We know, and what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society and the source of all good and all comfort. In England we are so convinced of this that there is no rust of superstition with which the accumulated absurdity of the human mind might have crusted it over in the course of all ages, that ninety nine in a hundred of the people in England would not prefer to impiety.[1]

Writing in 1790 against the revolutionaries in France and England Burke insisted that the 'coat of prejudice' should be protected against the 'smugglers of adulterated metaphysics' and 'naked reason'. It was a commonplace for Burke that tradition or 'prejudice' was essential to the stability of political and social order, 'it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue … Through just prejudice … duty becomes part of … nature'. For Burke religion and the established Church were the 'first of our prejudices': the consecration of the state was a necessity. Part of Burke's polemic against English and French radicals was that they had attempted to destroy the social mystery of the Church by naked speculation and 'metaphysics'. This defence of Anglicanism as a fundamental political theology and the assault on the incursions of philosophic cabals, atheists and infidels can be taken as an apt framework for the ideological battles of the late seventeenth century studied in this book. Burke's picture of late eighteenth-century society resting on the unity of the established Church, the monarchy and the aristocracy, unchallenged by Enlightenment metaphysics, is premised on the perceived opposition between the clergy and the coffee-house philosopher. While not accepting Burke's interpretation of late eighteenth-century English society as dominated by the Anglican alliance of priest and monarch, his notion of religion as a prejudice which provided the moral and political matrices of that culture is pertinent for my work. I have focused on the crucial period between the Restoration and the early eighteenth century as an intellectual moment when (in Burkean terms) 'tradition' and 'metaphysics' engaged each other head on. So far there is little <224> new in such a claim: as long ago as 1935 Hazard wrote of a 'crisis of conscience' in the European mind at the turn of the eighteenth century. Reason triumphed over superstition, the scientist mechanized the world picture, and Locke shattered the medieval twilight ideas of divine monarchy. To borrow Kuhn's language, there was a paradigmatic shift from religion to reason. This triumph of the modern intellect is sharply at odds with Burke's description of the 1790s: in the same way this book is not intended to embroider the traditional interpretation which allies Freethinking reason with the triumph of liberal modernity. Rather than deal with what Burke called the 'naked reason' of radical polemic against the Church my intention has been to focus on how the radical Republicans of the late seventeenth century employed history to attack established Christianity.[2]

As stated in the introduction, this work is conducted with the intention of emphasizing the religious context of the period. That is to say, whilst it does not intend to discuss the complexity of religious disputes in toto between 1660 and 1730, it takes the claims of theology, of religious conviction, and of ecclesiastical politics as primary concerns of intellectual debate. The intention has been to examine how those who challenged the traditional role of the Church or of the priest set about demystifying and exposing the historical prejudices that shored up the clerical status quo. The thrust of my argument is that the radical counter-polemic was not sustained by the transparent power of rational argument alone, but by the careful construction of counter-histories. Part of my argument here is implicitly directed at what modern historians of political thought have taken as the proper focus of their scholarship; put bluntly, rather than examining the 'naked reason' of political ideas, my intention has been to explore how certain ideas came to be articulated in the form of historical argument. Christianity as an ideology is not simply a set of articles of faith but includes a necessary historical dimension. Individuals not only believed in Christian doctrine (the Trinity, transubstantiation, original sin) but also in Christian history (Christ's miracles, the Resurrection, the Primitive Church). Writing in an English context about Christian belief becomes an even more historical enterprise given that Anglicanism, as a schism from the Roman Catholic faith, rests its validity on the legitimacy (or not) of the historical events of the Reformation. Seventeenth-century Anglicans had to be aware not only of the 'Articles of Faith', but also of the unique historical probity of the transactions of the 1530s, 1540s, 1550s and 1560s.

If we accept that the seventeenth-century mind was deeply rooted in a complex set of religious beliefs and that the historical dimensions to these beliefs were crucial in inducing, confirming, or overturning conviction, then it is apparent that the idea of history in a modern sense becomes a problem.


