William Gibson. Enlightenment Prelate: Benjamin Hoadly, 1676-1761. Cambridge: James Clarke, 2004. 384 pp. $86.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-227-67978-4.
Reviewed by Paul Monod (Department of History, Middlebury College)
Published on H-Albion (August, 2007)
The Bishop Redeemed
Bishop Benjamin Hoadly deserved a modern biography. He was probably the most prolific, certainly the most controversial, Church of England prelate of the eighteenth century. His voluminous writings virtually defined Latitudinarianism, a position characterized by a tolerance for religious Dissent, an emphasis on individual judgment, and a general dislike for ceremony. Hoadly was at the center of the furious Bangorian controversy (so-called because he was then Bishop of Bangor), which remains one of the least understood disputes in the history of the Church. Despised by contemporary High Churchmen, condemned by Victorian Church historians as a time-serving politician, Hoadly had to wait a long time for a positive reassessment of his career.
His biographer, William Gibson, has written extensively on the eighteenth-century Church of England. Gibson is one of a group of historians who have underlined the intellectual vitality and localized energy of the Church, effectively refuting the Victorian picture of laxity and decline. These revisionists, however, have tended to concentrate on subjects less prickly or polarizing than Bishop Hoadly. Ironically for a man so devoted to tolerance, Hoadly's career seems to defy the Anglican doctrine of adiaphora, or "things indifferent." He was not indifferent to much, and it is hard to be indifferent to him. We either like him, or we do not. Happily for the Bishop, William Gibson evidently likes him a great deal.
There is much to be admired in Hoadly. He was physically disabled from a young age, and had to use walking sticks or crutches for mobility. This did not prevent him from visiting the dioceses over which he presided (Bangor 1716-21, Hereford 1721-23, Salisbury 1723-34, and finally Winchester 1734-61), in spite of nasty claims by his critics that he never set foot in the first three. He made regular surveys or visitations of the clergy in all his dioceses except Bangor, where he asked a neighboring bishop to carry out confirmations. In short, Hoadly's reputation for negligence in his episcopal duties is calumny. While he allowed pluralism, the holding of more than one benefice, as a way of augmenting meager clerical incomes, he also carefully measured distances so as to avoid appointing a cleric to parishes that were too far apart.
Hoadly was always sympathetic towards Dissenting Protestants, defending them against High Church attacks and seeking to reintegrate them into the Anglican Church. According to Gibson, this attitude guided his polemical writings, and was crucial to the Bangorian controversy. It led Hoadly to claim that the Church was a spiritual rather than a temporal institution, and that it therefore lacked the authority to impose penalties on those who disagreed with its teachings. Each individual, in Hoadly's view, had to approach religion through a personal interpretation of Scripture. True Christian belief lay not in ritual observances or the rigorous application of accepted dogmas, but in a heartfelt sincerity. To his critics, Hoadly seemed to undermine the Church entirely by denying the need for structures, discipline, or even common doctrine. In his own mind, he was simply reaffirming the essential religion of Protestants, a religion of voluntarism rather than coercion, of individual faith rather than collective rituals.
In discussing Hoadly's major works, as well as the responses to them, Gibson does not disguise which side he favors. Hoadly's enemies are portrayed as rigid, narrow-minded, and frequently spiteful. Convocation, the clerical assembly that was suspended in 1717 after it censured Hoadly in the Bangorian controversy, is condemned by Gibson as a fractious, repressive body whose silencing benefited the Church. By contrast, the Bishop is shown as an exemplary figure of the Enlightenment, a broad-minded disciple of John Locke, and a precursor of modernity. By focusing so strongly on the issue of tolerance, however, Gibson underplays an aspect of Hoadly's thought that may have been equally important, and certainly antagonized his Tory adversaries: namely, his elevation of the power of the State, which he sometimes described as divinely sanctioned. He never questioned that the State could impose itself on the Church in virtually any way it saw fit, from issuing a prayer book to depriving Nonjuring bishops, so long as individual belief was not violated. In this respect, Hoadly differed fundamentally from John Locke, for whom all State authority was human and strictly limited. Hoadly's view of the State can be called modern--it reflected contemporary Whig attitudes, it resembled the thought of Samuel Pufendorf, and it was similar to French Gallicanism or the "regalism" of the Spanish Bourbons. We are free to wonder, however, whether or not it should be labeled "enlightened."
Hoadly's respect for the power of the State may explain why this champion of voluntary religion accepted an established Church, and was willing to uphold its rules, even when that meant overriding the sincere beliefs of individuals. He insisted, for example, that clerics within his diocese subscribe to the 39 Articles whenever this was required, no matter what their private opinions may have been. Whether he would have supported those Latitudinarians, several of them his former protégés, who called for the suspension of subscription to the 39 Articles in the Feathers Tavern Petition of 1771, may be more of a moot point than Gibson implies. Hoadly's tolerance also stopped short of Roman Catholicism, which he detested, although he was accused of coddling recusants by calling for repeal of the Test Acts.
Unlike Bishop Francis Atterbury, Hoadly did not try to lead a political movement. He was a forerunner of the maverick Anglican clerics of our own times, who raise the most radical questions about their own Church, while adhering to its strictures in their personal behavior. As with some of them, Hoadly's deeper motivations are hard to grasp. He was ambitious, of course, and willing to play the game of politics, but those outer features do not provide us with a key to the inner man. While his ideas glowed with the heat of seventeenth-century Puritanism, his fascination with the court made him seem like a coolly calculating Restoration office seeker. What drove this complex and contradictory man?
The question has not been fully answered in this book. Nevertheless, scholars of the eighteenth century can at least be satisfied that, in Gibson, Hoadly has found a diligent and thorough modern defender, with a fine grasp of contemporary ecclesiastical politics. Gibson's research, in both printed and archival records, is painstaking and admirable. He does make a few small mistakes (as we all do). William III was not a Lutheran (p. 57); "Camisards" is misspelled as "Commissards," evoking a Red scare two centuries too early (p. 98); and the Jacobite who threatened George I's life was Sheppard, not the theatrical sounding Stoppard (p. 183). "Mr. H---y," who won grudging respect in a pro-Sacheverell pamphlet of 1710 (p. 109) seems more likely to be Robert Harley than Benjamin Hoadly. As the author notes, Hoadly was burned in effigy by Henry Sacheverell's angry Tory supporters. Let us hope that, with the publication of this biography, the radical Whig bishop now stands in higher esteem.
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Paul Monod. Review of Gibson, William, Enlightenment Prelate: Benjamin Hoadly, 1676-1761.
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