The defenders of Christianity did not meet the deistic attack in any spirit of resignation to defeat; on the contrary, they fought back with as hearty a vigor, as extensive a learning, as virulent a style as anything in Tindal, Middleton, or Bolingbroke. The weaker apologists, like Bishop Chandler of Lichfield and Bishop Newton of London, relied on trite arguments—that the Jews were fervently expecting a Messiah when Christ came, and that many Jewish prophecies had been fulfilled by his career; or, like Bishops Sherlock of London and Pearce of Rochester, they appealed to the multiple testimony for the resurrection of Christ. Sherlock and others insisted that the evidence for the Christian miracles was overwhelming, and sufficed to uphold the divinity of Christ and Christianity. To reject a well-attested event because it contradicts our experience, said Sherlock, is a very risky procedure; on the same basis the inhabitants of the tropics refused to believe in the reality of ice. When we assume that things cannot be otherwise than we have known them to be, “we outrun the information of our senses, and the conclusion stands on prejudice, not on reason.”30 Despite our wide but really narrow experience, we cannot be sure that a man may not rise from the dead. Consider how many marvels now accepted as routine events in our lives were once held to be inconceivable!

George Berkeley, who had made his mark in philosophy in the years 1709–13, sent from Rhode Island his contribution to the debate in Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher (1733), a dialogue sparkling with bold thought and sprightly style. Alciphron describes himself as a freethinker who has progressed from Latitudinarianism to deism to atheism; now he rejects all religion as a deception practiced upon the people by priests and magistrates; he refuses to believe in anything but the senses, the passions, and the appetites. Euphranor, voicing Berkeley, warns the deists that their doctrine leads to atheism, and that atheism will lead to the collapse of morality. There may be a few good atheists, but will not their doctrine, if accepted by the masses, issue in libertinism and lawlessness? These skeptics of religion should be skeptics of science too, for many statements of scientists—as in higher mathematics—are quite beyond the evidence of our senses or the reach of our understanding. Certainly the doctrine of the Trinity is no more incomprehensible than the square root of minus one.

William Warburton was not the man to rest his faith or his ecclesiastical revenues upon so frail a base as Berkeley’s surds. Trained as a lawyer, ordained an Anglican priest, he fought his way through the theological jungle with all the alert resourcefulness of the legal mind. Perhaps he was fitter for the army than for either the bar or the cloth; he relished battle, and could hardly sleep at night if he had not slain some adversary during the day. He described his life as “a warfare upon earth; that is to say, with bigots and libertines, against whom I have denounced eternal war, like Hannibal against Rome, at the altar.”31 His darts ranged far and wide, and when they ran out of foes they slaughtered friends. He gave succinct descriptions of his contemporaries: Johnson, a malign and insolent bully; Garrick, whose “sense, when he deviates into it, is more like nonsense”; Smollett, a “vagabond Scot” who “writes nonsense ten thousand strong”; Voltaire, a “scoundrel” wallowing in “the dirtiest sink of freethinking.”32

His immense two-volume masterpiece appeared in 1737–41 as The Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated on the Principles of a Religious Deist. Its argument was original and unique: The belief in a future state of reward and punishment is (as many deists agreed) indispensable to social order; but Moses succeeded in organizing Jewish life to prosperity and morality without that belief; this miracle can be explained only by the divine guidance of Moses and the Jews; therefore the mission and laws of Moses were divine, and the Bible is the word of God. Warburton felt that this demonstration fell “very little short of mathematical certainty.”33 His theological colleagues were not quite happy over his view that God had guided the Jews through 613 laws and four thousand years without letting them know that their souls were immortal. But the lusty author had filled his pages with such learned disquisitions—on the nature of morality, on the necessary alliance of Church and state, on the mystery religions and rituals of antiquity, onthe origin of writing, on the meaning of hieroglyphics, on Egyptian chronology, on the date of the Book of Job, and on the errors of freethinkers, antiquaries, scholars, historians, Socinians, Turks, and Jews—that all England gasped at the weight and reach of his erudition. Warburton advanced from battle to battle—against Crousaz, Theobald, Bolingbroke, Middleton, Wesley, Hume—to the lucrative and comfortable bishopric of Gloucester.

