The following essay was written by Angelina Grimke Weld a Quaker, woman’s rights campaigner and abolitionist. I’m not sure when it was composed, but was presented to the Pennsylvania Friends Yearly Meeting in 1857. If some of the content seems dated, keep in mind the era. Dawin’s On the Origin of Species was not published until 2 years after this essay. However, I find much of her essay just as valid for our time as it was for hers.
I do not know whether Angelina believed “God” to be a supernatural being, a mystical force, or a non-real God, common within Quakerism today, and it makes little difference in the context of the essay. Although not universally held, her theological viewpoint was consistent with much of Quaker thought at the time. Her belief that the Fall of Man is a myth, is consistent with Quaker belief from its inception. It’s certainly not the God of modern America’s Evangelical, Fundamentalist churches. In this regard, a passage within the essay stands out:
Individuals live now, who so fully believe that the doctrines they hold are the only saving ones, that they seem in their element only when forcing them upon others. Had they lived in the dark ages, they would have been Inquisitors. They embalm the dead body of the past, setting it upon their hearthstones as a household god. Let us be patient with them – they are not useless. But for them we could not so vividly contrast the dead fossils of the old with the living forms of the new.
As always, I value your comments.
A prisoner, who had been confined several times in the Walnut street Prison of Philadelphia, was subsequently sentenced to the State Prison at Auburn, N.Y. A gentleman, appointed to prepare a report upon the comparative merits of social and solitary confinement, visited Auburn upon his tour of prison inspection. There, in one of the workshops, he recognized this old convict, and found upon inquiry that he had conducted himself with great propriety. This surprised him, as he knew that he had been most incorrigible in the Walnut street Prison. Obtaining permission to speak with him, he inquired into the cause of this change. The prisoner’s face glowed with indignation as he replied, “Sir, in Walnut Street Prison I was treated like a dog, and so I behaved like a dog; here I am treated like a man, and so I behave like a man.”
This anecdote illustrates the truth, confirmed by every day’s observations, that human character, like gross matter, takes its hue from the light in which it is viewed; that it manifests most those elements most powerfully appealed to; that it manifests most those elements most powerfully appealed to; that if, in our judgments and action, we assume it to be bad, and only bad, we supply the conditions for making and keeping it such. Hopes, aspirations, high ideals, all are taken away. The soul’s true motive power, its mainspring, is broken, and, like the high-bred hound, scourged until it slinks away like the commonest cur, humanity crouches into the dust.
This brings us to the inquiry,
Is man really a fallen being? Is his nature intrinsically and utterly wicked? In selecting the “Fall of Man” as my topic, it is with no desire to excite “wordy strife,” but from a deep conviction that the belief in this doctrine has been a blight to the human mind.
We will first consider the character of God. If he is a God of love, he could not have designed that a holy being should fall into sin and destroy himself. If he designed it, then he was himself a demon. If omnipotent, he could have prevented this catastrophe; if benevolent, he would have prevented it. If he desired man’s continued innocence, and yet subjected him to a temptation which he knew would overcome him and involve the whole race in ruin, then he did not obey his own rule of “doing unto others as we would they should do unto us.” If he desired man’s good, and yet could not prevent the devil’s tempting him, then he lacked power, and was thwarted in his designs, and is not fit to be the God of the Universe; for if a man is unfit to be a bishop because he cannot “rule his own house,” then God is not fit to be the Ruler of the Universe, if he could not rule over one man and one woman, keeping them in the sphere of duty and love.
If it be further argued that God could not have prevented “the fall,” without interfering with the free agency of man, that it was impossible to create a world of free agents without friction in its moral machinery, and that be cannot be arraigned, because he did the best that could be done, although moral friction is a great disaster; then 1 say, even this is unworthy of God, for if “his understanding is infinite,” it is absurd to suppose he could not have devised some plan without any disaster attached to it. Is it not more rational to believe that friction exists, not because our Heavenly Father could not help it, but because it is as necessary to the progress of human beings as the friction between the wheel and the rail is necessary to the progress of a train of cars ?
