Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 9. Butler, Wilson and Waterland: A Review of the Doctrine of the Eucharist

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

XV. Divines

§ 9. Butler, Wilson and Waterland: A Review of the Doctrine of the Eucharist

But books and pamphlets such as Sherlock’s are at least on the fringe of that sad class of writings which Lamb stigmatised as biblia abiblia. We rise far above it when we come to the work of men so different as bishop Wilson, bishop Butler and Daniel Waterland. The three men were profoundly different. Wilson, in much of his thought and life, was a survival of the early seventeenth century and, indeed, of far earlier times. Waterland, in many respects, was typical of the early eighteenth century. Butler had affinities with the nineteenth—with Newman, for example, and Gladstone. The life of Wilson was uneventful. He took his degree from Trinity college, Dublin, and was ordained in the church of Ireland, served a Lancashire curacy, became chaplain to the earl of Derby and preceptor to his son at the salary of thirty pounds a year, to which was added the mastership of the Lathom almshouse, twenty pounds more—whereupon he had “an income far beyond his expectations, far beyond his wishes, except as it increased his ability to do good”—and, in 1697, was appointed by his patron to the bishopric of Sodor and Man, in spite of his refusal. At Bishop’s court, Kirk Michael, he lived, for nearly sixty years, the life of a primitive saint, devoted entirely to works of piety, the father of his people, not neglecting to punish as well as to protect. His collected works were not published till 1781; but many of them had long achieved a remarkable popularity. Of the eight volumes, four contain sermons, of a directness of appeal and simplicity of language unusual for the time. The English is forcible and unaffected; there are no pedantic expressions, or classical phrases, or lengthy words. Everyone could understand what Wilson said, and everyone might profit by it. He wrote, not to astonish, but to convince; yet the simplicity of his manner avoids the pit of commonplace into which such writers as Tillotson not rarely fall. No one could call the good bishop a great writer; but no one could call him a poor one. In his Maxims and his Parochialia, he shows a knowledge of human nature not very common among clergymen; while his Sacra Privata, which explains (to an intelligent reader) how this knowledge was obtained, places him with bishop Andrewes among the masters of English devotional literature.

Very different is the ponderous solidity of Daniel Waterland. He was a controversialist, a scholar and an archdeacon—callings which tend to dryness and pomposity and seldom encourage literary excellence. Master of Magdalene college, Cambridge, and vice-chancellor, he was recommended, says his biographer, “to the favour of the government” by his “wise and moderate sentiments,” but he did not attain to any great position in the church. He preferred, it may well be, to remain an adept in university business and a wielder of the cudgel against the heretics of his age, among whom several, such as Biddle, Firmin and Gilbert Clerke (to repeat the phrase used by bishop van Mildert nearly a century ago) “now scarcely retain a place in our recollection.” Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712), amid all the heavy literature which it evoked, had no more successful rival than Waterland’s Vindication of Christ’s Divinity, which is almost worthy to be placed beside the work of bishop Bull; and this was but one of the writings of the Cambridge scholar which dealt with the subject. Waterland had long given attention to the claims of semi-Arians to hold office in the church of England, and, in a famous disputation, when he “kept a Divinity Act for his Bachelor of Divinity,” had had for his opponent (who was, of course, merely assuming the post of advocatus arianismi) Thomas Sherlock,

  • “one of the greatest ornaments of the Church, and finest writers of the age, who gave full play to his abilities, and called forth,” says a contemporary, “all that strength of reason of which he was the master.”
  • Here, in spite of a certain favour which royalty was inclined to bestow upon Arianism, Waterland was safe from censure by great personages of the day. His moderation appears less favourably in his abstention from action throughout the long period during which Bentley was unjustly suspended. His learning, on the other hand, in his treatise on the Athanasian creed, a vindication of that much-contested symbol, which is even now not out of date, appears in its most favourable aspect, and the book deserved the eulogy of archbishop Dawes of York, a prelate who did not fear, even when suspected of Jacobitism, to express his opinions:
  • “With great pleasure I read it,” wrote the primate of England, “both on account of the subject matter of it, and the manner in which you have treated it; the one, of the greatest importance to the Christian faith; the other, a pattern to all writers of controversy in the great points of religion.”
  • In 1727, he became canon of Windsor; in 1730, vicar of Twickenham and archdeacon of Middlesex; and he enjoyed “his retirement at Twickenham,” his visits to Cambridge and the honour of being prolocutor of the lower house of the convocation of Canterbury, till his death in 1740, when an opponent offered the curious testimony to his merits that
  • notwithstanding his being a contender for the Trinity yet he was a benevolent man, an upright Christian and a beautiful writer; exclusive of his zeal for the Trinity, he was in everything else an excellent clergyman and an admirable scholar.
  • But the most famous of his writings is, undoubtedly, his Review of the Doctrine of the Eucharist, which was for long regarded as the classic work of anglican theology on its subject. It is only necessary to say of the doctrine, as stated by Waterland, that it does not proceed beyond the qualified statement of the judicious Hooker and would not have satisfied Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, or Cosin—not to mention so typical an anglican as George Herbert—among his predecessors; still less does it rise to the views which found expression in the notable work of John Johnson, The Unbloody Sacrifice. In his own words, Waterland advocates not a sacrificial, but a federal, view of the Eucharist. As a writer, he is lucid without being commonplace and learned without being pedantic. His prose is better than Tillotson’s, easier than Butler’s; but no one would quote it for its excellence, as, in his day, men quoted the archbishop, or remember it for its massive power, as Butler must always be remembered.