Joseph Butler was less tough of fiber but of finer grain: a man of great gentleness, modesty, and benevolence, who suffered deeply from his realization that the religion which had helped to wean European civilization from barbarism was facing a trial for its life. He was shocked by the popularity of Hobbesian materialism in the upper classes. When (1747) he was offered the archbishopric of Canterbury—the ecclesiastical primacy of England—he refused it on the ground that “it was too late for him to try to support a falling Church.”34 In 1751 he expressed his dismay at “the general decay of religion in this nation.… The influence of it is more and more wearing out in the minds of men.… The number of those who profess themselves unbelievers increases, and with their numbers their zeal.”35 As if he felt that a people might suffer a spiritual amnesia through the abandonment of its religious and moral heritage, he surprised his friend Dean Tucker by asking might not a nation, as well as an individual, go mad?

Nevertheless he gave his life to seeking an intellectual rehabilitation of Christian belief. When he was still a young priest of thirty-four he published Fifteen Sermons (1726), in which he modified Hobbes’s pessimistic analysis of human nature by claiming that man, though in many ways naturally vicious, is also by nature a social and moral being, with an inborn sense of right and wrong. Butler argued that the nobler elements in the constitution of man owe their origin to God, whose voice they are; and on this basis he built a general theory of divine design as permeating the world. Caroline liked the argument, and in 1736 Butler was appointed “clerk of the closet” to the Queen.

In that year he issued what remained for a century the chief buttress of Christian argument against unbelief—The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature. The preface revealed the mood of the time:

It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly they treat it as if in the present age this were an agreed point among all people of discernment, and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world.36

Intended as an answer to the deists, the Analogy assumed the existence of God. The “natural religion” of the deists had accepted the “God of Nature,” the great designer and artificer of the world, but it had rejected, as quite incompatible with that lofty conception, the apparently unjust God of the Bible. Butler proposed to show that there are in nature as many signs of injustice and cruelty as in the Jehovah of the Old Testament; that there is no contradiction between the God of Nature and the God of Revelation; and that those who accepted the one deity should logically accept the other. The good clerk of the closet seems never to have dreamed that some hardy skeptics might conclude from his argument (as James Mill did) that neither of these two gods deserved to be worshiped by civilized men.

That both gods existed, and were one, Butler argued from probability. Our minds are imperfect, and subject to every manner of error; we can never have certainty, whether about God or about nature; it is enough to have probability; and probability supports the beliefs in God and immortality. The soul is clearly superior to the body, for the bodily organs are the tools and servants of the soul. The soul, as obviously the essence of man, need not perish with the body; probably, at death, it seeks other instruments in a higher stage. Is it not conformable to nature that an organism should be transformed from a lower to a finer form—as creeping things become winged ones, as the chrysalis changes into a butterfly? And another analogy makes it probable that in the life of the soul after the death of the body there will be rewards and punishments—always assuming the existence of God. For just as we punish criminals for their offenses against society, so does nature, in most cases, punish men for the evils they do; but since there are many instances in which vice meets with no evident penalty, and virtue no visible reward, in this life, it is incredible that God will not restore, in another life, a juster relationship between conduct and fate. Our conscience, or moral sense, could have come to us only from a just God.