Consider an example: a devout Anglican, who believes in the Trinity, de jure divino episcopacy and monarchy, and treats Heylyn's A Help to English History as a cynosure of historical truth, encounters Burnet's abridged history of the Reformation. As a devout and conscientious Christian the individual can either reject Burnet's history out of hand or can attempt to arbitrate between the claims of the different works. In terms of the necessities of faith (the need to secure true beliefs in order to be saved) the conscientious Christian ought to choose that history which is the truest or most reliable. It is this picture of history as a seedbed for moral conviction that is the second major premise of this book (the first being the overarching importance of things sacred).

In chapter 2 I hope to have pointed out the duality of the historiography of the period: the fundamental tension between history as res gestae (the facts about the past) and history as disciplina (organizing these facts about the past). Contrary to the arguments of modern scholarship, which has attempted to divorce seventeenth-century history writing from its moral context and place it in the genealogy of modern academic practice, the force of my work in this chapter is to suggest that the historiography of the period is to be firmly anchored, not in the positivistic tradition of the birth of modern scholarship, but in the didactic ideals of humanist rhetoric. History was written to explain, justify and, most of all, to persuade. The past was not resurrected 'for its own sake', but in order to display the moral rectitude of a particular set of facts. The importance of 'true history' for 'true principles' cannot be underscored too heavily: for example, Catholic historians like Bossuet were trying to catch Burnet out, not just as a poor historian, but as a corrupt theologian. During the Restoration, theologians and natural philosophers became acutely aware of the persuasive potential of 'matters of fact'. As Shapin and Schaffer have stated succinctly, 'the matter of fact was a social as well as an intellectual category'.[3] Just as Boyle and his fellow members of the Royal Society sought to convey experimental accounts as transparent value-free matters of fact, so historians like Burnet created a set of methodological rules concerned to define the correct way a 'matter of fact' might be applied to induce true belief. Documents, testimonies and probabilities conspired to show the truth. The voice of historical impartiality set out to insinuate principles of partisan interest. As Locke asserted in the Essay, God had only afforded man a 'twilight' knowledge, and existential necessity forced humanity to rely on the probability of 'matter of fact' created by confidence in 'many and undoubted witnesses'. If 'historians of credit', contradicted by no writer, identified a matter of fact then 'a man cannot avoid believing it'.[4] On the same grounds, if Burnet addressed the impartial <226> Christian conscience with the matter of fact that the Reformation displayed the subordination of the Church to state (and Locke's conditions held sway) then a 'man cannot avoid believing it'. The point was that while adversaries shared a common conviction in the value of 'matter of fact' they incessantly disagreed about the 'correct' truthful interpretation of such facts.

History was then a resource which intellectuals could employ to enshrine their particular ideals. As already stated above, the central theme of the book is the importance of the religious dimension to disputes in the period: without wishing to state the obvious, religion was not, however, a unitary notion. The Restoration saw many rival claims to be the true religion. As a necessary preamble to discussing how the radicals attempted to deconstruct the historical prejudices that upheld the established Church, chapters 2 and 3 have set out to sketch the parameters of rival clerical interpretations of the history of the Church. These chapters have sampled the varieties of Anglicanism, ranging from the High Church Heylyn, the latitudinarian Burnet, and the arch-Erastian William Denton. These chapters are intended to be illustrative of the types of historical arguments clerical apologists presented in order to justify their visions of the legitimate Church. While the treatment involves a selective rather than all-encompassing account of the complex history of Restoration apologetics, the intention is to describe the general shape of ecclesiological argument which radicals like Toland, Tindal and Gordon reacted against.

