Dean Swift: The Satirist and his Faith
A Symposium on Jonathan Swift and Christianity, St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, October 19 2002
The Dean and the Dissenters
Ruth A Herman (University of Hertfordshire)
Writing about Swift, is always a difficult, but fascinating, task. And writing about him in the house built upon the site of his very own Deanery is particularly interesting. Is he listening? If he is, I hope that he appreciates that in the following paper on his early published attitude to dissenters I do not seek a window into his soul. I merely wish to look at what he wrote in the context of what his contemporaries may have understood by it in the reign of Queen Anne.
Swift, I believe, like the good public relations man (or spin doctor) that he was, always had an eye on the impression that his writing would make. And writing about dissenters for his fellow English and Irish countrymen (and women) was not merely writing about religion. It was about writing about the way they wanted the country governed and, more pertinently, who they wanted to govern it.
Faith in early 18C England was inextricably bound up with political ideology and religious practice. As a result of the civil wars, jealousy over career opportunities, and all that that entailed, loyalty to one church or other became a party statement. In this paper I will look at how this antagonism and downright sectarianism can be seen to have influenced Swift's writing about dissenters, those protestants whose refusal to accept the terms and conditions of the Established Church seemed to early eighteenth century Anglicans to be undermining the rights and privileges upon which their society was built.
During Swift's lifetime Anglicans' perceptions concerning those outside their own religion was anything but ecumenical. If Roman Catholicism (and James II) had endangered the relationship of the monarch and his people, it was the dissenters, nominally Protestants, who through being associated with the Commonwealth had threatened the very basis of the English monarchical system. Throughout the last half of the seventeenth century they had therefore, in way or another, in the eyes of the Anglicans caused the near break up of the English nation.
During Queen Anne's reign, in less dramatic fashion, but equally insidiously, they once again appeared, at least to the Tories, to be threatening the very fabric of English society by the back door. The apparent reliance of the dissenters upon money rather than land, their infiltration of the political system and their support of the Whigs made them suspect to the land owning Tories who had considered power to be prerogative of estate.
The concessions made through the practice of occasional conformity branded them, it could be argued, as the silent enemy, far less trustworthy than even the Roman Catholics and their incompetent figure-head the Old Pretender. Nor did it go entirely without comment that the rot appeared to have started from the very top, with William III attending Dutch Calvinist services in his native Holland, and receiving dissenting ministers with some sympathy when in England. At least this was the true Blue Tory version.
I will suggest therefore, that when we look at Swift's attitude to Dissenters, particularly as 'published' through his pamphlets and journalism, it displays a distinct sensibility to the nuances of hardening Tory attitudes, even before he was designated such and certainly before he was a party writer. Clearly, Swift if only by his faith, was bound up with his support of the status quo . It is therefore a point worth making that his depiction of dissenters underwent considerable changes in his most popular works from the end of the seventeenth century until the end of Anne's reign.
It is surely no coincidence that the beginning of Swift's brilliant career in satire and A Tale of a Tub coincided with the ineffectual Blasphemy Act of 1697, which attempted, but failed to stem the flow of anti-clerical tracts and treaties. Whatever the arguments about Swift's early Whiggism, his natural Tory-ness and his therefore natural distrust of dissenters seems to have found some outlet in his Tale of Tub and its partner The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit.
If we take a longitudinal view of Swift's published opinions on dissenters, they change in tone dramatically with the balance of power. ATale of a Tub, was written in the late 1690s. At this point dissenters, although distrusted by good Anglicans, were supported by the status quo. The Tory Right had not hardened into an identifiable and cohesive force. The Tale sits in this accommodating atmosphere as an almost cheerful satire, with a burlesque view of 'Jack' Calvin as he tears the New Testament coat into ribbons, and perverts his 'Father's' will. The scatological twinkle in Swift's eye is clearly present as Jack's ludicrous adherence to the very text of the New Testament is taken to its extreme when, unable to find the 'authentic phrase' for directions to the toilet he fouls himself, and then in equally strict, but with even dafter logic, he refuses to clean himself up, because he 'met with a passage near the bottom' – what carefully chosen words! – 'which seemed to forbid it'.
The satire, while still apparent in the 'follow up' to A Tale, The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit has a distinctly bitter edge. The belching and humming Aeolists, lampooned for tilting at windmills and fearing the air-gulping chameleon, become far more sinister. The trapped wind of the Banbury 'Saint' becomes the origin of the peculiar nasal tone supposedly used by puritan preachers.
Throughout this text, Swift's anger (in a metaphorically apt way) bubbles to the surface, his pen excoriates instead of teasing. In the place of allegory and symbolism, and an almost affectionate disapproval of the silly brothers, Peter and Jack, the dissenters are named, and shamed: 'John of Leyden, David George, Adam Neuster … whose visions and revelations always terminated in leading about half a dozen sisters a-piece.'