Moral friction, then, is a blessing to the race; it was part of the original plan. Men could not unfold their moral powers without it, any more than they could develop physical strength, had there been no forces in nature to overcome. God endowed man with an intellectual and moral nature, and stimulated it by the love of knowledge and an ever-growing ideal of life, to work out for himself a noble manhood, he is “ working in him to will and to do of his own good pleasure.”
We find a striking analogy to this in the external world, which is filled with an infinite variety of materials, inciting men, continually, by their growing wants and desires, to exercise their ingenuity and efficiency in invention and construction, in literature, science and art.
So also in the vegetable world, innumerable fruits, flowers, grasses and herbs, under the hand of culture, are made sweeter, more nutritious and more beautiful, symbolizing that perfection of character which results from intellectual and moral cultivation.
Reason then, calls upon us to seek some explanation of “the fall,” very different from that generally received– one which will justify the ways of God to man, and reconcile the past and present condition of the face with his character and the great law of progress.
The belief that man is a fallen being lies at the foundation of that system of false doctrines, which, for many ages, has pervaded Christendom. The widespread prevalence of suffering and wrong, coupled with the universal tradition of original purity and bliss, led to the hypothesis of “the fall”; but does not the principle of growth in the race reconcile the apparent contradiction?
As man is a microcosm of the universe, and one man is a microcosm of the race, so in the unfolding of the varied powers and susceptibilities of being, there is a striking analogy between that of the individual and of the race. In the words of a modern thinker, “Nature works after few models, she repeats herself over and over again. The rock is composed of little rocks, the tree of little trees, the body of little bodies (every part having its organs of sensibility, circulation, and nutrition), and humanity of men. The part is a type of the whole, the individual of the race.”
Every human being, then, is a type of the race, first in its innocence, and then in the unfolding of its propensities and powers. The infant is innocent, only because, in the commencement of its being, the animal passions are undeveloped, the sin-producing faculties are only in the bud: so, in the infancy of the race, the passions and propensities were all undeveloped, and life was consequently characterized by childish happiness and sensuous enjoyment. No necessity for exhausting labor imposed fatigue, no strong development of will jarred the harmony of our first parents by conflicting views and wishes. No pinching want, no extremes of heat or cold, no need of artificial shelter and clothing, nor yet one of those countless desires, which an advanced civilization has imposed, were felt in that low grade of development called the “golden age.” Theirs were the enjoyments of innocence only. The tragedies of selfishness and crime could no more have been enacted by humanity then, than those of hatred and violence can be enacted by babes in the cradle now, far less those more abominable crimes, which have marked the race ever since the passions which gave birth to them have, in the process of growth, come into activity. These passions are the sin-producing element in man.
Adam and Eve, then, were the types of this golden age of innocence, and poets and philosophers have looked back upon them as we now look upon infancy, with its unwrinkled brow, its joyous smile, and that fascinating unconsciousness which wins our souls. Innocence, not virtue, was the crown of that age, as natural to its brow as the blossom is to the tree.
But, as the will unfolds itself in the growing child, and the embryo passions gradually strengthen with its strength, converting the gentle infant into the wilful and selfish child, so did the natural growth of the race result in the development of its animal propensities long before the intellectual and moral faculties were sufficiently unfolded to govern them, and before experience could have taught man the duty and necessity of self-control.
The crimes incident to the unripeness of human beings are a constant source of bitter invective. Men curse humanity, “because the time of fruit is not yet.” They cannot see that the sins they inveigh against indicate a stage as necessary to the development of the race and the individual, as the greenness of fruit must precede its ripeness. Long after the fruit has set in the orchard, it is hard and bitter, yet we do not scold at the trees, but patiently wait for the sun to shine and the rain and dew to descend upon them, in storm and in calm, until at last their fruits arrive at maturity.
