Secularization and the Limits of Tolerance

As prepared for delivery at the Annual Meeting of ASECS, 2012, in San Antonio, for the “New Secularism” panel. As it happened, it was delivered very differently than this — long story.

When I titled this talk, I was only about ninety percent sure what I intended to say to you today, so I left off the subtitle. I can now provide one: I will be talking about a strange posthumous anthology of religious controversy by Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson entitled Sentiments of Popery. I became interested in the problems of Anglican political-theology while doing some work on Tillotson for a dissertation chapter, a version of which I presented to another 8:00 AM panel audience, two Annual Meetings ago in Albuquerque — one smaller than this one, if you can believe that. Because this talk will also be about Tillotson, the empty set of people who attended both panels might reasonably conclude that I only work on Tillotson: not so, I just find him fascinating and a good object for discussion in this kind of format. He’s so interesting, in no small part, because his significance as a figure in ecclesiastical politics so far outpaces the intellectual-historical importance of his written works, which are, by-and-large, derivative, albeit popular and thereby influential.

Born in 1630, Tillotson was educated at Cambridge and ordained in 1660. He thus began his career just as the Church put itself back together at the Restoration, and rose to prominence along with that group of Churchmen known, largely by their detractors, as Latitudinarians or Latitude Men. This group held that there should be an established church, but a “broad” one, one which would comprehend and accommodate the wide variety of Protestant opinion extant in seventeenth-century England. There were only a handful of pointed exceptions, extremists whose views required they be excluded from the Anglican communion: enthusiasts, Socinians, and others who denied the Trinity. Tillotson achieved influence quickly upon his arrival in London, attracting crowds to his Tuesday Lectures at the St. Lawrence Jewry, and quickly became involved in the political issues of the day. He was present at the Savoy conference in 1661, for example, where the comprehension of Presbyterians was broached without success, and having risen in the interim to be Dean of Canterbury, was later intimately involved in organization against James II’s Declaration of Indulgence in 1688. Following the revolution, the new monarchs William and Mary made Tillotson Dean of Saint Paul’s and then — when William Sancroft led the nonjurors out of the Established Church — nominated him to succeed Sancroft as Archbishop of Canterbury, in which role he effectively supervised the removal of the nonjuring clergy. He died in 1694.

Tillotson’s career encapsulates the concerns and contradictions of the Tolerant political theology ascendent following 1689, and he is perhaps the man most directly responsible for the direction the Anglican Church would take in the eighteenth century. He worked tirelessly at the comprehension of English Protestants within the Established Church, and at the Exclusion of Roman Catholics from the succession to the Crown. But even as a certain freedom of conscience was allowed to Protestant Dissent, the firm hand of Royal and Ecclesiastical authority was never far in the background, constant reminders of which remained in the various offices and University positions denied to non-Anglicans. Tolerance, as it was actually implemented in the political order of eighteenth-century Britain, was more Tillotsonian than Lockean.

Tillotson was probably the most-read or -heard author in the eighteenth century, and should not be considered a minor author. Setting questions of originality aside, a handful of his 200-odd sermons achieved astronomical popularity; his collected works were continuously in print into the nineteenth century. The audiences for these sermons would have extended far beyond their impressive print runs, because clergymen did not, as a rule, compose their own sermons in the eighteenth century, or did so only infrequently. It was more typical to offer a reading from the Whole Duty of Man or from a printed sermon by another, more established churchman, and standbys such as “The Wisdom of Being Religious” and especially “Precepts of Christianity not Grievous” were scrupulously orthodox and dependable choices which would have been familiar to most English Churchgoers. His popularity carried with it the so-called Plain Style in English prose, a clear, even-keeled and reasonable approach to sermon-writing which became the stylistic concomitant of rational religion. After Tillotson, ornament in homiletics came to be associated with enthusiasm (Cf. Tina Lupton’s piece on the Plain Style in ECS).

In the next few minutes, I want to tell you about a posthumous anthology of Tillotson’s controversial writings. Then, I’ll conclude with a brief discussion of what this curious book tells us about how we should think about the political theology of tolerance in eighteenth-century Britain, in particular its complex relationship with that strange historical phenomenon, secularization, that we’re here to talk about.

