and repose of the community is broken up; men are excited and roused by the spirit-stirring events that are passing around them; each must take their side;—it is then that their characters are drawn out and shown in a true light: the weak, the timid and undecided, keep the back ground, while men of courage and daring stand forward in bold relief.

There has been in the history of mankind, in all ages, two great contending principles at issue—the contest of error against truth, and the struggle of truth with error. On the one side—error, with the violence of oppression, doing all that persecution can accomplish, in endeavouring to exterminate virtue from the moral universe; and on the other—truth, with noble courage and exalted firmness, maintaining the purity of her principles in opposition to ignorance and persecution. For upwards of four thousand years she has grappled with superstition, idolatry, and bigotry, and, with moral weapons, she has vindicated justice of her principles, which her enemies have found easier to answer with the sword than by argument. In every age error has had the majority, for truth has had few followers; but, in the end, she has been triumphant even at the stake, or on the scaffold. Yet the faggot will burn with a fiercer flame, and the guillotine will be deeper dyed with the martyr’s blood than it has ever yet been, ere the world assent to the truth of her doctrines. On looking back, and review- ing the civil and religious history of our own land, we observe the mighty contest between Popery and the Reformed Doctrine—we see the fearful conflict of right and wrong—and we see truth, with a gigantic effort, burst the fetters which had so long held the people in mental bondage and ignorance. Again, we observe the struggles between Presbytery and Episcopacy, during most of the latter half of the seventeenth century; one party urged on by a spirit of opposition and bigotry, to trample on the religious rights and privileges of the people, and doing all in their power to bring them again under the iron sway of the Church of Rome; the other, with moral courage and firmness, standing boldly forward, in the front of persecution, tyranny, and oppression, for the cause and promotion of true religion; and from the martyrdom of Hamilton, Scotland’s first martyr, many a noble spirit has been immolated and set free, for the cause, and at the shrine of Truth;

Yet few remember them. They lived unknown Till persecution dragg’d them into fame, And chased them up to heaven.