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LETTER XII.: Of the Danger of the Church, and of the Test Laws. - 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 Danger of the Church, and of the Test Laws.
THE cry of the church being in danger, is almost as old as the church itself, and has been kept up by its friends, and physicians, whenever it has suited their purpose, from the earliest times to the present day. This has served as an excuse for every outrage upon others; as if nothing was ever meant by them, but to secure itself. And thus the most bloody and offensive wars are often made under the cover of being merely defensive ones, which are always held to be lawful. Now, had this church of yours, whose fears and cries have always been the signal of alarm to all its neighbours, being made of proper materials, and constructed in a proper manner, it would never have had any thing to fear. The church of Christ is built upon a rock, and we are assured that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Had your church been built upon this rock of truth, it would have had nothing to fear. Its own evidence and excellence would have supported it. Should the state itself be overturned, the people would, of themselves, and from predilection, reinstate their favourite church in all its former rights and privileges. But you are sensible it has not this hold on the minds of the people, and you justly suspect that, if any misfortune should happen to it, they would never rebuild it, but, if left to their own free choice, would adopt some other plan, more useful and commodious.
Time was when your church pretended to fear where no fear was, and being then vigorous, her cries were heard as the roaring of a lion. Of late she has been so feeble, that we only amuse ourselves with them; and now the danger is really transferred from us to herself.
As you, Sir, are so tremblingly alive all over, for the fate of this dear church of yours, I will tell you two real causes of apprehension with respect to it, the one from without, and the other from within.
I. Be afraid of war, or any thing that shall add to the public burdens. For whenever the time shall come that the interest of the national debt cannot be paid (and that time certainly approaches) sacred as the property of the church might be in your pious hands, in whose mind, as you say, p. 147, “a continued and general approbation of the church establishment is so worked, that you are not able to distinguish what you have learned from others from the result of your own meditations;” other persons, having had a different education, may be able to make this distinction, and without any dread of divine judgments, may, while you stand aghast with horror, and expiring with dismay, apply the hallowed treasure to some unhallowed use. Had our present minister actually entered into the war that some suppose he did not do wisely to provoke, and the consequence had been, as it probably would, the addition of another hundred millions to our debt, though you might not tremble for what you consider as the ark of God in this country, other persons, whose faith was not so strong, certainly would.
You, Sir, appear not to be insensible of the new and critical situation into which immense public debts have brought most European nations, our own not excepted. The apparent stability of these governments has encouraged them to venture upon a system, which, by calling forth the powers of future generations in aid of the present, has enabled them to make extraordinary exertions on particular occasions. Had there been wisdom in these exertions, posterity, being benefited by them, would have reason to thank their ancestors. But exertions of this kind exceeding the natural powers of the state, have resembled those convulsive motions of the muscles which exhaust their force, and debilitate them with respect to future exertions. And if this system be pursued, as in all probability it will, the time must come when even these extraordinary resources will fail, and we shall then find ourselves in the very same difficulties in which the French are involved at present.
In this case (which it behoves us to be looking forward to, that we may collect all our wisdom in order to lessen the danger with which it threatens us) do you imagine, Sir, that we shall be able to preserve our present government in all its forms, civil and ecclesiastical, any more than the French have been able to preserve theirs? Do not flatter yourself so much. That great crisis will be the touchstone to our government, as well as to that of France. Whatever shall be then thought to be unsound in the constitution, and to have contributed, directly or indirectly, to bring us into our difficulties, will be marked for excision, and if we must, as it were, begin again, as the French have found themselves under a necessity of doing, we shall, no doubt, endeavour to begin upon a better plan, and retain as few as possible of the imperfections of which we now complain, and shall then complain of more.
Is it not our immense public debt, that has in various ways contributed to the encreased power of the crown (of which you, Sir, among others, not long ago complained) and is it possible, then, that this should continue the same, when this debt, which now supports it, can no longer be supported? Is not our present shamefully unequal representation another circumstance connected with the power of the crown, giving it a decided majority in the House of Commons? Can this, therefore, be continued, when the power of the crown is diminished; and will not these great changes in the civil constitution be followed by many others?
In this necessary reformation of the civil government, will it be possible, think you, to prevent all enquiry into ecclesiastical matters, which are now so closely connected with things of a civil nature? In this case, is it a certainty that any church establishment will be continued; or if there be, will it be precisely that which now subsists? Will the bishops retain their seats in Parliament? Will the spiritual courts be continued? Will the clergy be maintained by tithes? Will the doctrines of the church undergo no change? Will the subscription to all the thirty-nine articles be still enforced? Will the universities remain shut to the Dissenters, who cannot subscribe to them? Will the test laws remain in force, to exclude us from all civil offices, &c. &c. &c.? If this be your opinion, great, indeed, Sir, is your faith, greater, I imagine, than that of many an archbishop. Though however, it should be equal to the removing of all these mountains, you will, I doubt not, imagine this favourite church of yours to be rather safer in times of peace, and without any farther encrease of our national debt, than with a war that might double it.
