The Christian Monitors: The Church of England and the Age of Benevolence, 1680-1730

The Christian Monitors: The Church of England and the Age of Benevolence, 1680-1730

by Brent S. Sirota

View All Available Formats & Editions

This original and persuasive book examines the moral and religious revival led by the Church of England before and after the Glorious Revolution, and shows how that revival laid the groundwork for a burgeoning civil society in Britain. After outlining the Church of England's key role in the increase of voluntary, charitable, and religious societies, Brent Sirota


This original and persuasive book examines the moral and religious revival led by the Church of England before and after the Glorious Revolution, and shows how that revival laid the groundwork for a burgeoning civil society in Britain. After outlining the Church of England's key role in the increase of voluntary, charitable, and religious societies, Brent Sirota examines how these groups drove the modernization of Britain through such activities as settling immigrants throughout the empire, founding charity schools, distributing devotional literature, and evangelizing and educating merchants, seamen, and slaves throughout the British empire—all leading to what has been termed the “age of benevolence.”

Editorial Reviews

Rachel Weil

“An excellent piece of scholarship, The Christian Monitors is a superbly researched, interesting and genuinely original account of the Church of England at a time of upheaval. Sirota's rich account of the institutional experiments in voluntary association is an important intervention in the intertwined historiographies of the public sphere, the age of projects, secularization and the Enlightenment.”—Rachel Weil, Cornell University
Jon Butler

The Christian Monitors is a particularly delightful read. It presents a complicated, sophisticated understanding of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century religious and political issues with exceptional clarity.”—Jon Butler, Yale University
John Spurr

“Sirota boldly reconceives the birth of civil society in Britain and makes good his claims with sophisticated argument, vivid detail, and humane sympathy for his subjects. ‘Church history’ has never looked so vital, vibrant or important as it does in this compelling and enjoyable book. This is a major contribution to the history of late Stuart and Georgian Britain.”—John Spurr, Swansea University
Justin Champion

“Sirota’s book delivers a brilliant account of the nature of religious power and ambition in the Augustan age. This careful, deeply researched, and lucidly written book provides a significant story, delineating how the elite and provincial clergy adapted in different ways to the pluralist conditions of post-1689. The work brings a further perspective to the existing high calibre scholarship of Geoffrey Holmes, Gareth Bennett and Jonathan Clark.”—Justin Champion, University of London
The Living Church

“A lively text and it offers a new way to understand the evolution of religious expression – belief and practice – at the dawn of ‘modernity.’”—The Living Church
The Journal of British Studies

“This razor-sharp debut merits wide and close attention. Its interventions should lead scholars to reconsider the role of religion in the tumults and transformations of Augustan Britain and rethink the great questions of modernization and secularization that continue to animate interest in the period—all with the Church of England at the center of their attention.”—The Journal of British Studies
History: Reviews of New Books - Gregory Dodds

“If I were to recommend one academic book to specialists, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates about the formation of Anglicanism and the role that the church played in the development of British civil society in the eighteenth century, it would be this book.”—Gregory Dodds, History: Reviews of New Books
North American Conference on British Studies - John Ben Snow Prize

Winner of the 2015 John Ben Snow Prize awarded by the North American Conference on British Studies.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History
Product dimensions:
8.30(w) x 11.90(h) x 1.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Church of England and the Age of Benevolence, 1680—1730

By Brent S. Sirota


Copyright © 2014 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16710-8


Revival and Revolution

On 7 October 1688, Thomas Tenison celebrated the communion service according to the Book of Common Prayer in the bustling Westminster parish of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. Less than half a mile from Whitehall, St. Martin's stood, as it were, upon the fault line of the widening breach between the established Church of England and its supreme governor, the Roman Catholic monarch James II. Its chancel that day was permeated by the revolutionary crisis that had since the previous summer engulfed the kingdom. The incumbent Tenison was one of the leading anti-Catholic controversialists among the London clergy and an architect of the clerical opposition to the ecclesiastical policies of the king. His wealthy Westminster parish was a popular resort for men seeking sacramental qualification for public service under the terms of the Test Act, the repeal of which had become the king's primary domestic policy objective. That Sunday, Tenison's sermon on 2 Timothy 3:16 comprised another sally in the ongoing controversy over the Protestant rule of faith. Against the disparagements of the Jesuit Charles Petre at mass the previous Sunday, Tenison affirmed "the Scriptures to be our only rule of faith, and its perfection above all traditions." Sporadic anti-Catholic rioting in anticipation of the imminent invasion of the Prince of Orange was already afoot throughout London, and Petre's remarks had provoked an angry crowd to pull the Jesuit bodily from the pulpit, causing "a great disturbance in the City." Amidst the incipient popular violence in the metropolis, Tenison's anti-Catholic obloquy from the pulpit bordered on incendiary. The following prayer for "the whole state of Christ's Church militant here in earth" might have struck his parishioners as unusually resonant amidst the deepening crisis of national Protestantism. Tenison then consecrated the elements and administered the sacrament of the Lord's Supper to nearly one thousand communicants.

