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The Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English

Symposium 2007

The Church in Danger: Whiggery, Anticlericalism and Dissent, 1670s to 1770s

Saturday 24 November 2007

A Symposium was held on Saturday 24 November 2007 to mark the promotion of Stephen Taylor as Professor of Early Modern History, University of Reading, sponsored by the Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies. About 50 colleagues, friends, and doctoral students took part. Four symposium speakers gave short papers followed by lively debate.

The speakers and topics were:

John Spurr, Professor of History, University of Wales Swansea, on ‘The Whigs and religion’

Andrew Starkie, Assistant Curate, Seaton Hirst, Diocese of Newcastle, on ‘Charles Leslie’s Charge of Socinianism against Dr Tillotson reconsidered’

David L. Wykes, Director, Dr Williams’s Library, on ‘Parliament, schism and the fear of heresy: the Salters’ Hall Debate’

G. M. Ditchfield, Professor of Eighteenth-Century History, University of Kent, on ‘Francis Blackburne and the problems of establishment in the later eighteenth century’

Professor Taylor then gave a lecture on ‘The character of a Church Whig’:

Starting with the tory caricature of the whigs as a coalition of deists, freethinkers, dissenters and republicans, the lecture began by emphasizing that the intellectual debt of whiggery to the dissenting and radical traditions has not been fully recognized and that, even in the early Hanoverian period, most lay whigs shared an underlying anticlericalism. Whiggery, as a creed, was essentially hostile to the claims of the chuch and clergy as they were advanced in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Against this background, the lecture posed as its central question what, in the period between the 1680s and 1760s, led some clergy to become ‘church whigs’. The next part, therefore, focused on a group of clergy who shared a similar set of attitudes to the major religious issues of the day in the 1680s and who can be described as whigs. The lecture then outlined four distinct strands or types of church whiggery as it developed in the decades after the revolution of 1688. The first was the ‘Tenisonian’ tradition, represented by Edmund Gibson, bishop of London between 1723 and 1748. While there was a reformist element to this strand of church whiggery, its outlook was essentially conservative, concerned with defending the toleration and church establishment as defined in 1689. The second was a more radical strand, represented by Benjamin Hoadly. While unequivocally a churchman, Hoadly’s ‘Anglicanism’ was that of a radical latitudinarian, committed to Lockean contractarianism and the extension of toleration. William Wake, archbishop of Canterbury from 1715 to 1737, was used as a representative of a third strand of clerical whiggery, a group who embraced the whig cause in the aftermath of the 1688 revolution and which was consistently more suspicious of the intentions of whig politicians towards the church. A fourth strand in church whiggery consists of those who embraced it in the aftermath of the Hanoverian succession. Like Thomas Sherlock (ultimately bishop of London from 1747 to 1760) they were drawn to whiggery by the recognition that the defence of the Church and religion, particularly in the face of a rising tide of anti-clericalism and immorality, required the support of the government. The lecture concluded with the suggestion that by the 1760s church whiggery, apparently triumphant, was beginning to disintegrate, as the issues that had given it meaning and coherence began to become less relevant to a younger generation of clergy.


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