II. This danger from without is uncertain, and may be warded off; but not so that from within. I mean the growing light of the age, in consequence of which we are more and more sensible of the absurdity of the doctrines, the insufficiency of the discipline, and the oppression of the revenues, of your church. The people of this country will at length discover that what they have paid so dearly for, as a benefit, is really a nuisance, that it is hostile to the clearest truth, and subversive of rational liberty, that very liberty for which you, Sir, profess to be a warm advocate.
Dissenters of one denomination or other, are very much increased of late years, and many of them are avowedly hostile to every establishment. The methodists are by no means attached to it. Few of them ever trouble your churches, and frequently in great bodies become dissenters; and the far greater part of the nominal churchmen only hold to the church from form and custom; the more serious and intelligent of them earnestly wishing for a change, but desirous of promoting it without noise or risk. Few persons of rank attend your worship, or any worship, and are only attached to the church for secular purposes. But this and every thing else, short of a real approbation and predilection, are uncertain and poor props for so old and decayed a building as yours is.
The increase of dissenters is a fact that you and your clergy are either wholly ignorant of, or are strangely inattentive to. I shall mention only one instance. I have resided in Birmingham only ten years, and there are now building the eighth, ninth, and tenth, new places of dissenting or methodist worship, besides another building converted into a place of worship, in this town, all within this short period, nine of them for new congregations, and the others for increased ones. Another is talked of, and many have been built in the neighbourhood; and in this time there has not been one additional church, or chapel, for the members of the church of England. The increase of the dissenters and methodists in Sheffield, in Leeds, and, I have no doubt, in other manufacturing towns, has been nearly in the same proportion.
Every controversy in which churchmen have meddled has been to their disadvantage. The heads of the church therefore now wisely discourage all controversy, but even this policy will not avail them long. Every clergyman is not wise, and fools, as they say, will be meddling; and every meddling is to their hurt, and that of their cause.
Let thinking people, then, judge what must be the fate of a church, whose fundamental doctrines are disbelieved by men of sense and inquiry, whose articles are well known not to be subscribed bonâ fide by those who officiate in it, while the truly enlightened and serious either keep out of the church, or relinquish their preferment in it. And this is very much the case with the church of England at present.
The alliance of any state with so weak and tottering a church as yours must either be dissolved, or both must fall together. And, astonished as you are at “the steady eye with which” you say, p. 85, “we are prepared to view the greatest calamity that can befal this country,” the dissolution of this fatal alliance is still the object of our most ardent wishes. By the calmest representations, and the most earnest remonstrances, we are endeavouring to bring about a peaceable separation, attended with no calamity. We have therefore nothing to blame ourselves for, if that calamity, which we foresee, and deplore, but which the obstinacy of others may put it out of our power to prevent, should come. Happy is such a country as America, where no such alliance as that of church and state was ever formed, where no such unnatural mixture of ecclesiastical and civil polity was ever made. They see our errors, and wisely avoid them. We also may see them, but when it will be too late.
You, Sir, who with many others have lately joined in the cry of the church being in danger, have thought to guard it by laws and tests, excluding Dissenters from all places of trust and profit. Paying our full share to the public taxes, and having always distinguished ourselves by our industry, in manufactures and commerce (all our trading towns abounding with Dissenters) we thought it not unreasonable to request a right of admission, at the will of the crown, or the election of our fellow subjects, to such advantages as arise from that flourishing state of the country to which, it is not denied that, we have eminently contributed. Thrice we have made the application, and twice you, Sir, made no opposition to us. We therefore flattered ourselves that, having been in other respects a friend to equal liberty, especially in America and Ireland, and Scotland also, where no such tests are known, you would have been a friend to us. But it seems that, after deeply ruminating on the subject, and having, no doubt, prayed for, and as you thought obtained, more light than you had before, you most unexpectedly, and with peculiar warmth and fierceness, opposed us* .
As you have given some attention to the case of the dissenters, and, in your speech in our favour, complained of the hardship of our being obliged to subscribe to the articles of the church, from which we derive no emolument, I wonder that you do not likewise see the unreasonableness of our being subjected to any other hardship on the same principle. As we derive no advantage from the established church, we ought not to suffer any unnecessary disadvantage from our nonconformity to it. But we certainly do so, if we be excluded from all civil offices and emoluments on that account. Must the members of this favourite church of yours, engross all the good things of this life as well as those of another, and must we unfortunate Dissenters partake of neither?