The Church of England seemed to be rising up against its supreme governor while kneeling. Such was the paradox of revolutionary Anglicanism, that is, the manner in which the church participated in the events of the Revolution of 1688-1689. Ecclesiastical engagement in the Revolution was of decisive political import, even as the church frequently seemed to eschew politics. Revolutionary Anglicanism routinely took the form of a pious "antipolitics," generally expressed as strict conformity, dexterous controversy, and diligent ministry of care. What, then, was the nature of ecclesiastical participation in the Revolution of 16881689? This chapter traces the origins of the various methods by which the Church of England sought to secure its flock from Roman Catholic aggrandizement. How did a set of ostensibly nonpolitical pastoral practices acquire revolutionary force during the political and ecclesiastical crisis of the reign of James? And how did the adoption of these instruments determine the character of the postrevolutionary Anglicanism of the eighteenth century?

The centrality of the established Church of England to the crisis that consumed the monarchy of James II is exceedingly well known, and yet little consensus exists on the nature of revolutionary Anglicanism. Indeed, for many historians, the term verges on oxymoron. Scholars of the period are routinely confronted with a vision of the established church standing at the center of revolutionary turmoil, yet to which no revolutionary politics or ideology may be ascribed. How are we to make sense of this seeming contradiction? After all, the Revolution of 1688–1689 is still widely considered "a religious event of the first importance." Bill Speck claims that it was "more clerical than feudal or bourgeois" at least in its initial stages. In the abeyance of Parliament during the latter years of James's reign, Jonathan Scott points out, national leadership effectively devolved upon the Anglican clergy. Similarly, Tim Harris's recent account emphasizes "the crucial role of the Anglican interest, and especially the clerical establishment, in standing up against James's initiatives." Ecclesiastical opposition certainly precipitated the catastrophic crisis that ended the regime of James II, even as many churchmen balked at the constitutional transformations that followed in its wake. Yet there remains widespread disagreement over the social and ideological resources mobilized by the Church of England in its defiance of James II and its collaboration with the regime of his revolutionary successors William and Mary.

Historians have, with a few exceptions, considered the Revolution of 1688–1689 as a crisis in the political theology of the established church and have thus sought for revolutionary Anglicanism somewhere among the church's professed beliefs regarding monarchy and political power more generally. Seldom have historians investigated the church's pastoral practices during the crisis, the myriad ways in which the bonds between clergy and flock were reinforced even as those between church and state frayed.

Revolutionary Anglicanism, it was once widely held, was the leaven of latitudinarianism. An ill-defined strain of theological modernism, variously associated with rationalism, liberalism, and practical ethics, latitudinarianism is frequently ascribed to the putatively moderate clergy that dominated the pulpits of London and Westminster. The term "latitudinarianism" generally signals a broad churchmanship, willing to accommodate some degree of doctrinal and liturgical heterogeneity in pursuit of a common ground of popular Protestantism, anti-Calvinist moral theology, and what was sometimes called "reasonable" Christianity. Latitudinarians are commonly, albeit now controversially, credited with an affinity for natural philosophy and an interest in various forms of reconciliation among the varieties of English Protestantism. During the revolutionary crisis, Thomas Babbington Macaulay claims, "the whole Church seemed to be animated by the spirit and guided by the counsels, of the calumniated latitudinarians." Gerald Cragg credits the latitudinarians with most quickly and most publicly repudiating the Anglican political theology of passive obedience and the divine right of kings. Martin Griffin places the latitudinarians at the vanguard of the revolutionary Church of England, "the most forward and articulate Anglicans" in their support of the Revolution. And Gordon Rupp hails their "manful share in the church struggle under James II." Margaret Jacob, it should be noted, detects among the latitudinarians a profound ambivalence toward the Revolution that gave way to accommodation and support only after the fait accompli of the political and ecclesiastical settlement, and even then not without misgivings. In effect, she claims, latitudinarianism became a revolutionary movement only after the Revolution was complete.

