‘Sober delight and rational exaltation’: why 18th century Anglicanism matters

‘Sober delight and rational exaltation’[1]

Easter Day, 1800

“In that vast and noble building no more than six persons were found at the table of the Lord.”[2]

Thus did the then Bishop of London lament how Easter Day 1800 passed in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. This one statistic became the defining and oft repeated illustration of the sorry state of 18th century Anglicanism. Consider, for example, an account given by the admirable Alan Jacobs, offering “a bit of historical perspective” on how churches can experience renewal:

On Easter Sunday 1800, in St. Paul’s Cathedral, the very heart of the Church of England, do you know how many people received Holy Communion?

Six. Six.

Throughout the eighteenth century church attendance – not just the receiving of Communion – had declined throughout England, even as the population had grown. There were fewer and fewer churches offering fewer and fewer services …

And yet by the middle of the nineteenth century, thanks largely to the rise of Anglo-Catholicism, there was an explosion of church attendance and church-building throughout England, along with an emphasis on the centrality of Holy Communion that had not been seen in England since the Middle Ages. It was not something that anyone had expected.[3]

There is a long history to such accounts using the St Paul’s Easter Day 1800 figure. Ahead of the centenary celebrations of the Oxford Movement, one Anglo-Catholic wrote:

It is difficult for us today to realize the utter deadness and decay of religion before Queen Victoria came to her throne … The Sacraments were almost wholly neglected, and when used were regarded as occasional badges of respectability rather than as channels of divine grace. The Bishop of London lamented in 1800 that on Easter Day there were only six communicants at the only Communion Service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.[4]

What else could better illustrate a Church which had become an Erastian and Latitudinarian husk, in which dead formalism and cheap moralism had displaced the riches of lively faith and catholic doctrine?

The Church of Daniel Waterland

There is, however, a rather significant problem with the statistic: it was not at all representative of late Georgian Anglicanism. In his 1958 The Caroline Tradition in the Church of Ireland, F.R. Bolton had highlighted a rather different experience:

On Easter Day 1800, when there were only six communicants at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, there were 311 at St Mary’s Kilkenny, where, the year before there had been 280 at Whitsun and 520 at Christmas.[5]

The 1779 visitation returns for the Diocese of Exeter similarly suggest that reception of Holy Communion at Easter Day was widespread and popular. The parish of Barnstaple reported 150 communicants; St Alban in Plymouth, 300; and a small parish like Lympstone, with “about 50 families,” reported 40 communicants.[6] The unfairly maligned Parson Woodforde – often regarded as emblematic of Georgian Anglicanism – would record in his diary for Easter Day 1792, “Had a great many communicants.”[7]

These figures are suggestive of a rather different picture of Anglicanism at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, a picture which historical research has been highlighting for some decades. Scholarly studies have now effectively demolished the interpretation summarised by Newman’s description, “the last miserable century.”[8] When in 1966, Robert T. Holtby commented at the outset of his study of the great early-18th century Anglican theologian Daniel Waterland, “There is a revived interest in the eighteenth century church and, it may be asserted, a more favourable estimation of its life,”[9] he was highlighting the first fruits of such research.

In many ways, Waterland himself stands as a figure of contradiction, challenging the assumptions of “the last miserable century” school of thought. A Church Whig, opposed to the Non-Jurors, his sermons urging “solid virtue,”[10] he might be thought to be a rather good example of a tired Erastian Church, dominated by the clanging gong of undemanding natural religion. Waterland, however, was the defender of the Athanasian Creed, a scourge of Deists, a robust Trinitarian, believing Christianity to be “entirely wrapped up” in the Sacraments,[11] insisting on “our doctrine of Grace conveyed by the Sacraments,”[12] a “champion of the ‘received doctrines.’”[13] J.C.D. Clark refers to him as “the most formidable orthodox Anglican theologian of his day,” the exemplar of an Anglican establishment defined by Trinitarian orthodoxy, subscription to the Articles, and a renewed political theology of hereditary right (challenging Lockean concepts). In Waterland, then, we see embodied the mainstream of 18th century Anglicanism – a mainstream with very different characteristics and concerns to those associated with depictions which begin with the numbers of communicants in St Paul’s, London, on Easter Day 1800.