The Reformation idea of two regiments (Church and state) left many conceptual tensions: the purpose of chapters 2 and 3 is to provide a brief account of the potential readings of the ecclesiological legacy of the Reformation. The case of Peter Heylyn presents us with the defence of sacerdotalism: his belief in de jure divino episcopacy and of the spiritual superiority of the clergy over the laity, provides an excellent example of what writers like Hobbes and Toland would call priestcraft. Heylyn's historical defence of the clericalist principle 'non est sacerdotium nisi in ecclesia, non est ecclesia sine sacerdotio' is a necessary conceptual backcloth for providing some sense of what the radicals attacked. The studies of Twysden and Denton are included to indicate the diverse ways theorists justified the position of the Church within the state: some concentrated on the historical case for the imperial royal supremacy while Denton and Twysden proposed a more radical Erastianism that described the role of the civil sovereign less as an architectonic device to protect the true Church, than as an instrument of anticlericalism directed against all forms of clerical independence. While Heylyn and the other subjects of chapter 3 all claimed to be just and truthful historians they achieved no long-lasting historical monuments. In chapter 3 I also moved on to discuss the works of Stillingfleet <227> and Burnet: the purpose of this study being twofold. First, both works (Stillingfleet's Origines Britannicae and Burnet's History of the Reformation) are qualitatively different from the other histories discussed in the chapter. While Heylyn's historical writing was learned, it was never erudite: although Heylyn always pleaded the truthfulness of his historical narrative, he wrote consistently as a controversialist with a point to make. Stillingfleet and Burnet don the mantle of scholarship. Both works were conceived as authoritative, exhaustive and complete histories of the Church of England from the days of St Paul to the Reformation. They were public, collaborative and scholarly enterprises. Burnet in particular, with his almost irritating pleas for corrections and addenda, intended his history as definitive and unchallengeable. Secondly, in spite of (or perhaps more accurately because of) the public insistence on impartial scholarship, both Stillingfleet and Burnet designed their histories with the intentions of justifying their particular interpretations of correct ecclesiology. As Burnet was ever ready to point out, there was no conflict between scholarship and true religion; thus, if an opponent set out to undermine his academic abilities, his religion was implicated, too.

Thus, the first chapters of this book set out to illustrate the context of the radical attacks on the established Church. Following from the premise that religion, or the relationship between religion and politics, was the central driving force of intellectual debate, and that historical perspectives on this relationship were crucial to the authority of any given enterprise, the initial chapters have been intended to give illustrative examples of clerical historiography. Politically, the Church held authority in the pulpit; intellectually, history had been colonized by a priestly past. The staple diet of ecclesiastical history legitimated the role of the priesthood. Readers consumed documentary histories of the Church of England, be they Heylyn's heroic vision of episcopacy, Prynne's eulogy of the royal supremacy as biblical reformer, or Burnet's vision of a pastoral clergy. Although Heylyn and Burnet are at different ends of the theological and ecclesiological spectrum they shared certain common beliefs as Christians: the truth of Christ's mission and the idea of the Church being two fundamental principles. While they disputed the precise content of such notions, they both insisted on the 'truth' of the Christian religion. The different histories composed by writers like Burnet, Stillingfleet and Heylyn are treated as a common clerical heritage: a fundamental prejudice or intellectual resource which justified the Anglican status quo in the late seventeenth century. The second half of this work has examined how the radical Freethinkers and Republicans set about unpicking the elaborately embroidered tapestry of historical prejudices in order to substitute their own.


