Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 1. General character of the English Theological Literature of the Period; Its abhorrence of Enthusiasm; Earlier Writers distinguished by power or outspokenness: Samuel Johnson

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XV. Divines

§ 1. General character of the English Theological Literature of the Period; Its abhorrence of Enthusiasm; Earlier Writers distinguished by power or outspokenness: Samuel Johnson

WITH the beginning of the eighteenth century, we reach a period in English theological literature of which the character is not less definite because there were individual writers who struggled against it. The matter and the style alike were placid and unemotional, rational rather than learned, tending much more to the commonplace than to the pedantic, and, above all, abhorrent of that dangerous word, and thing, enthusiasm. Johnson’s definition gives a significant clue to the religious literature in which his contemporaries had been educated. Enthusiasm, in his Dictionary, is (from Locke) “a vain belief of private revelation, a vain confidence of divine favour,” to which even the nonconformists, if one may judge by the subjects of their books, had, in the early eighteenth century, abandoned all special claim; and, also, it implied, in Johnson’s own view, “heat of imagination” and “violence of passion.” From this, the main current of theological writing, for more than fifty years, ran conspicuously away. The mystics, such as William Law, as has been shown in an earlier chapter, were strange exceptions, rari nantes in gurgite vasto of this decorous self-restraint or complacency. It was not till count Zinzendorf and the Moravians completed the impression which A Serious Call had made on the heart of John Wesley that the literature of religion received a new impetus and inspiration; and the old school fought long and died hard. It was not till the word enthusiasm could be used in their condign praise that English theologians began to feel again something of the fire and poetry of their subject, and, once more, to scale its heights and sound its depths. And yet, as we say this, we are confronted by evident exceptions. No one can deny the power of Butler’s writing, whatever it may be the fashion to assert as to the depth of his thought; and, while there was fire enough in Atterbury, in Wilson there was certainly the delicate aroma of that intimate sincerity which has in all literature an irresistible charm. Some earlier writers may be left aside, such as Richard Cumberland, who, though a bishop, was rather a philosopher than a theologian, and Samuel Johnson, the Ben Jochanan of Dryden, whose divinity was not more than an excrescence on his fame as a whig pamphleteer who suffered excessively for his opinions. His manner of writing was unquestionably savage. Julian the Apostate: Being a Short Account of his Life; the sense of the Primitive Christians about his Succession; and their Behaviour towards him. Together with a comparison of Popery and Paganism (1682), is more vehement and obnoxious than most of those bitter attacks on James duke of York with which the press groaned during the last years of Charles II; yet its author hardly deserved degradation from the priesthood, the pillory and whipping from Newgate to Tyburn. As the chaplain of Lord William Russell, Johnson might be expected to speak boldly: and his writing was full of sound and fury, as a characteristic sentence—a solitary one, be it observed—from his Reflections on the History of Passive Obedience may show.

  • I have reason to enter a just Complaint against the pretended Church-of-England Men of the two last Reigns, who not only left me the grinning Honour of maintaining the establish’d Doctrine of the Church all alone, (which I kept alive, till it pleased God to make it a means of our Deliverance, with the perpetual hazard of my own life for many years, and with suffering Torments and Indignitys worse than Death) but also beside this, were very zealous in running me down, and very officious in degrading me, as an Apostate from the Church of England for this very Service: While at the same time, they themselves were making their Court with their own Renegado Doctrine of Passive Obedience; and wearing out all Pulpits with it, as if it had been, not only the First and Great Commandment, but the Second too; and cramming it down the reluctant throats of dying Patriots, as the Terms of their Salvation.