The Latitudinarian failure

When John Hume Spry, a High Churchman linked to the Hackney Phalanx, looked back over the 18th century during his 1812 Bampton Lectures, he did not see a ‘miserable century’ of Latitundarinan ascendancy. Rather, he saw the consistent rebuttal of the various attempts to dilute Anglican orthodoxy. He first noted the comprehension proposals of 1689, defeated by the “vigilant opposition of the great majority of the clergy” in the Lower House of Convocation. This was followed by the “long protracted struggle” of the Bangorian Controversy (beginning in 1716), with the rebuttals of Hoadly’s low church ecclesiology providing “the most powerful defence of [the Church of England’s] apostolic constitution.” Then there was the attempt of the 1772 Feathers Tavern Petition to abolish clerical subscription to the Articles of Religion, when “a few clergy” of the Church of England agitated to be “relieved from the obligations, which they had voluntarily contracted to maintain her doctrines.”[14] Each of these latitudinarian projects failed:

the sanctuary of the Church of England is yet inviolate, her doctrines uncorrupted, her constitution unimpaired.

As Ryan Nicholas Danker has noted in his account of the emergence of Methodism, the abject failure of the Feathers Tavern Petition signaled a Church that “advanced internal cohesion, strengthened orthodoxy and promoted high churchmanship.”[15] Such was the legacy of the supposedly ‘miserable century,’ an eminently successful defense of Anglican order and formularies in the face of sustained attempts to revise them in heterodox directions.

“We bless thee for our creation”

This is not to deny that a natural theology suffused 18th century Anglicanism. Waterland’s defense of revealed religion and doctrinal orthodoxy did not stop his sermons witnessing “to the harmony of reason and religion,” a “characteristic of their age.”[16] As William Bulman has shown, however, rather than such natural religion being an incipient civic cult of Deism, it was an expression of a “conformist Anglican Enlightenment,” advocating a Laudian vision, defending “the necessity of ritual and ceremonial to religious experience,”[17] and confirming “the expansive civil and spiritual benefits of Anglicanism.”[18] What is more, this had deep roots in Anglican thought. John Milbank notes that beginning with Richard Hooker there had been a rejection of “any facile separations between the sacred and the secular or between faith and reason, grace and nature.”[19] The natural theology of 18th century Anglicanism was thus a flowering of this thought, what Clark terms “a sophisticated theory about the compatibility of reason, science” and Christian Faith.[20]

As to how this shaped and animated belief, we might point to the parson-naturalist Gilbert White, writing in 1769 of his “delight” at the migratory habits of swallows:

I could not help being touched by a secret delight … to observe with how much ardour and punctuality those poor little birds obeyed the strong impulse towards migration, or hiding, imprinted on their minds by their great Creator.[21]

The natural theology of 18th century Anglicanism stands in continuity with Hooker’s vision, what C.S. Lewis described as world “drenched in Deity”:

All which perfections are contained under the general term of Goodness. And because there is not in the world any thing whereby another may not some way be made the perfecter, therefore all things that are, are good. Again since there can be no goodness desired which proceedeth not from God himself, as from the supreme cause of all things; and every effect doth after a sort contain, at least wise resemble, the cause from which it proceedeth: all things in the world are said in some sort to seek the highest, and to covet more or less the participation of God himself.[22]

Cold morality or barren orthodoxy?

