The Moral And Religious Condition Of England On The Eve Of The Great Revival

The Moral And Religious Condition Of England On The Eve Of The Great Revival

If we add the names of Bishop Berkeley and some others to the list of apologists contained in the preceding section, a majority of whom belonged to the Established Church, we shall see that the English Church in the first half of the eighteenth century, could claim no little merit on the score of intellectual strength and activity. Had it been equally eminent in respect of practical religion, it might well be proud of its record in that era. But unhappily, the reverse was the case. It was a time of unusual spiritual barrenness. The Church failed of the true aggressive impulse and power against ungodliness. Some of the bishops who shone as great lights in the controversial field did very little to promote the interests of practical religion within the sphere of their superintendence. According to Burnet, many of those who aspired to the ministry were ignorant of the first principles of evangelical truth. "The much greater part," he writes, "of those who come to be ordained are ignorant to a degree not to be apprehended by those who are not obliged to know it. The easiest part of knowledge is that to which they are the greatest strangers; I mean the plainest parts of the Scriptures. They can give no account, or at least a very imperfect one, of the contents of the Gospels, or of the catechism itself." The style of preaching most in vogue was singularly inadequate to lay hold upon heart and conscience with transforming effect. Reaction against the fervors of the commonwealth era had, begotten a horror of anything approaching to enthusiasm. "Appeals both to authority and to the stronger passions gradually ceased. The more doctrinal aspects of religion were softened or suffered silently to recede, and, before the eighteenth century had much advanced, sermons had generally become mere moral essays, characterized chiefly by cold good sense, and appealing almost exclusively to prudential motives." 1 Lecky, History of England in the Eighteenth Century, i. 92. In 1724 Bishop Gibson thought it necessary to remind his clergy of their "being Christian preachers and not mere preachers of morality," and in 1735 Hearne complained that "the misfortune now-a-days is that the sermons are more like essays than sermons, as having little of Scripture and divinity in them." An excessive utilitarianism pervaded all kinds of religious writing. Happiness was glorified in sermons, essays, and theological treatises, as the goal of ambition and expectation, "our being's end and aim." With a part of the clergy there was an undisguised dislike and repudiation of some of the cardinal features of evangelical Protestantism. "Certain doctrines taught in common by the reformers and later divines in the English Church were caricatured and denounced, especially the doctrine of justification by faith, which was represented as a doctrine against good works. Miracles were appealed to as the seals of Christianity in the first century; but the work of the Holy Spirit on the souls of men in the eighteenth was pronounced an idle dream." 1 Stoughton, History of Religion in England, Georgian era, pp. 44, 45.

The age, in general, as if taking its impress from the prosaic empirical philosophy which was dominant, was peculiarly lacking in warmth of feeling and in appreciation for the mystical side of man and the universe. "Never," says James Hamilton, "has century risen on England so void of soul and faith as that which opened with Queen Anne, and which found its misty noon beneath the second George." These characteristics were revealed in the poet as well as in the preacher. Pope was the great luminary in the domain of the muses. Poetry was distinguished by considerable liveliness of fancy, by nicety of versification, and by polish of expression, but was greatly lacking in emotional depth and spiritual suggestiveness.

The peculiar bias of the age may not have been without a certain advantage. The aversion to enthusiasm tended, in some measure, to place a check upon superstition. A special manifestation of this tendency may perhaps be discerned in the relaxation, in 1736, of the law against witchcraft. Toleration also stood a better chance to get a foothold at such a time, other things being equal, than in an age of intense unrelaxed zeal. There was, it is true, a plenty of intolerant outbursts, yet the cause of toleration, especially after the reign of Anne, was gaining ground.

