Never since her Reformation had the Church of England given so fair a promise of a useful and prosperous career as she did at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Everything seemed to be in her favour. In 1702 a sovereign ascended the throne who was enthusiastically devoted to her interests, and endeavoured to live according to the spirit of her teaching. The two great political parties were both bidding for her support. Each accused the other of being her enemy, as the worst accusation that could be brought against them. The most effective cry which the Whigs could raise against the Tories was, that they were imperilling the Church by dallying with France and Rome; the most effective cry which the Tories could raise against the Whigs was, that the Church was in danger under an administration which favoured sectaries and heretics. Both parties vehemently denied the charge, and represented themselves as the truest friends of the Church. Had they done otherwise they would have forfeited at once the national confidence. For the nation at large, and the lower classes even more than the higher, were vehement partisans of the National Church. The now unusual spectacle of a High Church mob was then not at all unusual. The enemies of the Church seemed to be effectually silenced. Rome had tried her strength against her and had failed -- failed in argument and failed in policy. Protestant Dissent was declining in numbers, in influence, and in ability. Both Romanists and Nonconformists would have been only too thankful to have been allowed to enjoy their own opinions in peace, without attempting any aggressive work against the dominant Church.
Sad indeed is the contrast between the promise and the performance. Look at the Church of the eighteenth century in prospect, and a bright scene of uninterrupted triumph might be anticipated. Look at it in retrospect, as it is pictured by many writers of every school of thought, and a dark scene of melancholy failure presents itself. Not that this latter view is altogether a correct one. Many as were the shortcomings of the English Church of this period, her condition was not so bad as it has been represented.
In the early part of the century the Nonjurors not unnaturally regarded with a somewhat jealous eye those who stepped into the places from which they for conscience' sake had been excluded, and the accounts which they have left us of the abuses existing in the Church which had turned them adrift must not be accepted without some allowance for the circumstances under which they were written. The Deists, again, taking their stand on the absolute perfection and sufficiency of natural religion, and the consequent needlessness of any further revelation, would obviously strengthen their position if they could show that the ministers of Christianity were, as a matter of fact, faithless and useless. Hence the Church and her ministers were favourite topics for their invectives. The reputation of the Church suffered, perhaps, still more from the attacks of the free-livers than from those of the free-thinkers. The strictures of the latter formed part of the great Deistical controversy, and were therefore replied to by the champions of orthodoxy; but the reckless aspersions of the former, not being bound up with any controversy, were for the most part suffered to pass unchallenged. Then, again, the leaders of the Evangelical revival, who were misunderstood, and in many cases cruelly treated, by the clergy of their day, could scarcely help taking the gloomiest possible view of the state of the Church at large, and were hardly in a position to appreciate the really good points of men who were violently prejudiced against themselves; while their biographers in later times have been too apt to bring out in stronger relief the brightness of their heroes' portraits by making the background as dark as possible.
Thus various causes have contributed to bring into prominence the abuses of the Church of the eighteenth century, and to throw its merits into the shade.
Still, after making full allowance for the distorting influence of prejudice on many sides, there remains a wide margin which no amount of prejudice can account for. 'Church abuses' must still form a painfully conspicuous feature in any sketch of the ecclesiastical history of the period.
Before entering into the details of these abuses it will be well to specify some of the general causes which tended to paralyse the energies and lower the tone of the Church.
Foremost among these must be placed that very outward prosperity which would seem at the first glance to augur for the Church a useful and prosperous career. But that 'which should have been for her wealth' proved to her 'an occasion of falling.' The peace which she enjoyed made her careless and inactive. The absence of the wholesome stimulus of competition was far from being an unmixed advantage to her. Very soon after the accession of George I., when the voice of Convocation was hushed, a dead calm set in, so far as the internal affairs of the Church were concerned -- a calm which was really more perilous to her than the stormy weather in which she had long been sailing. The discussion of great questions has always a tendency to call forth latent greatness of mind where any exists. But after the second decade of the eighteenth century there was hardly any question within the Church to agitate men's minds. There was abundance of controversy with those without, but within all was still. There was nothing to encourage self-sacrifice, and self-sacrifice is essential to promote a healthy spiritual life. The Church partook of the general sordidness of the age; it was an age of great material prosperity, but of moral and spiritual poverty, such as hardly finds a parallel in our history. Mercenary motives were too predominant everywhere, in the Church as well as in the State.
The characteristic fault of the period was greatly intensified by the influence of one man. The reigns of the first two Georges might not inaptly be termed the Walpolian period. For though Walpole's fall took place before the period closed, yet the principles he had inculcated and acted upon had taken too deep a root in the heart of the nation to fall with his fall. Walpole had learned the wisdom of applying his favourite maxim, 'Quieta non movere,' to the affairs of the Church before he began to apply it to those of the State. 'In 1710,' writes his biographer, 'Walpole was appointed one of the managers for the impeachment of Sacheverell, and principally conducted that business in the House of Commons. The mischievous consequences of that trial had a permanent effect on the future conduct of Walpole when head of the Administration. It infused into him an aversion and horror at any interposition in the affairs of the Church, and led him to assume occasionally a line of conduct which appeared to militate against those principles of toleration to which he was naturally inclined.' And so his one idea of managing ecclesiastical affairs was to keep things quiet; he calmed down all opposition to the Church from without, but he conferred a very questionable benefit upon her by this policy.
We have seen in the chapter on the Deists how the Church suffered in her practical work from the controversies of her own generation; and no less did she suffer from the effects left by the controversies of a preceding age. The events which had occurred during the seventeenth century had tended to excite an almost morbid dread of extravagance both in the direction of High Church and Low Church principles -- according to the nineteenth, not the eighteenth, century's acceptation of those terms. The majority of the clergy shrank, not unnaturally, from anything which might seem in any degree to assimilate them either to Romanism or to Puritanism. Recent experience had shown the danger of both. The violent reaction against the reign of the Saints continued with more or less force almost to the end of the eighteenth century. The fear of Romanism, which had been brought so near home to the nation in the days of James II., was even yet a present danger, at least during the first half of the century. In casting away everything that seemed to savour of either of these two extremes there was a danger of casting away also much that might have been edifying and elevating. On the one hand, ornate and frequent services and symbolism of all kinds were regarded with suspicion, and consequently infrequent services, and especially infrequent communions, carelessness about the Church fabrics, and bad taste in the work that was done, are conspicuous among the Church abuses of the period. On the other side, fervency and vigour in preaching were regarded with suspicion as bordering too nearly upon the habits of the hated Puritans of the Commonwealth, and a dry, dull, moralising style of sermon was the result. And, generally, this fear on both sides engendered a certain timidity and obstructiveness and want of elasticity which prevented the Church from incorporating into her system anything which seemed to diverge one hair's breadth from the groove in which she ran.
Again, the Church was an immense engine of political power. The most able and popular statesmen could not afford to dispense with her aid. The bench of bishops formed so compact a phalanx in the Upper House of the Legislature, and the clergy could and did influence so many elections into the Lower House, that the Church had necessarily to be courted and favoured, often to the great detriment of her spiritual character.
Nor, in touching upon the general causes which impaired the efficiency of the Church during the eighteenth century, must we omit to notice the want of all synodal action. There may be different opinions as to the wisdom or otherwise of the indefinite prorogation of Convocation, as it existed in the early years of the eighteenth century. That it was the scene of unseemly disputes, and altogether a turbulent element in the Constitution, when the Ministry of George I. thought good to prorogue it sine die in 1717, is not denied; but that the Church should be deprived of the privilege, which every other religious body enjoyed, of discussing in her own assembly her own affairs, was surely in itself an evil. And we must not too hastily assume that she was not then in a condition to discuss them profitably. The proceedings of the later meetings of Convocation in the eighteenth century which are best known are those which concerned subjects of violent altercation. But these were by no means the only subjects suggested for discussion. The re-establishing and rendering useful the office of rural deans, the regulating of marriage licences, the encouragement of charity schools, the establishment of parochial libraries, the licentiousness of the stage, protests against duelling, the want of sufficient church accommodation, the work of Christian missions both to the heathen and our own plantations -- these and other thoroughly practical questions are found among the agenda of Convocation during the eighteenth century; and the mention of them suggests some of the very shortcomings with which the Church of the Hanoverian period is charged.
The causes which led to the unhappy disputes between the Upper and Lower Houses were obviously only temporary; it is surely not chimerical to assume that time and a change of circumstances would have brought about a better understanding between the bishops and the inferior clergy, and that Convocation would have seen better days, and have been instrumental in rolling away some at least of the reproaches with which the Church of the day is now loaded. To the action of Convocation in the early part of the eighteenth century the Church was indebted for at least one good work. The building and endowment of the fifty new churches in London would probably never have been projected had not Convocation stirred itself in the matter, and would probably have never been abandoned if Convocation had continued to meet. There was ample room for similar work, of which every good Christian of every school of thought might have approved. And there were many occasions on which it would appear, prima facie, that synodal deliberation might have proved of immense benefit to the Church. For instance, on that very important, but at the time most perplexing, question, 'How should the Church deal with the irregular but most valuable efforts of the Wesleys and Whitefield and their fellow-labourers?' it would have been most desirable for the clergy to have taken counsel together in their own proper assembly. As it was, the bishops had to deal with this new phase of spiritual life entirely on their own responsibility. They had no opportunity of consulting with their brethren on the bench, or even with the clergy in their dioceses; for not only was the voice of Convocation hushed, but diocesan synods and ruridecanal chapters had also fallen into abeyance. The want of such consultation is conspicuous in the doubt and perplexity which evidently distracted the minds both of the bishops and many of the clergy when they had to face the earlier phenomena of the Methodist movement.