In his assessment of 18th century Anglicanism, the late 19th century evangelical Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle, saw only “natural theology, without a single distinctive doctrine of Christianity, cold morality, or barren orthodoxy.”[23] Newman and Ryle, of course, had a shared interest in undermining Georgian Anglicanism because both Tractarian and Revivalist needed to dismiss the Anglicanism which it represented in order to justify their alternatives. Ryle’s opening gambit, “natural theology, without a single distinctive doctrine of Christianity,” is – as has been indicated – a ridiculously inaccurate description of 18th century Anglicanism. The Trinity and the Incarnation, Revelation and Sacraments, were at the heart of the orthodoxy which defined Anglicanism across the century, an orthodoxy robustly maintained in the face of theological and philosophical assault. The Anglican natural theology of the era was a classical Christian affirmation that, in the words of Calvin, God’s “glory is etched on his creation so brightly, clearly and gloriously.”[24] But what of Ryle’s other charges? Was 18th century Anglicanism a matter of ‘cold morality or barren orthodoxy’?

Practical Christianity

In Barchester Towers, Trollope accurately captured over a century of Anglican critique of ‘solifidianism’ when he summarised Mr. Arabin’s sermon: “he taught them the great Christian doctrine of works and faith combined.”[25] Waterland had famously challenged ‘solifidianism’ in his A summary view of the Doctrine of Justification:

It is certain that the Antinomian and Solifidian doctrines, as taught by some in later times, have deviated into a wild extreme, and have done infinite mischief to practical Christianity … But take we due care so to maintain the doctrine of faith, as not to exclude the necessity of good works; and so to maintain good works, as not to exclude the necessity of Christ’s atonement, or the free grace of God.[26]

Surveying the New Testament’s various exhortations to good works and “practical righteousness,” Richard Mant in 1812 declared, “How different from these scriptural expositions of the terms of everlasting happiness, are the remonstrances and exhortations, addressed by the Solifidian to his hearers!” He denied any notion of works as “meritorious causes” but continued by emphasizing the dangers of “the doctrine of faith alone”:

it is inculcated by many preachers themselves, so constantly, as to leave little opportunity for the recommendation of the Christian virtues, and so exclusively, as to disparage, if not to condemn, morality and good works; and that it is embraced by many hearers so implicitly, as to lead them to despise the qualification of a holy life.[27]

This critique of ‘solifidianism’ underpinned an understanding of the Christian life lived out in the ordinary duties of spouse, parent, neighbor, and citizen. As Clark has emphasized, this resulted in a social practice which “mixed the sacred unashamedly with the secular in a deliberate expression of the role of the eternal in daily affairs.”[28] This sanctification of the ordinary was, Mant insisted, of infinitely greater significance and worth than the experiences of the ‘enthusiasts’:

(and let the observation be cherished for the encouragement of those, who although they truly honour and serve God, yet are but little sensible to themselves of the operation of the Holy Spirit;) his influence is not of that sensible kind, which the Enthusiast represents it … we cannot distinguish them, by their manner of affecting us, from our natural reasonings and the operation of truth upon our souls.[29]

“The doctrine of salvation through a crucified Saviour”

Was this, however, a “barren orthodoxy”? Consider The Whole Duty of Man, one of the most popular manuals of devotion throughout the century[30]:

When thou art at the Holy Table; first, humble thy self in an unfeigned acknowledegment of thy great unworthinesse to be admitted there; and to that purpose remember again between God and thine own Soul, some of thy greatest, and foulest sins, thy breaches of former vowes made at that Table, especially since thy last receiving. Then meditate on those bitter sufferings of Christ, which are set out to us in the Sacrament, when thou seest the bread broken, remember how his blessed body was torn with nails upon the Crosse; when thou seest the Wine poured out, remember how his precious blood was spilt there; and then consider, it was thy sins that caused both. And here think, how unworthy a wretch thou art to have done that which occasioned such torments to him?

This vibrant, warm piety, deeply sacramental, firmly acknowledging the need for the Lord’s atoning sacrifice, continued into the late Georgian Church. In 1831, Hugh James Rose, a leading light of the Hackney Phalanx, exhorted:

let each of us ask himself how he regards the blessed communion of his Master’s Body and Blood? Does he look to it with awe indeed, but with hope and joy unspeakable, knowing that there he shall find the largest portion of the graces of the Spirit, in the assured hope of pardon, in new desires, new affections, new dispositions.[31]

