The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 3. The Literature of Dissent from Defoe to Watts
Out of this limited conception and attitude of mere political opportunism, dissent was rudely awakened by a layman. From the point of view of consistency and principle—of logic and morality—Defoe condemned the practice of occasional conformity. His completely unanswerable Inquiry into the occasional Conformity of Dissenters in Cases of Preferment (1697) drew from John Howe a deplorably ill-tempered and futile reply, Some Considerations of a Preface to an Inquiry (1701). With Defoe’s rejoinder to this in the same year, A Letter to Mr. Howe by way of Reply, the controversy temporarily closed. But, unintentionally, Defoe had delivered his friends into the hands of the enemy. The tory reactionaries of Anne’s reign seized with avidity the weapon he had forged, and, coupling the subject of dissenting academies with the subject of occasional conformity, delivered a furious onslaught on the whole front of dissent. The scurrilous and rabid attack on dissent generally, and on dissenting academies in particular, which was opened by Sacheverell and Samuel Wesley, was met, on the one hand, by Defoe’s Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702) and, on the other hand, by Samuel Palmer’s Vindication (1705). But, neither matchless sarcasm nor sober logic could avail. The theological torrent became a popular tory avalanche. The publication of Calamy’s Abridgment of the Life of Baxter (1702) only added fuel to the fire. It was answered by Olyffe, and, again, by Hoadly (in The Reasonableness of Conformity, 1703), to whom Calamy replied in his Defence of Moderate Nonconformity (1703). Other tracts on both sides followed; but the mere literary strife was quickly swallowed up in the popular agitation about Sacheverell’s case.
The Hanoverian succession broke the storm; and, with the reversal of the Schism act and the Occasional Conformity act, the religious existence and civil freedom of dissent were safe. But the paltering and merely opportunist attitude of the leaders of the free churches was responsible for the failure to secure the repeal of the Test and Corporation acts. Accordingly, for the remainder of our period, dissent went halting, content with the regium donum and with a religious tolerance tempered by partial civil disability. Samuel Chandler’s History of Persecution (1736) and The Case of Subscription (1748) are fairly typical of this attitude. Had it not been for the genius of Watts and Towgood, eighteenth century dissent would appear to have exhausted its zeal for freedom of conscience in the mere selfish assertion of its own right to existence; for, so far as the purely political battle for freedom is concerned, it did not achieve any further triumph until the dawn of the nineteenth century. But, in 1731, a completely new turn was given to the old controversy by Isaac Watts’s Humble attempt towards the Revival of Practical Religion among Christians. In this work, and in his later Essay on Civil Power in Things Sacred, Watts defended the general position of dissenters by arguing on lofty grounds against any civil establishment of a national church. While thus, in one sense, reverting to the standpoint of seventeenth century philosophy, Watts, in another sense, opens a new era in these publications. They foreshadow the claim of dissent for the achievement of equality by the way of disestablishment. The cause of a national church—of the connection between the episcopal church and the English state—was taken up by William Warburton in his Alliance between Church and State (1736), written from the point of view of the state rather than of the church, and presenting, surely, the most utilitarian theory of the English church ever produced by a representative churchman.