It will thus be seen that there were many general causes at work which tended to debase the Church during the period which comes under our consideration. No doubt some that have been mentioned were symptoms as well as causes of the disease; but, in so far as they were causes, they must be fully taken into account before we condemn indiscriminately the clergy whose lot it was to live in an age when circumstances were so little conducive to the development of the higher spiritual life, or to the carrying out of the Church's proper mission to the nation. It is extremely difficult for any man to rise above the spirit of his age. He who can do so is a spiritual hero. But it is not given to everyone to reach the heroic standard; and it surely does not follow that because a man cannot be a hero he must therefore be a bad man.
Bearing these cautions in mind, we may now proceed to consider some of the more flagrant abuses, the existence of which has affixed a stigma, not altogether undeserved, upon the English Church of the eighteenth century.
One of the worst of these abuses -- worst both in itself and also as the fruitful source of many others -- was the glaring evil of pluralities and non-residence, an evil which was inherited from an earlier generation. It is perfectly astonishing to observe the lax views which even really good men seem to have held on this subject in the middle part of the century. Bishop Newton, the amiable and learned author of the 'Dissertation on the Prophecies,' mentions it as an act of almost Quixotic disinterestedness that 'when he obtained the deanery of St. Paul's (that is, in addition to his bishopric) he resigned his living in the City, having held it for twenty-five years.' In another passage he plaintively enumerates the various preferments he had to resign on taking the bishopric of Bristol. 'He was obliged to give up the prebend of Westminster, the precentorship of York, the lectureship of St. George's, Hanover Square, and the genteel office of sub-almoner.' On another occasion we find him conjuring his friend Bishop Pearce, of Rochester, not to resign the deanery of Westminster. 'He offered and urged all the arguments he could to dissuade the Bishop from his purpose of separating the two preferments, which had been united for near a century, and lay so convenient to each other that neither of them would be of the same value without the other; and if once separated they might perhaps never be united again, and his successors would have reason to reproach and condemn his memory.' In another passage he complains of the diocese of Lincoln being 'so very large and laborious, so very extensive and expensive;' but the moral he draws is not that it should be subdivided, so that its bishop might be able to perform his duties, but 'that it really requires and deserves a good commendam to support it with any dignity.'
Herring held the deanery of Rochester in commendam with the bishopric of Bangor. Wilcocks was Bishop of Rochester and Dean of Westminster, and was succeeded both in the deanery and the bishopric by Zachary Pearce. Hoadly held the see of Bangor for six years, apparently without ever seeing the diocese in his life. Even the excellent Dr. Porteus (one of the most pious, liberal, and unselfish of men) thought it no sin to hold a country living in conjunction with the bishopric of Chester. He actually had permission to retain the important living of Lambeth as well; but 'he thought,' says his biographer with conscious pride, 'with so many additional cares he should not be able to attend to so large a benefice, at least to the satisfaction of his own mind, and therefore hesitated not a moment in giving it up into other hands.' Bishop Watson, of Llandaff, gives a most artless account of his non-residence. 'Having,' he tells us, 'no place of residence in my diocese, I turned my attention to the improvement of land. I thought the improvement of a man's fortune by cultivating the earth was the most useful and honourable way of providing for a family. I have now been several years occupied as an improver of land and planter of trees.' The same bishop gives us a most extraordinary description of the sources from whence his clerical income was derived. 'The provision of 2,000l., a year,' he says, 'which I possess from the Church arises from the tithes of two churches in Shropshire, two in Leicestershire, two in my diocese, three in Huntingdonshire, on all of which I have resident curates; of five more appropriations to the bishopric, and two more in the Isle of Ely as appropriations to the archdeaconry of Ely.
Pluralities and non-residence being thus so common among the very men whose special duty it was to prevent them, one can hardly wonder that the evil prevailed to a sad extent among the lower clergy.
Archbishop Secker, in his charge to the diocese of Canterbury in 1758, complains of 'the non-resident clergyman, who reckons it enough that, for aught he knows to the contrary, his parishioners go on like their neighbours,' and attributes to this, among other causes, 'the rise of a new sect, pretending to the strictest piety.' It seems, however, to have been taken for granted that the evil practice must be recognised to a certain extent. Thus Paley, in his charge in 1785, recommends 'the clergy who cannot talk to their parishioners, and non-resident incumbents, to distribute the tracts of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge;' and even so late as 1796 Bishop Horsley admits that 'many non-residents are promoting the general cause of Christianity, and perhaps doing better service than if they confined themselves to the ordinary labours of the ministry.' He thinks it would be 'no less impolitic than harsh to call such to residence,' and adds that 'other considerations make non-residence a thing to be connived at.'
The collateral evils which would necessarily result from the scandals we are noticing are obvious. When the incumbent of a parish was non-resident, and more especially when, as was not unfrequently the case, there was not even a resident curate, it was impossible that the duties of the parish could be properly attended to. Evidences of this are only too plentiful. But, instead of quoting dreary details to prove a point which has been generally admitted, it will be sufficient in this place to refer to some passages in the charges of a worthy prelate which throw a curious light upon what such a one could reasonably look for in his clergy in the middle of the eighteenth century. In his charge to the diocese of Oxford, in 1741, Bishop Secker recommends the duty of catechising; but he feels that his recommendation cannot in many cases be carried out. 'I am sensible,' he adds, 'that some clergymen are unhappily obliged to serve two churches the same afternoon.' We gather from the same charge a sad idea of the infrequency of the celebration of the Holy Communion. 'One thing,' the Bishop modestly suggests, 'might be done in all your parishes: a Sacrament might easily be interposed in that long interval between Whitsuntide and Christmas. If afterwards you can advance from a quarterly Communion to a monthly, I have no doubt you will.' In the same charge he reminds the clergy that 'our liturgy consists of evening as well as morning prayer, and no inconvenience can arise from attending it, provided persons are within tolerable distance of church. Few have business at that time of day, and amusement ought never to be preferred on the Lord's day before religion; not to say that there is room for both.' When it is remembered that the state of things described in the above remarks existed in the great University diocese, which was presumably in advance rather than behind the age, and that, moreover, the clergy were presided over by a man who was thoroughly earnest and conscientious, and yet that he can only hint in the most delicate way at improvements which, as the tone of his exhortation evidently shows, he hardly hoped would be carried out, it may be imagined what was the condition of parishes in less favoured and more remote dioceses.
Another evil, which was greatly aggravated by the multiplication of benefices in a single hand, was clerical poverty. There was in the last century a far wider gap between the different classes of the clergy than there is at the present day. While the most eminent or most fortunate among them could take their places on a stand of perfect equality with the highest nobles in the land, the bulk of the country curates and poorer incumbents hardly rose above the rank of the small farmer. A much larger proportion than now lived and died without the slightest prospect of rising above the position of a stipendiary curate; and the regular stipend of a curate was 30l. a year. When Collins complained of the expense of maintaining so large a body of clergy, Bentley replied that 'the Parliamentary accounts showed that six thousand of the clergy had, at a middle rate, not 50l. a year;' and he then added that argument which was subsequently used with so much effect by Sydney Smith -- viz. that 'talent is attracted into the Church by a few great prizes.' Some years later, when Lord Shelburne asked Bishop Watson 'if nothing could be gotten from the Church towards alleviating the burdens of the State,' the Bishop replied that the whole revenue of the Church would not yield 150l. a year to each clergyman, and therefore a diminution would be inexpedient unless Government would be contented to have a beggarly and illiterate clergy, which no wise minister would wish.' He might have added that, even as it was, a great number of the clergy, if not 'beggarly and illiterate,' were either weighed down with the pressure of poverty, or, to escape it, were obliged to have recourse to occupations which were more fit for illiterate men. Dr. Primrose, in his adversity, and Parson Adams are specimens of the better type of this class of clergy, and it is to be feared that Parson Trulliber is not a very unfair specimen of the worst. There is an odd illustration of the immeasurable distance which was supposed to separate the bishop from the curate in Cradock's 'Reminiscences.' Bishop Warburton was to preach in St. Lawrence's Church in behalf of the London Hospital. 'I was,' writes Cradock, 'introduced into the vestry by a friend, where the Lord Mayor and others were waiting for the Duke of York, who was their president; and in the meantime the bishop did everything in his power to entertain and alleviate their patience. He was beyond measure condescending and courteous, and even graciously handed some biscuits and wine in a salver to the curate who was to read prayers!'
So far as one can judge, this wide gulf which divided the higher from the lower clergy was by no means always a fair measure of their respective merits. The readers of 'Joseph Andrews' will remember that Parson Adams is represented not only as a pious and estimable clergyman, but also as a scholar and a divine. And there were not wanting in real life unbeneficed clergymen who, in point of abilities and erudition, might have held their own with the learned prelates of the period. Thomas Stackhouse, the curate of Finchley, is a remarkable case in point. His 'Compleat Body of Divinity,' and, still more, his 'History of the Bible,' published in 1733, are worthy to stand on the same shelf with the best writings of the bishops in an age when the Bench was extraordinarily fertile in learning and intellectual activity. John Newton wrote most of his works in a country curacy. Romaine, whose learning and abilities none can doubt, was fifty years old before he was beneficed. Seed, a preacher and writer of note, was a curate for the greater part of his life. It must be added, however, that as the eighteenth century advanced, a very decided improvement took place in the circumstances of the bulk of the clergy -- an improvement which would have been still more extensive but for the prevalence of pluralities.
