The Ghosts of Religion Past

The Ghosts of Religion Past November 14, 2016

When religious systems die or collapse, how do their followers carry on?

Historically, such a situation is not that uncommon. Imagine a society with an established religion of some kind, based on hierarchical structures and priests, and then, for whatever reason, those structures vanish. In some cases, a new civil and religious order forbids or actively persecutes traditional habits and practices. We might look, for instance, at the fate of Catholics in many European countries following the Reformation; or Christians in countries conquered by Islam; or Muslims in countries conquered by Christians; or adherents of native and primal faiths following colonial Conquest, as in Spanish-ruled Latin America; or believers of all kinds living under revolutionary regimes, as in Bolshevik Russia.

Put simply, when the priests (or imams) go away, what do the ordinary faithful do? How much of the old order can they retain, and just how long can they survive before their religious beliefs become so faded and distorted that they effectively vanish? How successfully can they mask their old ways under the guise of following new orthodoxies? I have already touched on these questions, in the context of crypto-Christians living in eras of persecution in early modern Japan, but Europe too offers lots of similar examples, and I will present one of these here.

In the later Middle Ages, Catholic Christianity was very firmly rooted and highly popular in Britain, and multiple institutions like guilds, confraternities, and fellowships ensured mass popular involvement. However, clergy and monasteries were an essential part of the life of faith, and these were swept away during the mid-sixteenth century. Monasteries were destroyed, and church lands and tithes were plundered by rapacious secular lords. The new churches retained their parish structures, but often without the money needed to recruit and sustain good clergy. That situation deteriorated badly following the Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century. By 1700, large parts of the British Isles were firmly Christian, but lacked strong ecclesiastical structures. While the old Catholic beliefs and values remained to some degree, little worthwhile was done to transmit the new Protestant values. People found themselves in religious limbo.

So what could those ordinary believers do, what did they do? What became of popular Christianity in this new setting?

To illustrate these themes, I turn to a source well-known in British religious history, but which I will use here in somewhat unusual ways. In 1721, Welsh Anglican cleric Erasmus Saunders (1670-1724) published his book A View of the State of Religion in the Diocese of St. David’s, About the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century, With Some Account of the Causes of its Decay, together with Considerations of the Reasonableness of Augmenting the Revenues of Impropriate Churches. The title says it all. Saunders was describing the historic Welsh diocese of St. David’s, which covered a large and lightly populated area of south and west Wales. The church operated through large and miserably poor funded parishes, so that its footprint was exceedingly light, and most people rarely had access to religious services. The physical condition of the churches, meanwhile, was parlous, and most were semi-ruinous. The solution to this crisis, thought Saunders, was giving more money to the parishes whose tithes had been lost.

In terms of religious life, the church had suffered a catastrophe at the Reformation. Parishes in older times had been large and scattered, but the monasteries largely filled that gap, and there were some venerated pilgrimage shrines. All that had gone by the 1560s, so that by Saunders’s time, Welsh people had more or less been on their own for a century and a half. Although the views were broadly Catholic and indeed “medieval” in most regards, there is no evidence of any particular presence here by clandestine Catholic priests, nor were was any sizable number of people who chose to pay fines rather than attend Protestant services (recusants). The people were nominally Anglican, but their ties with that church were minimal.

Saunders’s purpose in writing his account was polemical, and we should not expect sober analysis. However, that rather works to his advantage, as he had every interest to paint the picture as dark as he could. If, then, we see signs of continuing faith and activism, we should credit it.

So how were the ghosts of religion past faring at this time, in Wales about 1715?

The first point that Saunders makes strongly is that people had a real passion for faith, however they understood it. Yes, he describes the dreadful state of the institutional church, but even so,

Insomuch that it may be justly wondered at that there are in some places any principles or observances of revealed religion still remaining. Nor, indeed, could it reasonably be expected in some places that there should be any, but for the extraordinary disposition to religion which, a learned historian observes, prevails among the people of this country: for whether it be owing to our solitude, or our poverty, or natural disposition, or to the extraordinary grace of God given to us, I know not ; but so it is. There is, I believe, no part of the nation more inclined to be religious, and to be delighted with it, than the poor inhabitants of these mountains. They do not think it too much, when neither ways nor weather are inviting, over cold and bleak hills to travel three or four miles, or more, on foot, to attend the public prayers— and sometimes as many more, to hear a sermon; and they seldom grudge many times for several hours together, in their damp and cold churches, to wait the coming of their minister, who by occasional duties in his other curacies, or by other accidents, may be obliged to disappoint them and to be often variable in his hours of prayer.

Faith was not in short supply, but the problem, from a Protestant view, was that so much of this devotion was expressed in very medieval and Catholic-looking terms.

Another ancient practice, namely that of crossing themselves, as the first Christians were wont to do upon many occasions, is much in use among them, with a short ejaculation that through the Cross of Christ they might be safe or saved.And as we are told by Eusebius and others, that the first Christians were wont to meet at the graves of martyrs, and others of their deceased friends to say their prayers there, and to pay some respect and honor to their memory, there is also something of the same kind that is observed here. In most mountainous parts, where old customs and simplicity are most prevailing, there we shall observe that when the people come to church, they go immediately to the graves of their friends, and there kneeling, offer up their prayer to God; but especially at the feast of the Nativity of our Lord ; for they then come to church about cock-crowing, and bring either candles or torches with them, which they set to burn, every one, one or more upon the grave of his departed friend, and then set themselves to sing their carols, and continue so to do, to welcome the approaching festival, until prayer-time.

