Religion in eighteenth-century England

‘This is the country of sects. An Englishman, being free, may take to Heaven whichever path appeals to him’. Thus Voltaire begins his fifth letter, and continues his description of England’s religious landscape. Having devoted his first four letters to the Quakers, in his next three, Voltaire turns his attention to the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Antitrinitarians.

The Church of England was not a dissenting sect, but, as it remains today, the dominant Christian sect in England and the official state church, with the monarch serving as its head. It was famously born out of Henry VIII’s conflict with the Vatican when Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an annulment to his marriage. After its foundation in 1534 it was alternately suppressed and re-established as the Crown changed heads between Protestant and Catholic monarchs. Under Elizabeth I, a settlement was reached which established the relationship of the Church to the State and determined the nature of its organisation and worship. Although it was a protestant church that rejected the authority of Rome, the Church of England retained and/or modified a number of doctrines and practices from the Roman Catholic Church, including the sacraments of Communion and Baptism.

The Presbyterian Church originated in Scotland in the mid-sixteenth century, when it was founded by Scottish Calvinists. Calvinism – a protestant doctrine originating in Geneva in the mid-1500s – broke with the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church in important ways, and is noted for its relative austerity, as well as the notion of predestination, according to which each person’s fate after life is predetermined, meaning only an ‘elect’ group will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. John Knox, a Scottish theologian who had studied under Calvin, helped to establish Presbyterianism as the official Church, or ‘Kirk’, of Scotland in 1560-61. The Presbyterian Kirk and the Church of England would clash frequently over the course of the following century.

The two Churches fundamentally disagreed on the question of how a Church should be organised, and who should lead it. Presbyterian Church governance was much more horizontal than the Church of England’s pyramidal hierarchy, headed by bishops. Believing authority to come from the bottom up rather than the top down, the only ranks it recognised were those of ministers and lay elders, who held equivalent power to one another. Local congregations were led by councils of these elders, which were in turn subject to the authority of provincial presbyteries, all of which were subordinate to a General Assembly of the Church.

This conflict around Church governance, which dated back to the Tudor period and had an important influence on the events of the Civil Wars and Restoration, had come to the fore again only a few years before Voltaire’s arrival in England. Between 1716 and 1719, a controversy simmered between the two factions, focusing the views of the Bishop of Bangor, Benjamin Hoadly. In 1717 Hoadly published a sermon titled ‘The Nature of the Kingdom of Christ’, in which he expounded the Puritan or Presbyterian view that the Bible does not prescribe any Church government, and rejected the divine right theory that underpinned the Church of England’s episcopacy. Each of these positions was tied to a political faction, with the Tories, including Voltaire’s friend Lord Bolingbroke, backing the Anglican approach to church governance, and the Whigs, the party that formed King George I’s ministry at the time, favouring the Presbyterian one.

While the prominence of the Quakers early on in the Lettres might come as a surprise, the attention Voltaire gives to the Anglicans and Presbyterians is predictable: they were the two major religious sects in Britain at the time Voltaire was writing, and tied in each case to powerful political interests. The same cannot be said for the antitrinitarians (or Unitarians), the subject of Letter VII. They were a markedly smaller grouping than any of those already described in the Lettres. The distinguishing feature of antitrinitarian doctrine was the rejection of the concept of the Holy Trinity: that God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit were all divine, and simultaneously one and three entities.

A broadsheet catalogue of dissenters in 1647 (British Museum)

It should be noted that the three groups Voltaire names – ‘the Socinians, or Arians, or Antitrinitarians’ – are not themselves one. Socinians were followers of the sixteenth-century Italian theologian Faustus Socinus, who argued that Jesus was a human being chosen to do God’s work, and further that the Bible must be interpreted in the light of reason and personal judgment. The term Arian dates to the fourth century AD and the Alexandrian priest Arius, who said that Christ was a divine creation, but less divine than God the Father – a doctrine that was rejected at the Council of Nicaea of 325, at which much of fundamental Church dogma was established. ‘Antitrinitarian’ is a catch-all term to refer to any doctrine that rejects the divine unity of the three elements of the Trinity.

Voltaire’s choice of which sects to describe in these letters, as well as the way he talks about them when he does, illustrate a few things about Voltaire’s own attitudes towards organised religion. From the beginning to the end of his long career, Voltaire showed a marked hostility to the established authorities of the Catholic Church in France.

The British crown’s relationship to the Church of England, wherein the Church is effectively subordinate to the state, appeals to Voltaire’s Erastianism – the belief that the State should have control or authority over the Church in ecclesiastical matters. For Voltaire, the Catholic Church’s independence from the French Crown gave it too much power in French society.

Likewise Voltaire’s passage about the London Exchange’s civilised jumble of people of different faiths points to Voltaire’s belief that a tolerant pluralism in matters of religion is necessary for a free and harmonious society. ‘Were there but one religion in England,’ he writes, ‘despotism would threaten; were there two, one would see bloody civil war; but in fact there are dozens, and they live happily in peace’. This happy harmony, underpinned by post-Civil-War sectarian pluralism (though Voltaire certainly paints it more rosily than it was), formed a major component of England’s appeal for Voltaire. He wanted to publish there a polished version of his poem La Ligue which he would in 1728 under the new title La Henriade. This elogious tribute to the French Protestant king Henri IV had been subject to censorship a few years earlier due to its Protestant flavour.

For more on eighteenth-century religion:

Voltaire Foundation

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