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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

§ 16. Opponents of the Deists: William Warburton

Among the opponents of the deists, the two greatest were Samuel Clarke and Joseph Butler. Their contributions to the thought of the period are reserved for discussion in the last section of this chapter. Of the others, some have been already referred to; most do not call for more than bibliographical mention; but one name figures so largely in the controversy as to require further notice. By his learning, but, still more, by his mental vigour and resource, William Warburton made an impression upon his time which is not yet forgotten. He was born in 1698 and died in 1779. Bred in a solicitor’s office, he took orders without having passed through a university, and, after other preferments, became bishop of Gloucester in 1759. He was ready for almost any kind of literary work—controversy preferred. He wrote The Alliance between Church and State (1736); defended the orthodoxy of Pope’s Essay on Man; edited Shakespeare (1747); published a hostile View of Lord Bolingbroke’s Philosophy (1754), and had the courage to issue Remarks on Hume’s Natural History of Religion (1757). His most famous work was The Divine Legation of Moses demonstrated on the Principles of a Religious Deist (1737–41). This vast work, which was never completed, was designed to meet a deistical objection to the Old Testament scriptures—that the books of Moses contain no reference to the doctrine of a future life. An objection of this sort does not seem to have been prominent in the writings of the greater deists; but it suited Warburton’s purpose and enabled him to propound an ingenious paradox. He agrees that morality needs the support of a belief in a future life of rewards and punishments; he agrees that Moses did not appeal to any such belief or teach any such doctrine, although it was common among ancient authors of other countries. But just this, he argues, proves the divine legation of the lawgiver. The laws of nature are an insufficient support for morality; without the belief in a future life, government cannot be maintained—except by miracle. The absence of the belief among the Jews is, therefore, taken as a proof that they were under the immediate providence of God, working by means outside natural law. The defence of this paradoxical theory gave Warburton ample scope for displaying his learning and his controversial talent on a great variety of topics, the relevance of which is not always apparent. Of his learning, Bentley said that he had a “monstrous appetite and bad digestion.” His ability to get up a case and score a point has been traced to his legal training; a critic of his own day attributed to the same source some of the coarser and more violent features of his controversial method. Of insight into history, philosophy or religion, he does not seem to have had any conspicuous share.