Since, then, the development of the animal propensities before the intellectual and moral seems to be an ordination of God, wholly beyond human control, it becomes us reverently to seek the cause of this universal law of our constitution. Are we creatures of blunder and mistake?
Nature appears to be built up upon the principle of opposing forces. The animal passions are purposely allowed to grow toward maturity, whilst the intellectual, and especially the moral powers are yet feeble, because the only way in which they can healthfully unfold is through exercise. This implies obstacles to be overcome. In the illegitimate use of the animal propensities this exercise is provided. hence life has hitherto been a continual conflict with evil, in every breast and in every age. Humanity purifies itself by its own ceaseless heavings and tossings. In the conflicts of ages, in the throes of nations, we see her struggles with evil, those death-pangs which give birth to new eras full of hope and promise.
Can the limbs of the infant grow strong, unless in due time we let it try to walk alone? By repeated efforts, it learns to keep its centre of gravity, and through frequent failures it slowly achieves success. The child who is kept in moral leading-strings and never trained under a sense of its responsibility to act untrammelled by any considerations but those of duty and love, can never grow up to a symmetrical maturity. Must parents shut out their children from the world in order to save them from temptation ? As well might we shut them up in our houses to keep them from taking cold. In the former case, we deny them the contact necessary for the vigorous unfolding of their moral and intellectual powers; and in the latter, of the healthful influence of fresh air. As with the individual, so with the race. Both grow by the same laws and through kindred processes, the one being a type of the other.
History, read in the light of this analogy, acquires a new significance. We learn our most valuable lessons through personal experiences. That knowledge of good and evil which comes through others deserves not the name. I do not mean by this to imply that every age, and every human being must pass through all the phases of vice, in order to be saved from vice – far from it. Each age and each individual stands, as it were, upon the shoulders of a predecessor, and passes through the experiences which belong to its or his plane of development – no other. For instance, a man feeling no desire to drink, cannot know what it is to be a drunkard, and the age which acknowledges the rights of conscience, escapes the sufferings of that which utterly ignores them and institutes an Inquisition.
We cannot devise or imagine then, any better way by which the race could be educated to a noble manhood, than that which the Creator has Planned for it. If, during the helplessness of infancy, the race had not been placed where, with little need of shelter or clothing, its food was furnished by spontaneous growth, destruction would seem to have been inevitable. But, as the mother provides for coming babe, so had Nature provided every thing necessary to man’s comfort in his then state of non-development.
But this innocence and comparative freedom from want was, in its very nature, transitory as the blossom of spring. The happiness it afforded was too negative to satisfy the unfolding energies of his nature. A transcendentally glorious future had been projected for him. He therefore grew out of this state of innocence, and dropped off those restraints which his undeveloped condition had necessarily imposed upon him, and unconsciously gave himself up to the hard and severe discipline of life.
Our faith in the ultimate destiny of every human being is identical with our faith in God, whose character is the fullest guarantee that all evil is negative and transitory, and will finally be overcome by good, which is positive and eternal. Evil is correlative with the unripeness of the human race. It can only be extirpated by the gradual subjugation of the lower nature to the supreme control of the intellectual and moral, and this cannot be until the race has had time to ripen.
In the economy of the Universe, evil is used by its great Architect, as masterbuilders employ mechanical powers – a means to an end – no part of the building itself – or, as the rough scaffolding, to be pulled down as soon as the grand temple of Humanity is completed. This conflict between truth and error is educational: it is preparatory to a higher condition. It is not the effect of any fall in man, but the legitimate result of his growth out of the innocence of infancy, through the frowardness of childhood and the tempestuous elements of youth, before his intellect has had time to develop into wisdom, or his moral nature has ripened and mellowed into love. Hence, when the Prophet described the rule of ancient empires, he symbolized them all by ferocious beasts, which tore, trampled and devoured Humanity; contrasting their terrific reign with that of the “Son of Man,” whose nobler mental and moral nature typified that age which lies hidden in the future “Millennium.”