Many scholars, however, have begun to question the utility and coherence of the concept of latitudinarianism as the embodiment of either a distinct religious ideology or an ecclesiastical party within the late-seventeenth-century Church of England. Scholars such as Richard Ashcraft, John Marshall, and John Spurr have ruthlessly deconstructed latitudinarian claims to reason, moderation, and religious liberalism. Spurr even goes so far as to deny the existence of any recognizable latitudinarian party or outlook among the Restoration clergy, considering it mainly a term of Nonconformist opprobrium against those Anglicans most concerned in the repudiation of Calvinist soteriology. The religious rationalism and practical moral theology specifically attributed to latitudinarianism, he suggests, comprised a theological orientation generally espoused among the mainstream of Restoration divines. Gareth Bennett affirms the importance of the London clergy in the Revolution and its aftermath but disclaims their common latitudinarianism, suggesting that most were in fact "moderate Tories," largely bound together by the patronage of the influential Finch family and its high-church scion Daniel Finch, Earl of Nottingham. The latitudinarian faction that Whig historians once confidently placed at the forefront of a revolutionary Anglicanism has been serially dissolved into the mainstream of an intolerant and Erastian Restoration Church of England.

In the light of the chorus of objections to the notion of latitudinarianism, historians have attempted to preserve the social and ideological coherence of the revolutionary London divines by other means. According to Roger Thomas, the city divines at the forefront of the opposition were united by a broader Protestant ecumenism and concomitant antipathy to Roman Catholicism. Tony Claydon brands the opposition churchmen of the metropolis "the Burnetine clergy," linked largely by the court patronage of the Whig cleric Gilbert Burnet, whom William promoted to the see of Salisbury in January 1689, and a common belief in the "mid-Tudor" ideals of "godly magistracy and moral reform." While Claydon believes that the Williamite divines were essentially moderates, who elaborated their justification of the revolution in order "to pursue an ecclesiological compromise between Whig and Tory," Steve Pincus locates them firmly in the Whig camp. Against Spurr, Pincus insists that the men he calls the "low church" clergy were not part of the mainstream of Restoration Anglicanism but comprised a pool of "simmering dissidence within the pre-revolutionary church." These metropolitan low churchmen were not, as Bennett insists, moderate Tories but "had at least as many significant associations with notorious Whigs and advocates of religious toleration," among both Anglican and Nonconformist circles. Bereft of any "distinctive theological outlook," the low-church clergy adopted the broad tenets of revolutionary Whiggery, defending the legitimacy of political resistance, disclaiming coercion in matters of faith, and pressing for a more comprehensive ecclesiastical settlement.

A recent strain of revisionist historiography has attempted to solve the vexed problem of ecclesiastical participation in the Revolution of 1688–1689 by positing an earlier, orthodox insurgency led not by the younger metropolitan divines, but by the reactionary Caroline bishops and their ideological allies among the partisans of the high church. This "Anglican revolution," according to Mark Goldie, effectively absolves the Church of England of the familiar charge of apostasy, that Anglicans hypocritically abandoned their deeply held political theological convictions of passive obedience and divine right monarchy in the face of the aggressively Romanizing James II. Resistance among Anglicans, Goldie insists, occurred entirely "within their existing political catechism," militating not against royal absolutism per se, but rather against a royal absolutism erected on behalf of the confessional rivals of the established church. Goldie thus posits an Anglican revolution, undertaken to restore the intolerant "church absolutism" that prevailed in the first half of the 1680s. The Anglican revolution was designed, according to Gareth Bennett, "to rebuild the Tory system." By October 1688, this revolution had substantially succeeded in pressuring James to abandon his policies on behalf of Roman Catholicism and toleration, thus healing the breach between crown and altar and restoring the Stuart monarchy "to its proper place in the Anglican firmament." The triumphant Church of England then had no need for the invasion of William of Orange the following month or the transformative political revolution that followed the flight of James II. This second, Williamite revolution transgressed the bounds of orthodox political theology and rendered the Anglican platform of church absolutism substantially unsalvageable. The ecclesiastical leadership of the Anglican revolution then retreated into political quietism (and eventually, nonjuring) and left their Tory allies to preserve what was left of a damaged Anglican establishment. Tim Harris also places the traditional supporters of the late Stuart monarchy, "the Tory-Anglicans in England," at the forefront of what he calls "a revolution before the actual Revolution," designed to restore the status quo ante. Harris, it must be noted, suggests that the proponents of Anglican revolution had largely surrendered the revanchist dream of reconstructing a coercive "church absolutism" and had conceded the political necessity of a legislative toleration on behalf of Protestant Dissent as the price of Anglican hegemony. Revolutionary Anglicanism, in this telling, was thus neither Whiggish nor successful, but rather a broadly reactionary movement undermined by the exogenous shock of the Williamite revolution from which orthodox churchmen largely abstained.