As the case of Tindal's Right of the Christian Church (1706) was intended to illustrate, the attack on the auctoritas of the Christian Church was initially conducted as a radical exercise in orthodox ecclesiological discourse. Tindal wrote as a radical Reformation Erastian: he used commonplace discussion of Church and state, the language of regnum and ecclesia, to justify the civil state as an instrument for deconsecrating the Christian priesthood. Just as clerical histories had lovingly documented the res gestae of holy bishops and godly princes, so Freethinkers began to frame counter-histories. As the cases of Tindal and the Unitarian polemicists discussed in chapter 4 indicates, one of the primary historical exercises was to reinvestigate the past described by the clerical historians in order to invest the Judaeo-Christian saeculum with different meaning. Thus, surprisingly, given the allegedly secularistic intentions of the radical enterprise, writers like Stephen Nye, Henry Stubbe and John Toland engaged themselves in serious, erudite and devoted studies of the Christian past. Far from writing histories to justify the clerical order the radicals rewrote the history of the Church as 'corruption' and in so doing redefined their conception of Christianity and the priesthood. The apogee of this strategy was John Toland's Nazarenus (1718) which recast the triumphalist interpretation of the Christian past (i.e. that Christianity was the sole true religious economy) into a synthesis of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that undercut the orthodox idea of a singular true religion. Writers like Stubbe, Toland and Blount participated in a crucial change in historical mentality: rather than treating the past as morally significant only in a narrow Christian sense they broadened their historical canvas to evaluate the meaning of non- and even anti-Christian pasts. This intellectual disestablishment of clerical history, as described in chapters 5 and 6, was not merely a redefinition of the Christian past, but was the premise for an alternative model of religion. Clerical histories were premised upon a narrow and confined reading of the past: Christianity was the true religion and true religion could only be Christian. As the Christian religion was unique and true, so all other theologies were by definition false, profane and spiritually meaningless. Christians like Ficino, Erasmus, and later still Cudworth, had attempted to address the problem of 'other religions' but had resolved the issue by assimilating pagan and heathen religion (in their purest forms) into Christianity. Writers like Toland, Spencer and Trenchard preferred to adopt a wider definition of religion which attempted to assess the value of past religions not as a unitary Christian concept but as universal cultural phenomena located in precise political, social and historical circumstances. Thus Spencer undertook a detailed comparative analysis of Egyptian and Jewish religion; Toland felt that it was within his interpretative licence to assess Druidical theologies, the Koran, classical metaphysics and the canon of Christian Scripture all in the same breath. While clerical historians had <229> examined documents like the 'Dinoth Ms' or the Cranmer Manuscript to draft the history of the Church, Toland et al. examined religion itself as a cultural artefact or document. Proceeding from this scrutiny of religion as a political or social phenomenon the radicals examined how human psychology contributed to religious behaviour. All this was not conducted with the purpose of furthering the cause of disinterested scholarship. Although such writings could be seen as the first moves towards later Enlightenment exercises in the history of civilization and manners, or the nineteenth-century disciplines of comparative religion of biblical interpretation, the Freethinkers conceived their writings as directed against the false priestcraft of seventeenth-century Anglicanism.

In the final chapters I have shown that treating religion as an object of intellectual investigation did not imply that men like Toland, Shaftesbury and Trenchard devalued or rejected religion. The radicals had concentrated on undermining the clerical notion of independent sacerdotal authority: sacerdos was a false ideology that corrupted religion and humanity. While the Freethinkers criticized the Christian priest as legitimate physician of the human soul they did not abandon the idea of an established Church, but appealed instead to the classical Ciceronian idea of religio or civil religion. As Robert Molesworth stated, 'the character of priest will give place to that of true Patriot'.[5] Writers like Moyle, Toland and Shaftesbury rejected Christian theology unreservedly, and substituted a metaphysics of virtue and reason. For the cleric, the salvation of the soul was the telos of Church and state; for the radical, salvation was a terrestrial possibility identified with the establishment of an harmonious, virtuous and rational society. As the clerical version insisted on the central role of the Church and clergy as dispensers of sacraments and keepers of the faith, so the Republican idea of civil theology (exemplified most clearly in Harrington's Oceana) suggested the need for an order of teachers to inculcate true principles of reason and virtue in the soul of each individual. As Toland had shown in his essay on 'prejudices' reason was easily capable of deformity and falsehood, therefore a civil priesthood was important to secure the claims of true reason.

Indeed, we should not confuse the radicals' plea for rationality with the cause of secularization or liberal modernity. Certainly for Toland or Shaftesbury 'reason' was a primary tool in dismantling the false metaphysics of priestcraft. If to be 'secular' one must call for the abolition of sacerdotalism then these men were secularists: in these terms the Reformation itself might be seen as a secular rather than a religious revival. The modern individualist trinity of freedom, equality and toleration has traditionally been seen as the achievement of 'reason' triumphing over religion. Although thinkers like Toland insisted on the 'reasonableness' of religious belief and <230> practice, their immediate aim was not the Lockean ambition of a separation of Church from state. Arguing tactically, against the false Anglican monopoly of true religion, the radicals could and did defend (on epistemological grounds) the right to a political toleration of different beliefs (what Toland called an 'indifference of temper'). They did not, however, abandon all to intellectual and religious pluralism. As the case of Toland clearly indicates, the hierarchical epistemology (embodied in the distinction between an exoteric and esoteric philosophy), central to the idea of a civil theology, distinguishes between 'reason' as a human faculty, and the state of rationality which could not be achieved by the majority of the people unaided. Civil society needed a didactic institution that could educate individual reason into a perception of true rationality. Reason was enshrined, for the radicals, not simply because it endowed each individual with a potential political and ethical autonomy, but because to be rational was to have achieved the highest state of human existence. True religion and reason became one and the same thing. The ambiguous position of these thinkers, straddled as they were between Christian theology and the modern world, can be illustrated by one final example.