As though intending to bring the point home, Swift shortly after this focuses on the Quakers and their 'visionary devotion', which simply acts a spur for 'inflaming brotherly love' that inevitably proceeds to 'raise that of a gallant'. Again, this bitterness may well have been informed by the reformulation of the factions after 1697, where as the church historian G.V. Bennett describes it, the 'new High Church party' began to attack William's ministers without mercy, and no doubt to Swift's horror, the Church of Ireland seemed 'dead on its feet'. While Swift's language is strong, either in its (albeit jovial) satire or its invective, and while we can see the firm foundations of the hostility embedded in the politics of this period, Swift's texts still fall short of the anger with which Tories attacked just a few years later.
If we go forward another few years to 1708 Swift's position had now shifted so that he was beginning to be personally implicated in the balance of power between Anglicans and Dissenters. At this time he produced two pamphlets which similarly to the previous pair show two sides of his print-views about the erosion of the Church of England's power-base.
One, An Argument against Abolishing Christianity, shows Swift in an equally ironic, if less playful mood than in A Tale of a Tub. The problem of the dissenter had, however, become more urgent, and Swift's more direct strategy is politically more effective. At the time of writing, in the newly unified Britain of 1708, there was a general election in the offing or in progress, and the Pretender had just launched a lack-lustre though much feared invasion attempt. While the all-powerful Whigs continued to suggest that the Tory and Stuart causes were somehow linked, the threat to the hegemony of the Church of England seemed ever stronger from opponents from the other end of the religious scale, the Dissenters.
The Anglican's hope, Secretary of State Robert Harley (although he himself came from a dissenting family) had resigned under a cloud and the Godolphin and Marlborough Ministry was finally forced to succumb to the Whigs in order to guarantee continued funding of the War of the Spanish Succession If the Argument was written during this period of a likely, and subsequently confirmed, Whig landslide it is hardly surprising that Swift exhibits a disquiet for the future of the Established Church.
His opening comments that it was 'neither safe nor prudent' to support 'Christianity at a juncture when all parties appear so unanimously determined' to abolish it seem to place it perfectly at this historical moment. Argument is littered with ironic gems. With his tongue firmly in his cheek Swift suggests that only fifty years previously (during the hey-day of Cromwell's dissenting inter-regnum) 'a project for the abolishing of Christianity' would have been considered absurd. Is it because it would have been impossible to abolish an Established Church that no longer existed in a world of dissenters? With the same kind of double bluff he insists that he is not suggesting the restoration of the 'real' Christianity – the kind that Christ practised. Indeed, he argues, the economy, the arts and the sciences could never withstand that kind of shock – lip service to primitive Christianity is all he seeks, which he implies is all that the money-driven Dissenters give, even though they claim to be the real successors to the Primitive Church.
The Sentiments of a Church of England Man is altogether a more political document. Its serious tone presents as a contrast to the Argument just the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit offers the 'hard' edge to A Tale of a Tub. Despite his claims that he is not accusing either Whigs or Tories of any desire to alter the status quo, almost immediately he points out that since the 'Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Independents, and other sects' found themselves united against the Church in the early days of the Restoration, 'present dissenters do naturally close in with the Whigs, who profess moderation', and they will not prevent the dissenters being 'denied the privilege and profit of serving their country'.
Tory Anglicans, already smarting under the lack of opportunity for 'privilege and profit' under the Whig administration, could surely see the danger signs which Swift clearly flags for them. Sects are 'mistaken'. Dissension is 'evil'. But most significantly, dissenters should not be allowed to 'advance their own models upon the ruin of what is already established'. In a state where religion is intrinsic to the government, this is a roundabout way of saying that dissenters should have no part in legislature.
This is an attack on the Whigs who, Swift claims, are not 'over nice', that is over precise, in distinguishing between an 'unlimited liberty of conscience and unlimited freedom of opinion'. In this way they appear to be willing to allow these 'free-thinkers' to the 'highest employment so state'. After all, unlike the true Church of England man, why should these 'free-thinkers', once admitted to the 'highest employments' not take the opportunity to change the rules? A dissenter does not have the 'true veneration for the scheme established among us of ecclesiastical government'. While Swift's words say 'ecclesiastical government', do they not also imply 'government' in general? For a depressed Tory electorate, what might come next?
Earlier in the text Swift had already planted the seed that each man believes himself to have a 'real share' in public affairs. When it changes from an 'imaginary' one to an actual one, as he projects in the case of the dissenters, where can this lead? As he astutely points out, 'when those who dislike the constitution, are so very zealous in their offers for the service of their country they are not wholly unmindful of their party or of themselves'.
He suggests it is unnervingly similar to the treatment they were receiving before the Glorious Revolution when they could be coupled with the Roman Catholics in order to outflank the Anglicans. The linking continues by yoking together all the things which would raise a good Church of England man's hackles: Swift suggests the dissenters are simultaneously talking about 'our brethren the Roman Catholics' while complaining that they are still being accused of murdering Charles I. This kind of propaganda was clearly in the political air at the time.
