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LETTER VI.: Of the Source of the Respect that is paid to Religion. - Joseph Priestley, Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke 
Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, occasioned by his Reflections on the Revolution in France (Birmingham: Thomas Pearson, 1791).
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Of the Source of the Respect that is paid to Religion.
THAT you make no difference between christianity and the civil establishment of it, is evident from many parts of your performance, and that you consider the respect which it commands, as intirely derived from the circumstances of its establishment, is equally evident. After representing the importance of christianity, as opposed to infidelity, you say, in a peculiar strain of eloquence, p. 135, “If in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium, from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness, by throwing off that christian religion, which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization among us, and among many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it. For that reason, before we take from our establishment the natural human means of estimation, and give it up to contempt, as you have done (and in doing it have incurred the penalties you well deserve to suffer) we desire that some other may be presented to us in the place of it. We shall then form our judgment. On these ideas, instead of quarrelling with establishments, as some do who have made a philosophy, and a religion, of their hostility to such institutions, we cleave closely to them. We are resolved to keep an established church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater.”
It is evident from this passage (the whole of which is so sublimely rhetorical, that I could not help transcribing it, though not absolutely necessary to my purpose) that you consider the christian religion as having no respectability, or effect, without being established, and that the natural human means of the estimation in which it is held, is the splendour and riches of such an establishment; and this will be still more evident from some passages that I shall have occasion to quote hereafter. Let us now consider how this idea accords with the principles of christianity, and the authentic records of it, which you will allow to be contained in the books of the New Testament, and also with its well known subsequent history.
Did our Saviour give his apostles any instructions about connecting his religion with civil power, as if it would ever stand in need of such aid; or did the apostles, more fully instructed after his death and ascension, give any intimation of this kind? On the contrary, our Saviour declared that his kingdom was not of this world, which must mean that it did not resemble other kingdoms, in being supported by public taxes, and having its laws guarded by civil penalties. The apostles, and all christian ministers, for many centuries, lived on the voluntary contributions of their respective churches, and they had no means of enforcing their censures besides exclusion from their societies; and can you say that christianity wanted any proper estimation, or respectability, in that period? Did it not abundantly recommend itself to every attentive candid observer, and to every impartial inquirer; and did it not by this means continually gain ground, notwithstanding it was opposed both by all the temporal powers of the world, and by whatever was most splendid and fascinating in the established systems of heathenism? It was the virtue, it was the well known piety and extensive benevolence, of the primitive christians, and not wealth or power, that procured respect to themselves, and to their cause. Read only the letters of the Emperor Julian, and you cannot but be sensible of this. To this, and to this alone, he ascribed the respect that was then paid to christianity, and the progress it had made in the world.
If you suppose, as you really seem to do, that christianity is now destitute of these proper means of estimation, you know little of its nature or power. The truths and the promises of the gospel are the same now that they ever were, nor is its evidence at all diminished; and human nature, on which it operates, you will not doubt, is also the same. And if you could look at any thing out of an establishment, you might see that christianity even now produces as disinterested and heroic virtue as ever it did. It forms men alike for the most active usefulness, or the most patient suffering. But amusing yourself with the shadow you wholly neglect the substance. Looking at religion, you see nothing but the civil establishments of it. Thus have I sometimes seen an aged oak so completely covered with a luxuriant ivy, that it required some attention to discern any thing else.
That wealth and splendour have not the charms that you ascribe to them with the bulk of mankind, is evident even from the history of Monachism, one of the corruptions of christianity. The first monks were not attracted by magnificent monasteries, and highly ornamented churches, but were most numerous, when they had nothing but the deserts to retire to. Then also were they the most respected; and they did not sink into contempt till they had acquired what you call the natural human means of estimation. The same has been the case with the secular clergy, in all countries. They were infinitely more respected, even by the rich and the great, while they were poor, than they have ever been since they have got their present splendid establishments; nor is it difficult to see the cause of this, and how it operates. Ease, affluence, and power, attract persons who have no sense or knowledge of religion; and when mere men of the world get ecclesiastical preferment, they will, of course, disgrace their profession by their vices. It was the unbounded luxury, profligacy, and arrogance, of the court of Rome, possessed as you think of every natural human means of estimation, that was one of the principal causes of the reformation.