John Dennis, as discussed above, anathematized priestcraft but insisted that a public religion was necessary to lead the populace to virtue. In a 'Short Discourse' appended to his Vice and Luxury Public Mischiefs (1724) Dennis discussed in detail the relationship between uncorrupted Christian theology and the public religion. As Dennis noted, some malicious people might argue that the logic of his arguments tended to 'put all religion upon an equal foot', but he wished to make it clear 'that I prefer the Christian religion to all the rest together'. Dennis' definition of Christianity was far from orthodox. The design of all religion was 'the happiness of those who embrace it': only the true religion could effect this happiness. Man's existential misery was the result of 'a discord continually reigning among the faculties of the soul; a cruel war between the passions, the senses, and reason'. Prior to the Fall man was 'holy, innocent, perfect': his intellectual and animal powers were in harmony. Human presumption and the 'design of growing independent, of shaking off the government of Him who made him, and finding his felicity apart from God', shattered the original harmony. Interestingly, Dennis conceived of the Fall not as an historical decline from God's grace, but as an internal state of human psychological disharmony. Salvation is described not as an extra-historical regeneration of human innocence, but as the restoration of 'the harmony of the human faculties'. The clerical equation of sin, sacraments and salvation is abandoned. For the bulk of humankind reason and philosophy are insufficient to establish harmony: thus Christian revelation, epitomized as the virtues of love and charity, 'performs in a moment, what philosophy has for Ages in vain attempted'. Put simply, for Dennis, the <231> Christian religion was the best social theology, 'so agreeable to the nature of man, whether considered as an individual, or a member of a vast society'. Charity makes 'the happiness of particulars tend to the felicity of the whole community; and whereas justice is satisfyed with the restraining of men from the doing harm, charity, the most active and best natured of all the virtues, engages him to the doing good'.[6] Christianity becomes a social ideology: for Dennis there is no soteriological theorizing about sin, grace and the Last Judgement. Religion was to be a belief system created to render men good and happy: salvation was identified with human well-being, creating social felicity for both individual and community.

It is worth now, as a final conclusion, having established the way in which the radical Republicans of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century were concerned to rebut the priestcraft of the established Church, attempting some assessment of the significance of this moment. In order to do so it is worth briefly attempting a general consideration of the current state of the historiography. As described in the introduction there is one broad interpretation of the period which acknowledges the deist controversy in England as marking a discontinuity with the clericalism of the old order of the early modern period. As the first drafts of essays in the use of reason the English contribution to that wider intellectual and historical moment termed the Enlightenment, because of its unique conservative priestly nature, was overshadowed by the far more weighty, learned and devastating critiques of the ancien régime executed by the philosophes proper.[7] Perhaps the most articulate and extensive example of this position, dealing in particular with the case of John Toland, has been the work of R. Sullivan. Basing his arguments upon the triumph of a rationalistic and moralistic interpretation of Anglican latitudinarianism after 1689, Sullivan, discussing the elusiveness of deism, proposes that Toland's arguments and intentions were merely an extension of the theological liberalism of the dominant religious idiom. The Freethinking programme provoked liberal Anglicanism to face up to the implications of their rational moralism: in confronting this logic the Church of England assimilated reason into providing a foundation stone for the stable consensus of Georgian ecclesiology. Deism then, for Sullivan, is interpreted as part of a long tradition of Anglican compromise between the claims of reason and revelation.[8] Sullivan's case is well argued, and in parts attractive, although one suspects that High Church men like Atterbury, Leslie and Lowth might have objected to his characterization of early eighteenth-century Anglicanism as triumphantly rational. Indeed recent scholarship has argued convincingly that there is good reason to suspect that <232> even liberal Anglicanism was still committed to notions of grace and priesthood as the esse of Christianity.[9] Ranged against this religious interpretation of Freethought is the irreligious or atheistic treatment. Although its proponents lay different emphasis upon how far the English radicals travelled the road to secularity they share a common insistence that the Freethinkers ought to be examined as significant within the history of unbelief. This secularist account of Freethought itself has two broad strands: the first, articulated in extremis by D. Berman, and most convincingly by D. Wootton, suggests that the late seventeenth century saw the uncovering of a widespread unbelief. By the 1700s effective and powerful arguments against God and revelation were prevalent.[10] For this interpretation atheism or Freethought is a question of intellectual or propositional arguments: to this end it is an idealist treatment, in the sense of suggesting that atheism or unbelief is a category of thought, rather than a political disposition. The victory (and the language of triumph and warfare is significant) of Freethought was achieved by developing a coherent intellectual case against Christianity. Such arguments were successful or unsuccessful only if they were perceived as right or wrong. For this position there is a logic of unbelief that leads from Renaissance to the Enlightenment: this transition saw the evolution of a correct philosophical (as opposed to irrational) account of God and matter.

