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after the lapse of ninety years, is still important, still pressing. Before and since, there have been many debates in Parliament on religion; but almost all of them have turned either on the controversy between Protestantism and Romanism, or on the privileges of the Church of England in their conflict with the claims of Dissent. The quiet session of 1772 stands out conspicuous, as having furnished a debate on religion which did not turn on those old and rather trite antagonisms, but on the still fresh and unworn theme, the right or the claim of the English clergy to liberation from the fetters imposed on them by the Thirty-nine Articles. Perhaps some future ecclesiastical historian may find cause to dwell on the debate of 1772, as one of those little-heeded but pregnant phenomena, which are the symptoms and precursors of great, though long subsequent changes. If the session of 1771 made an important contribution to the freedom of the English press, that of 1772 sounded the note of the deliverance of the English Church from a deep and painful servitude.
Francis Blackburne, Archdeacon of Cleveland, was the direct originator of that movement for the bestowal of a species of spiritual freedom on the Church of England, which ninety years ago found spokesmen and supporters of note in the House of Commons. We learn, from the semi-autobiographical sketch of his life prefixed to the collective edition of his works,* that Blackburne was born at Richmond, in Yorkshire, in 1705, the younger son of a gentleman of good family and estate. In due course he was sent to Catherine Hall, Cambridge, where he formed an intimacy with Law, then a student of John's, afterwards the liberalminded Bishop of Carlisle, and father of Chief-Justice Ellenborough. Blackburne's head was soon full of Locke and Hoadley, while the leading men of his college were High Church Tories; and some impru
dent speech which he made on a 5th of November excluded him from the lettered ease of a fellowship. Attacked by nervous disease, he sought relief in fox-hunting with a relative in the country, in a lumberroom of whose house he lighted on some old books of Puritan divinity, which had belonged to his greatgrandfather, 'an Oliverian Justice.' According to his own account, he was deeply moved by their 'unaffected and disinterested piety, and their zeal for the spiritual good of mankind,' so that a strong devotional feeling blended itself ever afterwards with the intellectual and ecclesiastical liberalism which he had learned from Locke and Hoadley. Entering the Church, he became at thirty Rector of Richmond, and to the close of his life was conspicuous for his parochial activity. Sixteen years afterwards he was appointed Archdeacon of Cleveland. Subsequently, when his disbelief in some of the Articles was matured, he did not resign what preferment he held, but refused to accept any higher, rather than subscribe them again. In this compromise he was following, no doubt unconsciously, the example of Samuel Clarke, of whom Horace Walpole records :— 'Queen Caroline had much wished to make Dr. Samuel Clarke a bishop, but he would not subscribe the Articles again. I have often heard my father, Sir Robert Walpole, relate that he sate up one night at Kensington Palace with the doctor, till the pages of the back-stairs asked if they would have fresh candles; my father endeavouring to persuade him to subscribe again, as he had for the living of St. James's. Clarke pretended he had then believed them. "Well," said Sir Robert, "but if you do not now, you ought to resign your living to some man who would subscribe conscientiously." The doctor would neither resign his living nor accept the bishoprick.'t It should be added, however, that Blackburne had taken a resolution early in life to have as little as possible to do with
+ Horace Walpole, Journal of the Reign of George the Third (London, 1859), i. 8.
drew up proposals for an application to Parliament to relieve the clergy from subscription to the Articles, and they were printed and circulated early in 1771. A meeting of clergymen residing in or near the metropolis, and favourable to the proposed reform, was held in the July of the same year, at the Feathers Tavern, which gave its name to the association formed then and there, to put in motion the machinery of an agitation.' A standing committee was appointed, rules were framed, and the terms agreed on of a petition to Parliament, praying for the relief desired. The gist of the petition lay in the sentence in which the petitioners prayed that they might be restored to their undoubted rights as Protestants of interpreting Scripture for themselves, without being bound by any human explications thereof, or required to acknowledge by subscription or declaration the truth of any formulary of religious faith and doctrine whatsoever, beside Holy Scripture itself.' So comprehensive a scheme would of course have admitted to the ministry of the English Church every shade of Protestant Nonconformity; yet it does not appear to have found the slightest active sympathy or approval among the Dissenters. Among the clergy, the sympathizers were much more numerous than the subscribers to the petition. The total number of signatures procured was about two hundred and fifty; nearly two hundred of them were those of clergymen, the remaining petitioners being physicians and civilians (in the old and restricted sense of the word) who prayed more especially for relief from subscription at the Universities.
the Trinitarian controversy, and that it was a resolution which he kept. In this he did not resemble Clarke, whom all Sir Robert Walpole's arguments could not induce to withdraw his nolo episcopari.
