‘Latitudinarian’ is not so neutral a term as could be desired. It conveys an implication of reproach and suspicion, by no means ungrounded in some instances, but very inappropriate when used of men who must count among the most distinguished ornaments of the English Church. But no better title suggests itself. The eminent prelates who were raised to the bench in King William III.’s time can no longer, without ambiguity, be called ‘Low Churchmen,’ because the Evangelicals who succeeded to the name belong to a wholly different school of thought from the Low Churchmen of an earlier age; nor ‘Whigs,’ because that sobriquet has long been confined to politics; nor ‘Broad Churchmen,’ because the term would be apt to convey a set of ideas belonging to the nineteenth more than to the eighteenth century. It only remains to divest the word as far as possible of its polemical associations, and to use it as denoting what some would call breadth, others Latitudinarianism of religious and ecclesiastical opinion.
There were many faulty elements in the Latitudinarianism of the eighteenth century. Those who dreaded and lamented its advances found it no difficult task to show that sometimes it was connected with Deistical or with Socinian or Arian views, sometimes with a visionary enthusiasm, sometimes with a weak and nerveless religion of sentiment. They could point also to the obvious fact that thorough scepticism, or even mere irreligion, often found a decent veil under plausible professions of a liberal Christianity. There were some, indeed, who, in the excitement of hostility or alarm, seemed to lose all power of ordinary discrimination. Much in the same way as every ‘freethinker’ was set down as a libertine or an atheist, so also many men of undoubted piety and earnestness who had done distinguished services in the Christian cause, and who had greatly contributed to raise the repute of the English Church, were constantly ranked as Latitudinarians in one promiscuous class with men to whose principles they were utterly opposed. But, after making all allowance for the unfortunate confusion thus attached to the term, the fact remains that the alarm was not unfounded. Undoubtedly a lower form of Latitudinarianism gained ground, very deficient in some important respects. Just in the same way as, before the middle of the century, a sort of spiritual inertness had enfeebled the vigour of High Churchmen on the one hand and of Nonconformists on the other, so also it was with the Latitude men. After the first ten or fifteen years of the century the Broad Church party in the Church of England was in no very satisfactory state. It had lost not only in spirit and energy, but also in earnestness and piety. Hoadly, Herring, Watson, Blackburne, all showed the characteristic defect of their age—a want of spiritual depth and fervour. They needed a higher elevation of motive and of purpose to be such leaders as could be desired of what was in reality a great religious movement.