Man, then, has grown out of innocence into savageism, chivalry and civilization successively, and these characteristics in the race correspond to those of childhood, adolescence and youth in the individual. Now, in his young manhood, he has thrown off the despotic authority of Popes and Kings. He has assumed self-government in this Western world, and blinded up institutions which secure political and personal freedom. As surely as he has, in this age, put on the vices which belong to young manhood, stimulated as it is by that love of excitement which cleaves to this stage of development in the race and in the individual, so surely will he grow out of these, and put on the intellectual greatness and goodness which appertain to the ripeness of his full-grown manhood.
Humanity may be likened to the Palm tree, which bears its fruit upon the summit. For ages it has been striking deep its roots and building up its lofty trunk, covered with the scars of its fallen leaves. These apparent losses to the tree have fertilized the soil, ministering food and strength to the growing plant. Thus it has been with Humanity. Terrible convulsions have shaken down the nations, as storms strew the leaves, and we have mourned over them as though they had dropped out of existence, dead losses to the world; but not so; they have left behind them rich experiences which the life of man has absorbed into itself. The leaves have fallen that the tree might be nourished, and nations have perished that the race might grow by their experiences and be nurtured by their decay.
While, then, we recognize the fact, that there was an age of Innocence, let us not regret that it is past. Let us rather regard it as the nascent condition of human nature, and with calmness look upon the different phases which have succeeded as necessary to the unfolding of all the faculties of the perfect man. Tender consciences may be shocked at the proclamation that man is not a fallen being; to such the assertion may seem presumption yea, blank infidelity.
But progress is indelibly engraved upon every rock, plant and animal, and is he who is the crown, and flower, and fruit of Creation, the microcosm of the Universe, an exception? Does not he embody in himself the law of progress, whether we regard him in the individual or the race?
It is puerile to point me to the tottering frame of the aged man, as nullifying this law of Progress in the individual; these are not the man, but the tattered garment that drops off, as he leaves this infant school of his existence to pass on to a higher life. His worn-out body is but the old wigwam of the savage quitted by its inmate for the abodes of civilization. Think not that his immortal spirit has waned, because the media through which it shines to us are blurred and broken. The old age and death of individuals symbolize the gradual decay and downfall of nations, while the race itself is forever onward.
The science and philosophy of our time are modifying the existing doctrines and institutions of the Church, as the philosophy of Greece, four hundred years before the Christian era, modified the Mythology of that day. It destroyed confidence in a system of Religion which deified demons and sanctified vice. So will science and philosophy destroy the myths of our age, and dethrone the Moloch whom we have worshipped, annihilating that hell, in which we were taught to believe that untold myriads of our race were to burn for ever, while a few saved souls would shout hallelujahs.
It was the philosophy of Greece which first shook the foundations of Grecian theogony, by appealing to the reason of man to decide whether the myths and legends of that day were worthy of credence, and whether the gods whom they worshipped were worthy of this homage. Reason had decided these questions long before Christianity asserted her claims in Greece. Her Mythology was the natural growth of the child stage of human development, when the imagination is in high activity, and its phantoms are as exaggerated as the phantasmagoria of a magic lantern. Those vast myths, which seemed truths to such a state of mind, became idle fables to the deep thinkers of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., and, for holding such opinions, Socrates became a martyr, the disciples of Aristotle were banished, and Anaxagoras was forced to choose between exile and death.
This theogony was, after the lapse of centuries, superseded by a system which we call Christianity. In Rome a similar process of disintegration took place, and it was followed by the introduction of Christianity also. But, as these two nations emerged out of the one Religion into the other, they very naturally retained the forms and ceremonies of the old, infusing into them the ideas of the new. Hence the idol temples and festivals of heathen worship became identified with the new ritual. And the religion of the meek and lowly One, of the persecuted and self-denying and crucified Jesus, was forced to put on all the gaudy paraphernalia of Grecian and Roman superstition, which subsequently ignored the rights of conscience and of reason.