In contra-distinction to this idealist interpretation which suggests that English Freethought should be understood as a route to a true transcendent model of philosophical atheism, the work of M. C. Jacob proclaims the centrality of politics and ideology. As she writes: 'The crisis of the late seventeenth century brought the legacy of the first great modern revolution into the mainstream of continental thought where it merged with indigenous traditions of anticlericalism, philosophical heresy, and anti-absolutism.' Stating boldly that the 'English Enlightenment begins in 1689' Jacob argues that prior to the 1750s the English experience of Freethought was significant in developing the threefold inheritance of the English revolution of the 1640s: materialism, Republicanism and social levelling. The radical coterie, with Toland at its centre, rejected the 'most basic assumptions of Christian metaphysics' and (continues Jacob) 'formulated an entirely new religion of nature and gave it a ritualistic expression within Freemasonry'.[11] One of the themes that unites the atheistic argument with Jacob's interpretation is the <233> emphasis laid upon the covert, clandestine or shadowy nature of the movement. Much has been made of the private, as opposed to the public, nature of radical Freethought. Berman writes of a 'deep, covert atheism', while Jacob lays much of her claim for the influence of the radical Enlightenment on an entire, and clandestine, network of continental Freemasonry. To accept this characterization of the impact and significance of English Freethought as a private moment concerned to alter the philosophical dispositions of shadowy individuals, is to underestimate the intentions and meaning of the authors examined in this book.[12]

Confronted with the rival interpretations of deism as a movement (as Emerson has neatly put it) on the margins of Anglican thought, or as a moment in the development of the cause of unbelief, this book has attempted to suggest a compromise. In setting the significance of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Freethought in continuity with the series of crises of religion that dominated the political culture of the period, the intention is to insist upon the relevance of both the religious and infidel readings. Understanding the attacks upon the role of the Church and the priest between 1660 and 1730 as the culmination of a conflict that initially came to a head in the precise Protestant objections to the popery of Archbishop Laud in the 1630s suggests that Freethought participated in a public debate about true religion rather than the conventicles of private infidelity. In this manner perhaps we can place the radicals of the period in the religious camp, on the margins of theology. In doing so, however, it is important to be precise about the meaning of the category 'religious'. Suggesting that writers like Toland, Blount and Shaftesbury operated within a religious or theological idiom is not to agree with Sullivan's argument that they are merely 'latitudinarian exegetes'. One common theme of both the religious and unbelief arguments plays down the anticlerical content of Freethinking: an element this book deems central to their polemic. Sullivan, in particular, has stressed that Freethought is to be identified with the rationalization of revelation. The reading of John Toland as an apostle of theological liberalism epitomizes this tradition. Berman, on the other hand, has identified Toland (and in particular his Clidophorus) as the cynosure of private atheistical philosophy.[13] It seems worthwhile, briefly, to focus on the case of Toland, as indicative of the debate. Both the religious and the unbelief interpretations treat the arguments of men like Toland as simple propositions: so for Sullivan, Toland is derivative, pedantic and amateur in his biblical criticism. For Berman, his <234> achievement lies in articulating a profound and importantly esoteric materialism. The balance lies between the two. First, it is clear that Toland devoted much of his life's work to publishing his investigations and innovative researches into Scripture. His early work on the canon, his constant rereading of the Old Testament, and finally the fully blown synthesis of Nazarenus suggest indeed that Toland could be considered as a full-time theologian.[14] If Toland is to be considered as a theologian, however, it should be an appreciation that insists that he had contrived an innovative vision of Christianity. Toland's reading of Scripture led him to a conception of Christianity that was distinct from the liberal Christianity of the post-1689 Church in its profound anticlericalism. Toland's criticism was calculated to historicize Christian belief and institutions: in doing so he struck at the very roots of the sacerdotal authority of the priesthood. It was this concern to attack the political role of the Church that places English Freethought out of kilter with both the religious and unbelief interpretations.[15] The case of Toland is again significant. Using the Protestant vernacular of anticlericalism, he undercut the traditional vision of the Church: importantly this campaign was conducted in the public arena rather than in a clandestine manner. Toland self-consciously projected his scriptural researches as public monuments: it was central to his intention of reforming the halo of sanctity of the Church of England into a true civil theology that his alternative readings of biblical traditions were voiced in the public forum. The importance of Toland's polemic was not, then, the development of the arcane esoterism of Pantheisticon, but the unorthodox ecclesiology of Nazarenus.

