Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER VII.: Of a civil Establishment being essential to Christianity. - Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke
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LETTER VII.: Of a civil Establishment being essential to Christianity. - 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 a civil Establishment being essential to Christianity.
IF a civil establishment be so essential as you represent it, to the estimation and effect of christianity, you must, no doubt, imagine that it never existed without one, that it has grown with its growth, and strengthened with its strength. Hence your apprehension that, if any thing affect the one, it must in proportion affect the other, and that they must both stand or fall together. Now, being yourself nothing more than a Lay divine (as you contemptuously characterise a person of eminence, who has presumed to hint at some improvements in your favourite system, not calculated to overturn, but to strengthen it) I, whom, together with Dr. Price, you will class, p. 13, among political theologians, and theological politicians, shall give you a little information on the subject. Your talents, no doubt, are great; but what are talents, or powers of reasoning, and combining particular facts into systems, if a man have no facts to combine, no proper knowledge of his subject? In this case his greater ingenuity will only serve to mislead him, and fix him in error. And it is very evident that, whatever has been the compass of your studies, ecclesiastical history has not been within its range; and facts, notorious facts, such as lye upon the very face and surface of it, unfortunately overturn your whole system.
You have not been pleased to give us the definition of an established church, though you enlarge so much in your encomiums upon it; but in this we cannot much disagree. In its full extent, it is a church defended, and even regulated, by the state, which either wholly proscribes, tolerates, or barely connives at, other religions. Now, what was the situation of the christian church with respect to the State in the primitive times? You must know that, so far from being supported by the civil powers (which were then either Jewish or Heathen) it was srowned upon by them, and violently persecuted, itself being at that time nothing more than a sect, or a heresy, sometimes connived at, but never openly tolerated; and yet in these circumstances it existed, and flourished, gradually gaining ground by its own evidence, till it triumphed over all opposition, and the Roman empire itself became christian.
What was it these christian emperors then did for their religion? They did little or nothing towards its support, because they found it sufficiently supported by the voluntary contributions and benefactions of its friends. They did, however, what they ought not to have done; they influenced the decisions of councils, and enforced them by temporal pains and penalties. The State also protected property given or bequeathed to the church, as well as that which was appropriated to other uses; but there was nothing like a tax levied for the support of religion for many ages, nor is there any such thing at this day in a very great part of the christian world. Tithes are comparatively but a modern invention, the payment of them being first voluntary, and afterwards obligatory; and the compulsory payment of tithes did not take place in the whole of this country till the time of King John, of glorious and immortal memory, on that account. There are now no tithes paid in the ecclesiastical states of Italy, or in Sicily, and though, as I have been lately informed, there is what is called tithes in some parts of Lombardy, it does not in general exceed one thirtieth part of the produce, and is never one tenth.
Another important article in our ecclesiastical establishment, is the right of our kings to the nomination of bishops* . But it is well known, that the right of chusing the bishops was originally, and for many centuries, in their respective churches, the metropolitans shewing their approbation by joining in their ordination; and that even the emperors themselves, after they became christians, never assumed any such authority. It was first usurped by the popes, in the plenitude of their power, and by the feudal princes of Europe, in consequence of their investing bishops with their temporalities, and making them lords of territory. The National Assembly of France have, to their immortal honour (though they should be dissolved to-morrow, and never meet again) restored to all the christian churches in that country, their original right of appointing their own pastors, both the ordinary clergy and the bishops.
As to the claim of our princes to be the heads of the church (which is an usurpation from an usurper, the pope) and that of our parliament, to enact what shall be deemed articles of faith, and to give a form and constitution to the whole church, it is a thing not so much as pretended to by any other temporal power in the world, and a greater absurdity and abuse than any thing subsisting in the system of popery, where at least the judges in ecclesiastical affairs are ecclesiastical persons.
The whole system of the civil establishment of religion had its origin at a time when neither religion nor civil government was much understood. It was the consequence of the feudal states of Europe becoming christian in an age where we find little of Christianity, besides the name; its genuine doctrines and its spirit having equally disappeared.
Every article, therefore, within the compass of the civil establishment of christianity, is evidently an innovation; and as systems are reformed by reverting to their first principles, christianity can never be restored to its pristine state, and recover its real dignity and efficiency, till it be disengaged from all connexion with civil power. This establishment, therefore, may be compared to a fungus, or a parasitical plant, which is so far from being coeval with the tree on which it has fastened itself, that it seized upon it in its weak and languid state, and if it be not cut off in time, will exhaust all its juices, and destroy it.
Writing to an orator, I naturally think of metaphors and comparisons, and therefore I will give you two or three more. So far is a civil establishment from being friendly to christianity, that it may be compared to the animal, called the Sloth, which, when it gets upon any tree, will not leave it till it has devoured even the leaves and the bark, so that it presently perishes. Rather, it is the animal called a glutton, which falling from a tree (in which it generally conceals itself) upon some noble animal, immediately begins to tear it, and suck its blood; and if it be not soon shaken off (which sometimes every effort fails to effect) it infallibly kills its prey.
Now, when I see this fungus of an establishment upon the noble plant of christianity, draining its best juices; when I see this Sloth upon its stately branches, gnawing it, and stripping it bare; or, to change my comparison, when I see the Glutton upon the shoulders of this noble animal, the blood flowing down, and its very vitals in danger; if I wish to preserve the tree, or the animal, must I not, without delay, extirpate the fungus, destroy the Sloth, and kill the Glutton. Indeed, Sir, say, or write, what you please, such vermin deserve no mercy. You may stand by, and weep for the fate of your favourite fungus, your Sloth, or your Glutton, but I shall not spare them.
In your idea, a civil establishment is the very basis, or foundation of religion. But when any structure is to be raised, the foundation is the first thing that is laid; whereas this was evidently the very last. Instead, therefore, of its being the foundation, or even the buttress, it may rather be said to resemble the heavy stone roof, pressing with an enormous weight upon the walls, which on that account require many buttresses to support it, and after all proves to be so heavy, and is now become so ruinous, that it will be found absolutely necessary to take it all down, if the building is to be preserved. Nay, as in the late taking down of the stone roof of the cathedral, I think, of Hereford, if the greatest care be not taken, the attempt to meddle with this cumbrous roof will be hazardous, both to those who remove it, and those who stand near it.
I am, Dear Sir,