Unhappily, among the evils resulting from the multiplication of a needy clergy, which may be in part attributed to the undue accumulation of Church property in a few hands, mere penury was not the worst. Some clergy struggled manfully and honestly against its pressure, but others fell into disreputable courses. These latter are not, of course, to be regarded as representative men of any class in the Church. They were simply the Pariahs of ecclesiastical society; the black sheep which will be found, in one form or another, in every age of the Church. But owing to the causes noted above, they formed an exceptionally large class at the close of the seventeenth and during the first half at least of the eighteenth century.
Some belonging to this class of clergy supported themselves as hangers-on to the families of the great. Domestic chaplains in great houses became less common as the century advanced. The admirable hits of Addison and Steele against the indignities to which domestic chaplains were subjected are more applicable to the early than to the latter part of the century. Boswell adduced it as an instance that 'there was less religion in the nation than formerly,' that 'there used to be a chaplain in every great family, which we do not find now;' and was well answered by Dr. Johnson, 'Neither do you find any of the state servants in great families. There is a change in customs.' The change, however, was not wholly to the advantage of the Church. Bad as was the relation between the chaplain and his patron, where the former was degraded to an inferior position in the household, there was still some sort of spiritual tie between them. The parson who was simply the boon companion of the ignorant and sensual squire of the Hanoverian period was in a still worse position. This class of clergyman is a constant subject of satire in the lighter literature and caricatures of the day. Not that they were so numerous or so bad as they are often represented to have been. There was a strong and growing tendency in the Georgian era to make the very worst of clerical delinquencies. For it is a curious fact that while the Church as an establishment was most popular, her ministers were most unpopular. Secker complained, not without reason, in 1738, that 'Christianity is now railed at and ridiculed with very little reserve, and the teachers of it without any at all. Against us our adversaries appear to have set themselves to be as bitter as they can -- not only beyond all truth, but beyond probability -- exaggerating without mercy,' &c. And nearly thirty years later he still makes the same complaint. 'You cannot but see,' he warns candidates for Holy Orders, 'in what a profane and corrupt age this stewardship is committed to you; how grievously religion and its ministers are hated and despised.' 'Since the Lollards,' writes Mr. Pattison, 'there had never been a time when the ministers of religion were held in so much contempt as in the Hanoverian period, or when satire upon Churchmen was so congenial to the general feeling. There was no feeling against the Establishment, nor was Nonconformity ever less in favour. The contempt was for the persons, manners, and characters of ecclesiastics.' This unpopularity arose from a complication of causes which need not be investigated in this place; it is sufficient to notice the fact, which should be thoroughly borne in mind in estimating the value to be attached to contemporary complaints of clerical misdoings. The evils resulting from pluralities and non-residence would have been mischievous under any circumstances; but their mischief was still further enhanced by the false principles upon which ecclesiastical patronage was too often distributed. Statesmen who valued religion chiefly as a State engine had an eye merely to political ends in the distribution of Church preferment. This is of course a danger to which an Established Church is peculiarly liable at all times; but the critical circumstances of the eighteenth century rendered the temptation of using the Church simply for State purposes especially strong. The memorable results of the Sacheverell impeachment, which contributed so largely to bring about the downfall of the Whig Ministry in 1710, showed how dangerous it was for statesmen to set themselves against the strong feeling of the majority of the clergy. The lifelong effects which this famous trial produced upon Sir R. Walpole have already been noticed. Both he and his timid successor prided themselves upon being friends of the Church, and expected the Church to be friends to them in return. Neither of them made any secret of the fact that they regarded Church preferment as a useful means of strengthening their own power. Nor were these isolated cases. 'Lord Hardwicke' (his biographer tells us) 'thought it his duty to dispose of the ecclesiastical preferments in his gift [as Chancellor] with a view to increase his own political influence, without any scrupulous regard for the interests of religion, and without the slightest respect for scientific or literary merit.' Lord Shelburne gave the bishopric of Llandaff to Dr. Watson, 'hoping,' the Bishop tells us, 'I was a warm, and might become a useful partisan; and he told the Duke of Grafton he hoped I might occasionally write a pamphlet for their administration.' Warburton complains with characteristic roughness of 'the Church being bestrid by some lumpish minister.' Even Dr. Johnson, that stout defender of the Established Church, and of everything connected with the administration of its affairs, was obliged to own that 'no man can now be made a bishop for his learning and piety; his only chance of promotion is his being connected with some one who has parliamentary interest.' He seems, however, to think the system inevitable and justifiable, owing to the weakness of the Government, for he prefaces his admission by remarking that 'all that Government, which has now too little power, has to bestow, must be given to support itself; it cannot reward merit.' Mr. Grenville's well-known remark to Bishop Newton, that he considered bishoprics of two sorts, either as bishoprics of business or bishoprics of ease, is another instance of the low views which statesmen took, and were not ashamed to avow, of their responsibilities as dispensers of Church preferment.
Such a system naturally tended to foster a false estimate of their duties on the part of those who were promoted. If the dispenser of Church preferment was too apt to regard merely political ends, the recipient or expectant was on his part too often ready to play the courtier or to become the mere political partisan. Whiston complains that 'the bishops of his day were too well known to be tools of the Court to merit better bishoprics by voting as directed.' Warburton owns that 'the general body of the clergy have been and (he is afraid) always will be very intent upon pushing their temporal fortunes.' Watson considered 'the acquisition of a bishopric as no proof of personal merit, inasmuch as they are often given to the flattering dependants and unlearned younger branches of noble families.' Nay, further, he considered 'the possession of a bishopric as a frequent occasion of personal demerit.' 'For,' he writes, 'I saw the generality of bishops bartering their independence and dignity of their order for the chance of a translation, and polluting Gospel humility by the pride of prelacy.' Lord Campbell informs us that 'in spite of Lord Thurlow's living openly with a mistress, his house was not only frequented by his brother the bishop, but by ecclesiastics of all degrees, who celebrated the orthodoxy of the head of the law and his love of the Established Church.' If one might trust two memoir writers who had better opportunities of acquiring correct information than almost any of their contemporaries, inasmuch as one was the son of the all-powerful minister, and the other was the intimate friend and confidential adviser of the chief dispenser of ecclesiastical patronage, the sycophancy and worldliness of the clergy about the Court in the middle of the eighteenth century must have been flagrant indeed. The writers referred to are, of course, Horace Walpole and John, Lord Hervey. Both of them, however, are so evidently actuated by a bitter animus against the Church that their statements can by no means be relied upon as authentic history.
Let us take another kind of evidence. Several of the Church dignitaries of the eighteenth century have been obliging enough to leave autobiographies to posterity, so that we can judge of their characters as drawn, not by the prejudiced or imperfect information of others, but by those who ought to know them best -- themselves. One of the most popular of these autobiographies is that of Bishop Newton. A great part of his amusing memoirs is taken up with descriptions of the methods which he and his friends adopted to secure preferment. There is very little, if anything, in them of the duties and responsibilities of the episcopal office. Where will they be most comfortable? What are their chances of further preferment? How shall they best please the Court and the ministers in office? These are the questions which Bishop Newton and his brother prelates, to whom he makes frequent but never ill-natured allusions, are represented as constantly asking in effect. Curious indeed are the glimpses which the Bishop gives us into the system of Church patronage and the race for preferment which were prevalent in his day. But more curious still is the impression which the memoirs convey that the writer himself had not the faintest conception that there was anything in the least degree unseemly in what he relates. There appears to be a sort of moral obtuseness in him in reference to these subjects, but to these subjects only. The memoir closes with a beautiful expression of resignation to the Divine will, and of hopeful confidence about the future, in which he was no doubt perfectly sincere. And yet he openly avows a laxity of principle in the matter of preferment-seeking and Court-subservience which taken by itself would argue a very worldly mind. How are we to reconcile the apparent discrepancy? The most charitable as well as the most reasonable explanation is that the good Bishop's faults were simply the faults of his age and of his class. And for this very reason the autobiography is all the more valuable as an illustration of the subject before us. Bishop Newton is eminently a representative man. His memoir contains evidently not the exceptional sentiments of one who was either in advance of or behind his age, but reflects a faithful picture of a general attitude of mind very prevalent among Church dignitaries of that date.