But with these innocent good old customs, they have also learned some of the Roman superstitious practices in the later ages, such as many times in their ejaculations to invocate not only the Deity, but the Holy Virgin and other saints; for Mair-Wen [Holy Mary], Jago [James], Teilaw Mawr, Celer, Celynnog and others are often thus remembered as if they had hardly yet forgotten the use of praying to them. And there being not only churches and chapels but springs and fountains dedicated to those saints, they do at certain times go and bathe themselves in them, and sometimes leave their small oblations behind them either to the keeper of the place or in a charity box prepared for that purpose by way of acknowledgment for the benefit they have, or hope to have thereby. Nay, in many parts of North Wales they continue in effect still to pay for obits, by giving oblations to the ministers at the burial of their friends, as they were formerly taught to do to pray them out of purgatory, without which useful perquisites the poor curates in many places would be very hard pushed to get their livelihood.

And thus it is the Christian religion labours to keep ground here. Superstition and religion, error and truth, are so very oddly mixed, that it should in charity be concluded to be rather the misfortune of many that they are misled. For the generality are, I am afraid, more obliged, if not to their natural probity, to their religious observance of those ancient customs, or to the instruction that they get from their carols, or the Vicar of Llanymddyfry’s poems, than to any benefit received from the catechizing and preaching of a regular ministry. So that if we have not yet unlearned the errors of our Popish ancestors, it is because the doctrines of the Reformation, begun about two hundred years ago in England, have not effectually reached us, nor is it likely that they ever should without a fit and learned clergy.

One obvious hole in Saunders’s account is the role of women in all these activities and beliefs. Based on many observations elsewhere, we would assume that religious practices were heavily gendered, but women don’t feature here. If only Mrs. Saunders had troubled to record her account of what was going on…

I have already written about “the Vicar of Llanymddyfry’s poems” in a recent blog.

From other sources, we know that these very areas of West Wales were awash in superstitions concerning death, and especially the corpse candles that were said to foretell the imminent end of local people. Spirits called the Cyhyraeth performed the same ominous function by disembodied moaning, much like the Irish banshee. In 1780, a famous account of apparitions and ghosts in Wales by Dissenting minister Edmund Jones noted that “I am now come into that part of Wales where we shall meet with the most numerous, and most notable account of Apparitions.— The middle part of the Bishoprick of St. David’s, where the most important account of the Corpse Candles, and the Kyhyrraeth, are to be met with, than any other part of Wales, by far.”

I’ll expand on Erasmus Saunders’s remarks in my next post, but let me here summarize what emerges about that “ghost religion,” the faith of a clerical/priestly religion once those clergy and priests are removed. What remains? I would highlight several obvious points, which also strike me in some of the other international contexts I outlined earlier:

i.Most obvious is the continuing need for religious practice of some kind, whether or not that is approved by the official church.

ii.People retain their veneration for the holy names and figures of the old faith, even if they actual knowledge of them is limited.

iii.They retain core customs that sanctify and sacralize everyday life, such as crossing themselves. In Catholic language, they love the sacramentals, those habits and customs that fall short of being central dogmas or institutions of the faith, but which are still so deeply loved. Candles and sources of light provide a universal spiritual symbol.

iv.Their religious ideas have a strong element of material holiness, the idea that special power resides in objects.

v.Following directly on from that, believers know that power and holiness reside in special places, from which healing and other benefits can be sought. Wells and other sits are thin spaces, points of transition between worlds.

vi.Holiness is especially to be found in individuals of particular holiness, charismatic saints who have gained a special place in the heavenly realms, and to whom ordinary mortals can turn for assistance.

vii.People know and keep a ritual calendar, in which days and seasons have special value and holiness, calling for particular actions. The Christmas season is pivotal.

viii.Regardless of any theological doctrines, people are deeply conscious of the spiritual well-being of their friends and relatives after death, and think that what they do in this world can assist the departed. As with the instance of the saints above, this suggests a belief in connections and continuities between the two realms. Death is central to faith.

ix.People believe that those who receive spiritual services or benefits should supply material goods in exchange. That does not necessarily mean that such services are for sale, but rather than exchange and sacrifice are a basic part of life in this world and the other.

x.All these ideas are expressed and reinforced through popular story-telling and superstition, which supplement or replace official religious teachings.

We might call these ideas small-c catholic, but they are much broader than that. This point might be obvious, but every one of those ten themes could apply equally to any of the world’s religious traditions, and by no means in the West. In the eighteenth century – and indeed, much later – they would have made wonderful sense to a Moroccan Muslim, or a Thai Buddhist, or a Japanese Shinto adherent, or a Jew living in the Russian Pale. These seem, in fact, to be the common building blocks of religious life and practice, and some at least might be hard-wired into our consciousness. Build a well or fountain anywhere in the world, and someone will start dropping coins in it – just for luck, you understand. To varying degrees, these ten points are also the currency of many more modern new religious movements, not to mention the general world of those who are “spiritual but not religious.”

Although in the Welsh case, the heritage that they are drawing on is Christian and Catholic, it is notable what aspects of that faith are not represented here. Saunders, for instance, says nothing about a special focus on Eucharistic ideas or superstitions, nor of any interest in modern day Catholic matters – such as contemporary priestly martyrs. Nor, strikingly, does Christ apparently feature, nor are there references to ideas like crucifixion or atonement. It might be that people’s belief in those essential facts are too obvious to be mentioned here, but the absences are curious.

What we are mapping here, in fact, is what remains of religion when all institutions and structures are gone. This is default religious practice. Maybe this is what is left when your official religion is “None.”

I’ll continue with these themes next time.



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