Blackburne's earliest publication of note appeared in the year of his elevation to the Archdeaconry of Cleveland. It was an Apology for the Author of the Free and Candid Disquisition relating to the Church of England, a clergyman of the name of Jones, and a friend of Law's, whose book called for a revision of the Liturgy in a liberal sense. The most famous of Blackburne's works, The Confessional, was not published until sixteen years after the appearance of the Apology, which preluded its argument and design. The composition of The Confessional was provoked by a sermon which a Dr. Powell had preached before the University of Cambridge, on the Commencement Sunday of 1757. On that occasion Powell, who was a tutor of John's, elaborately expounded and supported the doctrine that subscription to the Thirtynine Articles was justifiable even when it did not mean belief in them; and in defence of his thesis he broached a great deal of easily conceivable sophistry. It was to demolish Powell and his reasonings that Blackburne wrote The Confessional, which, after lying by him in MS. for some time, was published in 1766. It spoke boldly and uncompromisingly the word which many waited, and many dreaded, to hear; and is still readable, from the earnestness and warmth of its honest indignation at the Jesuitry of Powell and his school. It produced a host of pamphlets and books for and against subscription; and the controversy soon emerged from the narrow circle of clerical disputation, and took a firm hold of the public mind.
Towards the close of 1770, when The Confessional had reached a third edition, and the controversy which it had produced was at its height, Blackburne was urged to endeavour to give practical effect to his views. He accepted the invitation, and set to work with his usual energy. He
Parliament met on the 21st of January, 1772; and at a general meeting of the Feathers Tavern Association, as it was popularly called, it was resolved that their petition should be presented to the House of Commons on the 6th of February. The boldness of the proposal had excited considerable attention and sympathy. The London newspapers were full of letters for and against the innovation; and, according to
Horace Walpole,* who took, what was for him, rather a keen interest in the movement, 'the younger men in the University of Cambridge had gone heartily into the scheme, but had been rudely and tyrannically handled by the Vice-Chancellor and Heads of Houses.' According to the same authority, 'Lord North was very uneasy at the progress of this controversy, and, not being able to prevent it, though_resolved not to favour the demand, recommended to his party great decency and_moderation in treating it; but the High Church and old Tories, secure of the King's favour, paid little regard to a minister who was but the servant of a junto, and though all other men allowed the absurdity of the Articles, and agreed that the bishops themselves could not believe them.' The petition was placed in the hands of Sir William Meredith, the same who the year before had rescued Lord North from the fury of the mob. On Thursday, the 6th of February, the day when it was to be presented to the House, the gallery was filled with clergymen, only two Dissenting ministers being present.
The debate lasted from three in the afternoon until eleven at night. It is very tolerably reported in the Parliamentary History,† and some of the minuter features of the scene are preserved in the Cavendish Reports, still in MS. in the British Museum. It was in a speech of considerable boldness that Sir William Meredith, member for Liverpool, moved that the petition should be received, read, and discussed. He began by glancing at the character of the time and circumstances in and under which the Articles were framed:- The spirit of free inquiry, liberal and enlarged notions, were yet in their infancy.' "The sovereign, or the director of his conscience, or his archbishop, or his prelates, dictated an article of faith, and the rest of the clergy received it perhaps with reluctance, but without daring to complain, much less to oppose.' A priori, therefore, Sir William argued, the Articles were not likely to be what they
would have been, had 'the great council of the nation' examined and discussed them. But when we came to read them, what did we find? 'Several of the Articles are absolutely unintelligible, and indeed contradictory and absurd. Human reason and common sense, by which alone we can judge of revelation itself, revolts against them; and I will be bold enough to say that there is not a clergyman in England who thoroughly believes them in the literal and grammatical sense, as he is required by the nature of his subscription.' Not only were they repugnant to common sense, but the fact is,' Sir William continued, that there are several which are damnable, not only in a religious and speculative light, but also in a moral and practical view. Hence the murmurs and complaints which at their first promulgation they produced, and ever since perpetuated; hence the present petition, which, were it not for reasons obvious to this House, would, instead of two hundred and fifty names, have had the sanction of thousands.'
