Apologetics Index
Elements Of Fanaticism
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Elements Of Fanaticism

This article was written and published at the beginning of this century. Its content, however, is timeless. The vocabulary and grammar may seem unusual, but the message is clear.

by George D. Watson, D.D.


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Fanaticism - What It Is

Many suppose that fanaticism is but the excess of good things, as if an excess of faith should destroy reason, or an excess of light should produce severity, or and excess of love should run into license, but such is not the case. it is impossible to have any virtue or grace of the Holy Spirit in too great a degree. As no amount of increase of gold would turn it into lead, so no degree to the increase of any virtue could turn it into fanaticism.

Fanaticism is produced by spurious elements which assume the form of grace, like a clown trying to play the king. There are several principles which stimulate some form of grace, but a little examination will prove their counterfeit, as Milton describes the touch of Ithuriel's spear making the toad to break forth into a full fledged Satan.

Expecting Effects Without Proper Causes

Expecting effects without proper causes, is one among the first principles of fanaticism. This is the counterfeit of real faith. Some evil spirit persuades a christian that he can neglect using the proper means, and take an attitude of shiftless idleness, or indolent waiting, and see marvelous results accomplished while ignoring all the legitimate causes to produce the effects.

One man expects the place of worship to be filled with people without advertising it in any way, or letting people know what the meetings is and where it is to be. Another expects money to flow in, or drop down from heaven, without giving the people an opportunity to make a free will offering. Another expects christian people to gratuitously supply him with all the comforts of life when he is not proving himself a christian worker that needeth not to be ashamed. Another expects to go in the pulpit and preach a luminous, melting sermon without any preparation of deep reading and thinking and much private prayer. The list could be lengthened indefinitely. Such people not only fancy that they have faith, but secretly pride themselves on having an extraordinary faith beyond all other christians, and imagine that they are imitating the apostles and George Muller and such characters. They wind up going hungry and ragged and seeing nothing done, and then get vexed because the mountain was not cast into the sea, and because the eagle did not drop a large fish at their front door, as in the case of Huntington, forgetting that they were not working with all their might for God like he was.

These are just the people that St. James wrote his epistle for. True faith always looks for the proper causes to produce the effects, both in the inner experience and the outer life.

A Fake Calling

Another element of fanaticism is where people wait for some voice or definite impression to tell them what to do on points that are distinctly stated in Scripture. It is true there are many things in the details of life upon which all christians must seek for special light and guidance from the Holy Spirit. But when a duty is distinctly expressed in Scripture, or universally recognized by the unwritten rules of civil life, then it is fanaticism to be looking for special revelations from God to decide such matters. One person will not visit the sick and pray with them without some special, tremendous impression upon his emotions, when the word of God plainly says that pure religion is to visit people in their affliction. Another will not give his tenth to the Lord, and never contribute to support the work of God, or help the poor, without some voice or special conviction to almost force him to unclasp his stingy purse, when the Scriptures abound in passages on giving the tenth, and giving liberally, and helping the needy. Another will not put of his jewelry and gaudy attire until he gets a special telegram from the skies, when the word of God plainly forbids such things.

Then there are many things not written in Scripture, but are the unwritten laws of civil manners, in social conduct, in polite behavior which need to be recognized without waiting for special impressions from the Lord. There are hundreds of comparatively good people at this moment lazily waiting for some special revelation to do something which Scripture and common sense would lead them to go at immediately. One thinks he must not read the Scriptures except when he has an impression to do so, another thinks he much neglect secret prayer until a supernatural voice tells him to pray, when the Bible explicitly commands on these points.

In all such instances, some evil spirit has attempted to play the part of the Holy Ghost, and gets people to ignore their common sense under the delusion of extraordinary sanctity, and in every single instance the results are disastrous, both as to experience and practice.

The Holy Ghost is above reason, and outside of Scripture, but never contradictory to either.

Passion For Leadership

Another principle of fanaticism is the passion for leadership, a spiritual itch to be a boss of something or of somebody. Because God has given some special gift, or extra illumination, to be used in humble love for his glory, the evil one sees his opportunity, and comes to the soul with soft, sweet flatteries, and gets it to believe that it is fore ordained to be the founder of some new and startling enterprise that will surpass all the tame affairs of humble plodding christians.

Now it is true God does have in every generation some of his servants prepared for leadership, but God's leaders are the lowly, the loving, the praying, the weeping, the cross bearing, the suffering, and tried ones, who never attempt to boss their brethren, and to cut the sheep with swords, and when they have to exercise authority, they do it in love, and they have a holy trembling when responsibility is put on them, such as Moses and Paul had. But the fanatic has in him the principle of braggadocio, and strut, and loud talk, and dictatorship, and threatening, that if his underlings go to hear somebody else preach, or don't give him their money, or don't do as he says, they are called hard names, or excommunicated, and even the most ignorant soon see through his sanctimonious robes of authority, that he is a fraud or a backslider.

