The English masses remained faithful to their various forms of the Christian creed. The most widely read book, next to the Bible, was Nelson’s Festivals and Fasts , a guide to the ecclesiastical year.39 Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations , published after his death, went through four editions in four years. In the upper classes religion was respected as a social function, an aid to morals, and an arm of government, but it had lost private credence and all power over policy. The bishops were named by the king, and the parsons were appointees and dependents of the squires. The deistic attack on religion had so far subsided that Burke could ask in 1790: “Who, born within the last forty years, has read one word of Collins, and Toland, and Tindal, and Chubb, and Morgan, and that whole race who called themselves Freethinkers?”40 But if no one rose to answer him it may be because those rebels had won the battle, and educated men shrugged off the old questions as settled and dead. Boswell in 1765 (forgetting the commonalty) described his time as “an age when mankind are so fond of incredulity that they seem to pique themselves in contracting their circle of belief as much as possible.”41 We have seen Selwyn mocking religion at Oxford, and Wilkes at Medmenham Abbey. The younger Pitt, according to Lady Hester Stanhope, “never went to church in his life.”42 And one did not have to believe in order to preach. “There are,” Boswell wrote in 1763, “many infidels in orders, who, considering religion merely as a political institution, accept of a benefice as of any civil employment, and contribute their endeavors to keep up the useful delusion.”43 “The forms of orthodoxy, the articles of faith,” said Gibbon, “are subscribed with a sigh or a smile by the modern clergy.”44
Private clubs offered relief from public conformity. Many aristocrats joined one or another of the Freemason lodges. These condemned atheism as stupid, and required of their members a belief in God, but they inculcated toleration of differences on all other doctrines of religion.45 In the Lunar Society of Birmingham manufacturers like Matthew Boulton, James Watt, and Josiah Wedgwood heard without horror the heresies of Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin.46 Nevertheless the furor of deism had passed, and nearly all freethinkers accepted a truce by which they would not interfere with the propagation of the faith if the Church allowed some latitude to sin. The English upper classes, with their sense of order and moderation, avoided the reckless radicalism of the French Enlightenment; they recognized the intimate union of religion and government, and were too economical to replace a supernatural morality with an infinitude of police.
Since they were now servants of the state, the Anglican bishops, like the Catholic cardinals, thought themselves entitled to a measure of worldly enjoyment. Cowper satirized in bitter lines47 the clergymen who scrambled like politicians for richer or additional benefices; but many others led lives of quiet attention to their duties, and several were scholarly and able defenders of the faith. William Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785) displayed a generous spirit of doctrinal latitude and toleration, and his Evidences of Christianity (1794) persuasively presented the argument from design. He welcomed into holy orders men of freethinking tendencies so long as they preached the essentials of religion and served as moral leaders in their communities.48
Dissenters—Baptists, Presbyterians, and Independents (Puritans)—enjoyed religious toleration provided they adhered to Trinitarian Christianity; but no one could hold political or military office, or enter Oxford or Cambridge, without accepting the Anglican Church and its Thirty-nine Articles. Methodism continued to spread among the lower classes. In 1784 it broke its tenuous ties with the Established Church, but meanwhile it had inspired the “Evangelical movement” in a minority of Anglican clergymen. These men admired Wesley, and agreed with him that the Gospel, or Evangel, should be preached precisely as handed down in the New Testament, with no concessions to rationalist or textual criticism.
England’s memory of the Gunpowder Plot, the Great Rebellion, and the reign of James II still kept on the statute books the old laws against Roman Catholics. Most of these laws were no longer enforced, but many disabilities remained. Catholics could not legally buy or inherit land except through a subterfuge and payment of a double tax on their property. They were excluded from the army and navy, from the legal profession, from voting or standing for Parliament, and from all governmental posts. Even so, their number was growing. In 1781 they included seven peers, twenty-two baronets, 150 “gentlemen.” Mass was celebrated in private homes, and only two or three arrests for this offense are recorded in the sixty years of George Ill’s reign.
In 1778 Sir George Savile offered Parliament a bill for “Catholic relief,” legalizing the purchase and inheritance of land by Catholics, and allowing Catholics to enlist in the armed forces without renouncing their religion. The bill was passed, and met with no serious opposition from the Anglican bishops in the House of Lords. It applied only to England, but in 1779 Lord North moved that it be extended to Scotland. When news of this proposal reached the Lowlands, riots broke out in Edinburgh and Glasgow (January, 1779); several houses inhabited by Catholics were burned to the ground; the shops of Catholic tradesmen, were looted and wrecked; the houses of Protestants—like Robertson the historian—who expressed sympathy for the Catholics were likewise attacked, and the outbreak ended only when Edinburgh magistrates announced that the Act for Catholic Relief would not be applied to Scotland.
A Scottish member of Parliament, Lord George Gordon, took up the “No-Popery” cause in England. On May 29, 1780, he presided over a meeting of the “Protestant Association,” which planned a mass march to present a petition for repeal of the Relief Act of 1778. On June 2 sixty thousand men, wearing blue cockades, surrounded Parliament House. Many members were mauled on their way in; the carriages of Lords Mansfield, Thurlow, and Stormont were demolished; some noble lords reached their seats wigless, disheveled, and trembling.49 Gordon and eight of his followers entered the House of Commons; they presented a petition, allegedly bearing 120,000 signatures, calling for repeal, and demanded immediate action as the sole alternative to invasion of the House by the mob. The members resisted. They sent for troops to check the crowd; they locked all doors; a relative of Gordon declared that he would kill him the moment any outsider forced his way into the chamber; then the House voted to adjourn till June 6. Troops arrived and cleared a way for the members to return to their homes. Two Catholic chapels, belonging to Sardinian and Bavarian ministers, were gutted, and their furniture made a bonfire in the streets. The crowd dispersed, but on June 5 rioters looted other foreign chapels, and burned several private homes.
On June 6 the mob regathered, broke into Newgate Gaol, freed the prisoners, captured an arsenal, and marched, armed, through the capital. Nobles barricaded themselves in their homes; Horace Walpole complimented himself on guarding a duchess in his “garrison” in Berkeley Square.50 On June 7 more houses were looted and burned; distilleries were entered, and thirst was freely quenched; several rioters were cremated as they lay intoxicated in burning buildings. The London magistrates, who alone had legal authority over the municipal guard, refused to order them to fire upon the crowd. George III called out the citizen militia, and bade them shoot whenever the mob used or threatened violence. Alderman John Wilkes earned forgiveness from the King, and lost his popularity with the populace, by mounting a horse and joining with the militia in attempting to disperse the assemblage. The militia, attacked by the rioters, fired upon them, killing twenty-two. The crowd fled.
On June 9 the riot flared again. Houses—whether of Catholics or of Protestants—were pillaged and burned, and firemen were prevented from extinguishing the flames.51 Troops suppressed the uprising at the cost of 285 men killed and 173 wounded; 135 rioters were arrested, twenty-one were hanged. Gordon was arrested in flight toward Scotland; he proved that he had taken no part in the riots; he was freed. Burke secured the approval of the Commons for reaffirmation of the Act for Catholic Relief in England. An act of 1791 extended legal toleration to Catholic worship and education, but no Catholic church was to have a steeple or a bell.52