According to your maxims, a rich establishment should make its clergy more respected then a poor one. But does this appear to be the case, on the comparison of the state of the clergy in Scotland, and those in this country? Dr. Adam Smith, who well knew them both, was of a very different opinion; and the most superficial observer must be sensible that he is in the right. Nay, so unfortunate is the situation of the clergy in this country (for it cannot be any thing, but their situation, men being the same in all countries) that, by the confession of many persons in the establishment itself, there are no clergy in christendom more negligent of their proper duty, less strict in their morals, and consequently more despised, than they are. Bishop Burnet, who had been much abroad, and who was an attentive observer, was decidedly of this opinion; and the character of the clergy in general, is little, if it all, improved since his time.
The manner in which your imagination is struck with a splendid church establishment, makes you even exceed yourself in eloquence; and, as I always admire you in this field, though not in that of sober reasoning, I cannot forbear quoting a pretty long paragraph to this purpose, as it is particularly excellent in its kind. “He,” you say, p. 146, “who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed therefore the state. He willed its connection with the source and original archetype of all perfection” (meaning, no doubt, the church, equally the archetype of all perfection in Indostan, in Turkey, in Italy, in England, and even in Scotland) “They who are convinced of this his will, which is the law of laws, and the sovereign of sovereigns, cannot think it reprehensible that this our corporate fealty and homage, that this our recognition of a signiory paramount, I had almost said this oblation of the state itself, as a worthy offering on the high altar of universal praise, should be performed, as all public solemn acts are performed, in buildings, in music, in decoration, in speech, in the dignity of persons, according to the customs of mankind, taught by their nature; that is, with modest splendour, with unassuming state, with mild majesty, and sober pomp. For those purposes they think some part of the wealth of the country is as usefully employed as it can be in fomenting the luxury of individuals. It is the public consolation. It nourishes the public hope. The poorest man finds his own importance and dignity in it, whilst the wealth and pride of individuals at every moment makes the man of humble rank and fortune sensible of his inferiority, and degrades and vilifies his condition. It is for the man in humble life, and to raise his nature, and to put him in mind of a state in which the privileges of opulence will cease, when he will be equal by nature, and may be more than equal by virtue, that this portion of the general wealth of his country is employed and sanctified.”
Big with these ideas, you say, p. 153, “as the mass of any description of men are but men, and their poverty” (namely that of the clergy) “cannot be voluntary, that disrespect which attends upon all lay-poverty will not depart from the ecclesiastical. Our constitution has therefore taken care, that those who are to instruct presumptuous ignorance, those who are to be censors over insolent vice, should neither incur their contempt, nor live upon their alms; nor will it tempt the rich to a neglect of the true medicine of their minds. For these reasons, while we provide first for the poor, with a parental solicitude, we have not relegated religion, like something we were ashamed to shew, to obscure municipalities, or rustic villages. No; we will have her to exalt her mitred front in courts and parliaments. We will have her mixed throughout the whole mass of life, and blended with all the classes of society. The people of England will shew to the haughty potentates of the world, and to their talking sophisters, that a free, a generous, and informed nation, honours the high magistrates of its church, that it will not suffer the insolence of wealth and titles, or any other species of proud pretension, to look down with scorn upon what they look up to with reverence, nor presume to trample on that acquired personal nobility which they intend always to be, and which often is, the fruit, not the reward (for what can be the reward) of learning, piety, and virtue. They can see without pain or grudging an archbishop precede a duke. They can see a bishop of Durham, or a bishop of Winchester, in possession of ten thousand pounds a year,” &c. &c. &c.
Pray, Sir, on what part of the New Testament is this a comment? Alas, it is the wisdom of the world, which is foolishness with God, and even with serious and sensible men? The wealth of the clergy, of which you are so proud, and the temporal power with which you have invested them, is the natural source of their corruption, and what must ever sink them, and religion, into contempt. Has the splendour of the ecclesiastical establishment in France, which is much superior to any thing of the kind in this country, prevented the spread of the Reformation on the one hand, or of infidelity on the other? By your own account, France is almost a nation of infidels, at least their National Assembly, in your idea, consists chiefly of them. Have the remains of this splendour, respectable still in your eyes, prevented the rejection of christianity altogether here? If you know the world, and even what passes at home, you must know the contrary. Infidelity has made considerable progress in this country, and especially in the upper classes of life, persons to whom you imagine the wealth of the clergy would naturally recommend their religion. But these men do not frequent your churches, and they regard your establishment no farther than they can avail themselves of its emoluments, as it is a means of providing for their younger sons and brothers. If the Houses of Lords and Commons were fairly polled, after voting according to their real opinion, whether, think you, would the majority be in favour of christianity, or against it? Many, and those not inattentive observers, think the latter.