Bishop Watson's 'Anecdotes of his own Life' furnish another curious illustration of the sentiments of the age on the matter of Church preferment. But the Bishop of Llandaff treats the matter from an entirely different point of view from that of the Bishop of Bristol. The latter was perfectly content with his own position, and with the preferment before him of his brother clergy. 'He was rather pleased with his little bishopric.' 'His income was amply sufficient, and scarce any bishop had two more comfortable or convenient houses. Greater he might have been, but he could not have been happier; and by the good blessing of God was enabled to make a competent provision for those who were to come after him, as well as to bestow something on charity.' Bishop Watson writes in a very different strain. His 'Anecdotes' are full of the bitterest complaints of the neglect he had met with. He is 'abandoned by his friends, and proscribed the emoluments of his profession.' He is 'exhibited to the world as a marked man fallen under royal displeasure.' He appeals to posterity in the most pathetic terms. 'Reader!' he exclaims, 'when this meets your eye, the author of it will be rotting in his grave, insensible alike to censure and to praise; but he begs to be forgiven this apparently self-commendation. It has not sprung from vanity, but from anxiety for his reputation, lest the disfavour of a Court should by some be considered as an indication of general disesteem or a proof of professional demerit.' And yet, by his own confession, Bishop Watson had a clerical income from his bishopric and professorship of divinity at Cambridge of 2,000l. a year; in return for which, the work he did in either of these capacities was, from his own showing, really next to nothing. In fact, in many respects he seems to have been an exceptionally lucky man. He was appointed to two professorships at Cambridge when by his own admission he was totally unqualified for performing the duties of either. In 1764, when he was only twenty-seven years of age, he 'was unanimously elected, by the Senate assembled in full congregation, Professor of Chemistry.' 'At the time this honour was conferred upon me,' he tells us with charming frankness, 'I knew nothing at all of chemistry, had never read a syllable on the subject, nor seen a single experiment in it; but I was tired with mathematics and natural philosophy, and the vehementissima gloriae cupido stimulated me to try my strength in a new pursuit, and the kindness of the University (it was always kind to me) animated me to very extraordinary exertions.' A few years later the University was kinder still. At the early age of thirty-four he was appointed 'to the first office for honour in the University, the Regius Professorship of Divinity.' Then with the same delightful naivete he tells us, 'On being raised to this distinguished office I immediately applied myself with great eagerness to the study of divinity.' One would have thought that his theological studies should have commenced before he undertook the duties of a divinity professorship. But, happily for him, his ideas of what would qualify him to be a theologian were on the most limited scale. 'I determined to study nothing but my Bible, being much unconcerned about the opinions of councils, fathers, churches, bishops, and other men as little inspired as myself.' If troublesome people wanted to argue on theological questions with the Regius Professor of Divinity, 'I never,' he tells us, 'troubled myself with answering their arguments, but used on such occasions to say to them, holding the New Testament in my hand, |En sacrum codicem.|' This was a simple plan, and it must be confessed, under the circumstances, a very convenient and prudent one, but it scarcely justified the strong claims for preferment which the Bishop constantly founded upon it, as if he had rendered an almost priceless service to religion. The compendious method of silencing a gainsayer or satisfying an anxious inquirer by flourishing a New Testament in his face, and crying 'En sacrum codicem,' seems hardly likely to have been very effective. For the first few years of his professorship he attended to its duties personally, after the fashion that has been described; but for the greater part of the long time during which he held that office he employed a deputy. When he was appointed to the bishopric of Llandaff he found there was no residence for him in his diocese, and he does not seem to have particularly cared about having one. He was content with paying it an occasional visit at very rare intervals, and settled himself in comfortable quarters 'in the beautiful district on the banks of Winandermere.' Here he employed his time 'not,' he proudly tells us, 'in field diversions and visiting. No! it has been spent partly in supporting the religion and constitutions of my country, by seasonable publications, and principally in building farmhouses, blasting rocks, enclosing wastes, making bad land good, planting larches, &c. By such occupations I have recovered my health, preserved my independence, set an example of a spirited husbandry, and honourably provided for my family.'
If we formed our estimate of Bishop Watson's character simply from such samples as these, we might conclude that he was a covetous, unreasonably discontented, and worldly-minded man. But this would be a very unfair conclusion to arrive at. The Bishop gives us only one, and that the weakest side of his character. He was most highly esteemed by some of his contemporaries, whose good opinion was well worth having. Gibbon pays him a very high compliment, calling him 'his most candid as well as able antagonist.' Wilberforce wrote to him in 1800 saying that 'he hoped ere now to be able to congratulate him on a change of situation which in public justice ought to have taken place.' In 1797, Hayley wrote to him (saying it was Lord Thurlow's expression), 'Your writings have done more for Christianity than all the bench of bishops put together.' Lord Campden told Pitt that 'it was a shame for him and the Church that he had not the most exalted station upon the Bench.' As in the case of Bishop Newton, one can only reconcile these anomalies by bearing fully in mind the low views which were commonly taken of clerical responsibilities, and the general scramble for the emoluments of the Church which was not thought unseemly in the eighteenth century.
One of the most characteristic specimens of the courtier prelate of the eighteenth century on whom so much abuse has been somewhat unfairly lavished both by contemporaries and by writers of our own time, who have dwelt exclusively upon the weak side of their character, was Bishop Hurd. Hurd is now chiefly known as the devoted friend -- or rather the 'fidus Achates' -- of Warburton. He was a man, however, who had a very distinct individuality of his own, and may be regarded as a fair representative of a type of bishop now extinct. He was distinguished as a scholar, a divine, and a courtier. When, however, it is said that Hurd was a courtier, it is not meant to imply that he was servile or in any way unduly complaisant to the King or the Court. There is no evidence of anything of the sort. Neither does he appear to have been, like some of his contemporaries, unduly intent upon advancing his own selfish interests. His preferments came apparently unsought, and he refused the Primacy, although it was pressed upon him by the King on the death of Archbishop Cornwallis in 1783. Although he rose from a comparatively humble origin, 'his parents,' he tells us, 'were plain, honest, and good people' (his father was, in fact, a farmer); he seems to have been gifted by nature with great courtliness of manner, and with aristocratic tastes. On his first introduction at Court he won by these graces the heart of the King, who remarked that he thought him more naturally polite than any man he had ever met with. Hurd subsequently became the most trusted friend and constant adviser of George III. There is a very touching letter extant, which the King wrote to Hurd in one of his great sorrows, expressing most feelingly the value in which George held the religious ministrations of his favourite bishop, and the high opinion he had of his piety and worth. The mere fact that Hurd won the affectionate respect -- one might almost say veneration -- of so good a Christian as King George, furnishes a presumption that he must have been a man of some merit; and there is nothing whatever in any of his writings, or in anything we hear of his life, that should lead us to think otherwise. Nevertheless, it was just such men as Hurd who tended to keep the Church of the eighteenth century in its apathetic state. Hurd was a religious-minded man; but his religion was characterised by a cold, prim propriety which was not calculated to commend it to men at large. Like his friend Warburton, he could see nothing but folly and fanatical madness in the great evangelical revival which was going on around him, and which he seems to have thought would soon be stamped out. He only emerged from his stately seclusion on great occasions; but when he did go forth, he was surrounded with all 'the pomp and circumstance' which might impress beholders with a sense of his dignity. 'Hartlebury Church is not above a quarter of a mile from Hartlebury Castle, and yet that quarter of a mile Hurd always travelled in his episcopal coach, with his servants in full-dress liveries; and when he used to go from Worcester to Bristol Hot Wells, he never moved without a train of twelve servants.' Hurd has left us a very short memoir of his own life; but short as the memoir is, it gives us a curious insight into one side of his character. The whole account is compressed into twenty-six pages, and consists for the most part merely of a bare recital of the chief events of his life. But one day -- one memorable day to be marked with the whitest of white chalk -- is described at full length. Out of the twenty-six pages, no less than six are devoted to the description of a visit with which the King honoured him at Hartlebury, when 'no accident,' we are glad to learn, 'of any kind interrupted the mutual satisfaction which was given and received on the occasion.'
It has been already observed that the Church interest formed a most important element in the reckoning of statesmen of this century; and the extent to which the clergy were mixed up with the politics of the day must, under the circumstances, be reckoned among the Church abuses of the period. Not, of course, that this is in itself an evil. On the contrary, it would be distinctly a misfortune, both to the State and to the Church, if the clergy of a Church constituted like our own were to abstain altogether from taking any part in politics. It could hardly fail to be a loss to the State if a large and presumably intelligent class stood entirely aloof from its affairs. And the clergy themselves by so doing would be both forfeiting a right and neglecting a duty. As citizens who have an equal stake with the laity in the interests of the country, they clearly enjoy the right to have a voice in the conduct of its affairs. And as Christians they have a positive duty incumbent upon them to use the influence they possess in this, as in every other relation of life, for the cause of Christianity. But with this right and this duty there is also a danger lest those, whose chief concern ought to be with higher objects, should become overmuch entangled with the affairs of this life; and a danger also lest men whose training is, as a rule, not adapted to make them good men of business, should throw their influence into the wrong scale. In so far, but only in so far as the clergy fell into one or the other of these snares, can the political Churchmanship of the eighteenth century be classed among the Church abuses of the period. The circumstances of the times increased these dangers. During the reigns of the first two Georges political morality was at so low an ebb that it was difficult for the clergy to take a leading part in politics without injury to their spiritual character. They could hardly touch the pitch without being defiled. It is to be feared that politics at this period did more to debase the clergy than the clergy did to elevate politics. Not but that they often incurred an unpopularity for the part they took in political questions which was wholly undeserved. Nothing, for example, brought more odium upon the bishops than the share they had in throwing out the Quakers' Tithes Bill in 1736. Yet apparently without just cause; for a high legal authority of our own day, who certainly shows no prejudice in favour of the Church and her ministers, characterises this measure as a well-meant but impracticable Bill. Again, in 1753, many of the bishops were exposed to unmerited abuse for supporting, as they were clearly right in doing, the Jews' Naturalisation Bill. Again, in 1780, the bishops had the good sense not to be led astray by the senseless 'No Popery' cry which led to the Gordon riots; and by their moral courage on this occasion they drew down upon themselves much undeserved censure. The good sense, however, which characterised the political conduct of the clergy on these and other occasions was, unfortunately, exceptional. As a rule, the political influence of the clergy was not very wisely exercised.
