The Reading Room

Daniel Defoe: Religious Liberty in An Age of Militant Sectarianism

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe made a lasting impression on me as a boy. But I seem to have missed the theme, which historians view as religious salvation—“deliverance”—and religious tolerance. 
Nor did I get around, back then, to the sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which focuses (amidst the usual adventures) on religious tolerance and how to achieve it.
Daniel Defoe did not write his first novel, called for short, Robinson Crusoe, until age 59. His was a varied, adventurous, and surprising life for the last half of the seventeenth century and first half of the eighteenth century (1660-1732). But one theme ran through his life: his efforts (and sacrifices) on behalf of religious liberty in an age of shifting and dangerous crosscurrents of oppression.
It could be argued that he inherited that struggle. He was born Daniel “Foe” in the working-class London area of Cripplegate, the son of a butcher actively committed to dissident Presbyterianism. That portended a life of conflict that a young man hardly needed in that era. 
Daniel was born the year of the momentous Restoration of a king (Charles II) to rule over Britain some 10 years after the English Civil War, the execution of King Charles I, and the Commonwealth launched by “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell. The political upheavals were fraught with struggles over religion.
The Presbyterian church that Daniel’s father attended had been closed, its minister expelled. The Foes followed him to a new location and church. Daniel’s father arranged an entirely dissident Presbyterian education for him—including training to become a minister.
Before age 20, Daniel concluded this was a “disaster” and began working as a trader. He had lofty ambitions for wealth and social status and, initially, by borrowing (too much) capital, achieved rapid success. In his brief prosperity, he married well; Mary Tuffley, daughter of a London Merchant, brought with her a huge dowry. 
He did not settle down to married life. The next year, 1685, he joined the doomed Monmouth Rebellion to depose James II, who had succeeded his brother, Charles II, as king. Dissident Protestants (e.g., Daniel), artisans, and farmworkers--opposing the Catholicism of James--made up  the Duke of Monmouth’s army. 
They were easily defeated by government forces at the Battle of Sedgemoor, July 8. Monmouth was beheaded and many followers punished with death or transportation, but Foe, by then well-placed socially, obtained a pardon.
Victorious King James II consolidated power, but a few years later (1689) was succeeded by Queen Mary and her Dutch-born husband, William III. Daniel became one of William’s closest allies and his agent—or so he repeatedly alleged or implied; his claim is challenged by historians. 
It did not keep him out of trouble. In 1692, arrested for huge debts, he declared bankruptcy and went to debtor’s prison. Released in a couple years, he traveled abroad as a trader. It was then that he changed his name from “Foe” to “Defoe.” How he chose his new name is debated, but he likely made the change to deprive critics of an easy put-down of the argumentative polemics (by “Foe”) he had started to write.
Home in 1695, Defoe served as a royal commissioner and returned to business. He also began a lifetime of writing. To list his publications requires many pages. One well-known list ascribes to him 545 books, poems, pamphlets, journals, and materials for the periodicals he created and edited. Scholars still offer new competing lists of works identified as published under Defoe’s myriad pen names. 
Politics, crime, religion, marriage, psychology, and the supernatural; he addressed them all. In addition, he pioneered business and economic journalism, including influential proposals for reform of trade, banking, insurance, currency, international commerce, and labor unions (An Essay Upon Projects for social and economic improvement, published 1697)
From this time, he addressed the religious controversies of his contentious era--aware daily of social, political, and economic disabilities attendant upon his Presbyterianism.
He defended King William, including in his most famous poem, “The True-Born Englishman,” which replied to xenophobic attacks on the Dutch-born monarch. The poem, in particular, brought Defoe a reputation that put him at risk in 1702 when William died. Replacing him, Queen Anne immediately attacked “Nonconformists.” Defoe became a target. 
Historians suggest Defoe knew the risks, but, when it came to religion, was not inclined to back down. In December 1702, he published his historic pamphlet “The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church.”
Like much Defoe wrote, this pamphlet inspired later classics. He prefigured the searing, corrosive satire of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (to use Irish babies for food). Defoe in his pamphlet took the pose of the established Church of England, the Anglican Communion, and argued with rigorous logic for the (establishment) case for exterminating dissenters (such as Presbyterians, of course). He thus ruthlessly mocked “high church Tories,” but also dissenters who temporized with “occasional conformity.”
The anonymous author of the pamphlet soon was exposed (surely no surprise to Defoe) and he was arrested and charged with “seditious libel.” In a trial at Old Bailey, a famous “hanging judge” sentenced him to a fine of £336 (£60,000, today), the pillory, and then imprisonment until he paid the fine. History is indeterminate on what happened during his three days in the public pillory. His satire had won him ardent defenders and there are reports, doubted by scholars, that the mob pelted the helpless Defoe with flowers, not rotten apples or turnips.
Defoe then entered Newgate prison, but not for long. He had a reputation. The Earl of Oxford sprung him and paid much of his debt on condition Defoe become a spy for the Tories.
Defoe walked out of prison just in time to witness the historic Great Storm of 1703, which uprooted whole forests and killed more than 8,000 people (mostly lost at sea). Defoe responded as always: He wrote something. His book, The Storm (1704), relying on eyewitness accounts, was another “first”—a pioneering exercise in modern journalism. (Defoe later published books on London’s Great Fire and Great Plague, both of which he experienced as a little boy.)
The same year, he launched a new journal on French politics, published three times a week for nine years, mostly written by Defoe, to advocate the British case in the War of Spanish Succession. By now, he was working clandestinely for the Whigs, but writing still as a Tory to undermine the Tory viewpoint.
Ahead lay his career as a novelist with views on salvation, religious liberty, and tolerance made immortal in his first novel, Robinson Crusoe, and its sequel.