Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 2. Atterbury and his career

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

XV. Divines

§ 2. Atterbury and his career

We may begin the tale with Francis Atterbury. He was born in 1663, and his upbringing, at the quiet Buckinghamshire rectory of Milton Keynes, by a father who had been suspect of disloyalty for his compliance with the commonwealth and, probably, atoned for it by an exaggerated attachment to the restored Stewarts, was in the strictest principles of the establishment in church and state. A Westminster boy and student of Christ Church, he became prominent among the scholars of his day, and his contribution to the Phalaris controversy made him famous. He took holy orders in 1687, and, before long, reached high preferment. Soon after the beginning of the century, he was archdeacon of Totnes and chaplain in ordinary to queen Anne. He became dean of Carlisle (1704), of Christ Church (1712) and of Westminster and bishop of Rochester (1713). Seven years later, he was imprisoned in the Tower, without much evidence against him, for having been concerned in a plot to restore the Stewarts. Banishment followed, and he definitely threw in his lot with the exiled family. He lived till 1732. For fifty years, he was an influential, though not a voluminous, writer. Politically, he was vehement; in religion, he was wholehearted; and the two interests seemed to him inseparable. What weighed most with him in politics, truly says his latest biographer, was “the consequence that the Whigs’ latitudinarianism would have, and as a matter of fact did have, on the Church of England.” He was, indeed, from first to last, a “church of England man,” of the type which the sunshine of queen Anne’s favour ripened. The Hanoverian type of protestantism was uncongenial to him: he distrusted and feared its rationalising influence. In his view, as he said in the dedication of his sermons to Trelawny (famous as one of the seven bishops), “the Fears of Popery were scarce remov’d, when Heresy began to diffuse its Venom.” Thus, he came to the position which Addison expressed in an epigram, but which, perhaps, was not so inconsistent as it seemed—“that the Church of England will always be in danger till it has a Popish king for its defender.”

If his contribution to the Phalaris controversy best exhibits his wit, and his political writing his trenchant diction, his sermons may, perhaps, be regarded as his permanent contributions to English literature. There is no conspicuous merit in their style or in their argument; but they are lucid, argumentative and, on occasion, touched by real feeling. Perhaps, his sincerity never appeared to more advantage than in the quiet pathos of his Discourse on the death of the Lady Cutts (1698), the opening passage of which gave at least a hint to Sterne for a very famous sermon.