In his summary of the period which closed with the death of George II., Horace Walpole writes: -- 'The Church was moderate and, when the Ministry required it, yielding.' From the point of view of this writer, whose sentiments on religious matters exactly corresponded with those of his father, nothing could have been more satisfactory than this state of things. To those who look upon the Church merely as a State Establishment, 'moderate, and, when the Ministry require it, yielding,' would represent its ideal condition. But to those who believe in it as a Divine institution, the picture will convey a different impression. They will see in it a worldly man's description of the spiritual lethargy which had overtaken English Christendom. The expression will not be deemed too strong when it is remembered what was, as a matter of fact, the real state of affairs so far as the practical work of the Church was concerned. Under the very different conditions amidst which we live, it is difficult to realise what existed, or rather what did not exist, in the last century. What would now be considered the most ordinary part of parochial machinery was then wanting. The Sunday school, which was first set on foot about the middle of this century, was regarded with suspicion by many of the clergy, and vehemently opposed by some. The interest in foreign missions which had been awakened at the beginning of the century was not sustained. The population of the country had far outgrown the resources of the National Church, even if her ministers had been as energetic as they were generally the reverse; and there were no voluntary societies for home missions to supply the defects of the parochial machinery. The good old plan of catechising not only children but domestic servants and apprentices on Sunday afternoons had fallen into disuse. In the early part of the century plans had been set on foot for the establishment of parochial libraries, but these had fallen through. In short, beyond the personal influence which a clergyman might exercise over his friends and dependants in his parish (which was often very wholesome and also very extensive), his clerical work consisted solely in reading the services and preaching on Sundays. When Boswell talked of the assiduity of the Scottish clergy in visiting and privately instructing their parishioners, and observed how much in this they excelled the English clergy, Johnson, who would never hear one word against that Church of which he was a worthy member and a distinguished ornament, could only reply, 'There are different ways of instructing. Our clergy pray and preach. The clergy of England have produced the most valuable books in support of religion, both in theory and practice.' The praise contained in this last sentence was thoroughly deserved. The clergy, if inactive in other respects, were not inactive with their pens; only of course the work done in this direction was done by a very small minority.
But they all preached. What was the character of their sermons?
On this point, as on many others, the censure that has been passed upon the Church of the eighteenth century has been far too sweeping and far too severe. When one hears the sermons of the period stigmatised without any qualification as 'miserable moral essays,' and 'as unspeakably and indescribably bad,' one calls to mind almost indignantly the great preachers of the time, whose sermons have been handed down to us and may be referred to by anyone who chooses to do so. Surely this is not a proper description of the sermons of such men as Sherlock, Smalridge, Waterland, Seed, Ogden, Atterbury, Mudge, Hare, Bentley, and last but not least, Butler himself, whose practical sermons might be preached with advantage before a village congregation at this day. Too much stress has been laid upon a somewhat random observation of Sir William Blackstone, who 'had the curiosity, early in the reign of George III., to go from church to church and hear every clergyman of note in London. He says that he did not hear a single discourse which had more Christianity in it than the writings of Cicero, and that it would have been impossible for him to discover, from what he heard, whether the preacher were a follower of Confucius, of Mahomet, or of Christ.' The famous lawyer does not specify the churches which he visited. He may have been unfortunate in his choice, or he may have been in a frame of mind which was not conducive to an unbiassed judgment; but we have the best of all means of testing how far his sweeping censure may be fairly taken as applicable to the general character of the sermons of the day. The most celebrated of them are still in existence, and will give their own contradiction to the charge. It is not true that the preachers of this period entirely ignored the distinctive doctrines of Christianity; it would be more correct to say that they took the knowledge of them too much for granted -- that they were as a rule too controversial, and that they too often appealed to merely prudential motives. Even Dr. Johnson, who set a very high value upon the sermons of his Church, and declared on one occasion that 'sermons make a considerable branch of English literature, so that a library must be very imperfect if it has not a numerous collection of sermons,' yet confessed that they did not effect the good they ought to do. A sensitive dread of anything like enthusiasm was a marked characteristic of the eighteenth century: this dread did not originate with the clergy, but it was taken up by them and reflected in their sermons. This, of course, was at first greatly intensified by the excitement raised by the Methodist movement, although it was afterwards dispelled by the same cause. The orthodox preacher of the Hanoverian period felt bound to protest against the superstitions of Rome on the one hand and the fanaticism of sectaries on the other; in contrast with both of whom the moderation of 'our happy Establishment' was extolled to the skies. To such a morbid extent was his dread of extremes carried, so carefully had he to guard himself against being supposed to diverge one hair's breadth from the middle course taken up by the Church of England, that in his fear of being over-zealous he became over-tame and colourless. Tillotson was his model, and, like most imitators, he exaggerated the defects of his master. So far as it is possible to group under one head so vast and varied an amount of composition, produced by men of the most diverse casts of mind, and extending over so long a period as a hundred years, one may perhaps fairly characterise the typical eighteenth century sermon as too stiff and formal, too cold and artificial, appealing more to the reason than to the feelings, and so more calculated to convince the understanding than to affect the heart. 'We have no sermons,' said Dr. Johnson, 'addressed to the passions that are good for anything.'
These defects were brought out into stronger relief by their contrast to the very different style of preaching adopted by the revived Evangelical school. And the success of this latter school called the attention of some of the most thoughtful divines to the deficiencies of the ordinary style of preaching, which they fully admitted and unsparingly but judiciously exposed. Thus Archbishop Secker, in his Charge to the Diocese of Canterbury in 1758, in speaking of the 'new sect pretending to the strictest piety,' wisely urges his clergy 'to emulate what is good in them, avoiding what is bad, to edify their parishioners with awakening but rational and Scriptural discourses, to teach the principles not only of virtue and natural religion, but of the Gospel, not as almost refined away by the modern refiner, but the truth as it is in Jesus and as it is taught by the Church.' Still stronger are the censures passed in later years upon the lack in the sermons of the day of evangelical doctrines, by men who were very far from identifying themselves with the Evangelical school. Thus Paley, in his seventh charge, comments upon this point. And Bishop Horsley, in his first Charge to the Diocese of St. David's in 1709, stigmatises the unchristian method of preaching in that dignified but incisive language of which he was a consummate master.
If, on the one hand, a somewhat heartless and vague method of dealing with the great distinctive doctrines of Christianity, and especially the practical application of them, may fairly be reckoned among Church abuses, there was, on the other hand, an abuse of sermons which arose from an excess of zeal. There were occasions on which the preacher could make strong enough appeals to the passions; but, unfortunately, the subjects were not those which fall primarily within the province of the pulpit. But here again, as on so many other points, the abuse arose rather from the circumstances of the time than from the faults of the men. The proper province of the preacher was not clearly defined. The eighteenth century was a transition period in regard to the relation between politics and the pulpit. The lately emancipated press was beginning to make itself felt as a great power in the country; periodical literature was by degrees taking the place which in earlier times had been less fitly occupied by the pulpit for the ventilation of political questions. The bad old custom of 'tuning the pulpits' had died out; but political preaching could not be quickly or easily put a stop to.
In ranking political sermons among the Church abuses of the eighteenth century, it is by no means intended to imply that the preacher ought under all circumstances to abstain from touching upon politics. There are occasions when it is his bounden duty as a Christian champion to advocate Christian measures and to protest against unchristian ones; the danger is lest he should forget the Christian advocate in the political partisan; and it is only in so far as the political preachers of the eighteenth century fell into this snare (as at times they unquestionably did) that their sermons can be classed among the Church abuses of the period.
