Liberty Matters

Two James Mill Myths – Part I


I find it difficult if not impossible to disagree with what my colleagues in this exchange have said about James Mill’s thinking. Perhaps, though, it might be possible to bring out into the open what has so far been unsaid in our exchange. I want to focus, in particular, on two facets of his thought, or rather what has been believed about it. The first is that Mill was not at all religious and was ardently opposed to an established religion like the Church of England; the second, that he never replied to Macaulay’s “famous attack” on his essay “Government.” Here I shall deal with the first, saving the second for my next installment.
In his Autobiography J. S. Mill tells us that he was raised without any religious instruction at all. This was because his father “reject[ed] all that is called religious belief.” Thus, he continues, he was “one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it: I grew up in a negative state with regard to it.”[82] This flies in the face of what Bain tells us about the younger Mill’s upbringing, viz., that the Mill children were baptized and taken to church on Sundays.[83] This is only one of several respects in which J.S. Mill’s Autobiography offers an unreliable account of his upbringing and early education.[84]
It is true, however, that James Mill, educated to be a preacher in the Scottish Kirk, lost his faith, possibly with Bentham’s help, or perhaps even before meeting Bentham in 1808. He also shared Bentham’s aversion to any established state church generally and to what Bentham called “Church of Englandism” in particular. From this it would seem to follow that he was opposed to any sort of scheme for a civil religion such as those propounded by Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Comte, among others.
But in the mid-1830s James Mill seems to have undergone a change of head if not of heart. In the controversial essay “The Church, and its Reform,” published in the first number of the London Review (1835), Mill propounded a plan for what can only be called a civil religion. The reasons for this change are not entirely clear. My own guess, for what it is worse, is that Mill came around to the view that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” At any rate, he outlined a proposal for the radical reformation of the state church, in which the Sunday service became an occasion for enlightening and educating its parishioners.[85]
More than any other of Mill’s essays, “The Church, and its Reform” reveals what Professors Peart and Taylor term the “utopian bent,” and perhaps also what Murray Rothbard calls the “Leninist” element and Mazlish the “revolutionary asceticism,” in Mill’s thinking.[86] Mill proposes the appointment of a minister of public instruction to oversee a radically reformed state church. This minister would oversee the selection and training of the clergy, who were to be drawn from the meritorious “middle rank” – praised earlier in “Government” as “that intelligent, that virtuous rank . . . which gives to science, to art, and to legislation itself, their most distinguished ornaments, and is the chief source of all that has exalted and refined human nature.” Mill then goes on to describe in the minutest detail the features of the Sunday service, which is to educate parishioners in everything from moral philosophy to political economy. Having already exceeded my assigned word-limit, I cannot recount his scheme in any detail. Trust me, it is a hoot to read.
[The Editor: We insert here the first part of James Mill's long dissertation on how the Sunday Services should be conducted:]
The next thing which solicits the attention of all rational men, is the work which the English clergy are called upon to perform for this pay; exhibiting, in their extreme, the opposite vices of extravagance, and deficiency.We undertake to maintain the two following propositions: First, that the only services which are obligatory upon the Church of England clergy, and regularly performed, are ceremonies, from which no advantage can be derived. Secondly, that the services they might render, in raising the moral and intellectual character of the people, are not obligatory, but left wholly to their option, to do, or not to do; that they are performed always most imperfectly, and in general not at all. Let us go to the particulars.The services obligatory on the Church of England clergymen are, the Sunday service, performing the ceremony of baptism, that of marriage, and that of the burial of the dead.To estimate the value of them, let us see wherein they consist.The Sunday service. That consists almost wholly in the repetition of certain formularies; read out of a book called the Book of Common Prayer. On this part of the duty (the work is actually called duty) of the Church of England priest, the following observations are inevitable.1. The repetition of forms of words has a tendency to become a merely mechanical operation, in which the mind has little concern. To whatever extent the repetition of religious formularies becomes mechanical, it is converted into an unmeaning ceremony.2. The formularies themselves are of the nature of mere [261] ceremonies. They consist of creeds; of short sentences called collects, which are commonly words of Scripture thrown into the form of ejaculations, or petitions to God; prayers, especially the Lord’s Prayer; and extracts from the Bible. It is needless to mention the Communion Service, because, excepting the purely mechanical part, handing what is to be eaten and drank, it consists of the same things.It is necessary to bestow a short examination on each of those particulars.Of the repetition of creeds, the best thing which can be said is, that it is purely ceremonial. If it is not ceremonial, it is far worse: it is a forced declaration of belief—in other words, an instrument for generating the worst habit which can be implanted in the human breast—the habit of saying the thing which is not—the habit of affirming as a matter of fact, that which is not a matter of fact—the habit of affirming that a man is conscious of a state of mind, when he is not conscious of it.* This is to poison morality in the very fountain of life. The fine feeling of moral obligation is gone in a mind wherein the habit of insincerity is engendered: nay, more—every man who is possessed of that fatal habit possesses an instrument for the perpetration of every other crime. Mendacity is the pander to the breach of every obligation.The collects, which are short sentences—mostly words of scripture, thrown into the form of ejaculation or petition—we may take along with the prayers; and of the whole lot together we may affirm, that if it is not ceremonial, and without meaning, it is a great deal worse.The most important, by far, of all the religious sentiments is—the distinct, and steady, and perpetually operative conception of what is implied in the words, Almighty Being of perfect wisdom and goodness. Without this, there is no religion. Superstition there may be, in perfection. Priestism is its nature; it is a contrivance of priests, and always manufactured for their ends. When deluded people are made to think ill of the Divine Being, they are in the hands of the priests, and can be made to do whatever the cunning of the order prescribes to them. [262]The tendency of the Church of England prayers is to give a wrong notion of the Divine attributes; and instead of the idea of a Being of perfect wisdom and goodness, to present the idea of a being very imperfect in both. To speak of them in the most general way, we may observe, that perpetually to be asking God for things which we want, believing that this is a way to obtain them, implies the belief that God is imperfect both in wisdom and goodness. Telling God unceasingly of our wants, implies that he needs to be told of them—otherwise it is an unmeaning ceremony. Asking Him continually to do things for us, implies our belief that otherwise he would not do them for us; in other words, our belief, either that God will not do what is right, if he be not begged and entreated to do so—or that, by being begged and entreated, he can be induced to do what is wrong.
[82.] J.S. Mill, Autobiography, ed. Jack Stillinger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971 [1873]), p. 136.
[83.] Alexander Bain, James Mill: A Biography (London: Longmans Green & Co., 1882), p. 90.
[84.] For more particulars see William Thomas, “John Stuart Mill and the Uses of Autobiography,” History, 56 (1971), pp. 341-59.
[85.] For further details see my Reappraising Political Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), ch. 6.
[86.] Murray N. Rothbard, "3.1. "James Mill, the radicals' Lenin", pp. 71-7, in An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought. Volume II "Classical Economics" (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006). And Bruce Mazlish, The Revolutionary Ascetic: Evolution of a Political Type (New York: Basic Books, 1976).