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

XV. Divines

§ 11. Herring and Secker

The work of Butler is the high-water mark of English theology in the middle of the eighteenth century. The descent from it is almost abrupt. Two names only remain to be specially noticed before we pass to a new period—those of Thomas Herring and Thomas Secker, both archbishops of Canterbury, who were born in the same year 1693, and died, the former in 1757, the latter in 1768. Archbishop Herring was a complete contrast to the leading prelates of his day. His sermons at Lincoln’s inn gave him fame, and he passed, in a career of unemotional benevolence, from the deanery of Rochester to the sees of Bangor, York and Canterbury. He did not contend with deists or Arians, and the Athanasian controversy had for him no charms. He was prepared to revise the Prayer-Book and the Articles, and to exchange pulpits with dissenters. He befriended the Jews, and Hume tells us, in his Essays, that the archbishop praised him for his History. He raised a large sum for the government during the ’45. But his literary work, save his rather pleasing letters, is uninteresting and ineffective. His successor at York and Canterbury, Matthew Skelton, was little thought of and soon forgotten. But with Thomas Secker, bishop in turn of Bristol and of Oxford, and archbishop of Canterbury for ten years, from 1758, we reach a higher grade. Like Butler, with whom he had been at school, and like not a few in the list of English primates, he was not till manhood converted to the English church, and, to the delicate taste of Horace Walpole, he seemed to retain to the last something of the “tone of fanaticism” which had belonged to his early training. Yet the beginning of methodism filled him with alarm: whatever he may have shown of “fanaticism,” he was certainly no “enthusiast.” On his sermons, which, with his Lectures on the Church Catechism, were his chief work, the opinion of his contemporaries, for once, very fairly represents what would be thought to-day. Hurd, the favourite bishop of George III, said that they had “a certain conciliatory calmness, propriety, and decency of language, with no extraordinary reach of thought, vigour of sentiment, or beauty of expression.” And Christopher Pitt, when, in The Art of Preaching, he advises young preachers, describes the impression made by the archbishop, in words that no doubt sum up his merits:

  • Speak, look, and move with dignity and ease
  • Like mitred Secker, you ’ll be sure to please.
  • Secker, however, did not wear a mitre—he only wore a wig, and the literary style in which he excelled has passed away with his headgear. It was the methodist movement which swept away what seemed to it to be solemn trifling. From the middle of the eighteenth century, the new influence which passed over English religion had its effect, gradual and much contested, upon English literature also. The age of Wesley and Whitefield introduced what may be called a new romanticism in religion, just as the Lake school, half a century later, may be said to have destroyed the classic tradition of the older poetry. A word is needed as to the historical setting of this new departure in English theology.