In treating of Church abuses, a question naturally arises which deserves and requires serious consideration. How far were these abuses responsible for the low state of morals and religion into which the nation sank during the reigns of the first two Georges? That lax morality and religious indifference prevailed more or less among all classes of society during this period, we learn from the concurrent testimony of writers of every kind and creed. Turn where one will, the same melancholy picture is presented to us. If we ask what was the state of the Universities, which ought to be the centres of light diffusing itself throughout the whole nation, the training-grounds of those who are to be the trainers of their fellow men, we have the evidence of such different kinds of men as Swift, Defoe, Gray, Gibbon, Johnson, John Wesley, Lord Eldon, and Lord Chesterfield all agreeing on this point, that both the great Universities were neglectful and inefficient in the performance of their proper work. If we ask what was the state of the highest classes, we find that there were sovereigns on the throne whose immorality rivalled that of the worst of the Stuarts without any of their redeeming qualities, without any of the grace and elegance and taste for literature and the fine arts which to a certain extent palliated the vices of that unfortunate race; we find political morality at its lowest ebb; we find courtiers and statesmen living in open defiance of the laws of morality; we find luxury without taste, and profligacy without refinement predominant among the highest circles. If we ask what was the state of the lower classes, we find such notices as these in a contemporary historian: '1729-30. Luxury created necessities, and these drove the lower ranks into the most abandoned wickedness. It was unsafe to travel or walk in the streets.' '1731. Profligacy among the people continued to an amazing degree.' These extracts, taken almost at haphazard from the pages of a contemporary, are confirmed by abundance of testimony from all quarters. The middle classes were confessedly better than those either above or below them. Nevertheless, there are not wanting indications that the standard of morality was not high among them. For example, it is the middle class rather than those above or below them who set the fashion of popular amusements. What, then, was the character of the amusements of the period? The stage, if it was a little improved since the wild days of the Restoration, was yet so bad that even a lax moralist like Lord Hervey was obliged to own in 1737, 'The present great licentiousness of the stage did call for some restraint and regulation.' Such brutal pastimes as cock-fighting and bull-baiting were everywhere popular. Drunkenness was then, as now, a national vice, but it was less disreputable among the middle classes than it happily is at present. What was the state of literature? Notwithstanding the improvement which such writers as Addison and Steele had effected, it was still very impure. Let us take the evidence of the kindly and well-informed Sir Walter Scott. 'We should do great injustice to the present day by comparing our manners with those of the reign of George I. The writings even of the most esteemed poets of that period contain passages which now would be accounted to deserve the pillory. Nor was the tone of conversation more pure than that of composition; for the taint of Charles II.'s reign continued to infect society until the present reign [George III.], when, if not more moral, we are at least more decent.' What was the state of the law? The criminal law was simply barbarous. Any theft of more than 40s. was punishable by death. Objects of horror, such as the heads of the rebel chiefs fixed on Temple Bar in 1746, were exposed in the vain hope that they might act as a 'terriculum.' Prisons teemed with cruel abuses. The Roman Catholics were still suffering most unjustly, and if the laws had been rigorously enforced they would have suffered more cruelly still. A more tolerant spirit was happily gaining ground in the hearts of the nation, but so far as the laws were concerned there were few if any traces of it. The Act of 1779, for the relief of Dissenters, is affirmed to be 'the first statute in the direction of enlarged toleration which had been passed for ninety years.' It was about the middle of the century when irreligion and immorality reached their climax. In 1753, Sir J. Barnard said publicly, 'At present it really seems to be the fashion for a man to declare himself of no religion.' In the same year Secker declared that immorality and irreligion were grown almost beyond ecclesiastical power.
The question, then, arises, 'How far were the clergy responsible for this sad state of affairs?' As a body they were distinctly superior to their contemporaries. It is a remarkable fact that when the clergy were, as a rule, very unpopular, during the reign of the Georges I. and II., and when, therefore, any evil reports against them would be eagerly caught up and circulated, we find singularly few charges of gross immorality brought against them. Excessive love of preferment, and culpable inactivity in performing the duties of their office, are the worst accusations that are brought against them as a body. Even men like Lord Hervey, and Horace Walpole and Lord Chesterfield rarely bring, and still more rarely substantiate, any charges against them on this head. Speaking of the shortcomings of the clergy in the early part of the century, Bishop Burnet, who does not spare his order, carefully guards against the supposition that he accuses them of leading immoral lives. 'When,' he writes, 'I say live better, I mean not only to live without scandal, which I have found the greatest part of them to do, but to lead exemplary lives.' Some years later, Bentley could boldly assert of 'the whole clergy of England' that they were 'the light and glory of Christianity,' an assertion which he would scarcely have dared to make had they been sunk into such a slough of iniquity as they are sometimes represented to have been. Writing to Courayer in 1726, Archbishop Wake laments the infidelity and iniquity which abounded, but is of opinion that 'no care is wanting in our clergy to defend the Christian faith.' John Wesley, while decrying the notion that the unworthiness of the minister vitiates the worth of his ministry, admits that 'in the present century the behaviour of the clergy in general is greatly altered for the better,' although he thinks them deficient both in piety and knowledge. Or if clerical testimony be suspected of partiality, we have abundance of lay evidence all tending to the same conclusion. Smollett, a contemporary, declares that in the reign of George II. 'the clergy were generally pious and exemplary.' When a Presbyterian clergyman talked before Dr. Johnson of fat bishops and drowsy deans, he replied, 'Sir, you know no more of our Church than a Hottentot.' One of the most impartial historians of our own day and country, in dwelling upon the immoralities of the age and upon the clerical shortcomings, adds that 'the lives of the clergy were, as a rule, pure.'
It is necessary to bring into prominence such testimony as this because there has been a tendency to insinuate what has never been proved -- that the clergy were, as a body, living immoral lives. At the same time it is not desired to palliate their real defects. It is admitted that a more active and earnest performance of their proper duties might have done much more than was done by the clergy to stem the torrent of iniquity.
Yet after all it is doubtful whether the clergy, even if they had been far more energetic and spiritually-minded than they were, could have effected such a reformation as was needed. For there was a long train of causes at work dating back for more than a century, which tended not only to demoralise the nation, but also to cut it off from many influences for good which under happier circumstances the Church might have exercised. The turbulent and unsettled condition of both Church and State in the seventeenth century was bearing its fruit in the eighteenth. As in the life of an individual, so also in the life of a nation, there are certain crises which are terribly perilous to the character. In the eighteenth century England as a nation was going through such a crisis. She was passing from the old order to the new. The early part of the century was a period of many controversies -- the Deistic controversy, the Nonjuring controversy, the Bangorian controversy, the Trinitarian controversy, the various ethical controversies, and all these following close upon the Puritan controversy and the Papal controversy, both of which had shaken the Constitution to its very foundation. How was it possible that a country could pass through such stormy scenes without having its faith unsettled, and the basis of its morals weakened? How could some help asking, What is truth? where is it to be found among all these conflicting elements? The Revolution itself was in its immediate effects attended with evil. England submitted to be governed by foreigners, but she had to sacrifice much and stoop low before she could submit to the necessity. All the romantic halo which had hung about royalty was rudely swept away. Queen Anne was the last sovereign of these realms round whom still lingered something of the 'divinity that doth hedge a king.' Under the Georges loyalty assumed a different form from that which it had taken before. The sentiment which had attached their subjects to the Tudors and the Stuarts was exchanged for a colder and less enthusiastic feeling; mere policy took the place of chivalry.
Nor was it only in her outward affairs that the nation was passing through a great and fundamental change. In her inner and spiritual life she was also in a period of transition. The problem which was started in the early part of the sixteenth century had never yet been fairly worked out. The nation had been for more than a century and a half so busy in dealing with the pressing questions of the hour that it had never yet had time to face the far deeper questions which lay behind these -- questions which concerned not the different modes of Christianity, but the very essence of Christianity itself. The matters which had so violently agitated the country in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were now virtually settled. The Church was now at last 'established.' But other questions arose. It was not now asked, 'Is this or that mode of Church government most Scriptural?' 'Is this or that form of worship most in accordance with the mind of Christ?' but, 'What is this Scripture to which all appeal?' 'Who is this Christ whom all own as Master?' This is really what is meant, so far as religion is concerned, when it is said that the eighteenth century was the age of reason -- alike in the good and in the bad sense of that term. The defenders of Christianity, no less than its assailants, had to prove, above all things, the reasonableness of their position. The discussion was inevitable, and in the end productive of good, but while it was going on it could not fail to be to many minds harmful. Reason and faith, though not really antagonistic, are often in seeming antagonism. Many might well ask, Can we no longer rest upon a simple, childlike faith, founded on authority? What is there, human or Divine, that is left to reverence? The heart of England was still sound at the core, and she passed through the crisis triumphantly; but the transition period was a dangerous and a demoralising one, and there is no wonder that she sank for a time under the wave that was passing over her.
It has been already said that the morbid dread of anything which savoured either of Romanism or Puritanism tended to reduce the Church to a dead level of uniform dulness. The same dread affected the nation at large as well as the Church. It practically cut off the laity from influences which might have elevated them. Anything like the worship of God in the beauty of holiness, all that is conveyed in the term symbolism, the due observance of fast and festival -- in fact, all those things which to a certain class of minds are almost essential to raise devotion -- were too much associated in men's minds with that dreaded enemy from whom the nation had but narrowly escaped in the preceding age to be able to be turned to any good effect in the eighteenth century.
On the other hand, stirring appeals to the feelings, analyses of spiritual frames -- everything, in short, which was termed in the jargon of the seventeenth century 'savoury preaching' and 'a painful ministry,' was too much associated in men's minds with the hated reign of the Saints to be employed with any good effect.
And thus, both on the objective and on the subjective side, the people were practically debarred from influences which might have made their religion a more lovely or a more hearty thing.
Again, if the clergy showed, as they confessedly did, an inertness, an obstructiveness, a want of expansiveness, and a dogged resistance to any adaptation of old forms to new ideas, they were in these respects thoroughly in accord with the feelings of the mass of the nation. The clergy were not popular, but it was not their want of zeal and enterprise which made them unpopular; if in exceptional cases they did show any tendency in these directions, this only made them more unpopular than ever. Had it been otherwise we might naturally have expected to find the zeal which was lacking in the National Church showing itself in other Christian bodies. But we find nothing of the sort. The torpor which had overtaken our Church extended itself to all forms of Christianity. Edmund Calamy, a Nonconformist, lamented in 1730 that 'a real decay of serious religion, both in the Church and out of it, was very visible.' Dr. Watts declares that in his day 'there was a general decay of vital religion in the hearts and lives of men.' A modern writer who makes no secret of his partiality for Nonconformists owns that 'religion, whether in the Established Church or out of it, never made less progress than after the cessation of the Bangorian and Salter's Hall disputes. Breadth of thought and charity of sentiment increased, but religious activity did not.' In 1712 Defoe considered 'Dissenters' interests to be in a declining state, not so much as regarded their wealth and numbers as the qualifications of their ministers, the decay of piety, and the abandonment of their political friends.' Such is the testimony of Nonconformists themselves, who will not be suspected of taking too dark a view of the condition of Nonconformity. There is no need to add to this the evidence of Churchmen. It is a fact patent to all students of the period that the moral and religious stagnation of the times extended to all religious bodies outside as well as inside the National Church. The most intellectually active part of Dissent was drifting gradually into Socinianism and Unitarianism.
