Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION VIII.: Of the necessity, or utility, of ecclesiastical establishments. - An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty
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SECTION VIII.: Of the necessity, or utility, of ecclesiastical establishments. - Joseph Priestley, An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty 
An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty, including remarks on Dr. Brown’s Code of Education, and on Dr. Balguy’s Sermon on Church Authority. The Second Edition, corrected and enlarged (London: J. Johnson, 1771).
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Of the necessity, or utility, of ecclesiastical establishments.
THE friends and advocates for church power, generally found their system on the necessity of establishing some religion or other, agreeably, they say, to the custom of all wise nations. This being admitted, it is evident, they think, that the supreme civil magistrate must have the choice of this religion, and being thus lodged in the hands of the chief magistrate, it is easily and effectually guarded. Thus the propriety of a most rigid intolerance, and the most abject passive obedience are presently, and clearly inferred; so that the people have no right to relieve themselves from ecclesiastical oppressions, except by petition to their temporal and spiritual governors, whose interest it generally is to continue every abuse that the people can complain of.
But before this admirably connected system can be admitted, a few things should be previously considered. And I am aware that, if they had been duly attended to, the system either would never have taken place, or it would have been so moderated, when put into execution, as that it would never have been worth the while of its advocates to contend so zealously for it.
1. All the rational plea for ecclesiastical establishments, is founded on the necessity of them, in order to enforce obedience to civil laws; but though religious considerations be allowed to be an excellent aid to civil sanctions, it will not, therefore, follow, as some would gladly have it understood, that, therefore, the business of civil government could not have been carried on at all without them. I do not know how it is, that this position seems, in general, to have passed without dispute or examination; but, for my own part, I see no reason to think that civil society could not have subsisted, and even have subsisted very well, without the aid of any foreign sanctions. I am even satisfied that, in many countries, the junction of civil and ecclesiastical powers hath done much mischief, and that it would have been a great blessing to the bulk of the people, if their magistrates had never interfered in matters of religion at all, but had left them to provide for themselves in that respect, as they generally do, with regard to medicine.
“There are,” says the bishop of Gloucester,* “a numerous set of duties of imperfect obligation, which human laws could not reach. This can only be done by an ecclesiastical jurisdiction, intrusted by the state with coercive power. And indeed the supplying that defect, which these courts do supply, was the original and fundamental motive of the state seeking this alliance.” But I would ask, Are not ecclesiastical officers men, mere human beings, possessed of only a limited power of discernment, as well as civil officers? Will they not, therefore, find themselves under the same difficulty in enforcing the duties of imperfect obligation, that the civil officers would have done, notwithstanding the coercive power they receive from the state for that purpose? In short, I do not see what an ecclesiastical court can do in this case, more than a civil court of equity. Is not this, in fact, confessed by this author, when he allows, p. 87, that “there must be an appeal from these courts to the civil, in all cases.” For, if the civil courts be qualified to judge of these things, by appeal, why could they not have done it in the first instance?
2. If the expediency of ecclesiastical establishments be allowed, it is allowed on account of their utility only; and therefore, as there are infinite differences in the coercive power of these establishments, this reason will not justify their being carried to a greater extent than the good of society requires. And though it may be productive of, or, at least, consistent with the good of society, that the civil magistrate should give some degree of countenance to the professors of one sect of religion (which, with me, however, is extremely problematical) it were a gross perversion of all reasoning and common sense, to infer from thence, that the people should not have free liberty to dissent from this religion of their civil governor, or even to use any honest and fair method of gaining converts to what they should think to be the truth. Because whatever utility there may be in ecclesiastical establishments, there is certainly utility in truth, especially moral and religious truth; and truth can never have a fair chance of being discovered, or propagated, without the most perfect freedom of inquiry and debate.
