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LETTER XI.: Of the Sacredness of the Revenues of the Church. - 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 Sacredness of the Revenues of the Church.
YOUR opinion of the sacredness, and majesty, of an established church, is most conspicuous in what you say of its revenues. On this subject you appear to have adopted maxims, which, I believe, were never before avowed by any Protestant, viz. that the state has no power or authority over any thing, that has once been the property of the church.
“From the united consideration of religion and constitutional policy,” you say, p. 150, “from their opinion of a duty to make a sure provision for the consolation of the feeble, and the instruction of the ignorant, they have incorporated and identified the estate of the church with the mass of private property, of which the state is not the proprietor, either for use or dominion, but the guardian only, and the regulator. They have ordained that the provision of this establishment might be as stable as the earth on which it stands, and should not fluctuate with the Euripus of funds and actions.”
If the state be not the proprietor of the church lands, they must be the absolute unalienable property of the church, that is of churchmen only, and without their consent no alienation of them is lawful. Consequently, if all the members of the House of Commons, the king, and all the temporal lords, should vote the alienation of any part of them, it would be mere robbery without the consent of the bishops, or perhaps that of the whole convocation assembled for the purpose; perhaps not even then, the present clergy being only trustees, or having a life estate in a revenue which belongs to their successors. But, surely, if I have any knowledge of the British constitution, this doctrine is absolutely new to it, and certainly not deduced from the actual conduct of parliament, which has disposed of a very great proportion of what was once the property of the church. I even question whether the principle you here avow, would at this day be acknowledged at St. Omers. The Catholics of France had evidently no idea of the kind, and indeed it is for this that you reproach them.
The Dutch, and other protestant states, have confiscated all the old church property, and pay their clergy from the same public treasury, out of which the officers of the army and navy are paid; and they, no doubt, think themselves justified in so doing. A great proportion of the tithes in this country, and, as I am informed, the whole of them in Scotland, is now in the hands of lay proprietors, who, in your opinion, must all be guilty of sacrilege, though their conduct be sanctioned by the law of the land.
If the right of the church to its revenues is not to be affected by any act of a civil legislature, if this right be not derived from any ordinance of man, it must come to them from the ordinance of God. But where, Sir, do you find any record of this? There is no mention made of tithes, or of any permanent church property, in the New Testament; and if it has been by the ordinance of God in any period subsequent to the writing of those books, it is incumbent upon you, Sir, and other advocates for the unalienable property of the church, to shew when the grant was made, and by what miracle (for nothing else can answer the purpose) it was confirmed. But every thing relative to the revenues of the church, is easily traced in history. We very well know when, and whence, every branch of it arose. It was altogether the ordinance of men, and generally of weak, superstitious, and priest-ridden men. And surely the mischiefs which have been found to arise from the folly of one age, ought to be removed by the wisdom of a subsequent one. In one passage, indeed, you allow all that I contend for, when you say, p. 154, “When once the common-wealth has established the estates of the church as property;” for this implies that the estates of the church are the gift of the common-wealth, or state; and what the state has given, it may surely take away. This is one, among many inconsistencies, in your work.
Such, I flatter myself, is the light of the present day, that, confident as you are of your maxim, and of the members of our legislature acting upon it, you will some time or other find yourself mistaken. “The Commons of Great Britain,” you say, p. 156, “in a national emergency, will never seek their resource from the confiscation of the estates of the church and poor. Sacrilege and proscription are not among the ways and means of our committee of supply. The Jews, in Change-alley, have not yet dared to hint their hopes of a mortgage on the revenues belonging to the see of Canterbury. I am not afraid that I shall be disavowed, when I assure you, that there is not one public man in this kingdom whom you would wish to quote, no not one of any party or description, who does not reprobate the dishonest, perfidious, and cruel confiscation which the National Assembly has been compelled to make, of that property which it was their first duty to protect.”
I am surprized, Sir, that you should not be sensible that this declaration is by no means true in fact. It is in my own power to quote many persons in public life, who greatly approve that conduct of the National Assembly of France which you so strongly condemn. You forget that Salus Reipublicæ est suprema lex; and if ever the circumstances of this country should be such, as that either the interest of the church or the state must be abandoned, I have no doubt but the former would be readily sacrificed to the latter.
You have made the provision for the poor as sacred as that for the church. But certainly this was the institution of man, or rather of woman; for it took its rise in the time of queen Elizabeth, in this country, and is not known in any other. To many persons, as well as to myself, our method of providing for the poor, is no proof of the wisdom of our ancestors. It takes from man the necessity of foresight, and instead of being the most provident, makes him the most improvident of all creatures. So far are our poor laws from encouraging industry, that they encourage idleness, and of course profligacy. Such is the state of this country, burthened with taxes to support the church, and the poor, and to pay the interest (the principal is out of the question) of debts contracted by the folly of our ancestors, that its ability to support itself under them, is very problematical* .
“It is,” you say, p. 149, “from our attachment to a church establishment, that the English nation did not think it wise to intrust that great fundamental interest of the whole, to what they trust no part of their civil or military public service, that is, to the unsteady and precarious contribution of individuals. They go farther. They certainly never have suffered, and never will suffer, the fixed estate of the church to be converted into a pension, to depend on the Treasury, &c. The people of England think that they have constitutional motives, as well as religious, against any project of turning their independent clergy into ecclesiastical pensioners of state. They tremble for their liberty, from the influence of a clergy dependent on the crown; they tremble for the public tranquility, from the disorders of a factious clergy, if it were made to depend upon any other than the crown. They therefore made their church, like their king, and their nobility, independent.”
There are several positions in this paragraph, that appear to me rather extraordinary. The clergy, to be as independent as the crown, or the nobility, should have a negative in all proceedings in parliament. But the clergy are, in fact, dependent upon the crown, and must necessarily be so, while the crown has the disposal of all bishoprics, and other great preferments; and the effect of this is seen by their voting with the crown. It is also no compliment to the general disposition of the clergy, that you should tremble for the effects of their factions, if they were to depend upon any other than the crown. I should think, however, that, if they be so dangerous a body of men, you might make yourself rather easier if they were made to depend on the whole legislature, and not upon the crown only, to which they now give a dangerous accession of power.
But, Sir, only take away the emoluments of the clergy, and leave them to subsist, as we dissenting ministers do, and as the apostles and bishops in primitive times did, on the voluntary contributions of those who are benefited by their ministry, and you will effectually remove all cause of trembling on their account. Let them be naturally as quarrelsome as dogs, they will be as quiet as lambs, if no bone of contention be thrown among them. What danger arises from our divisions, or those of the many discordant sects which have ever existed in North America? Be they ever so great, we never trouble the state with them, and we are unanimous and hearty in every common cause, respecting either christianity or public liberty.
I am, Dear Sir,