If riches and power have the charms which you ascribe to them in the business of religion, how came the reformation to take place? The power and splendour of the church of Rome was at its height in the time of Luther and his followers; yet, without any aid of this kind to oppose to it, in Germany, in this country, or in Scotland, it gave way to the efforts of men who had no advantage but what they derived from reason and piety. Surely, Sir, the bulk of mankind do not see with your eyes. If they did, how can you account for the great number of Dissenters in this country, from the time of Queen Elizabeth, who had the same ideas that you have on these subjects, down to the present time; and what can be the cause of the amazing increase of methodism? Neither their ministers nor ours are rich. We have not the style of my lord, nor have we seats in parliament. But, destitute as we are of all these advantages, I will venture to say, that our ministers, as a body, are much more respected by their congregations than yours, possessed, in your idea, of all the natural human means of estimation.
Judging of us by yourselves, you naturally suppose, that it is only through envy and malignity, that we declaim against the wealth and the power of the clergy. “In England, you say, p. 155, “most of us conceive that it is envy and malignity towards those who are often the beginners of their own fortune, and not a love of the self-denial and mortification of the ancient church, that makes some look askance at the distinctions, and honours, and revenues, which, taken from no person, are set apart for virtue. The ears of the people of England are distinguishing. They hear these men speak broad. Their tongue betrays them. Their language is in the patois of fraud, in the cant and gibberish of hypocrisy. The people of England must think so when these praters affect to carry back the clergy to that primitive evangelic poverty, which, in the spirit, ought always to exist in them (and in us too, however, we may like it) but the thing must be varied, when the the relation of that body to the state is altered, when manners, when modes of life, when indeed the whole order of human affairs, has undergone a total revolution. We shall believe these reformers to be then honest enthusiasts, not, as now we think them, cheats and deceivers, when we see them throwing their own goods into common, and submitting their own persons to the austere discipline of the early church.”
This, Sir, is a paragraph of which it is to be hoped you will some time hence be ashamed. You do not give us the alternative of being either knaves or fools. You will not allow us any place in this more respectable, or rather less contemptible, class of men. None of us who disapprove of establishments, Dr. Price, or myself, can have the honour of being ranked with honest enthusiasts. We are all absolutely, and without a single exception, cheats and deceivers, who are saying one thing, and, at the same time, meaning another. But we are happy in an appeal from your judgment, as you are from ours; though, judging from myself, we are by no means disposed to censure you with so much severity as you do us. I do not say that we are so mortified to the world, as that the good things with which you tempt us, have no charms for us. We are men, and have the feelings of men, as well as yourselves. But if they struck our imagination as forcibly as they do yours, and if we were the knaves and hypocrites that you suppose us to be, why do we not make greater efforts to obtain them? The market is open, but we do not chuse to give the price. If these things be accessible to some, they are no doubt to others, in proportion to their ability or interest, or whatever it be that assists their preferment.
As to subscription to your articles, &c. if I be such a person as you have described, why might not I declare my unfeigned assent and consent to them, as well as others? Besides, if the advantages of an establishment were the things that we are aiming at, why are we labouring at the subversion of all establishments, exposing their inutility, and even their mischievous nature and tendency? If the tree be cut down, how are we to live upon the fruit of it? And there are now, I believe, very few Dissenters, who, if the present establishment was overturned, would wish to substitute any other in its place.
Your idea of the state of things in the primitive church, is altogether founded on mistake. It was not, from the first, materially different from what it is, or at least ought to be, at this day, and therefore did not require any great difference in the condition of its ordinary ministers. There never was any obligation on christians to throw their goods into common. Whatever was done of this kind, appears from the history of Ananias and Sapphira, to have been perfectly voluntary, and could not have been universal; and we read of no such thing in any of the Gentile churches. These, from the first, consisted of rich and poor, and the rich among them made contributions to relieve the poor christians at Jerusalem, which could not have been wanted, if all the rich, even there, had given their all. As to the discipline of the primitive church, it was such as I should have no objection to, but have strongly recommended in my Essay on Church Discipline; nor was it more strict than is actually exercised in several christian churches, though not in that of England, at this day. But of these things you, Sir, seem to speak altogether at random, without any particular knowledge of the subject.
I am, Dear Sir,