In his poem "Satire 3," what does Donne mean, in terms of freedom of conscience, when his speaker urges readers to "seek true religion"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In John Donne’s poem titled “Satire 3,” the speaker urges readers to “seek true religion.” This advice is relevant to issues of freedom of conscience in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • During Donne’s era, Christianity was divided between Roman Catholicism (on the one hand) and various Protestant sects (on the other). Protestantism, which had begun with the revolt of Martin Luther against the Roman Catholic Church, had generated, by Donne’s time, a variety of different denominations and theologies, including those of Luther, John Calvin, and the Anglican church in England. Thus people living in Donne’s time had crucial decisions to make about which church, if any, to embrace. Even though Roman Catholicism was technically illegal in Donne’s day in England, many English people used the freedom of their own consciences to continue to believe in Catholic doctrines, even if they could not legally be practicing members of an established Catholic church.
  • Donne’s poem reminds readers to that it is ultimately up to each person to decide, using his or her own freedom of conscience, which brand of Christianity (if any) to follow.  The poem cautions readers against allowing anything other than conscience, reason, and faith to determine one’s religious beliefs. One should not simply follow tradition; nor should one simply embrace what is new; nor should one simply follow the dictates of one's political rulers; nor should one even simply or blindly follow the teachings of one’s parents. Each person is almost obliged to use his or her own conscience to determine which religion is the “true religion.”
  • The poem also reminds readers that they must take their freedom of conscience seriously and use it wisely and relatively quickly. Our lives do not last forever; death can come at any time; and one must decide before dying which religion is the true religion. As the speaker memorably puts it,

. . . On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.

Yet strive so that before age, death's twilight,

Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.

No one “can work in that night”: in other words, once one is dead, one cannot decide which religion to follow.  That choice must be made while one is still living, and only freedom of conscience (along with a sincere commitment to truth) can settle this crucial matter.



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