If we were searching for likely candidates for the promotion of “barren orthodoxy”, Charles Inglis would almost certainly come to mind. He was the first Anglican bishop in Canada, a former Loyalist, a High Churchman, a firm believer in establishment, and an equally firm critic of Dissent. Inglis, surely, was just the type of churchman Ryle imagined when he penned his words of criticism. But then we read how Inglis, in a 1791 visitation charge, urged his clergy to preach:

St Paul informs us that the preaching of the cross was counted foolishness by them that perish; but to those that are saved, it is the power of God. The doctrine of the cross, that is, the doctrine of salvation through a crucified Saviour, is the means which God, in his wisdom, has appointed to reform mankind – to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith. No doctrines or expendients of man’s devising will be so efficacious as those which the Almighty hath appointed. Reason, and philosophy, and what is called natural religion, have tried their powers on mankind through a succession of ages; but with little effect. It is the Gospel only that brings those heavenly truths, which rightly inform the understanding; which rectify the will and reform the heart. You should therefore adhere to those evangelic doctrines, in Your instructions from the pulpit.[32]

The sober piety of 18th century Anglicanism was neither cold or unfeeling. Its suspicion of ‘enthusiasm’ did not mean that it was incapable of encouraging and sustaining a warm devotional life. In other words, Ryle’s view that it was characterized by a “barren orthodoxy” is an absurd distortion.

“The excellent Liturgy of our Church”

“It was the conclusion of an age of vandalism and utilitarianism. Whatsoever may have been the cause, it is certain that there was a great decline last century in civilization, so far as by that word is meant progress in refinement, and the appreciation of the beautiful in nature or in art …. chiefly do I rejoice to see the altar of God restored to its proper dignity. In the old days we only had ‘Sacrament Sunday’ three times a year – the minimum prescribed in the rubric, and then it was so irreverently conducted that it would appear to modern churchmen a disgraceful travesty of the holy rite.”[33]

Thus did a Victorian Ritualist describe the worship of the Georgian Church. It became the standard – and enduring – picture of Anglican public worship during the 18th century. Historical research over some decades, however, has pointed to a rather different reality. Bolton described Irish Anglican worship throughout the period as possessing “a marked dignity, simplicity, and symmetry.”[34] Nelson’s account of colonial Virginia highlights “the careful and tasteful provisions made for public worship” and notes:

contrary to oft repeated stories that Virginian Anglicans, either because of their low-church prejudices or their adaptation to frontier conditions, had forced their clergy to dispense with the surplice, they were in fact zealous for supplying, cleaning, and replacing surplices for their parsons.[35]

F.C. Mather’s now classic paper ‘Georgian Churchmanship Reconsidered: Some Variations in Anglican Public Worship 1714-1830’[36] convincingly portrayed a “modest Anglican dignity” shaping public worship, due to the significant influence of “the diffusion of moderate ecclesiastical conservatism throughout the Church”:

As displayed by external observances, therefore, English Churchmanship of the Georgian epoch was ‘higher’ in a spiritual sense than is commonly supposed.

The popularity throughout the century of the Prayer Book commentaries by Sparrow[37] and Wheatly,[38] together with the very widespread influence of a host of High Church devotional manuals, likewise militates against the notion of an era characterized by impoverished public worship. Responding to the emerging critique of the 18th century Church by the Oxford Movement, Mant in an 1843 visitation charge invoked the vibrant tradition of 18th-century ‘ritualists’ (writers who expounded the rubrics of the Prayer Book) and pointedly declared, “These will suffice to prove that a strict observance of the rubrick is no recent innovation.”[39] Mant himself in 1820 had summarised this tradition in his extensive Notes, providing an “explanatory, practical, and historical” account of the Prayer Book’s rites and ceremonies.

