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The Universality of the Belief in the Immortality of the Soul.


There are some ideas with which the minds of mankind are so universally imbued throughout every portion of the globe, that we are almost forced to the conclusion, that they are either innate or were made known to the minds of men whilst they were yet one family, or that they are truths, the proofs of which are so self-evident as to be demonstrable by the weakest intellect, as well as by those minds through whose gloom the light of revelation has never penetrated.

The most important of these ideas is the existence of a Creator; the next in importance is—the immortality of the soul; and as the idea of the latter, cannot I think, be well separated, from that of the former, it will be necessary for its elucidation to examine the nature of the belief of different nations in relation to a supreme first Cause.

It may be said that if the idea of a Creator, or of the soul’s immortality is proved by nature, why is it that the most absurd superstitions reign dominant over the minds of the unenlightened? But an observer of human nature, must acknowledge that the chief misfortunes which the mass of mankind labour under, are generally derived from a sluggishness of thought, that render the many more prone to take things as they find them, rather than to make the effort to examine into their nature and causes. And as it is the nature of mankind to be progressive, whether it be in good or in evil, it happens that if their minds have at first taken a wrong tendency, in a few generations the light of truth if even not annihilated, is scarcely seen to glimmer through the veil of extravagances thrown around it, though it is ready to reclaim its ascendancy at the first favourable moment. If on the other hand, this torpor has been thrown off by some violent effort, they generally rush into the wildest extremes, hastily adopting some visionary theory, and then contort facts to bear them out in their new hypothesis; whereas, were they guided by the pure light of reason, ever ready to give facts a calm consideration, they would find no hidden mysteries to contend with, but would generally arrive at correct deductions.

But it seems that the most dreaded antagonist that true religion has had to contend with, has been what may be termed “an enlightened philosophy;” for whenever and wherever man has attempted to deify his reasoning faculties, considering his unassisted understanding capable of comprehending the whole scale and purposes of nature and of being, he has generally built up such a structure of ridiculous inconsistencies, as would make the most ignorant blush to own. Let us instance the religion of the enlightened Trojans, Greeks and Romans, acknowledging an immortal deity of mortal birth, neither omnipotent, omnipresent, nor omniscient, with two associates, (Pluto and Neptune,) to make up for his want of attributes, and a number of secondary gods—beings living in the grossest immorality; whilst their exclusive ideas concerning the soul’s immortality, precluding all but the noble and celebrated from receiving rewards and punishments in a future state, place the religion of these enlightened nations (if we exclude the Egyptians,) on a level with those debased tribes that occupy the largest part of Africa yet discovered.

The religion of the negro race consisting of fetish worship, as of “a divinity dwelling in some inanimate body, endowed with intelligence and with, the knowledge of the secret thoughts and actions of his worshippers, with power to do them good or harm,” is as certainly just as worthy an object of worship as the fate-controlled Jupiter, whose power chiefly consisted in discharging thunderbolts forged to his hand, whilst their cruelty exercised at the funerals of their kings and princes, in burying alive a number of their wives and slaves, to furnish the deceased potentates with a suitable retinue to attend them in the other world, was at least, granting them that immortality which was denied to them by the more enlightened and philosophic Greeks. If we now view that part of Asia, where the Grand Lama is worshipped “as a god dwelling amongst men,” we find a belief of his eternal existence, connected with the doctrine of the transmigration or immortality of the soul; as his followers suppose that he merely leaves the body where he took up his temporary abode, and enters another in a supernatural way, changing his form and not his existence. Somewhat resembling in this particular was the Egyptian worship, whose religion is so blended with the idea of the soul’s immortality, that the one cannot exist without the other. We will instance the god Apis, whose soul, the Egyptians supposed had been transferred to an ox, under which form they worshipped him; and their goddess Io or Isis, whose soul after occupying the body of a white heifer, afterwards remained its natural body.

If we extend our researches, we find that some of the ancient nations had ideas of an Eternal Unity, and as a matter of course juster ideas of the human soul. We will first turn to that people where the light of truth shone with the feeblest lustre. The religious belief of the Brahmins consisted in the idea of “the existence of one in all things, and all things existing in one; God in the universe and the universe in God, and nature as the revelation of divine intelligence; divine rest as the perfection of happiness, consisting in the immersion and absorption in the godhead, attained immediately after death by the deserving;” whereas the souls of those who do not obtain this state of rest, transmigrate into different bodies for a farther purgation; the whole period allotted for this, being 4,230,000 years.

The worship of the Persians was of a purer nature, not having entirely lost sight of the great first Cause, but colouring the ideas of a Creator, in the superstitions engendered by a long state of ignorance. “The votaries of Ormuzd, the pure and eternal light and origin of all perfection, would at death pass over the bridge Shinevad into the dwellings of the happy; whilst the slaves of Ahriman (or of evil passions,) would fall into hell, that the spirit of evil would be finally annihilated, the resurrection of the dead to follow, and the earth be renovated and prepared for the abode of the virtuous.” But the religion of the Chinese, in the abstract, approaches nearer to that of the Bible, than any other we have noticed. “The Supreme Deity, the essence of all things, is eternal, invisible, incomprehensible, almighty, merciful, just and beneficent.” But in endeavouring to elucidate these grand ideas, they opened a wide door for superstition to enter in. According to their ideas, he originated from himself; he cannot be represented by any image, neither can he be worshipped, because he is elevated above all worship; but his attributes may be represented by images and worshipped.” Their ideas of the immortality of the soul are also more refined than those noticed—“he who has done good in this life, will be rewarded after death; and he who has done evil, punished. They there are two distinct places for these two sorts of souls, and to each soul a station is assigned according to its deserts.”