The full title of the piece tells us quite a bit about it: The Pious and Humane Archbishop Tillotson’s Sentiments of Popery, Digested into familiar and popular Orations, Design’d to Excite a just abhorrence of the horrid principles and practices of the Church of Rome. Its contents are just as it says on the tin, each of the six orations an indictment of some putative Catholic principle or practice. It is important to recognize, however, that while the exerpts in the orations are drawn from Tillotson’s sermons, they do not have any simple or readily-described relationship to the sermons. “Oration the First,” for example, complains that Catholic practices such as the Inquisition are unchristian. Most of the argument is drawn from Tillotson’s “Sermon 19.” But not all. Let’s take a look at the first two pages of that Oration. The first paragraph is drawn from the middle of “Sermon 33,” while the second paragraph comes early in “Sermon 20.” [click to zoom the slide]. The remainder of the oration — 12 or so pages — is collaged from different, non-contiguous parts of “Sermon 19,” except for a few passages I am unable to find anywhere in Tillotson’s published works. Not for nothing, then, does the Preface describe the anthology as a “collection of [Tillotson’s] scatter’d reasonings” (preface, no number). I must note, though, lest I give the wrong impression, that the wholly original passages are few; most of them are transitional in nature, and I imagine were written to paper over the cracks of the collage-like editorial principles at work in the anthology. So while the orations are approximately authentic, none of the sources in Tillotson’s Works are given; there is no scholarly apparatus of any kind in the anthology, beyond a kind of brief index.

More instructive than its contents are the conditions under which the anthology was published. I mentioned that the Sentiments was published posthumously, but eagle-eyed readers of slide decks will have already observed from the title page that this anthology was published in 1745. The obvious conclusion is, I think, the correct one: with the Jacobite rebellion underway, visions of Catholic Stuarts looming over the Protestant succession required an ideological response, and brimming with zeal and patriotism, the booksellers rallied to produce one. The decade following the 1745 Jacobite uprising saw perhaps not a boom, but a marked uptick in Latitudinarian publications, including not only new editions and anthologies, but even the initial publication of significant works like Tuckney’s and Whichcote’s Eight Letters, another long-posthumous publication. I think this suggests that the return of religious violence to the forefront of English political consciousness prompted a sort of return to the first principles of Toleration, and no one was more closely associated with those principles than Tillotson. Indeed, this is how the preface suggests we see the volume, with an explicit comparison to the last days of the Stuarts. “As a preacher,” the anonymous compiler points out, “no one was of more service to the Protestant cause in its last distress; and no Writer, I do verily believe, can serve it more in its present danger.” We should view the anthology as a kind of press release, printed in hope that its orations would become the bases for sermons by clergymen throughout England. This view again finds support in the preface, which complains that as editions of Tillotson’s “voluminous” writings are too expensive for popular distribution, it is instead necessary to “[communicate] proper Portions of them to the many as their wants demand them” — which I understand to mean orally.

Which leaves another question: who is responsible for the compilation of this document? Who is our ?Tillotson? It is hard to say with any certainty, but the long list of publishers is a good place to start. The titlepage lists fifteen booksellers, all but two of whom (Shewell and Draper) are identifiable from the bibliographic works of Ian Maxted as members of the Stationers’ Company. For most of the 13 “citizens and stationers,” I was able to learn little more than the vital statistics contained in the Company archives: their years of membership, dates of death, and information about their apprentices.

But for a handful of the printers, I was able to learn more, in one case quite a bit more. J. Rivington, penultimate in the list, is likely John Rivington, a member of the second generation of an important publishing family. I should note that his younger brother James, also briefly involved in the trade in London before leaving for Philadelphia, is another plausible identification, sharing as he did the same first initial, but John is the more likely choice, because his trade, according to Maxted and the Dictionary of National Biography, centered on distribution of books to the clergy. In 1760, he would become the publisher to the Society for the Propogation of Christian Knowledge, a very profitable endeavor. Both John and his younger brother were young men at their father’s death, and were supervised in the running of the business by their father’s friend Samuel Richardson — there, things just got a little name brand — and the Rivington brothers even printed a few editions of Richardson’s Pamela. The Richardson connection, as well as John’s marriage to Elizabeth Miller Gosling, whose brother would later be Lord Mayor of London, should give a sense of the class position of the Rivingtons. Theologically, John Rivington was a high-church Tory, and the DNB suggests that his theological leanings at times cost him business: although his father had been bookseller to both Whitefield and Wesley, as the two early Methodist ministers publicized more and more eccentric views, John Rivington declined to continue the connection.