In the morning, Lord North had received a deputation of the petitioners, and while objecting to the innovation which they proposed, had praised the moderation of their language. It was the Minister's intention to allow the petition to be received, and then to have it quietly shelved by a motion to adjourn for six months the discussion of its contents. His placid intention, however, was defeated by the zeal of Sir Roger Newdegate, the High Church and Tory representative of Oxford, who, when Sir William Meredith had finished, started to his feet and opposed with great vehemence the mere reception of the petition. Its prayer, Sir Roger argued, was contrary to the Act of Union which provided for the status quo of the Church of England, so long as England and Scotland were united. He reviled the petitioners as knaves' for not having resigned their preferments when they no longer believed in the doctrines of
† Vol. xvii. pp. 245-97.
charge of dishonesty brought against the clerical section of the petitioners, Pitt made the telling rejoinder that the very fact of signing the petition was a proof of their honesty: 'Were they not upright and conscientious men, they would not have taken this step; for certainly it is not the road to preferment.' Lord John Cavendish was for opening the doors of the Church' as wide as possible.' 'According to the present plan,' he said, 'it is almost as easy for a camel to pass though the eye of a needle as for a conscientious man to enter into orders. Many of the Articles seem calculated for keeping out of the Church all but those who will subscribe anything, and sacrifice every consideration to the mammon of unrighteousness.' Just after these words had been pronounced, the Minister rose. He grasped at the argument drawn by Sir Roger Newdegate from the Act of Union as an excuse for a departure from his original intention of allowing the petition to be at least brought up. When Lord North had concluded with some commonplaces about the religious anarchy which the scheme of the petitioners would introduce into the Church, 'Tommy' Townshend said a few words for receiving the petition, but against its prayer; and then came the turn of Edmund Burke, with a carefully prepared and elaborate oration, ‘a fine laboured speech,' Horace Walpole calls it. Burke began by denying the truth of the assertion made by former speakers, that to alter the symbols of the Church of England was to destroy her:
the Church by which they lived. 'Common honesty,' said Sir Roger, with an amusing jumble, would have taught them not to eat the bread of the Church, while, in imitation of the silly old woman in the fable, they kill the fowl that lays the golden eggs.' The reception of the petition thus opposed, and the character of the petitioners maligned, the debate was fairly begun. The first speaker, after Sir William Meredith, who supported the prayer of the petition, was Lord George Germaine, and his peroration deserves to be cited.
Forbear then to tell us that the petitioners are not respectable. Suppose the allegation true; yet still it can be here no reasonable objection: because we ought to attend to the merits of the cause, not to the numbers by whom it is supported. Had this argument prevailed when Luther undertook to expose the abuses of the Romish Church, what would have become of the Reformation? It would have been nipped in the bud, and this nation, as well as the rest of Europe, must have groaned under the tyranny of the Pope. Consider that reformation generally rises from small beginnings, and, like fame, gathers strength as goes. Ancient establishments, however absurd, have a body of men interested to support them; yet still the force of truth at last surmounts every obstacle. Were not this the case, how could the Christian religion have been first established? It had the powers of the earth to vanquish. The religious systems of those days were not less zealously espoused by the priesthood and their adherents than the Thirty-nine Articles are in our days. Had they been consulted and made the sole arbitrators of the affair, as has been suggested in the present instance, Christianity must have been crushed in the birth. We should never have heard of the scheme of redemption, in which we now all rejoice, and in which all the ends of the earth are or may be blessed. For these and various other reasons which may be urged, I hope that the petition will at least be brought up and read, if not examined and discussed. This we owe to justice, this we owe to decency. Reason and common sense call for it from our hands, and Christianity cannot otherwise be satisfied.