Comparing it with a draft pamphlet that Robert Harley was also writing in 1708. Harley, later Earl of Oxford, led the Tories to victory in the 1710 election, by which time he had become a great friend and patron Swift's. In his paper Harley echoes Swift's concerns that the dissenters are being favoured by the Whigs in order to win their support. He wonders how everyone 'does not every one see how a faction [the Whigs] has been industriously kindled & perverted in the Church upon the frivolous pretences, to what other purpose but that socinianisme, Arianisme, Deisme, & all manner of absurd opinions against Christianity and common morality might flourish and encrease; while the orthodox members are discountenanced and disgraced'.
Harley was as concerned as Swift about the influence of the dissenters in national government – he suggests that it is akin to the troubles the Church of England found itself in before the Glorious Revolution. This comment on how well the dissenters were being treated in comparison to those who should have been favoured matches Swift's concession that the dissenters could have as much liberty of conscience as they like – but no power!
I finish my discussion of the Sentiments with this mockingly liberal attitude to dissenters before moving onto The Examiner because Swift's writing clearly continues to focus on them. Not surprisingly, his tone becomes more savage when he begins to write for the Tory ministry's mouthpiece. The Tory-line antagonism was undoubtedly reinforced by the sweeping political changes that had occurred in the two years between the 1708 election and the inception of the Examiner in August 1710.
By the time Swift took over its pages, the Tories had triumphed in the 1710 elections, partly on a 'Church in danger' ticket. The enthusiasm for the Church had continued at a high point after the commotion caused by the trial of the High Church Dr Sacheverell and his triumphant performance at his impeachment for preaching a rabidly High Tory anti-Whig ministry sermon at St Paul's in the previous year.
We have to bear these changes in mind when reading Swift's Examiner and particularly his heightened denunciation of the dissenters and all they stood for. We should recall his claim not to be a 'bigot in religion' that he made in Sentiments of a Church of England Man, because frankly, his comments on non-Anglican protestants are inflammatory. Politically, this already places Swift in the red hot Tory Secretary of State St John's camp.
Harley, clearly thinking of the damage that might have followed if he had published his earlier proto-pamphlet, had made overtures to the dissenters prior to the election. He had offered them financial inducements in an effort to seduce them from the Whigs.
Meanwhile, the other wing of the party (led by St. John, the man who was Harley's rival for leadership) were virulently attacking the dissenters. Indeed, their followers had already done it physically during Sacheverell's trial, destroying dissenting meeting-houses. Therefore, Swift's sneer in his first Examiner, No 14 at the early Whigs who had begun by 'caressing the Dissenters' and his continued sniping at the non-conformists continued right through Swift's period in the editor's chair. If we look at this logically, it seems quite peculiar, since it was his political patron, Harley who had just been doing precisely the same caressing.
If I finished the paper at this point, it would seem fairly obvious that Swift's personal opinion on Dissenters follows entirely in the footsteps of his published one. However, as always with Swift it's not that easy. When reading his letters, in which there are not that many opinions expressed about Dissenters anyway, it appears that this may well that this antagonism may be as much a 'political' attitude as a spiritual one.
There is no question that he is opposed to the repeal of the Test Act, which lays down attendance at Church as a prerequisite to official office. In 1703, 1708 and 1711 he vigorously denounces the move to his fellow clerics in Dublin, particularly Archbishop King. However, we should recall that this Act was primarily a political one, intended to ring fence political and official office away from Dissenters and Roman Catholics.
In terms of his attitude to dissenters on a personal level, he seems remarkably relaxed. He refers to Mr Shute, appointed Secretary to Lord Wharton ironically as a 'Moderate' man, who attends the 'Church and Meeting House indifferently', but also as a 'young man, … reckoned the shrewdest Head in England'. To be called 'Moderate' was not necessarily a compliment at this point (it was more of a suggestion of accommodating and unscrupulous compliance) but if we can be permitted to judge Swift's tone through the letter, it is not one of bitter condemnation. It is more amused admiration at the slick operator that Mr Shute is generally judged to be.
And, even more significantly, in 1711, when he spitting venom at the Dissenters through the pages of the Examiner he seems perfectly happy to spend time with William Penn the Quaker, if his letters to his friend Stella in Dublin are to be believed. In fact on 7 October 1711 he was happily ensconced with Harley, Harley's son-in-law and Penn, 'drinking as good wine as you do', while only two months later he was declaring that 'while the Dissenters, to gratify their Ambition and Revenge, fell into the basest Compliances with the Court'.
Where does this leave us? I would suggest that we should not take Swift's published writing on Dissenters at face value. As so often with Swift and his journalistic contemporaries, we should not make assumptions that his heart, rather than his head, lies behind everything that he wrote. Instead, I would look at the historical context of much of it and suggest that Swift was a canny writer. He knew better than most the effect of words on the electorate. This made him a brilliant and effective propagandist, but not necessarily an inveterate hater of dissenters.
(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Bob Mahony and Dr Roy Johnston 2002; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.