Having argued that the Republican and deist articulation of a civil theology could be considered as a renovation of the traditional conception of the Church: that is, that the reform was conceived and created from within a religious idiom, it is important also to be aware of the innovative implications of this polemic. Put simply, the driving force of the radical attack was premised upon an analysis of power rather than theology. In attacking the human agency of priestcraft as a corruption of natural religion, writers like Toland and Blount came to a different understanding of religion from the traditional conception. This new step was not so much towards a philosophi <235> cal atheism, as towards the development of an anthropological conception of religion.[16] In investigating the rhetorical question, 'whether the historical part of the Christian religion … be a true History, or a legend or fiction', the radicals came to consider the 'matters of fact' of a variety of other religions. As Charles Blount commented: 'I was bound, to study with an impartial mind, not only all the severall religions; but likewise the controversies amongst them in Diverse Ages, languages and countries.'[17] This process led the Freethinkers to articulate a notion of natural religion as the historical premise for their civil theology. This conception of natural religion was, however, a revision of the natural religion proposed, for example, in the Erasmian syncretism of the Cambridge Platonists. The radical conception went beyond the suggestion that all societies have a common or shared religion, to argue that religion was man-made.

The distinction is subtle but important. For the eirenic position of Cudworth or even Stillingfleet, natural religion was a deontological truth, universally accessible to all humanity irrespective of language or geography. This natural religion was God-given. It had a divine ontology distinct from human convention. The fundamentals of such a natural theology are at the same time, then, both normative and universal. Although, certainly in the case of Blount's reliance upon Herbert of Cherbury's researches into the five common notions of religion, the Freethinkers, particularly in their notion of the historical corruption of a prisca theologia, relied in some sense upon this normative conception of natural religion, they also went beyond it. The anthropological refinement suggested, not that a natural religion that all could perceive without the aid of priest or revelation existed, but that all societies as human communities generated religion for their own purposes. The argument was that while historical research showed that there were structural elements coincident in the religious practice of different places, these cross-cultural similarities were not components of a divinely ordained template. For the radicals, religion was, in this sense, real and part of humanity's existential condition.

As each culture produced its religion in an autochthonous manner, so the standards by which to interpret and assess the value of worship were of human or social origins rather than divine. The radical argument, however, was aware that for the bulk of the population, given the very nature of the <236> religious impulse, all organized religions assumed the garb of divinity. To dismiss these aspirations, or the 'priestly nature' of common humanity, would, as Toland repeatedly acknowledged, have been foolhardy. The radicals therefore tried to reform Christianity rather than overthrow it. It could be argued that in trying to reform Christianity without the central element of priestly sacerdos the Freethinkers abandoned any claims to the titles 'Christian' or 'religious'. This was precisely the argument of their religious contemporaries.[18]

