Reformation without end

Religion, Politics and the Past in Post-Revolutionary England

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Robert G. Ingram
  • Manchester, England: 
    Manchester University Press
    , April
     2018.
     384 pages.
     $110.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781526126948.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this remarkable book, Robert G. Ingram immerses the reader in the heated religious controversies that fueled the print culture of 18th-century England. Reformation without end: Religion and the Past in Post-Revolutionary England is divided into four parts, each of which explores a leading Anglican polemical divine: Daniel Waterland, Conyers Middleton, Zachary Grey, and William Warburton. In the process, we encounter many more contemporary figures with whom these four actively engaged, both within and outside of the Church of England, including Edmund Gibson, Benjamin Hoadly, Daniel Neal, Richard Challoner, and Matthew Tindal. Guiding us through the stormy theological, ecclesiological, liturgical, and political disputes that animated the polemical divines’ printed works, as well as their correspondence, manuscripts, and marginalia, Ingram offers a compelling critique of narratives that depict the central tension within 18th-century English intellectual life as a divide between an “enlightened, secularizing modernity and its unenlightened, sacralised opposite” (7). As Ingram reveals, orthodox divines often regarded disagreements within the Christian fold as a greater threat than the critiques of deists and sceptics. By exploring disputes between the polemical divines, whose beliefs ranged from the strict orthodoxy of Waterland to the highly controversial heterodoxy of Middleton, as well as their debates with non-Anglican Christian groups, Ingram draws our attention to the oft-forgotten importance of intra-Christian intellectual warfare in the religious culture of the day. 

In doing so, he paints a convincing portrait of the ongoing reverberations of the Reformation in the intellectual life of 18th-century England. As Ingram argues, the polemical divines continued to grapple with the unresolved religious and political controversies sparked by the religious turmoil of the 16th and 17th centuries. These questions spanned a rich variety of topics, including disputes over biblical hermeneutics, Christology, the Trinity, the Eucharist, miracles and prodigies, divine Providence, the veneration of the saints, and the relationship between Church and State. Ingram shows that polemical divines did not regard these issues as abstract scholarly problems. On the contrary, they believed that it was only by offering convincing answers to these questions that they could prevent the collapse of the post-revolutionary religious settlement, and avoid a return to the catastrophic religious and political warfare of the previous century.

As Ingram demonstrates, historical scholarship and erudition were deemed to be vital weapons in the fight to solve definitively the Reformation’s unresolved problems. Polemical divines such as Middleton and Grey therefore developed fruitful connections with contemporary antiquarians, while Warburton asserted that history was fundamental to the study of divinity. Ingram reveals that the early Christian Church and the religious and political turmoil of 16th- and 17th-century England assumed particular importance in the arguments of the polemical divines. As part 1 shows, for orthodox Anglicans, conformity to the primitive purity of the Christian Church during its first four centuries—the period when the doctrinal truths laid out in the Nicene Creed had been formulated—was crucial. By the same token, Anglican divines regarded the erroneous modern-day infidels and Protestant dissenters as reincarnations of ancient pagans and heretics. Grey therefore viewed the schismatic Methodists as 18th-century imitators of the 4th-century Donatists who had split the Church of Carthage. Indeed, as Ingram shows, the heterodox Middleton’s rejection of the appeal to primitive Christianity as the standard of doctrinal and liturgical purity constituted one of his most objectionable arguments. Ingram demonstrates that the English religious upheavals of the previous century similarly shaped the polemical divinity of the age. As Ingram shows, for instance, Warburton’s political theology was deeply informed by his close reading of Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon’s 17th-century History of the Rebellion (published posthumously between 1702-1704).

Ingram’s detailed reconstructions of the polemical divines’ engagement with the ancient Christian and recent English past sheds new light on the contours of religious debate in 18th-century England. One of the book’s most significant contributions is its repositioning of Middleton. Ingram convincingly reclaims Middleton from the ranks of the deists to present him as a Christian freethinker, or “Christian skeptic,” whose heterodox arguments were fundamentally motivated by the desire to offer a more convincing riposte to the deists than that provided by the orthodox. Indeed, Middleton’s opposition to orthodox dogmatism, and his critique of literalist biblical exegesis, constituted “not the sneer of the atheistic freethinker but the frustration of one Christian with another” (130). We also learn much about the consequences of heterodoxy: Middleton, like the Christologically heterodox divine Samuel Clarke, was disqualified for ecclesiastical preferment due to his theological views. Middleton felt this snub keenly, losing the support of his one-time patron, Edward Harley—Ingram’s eye for detail notes that Harley was so keen to distance himself from the stain of heterodoxy that he returned a harpsichord once gifted to him by Middleton (137). As Ingram reveals, in Middleton’s case, marginalization encouraged him to push his thought in increasingly anticlerical, heterodox directions.

Through its sensitive and detailed analysis of the religious disputes of the polemical divines, Reformation without end therefore makes an important contribution to our understanding of the intellectual life of 18th-century England. It also prompts wider questions. How far were these Reformation-inspired English debates mirrored elsewhere in Britain? To what extent did the polemical divines’ visions of the Church-State alliance shape their attitudes towards their Protestant Scottish neighbors? How popular, for instance, was Warburton’s view that all forms of Church government were established by human rather than divine law, and that members of the Church of Scotland ought therefore to be exempt from the charge of schism (292)? Ingram’s brief concluding account of the abrupt end of England’s long Reformation in the early 19th century also leaves the reader wanting to know more about the extent to which British religious and intellectual culture was transformed on the cusp of the Victorian age. While this important book is not concerned with these questions, it offers rich insights into the religious culture of 18th-century England, and sounds the clarion call for intellectual historians of the Enlightenment to take its theological debates seriously.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Felicity Loughlin is Research Fellow in the School of History at the University of St. Andrews.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert G. Ingram is Associate Professor of History at Ohio University

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