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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.

II. Steele and Addison

§ 21. Addison on Religion

Although Addison varied these dissertations with humorous and satirical essays, the tone of The Spectator became more and more serious as the numbers continued to appear. At the outset, he had declared, in two papers, that his practice was to put his thoughts together without premeditation; but, towards the close, he admitted the need of methodical discourses. He had other things to teach besides the appreciation of literature and art. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, England had exchanged a civilisation of war for a civilisation of peace and needed a religion to match. Martial patriotism, of course, still ran high; but the typical man of culture was a peaceful Londoner, busy with his family and his profession, and the only battles which he fought were those with himself. As has been shown, the votaries of the old régime continued the tradition of atheism. But the middle classes were still devout and only needed to bring into their worship that cult of urbanity at which they aimed in their daily lives. No one could be more susceptible to this tendency than a man of Addison’s character, and, when he set himself to lead a social reform, it was inevitable that he should write on religion. He is no more original on this theme than on others. Humanised Christianity is to be found, in all its sweetness, in Jeremy Taylor and had already proved itself in John Webster’s great book of sufficient power to end the witch persecution. But, though Addison was not the first to proclaim the gospel of peace and goodwill, he was the first who could bring it into the hearts and homes of London citizens. Like the earlier puritans, he held that religion should govern every thought and action, but not to the exclusion of the world. His creed was one of acquiescence and inward piety. Zeal was often a cloak for pride, self-interest or ill-nature; enthusiasm led to bigotry and superstition. A Christian’s devotion should be self-contained, with just enough fervour to prevent religion from becoming a mere philosophy. Addison held, also, to the need of self-examination, but not of despondency or self-contempt. To him, everything was under the direction of a Supreme Being, who, as the Stoics and Juvenal had long before taught, knew better than man what was good for him. The duty of human beings was to be reconciled to their lot, to forget the differences and humiliations of this life in the expectation of eternity, and to seek a sober happiness in a sense of doing right. These lay sermons are accompanied by a few verse paraphrases of the Psalms, rendered with polished simplicity, and are varied by allegories, among which The First Vision of Mirza is justly celebrated for its tranquil, lofty style.