Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 15. Influence of Deism; Bolingbroke; Whiston’s Primitive Christianity Revived

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XI. Berkeley and Contemporary Philosophy

§ 15. Influence of Deism; Bolingbroke; Whiston’s Primitive Christianity Revived

Bolingbroke and Shaftesbury stand in a different relation to the deistical movement from that of the writers already named. Bolingbroke was not a philosopher, though various occasional writings of his were collected and published by Mallet as Philosophical Works (1752). But he illustrates the way in which the fundamental doctrines of deism had permeated the thinking of the men of fashion who played with ideas; and he did much to confirm this attitude and to extend its influence. Voltaire regarded his views as significant, and the superficial optimism of Pope’s clear-cut verse, in his Essay on Man, was directly due to Bolingbroke. As a deist, Shaftesbury may have been coupled with Bolingbroke in the popular mind, and may, also, have lent inspiration to Pope. But he had a far profounder view of the problems of thought, which will receive consideration in connection with the group of writers distinguished as moralists.

The line between deists and churchmen was not always drawn very clearly. There was a good deal of common ground in the assumptions of both parties; and there was, besides, a general ferment of theological thought which disregarded customary boundaries. The latter characteristic is exhibited in the works of William Whiston, mathematician and theologian. They were related to the controversy, but hardly belong to it. Whiston was a man of active and original mind, which led him outside the established church, but in a direction of his own, different from that of Toland or Tindal. He was opposed to rationalism, and a believer in prophecy and miracle; but he came to the conclusion that the Arian heresy represented the true and primitive Christian creed. His views are fully developed in Primitive Christianity Revived (1711–12); but they had previously become notorious, and had led, in 1710, to his being deprived of the Cambridge professorship in which he had succeeded Newton. He founded a society to promote the true faith, as he held it, and composed a revised liturgy for its use; and he wrote on a variety of topics, not all of them theological. His translation of Josephus (1737), however, has proved of more lasting value than his original works. Conyers Middleton, on the other hand, showed how near a clergyman might come to the deistical position. He was immersed in the controversy, and he did something to infuse into it a new historical spirit. The whole tendency of his contributions, however, was critical and destructive. He separated himself from most apologists of the day by denying verbal inspiration; and he examined and rejected the evidence for the ecclesiastical miracles in a manner which admitted of wider application. This argument is contained in his most important theological work, entitled A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers which are supposed to have existed in the Christian Church through several successive Ages (1748). Of the content of religion, Middleton takes little account, except as a bulwark of the social order. His work shows that interest was drifting away from the question of content, from which it had started, towards the question of external evidences which suited so well the genius of the later eighteenth century.