“That Constant control of Kingdoms”: Government and Divine Retribution in the Revolutions of 1848

In the Spring of 1848, Anglicans in the British Empire watched warily as revolution spread across Europe. Paris revolted in February and overthrew liberal King Louis-Philippe. Revolutions in the German states and in the Austrian empire followed in quick succession. George Croly, a church of Ireland priests and sometimes historian poet, saw the hand of God in the great political happenings of 1848. The declared desire of the God and Father of all,” Croly told his parish, was the happiness of all. God illustrated His “glorious and merciful desire especially “in the three forms, of the Physical Government of the Globe, the Moral Government of Man, and the Providential Government of Nations.” Physical government was “conspicuous in the richness and loveliness of Nature.”  Moral government made itself manifest “in the truths and rewards of Religion.” God revealed his providential government of nature in “that constant control of Kingdoms, by alternate prosperity and punishment, which, like the attraction and repulsion of the planetary forces, keep those moral planets in their course, and prevent the confusion of the System.”

Croly allowed for a substantive separation of spiritual and temporal kingdoms. It was precisely because government was not spiritual, in fact, that it needed to be taken so seriously and judged on earth by temporal judges in the form of wars, revolutions, and conquest because it would not be judged by a spiritual power in heaven. “If one of the most powerful and magnificent of those kingdoms has now burst from its orbit, and threatens to force all the rest along with it which so deeply involve the happiness of all human being,” it was the duty of men in temporal authority to exercise their duty to correct the erring power. These were “high tasks” that were nonetheless “within the reach of our infirm faculties,” to ‘vindicate the ways of God to man.’” Croly also affirmed the duty of some sort of political preaching when he argued that it was “not merely within the province,” but instead it an “actual duty, of the pulpit, to investigate the cause of changes which so deeply involve the happiness of all human being ; to clear up the gloom thrown by such vast and ruinous events over the contemplation of the Christian.”

Human duty to enforce political morality, and particularly the duty to do so through the state, stemmed from the fact that “laws of morality are always the same, whether acting on the smallest, or the largest scale; whether throwing light into the individual bosom, or illustrating the conduct of nations.” The important difference between how the laws of morality operated on the individual and nations was “a memorable difference in their application.” Because kingdoms had “no future state; there can be no reserve of punishment or reward for them, beyond the grave.” Croly stated firmly that “here” in the temporal world “their retribution must exist, or not at all. We lose the whole lesson, unless we see the scaffold, the execution, and the tomb.”

The reason why states had to be punished in specific ways, argued Croly, was that “direct retribution on individuals would break up the whole order of Society; for it must extinguish the whole discipline of the human heart. When the blow was struck, penitence could find no place, reformation would be too late, righteousness could plead no conversion, and gratitude offer no prayer.” If the power of the state was only leveled at individuals for political sins, the affect would overpower society. Punishing governments meant that justice would be imperfect, but it would nonetheless be justice. “We thus see, more and more, the wisdom of the command in the parable of the Tares, ‘Let both grow together, until the harvest.’” Nonetheless, this did not annihilate political punishment and retribution as a political principle Christians could affirm. Nature, or governments, would eventually do the job of correcting or punishing offenders. “The principle of retribution is not altogether extinguished, in the instance of man. The general tendency even of the most personal vice is, to produce personal suffering.” There was “a silent avenger on the step. The sentence is already written. Intemperance inflicts decay. Profligacy cankers character. Extravagance dilapidates fortune. Until disease, contempt, and beggary consummate the ruin.”

Governments, in Croly’s political economy, worked with nature to correct and punish temporal injustice. Governments had to punish governments, because there was no spiritual justice awaiting governments. This made temporal government more and not less significant in the divine economy. [1]

[1] George Croly, The French Revolution of 1848: A Sermon (London: J. Kendrick, 1848), 2-3.


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