That there is danger threatening your church, I clearly see. But the method you have adopted has no tendency to lessen, but only to increase that danger. The old adage, which you had forgotten is divide et impera; but by holding us all out as equally objects of exclusion from places of trust and power, you give us a common interest, and a bond of union, which we hardly thought of before. Far from being discouraged by our repulses, we shall not fail to renew our application with more confidence than ever, seeing nothing but justice on our side, and jealous bigotry on yours.
Had you admitted us to an equal participation of civil rights, we might have thought less of our religious ones. Indeed, persons who are candidates for civil offices are not apt to be zealous in matters of religion; or if they were, the Dissenters in office being greatly out-numbered by the members of the established church, in the same or similar offices, and divided among themselves, their power of hurting the state would have been nothing. A child in politics might have seen this, but you, Sir, did not.
You also did not see that, what we most of all wish, and what you have the greatest reason to dread, is not any temporal power, or influence, that we have any chance of acquiring. This we think little about, but discussion, the free discussion of every thing relating to religion. For, distant as they may appear in idea, all religious subjects have a relation to each other, the doctrine of the test and that of the trinity, the power of a justice of peace and that of a bishop or archbishop. Touch but any extremity of the web, and the vibration will be felt to the center, and to every other extremity.
Your clergy themselves force this upon us. For they cannot rail at us as Dissenters, but they must needs glance at our opinions, and especially such as they imagine will render us most obnoxious, never forgetting unitarianism. Consequently, when we defend ourselves, not being apt to entertain doubts of the goodness of our cause, we pursue our antagonists through the whole field of their argument. We boldly assert the unity of God, and the purity and simplicity of his worship. We exclaim against all usurpation of the rights of our only law-giver Jesus Christ, by priests or kings, by councils or parliaments. On these topics we are always ready to cry aloud and not spare. In this manner, Sir, you raise a storm the force of which you and your church will not be able to stand.
It is amusing to observe how very differently the same things strike different persons, according to their previous educations and habits of thinking. Dr. Price advises those who object to the religion prescribed by public authority, and who yet cannot altogether approve of any other, that is openly professed in their country, to set up a separate worship for themselves. To me nothing appears more reasonable than this conduct; and yet you, Sir, endeavour, p. 15, to turn it into ridicule; no doubt, because to you it really appears in a ridiculous light. But ridicule is not the test of truth, and if reason and common sense is to be heard, it must surely appear even to yourself, if you reflect a moment on the subject, that upon any other principle than that of Dr. Price, no reformation can be justified. Because, upon the very same principle, whatever it be, that any person is authorised to dissent from a mode of worship set up by the state, he is authorised to dissent from any that may be set up by private persons; and if he think the public profession of religion in the form of public worship to be a duty, he is obliged in conscience to set up one of his own, whether more or fewer persons, or any besides his own family, will join him in it. And where, Sir, would be the great inconvenience of masters of families, of whatever rank, being priests as well as kings in their own houshold? What is there in the duty of a teacher of christianity, that you, Sir, are not qualified to discharge? And this age furnishes abundant helps for those who are not qualified. If any thing else be an obstruction to this scheme, it must arise from the influence of mere fashion, or superstition.
You, Sir, seem to dread a number of sects among christians. But what serious inconvenience would arise from their being increased even ten fold? It would be much better for the state, than if there were only two. Religious bigotry would also be diminished by this means, and the members of these sects would sooner learn to exercise charity for each other, distinguishing the great things in which all christians agree, from the comparatively smaller things in which any of them differ. In this way, also, they would sooner arrive at a rational uniformity; the points of difference being freely canvassed, and truth prevailing, and establishing itself, as, no doubt, it will in the end.
I am now, Sir, about to relieve your attention, and that of our readers, to the subject of the connexion, or, as it is called, the alliance, between the church and the state, but I cannot wholly conclude without expressing my earnest wish that it may be thoroughly considered in every point of view.
It certainly opens a field of very important discussion for philosophers, politicians, and divines; and it is not to be treated in an authoritative dogmatical way. That christian ministers should be paid by the state, rather than by those who chuse to be instructed by them; that they ought to have temporal courts, with the power of inflicting civil penalties; that princes should have the nomination of them; that some of them should be equal in rank and power to temporal peers; and that articles of faith should have the sanction of a temporal legislature, are by no means axioms, or self evident truths, in a system of civil policy. There must, therefore, be more simple principles, from which, if they be proper expedients in government, their necessity, or expedience, may be deduced. Let us then see what those principles are, and in what manner the deduction is made.