Though it may be true, that there never was any country without some national religion, it is not true that these religions were always adopted with a view to aid the civil government. It appears to me that, with respect to the states of Greece, and other barbarous nations (for the Greeks were no better than their neighbours in this respect) motives of a very different nature from these; motives derived from nothing but the most blind and abject superstition, and the most groundless apprehensions, were those that really induced them to make such rigid provision for the perpetuity of their several religions. Their laws have not, in fact, any such intermixture of civil and religious matters, as is now found in the systems of European states. We do not find in them, that duties properly religious are enforced by civil sanctions, nor duties properly civil enforced by religious ones, in the senses in which we now use those terms, as if these things had, naturally, so necessary a connection. But in these ignorant and superstitious ages, men fancied there was what we should call an arbitrary connection between the observance of certain religious rites, and the continuance of certain states; and that the gods, who were particularly attentive to their preservation, would withdraw their protection, upon the disuse of those ceremonies.
The Bishop of Gloucester seems to agree with me in this, for he says,* “The unity of the object of faith, and conformity to a formulary of dogmatick theology, as the terms of communion, is the great foundation and bond of religious society. Now this the several societies of pagan religion wanted, in which there was only a conformity in national ceremonies.”
Had the antient heathens entertained any such notion of the direct subserviency of religion to civil policy (i. e. in a moral view) as the advocates for church power endeavour to avail themselves of at this day, they would have made a distinction among religions. Whereas, it is plain they had no idea of the excellence of one mode of religion above another, as more conducive to the happiness of mankind (unless there was something peculiarly shocking in some of their rites, as that of sacrificing human victims) but they imagined that different rites, rites differing not in moral excellence, but in mere form, were necessary for different states; and that it was wrong, and hazardous, for two nations to interchange their religions.
Indeed, after these establishments had taken place, it is probable that some of the defenders of them, in ransacking their imaginations for arguments, might hit upon some such reasons as modern high churchmen have urged; but it no more follows from thence, that the establishments were originally founded on those principles, than that because plausible reasons may (for any thing I know) be alledged for the use of a white surplice in reading the prayers of the church, and for bishops wearing mitres and lawnsleeves, that, therefore, Jesus Christ and his apostles used them.
4. Though there may be no christian country in which some species of christianity is not, more or less, established, i. e. more or less favoured by the government; yet there are countries in which less favour is shown to the prevailing mode than in others, and in which much less care is taken to guard it, as in Holland, Russia, Pensilvania, and I believe others of our American colonies. Now, let an enquiry be made into the state of these countries, and see whether the result of it will be favourable, or unfavourable to establishments. What tendency to inconvenience has there been observed in those states in which church government is most relaxed, and what superior advantages, in point of real happiness, are enjoyed in those countries in which it is strained to the highest pitch. I have no doubt of the result of such an inquiry turning out greatly in favour of the relaxation of religious establishments, if not of their total suppression. A just view of all the real evils that attend the ecclesiastical establishment in England, with respect to knowledge, virtue, commerce, and many other things with which the happiness of states is connected, but more especially with respect to liberty, would be sufficient to deter any legislator from introducing any thing like it into a new state; unless, without thinking at all, he took it for granted that there was no doing without one, or was so weak as to be frighted by the mere clamour of bigots.
5. Though it may be true, that inconvenience would arise from the immediate suppression of religious establishments, it doth not therefore follow, that they were either necessary or expedient; that the nation would have been in a worse state if they had never existed; and that no measures ought to be taken to relax or dissolve them. Were the religion of Mahomet abolished every where at once, no doubt much confusion would be occasioned; yet what christian would, for that reason, wish for the perpetuity of that superstition? The same may be said of popery, and many other kinds of corrupt religion. Customs, of whatever kind, that have prevailed so long as to have influenced the genius and manners of a whole nation, cannot be changed without trouble. Such a shock to men’s prejudices would necessarily give them pain, and unhinge them for a time. It is the same with vicious habits of the body, which terminate in diseases and death; but must they be indulged, and the fatal consequences calmly expected, because the patient would find it painful and difficult to alter his method of living? Ecclesiastical establishments, therefore, may be a real evil, and a disease in civil society, and a dangerous one too, notwithstanding all the arguments for the support of them, derived from the confusion and inconvenience attending their dissolution; so far is this consideration from proving them to be things excellent or useful in themselves.