Butler’s arguments are now of interest chiefly as illustrating a stage in the evolution of the modern mind. As against the deists they had considerable point: those who accepted the evidence of divine design in nature had no reason to reject the Bible because of the cruel God revealed in the Old Testament, for the God of Nature is quite as cruel. It was a highly original way to defend Christianity; Butler apparently did not suspect that his argument might lead not to Christianity but to something more desperate than atheism—to Thomas Henry Huxley’s conclusion that the ultimate forces in or behind the universe are unmoral, and run harshly counter to that sense of right and wrong upon which Butler, like Kant, based so much of his theology. In any case the Analogymarked an advance if only in its good temper; here was no odium theologicum, no unctuous vituperation, but an earnest attempt to be courteous even to those who seemed to be destroying the most precious hopes of mankind. Queen Caroline hailed the book as the best defense yet made of the Christian creed. Dying, she recommended Butler for ecclesiastical advancement; George II made him bishop of Bristol, then dean of St. Paul’s, finally bishop of Durham. There Butler set an example to his peers by living simply, and giving much of his income to the poor.

His Analogy left so many openings to unbelief that many churchmen advised an end to debate, and preferred to rest their faith on religious needs and sentiments beyond the shafts of reason. So Henry Dodwell’s Christianity Not Founded on Argument (1742) rejected reasoning in spiritual concerns; it is no guide to truth, much less to happiness, but is merely an enervating dance of pros and cons; no man ever builds his faith upon such fluid foundations. The arguments of Clarke, Warburton, Butler, and other Christian defenders, said Dodwell, had shaken more religious belief than they had reinforced; there might have been no atheism if the Boyle lecturers had not annually refuted it. Christ did not argue; he taught as one having authority. Look at any really religious person, and you will find an inner conviction, not an intellectual conclusion. For the simple soul faith must be an accepted tradition; for the mature spirit it must be a direct feeling of a supernatural reality.

William Law, after making his mark in controversy with the deists, was moved by reading Jakob Böhme to turn from argument to mysticism; and in this half century of triumphant materialism and cynicism he wrote of the inner presence and redeeming love of Christ as fervently and confidently as if he had been Thomas à Kempis reborn and unchanged. He sacrificed all worldly prospects by refusing to take the oath acknowledging George I to be the head of the English Church; he was deprived of his fellowship at Cambridge, and his degrees were revoked. He became tutor to Edward Gibbon’s father, and remained with that family long enough to be remembered by the historian. “In our family,” said the skeptic, “he left the reputation of a worthy and pious man who believed all he professed, and practiced all that he enjoined.”37 Johnson praised Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1729) as “the finest piece of hortatory theology in any language.”38 Certainly its mysticism was healthier than that which loses itself in supernatural visions, celestial or infernal. “There is nothing that is supernatural,” Law wrote, “in the whole system of our redemption. Every part of it has its ground in the workings and powers of nature, and all our redemption is only nature set right.” Hell is not a place, but the condition of the disordered soul; heaven is not a place, it is “no foreign, separate, and imposed state,” but the happiness of a soul in order and at peace.39 And though Law was a faithful member of the Church of England, he dreamed of a regenerate and Protestant monasticism:

If, therefore, persons of either sex, … desirous of perfection, should unite themselves into little societies, professing voluntary poverty, virginity, retirement, and devotion, that some might be relieved by their charities, and all be blessed with their prayers and benefited by their example; … such persons, … so far from being chargeable with any superstition or blind devotion, … might justly be said to restore that piety which was the boast and glory of the Church when its greatest saints were alive.40

Law’s ideals and fine prose so moved Gibbon’s aunt Hester Gibbon that she and a rich widow went to live near him in his native town of Kingscliffe, Northamptonshire, and devoted most of their income to charities under his supervision. He who had once been an eager scholar, loving learned and polite company, now found his happiness in distributing food, clothing, and homilies to the poor, the sick, and the bereaved. He carried his austerity to a condemnation of nearly all worldly pleasures; he renewed the Puritan campaign against the theater as the “house of the Devil,” or at least “the porch of Hell.”41 The English character, and the temper of the times, proved inhospitable to Law’s mysticism, and he seemed to be ending his life in a futile obscurity, when John Wesley came to sit at his feet.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!