Many factors worked together to undermine the Christian creed in England: the association of the Church with the rise and fall of political parties, the growth of wealth and the demands of pleasure in the upper classes, the internationalism of ideas through commerce and travel, the increasing acquaintance with non-Christian religions and peoples, the multiplication and mutual criticism of sects, the development of science, the growth of belief in natural causes and invariable laws, the historical and critical study of the Bible, the importation or translation of such epochal books as Bayle’s Dictionnaire and Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus, the abandonment (1694) of state censorship of the press, the rising prestige of reason, the new attempts of philosophy, in Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke, to give natural explanations of the world and man, and—summing up many of these factors– the campaign of the deists to reduce Christianity to a belief in God and immortality.
That movement had begun with Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s De Veritate in 1624; it had grown through the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries with Charles Blount, John Toland, and Anthony Collins; now it proceeded with cumulative effect in Whiston, Woolston, Tindal, Middleton, Chubb, Annet, and Bolingbroke. William Whiston, who had succeeded Newton as Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, was dismissed from that post (1710) for expressing some doubts on the Trinity; he defended his Arianism in Primitive Christianity Revived (1712), and labored to show that Old Testament prophecies had no reference to Christ. When the defenders of Christianity abandoned the argument from prophecy, and based the divinity of Christ upon the miracles related in the New Testament, Thomas Woolston let loose his irreverent ebullience in Six Discourses on the Miracles of Our Saviour (1727–30). “Never,” said Voltaire, “was Christianity so daringly assailed by any Christian.”16 Woolston argued that some of the miracles were incredible and others absurd. He found it especially unbelievable that Christ had cursed a fig tree for not producing figs so early in the year as Easter. He wondered what the English woolgrowers would have done to Jesus if he had sent a flock of their sheep to death as he had done with the Gadarene swine; they “would have made him swing for it,” for English law made such an action a capital crime.17 Woolston thought that the story of Christ’s resurrection was an elaborate deception practiced by the Apostles upon their audiences. He covered all this with protestations that he remained a Christian “as sound as a rock.” However, he dedicated each of his discourses to a different bishop with such condemnation of their pride and avarice that they indicted him for libel and blasphemy (1729). The court condemned him to pay a fine of a hundred pounds, and to give security for future good behavior. Unable to raise the required sums, he went to jail. Voltaire offered a third of the amount, the remainder was raised, and Woolston was freed. Doubtless the trial advertised the Discourses; they sold sixty thousand copies in a few years.18 An anonymous Life of Woolston (1733) told how, when he was walking in St. George’s Fields,
a jolly young woman met him and accosted him in the following manner: … “You old rogue, are you not hanged yet?” To which Mr. Woolston answered: “Good woman, I know you not; pray, what have I done to offend you?” To which the woman replied: “You have writ against my Saviour; what would become of my poor sinful soul if it was not for my dear Saviour?—my Saviour who died for such wicked sinners as I am.”19
The deistic propaganda reached its climax in Matthew Tindal, a fellow of All Souls’ College, Oxford. After a quiet and respectable life, marked chiefly by conversions to and from Catholicism, he published at the age of seventy-three the first volume ofChristianity as Old as the Creation (1730). At his death three years later he left the manuscript of a second volume, which fell into the hands of a bishop, who destroyed it. We may estimate the impact of Volume I from the 150 replies that sought to counter it; it was this book that called forth Bishop Butler’s Analogy of Religion and Bishop Berkeley’s Alciphron.
Tindal ranged with no tender mercy through all the fantasies of theology. He asked why God should have given his revelation to one small people, the Jews, had let it remain their exclusive possession for four thousand years, and then had sent his son to them with another revelation that after seventeen hundred years was still confined to a minority of the human race. What sort of god could this be who used such clumsy methods with such tardy and inadequate results? What ogre of a god was this who punished Adam and Eve for seeking knowledge, and then punished all their posterity merely for being born? We are told that the absurdities in the Bible are due to God’s adapting his speech to the language and ideas of his hearers. What nonsense! Why could he not speak the simple truth to them intelligibly? Why should he have used priests as his intermediaries instead of speaking directly to every man’s soul? Why should he have allowed his specially revealed religion to become an engine of persecution, terror, and strife, leaving men no better morally, after centuries of this dispensation, than before?—making them, indeed, more fierce and cruel than under the pagan cults! Is there not a finer morality in Confucius or Cicero than in the Christianity of history? The real revelation is in Nature herself, and in man’s God-given reason; the real God is the God that Newton revealed, the designer of a marvelous world operating majestically according to invariable law; and the real morality is the life of reason in harmony with nature. “Whoever so regulates his natural appetites as will conduce most to the exercise of his reason, the health of his body, and the pleasures of his senses taken and considered together (since herein his happiness consists) may be certain he can never offend his Maker, who, as he governs all things according to their natures can’t but expect his rational creatures should act according to their natures.”20 This is the true morality, this is the true Christianity, “as old as the creation.”