Rather than a tolerance of mediocre and impoverished liturgy, the Georgian Church had notably greater liturgical expectations. Thomas Secker, in his 1738 charge to the Diocese of Oxford, urged that clergy “perform the several offices of our excellent Liturgy devoutly and properly.”[40] The same understanding was seen in A Manual for the Parish Priest (1815) by Henry Handley Norris, a leading figure in the Hackney Phalanx:

The most material defects I have observed in reading the prayers of the Church, have been a failure in the reader, of comprehending the service, and of attending to the solemn duty he was performing. Wherever I could perceive that the minister understood what he was reading, and had his mind impressed with the subject, there the excellent Liturgy of our Church appeared to have a good effect.[41]

Why 18th century Anglicanism matters

Should it matter that there is a radical difference between the understanding of 18th century Anglicanism established by historical research and how contemporary Anglican discourse still routinely views our forebears of that century? Three reasons come to mind to suggest that it does matter.

Firstly, the story we as Anglicans tell about ourselves certainly needs to be honest. For example, 18th century Anglicanism blithely accepted and supported degrees of economic inequality that were profoundly unjust. Similarly, many 18th century Anglicans profited from and maintained the intrinsic evil of slavery. But as in any age – mindful of our own collusion with the inequalities and evils of this age – a wider story is to be told of what is meant, in a particular context, by the communion of saints. As Rowan Williams states:

the Christian seeking to understand the Christian past as a believer not only as a historian has very specially the task of trying to stand with Christians in an earlier age in their prayer.[42]

In speaking of 18th century Anglicanism, we are speaking of those who share with us life in Christ, “for as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” and were formed in their discipleship through the particular experience of those practices and texts which continue to be significant for contemporary Anglicans. To again quote Williams:

when the past in question is that of the Church, that real life is in its ultimate depth the life of Christ.[43]

To deliver 18th century Anglicans from the “enormous condescension of posterity”[44] is as much a necessary spiritual discipline as it is a matter of historical accuracy.

Secondly, we need to be alert to how accounts of 18th century faithlessness and failure are put to ideological use within contemporary Anglican debates. Take, for example, this recent reference in a British current affairs magazine:

As Nicky Gumbel from Holy Trinity Brompton pointed out to me recently, there have been periods of very low religious practice in Britain – the middle of the 18th century, for example …[45]

Narratives of 18th century faithlessness and failure can often be deployed to promote ecclesial agendas that seek to undermine traditional Anglican practices and experiences.

Thirdly, 18th century Anglicanism matters because it is a means of rescuing what we might term an ordinary, sober Anglican experience from the “enormous condescension” of ecclesial contemporaries. That ordinary, sober experience – not least when it is present in the pews – can routinely face condescension from Ritualist, Revivalist, and Progressive for being deemed insufficiently sacramental, insufficiently open to the Spirit, or insufficiently radical.

Awareness of a revised account of 18th century Anglicanism could lead to a greater recognition of the ordinary, sober Anglican experience as a way of living out the Faith, and the possibilities this might provide for drawing those who dwell in 21st-century societies into an expression of the Faith marked by “sober delight and rational exultation.”