Even the mischiefs that might be apprehended from attempts to amend or dissolve establishments, are much aggravated by writers. Much less opposition, I am persuaded, would arise from the source of real bigotry, than from the quarter of interest, and the bigotry that was set in motion by persons who were not themselves bigots.
It is imagined by some, that christianity could not have subsisted without the aid of the civil powers, and that the dissolution of its establishment would endanger its very being. The Bishop of Gloucester, says, that “the state was induced to seek an alliance with the church, as the necessary means of preserving the being of religion;”* and that “all the advantage the church expects from the alliance with the state, can be no other than security from all outward violence;”§ “it being impertinent,” as he justly observes,‡ “in the church to aim at riches, honours, and power; because these are things which, as a church, she can neither use, nor receive profit from.” He also says,† “that religion could not operate for want of a common arbiter, who had impartiality to apply the rule of right, and power to enforce its operations.” But these persons seem not to be acquainted with its proper internal strength, or they would not lay so much stress on such poor and heterogeneous supports. They should consider how the christian religion was supported, without the help of any establishment, before the time of Constantine. Is it not true, in fact, that it not only subsisted, but amazingly increased in all that period; when it was so far from being protected by civil authority, that all human powers were combined against it?
If they say it was supported by miracles in all that interval, it behoves them to make good the assertion. On the contrary, it appears from church history, that when christianity was once established, (if I may use that term) by the preaching and miracles of the apostles, it was able afterwards to support itself by its own evidence. And this evidence is still sufficient to support it, though all the powers on earth, and the gates of hell, were combined against it. Certainly those who make use of this plea for christian establishments seem to insinuate, that christianity is destitute of sufficient evidence; and could not advance any thing more favourable to the purpose of its most inveterate enemies.
One circumstance in favour of my argument is very evident. If the support of christianity had not been piously undertaken by Constantine, and the succeeding Roman emperors, the Popish hierarchy, that great mystery of iniquity, and abomination, could never have existed. And I think, all the advocates for church power, will not be able to mention any evil attending the want of ecclesiastical establishments, equal to this, which flowed from one.
All other ecclesiastical establishments among christians, partake more or less of the nature of this, the first and greatest of them, being nothing more than corrections and emendations of it. Many of the abuses in it have been rectified, but many of them, also, are retained in them all. That there are some things good and useful in them all is true, but it is no difficult matter to point out many things that are good (that is, which have been attended with consequences beneficial to mankind) in the grossest abuses of popery. Those who study history cannot fail to be acquainted with them, and there is no occasion to point them out in this place.
Thanks to the excellent constitution of things, that there is no acknowledged evil in the whole course of nature, or providence, that is without a beneficial operation, sufficient to justify the appointment or permission of it, by that great and good Being who made, and who superintends all things. But because tempests by land and sea, poisonous plants and animals, &c. do good, considered as parts of the whole system; and because it certainly seems better in the sight of God, that they should exist than not, must we not, therefore, guard against their pernicious effects to ourselves?
Let this be applied to the case of civil and ecclesiastical tyranny in every form. The Divine Being, for wise and good ends, permits them; but he has given us a power to oppose them, and to guard ourselves against them. And we need not doubt, but that things will be so guided by his unseen hand, that the good they were intended to answer will be answered, notwithstanding our just opposition; or will appear to have been answered, if we succeed in putting a final end to them. He makes use of men, as his instruments, both in establishing, and removing all these abuses, in civil and ecclesiastical government.
Ecclesiastical authority may have been necessary in the infant state of society; and, for the same reason, it may, perhaps, continue to be, in some degree, necessary as long as society is imperfect; and therefore may not be entirely abolished, till civil government have arrived at a much greater degree of perfection.
