Religion and Philosophy


THE story of the eighteenth century in Western Europe had a double theme: the collapse of the Christian religion that had given it spiritual and social support. State and faith were bound together in mutual aid, and the fall of one seemed to involve the other in volve the other in a common tragedy.

In both aspects of the great change England played the first act. On the political stage her Civil War of 1642–49 preceded by 147 years the French Revolution in deposing a feudal aristocracy and beheading a king. In the religious realm the deistic criticism of Christianity antedated by half a century the Voltairean campaign in France; the materialism of Hobbes preceded by a century the materialism of La Mettrie; Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739) and his essay “Of Miracles” (1748) antedated the attack of the French philosophes upon Christianity in the Encyclopédie (1751). Voltaire had learned his skepticism in France—partly from the English exile Bolingbroke—before coming to England; but his three years in England (1726–28) startled him with the sight of orthodoxy in decay, Catholicism humiliated, Protestantism breaking up into feeble sects, and deists challenging everything in Christianity except the belief in God-precisely the challenge that Voltaire would carry to France. “In France,” said Voltaire, “I am looked upon as having too little religion; in England as having too much.”1

Montesquieu, visiting England in 1731, reported, “There is no religion in England.”2 This was, of course, an exercise in striking hyperbole; at that very time John and Charles Wesley were founding the Methodist movement at Oxford. But Montesquieu, an aristocrat, moved mostly among lords and ladies of the peerage or the pen; and in these groups, he tells us, “if religion is spoken of, everybody laughs.”3 This too seems extreme; but hear Lord Hervey, who knew almost every man, woman, and deviate in the upper classes:

This fable of Christianity … was now [1728] so exploded in England that any man of fashion or condition would have been almost as much ashamed to own himself a Christian as formerly he would have been to profess himself none. Even the women who prided themselves at all on their understanding took care to let people know that Christian prejudices were what they despised being bound by.4

In those exalted ranks or minds religion meant either the somnolence of the Anglican communion or the “enthusiasm” of the Dissenting sects; and Dr. Johnson would soon define enthusiasm as “a vain belief of private revelation”—literally a “god within.” The Established Church had lost face and influence by supporting the Stuarts against the Hanoverians and the triumphant Whigs; now it submitted to the state, and its clergy became humble dependents of the ruling class. The country parson was the favorite butt of literary satire or vulgar ridicule; Fielding honored the exceptions in Parson Adams. Class distinctions prevailed in the churches; the rich had special pews near the pulpit, the tradesmen sat behind them, the common people sat or stood in the rear; and when the service was over, the commoners remained in their places while their superiors filed out in slow dignity.5 In some London churches, when too many of the poor came to worship, the periwigged members fled, locking their pews behind them,6 and seeking fresher air.

Some Anglican bishops, like Butler, Berkeley, and Warburton, were men of great learning, and two of these were of fine character; but most of the upper clergy, maneuvering for promotion, played politics with the skeptics and mistresses of the court, and consumed in luxury the revenues of many parishes. Bishop Chandler, we are told, paid £9,000 for advancement from Lichfield to Durham; Bishop Willis of Winchester, Archbishop Potter of Canterbury, Bishops Gibson and Sherlock of London died “shamefully rich,” some of them worth £100,00o.7 Thackeray had no stomach for them:

I read that Lady Yarmouth [mistress of George II] sold a bishopric to a clergyman for £5,000.… Was he the only prelate of his time led up by such hands for consecration? As I peep into George II’s St. James’s, I see crowds of cassocks rustling up the back stairs of the ladies of the court; stealthy clergy slipping purses into their laps; that godless old King yawning under his canopy in his Chapel Royal as the chaplain before him is discoursing, [or] chattering in German … so loud that the clergyman … burst out crying in his pulpit because the defender of the faith and dispenser of bishoprics would not listen to him!8

It was a sign of the times that the Established Church had become broadly tolerant of different theologies and rituals among its members. Pitt described it as “a Calvinist creed, a Popish liturgy, and an Arminian clergy”9—i.e., the official doctrine was predestinarian, the ritual was semi-Roman Catholic, but a Latitudinarian spirit allowed Anglican ministers to reject Calvin’s determinism and adopt the free-will teaching of the Dutch heretic Arminius. Toleration grew because faith declined. Heresies like Hume’s, which would have startled seventeenth-century England, made now but a slight ripple on the stream of British thought. Hume himself described England as “settled into the most cool indifference with regard to religious matters that is to be found in any nation in the world.”10

The letter of the law made the Anglican worship compulsory on all Englishmen. A man who absented himself from Sunday services was liable to a fine of a shilling for each truancy; and anyone who allowed such an absentee to live with him was subject to a fine of twenty pounds per month;11 these laws, however, were seldom enforced. Again in law rather than practice, Catholic services were outlawed. A Catholic priest who performed any sacerdotal function was subject to life imprisonment. A like penalty discouraged any Catholic from keeping a school; and no parent might send his child abroad for a Catholic education, under penalty of £100 fine. Only those citizens who took the oaths of allegiance and supremacy (acknowledging the king of England to be head of the Church), and declared against transubstantiation, were eligible to buy or inherit land. Any Catholic who refused to take these oaths was excluded from civil or military office, from the practice of law, from bringing any action at law, and from living within ten miles of London; moreover, such a Catholic might at any time be banished from England, and be sentenced to death if he returned. Actually, however, under Georges I and II, Catholics regularly transmitted their property and their creed to their children; they could hear Mass unhindered in their chapels and homes; and many of them took the required oaths with a mental reservation.12

Nearly all ardent English Protestants were now in the sects dissenting from the Established Church. Voltaire laughed and rejoiced at their multiplicity: Independents (Puritans), Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, Socinians (Unitarians). The Presbyterians, having lost political power, were becoming tolerant; they did not take predestination very seriously, and many of them were quietly content with a human Christ.13 In 1719 an assembly of Presbyterian clergymen voted 73 to 69 that subscription to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity should no longer be required of candidates for the ministry.14 The Quakers were increasing not in number but in wealth; and as they rose in the social scale they became more reconciled to the ways and sins of men. A tendency to gloom infected nearly all Dissenters, even in prosperity; and while the upper classes made Sunday a day of frolic, the lower middle class—where Dissent was strongest—continued the “blue Sunday” of the Puritans. There, after morning prayers at home, the family went to the meetinghouse for a service that lasted two hours; back at home, the father read the Bible or pious books to his wife and children, who, as like as not, sat on cushions on the uncarpeted floor. Normally they went to services again in the afternoon and evening, prayed together, heard another sermon, and found some pleasure in singing sonorous hymns. No profane singing was allowed on that holy day, no card-playing, in general no amusement of any kind. Travel was to be avoided on the Sabbath, so allowing the highwaymen a day of rest.

Voltaire, reviewing the religious scene of England, found much in it to carry a lesson to a France where intolerance still ruled:

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London.… There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian transact business together as though they were all of the same religion, and give the name of Infidels to none but bankrupts; there the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends upon the Quaker’s word. At the breaking up of this … free assembly some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; that man has his son’s foreskin cut off, and causes a set of Hebrew words—to the meaning of which he himself is a total stranger—to be mumbled over the infant; others [Quakers] retire to their churches, and there wait the inspiration of heaven with their hats on; and all are satisfied.

If one religion only were allowed in England, the government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there is such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.15

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