  1. The quoted phrase is from Richard Mant, An Appeal to the Gospel, 1812 Bampton Lectures, Lecture VII.
  2. Quoted in Charles J. Overton & John H. Abbey, The English Church in the Eighteenth Century (1893), p.442.
  3. Alan Jacobs ‘It Could Be Worse; It Might Get Better’ in The American Conservative, 21st December 2012. Amongst the many weaknesses in this account is the fact that Anglo-Catholicism’s influence in the Church of England in the mid-19th century was entirely negligible.
  4. ‘What is the Oxford Movement?’, a Catholic Literature Association publication, available on the Project Canterbury site: http://anglicanhistory.org/england/cla/whatis.html.
  5. F.R. Bolton, The Caroline Tradition of the Church of Ireland, with Particular Reference to Bishop Jeremy Taylor (1958), p.170.
  6. The 1744 and 1779 visitation returns for the Diocese of Exeter can be found at http://www.foda.org.uk/visitations/parishes.htm.
  7. James Woodforde, The Diary of A Country Parson, 1758-1802, 8th April 1792.
  8. Quoted in Peter B. Nockles, The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship 1760-1857 (1994), p.4.
  9. Robert T. Holtby, Daniel Waterland, 1683-1740: A Study in Eighteenth Century Orthodoxy (1966), in the Preface.
  10. Ibid., p.203.
  11. Ibid., p.206.
  12. Ibid., p.157.
  13. Ibid., p.205.
  14. John Hume Spry Christian Union Doctrinally and Historically Considered, 1816 Bampton Lectures, Lecture VII. Clark notes that the Feathers Tavern petition had the support of “only some two hundred out of twelve thousand clergy”: English Society 1688-1832, p.314.
  15. Ryan Nicholas Danker, Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism (2016), p.188.
  16. Holtby op. cit., p.203.
  17. William J. Bulman, Anglican Enlightenment: Orientalism, Religion and Politics in England and its Empire, 1648-1715 (2015), p.203.
  18. Ibid., p.144.
  19. John Milbank, ‘After Rowan: the Coherence and Future of Anglicanism’, ABC Religion and Ethics, 4th April 2012.
  20. J.C.D. Clark, The Language of Liberty 1660-1832: Political discourse and social dynamics in the Anglo-American world (1994), p.151.
  21. Gilbert White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), Letter XXIII, 28th February 1769.
  22. The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I.5.1-2.
  23. J.C. Ryle in Christian Leaders of the Last Century (1873).
  24. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I.V.I.
  25. Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, Chapter XXIII, ‘Mr. Arabin Reads Himself in at St. Ewold’s’.
  26. Daniel Waterland, ‘A summary view of the Doctrine of Justification’ in Volume IX of Van Mildert’s The Works of the Rev. Daniel Waterland, D.D. (1833).
  27. Mant, 1812 Bampton Lectures, Lecture II.
  28. Clark, The Language of Liberty 1660-1832, p.150.
  29. Mant op. cit., Lecture V.
  30. Described as “the most widely-read work of popular piety in the eighteenth century” in Sex and the Church in the Long Eighteenth Century: Religion, Enlightenment and the Sexual Revolution (2017), William Gibson & Joanne Begiato.
  31. Hugh James Rose, Eight Sermons Preached before the University of Cambridge at Great St Mary’s (1831), Sermon I.
  32. Charles Inglis, A Charge Delivered to the Clergy of Nova-Scotia at the Triennial Visitation Holden in the town of Halifax, In the Month of June 1791, p.44f.
  33. From Deformation and Reformation, an Anglo-Catholic polemic, available on the Project Canterbury site, http://anglicanhistory.org/england/crake_deformation/.
  34. Bolton op. cit., p.249.
  35. John K. Nelson, A Blessed Company: Parishes, Parsons, and Parishioners in Anglican Virginia, 1690-1776 (2001), pp.68 & 66.
  36. In Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 36, No. 2, April 1985, pp.255-283.
  37. Anthony Sparrow, A Rationale on the Book of Common Prayer (1655),
  38. Charles Wheatly, A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (1710).
  39. Richard Mant, Rubrickal Conformity the Churchman’s Duty, in a Charge to His Clergy (1843).
  40. The Charge of Thomas, Lord Bishop of Oxford, to the Clergy of His Diocese, in His Primary Visitation 1738.
  41. Henry Handley Norris, A Manual for the Parish Priest (1815), p.31.
  42. Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church (2005), p.96.
  43. Ibid., p.110.
  44. The phrase is taken from Marxist historian E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963).
  45. Quoted in Greg Sheridan ‘Losing our religion’, The Spectator, 8th August 2019.

Laudable Practice

Laudable Practice is a "poor priest" (c.f. Herbert's 'Aaron') in the Church of Ireland, living in Jeremy Taylor country, and enjoying the poetry of Wendell Berry. 'High and Dry', blogging on the riches of the 'Old' (Luke 5:39) High Church tradition, he is a historian by background, and particularly delights in leading Sunday Prayer Book Mattins in the parish. He blogs at http://laudablepractice.blogspot.com.

'‘Sober delight and rational exaltation’: why 18th century Anglicanism matters' has 1 comment

  1. June 5, 2020 @ 10:48 am Will

    Very good comments about Waterland…he truly was a defender of orthodoxy.


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