The two remaining speakers who, before the Minister rose, supported the petition, were Thomas Pitt (Chatham's nephew), afterwards Lord Camelford; and Lord John Cavendish. In refutation of the
This, for the sake of the liberty of that Church, I must absolutely deny. The Church, like every body corporate, may alter her laws, without changing her identity. As an independent Church, professing fallibility, she has claimed a right of acting without the consent of any other; as a Church, she claims, and has always exercised, a right of reforming whatever appeared amiss in her doctrine, her discipline, or her rites. She did so when she shook off the Papal supremacy in the reign of Henry VIII., which was an act of the body of the English Church, as well as of the State (I don't inquire how obtained). She did so, when she twice changed the Liturgy in the reign of King Edward VI., when she then esta
blished articles, which were themselves a variation from former professions. She did so, when she cut off three articles from her original forty-two, and reduced them to the present thirty-nine; and she certainly would not lose her corporate identity, nor subvert her fundamental principles, though she were to leave ten of the thirty-nine which remain, out of any future confession of her faith. She would limit her corporate powers on the contrary, and she would oppose her fundamental principles, if she were to deny herself the prudential exercise of such capacity of reformation. This, therefore, can be no objection to your receiving the petition.
When, after making this important admission, Burke proceeded to overturn Sir Roger Newdegate's argument, based on the Act of Union, against receiving the petition, the hopes of the petitioners in the gallery may have been raised. If so, they were soon disappointed. The great orator went on to pronounce himself strongly adverse to the prayer of the petition and to giving it the slightest encouragement. 'Nothing,' he said, 'but the expressed wishes of a majority of the nation could warrant the change proposed, and it was not pretended that a majority called for it.' And then the subscription to Scripture, proposed by the petitioners in lieu of the subscription to the Articleswhat did it amount to? There were disputes as to the Canon of Scripture, what books were genuine and so forth. Therefore, to ascertain Scripture, you must have one article more, and you must define what that Scripture is which you mean to teach.' Burke continued:
There are, I believe, very few who, when Scripture is so ascertained, do not see the absolute necessity of knowing what general doctrine a man draws from it, before he is sent down authorized by the State to teach it as pure doctrine, and receive a tenth of the produce of our lands.
tended for example, what only as narrative, what to be understood literally, what figuratively, when one precept is to be controlled and modified by another, what is used directly, and what only as an argument ad hominem, -what is temporary and what of perpetual obligation; what appropriated to one state, and to one set of men, and what the general duty of all Christians. If we do not get some security for this, we not only permit, but we actually pay for all the dangerous fanaticism, which can be produced to corrupt our people, and to derange the public worship of the country.
The Scripture is no one summary of doctrines regularly digested, in which a man could not mistake his way; it is a most venerable, but most multifarious, collection of the records of the divine economy; a collection of an infinite variety, of cosmogony, theology, history, prophecy, psalmody, morality, apologue, allegory, legislation, ethics, carried through different books, by different authors, for different ends and purposes.
It is necessary to sort out what is in
As soon as Burke had finished, he was replied to by a friend, both political and personal, the able, spirited, and munificent Sir George Savile, one of the members for Yorkshire. In his Bristol speech of 1780, Burke delivered a warm and characteristic eulogium on Sir George, as a true genius, with an understanding, vigorous and acute and refined, and distinguishing even to excess, and illuminated with a most unbounded, peculiar, and original cast of imagination;' as a man whose 'private benevolence, expanding itself into patriotism, renders his whole being the estate of the public, in ich he has not reserved a peculium for himself of profit, diversion, or relaxation.' To the stock argument of his opponents, that men were not obliged to subscribe, and might avoid subscription by keeping aloof from the Church, Sir George Savile finely replied:
It may be said, there is no compulsion on those who subscribe; it is a voluntary act. If there be sin, it is their own.' Undoubtedly it is. The man who yields to guilt is a sinner; but is the tempter exempt from guilt? The difference is altogether in favour of the former. The tempted, therefore, may find mercy, the tempter none. And whoever continues the temptation when it is in his power to remove it, participates in the original guilt.
Thus boldly, too, he met Burke's refinings on the 'multifarious' character of the Bible, and the necessity for creeds and formularies to fix its meaning:
Some gentlemen suppose that the Scriptures are not plain enough to be a rule and centre of union to the Church; they must have articles and creeds to supply defects. But if the things which are necessary to salvation are not plainly revealed, then