The Revolution of 1688–1689, according to a divergent line of revisionism, was neither a latitudinarian coup nor an abortive church reaction. Revolutionary Anglicanism was both reactionary and triumphant. According to Gerald Straka, the Revolution was not a repudiation of traditional Anglican political theology at all; on the contrary, "the Revolution was not a departure, but a restoration of true divine right Protestant monarchy and a return to the national unity of Elizabeth's great days." Anglicans across the theological spectrum justified the Revolution in providential terms, deploying the "divine right of providence" as "a means of continuing in modified form the more personal divine right of Stuart kings." Heavenly superintendence, not popular resistance, had defeated James II and facilitated "a return to the perfect Church-state unity." The influence of Straka's thesis has been enormously amplified by its incorporation into Jonathan Clark's study English Society 1660–1832, which claims that the Revolution of 1688–1689 was an instance in which "the Church was defended before the monarchy." In this reading, the Revolution was a successful revolt of church against state, a confirmation of the virtually uninterrupted ascendancy of reactionary high-church Anglicanism.

The problems with such political theological accounts of Anglican participation in the Revolution of 1688-1689 are manifold. First, the demarcations of postrevolutionary ecclesiastical partisanship, terms such as "high church" and "low church," which were not current before the final years of William's reign, have little purchase on the contours of either Restoration churchmanship or theology. The Restoration Church of England was of course by no means theologically or politically monolithic, but its various tendencies and affinities remained fairly fluid and did not correspond to the hardened factions and ecclesiastical parties of its postrevolutionary successor. Historians will continue to ignore at their own peril the powerful and persuasive admonitions of John Spurr and, more recently, William Bulman regarding these anachronisms. Second, party political and party ideological accounts tend to elide the extraordinary degree of collaboration between various circles and networks within the Restoration church, the divisions among which were porous and often had more to do with geography, sociability, and patronage than with party affiliation and ideology. Bulman is correct to point out that the Church of England under James II was characterized by an extraordinary degree of unity, which studies committed to partisan frameworks of analysis remain at great pains to comprehend. Finally, the excessive focus on partisanship and political theology obscures the extent to which a common pastoral agenda and program of religious renewal was shared by a wide swath of churchmen during this period, many of whom would wind up on different sides of the Revolution settlement. The imperatives of Anglican revival were not the province of one ecclesiastical party, nor were they linked to any particular political platform. A political study of the Anglican revival cannot hope to begin with the party political character of its agenda; it can begin only by tracing the vicissitudes of its politicization—or rather, its multiple, often contradictory, politicizations.

Revolutionary Anglicanism cannot be grasped through the lens of political theology. The Revolution of 1688-1689 coincided with a revolution in pastoral practices rooted in the Restoration crisis late in the reign of Charles II. Anglican participation in the Revolution is best understood within the context of this Anglican revival, what one historian has dubbed "a small awakening" afoot in the late Restoration Church of England, particularly in the famously fissiparous capital of London and its environs. The final years of Charles II's reign, John Overton observes, came closest to realizing "the grand idea of a Church truly coextensive with the nation, and adequately supplying all that nation's spiritual wants." Of course, the church of the later Restoration period is largely known for its intransigent royalism, its cherished "theory of religious intolerance," and its growing appetite for the use of coercion in matters of faith. One cannot underestimate the role vicious religious persecution played in propping up Anglican hegemony, but the widespread investment in popular Anglicanism at this time suggests a real cognizance of the limits of coercion. Or perhaps these efforts disclose a lingering mistrust of the House of Stuart, whose serial apostasies may have persuaded some churchmen of the need to provide for the national communion even against the betrayals of its supreme governors. The painstaking work of Anglican renewal in the later seventeenth century thus operated along two potentially divergent orientations: toward court and parish, or toward state and society. The Restoration Church of England was eager to acquire some measure of constitutional security in the supremacy of its royal governor. Yet the church also sought to refurbish its pastoral capacity and devotional life to guarantee some continuity of popular affection irrespective of the vicissitudes of court politics. Even as it hewed closer to the Stuart court, the church seemed oriented toward what John Sommerville describes as "a new foundation in popular opinion, rather than in political might."

Excerpted from THE CHRISTIAN MONITORS by Brent S. Sirota. Copyright © 2014 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Brent Sirota is an assistant professor in the Department of History at North Carolina State University. He lives in Durham, NC.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >