Charles Buck's Theological Dictionary

168 Polytheism


The doctrine of a plurality of gods, or invisible powers superior to man.
”That there exists beings, one or many, powerful above the human race, is a proposition,” says lord Kaims, “universally admitted as true in all ages and among all nations. I boldly call it universal, notwithstanding what is reported of some gross savages; for reports that contradict what is acknowledged to be general among men, require more able vouchers than a few illiterate voyagers. Among many savage tribes there are no words but for objects of external sense: is it surprising that such people are incapable of expressing their religious perceptions, or any perception of internal sense? The conviction that men have of superior powers, in every country where there are words to express it, is so well vouched, that, in fair reasoning, it ought to be taken for granted among the few tribes where language is deficient.” The same ingenious author allows, with great strength of reasoning, that the operations of nature and the government of this world, which to us loudly proclaim the existence of a Deity, are not sufficient to account for the universal belief of superior beings among savage tribes. He is therefore of opinion that this universality of conviction can spring only from the image of Deity stamped upon the mind of every human being, the ignorant equal with the learned. This, he thinks, may be termed the sense of Deity.

This sense of Deity, however, is objected to by others, who thus reason: All nations, except the Jews, were once polytheists and idolaters. If, therefore, his lordship’s hypothesis be admitted, either the doctrine of polytheism must be true theology, or the instinct or sense is of such a nature as to have, at different periods of the world, misled all mankind. All savage tribes are at present polythesists and idolaters; but among savages every instinct appears in greater parity and vigour than among people polished by arts and sciences; the instinct or primary impression of nature which gives rise to self-love, affection between the sexes, &c. has, in all nations and in every period of time, a precise and determinate object, which it inflexibly pursues. How, then, comes it to pass that this particular instinct, which, if real, is surely of as much importance as any other, should have uniformly led those who had no other guide, to pursue improper objects, to fall into the grossest errors, and the most pernicious practices?

For these and other reasons, which might easily be assigned, they suppose that the first religious principles must have been derived from a source different as well from internal sense as from the deductions of reason; from a source which the majority of mankind had early forgotten: and which, when it was banished from their minds, left nothing behind it to prevent the very first principle of religion from being perverted by various accidents or causes; or, in some extraordinary concurrence of circumstances, from being, perhaps, entirely obliterated. This source of religion every consistent theist must believe to be revelation. Reason could not have introduced savages to the knowledge of God, and we have just seen that a sense of Deity is clogged with insuperable difficulties. Yet it is undeniable that all mankind have believed in superior invisible powers; and, if reason and instinct be set aside, there remains no other origin of this universal belief than primeval revelation corrupted, indeed, as it passed from father to son in the course of many generations. It is no slight support to this doctrine, that, if there really be a Deity, it is highly presumable that he would reveal himself to the first men; creatures whom he had formed with faculties to adore and to worship him. To other animals the knowledge of the Deity is of no importance, to man it is of the first importance. Were we totally ignorant of a Deity, this world would appear to us a mere chaos. Under the government of a wise and benevolent Deity, chance is excluded, and every event appears to be the result of established laws. Good men submit to whatever happens without repining, knowing that every event is ordered by Divine Providence: they submit with entire resignation; and such resignation is a sovereign balsam for every misfortune or evil in life.