The desire to be a great leader is dreadfully dangerous. The secret itch of the mind to head some great mission, some new departure, some startling revolution, some original pious fad, is always born of self and Satan, and always runs a brief race, makes a display of skyrockets, ruins the usefulness of the would-be leader, and hinders and weakens many a poor soul.

A soul really called to a great mission, and tact keeps in union with God, will go slow, pray much, make little noise over it, and seek to keep self in the background.

Tremendous Exaggerations

Another principle that enters into fanaticism is that of tremendous exaggerations. There is always a consciousness that the facts are inadequate for the occasion, and so an effort must be made to put on the coloring as bright as possible, and so the least little thing in the person's favor, or in the line of success, is magnified into great proportions. A little congregation of a hundred is reported to be several hundred, statistics as to religious meetings are run up into fabulous figures, a little financial prosperity is spoken of with such inflated terms as to make it sound like Wall Street.

Fanaticism finds mountains in mole hills, construes some little passing incident to be a great fulfillment of Bible prophecy, and imagines that some ordinary dream or mental flash light in prayer is the signal for something startling and world wide in its import. It uses high sounding phrases, and always construes history, prophecy, providence, revelation, grace and glory, in such a way as to put self conspicuously in the center, and instead of a sweet Divine passion to give Christ the pre-eminence in all things, it magnifies itself to be almost equal to Jesus. I heard a person publicly declare that Jesus told her she stood next to himself in the point of suffering, that her trials had surpassed everybody's on earth. That is a sample of the awful exaggeration of little minds. The real saints have always shunned the spirit of exaggeration, for a lie is none the less a lie for being wrapped in the pious garb of religious enthusiasms. Have you noticed that Jesus uses simple, positive words, without excessive adjectives, because he meant just what he said?

Air Castles and Waste

Another fanatical element is found in a tendency amounting almost to a predilection to turn away from things practical and available to something that is fanciful and impracticable. Its eye overlooks the plain common sense work right at hand, to some far misty schemes across the sea or in some future years. Instead of giving money to carry on the missions and revivals that are already going on, it builds air castles of some new and vast enterprise of benevolence which is to take place in the bright future or some far away locality. There is a bias in every mind to build air castles of imaginary enterprises, and it takes a great interior crucifixion, as Paul gives us to understand, to bring down those lofty imaginations into the captivity of Jesus, and set them to work doing something practical for God and souls.

Money is being hoarded for future imaginary benevolence, which ungodly relatives will get hold of, and God's cause will be defrauded, because the owner has not enough wisdom to use it at once for the salvation of the world. It is amazing how few professors of holiness there are that use their money for God, and when they are dead, the world, or the flesh, or the devil, carry off the spoils. This is rank fanaticism for present stinginess to be dreaming of future benevolence. The same waste applies to one's mind, or influence, or gifts, refusing to use the present opportunity, and planning for something which will turn out to be a shadow.

One Passage Doctrines

Building a theology, or an experience, or a practice or conduct, on one single text of Scripture is another evidence of fanaticism. There are person who form a habit of harping on one single passage of Scripture, and that perhaps a figurative one, until it seems to overshadow everything in the Bible, or they take some precept which could only apply literally to the Jews or the Apostles, and insist that it must apply literally to themselves, as when a preacher says he cannot preach until he raises money and takes a trip to Jerusalem, just because the Scripture says "beginning at Jerusalem."

Hence one set magnify the seventh day, until it is greater than everything else in the bible; another makes water baptism the only real thing in religion. Another fights all the ordinances of the Christian church, and builds a whole theology on that text where paul says the Jewish ordinances were nailed to the cross; another set take the passage "these are they which were not defiled with women," and run it into irrational conclusions, even teaching that living in the marriage relation is a hindrance to true holiness, and many other solitary expressions of Scripture are twisted to contradict the rest of the Bible, and made the foundation of a soap bubble system of religion.

Bitter Denunciation

The last principle we have space to mention here as entering into fanaticism is that of bitter denunciation, which always proceeds from a supposed infallibility of self. There never has been a single instance where a person was of a harsh, denunciatory spirit, that there was not something crooked about them, such as that they were either dishonest, or stingy, or tricky, or quarreled in their families, or had secret sin, or used opium, or something was in their lives by which an evil spirit could get hold of them. If any man have not the spirit of Jesus, Scripture affirms that he is none of his.

A crooked-hearted profession of religion endeavors to show a degree of holiness by the way he pitches into everything and everybody except himself. He can denounce outward forms of sin in such a way as never to get anyone to forsake those sins. Denunciation may draw a few followers, but never saved souls.

A flash of lightning is hot, but it never makes flowers to blossom or corn to grow. Lighting can scathe and kill, but it takes sunshine to dress the world in sweet verdure. There is no substitute in the universe for the genuine, pure, humble love of God. Perhaps no Christians has even entirely escaped some touches of some of these principles of fanaticism, for the Christian that can affirm that he has had perfect immunity from these things mush have an almost infinite degree of self-conceit which is the root of all fanaticism.

If we discover any of these traces in us, let us humbly confess them to God, and seek earnestly to be turned into spotless, boundless love, for love is the only cure for the multiplied ills of the world.

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