A long dark reign of terror ensued, in which the Christian Church, so called, was busy in building time tombs of the prophets and garnishing the sepulchres of time dead, while imbruing her hands in the blood of living prophets, and practically denying the precepts of him whom she called “Lord, Lord.” Such were the legitimate fruits of this hybrid Church, which, with the name of the Lamb, carried the teeth and claws of the lion. Humanity was too undeveloped then, to comprehend the life of Him whose name she devoutly bore; too young in spirit to embody the Divine Humanity of that Religion which is yet to be upbuilded upon the ruins of the sects.
I have no charges to table against her. Doubtless she thought she was doing God service in forcing her doctrines upon all heretics, in torturing to death those who rejected them. Individuals live now, who so fully believe that the doctrines they hold are the only saving ones, that they seem in their element only when forcing them upon others. Had they lived in the dark ages, they would have been Inquisitors. They embalm the dead body of the past, setting it upon their hearthstones as a household god. Let us be patient with them – they are not useless. But for them we could not so vividly contrast the dead fossils of the old with the living forms of the new. Reason is now sitting in judgment upon the Past, it is but right that its advocates should be allowed to plead before the judgment-seat of the Present.
As philosophy dissolved the old systems of Grecian and Roman Paganism, and lifts never ceased to war against all doctrines and principles in conflict with reason; so, as intellect unfolds, it will more and more search into the causes of all things, basing its beliefs in Theology, as in Geology and Chemistry, upon wide deduction and universal law.
The experiences of the past and the discoveries of science have opened wide the field of investigation into Anthropology, as well as into those sciences which appertain to matter. And many begin now to question the truth of their Theology, in the same way as the idolators of Greece and Rome began to question the truth of their Theogony in the days of Pythagoras and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
The old religion has always branded the new as infidel, and justly too. The God whom we worship is our highest ideal of perfection. As the mind grows, this ideal is exalted; we then become infidel to our first crude conceptions of Deity. Thus has it been with the race; its conceptions of divine perfection have been continually advancing, so that the infidelity of one age has become the religion of the next. Was there ever a greater infidelity than was Christianity itself, both to the Jew and the Pagan?
Two parties have always divided progressive nations, one guarding with religious veneration the fossilized relics of the past, and the other welcoming the new forms in which truth embodies herself in the present. The science and philosophy of this age are gradually disintegrating our system of Theology, which was the legitimate outgrowth of the era which gave birth to it, and doubtless ministered strength and love to its intellectual and religious life.
It seems to have been too commonly overlooked that Christ established no outward church. Life was his only badge of discipleship. When he explicitly declared his mission, it was in these words: “For this cause was I born, and for this end came I into the world, that I might bear witness to the truth.” He did so by word and deed, and by his life has been drawing men up to a higher plane, and by that life has laid the foundation of that practical and humane religion which can never be established on earth until men, by the gradual unfolding of their own great humanity, shall grow up into the fulness of the stature of perfect manhood.
The “fall of man” is one of the myths of our age. I reject it, because,
- 1st. It charges upon God the enormity of committing the destinies of the race to the custody of one man and one woman, knowing that they would by their disobedience betray their trust, and involve all mankind in misery, and, according to the generally received idea, most of them eternally.
- 2d. Because it ignores the law of progress, which is universal and must be eternal.
- 3d. Because it falsifies the history of mankind, which chronicles a steady advancement from innocence to savageism, through barbarism to feudalism and chivalry, and through civilization to republicanism, which is now preparing to put on a still higher form of life, which will be characterized by equality, fraternity and harmony. This age will be as superior to the “Golden Age” as bodily strength, intellectual culture and high moral development are superior to helplessness, ignorance, and infant innocence, for “wisdom is more to be desired than fine gold.”