If, therefore, I were asked, whether I should approve of the immediate dissolution of all the ecclesiastical establishments in Europe, I should answer, no. This might, possibly, especially in some countries, for reasons that cannot be foreseen, be too hazardous an experiment. To begin with due caution, let experiments be first made of alterations; or, which is the same thing, of better establishments than the present. Let them be reformed in many essential articles, and then not thrown aside entirely, till it be found by experience, that no good can be made of them. If I be asked in what particulars I imagine them to be most deficient, and what kind of reformation I could wish to have made in them; I answer, I could wish they were reformed in the four following respects, which are all of a capital nature, and in which almost all our present establishments are fundamentally wrong; as I make no doubt will appear to every man, of common sense, who shall give the least attention to this subject.
1. Let the articles of faith, to be subscribed by candidates for the ministry, be greatly reduced. In the formulary of the church of England, might not thirty-eight out of the thirty-nine be very well spared? It is a reproach to any christian establishment, if every man cannot claim the benefit of it, who can say, that he believes in the religion of Jesus Christ, as it is set forth in the New Testament. You say the terms are so general, that even deists would quibble, and insinuate themselves. I answer, that all the articles which are subscribed at present, by no means exclude deists who will prevaricate; and upon this scheme you would at least exclude fewer honest men. But all temptation to prevaricate will be taken away if the next article of reformation be attended to.
2. Let the livings of the clergy be made more equal, in proportion to the duty required of each: and when the stipend is settled, let not the importance of the office be estimated above its real value. Let nothing be considered but the work, and the necessary expences of a liberal education.
3. Let the clergy be consined to their ecclesiastical duty, and have nothing to do in conducting affairs of state. Is not their presence in the cabinet rather dangerous? The seat of our bishops in parliament is a relick of the popish usurpations over the temporal rights of the sovereigns of Europe; and is not every thing of this nature justly considered as a great absurdity in modern government? The question, by what right they sit, need not be discusled. As teachers of the religion of Christ, whose kingdom was not of this world, can they have any business to meddle with civil government? However, if they be allowed to sit in the great council of the nation, as members of the community at large; suppose they were fairly elected like other members; but let not such a civil power as they now have devolve upon them, as a matter of course, on any pretence whatever.
4. Let the system of toleration be completely carried into execution: and let every member of the community enjoy every right of a citizen, whether he chuse to conform to the established religion or not. Let every man, who has sufficient abilities, be deemed qualified to serve his country in any civil capacity. Because a man cannot be a bishop, must he therefore be nothing in the state, and his country derive no benefit from his talents? Besides, let it be considered, that those who depart the farthest from established opinions will have more at stake in a country where they enjoy these singular privileges; and, consequently, will be more attached to it.
The toleration in England, notwithstanding our boasted liberty, is far from being complete. Our present laws do not tolerate those more rational dissenters, whom the bishop of Gloucester looks upon as brethren. It is known to every body, that if the toleration act was strictly put in execution, it would silence all those dissenting ministers who are held in any degree of esteem by the church; in the same manner as a truly conscientious subscription to the thirty nine articles would silence almost all that are rational, and free from enthusiasm, among themselves. It is not the law, but the mildness of the administration, and the spirit of the times, to which we are indebted for our present liberties. But the man who should attempt to abuse the letter of the law, contrary to the spirit of the times, and in order to trample upon the sacred rights of humanity, will ever be infamous.
The most unexceptionable establishment of religion that I have yet heard of is that of some of our North-American colonies, in which all the inhabitants are obliged to pay a tax for the support of some form of the christian religion, but every man’s contribution is faithfully applied to the use of whatever church, or society, he himself shall chuse. To such an ecclesiastical establishment as this, few persons, I believe, in the present state of things would have much objection. It would not indeed be perfect and unbounded liberty in matters of religion; but it would be pretty near it, and might make way for it.