There is yet one more circumstance to be taken into account in estimating the extent to which the clergy were responsible for the irreligion and immorality which prevailed. A change of manners was fast rendering ineffectual a weapon which they had formerly used for waging war against sin. Ecclesiastical censures were becoming little better than a mere brutum fulmen. Complaints of the difficulty, not to say impossibility, of enforcing Church discipline are of constant occurrence. In 1704 Archbishop Sharp, while urging his clergy to present 'any that are resolved to continue heathens and absolutely refuse to come to church,' and, while admitting that the abuses of the commutation for penance were 'a cause of complaints against the spiritual courts and of the invidious reflections cast upon them,' adds that 'he was very sensible both of the decay of discipline in general and of the curbs put upon any effectual prosecution of it by the temporal courts, and of the difficulty of keeping up what little was left entire to the ecclesiastics without creating offence and administering matter for aspersion and evil surmises.' The same excellent prelate, when, a writ de excommunicato capiendo was evaded by writs of supersedeas from Chancery, wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury asking him 'to represent the case to the Lord Chancellor, that he might give such directions that his courts might go on to enforce ecclesiastical censures with civil penalties, without fear of being baffled in their proceedings.' In the later meetings of Convocation this subject of the enforcement of Church discipline was constantly suggested for discussion; but, as questions which were, or were supposed to be, of more immediate interest claimed precedence, no practical result ensued. The matter, however, was not suffered to fall altogether into abeyance. In 1741 Bishop Secker gives the same advice to the clergy of the diocese of Oxford as Archbishop Sharp had given nearly forty years before to those of the diocese of York, but he seems still more doubtful as to whether it could be effectually carried out. 'Persons,' he writes, 'who profess not to be of our Church, if persuasions will not avail, must be let alone. But other absentees must, after due patience, be told that, unwilling as you are, it will be your duty to present them, unless they reform; and if, when this warning hath been repeated and full time allowed for it to work, they still persist in their obstinacy, I beg you to do it. For this will tend much to prevent the contagion from spreading, of which there is else great danger.' In 1753 he repeats his injunctions, but in a still more desponding tone. 'Offences,' he says, 'against religion and morals churchwardens are bound by oath to present; and incumbents or curates are empowered and charged by the 113th and following canons to join with them in presenting, if need be, or to present alone if they refuse. This implies what the 26th canon expresses, that the minister is to urge churchwardens to perform that part of their office. Try first by public and private rebukes to amend them; but if these are ineffectual, get them corrected by authority. I am perfectly sensible that immorality and irreligion are grown almost beyond the reach of ecclesiastical power, which, having in former times been very unwarrantably extended, hath since been very unjustly and imprudently cramped and weakened many ways.' After having given directions about excommunications and penance, he urges them, as a last resort, 'to remind the people that, however the censures of the Church may be relaxed or evaded, yet God's judgment cannot.' Yet even so late as 1766 he explains to candidates for orders the text addressed to them at their ordination, 'Whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained,' as conferring 'a right of inflicting ecclesiastical censures for a shorter or longer time, and of taking them off, which is, in regard to external communion, retaining or forgiving offences.' 'Our acts,' he adds, 'as those of temporal judges, are to be respected as done by competent authority. Nor will other proofs of repentance be sufficient if submission to the discipline of the Church of Christ, when it hath been offended and requires due satisfaction, be obstinately refused.' This is not the place to discuss the possibility or the advisability under altered circumstances of enforcing ecclesiastical discipline, but in common fairness to the clergy, who were accused of doing little or nothing to oppose the general depravity, it should be borne in mind that they were practically debarred from using a formidable weapon which in earlier times had been wielded with great effect.
Nor should we forget that if the clergy were inactive and unsuccessful in one direction, many of them at least were singularly active and successful in another. There was within the pale of the Church at the period of which we are speaking a degree of intellect and learning which has rarely been surpassed in its palmiest days. When among the higher clergy were found such men as Butler, and Hare, and Sherlock, and Warburton, and South, and Conybeare, and Waterland, and Bentley, men who were more than a match for the assailants of Christianity, formidable as these antagonists undoubtedly were -- when within her fold were found men of such distinguished piety as Law and Wilson, Berkeley and Benson, the state of the Church could not be wholly corrupt.
And, finally, it should be remembered that if England was morally and spiritually in low estate at this period, she was, at any rate, in a better plight than her neighbours. If there were Church abuses in England, there were still worse in France. If there was too wide an interval here between the higher and the lower clergy, the inequality was not so great as there, where, 'while the prelates of the Church lived with a pomp and state falling little short of the magnificence of royalty, not a few of the poorer clergy had scarcely the wherewithal to live at all,' where 'the superior clergy regarded the cures as hired servitors, whom in order to dominate it was prudent to keep in poverty and ignorance.' If the distribution of patronage on false principles and the inordinate love of preferment were abuses in England, matters were worse in France, where 'there was an open traffic in benefices; the Episcopate was nothing but a secular dignity; it was necessary to be count or marquis in order to become a successor of the apostles, unless some extraordinary event snatched some little bishopric for a parvenu from the hands of the minister;' and where 'the bishops squandered the revenues of their provinces at the court.' If the lower classes were neglected here, they were not, as in France, dying from misery and hunger at the rate of a million a year. Neither, sordid as the age was in England, was it so sordid as in Germany, where a coarse eudaemonism and a miscalled illuminism were sapping the foundations of Christianity.
Moreover, England, unlike her next-door neighbour, improved as the years rolled on. A gradual but distinct alteration for the better may be traced in the later part of the century. Many causes contributed to effect this. After the accession of George III. a growing sense of security began to pervade the country. An unsettled state is always prejudicial to national morals, and there were henceforward no serious thoughts of deranging the established order of things. Influences, too, were at work which tended to raise the tone of morality and religion in all orders of society. The upper classes had a good example set them by the blameless lives of the King and the Queen. In the present day, when it is the fashion to ridicule the foibles and to condemn the troublesome interference in State affairs of the well-meaning but often ill judging King, it is the more necessary to bear in mind the debt of gratitude which the nation owed him for the good effects which his personal character unquestionably produced -- effects which, though they told more directly and immediately upon the upper classes, yet permeated more or less through all the strata of society. Among the middle classes, too, there arose a set of men whose influence for good it would be difficult to exaggerate. Foremost among them stands the great and good Dr. Johnson. 'Dr. Johnson,' writes Lord Mahon, 'stemmed the tide of infidelity.' And the greatest of modern satirists does not state the case too strongly when he declares that 'Johnson had the ear of the nation. His immense authority reconciled it to loyalty and shamed it out of irreligion. He was revered as a sort of oracle, and the oracle declared for Church and King. He was a fierce foe to all sin, but a gentle enemy to all sinners.' Sir J. Reynolds, and E. Burke, and Hogarth, and Pitt, each in his way, helped on the good work. The rising Evangelical school -- the Newtons, the Venns, the Cecils, the Romaines, among the clergy, and the Wilberforces, the Thorntons, the Mores, the Cowpers, among the laity -- all affected beneficially to an immense extent the upper and middle classes, while among the lower classes the Methodist movement was effecting incalculable good. These latter influences, however, were far too important an element in the national amelioration to be dealt with at the end of a chapter. Suffice it here to add that, glaring as were the abuses of the Church of the eighteenth century, they could not and did not destroy her undying vitality. Even when she reached her nadir there was sufficient salt left to preserve the mass from becoming utterly corrupt. The fire had burnt low, but there was yet enough light and heat left to be fanned into a flame which was in due time to illumine the nation and the nation's Church.
[Footnote 648: In 1705, 1706, 1710, 1711, 1714, 1715, &c. &c., there were High Church mobs.]
[Footnote 649: Coxe's Memoirs of Sir S. Walpole, vol. i. pp.24, 25.]
[Footnote 650: A glaring instance of the blighting effects of the Walpole Ministry upon the Church is to be found in the treatment of Berkeley's attempt to found a university at Bermuda. See a full account of the whole transaction in Wilberforce's History of the American Church, ch. iv. pp.151-160. Mr. Anderson calls it a 'national crime.' See History of the Colonial Church, vol. iii. ch. xxix. p.437, &c. The Duke of Newcastle pursued the same policy. In spite of the efforts of the most influential Churchmen, such as Gibson, Sherlock, and Secker, who all concurred in recognising the need of clergymen, of churches, of schools, in our plantations, 'the mass of inert resistance presented in the office of the Secretary of State, responsible for the colonies, was too great to be overcome.' -- Ibid. p.443.]
[Footnote 651: Bishop Fitzgerald (Aids to Faith, Essay ii. Sec.7) stigmatises the impotency and turbulence of Convocation, but entirely ignores the practical agenda referred to above. See Cardwell's Synodalia, on the period.]
