And here arises the question, What real hold had Deism upon the public mind at all? There is abundance of contemporary evidence which would lead us to believe that the majority of the nation were fast becoming unchristianised. Bishop Butler was not the man to make a statement, and especially a statement of such grave import, lightly, and his account of the state of religion is melancholy indeed. ‘It is come,’ he writes, ’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, for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world.’ Archbishop Wake’s testimony is equally explicit, so is Bishop Warburton’s, so is Dean Swift’s. Voltaire declared that there was only just enough religion left in England to distinguish Tories who had little from Whigs who had less.
In the face of such testimony it seems a bold thing to assert that there was a vast amount of noise and bluster which caused a temporary panic, but little else, and that after all Hurd’s view of the matter was nearer the truth. ‘The truth of the case,’ he writes, ’is no more than this. A few fashionable men make a noise in the world; and this clamour being echoed on all sides from the shallow circles of their admirers, misleads the unwary into an opinion that the irreligious spirit is universal and uncontrollable.’ A strong proof of the absence of any real sympathy with the Deists is afforded by the violent outcry which was raised against them on all sides. This outcry was not confined to any one class or party either in the political or religious world. We may not be surprised to find Warburton mildly suggesting that ’he would hunt down that pestilent herd of libertine scribblers with which the island is overrun, as good King Edgar did his wolves,’ or Berkeley, that ’if ever man deserved to be denied the common benefits of bread and water, it was the author of a Discourse of Freethinking,’ and that ’he should omit no endeavour to render the persons (of Freethinkers) as despicable and their practice as odious in the eye of the world as they deserve.’ But we find almost as truculent notions in writings where we might least expect them. It was, for example, a favourite accusation of the Tories against the Whigs that they favoured the Deists. ‘We’ (Tories), writes Swift, ’accuse them [the Whigs] of the public encouragement and patronage to Tindal, Toland, and other atheistical writers.’ And yet we find the gentle Addison, Whig as he was, suggesting in the most popular of periodicals, corporal punishment as a suitable one for the Freethinker; Steele, a Whig and the most merciful of men, advocating in yet stronger terms a similar mode of treatment; Fielding, a Whig and not a particularly straitlaced man, equally violent.