As I have shown, however, the radicals did consistently, and sincerely, support the existence of a national Church: there was a clear role in their thought for some form of established clerical organization. The point was, as Toland complained in 1714, that the Church of England 'is not what we would wish it'. It was thus important to 'endeavour to alter and amend by degrees, as far as is practicable'.[19] Whether this interpretation passes muster, on a transcendent definition of what it is to be Christian or religious, is in terms of the intentions of the radicals a marginal issue. The composition of the history of religion, which substituted a sociological explanation of the function of religion for the soteriological meaning of the clerical idea of the history of Christianity, was a significant moment in the history of early modern ideas. Religion was conventional not deontological: as such, it had a human history. Such theologies and Churches were created by civil society: they could be reformed by the same agency. Traditionally this moment of challenging the hegemony of Christianity has been located in the theorizing of the French High Enlightenment: the philosophes (Voltaire, d'Holbach and Diderot) dethroned God and theology. The intention of this book has been to suggest a contrary picture: the primary essays of desacralization were composed by the Freethinking Republicans, in their indictments of the priestcraft of the Church of England between 1660 and 1730.

[1] E. Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution, (ed.) J. G. A. Pocock (Indianapolis, 1987), 72.

[2] Ibid., 76-7, 80-1.

[3] S. Shapin and S. Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump, 69.

[4] Locke, Essay, IV, xvi.8-11.

[5] Molesworth, Account of Denmark, Sig. B3r.

[6] Dennis, Vice and Luxury, 'A Short Discourse', 106, 108, 112-15, 117, 121-2.

[7] See above, pp. 1-18.

[8] Sullivan, Toland, 35, 55, 67, 213, 218, 227; see also 251, 272-3.

[9] See Emerson, 'Latitudinarianism and the English Deists', esp. 33-43.

[10] See essays by Wootton and Berman in Hunter and Wootton (eds.), Atheism; and Berman, History of Atheism, passim; Berman, 'Deism, Immortality and the Art of Theological Lying'; for Wootton, see 'Lucien Febvre and the Problem of Early Modern Unbelief', Journal of Modern History (1988), and 'Unbelief in Early Modern Europe', History Workshop (1985).

[11] M. C. Jacob, 'Hazard Revisited', 251, 252, 254-5; Jacob, Radical Enlightenment, 22-3, 25, 84.

[12] See ibid., passim; Berman, 'The Art of Theological Lying', 77. It is the overarching argument of Berman's work that atheism was covert: this has led to some rather exceptionable interpretations of certain texts. Much emphasis is laid upon Toland's Clidophorus as pronouncing the hidden method. I hope to show elsewhere that this is a misreading of an epistemological argument for a pragmatic one.

[13] Sullivan, Toland, 41, 47, 120, 251.

[14] See D. Patrick, 'Two English Forerunners of the Tübingen School: Thomas Morgan and John Toland', Theological Review (1877), where the author remarks upon the 'really startling' coincidences between the arguments of Nazarenus and Bauer's 'The Christ Party in the Corinthian Church' in 'Tübingen Zeitschrift (1831). As Patrick points out, Toland was the first to argue that the idea of a canon was merely a list of books rather than a rule of faith. For these reasons he claimed that it was 'by no means irrelevant' to argue for the primacy of English theological interpretation over German (see 593-9).

[15] See M. A. Goldie, 'Ideology', in T. Ball, J. Farr and R. L. Hanson (eds.), Political Innovation and Conceptual Change (Cambridge, 1989), 272-3.

[16] See M. T. Hogden, Early Anthropology (Pennsylvania, 1964); P. Harrison, 'Religion' and the Religions, passim. The latter work, which only came to my attention in the final stages of this book, argues for a similar moment of anthropological awareness. Harrison's enterprise is distinct from mine in his emphasis upon tracing the rise of a natural history of religion as a secular study of the religious. Harrison sees this as driven by a 'new and much vaunted scientific method': my argument would suggest that the new perspective evolved from the polemical dimensions of the radical attack upon priestcraft.

[17] S. Nye, A Discourse Concerning Natural and Revealed Religion (1696), 128; C. Blount, Religio Laici (1683), 3.

[18] The phrase 'priestly nature' is Marx's: describing man's emancipation from the rule of religion he wrote: 'But if Protestantism is not the true solution it was at least the setting out of the problem. It was no longer a case of the layman's struggle against the priest outside himself, but of his struggle against his own priest inside himself, his priestly nature'; see 'A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law' in Marx and Engels, On Religion, 46.

[19] Toland, Collections, II, 222, 246-7.

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