[Footnote 652: See the introduction to Palin's History of the Church of England from the Revolution to the Last Acts of Convocation.]
[Footnote 653: See Cardwell's Synodalia, xlii.]
[Footnote 654: Hodgson's 'Life of Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London,' in vol. i. of Porteus's Works, p.45. Another thoroughly good man, Bishop Gibson, was, before he was mitred, Precentor and Residentiary of Chichester, Rector of Lambeth, and Archdeacon of Surrey. See Coxe's Memoirs of Sir R. Walpole, i.478.]
[Footnote 655: Anecdotes of the Life of R. Watson, Bishop of Llandaff, published by his Son, vol. i. p.307.]
[Footnote 656: Id. ii.349.]
[Footnote 657: Paley's 'Charges,' vol. vii of his Works, in 7 vols.]
[Footnote 658: 'Charge of the Bishop of Rochester,' 1796, Bishop Horsley's Charges.]
[Footnote 659: Bishop of Oxford's Second Charge, 1741, Secker's Charges.]
[Footnote 660: Remarks on a Discourse of Freethinking, by Phileleutherus Lipsiensis, xl. (edition of 1743).]
[Footnote 661: Anecdotes of the Life of R. Watson, Bishop of Llandaff, i.159.]
[Footnote 662: Quoted in Kilvert's Life of Bishop Hurd, p.97. Dean Swift, in his Project for the Advancement of Religion, speaks of curates in the most contemptuous terms. 'In London, a clergyman, with one or two sorry curates, has sometimes the care of above 20,000 souls incumbent on him.']
[Footnote 663: How nobly and successfully a domestic chaplain in a great family might do his duty in the eighteenth century; the conduct of Thomas Wilson, when he was domestic chaplain to the Earl of Derby, and tutor to his son, is an instance.]
[Footnote 664: Bishop of Oxford's Charge, 1738.]
[Footnote 665: Secker's Instructions given to Candidates for Orders.]
[Footnote 666: Mr. Pattison's Essay in Essays and Reviews.]
[Footnote 667: Lives of the Chancellors, by Lord Campbell, vol. v. chap. xxxviii. p.186.]
[Footnote 668: Anecdotes of the Life of R. Watson, Bishop of Llandaff, published by his Son, vol. i. p.157.]
[Footnote 669: Letters from Warburton to Hurd, second ed.1809, Letter xlvi. July 1752.]
[Footnote 670: Boswell's Life of Johnson, in ten vols., 1835, Murray, vol. v. p.298. See also vol. iv. p.92. 'Few bishops are now made for their learning. To be a bishop a man must be learned in a learned age, factious in a factious age, but always of eminence,' &c.]
[Footnote 671: See Bishop Newton's Autobiography, and Lord Mahon's History.]
[Footnote 672: Memoirs of William Whiston, by himself, p.275. See also pp.119 and 155, 156.]
[Footnote 673: 'A fact,' he adds, 'so apparent to Government, both civil and ecclesiastical, that, they have found it necessary to provide rewards and honours for such advances in learning and piety as may best enable the clergy to serve the interests of the Church of Christ,' a remark which we might have thought ironical did we not know the temper of the times. -- See Watson's Life of Warburton, 488.]
[Footnote 674: Anecdotes of the Life of Bishop Watson, i.116. He quotes also a remark of D'Alembert: 'The highest offices in Church and State resemble a pyramid, whose top is accessible to only two sorts of animals, eagles and reptiles.']
[Footnote 675: Lives of the Chancellors, vol. v. chap. clxi. p.656. Lord Chesterfield makes some bitter remarks on the higher clergy 'with the most indefatigable industry and insatiable greediness, darkening in clouds the levees of kings and ministers,' &c., quoted in Phillimore's History of England, during the reign of George III. Phillimore himself makes some very severe strictures on the sycophancy and greed of the higher clergy. -- See his History, passim.]
[Footnote 676: The Life gives us the impression that he was a firm believer, that he strove to live a Christian life, that he was very amiable, and that he was quite free from the paltry vice of jealousy at another's good fortune.]
[Footnote 677: Memoirs of Bishop Newton, by himself.]
[Footnote 678: Bishop Watson was a decidedly able writer, and he never allowed himself to be the tool of any party. He says of himself with perfect, truth, 'I have hitherto followed and shall continue to follow my own judgment in all public transactions.']
[Footnote 679: Raikes established the first of his Sunday schools in 1781, but it is certain that one was established before this by Hannah Ball at High Wycombe in 1769, and it is probable that there were also others. Mr. Buckle says they were established by Lindsay in or immediately after 1765. (History of Civilisation, i.302, note.) However, to Raikes belongs the credit of bringing the institution prominently before the public. It may be noticed that Raikes was a decided Churchman. His son contradicts almost indignantly the notion which became prevalent that he was a Dissenter. One of the rules of Raikes's Gloucester Sunday school was that the scholars should attend the cathedral service. There was a strong prejudice against Sunday schools among some of the clergy, but it was combated by others. Paley, in one of his charges, tried to disabuse his clergy of this prejudice, and so did several other dignitaries. But Bishop Horsley, in his charge at Rochester, made some severe remarks against Sunday schools. See Life of R. Hill, p.428. The evangelical clergy, of course, warmly took up the Sunday school scheme. In this, as in many other cases, the Church was responsible for the remedy as well as the abuse.]
[Footnote 680: Bishop Wilson made vigorous and successful efforts in the Isle of Man to revive the system of catechising in church; and strongly urged every 'rector, vicar, and curate to spend, if but one hour in every week, in visiting his petty school, and see how the children are taught to read, to say their catechism and their prayers,' &c.]
[Footnote 681: Blackstone, though endowed with many excellent qualities, is said to have had a somewhat irritable temper, which, as he advanced in years, was rendered worse by a nervous affection. Bentham says 'that he seems to have had something about him which rendered breaches with him not difficult.' Lawyers are so accustomed to criticise arguments that they are apt to be somewhat severe judges of sermons. How many clergymen of the present day would like to have their sermons judged by the standard of a great lawyer of a somewhat irritable temperament?]
[Footnote 682: See vol. vii. 'Charge VII.' in Paley's Works in seven vols.]
[Footnote 683: Similar complaints are uttered regarding 1737-8-9. H. Walpole writes of 1751: 'The vices of the lower people were increased to a degree of robbery and murder beyond example.' -- Memoirs of the Reign of King George II., vol. i. chap. ii. p.44.]
[Footnote 684: E.g. Archbishop Wake, in his letter to Courayer in 1726, writes: 'Iniquity in practice, God knows, abounds, chiefly in the two extremes, the highest and the lowest. The middle sort are serious and religious.' See also Robinson Crusoe, chap. i.]
[Footnote 685: Lord Hervey's Memoirs, ii.341, in reference to the Bill to put all players under the direction of the Lord Chamberlain.]
[Footnote 686: See, inter alia, the description of a small squire of the reign of George II. in Grose's Olio, 1792.]
[Footnote 687: Quoted in Andrews, 18th century.]
[Footnote 688: See chap. lxx. of Lord Mahon's History.]
[Footnote 689: Skeats's History of the Free Churches of England p.465.]
[Footnote 690: Parliamentary History, vol. xiv. p.1389.]
[Footnote 691: In Bishop Fleetwood's Charge at Ely, August 7, 1710, no less than three folio pages are filled with accounts of the abuse of the clergy, and the way in which the clergy should meet it. Secker's, Butler's, and Horsley's Charges all touch on the same subject.]
[Footnote 692: See the conclusion of Burnet's History of his Own Times.]
[Footnote 693: Remarks on Collins's Discourse on Freethinking, by Phileleutherus Lipsiensis, xxiii.]
[Footnote 694: Quoted in Mrs. Thomson's Memoirs of Lady Sundon and the Court and Times of George II.]
[Footnote 695: Smollett's Continuation of Hume, v.375.]
[Footnote 696: Boswell's Life.]
[Footnote 697: Lord Mahon, chap. lxx.]
[Footnote 698: Bishop Butler, in his Charge to the Clergy of Durham in 1751, complains very justly, 'It is cruel usage we often meet with, in being censured for not doing what we cannot do, without, what we cannot have, the concurrence of our censurers. Doubtless very much reproach which now lights upon the clergy would be bound to fall elsewhere if due allowance were made for things of this kind.']
[Footnote 699: Calamy's Life and Times, vol. ii. p.531.]
[Footnote 700: Skeats's History of the Free Churches, pp.248, 313. 'The strictness of Puritanism, without its strength or piety, was beginning to reign among Dissenters.']
[Footnote 701: Life of Archbishop Sharp, by his Son, edited by T. Newcome, p.214.]
[Footnote 702: Id. p.217.]
[Footnote 703: See The History of the Present Parliament and Convocation, 1711; and Cardwell's Synodalia, vol. ii. for the years 1710, 1712, 1713, 1715.]
[Footnote 704: See Secker's Charges, passim.]
[Footnote 705: The circumstances in the Isle of Man were of course exceptional. For specimens of the rigour with which good Bishop Wilson maintained ecclesiastical discipline there see Stowell's Life of Wilson, pp.198, 199, &c.]
[Footnote 706: Le Clerge de Quatre-vingt-neuf, par J. Wallon, quoted in the Church Quarterly Review for October 1877, art. v., 'France in the Eighteenth Century.']
[Footnote 707: W.M. Thackeray, English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century.]
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