Whilst the learned of the different epochs preceding this, have gone through the greatest labour in collecting information concerning the manners and religious customs of the ancient nations, causing their readers to have a more elevated opinion of their state than they would have arrived at by a casual glance; how plainly have they shown the power that preconceived prejudices exist in warping the judgment of those otherwise of liberal and expansive minds.

The religion of the Hebrews, a recorded emanation of the Supreme Creator, the basis of the Jewish faith, and from which the Mahometan and the Christian have derived their hopes of salvation, has been less understood, less commented upon than the superstitious worship of the most insignificant people; and whilst all have a ready access to the records of the tenets of their faith, and whilst all can make themselves acquainted with the sublime attributes of the God of Israel, they have sat in judgment upon the Supreme, by declaring the statutes He enacted for the government of Israel as debasing in their tendency, by blindly casting away the evidence of the Bible to the contrary, and allowing their imaginations to supply their want of knowledge from the pages of prejudice. It is sufficient to call up a smile of pity in the face of the gravest, to find that whilst the belief of the soul’s immortality was accorded to the most ignorant nation of antiquity, it was denied to the Jews;*—a nation devoid of all superstition, and in frequent converse with the supreme Creator. One of the arguments used in support of this supposition, was that the Bible does not in any part treat of it.

* It is really laughable to call to mind instances of the ignorance of those called well-informed, concerning the Jews and their belief. I recollect not later than the year 1840, reading in a New York paper words to the following effect:—“We attended the funeral, yesterday, of the late Rev. I. B. Seixas, and were much pleased and edified with a discourse delivered by the Rev. I. Leeser, Minister of a Jewish Congregation at Philadelphia, in which he painted the Jews’ belief of the immortality of the soul; an idea, which will be quite new to some of our readers, as it has been supposed that the Jews did not believe in a future state.”

In this view of the case they seem to have lost sight of the plan and intention of the Bible; the object of which was to give a correct history of the creation, and of man from the creation until the close of the prophetic missions, as well as the laws by which man should be religiously and civilly governed; and as each was enjoined to make himself familiar with the whole, it was necessary that its style should be extremely laconic. Those things which men at the time of Moses had a knowledge of, it passes over with a mere allusion. For instance, we find in the first chapter of Genesis, that God, by the power of his will, created the heavens and the earth; but Moses makes use of no arguments to prove that God had the power to do so, or to show from whence he derived that power; for the people already knew that He was omnipotent and eternal. Knowing this, it would have been a matter of supererogation to have told them that the breath of life that God breathed into man, through which man became a living soul, was co-eternal with God himself. With their sublime ideas of the Most High, it would have been an anomaly for them to suppose that, that which once appertained to the Creator, could cease to exist.

If we proceed a little farther in the Bible, we find “that Enoch was translated to heaven, without seeing death; not that the knowledge of his being taken to heaven excited any surprise; but merely commented upon, because he was translated bodily. Was Enoch, then, the only favored one? were there no others whom God thought worthy of immortality, save Enoch and Elijah? had the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the friends and favourite servants of the Deity, no knowledge of the important truths which ignorant and base idolaters were in possession of? Knew the heathens more than Moses,—he who conversed with God face to face,—he who was deemed worthy of being the leader and conductor of one nation from the midst of another? Knew these sensual tribes more than the holy prophets that succeeded Moses? No! they all knew that, if at death the sun should no longer be their light by day, and if the moon should give no light unto them by night, God would be their everlasting light, and their God their glory; and if their body should return to the earth, as it was, “their spirit would return to the God that gave it.”

Even if the Bible or the works of the Jewish sages did not treat of the immortality of the soul, ample evidence have we that the ancient Jews believed it, from the fact that the Persians in their creed have adopted, with a little alteration, the ideas which we hold of the resurrection of the dead, no doubt derived from the Jews during or before the reign of queen Esther; and as late researches have shown that a body of Jews have dwelt in China since before the destruction of the temple, we have every probability for asserting that Foe and Confucius were well acquainted with the Hebrews and their Scriptures, and derived from them their ideas of God and the soul’s immortality, from their near resemblance to our creed when divested of the garb of superstition. In regard to the assertion that the modern Jews owe their ideas of immortality to the Christians, it must be remembered that it has always been man’s nature to scorn the oppressor, and to refuse to adopt any ideas forced upon his belief; and when we call up before our imaginations the terrible and countless tortures inflicted upon our helpless race, is it to be supposed that we would have been more ready to adopt this idea than any other tenet of the Christian’s faith? On the contrary, we are and always have been too well satisfied with our belief, either to add to it, or to take aught from it,—too well acquainted with our holy book not to acknowledge that it is a sufficient guide in this world, and a sure guide to the next; and all we ask of others is, that they will not judge us ex parte; satisfied that, if our claims are weighed carefully, and the evidence fairly sifted, we shall hold that distinguished place in the consideration of mankind in which our God has placed us.

S. Solis.

(To be Continued.)