Conyers Middleton carried on the attack from the historical angle. Graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, he took holy orders, and, while dealing blow after blow at orthodox belief, continued the external practices of Christian worship. He wrote some of the best prose of his time, and his Life of Cicero (1741), though it borrowed heavily from its predecessors, remains to this day an admirable biography. He pleased his fellow clergymen when he sent to England Letters from Rome (1729), showing in scholarly detail the residue of pagan rites in Catholic ritual—incense, holy water, relics, miracles, votive offerings and lights set up before sacred shrines, and the Pontifex Maximus of antiquity become the Supreme Pontiff of Rome. Protestant England applauded, but it soon discovered that Middleton’s penchant for history could trouble Protestant as well as Catholic theology. When Daniel Waterland defended, against Tindal, the literal truth and inspiration of the Bible, Middleton in a Letter to Dr. Waterland (1731) warned the Protestant divines that to insist on all the legends of the Bible as actual history was suicidal; sooner or later the progress of knowledge would discredit such fables and compel Christian apologists to retreat shamefacedly to some more modest stand. Then Middleton resorted to an argument that betrayed the effect which his study of history had had upon his religious faith: even if Christian theology is incredible, a good citizen will support Christianity and the Christian Church as a bulwark of social order, providing admirable deterrents to the barbarism latent in mankind.21
Finally, Middleton issued his most substantial work, A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers Which Are Supposed to Have Existed in the Christian Church through Successive Ages (1748)—a book that Hume later ranked as superior to his own contemporary essay “Of Miracles” (1748). He began by acknowledging the authority of the miracles ascribed in the canonical New Testament to Christ or his apostles; he proposed to show only that the miracles attributed to the Fathers, saints, and martyrs of the Church, after the first Christian century, were undeserving of belief; merely to relate those stories sufficed to reveal their absurdity. Some Fathers of the Church had sanctioned such tales while knowing them to be false; and Middleton quoted Mosheim, the learned ecclesiastical historian, as intimating his fear that “those who search with any attention into the writings of the greatest and most holy doctors of the fourth century will find them all, without exception, disposed to deceive and to lie whenever the interest of religion requires it.”22
There were many defects in Middleton’s book. He forgot that he too had recommended wholesale deception in support of Christianity, and he ignored the possibility that some strange experiences, like the exorcism of “diabolical possession,” or St. Anthony’s hearing the Devil at his door, were due to the power of suggestion or imagination, and may have seemed truly miraculous to those who honestly reported them. In any case the effect of the Free Inquiry was to throw back upon the miracles of the Old Testament, then of the New, the same methods of criticism that Middleton had applied to the patristic period; and his Catholic opponents were quite right in contending that his arguments would weaken the whole supernatural substructure of Christian belief. Perhaps Middleton had intended it so. But he kept his ecclesiastical preferments to the end.
The conversion of Bolingbroke to deism was a secret and a contagion in the aristocracy. In writings cautiously kept from publication during his life he directed his scornful invective against almost all philosophers except Bacon and Locke. He termed Plato the father of theological mendacity, St. Paul a fanatical visionary, Leibniz a “chimerical quack.”23 He called metaphysicians “learned lunatics,” and described as “pneumatical [windy] madmen” all who thought soul and body distinct.24 He laughed at the Old Testament as a farrago of nonsense and lies.25 He professed belief in God, but rejected the remainder of the Christian creed. All knowledge is relative and uncertain. “We ought always to be unbelieving.… In religion, government, and philosophy we ought to distrust everything that is established.”26He put behind him the last consolation of the skeptic—the belief in progress; all societies go through cycles “from generation to corruption, and from corruption to generation.”27
In 1744 Bolingbroke inherited the family estate at Battersea, and left France to spend there the concluding years of his struggle against disease and despair. His former friends deserted him as his political influence fell and his temper rose. The death of his second wife (1750) ended his interest in human affairs; “I become every year more and more isolated in this world”28—the nemesis of selfishness. In 1751 he was seized with cancer spreading from the face. He dictated a pious will, but refused to let any clergyman attend him.29 He died on December 12 after six months of agony, without hope for himself or mankind. Already the decline of religious belief was begetting the pessimism that would be the secret malady of the modern soul.