On the other hand, there were disadvantages of a very serious nature. The absence in the Church and in the spirit of the age of sanctified zeal and spiritual depth left a considerable fraction of the nation an easy prey to a flippant and scornful infidelity. "It has come," said Bishop Butler, "I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons that Christianity is not so much as a subject for inquiry, but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious." Archbishop Seeker wrote to the same effect: "In this we cannot be mistaken, that an open and professed disregard of religion is become, through a variety of unhappy causes, the distinguishing character of the present age. "

In morals the lapse was even more conspicuous. The first half of the eighteenth century added another to the list of demonstrations that good moralizing is far from necessarily implying good morals. In the lack of an adequate motive power, immorality was feebly withstood, and it went on with a widening, deepening current till near the middle of the century. Even such a counter influence as the sanctified learning and wit of the great essayists, like Addison and Steele, seems to have effected little toward checking the adverse drift. The clergy as a body were not notoriously corrupt, bat instances of scandal were uncomfortably frequent, and non-residence and pluralities were abuses too common to be generally regarded as scandalous. In fashionable and political life there was no small degree of unblushing baseness. The court of the first two Georges was scarcely cleaner than that of Charles II. Richard Walpole, who had a chief control of the administration for a long period, was a statesman of the expediency stripe, whose great object was to keep things quiet by any and every means, who encouraged venality on all sides, and who was withal an adept in foul language, and a devotee of the bottle, the table, and the chase. Bolingbroke, the brilliant orator, filled up his earlier years with licentious excess, and his later with political intrigue,--a man who could loudly champion the cause of the High Church party, and stigmatize freethinkers as pests of society, while yet he was himself one of the moat radical and cold-blooded among the free-thinkers of his age. Chesterfield, the ornament of polite society, in his correspondence with his son, made elaborate endeavors to convince him that polish is of more importance than principle, and remorselessly filled out the curriculum of a genteel education by instructing him in the arts of seduction. Such was the example of some of the leaders. Many were the apt pupils. Though moderation was the watchword in religion, moderation in living was little regarded. Gambling and extravagance were rife. A large proportion of families were disposed to overstep the limits of their incomes. The prisons were crowded with insolvent debtors. With this fashionable extravagance was joined, at least in the early Georgian era, a peculiar vein of coarseness. Walter Scott, in the time of George III., wrote: "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 of composition; for the taint of Charles II.'s reign continued to infect society until the present reign, when, if not more moral, we are at least more decent." Commerce, which has its diabolical phases in every age, included in this period some items of peculiar enormity. Up to the middle of the century a flourishing slave-trade went on, with scarcely an opposing voice to challenge the iniquity. "It has been computed that between 1680 and 1700 the English tore from Africa about 300,000 Negroes, or about 15,000 every year. In a discussion upon the methods of making the trade more effectual, which took place in the English Parliament in 1750, it was shown that 46,000 Negroes were at this time annually sold to the English colonies alone." 1 Lecky, ii. 13, 14.

As respects the mass of the people, they were left to a lamentable degree under the dominion of ignorance and brutality. "The increase of population which followed on the growth of towns and the development of commerce had been met by no effort for their religious or educational improvement. Not a new pariah had been created. Hardly a single new church had been built." Green, History of the English People, iv. 121. Drunkenness in particular was a source of misery and degradation. A demand for the stronger liquors increased in geometrical ratio. While statistics report British spirits distilled in 1684 at 527,000 gallons, they report for 1735 no less than 5,394,000 gallons. "Physicians declared that in excessive gin-drinking a new and terrible source of mortality had been opened for the poor. The grand jury of Middlesex declared that much the greater part of the poverty, the murders, the robberies of London, might be traced to this single cause. Retailers of gin were accustomed to hang out painted boards announcing that their customers could be made drunk for a penny, and dead drunk for two pence, and should have straw for nothing." 2 Lecky, i. 519.

Evidently there was a profound demand for a new moral and spiritual factor in the Church and society of England. The fullness of time had come for the Great Revival. That revival, if it did not reform all that needed to be reformed, cast nevertheless a new leaven into Church and society, checked an on-going declension, and emancipated a great multitude from a degrading enslavement to vice.