I do not mean, therefore, to plead against religious establishments in all cases; but only argue against fixing every thing so unalterably, that if a change, in any particular, should be desired by a great majority of the clergy, or laity themselves, they should not be able to accomplish it, without the danger of throwing every thing into confusion. Such rigid establishments imply the authors of them to have been well persuaded of their own infallibility; or rather that they were determined to enforce every measure once adopted, notwithstanding the fullest conviction of its being a bad one. For no man, who could suppose it possible for himself to be mistaken, would think of setting up his opinions as the invariable standard for posterity; and none but the founder of a Median or Persian establishment would think it was reasonable, that, after a mistake was discovered in his system, and universally acknowledged to be such, all persons (if they would enjoy any advantage under it) should be obliged to affirm, that they believed it to be no mistake, but perfectly agreeable to truth.
How far this is the case with the church of England, let those of her clergy say, who may understand the subject of religion a little better than the first reformers, just emerging from the darkness of popery; who may have some reluctance to subscribe what they do not believe, and who may feel, notwithstanding every evasion to which they can have recourse, that a church preferment is dearly bought at the expence of a solemn falsehood. I do not appeal to those who may really believe all they subscribe, or to those who may subscribe without thinking at all, or to those who would wait upon any minister of state in the world with a carte blanche ready signed. In saying this, I even hint no more than what many of the greatest ornaments of the church have said again and again; that some things, in our present establishment, are wrong, and want reformation; and that there are thinking and unthinking, honest and dishonest men in this, as well as in every other profession.
I doubt not, the wisest and the most worthy of the English prelates would rather see the privileges of the dissenters enlarged than abridged, in any important article; for, allowing their dissent to be ever so unreasonable, there is no man who has the least knowledge of history or of human nature, but must be sensible, that the very distinguished reputation which the body of the English clergy enjoy at present is, not a little, owing to the existence and respectable figure of the protestant dissenters. Several of the most discerning of the English bishops have given their testimony, directly or indirectly, to this truth; particularly, if I remember right, bishop Gibson, in his charges to the clergy of his diocese. The present state of the dissenting interest can give no alarm to the established clergy with respect to their temporalities; and, certainly, the interests of religious knowledge, which all wise and good men of every denomination have most at heart, cannot fail to be promoted by that spirit of emulation, which will always subsist betwixt scholars and writers in two opposite persuasions.
There is no power on earth, but has grown exorbitant when it has met with no control. What was the character of the Romish clergy before the reformation? how shamefully ignorant, imperious, lazy, and debauched were the bulk of them! whereas very great numbers of them are now sensible, moderate, and virtuous; and little, in comparison, of the old leaven remains, except in Spain and Portugal, where the clergy have no intercourse with protestants, which might call forth an exertion of their faculties, and check the extravagance of their appetites and passions. To say that the English clergy, in future time, would not run into the vices, and sink into the contempt, into which the Romish clergy were sunk before the reformation, when they were in the same circumstances, would be to say they were not men.
It is Puffendorf, I think, who accounts for the great superiority of the English clergy over the Swedish upon this principle. In Sweden, though it be a protestant country, no dissenters are allowed; and their clergy have never produced any thing, in ethics or divinity, that deserves notice. Whoever made the observation, there is no doubt of the fact.
A few among the inferior clergy may wish the extinction of the dissenting interest, and might be ready to gratify their zeal, by persecuting those of their brethren whose consciences are, more tender than their own; but, certainly, there would not be wanting, in this age, men enow of more humanity, of juster sentiments, and of more enlarged views, among the higher ranks in the church, who would, with indignation, snatch the torch from their misguided hands. The indelible infamy which would, to the latest posterity, pursue the man, who should form, countenance, or even connive at, persecuting measures, in this age of moderation and good sense, will effectually deter men of understanding, and of a just knowledge of the world from these measures; and it is hoped, that men of zeal without knowledge will want abilities and influence to carry such schemes into execution.
[* ]Alliance, p. 81.
[* ]Alliance p. 99.
[* ]Alliance, p. 59.
[§ ]Ib. p. 67.
[‡ ]Ib. p. 69.
[† ]Alliance, p. 5.