Grappling with God, Georgian Style

Deism1

 

I do not think I am very different from most 21st century people in quietly ignoring a significant part of the lives of my Georgian and Regency ancestors. That part is religion and religious controversy. Religious belief was a constant backdrop to everything in Georgian times, which can be hard for a modern-day person to grasp, given our generally secular outlook on the world. However, I have come to realise that to ignore religious controversies is to miss a large part of what made 18th-century people speak and act as they did. It also means ignoring a major topic for debate at all levels (including less-educated ones) throughout the Georgian and Regency periods.

An Intellectual Approach to Religion

Today, the two greatest threats to traditional beliefs are probably apathy and highly individualised attitudes towards ‘spiritual’ matters. But in the 18th century, few were indifferent on religious issues. Almost everyone thought that ‘the truth’ existed, could be found by argument and thought and should then be shared. The result was even greater complexity in public religious belief and practice than we have today.

As well as the main orthodox groups, Georgian times also abounded in all sorts of non-conformist and unorthodox ideas, such as Unitarianism or the approach of the Quakers. Some of these were both more widespread and more influential than they are today. The English Civil War had broken the power of the Established Church to enforce uniformity. Despite strenuous efforts by certain monarchs, High Tories and bishops, it was never restored. But religion remained a matter of accepting certain beliefs and disciplines. The modern hope of a personal encounter with a supreme being would have been dismissed as the rankest heresy.

But perhaps the greatest difference between the Georgian experience of religion and that before and since was this: Georgian religion was meant to be preached and listened to—then thought about. It had little of the theatrical performance elements of mediaeval rituals; nor the personal, emotional involvement created by the late-Romantic movement and expected from Victorian times onward. Look at the churches built in the 18th century. ‘Preaching boxes’ filled with box pews where people stayed throughout the services, many facing away from the rudimentary altar at the east end.

“What is Truth?”

Ever since the Reformation, religion had been in a state of ferment throughout Britain, breaking out into violence during the English Civil War of the mid–17th century. Differences over religious beliefs had led to the execution of one monarch, the deposition and exile of another and the rise of Parliament’s claim to be the supreme source of political power. And while the Glorious Revolution of 1688/9 had put an end to most open warfare, many of the key elements of the debate remained unresolved. Where once there had been a monolithic national and international church, there was now a plethora of competing and battling sects, each claiming a monopoly on the truth.

The 18th century was also the time when science, and the scientific method of determining facts, moved to centre-stage in British culture. We should not minimise the importance of this, even to the ordinary person. Lectures and demonstrations of the new science were common, and could be attended for a shilling or less. Many of the political controversies of the day hinged on the idea that a particular group of society, the elite, occupied a position of authority by the will of God. Those who challenged this idea, usually did so because it was justified neither by reason nor experience.

This clash between Faith and Reason, Science and Revelation, should be familiar to everyone today. Perhaps the main difference between now and the 18th century is that, while many modern people find the question boring and irrelevant, few individuals in the 18th century felt like that. Then it was new, alive and thought to be of critical importance.

Faith versus the New Science

What is different is the way several major strands of religious thinking arose in England and America, each one claiming to reconcile science and faith by contradicting the major tenets of orthodox, organised Christianity. Two of these were especially important in the 18th century, while the third, though widespread today, was used more as a term of abuse covering the other two than as a separate outlook. I refer to deism, pantheism and atheism.

In the next posting, I shall consider these three. All were real—often powerful—alternatives to conventional, orthodox Christianity.

Enlightenment America

Just how real can easily be seen by looking at America’s Founding Fathers. Today’s myth is that refugee Christians from Europe founded the United States. There were plenty of those without doubt—few agreeing with any others—but not amongst the ruling elite. The poorer people tended to be religious in a roughly orthodox, Christian way. The educated class, including the Founding Fathers, were pretty much like typical intellectual English squires of the time. A surprisingly high proportion were Deists or Pantheists, despite their care to avoid too much open controversy about their beliefs. Jefferson and Ben Franklin rejected nearly all the supernatural elements in Christianity and a good deal else as well. Indeed, both they and others were within a gnat’s whisker of being outright atheists [1].

They set out to found their new state on a new basis. Not on the tenets of any religion, but according to the best Enlightenment ideas of intellectual reasoning, a balance of powers and true freedom for all. Their state was to reject becoming involved with any particular religious tradition or teaching so that the choice of faith could be made genuinely free. Religious tyranny was as much to be avoided as the tyranny of kings like George III. Instead, they referred in their founding documents to broad concepts like a ‘creator’ god, or even the fascination notion that some truths could be self-evident and need no other authority to be binding.

High Tories (and Secret Jacobites) versus the Rest

It was much the same in England itself. High Tories desired religious orthodoxy as a means of maintaining royal control and reinforcing class distinctions favourable to them. Many Whigs were quietly or openly ambivalent on religious issues. Deism, pantheism or atheism were prevalent amongst the educated and almost universal among radicals. The most extreme brazenly flouted convention. Sir Francis Dashwood built a church at West Wycombe that makes barely a token nod to Christianity. Others happily commissioned architects to build ‘churches’ that were pretty much Greco-Roman temples and in which preaching, often rational and deistic in nature, became almost the sole activity. ‘Priestcraft’ became a term of abuse for ritual, dogma and the attempts of the religious hierarchy to enforce orthodox services.

When the French Revolution came, these distinctions became still sharper. The Tories equated rejection of the Established Church with anarchy and the overthrow of monarchs and aristocrats. In other words, they were fighting for survival, not just their traditional powers. The Radicals wanted a US-style rational constitution, with duly elected parliaments and total religious freedom—ideally freedom from any religion at all. France tried to solve the same problem via bloodshed and failed. Americans thought they had solved it already. Britain never entirely threw off traditional restraints enough to make the attempt.

The result is that Western countries have scarcely moved on, save by the time-honoured approach of ignoring or fudging what they cannot solve.

Alternatives

Why did any belief in a god survive amongst the educated? Probably because there seemed to the Georgian mind no real alternative to believing the universe was created by something sentient[2]; which was about as far as many people were prepared to go. That and a vague fear that disposing of gods would take established morality away as well. Religion was also held to be useful to keep the poor and ignorant from abandoning all restraints—which is what many of the rich and powerful had done already!

If some of this sounds very familiar to modern ears, it is. That’s another reason to understand what the Georgians made of problems still with us today. I write mysteries set in Georgian Norfolk and will never be successful in giving my readers that delicious sense of experiencing another time if I continue to gloss over the near-universal sense amongst the people of the 18th century that they could—and should—find the truth about “Nature and Nature’s God.”


  1. If you are interested in exploring this in greater depth to verify what I have written, I recommend this excellent study: Stewart, Matthew. Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  ↩
  2. It took Darwin’s genius to accomplish that some fifty years or more later.  ↩

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About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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