As to the circumstances which led to polytheism, it has been observed, that taking it for granted that our original progenitors were instructed by their Creator in the truths of genuine theism, there is no room to doubt but that those truths would be conveyed pure from father to son as long as the race lived in one family, and were not spread over a large extent of country. If any credit is due to the records of antiquity, the primeval inhabitants of this globe lived to so great an age, that they must have increased to a very large number long before the death of the common parent, who would of course, be the bond of union to the whole society; and whose dictates, especially is what related to the origin of his being, and the existence of his Creator, would be listened to with the utmost respect by every individual of his numerous progeny. Many causes, however, would conspire to dissolve this family, after the death of its ancestor, into separate and independent tribes, of which some would be driven by violence, or would voluntarily wander in a distance from the rest. From this dispersion great changes would take place in the opinions of some of the tribes respecting the object of their religious worship. A single family, or a small tribe, banished into a desert wilderness (such as the whole earth must then have been) would find employment for all their time in providing the means of subsistence, and in defending themselves from beasts of prey. In such circumstances they would have little leisure for meditation: and being constantly conversant with objects of sense, they would gradually lose the power of meditating upon the spiritual nature of that Being by whom their ancestors had taught them that all things were created. The first wanderers would, no doubt, retain in tolerable purity their original notions of Deity, and they would certainly endeavour to impress those notions upon their children; but in circumstances infinitely more favourable to speculation than theirs could have been, the human mind dwells not long upon notions purely intellectual. We are so accustomed to sensible objects, and to the ideas of space, extension, and figure, which they are perpetually impressing upon the imagination, that we find it extremely difficult to conceive any being without assigning to him a form and a place. Hence bishop Law supposes that the earliest generations of men (even those to whom he contends that frequent revelations were vouchsafed) may have been no better than Anthropomorphites in their conceptions of the Divine Being. Be this as it may, it is easy to conceive that the members of the first colonies would quickly lose many of the arts and much of the science which perhaps prevailed in the parent state; and that, fatigued with the contemplation of intellectual objects, they would relieve their overstrained faculties by attributing to the Deity a place of abode, if not a human form. To men totally illiterate, the place fittest for the habitation of the Deity would undoubtedly appear to be the sun, the most beautiful and glorious object of which they could form any idea; an object from which they could not but be sensible that they received the benefit of light and heat, and which experience must soon have taught them to be in a great measure the source of vegetation. From looking upon the sun as the habitation of their God, they would soon proceed to consider it as his body. Experiencing the effects of power in the sun, they would naturally conceive that luminary to be animated as their bodies were animated; they would feel his influence when above the horizon; they would see him moving from east to west; they would consider him, when set, as gone to take his repose; and those exertions and intermissions of power being analogues to what they experienced in themselves, they would look upon the sun as a real animal. Thus would the Divinity appear to their untutored minds to be a compound being like a man, partly coporeal and partly spiritual; and as soon as they imbibed such notions, though perhaps not before, they may be pronounced to have been absolute idolaters. When men had once got into this train, their gods would multiply upon them with wonderful rapidity. The moon, the planets, the fixed stars, &c. would become objects of veneration. Hence we find Moses cautioning the people of Israel against worshipping the hosts of heaven, Deut. iv. 19. Other objects, however, from which benefits were received or dangers feared, would likewise be deified; such as demons, departed heroes, &c.

From these accounts given us by the best writers of antiquity, it seems that though the polytheists believed heaven, earth, and hell, were all filled with divinities, yet there was One who was considered as supreme over all the rest, or, at most, that there were but two self-existent gods from whom they conceived all the other divinities to have descended in a manner analogous to human generation. It appears, however, that the vulgar Pagans considered each divinity as supreme, and unaccountable within his own province, and therefore entitled to worship, which rested ultimately in himself. The philosophers, on the other hand, seem to have viewed the inferior gods as accountable for every part of their conduct to him who was their sire and sovereign, and to have paid to them only that inferior kind of devotion which the church of Rome pays to departed saints. The vulgar Pagans were sunk in the grossest ignorance, from which statesmen, priests, and poets, exerted their utmost influence to keep them from emerging; for it was a maxim, which, however absurd, was universally received, “that there were many things true in religion which it was not convenient for the vulgar to know; and some things, which, though false, it was expedient that they should believe.” It was no wonder, therefore, that the vulgar should be idolaters and polytheists. The philosophers, however, were still worse; they were wholly “without excuse, because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God; neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves wise, they became fools, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is God, blessed for ever,” Rom. 1:20, 21, 22, 25.

Charles Buck (1771-1815) was an English Independent minister, best known for the publication of his “Theological Dictionary”. According to the “Dictionary of National Biography”, a Particular Baptist minister named John C. Ryland (1723-1792) assisted Buck by writing many of the articles for the aforementioned publication. One may conclude, based not only Buck’s admiration for his friend Ryland, but also on the entries in his Theological Dictionary, that he stood head and shoulders with the High-Calvinists of his day.

Charles Buck on the Biblical Covenants (Complete)
Charles Buck's Theological Dictionary