Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 11. Attacks and Criticisms

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

XIII. Historians

§ 11. Attacks and Criticisms

It will be most convenient to enumerate at once the chief attacks to which The Decline and Fall gave rise, without separating the earlier from the later. In a scornful review of antagonists, victory over whom he professes to regard as a sufficient humiliation, and whose “rewards in this world” he proceeds to recite, Gibbon declares that “the earliest of them was, in this respect, neglected.” Although this was not strictly true, it suggests a just estimate of James Chelsum’s Remarks on the Two Last Chapters of Mr. Gibbon’s History (1776), a pamphlet not discourteous in tone, but devoid of force. Gibbon was probably less touched by this tract and by the sermons of Thomas Randolph, another Oxford divine, directed against his fifteenth chapter, than by An Apology for Christianity in a Series of Letters to Edward Gibbon (1776), by Richard Watson, regius professor of divinity at Cambridge, afterwards bishop of Llandaff, the polished character of whose style he feels himself bound to acknowledge. What is even more notable in Watson’s Apology (which was afterwards reprinted with a companion Apology for the Bible, in answer to Thomas Paine), is the tolerance of tone observable in the general conduct of his argument, as well as in such a passage as that acknowledging Voltaire’s services to Christianity in the repression of bigotry. The criticism of Gibbon’s use of insinuation is telling, and in the last letter the appeal, not to Gibbon, but to that section of the public which, so to speak, was on the look-out for religious difficulties obstructing the acceptance of the Christian faith—is both skilful and impressive. Passing by Letters on the Prevalence of Christianity before its Civil establishment by East Apthorpe (on whom archbishop Cornwallis promptly bestowed a city living), and Smyth Loftus’s Reply to the Reasonings of Mr. Gibbon (whose mention of “a Theological answer written by a mere Irish parson” seems to apply to this effort), both printed in 1778, we come to a publication of the same year, which at last moved Gibbon to break the silence hitherto opposed by him to the assailants of his first volume, or, rather, of the portion of it which had treated of the progress of early Christianity. Henry Edwards Davis, a young Oxonian, in his Examination of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of Mr. Gibbon’s History etc. (1778), set about his task in the ardent spirit of a reviewer fresh to the warpath, and, after attempting to convict the author of The Decline and Fall of misrepresentation (including misquotation) of a number of—mainly Latin—writers, launched forth into the still more nebulous sphere of charges of plagiarism from Middleton, Barbeyrac, Dodwell and others—curiously enough tracing only a single passage to Tillemont as its source. Davis’s Examination is of the sort which small critics have at all times applied to writers whether great or small, and, in this as in other instances, it succeeded in stinging. In A Vindication of some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters (1779), after declaring that Davis’s accusations, as touching the historian’s honour, had extorted from him a notice which he had refused to more honourable foes, he defended himself, with indisputable and, in point of fact, undisputed success, against the indictment preferred against him, and took advantage of the occasion to reply, without losing his temper, to “the theological champions who have signalized their ardour to break a lance against the shield of a Pagan adversary.” The defence served its purpose, and he did not find any necessity for renewing it. As his great work progressed, a second series of censors took up their parable against it. In 1781, Henry Taylor, a divine of the “intellectual” school, in his Thoughts on the Nature of the Grand Apostacy and Observations on Gibbon’s still-vext fifteenth chapter, sought, while deprecating the historian’s sneers, to show that he aimed not at the essence, but only at the particulars of his subject; and Joseph Milner, a mystically disposed evangelical who wrote ecclesiastical history with the intent of illustrating the display of Christian virtues, and whom Gibbon set down as a fool, published his Gibbon’s Account of Christianity considered etc. In the following year, John Priestley, in the second volume of his History of the Corruptions of Christianity joined issue with Gibbon, whom he charged with representing the immediate causes of the spread of the Christian religion as having been themselves effects. In 1784, Joseph White, in the third of a set of Bampton lectures delivered at Oxford, returned to the subject of Gibbon’s “five causes,” which the critic conceived to be “in reality unconnected with any divine interposition”; in the same year, a special point—intended, of course, as a test-point—concerning Gibbon’s trustworthiness was raised by George Travis, archdeacon of Chester, in his Letters to Edward Gibbon in defence of the disputed verse (St. John’s First Epistle, chap. V, V. 7) introducing the three heavenly witnesses. The attack drew down upon its unfortunate author a series of replies by Richard Porson, which have been classed with the controversial criticism of Bentley; but, although satisfactorily vindicated as to the main issue of the dispute, Gibbon cannot have regarded his champion’s intervention with feelings of unmixed gratitude. Travis’s arguments were confounded; but Porson’s criticism of the writer whom Travis had attacked has survived:

  • I confess I see nothing wrong in Mr. Gibbon’s attack upon Christianity. It proceeded, I doubt not, from the purest and most virtuous motives. We can only blame him for carrying on the attack in an insidious manner, and with imperfect weapons,
  • and there follows a literary judgment of the great historian’s style—and, incidentally, of his ethics—to which further reference must be made below, and which, while full of wit, is, in some respects, not more witty than true. A more formidable censor than archdeacon Travis appeared, in 1782, in the person of Lord Hailes (Sir David Dalrymple), of whose own contributions to historical literature some mention was made in the previous chapter of this work. Much of the logic of An Inquiry into the Secondary Causes which Mr. Gibbon has assigned for the Rapid Growth of Christianity (1778)—which is at once straightforward in form and temperate in tone—is irrefutable; and Gibbon was sagacious enough to allow that, possibly, some flaws were discovered in his work by his legal critic, to whose accuracy as a historian he goes out of his way to pay a compliment. Finally, after, in a university sermon at Cambridge (1790), Thomas Edwards had referred, as to a formidable enemy, to a writer whose work “can perish only with the language itself,” John Whitaker, of whose History of Manchester notice will be taken below, and who seems to have been actuated by recent private pique, published, in 1791, a series of criticisms begun by him in The English Review, in October, 1788, under the title Gibbon’s History etc., in Vols. IV. V. and VI. reviewed. In this tractate, Gibbon’s supposed lack of veracity is traced back to the lack of probity stated to be shown by him already in the earlier portions of his work; and his absorption of other writers’ materials is held up to blame together with the frequent inelegance of his style. The general method of Whitaker’s attack can only be described by the word “nagging”; at the close, he gathers up the innumerable charges into a grand denunciation of the historian as another Miltonic Belial, imposing but hollow, pleasing to the outward sense but incapable of high thoughts.