The English Church in the Eighteenth Century eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 807 pages of information about The English Church in the Eighteenth Century.

This strong feeling against the Deists is all the more remarkable when we remember that it existed at a time of great religious apathy, and at a time when illiberality was far from being a besetting fault.  The dominant party in the Church was that which would now be called the Broad Church party, and among the Dissenters at least equal latitudinarianism was tolerated.  This, however, which might seem at first sight a reason why Deism should have been winked at, was probably in reality one of the causes why it was so unpopular.  The nation had begun to be weary of controversy; in the religious as in the political world, there was arising a disposition not to disturb the prevailing quiet.  The Deist was the enfant terrible of the period, who would persist in raising questions which men were not inclined to meddle with.  It was therefore necessary to snub him; and accordingly snubbed he was most effectually.

The Deists themselves appear to have been fully aware of the unpopularity of their speculations.  They have been accused, and not without reason, of insinuating doubts which they dared not express openly.  But then, why dared they not express them?  The days of persecution for the expression of opinion were virtually ended.  There were indeed laws still unrepealed against blasphemy and contempt of religion, but except in extreme cases (such as those of Woolston and Annet), they were no longer put into force.  Warburton wrote no more than the truth when he addressed the Freethinkers thus:  ’This liberty may you long possess and gratefully acknowledge.  I say this because one cannot but observe that amidst full possession of it, you continue with the meanest affectation to fill your prefaces with repeated clamours against difficulties and discouragements attending the exercise of freethinking.  There was a time, and that within our own memories, when such complaints were seasonable and useful; but happy for you, gentlemen, you have outlived it.’[193] They had outlived it, that is to say, so far as legal restrictions were concerned.  If they did meet with ’difficulties and discouragements,’ they were simply those which arose from the force of public opinion being against them.  But be the cause what it may, the result is unquestionable.  ’The English Deists wrote and taught their creed in vain; they were despised while living, and consigned to oblivion when dead; and they left the Church of England unhurt by the struggle.’[194] It was in France and Germany, not in England that the movement set on foot by the English Deists made a real and permanent impression.



[Footnote 147:  That is, not in virtue of anything he wrote which can be properly called Deism.  Shaftesbury in his ethical and Bolingbroke in his political writings may perhaps be termed classical writers, but neither of them qua Deists.]

[Footnote 148:  See Hunt’s Religious Thought in England, vol. ii. p. 214.]

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