Another participant in the enterprise was Richard Hett the elder. Less is known about Hett than the famous Rivingtons, but we do know from Maxted that his book trade included a large stable of Dissenting authors. A quick search of ECCO turns up publications on Hett’s imprint by noted Presbyterian ministers John Barker, George Benson, Edmund Calamy, and Samuel Wright, by way of confirmation. Hett apprenticed his son, Richard Hett the younger, to Samuel Richardson — who I am beginning to think of as a kind of node in the social organization of the publishing industry — and the younger Richard took over his father’s trade upon reaching majority. I have a bit more information about a few of the others, but nothing so conclusive in terms of religious affiliation, which is what matters for our purposes.

Still, Rivington and Hett alone are sufficient evidence of a very interesting entente. Even without knowing the backgrounds of the other thirteen participating booksellers, the two I’ve presented here are sufficient to indicate that the bringing the views of ?Tillotson to press was a project that adherents of a wide range of Protestant opinion could get behind. I am not sure that the high/low-church designations were yet in wide currency in Tillotson’s lifetime, but I’ll risk a mild anachronism to suggest that he was, in life, an opponent of the high-church position. ?Tillotson, however, represents a reduction of the Tillotsonian corpus to produce consensus. In this respect, the Sentiments of Popery is a faithful presentation of the Archbishop’s life’s work, however patchwork its textuality. The collaboration of a high-church Anglican and a Presbyterian Dissenter (among others) against Catholicism is precisely the kind of project that Tillotson would have endorsed.

And, as I have been suggesting, this makes the Sentiments a tolerationist project, par excellence. Whether you prefer to read Stanley Fish or Wendy Brown or Slavoj Zizek, you will likely recognize the argument that lower-case-t toleration is always grounded on a founding gesture of exclusion, on the designation of some group whose beliefs, actions, or nature put them so far beyond the pale that toleration cannot be extended to them.

“The retreat from more substantive visions of justice heralded by the promulgation of tolerance today is part of a more general depoliticization of citizenship and power and retreat from political life itself. The cultivation of tolerance as a political end implicitly constitutes a rejection of politics as a domain in which conflict can be productively articulated and addressed, a domain in which citizens can be transformed by their participation.”

-Wendy Brown. Regulating Aversion: p. 89

These days, it has become a commonplace to indicate that that exclusion in our own world is intolerence itself; that our globalized liberalism can accommodate any cultural or religious perspective, except those that challenge this regime. Critics of tolerance therefore argue that the priority placed on tolerence over more “substantive visions of justice,” in Brown’s words, deforms our sense of the political as such or perhaps even abdicates politics altogether. This is a view that has very interesting consequences, most of which unfortunately fall outside the purview of this talk.

This recognition of the implicit limits of toleration has begun to creep into the historiography on the British eighteenth century. In the past, a more Whiggish historiography has taken Toleration as a kind of stalking horse for secularization. In this approach, toleration is either a kind of exoteric euphemism for an achieved secularization, or else a marker of the ecclesiastical state’s restraint, its withdrawal from at least some portion of the culture. Few believe that sort of thing, these days, leaving aside a few pockets of liberal apologists or Straussian neo-conservatives. England’s Enlightenment tradition included precious few writers who openly took secular positions in anything like the modern sense. England has no Spinoza or Voltaire, except perhaps John Toland — atheism, or even deism, has always been much more common as a calumny directed at opponents in controversy than in actual “practicing” atheists or deists. Anthony Ashley Cooper, another usual suspect, wrote in the wake of the Camisard uprising, a sectarian guerrilla war in France, and thus seems to me to be more a critic of religious terror than of religion per se. He’s closer theologically to a Tillotson than to a Voltaire. In this way, the angle that Jonathan Israel adopts, in his Radical Enlightenment, that there were two Enlightenments, one moderate and tolerationist and another radical and secular, seems to me to be the last gasp of the Whig tradition, defending a fragile narrative of secularization against the mounting evidence that the majority tradition of Enlightenment thought was tolerationist. However, I see next to no influence of this so-called radical Enlightenment in England until very late in the century.

Instead, I see works like ?Tillotson’s Sentiments of Popery, which, as I hope I’m communicating, is something quite a bit different. The very existence of that work only makes sense at all in a world in which toleration is a tactic adopted to circle the wagons around a religious culture. Toleration is certainly not a sign, at least in Great Britain, that the state might take on a secular character. On the contrary: Toleration is a recognition that it is better for the official culture to be a little bit flexible, where it can, lest it provoke its own Camisards, while at the same time preventing cooptation through the various religious disabilities imposed on Dissenters by the Clarendon Code.

