Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER VIII.: Of the Uses of civil Establishments of Religion. - Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke
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LETTER VIII.: Of the Uses of civil Establishments of 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 Uses of civil Establishments of Religion.
YOU certainly magnify the benefits derived from religion itself too much, valuable as I allow it to be, when you say, p. 134, “We know, and what is better, we feel, that religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and of all comfort.” Here, surely, is more of the rhetorician than of the reasoner, even supposing you not to mean, what you evidently do, the civil establishment of religion, but religion itself. Is there no good, or comfort, in any thing but religion, or what flows from it? Will religion feed or cloath us; or is there no comfort in food or cloathing? Is it not possible to make many wholesome laws to prevent men from injuring one another, and is it not possible to execute those laws, so as to preserve the peace of society, which I conceive to be the proper end of civil government, without calling in the aid of religion; or cannot religion operate in aid of good laws, without the help of the magistrate?
Civil establishments of religion, must, however, be imagined to be of some use to society, or it will be of little consequence to defend them at all. If the church, or the king, have nothing but divine right to stand upon, the people, seeing their own interest to be of the question, would not, at this day, shew much zeal in their support. They must, if possible, be made to believe, that a system supported by their money, and the sweat of their brows, is, in some way or other, directly or indirectly, for their advantage. Accordingly, you, Sir, have found it necessary to urge the utility of these establishments, and according to you, this utility is threefold. They are of use to the poor, and to the rich, and though they suit all governments, they are more particularly necessary in democratical ones.
“The christian statesmen,” you say, p. 151, “of this land have been taught, that the circumstance of the gospel’s being preached to the poor, was one of the great tests of its true mission. They think, therefore, that those do not believe it who do not take care it should be preached to the poor.”
Here, Sir, your argument, as far as there is any thing of argument in it, is, that since the poor cannot afford to pay for religious instruction, the state should provide it for them. A very pious and charitable design, no doubt; but at whose expence is this provision made? If it were at the expence of the rich only, there would be something of charity in it; but is not all property, that of the poor as well as that of the rich, taxed alike for this purpose? Do not the clergy exact the payment of small tithes, and often with the utmost rigour, from their poorest parishioners? Do we not sometimes hear of their being actually turned out of their little tenements, by a distress levied by their spiritual instructors; and are not the poor Irish, some of the most destitute and miserable of mankind, driven into almost annual rebellions, by oppression from the exaction of tithes?
This, I am told, is the true cause of the rise of those who are called White Boys, among the poor catholics of Ireland; and nothing but the terror of military execution, can compel them to pay for that instruction which you would give us to understand is so charitably afforded them. Thus, to be compelled to pay for the instruction which they detest, and receive no advantage from, and to be at the same time under another kind of necessity of paying for the instruction which they really value, is, indeed, a hard case. But this, according to you, is preaching the gospel to the poor.
The gospel was, in its proper sense, preached to the poor by our Saviour, the apostles, and other primitive christians, who were themselves poor. In those times, all the contributions for the maintenance of public worship, were made by the rich, and they were as ample as they were voluntary. Those who were less opulent gave as they thought proper, and could afford, and the poor gave nothing; for small tithes were then unknown. The same is the case with us Dissenters. All our places of public worship are open to the poor, as well as to the rich; and not only are the poor accommodated gratis, but their wants are attended to as far as the funds of the congregation (and in all of them there is one for this purpose) can go towards their relief.
The instruction of the poor is more attended to by the Methodists than by any other class of christians in this country. They not only make them welcome, but they seek out, they invite, and press them to receive instruction; and if those of them, who are comparatively poor, tax themselves for the maintenance of their preachers, and the building of their places of worship, it is in such a manner as promotes industry, and checks profligacy and extragance. By this means, becoming more sober, and more frugal, they grow comparatively rich, and are better able to contribute their penny, their two-pence, or their six-pence a week, to supply the wants of others. I honour their wisdom and œconomy, and think most highly of those persons whose education and habits dispose and enable them to adapt themselves to the instruction of the lowest and poorest of the vulgar. They are civilizing and christianizing that part of the community, which is below the notice of your dignified clergy, but whose souls, as the common phrase is, are as precious in the sight of God, as those who are called their betters. Such men will have their reward in heaven. I only wish they had more knowledge, and more charity along with their zeal; and these also will come in due time.
You think it equally necessary, that public provision should be made for the instruction of the rich, and that, in order to engage their attention and respect, the civil establishment of religion should be splendid. “Such sublime principles,” you say, p. 137, “ought to be infused into persons in exalted situations, and religious establishments provided that may continually revive and enforce them. The people of England,” you say, p. 152, “know how little influence the teachers of religion are likely to have with the wealthy and powerful of long standing, and how much less weight with the newly fortunate, if they appear no way assorted to those with whom they must associate, and over whom they must even exercise in some cases something like an authority. What must they think of that body of teachers, if they see it in no part above the establishment of their domestic servants?”