It cannot be said, that the necessity, or expedience, of this mixture of civil and ecclesiastical power is to be taken for granted; these things having never been found asunder; because, for many centuries, as I have shewn, all the particulars mentioned above were unknown in the christian world, and some of them are comparatively of very late date. Let us then examine their real origin, and consider the circumstances in which they arose; and let us see whether our present circumstances really require any such institutions.
It is time, however, to draw the attention of politicians to the subject, and to compare all the consequences which either actually have attended, or which may probably attend, each of the two schemes.
Infinite, as every person acquainted with history must acknowledge, have been the evils that have resulted to mankind, and especially the christian world, from the interference of civil power in matters of religion. Hence all persecution in every age, and almost all the hatred and animosity that has arisen among the different sects and parties of Christians, for which there would have been very little food, or exercise, if civil magistrates had not interfered in the disputes of theologians. Hence a great additional cause of taxation, and generally in the most inconvenient form; and hence the introduction of a totally new power, which it has been thought necessary to combine with the old ones in the system of government, and which has generally been placed on a par with all the rest; the church and the state having become correlative terms. And as nothing is found more difficult to balance than two powers, the one necessarily gaining what the other loses, the struggle between these two was incessant, and productive of the worst effects, for many centuries, in all parts of christendom. At the reformation the power of the church was very much broken, but still too much of it remains in all countries, and more of it in this, than in any Protestant state whatever. For in no other of them have ecclesiastics a seat in the supreme legislature of the nation.
But though the power of the church was derived from the feudal system, this most absurd of all its parts still remains, when many other parts of it, far less exceptionable and inconvenient, have been abolished. But as the church cannot now subsist of itself, as it did formerly, when it overawed the whole of the state; it gives a vast additional power to the crown, on which it is now wholly dependent; our princes having assumed that supremacy over the church, which had been usurped by the popes.
Here, then, is an ample field of argument; and why may not the discussion be as cool and amicable as any other? You, Sir, have made it a subject of popular declamation, rather than of dispassionate reasoning; but that need not hinder others from taking it up in a different and better manner: and if you will please to change your style, and assume the character of a philosopher, and not that of a mere rhetorician, it will be very agreeable to us to have you of the party. You are now of an age in which I should have imagined, that the powers of the imagination would have been more checked by those of reason. On this subject, the passions, as well as the imagination, should be absolutely silent, and the friends and enemies of church establishments should simply reason together.
It is time that we no longer halt between two opinions, so very important and opposite to each other, as, whether religion should be left to every man’s free choice, like philosophy, or medicine, or it should be imposed upon men, whether they chuse it or not; whether any man, or body of men, have a right to prescribe articles of faith to others, or whether every man should be left to think and act for himself in this respect, accountable only to God, and his own conscience. Let us come to a serious issue in this business, and if christian states have gone upon wrong and erroneous principles, neither agreeable to truth, nor favourable to the interests of society, let them by all means be reformed, and as speedily, and with as little inconvenience, as possible. Or, if the constitution we complain of be a good one, or the best all things considered, let it appear to be so, in fair and open discussion, and we shall acquiesce in it.
In these Letters, I have by no means exhausted this subject. Much more remains to be said, and much more I have myself advanced in other publications, especially in my Essay on the principles of civil government, the second edition, which includes what I have advanced on church authority, in reply to Dr. Balguy; and in my Familiar letters addressed to the inhabitants of Birmingham.
To shew that I am not singular in my opinion of the impropriety of civil establishments of religion, I would more particularly recommend to your notice, and that of my readers, an excellent tract of Mr. Berrington’s, intitled, The Rights of Dissenters; nor is he the only Catholic who sees this business of the alliance of church and state in the same light that I do. Different as are our systems of religion, in a variety of important respects, we are equally willing that they should stand or fall by their proper evidence, and we ask no aid of the civil power to support them.
I shall close this article with an extract from Dr. Ramsay’s History of the American Revolution. Speaking of the new forms of government which were framed after the emancipation of the Americans from their subjection of this country, he says, Vol. I. p. 355, “It was one of the peculiarities of these forms of government, that all religious establishments were abolished. Some retained a constitutional distinction between christians and others, with respect to eligibility to office; but the idea of supporting one denomination at the expence of others, or of raising any one sect of protestants to a legal pre-eminence, was universally reprobated. The alliance between church and state was compleatly broken, and each was left to support itself independent of the other. The world,” he says, Vol. II. p. 317, “will soon see the result of an experiment in politics, and be able to determine whether the happiness of society is encreased by religious establishments, or diminished by the want of them.” It is an experiment, I will add, on a sufficiently large scale, and in a very reasonable time, we may expect to see the result of the process.
I am, Dear Sir,