It was a great satisfaction to me, to be any ways instrumental in gaining your Lordship to our Religion, which I really am persuaded to be the Truth, but I am, and always was, more concerned that your Lordship should continue a virtuous and good man, than become a Protestant; being assured that the ignorance and errors of men’s understanding, will find a much easier forgiveness with God, than the faults of the will.

-Tillotson to Charles Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. 1669

But, lest my position devolve into strawman–bashing, I’d like to complicate this picture. In life, Tillotson, like many of the Latitudinarians, held religious controversy in contempt. This is the sense in which ?Tillotson is furthest from the real thing. Controversy was something a bit distasteful that you might descend to if you had to, but not the core of what it was to be a clergyman by any means. England, after all, had just been through a bloody war which was fought, at least in part, over small matters of soteriological and ecclesiological doctrine: to again stir up passions over those issues must have seemed unwise. It was more important, in any case, to be a good person than to be any particular flavor of Christian, a view which he expounded in a famous and oft-printed letter to Charles Talbot, in which he distinguishes “errors of men’s understanding,” which God will more easily forgive, from “faults of the will.” Although this more authentically ecumenical side of Tillotson is pointedly excluded from the Sentiments, in some respects it is so ingrained into his position that we can detect its signature even in a collection of Tillotson’s most overtly controversial writings.

Many of the arguments that Tillotson levies against Catholicism depend, in their form, on a neutral ethical perspective, independent of the tenets of any particular faith.
You can only make the argument that it is wrong to deprive the laity of knowledge of scripture, as ?Tillotson does in Oration the Second, from this alien perspective. The merits of this argument, he writes, require no learning to recognize. We are on the terrain of natural law theory. “Every Man must needs be sensible of it; because it toucheth Men in the common Rights of Human Nature, which belong to them as much as the Light of Heaven, and the Air we breathe in.” Every man, not only Anglicans, nor even Protestants, nor even Christians. Every man has access to this ethics, because it is fully separable from any particular religious vision of morality. This is the ethics of the will of his letter to Talbot, which is meaningfully distinct from the more theological understanding. Understanding is, here, again denigrated as a source of moral guidance.

I would rather recommend this Argument to the unlearned, because it is so very plain, that the most ordinary Capacity may judge of this Usage and Dealing with the Souls of Men; which is so very gross, that every Man must needs be sensible of it; because it toucheth Men in the common Rights of Human Nature, which belong to them as much as the Light of Heaven, and the Air we breathe in.

-Tillotson, Sentiments of Popery


This distinction, I’d argue, amounts to a kind of secularization — a surprising move for an Archbishop. But perhaps we should not be surprised. The sociologist of religion Danièle Hervieu-Léger sees the process of secularization as the fragmentation and rearticulation of an increasingly-complex boundary between sacred and earthly cultural realms. Not only does this boundary often retain a certain permeability, it is continually drawn and redrawn, provisionally, to meet the needs of different actors in different contexts. The secular is not a preexisting state: it is the product of numerous divisions that people make, that they call into being for concrete historical purposes.

Tillotson’s secularization of ethics erects one such partition. While he still holds that the particular ethical stance of Protestantism is more likely to produce good people than the particular ethical stance of Catholicism, the yardstick according to which he imagines this comparison made is wholly secular, of rhetorical necessity. To announce one confession as preferable to another is to conjure, in prose, a ghostly subject that might hold this preference. In my first encounter, I initially recognized this insight as similar to what Slavoj Zizek recognizes as “the authentic core of political liberalism,” namely “the tremendous liberating aspect of experiencing one’s own cultural background as contingent.” But I’m no longer sure that Tillotson would have seen it that way: the secularization of ethics is less a recognition of a preexisting separable entity that can choose among religious affiliations, as it is the foundation of the will as a secular and as such universal faculty common to all men.

I want to close by reiterating the tension between Toleration and the secularization of ethics. While the Tolerant Church is not itself a participant in secularization, it nevertheless has a relationship with that phenomenon — it invokes secularization for its own purposes, its own ends. What makes Tillotson’s work so interesting is the way he deploys a localized secularization of a particular mode of thought in the service of fundamentally pious, even sectarian, aims. This amounts to a kind of pious secularization, which I think is a key recognition which might contribute to further enquiries into eighteenth century religious thought.

Thank you.