On the effect of splendid establishments on the minds of men I have enlarged before, and shall now only observe that, through gross inattention to the principles of human nature, you have neither considered the effect of the situation in which you have placed the clergy of this country on their own minds, or on those of the rich and the great, to whom their ministry is adapted. Is it not a fact, that, so far from the former being independent of the latter, in consequence of having great emolument in continual prospect (which is the case of all the clergy, the bishops themselves not excepted) that they must continually look up to them, and court them, in order to advance themselves? Is not their attention to the great in general extremely servile and debasing? Have you never heard of their conniving at, rather than reproving them for, their vices and extravagancies, while they have the care of their education at home, and abroad. Is not almost every clergyman, whose talents or connections encourage him to aspire to a bishopric, or any other great preferment, ready to adopt the maxims, and court the favour of the great, in whose power alone it is to aid their views? Is it not notorious that the bishops in general fall in with the measures of the court, whatever they are, evidently because they cannot rise higher, or provide for their dependants, by any other means? For whenever the maxims and measures of the court change, the conduct of the bishops almost universally, and even instantly, changes with them.
When, after the Court was disposed to favour us, the dissenting ministers waited by appointment upon an archbishop, in order to get his vote and interest for relief in the matter of subscription, which was then under consideration in parliament, after both himself and his brethren had voted against us upon a former occasion, he assured them that, though their bench had concurred in rejecting their application before, it was no measure of theirs, but that they had been put upon it by the king’s ministers. This he evidently thought a sufficient apology for his own conduct, and that of his brethren. So valid did this excuse appear to him, that he had no feeling of the dishonour which such conduct reflected upon the whole bench, and what a despicable idea he was giving of himself, and of his brethren to us Dissenters, who are used to think and act for ourselves, and not as we are put upon by others. Can such conduct as this, which the situation of your dignified clergy necessarily leads them into, inspire persons of high rank, or of any rank, with sentiments of respect? I will venture to say it is impossible. Pretend what you will, you must, and you do, hold them in contempt, as much as we do ourselves. It is the feeling of indignant honour. It is the natural sentiment of man towards his degraded fellow creature, which in some measure reflects dishonour upon himself, as being of the same species.
You, who are a lay divine, farther teach us, that civil establishments of religion are peculiarly useful in free governments. “The consecration of the state,” you say, p. 137, “by a state religious establishment, is necessary also to operate with an wholesome awe upon free citizens, because, in order to secure their freedom, they must enjoy some determinate portion of power. To them, therefore, a religion connected with the state, and with their duty towards it, becomes even more necessary, than in such societies where the people, by the terms of their subjection, are confined to private sentiments, and the management of their own family concerns. All persons possessing any portion of power, ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust, and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great master, author, and founder, of society. This principle ought even to be more strongly impressed upon the minds of those who compose the collective sovereignty, than upon those of single princes. Without instruments, these princes can do nothing. Whoever uses instruments, in finding helps, finds also impediments. Their power, therefore, is by no means complete, nor are they safe in extreme abuse.—But where popular authority is absolute and unstrained, the people have an infinitely greater, because a far better founded, confidence in their own power.—It is therefore of infinite importance that they should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong, &c. &c.”
In all this, Sir, you, as usual, confound religion with the civil establishment of it, and hence the manifest inconclusiveness of your whole argument. Religion, no doubt, is useful to all men, of all ranks, in power, or subject to it, as it furnishes an additional motive to good behaviour in every situation. But what has this to do with any civil establishment of it, with its being maintained by the state, the officers of which state, will, of course, have the sole power of ecclesiastical as well as civil preferment? How will the members of a popular assembly be overawed by the admonitions of men whose salaries are settled, and whose places are disposed of, by themselves, any more than a single arbitrary sovereign? Will not the clergy always look up to that power, which has preferment at its disposal, in whatever hands it be lodged? Are not the established ministers in Holland advocates for their republican government, as much as the English bishops of this day for the limited monarchy of England, and as the bishops of Charles I. and II. were for absolute monarchy, passive obedience, and non-resistance?
The clergy, or any other set of men, in the pay of a state, soon perceive what are the maxims of the governing powers in that state, and readily adopt them. Are not the aspiring clergy of the present reign, advocates for higher maxims of government in church and state, than those of the two preceding reigns? The fact is evident, and the difference is to be looked for in the different dispositions of the courts. The former were liberal, and favourable to diffenters, and the present is less so. This alone accounts for the whole. If the governors of any country in which religion is established, have no motives to stand in awe of the ministers of religion, which they evidently have not (as they always see the ministers of religion standing in awe of them, and courting them) it is of no use to them that it is established at all. If it be of any use, it is simply as religion, as a principle operating upon conscience, and influencing individuals, independently of any civil establishment of it.
Indeed, Sir, you see this whole business in a very wrong point of light. The civil establishment of religion is so far from making it respectable, that it is the very thing that makes it contemptible; because it naturally tends to debase the minds of those who officiate in it, those to whom men will commonly look for examples of its proper spirit and tendency, and by whose principles and conduct they are too apt to form their opinion of it.
I am, Dear Sir,