The 18th century in regard to England is known as the period of Religious Enlightenment and the proliferation of various religious sects. The age of William Paley, Samuel Johnson, and John Wesley pre-echoed the age of Victorian religion when human minds turned to the search of God with great enthusiasm. In terms of faith, the 18th century has received firmament in the conflicts for religious independency, the conflicts between Catholicism and English Protestantism, the conflicts between circular and church authorities.
Amidst those currents of energy and reflection, one can agree with Johnson’s statement about every man having the liberty of mind (85). But if one would project the idea of rational libertarianism onto the overall state infrastructure, it would become clear that the idea of political integrity and intellectual freedom may not correspond to each other. In the 18th century, the Anglican Church dominated over Methodist and other minor doctrines because Anglican Church served the interests of the state. It consolidated economic and political power through tithes and legislation.
On the one hand, every human being was free to believe in whatever manner he chose. On the other hand, every citizen was obliged to believe in the manner that was more preferable for the state. Johnson proposed to solve the conflict between an individual faith and a citizenship faith by excluding martyrdom. Once in England thousands of Catholics used to be murdered by the Protestant Queen, and vice versa. In the new era of rational minds, nobody had to be murdered for the issues of faith. Economic relations started to penetrate into the realm of spirit and religion.
William Paley stated that the faith rested on three pillars: ideology, human religion and a legal provision. That system would get further development in the writings of later economists and politicians. Against the aforesaid background, the ideas of John Wesley about repentance and justification by faith create an even more interesting effect. While Paley spoke about church’s utility and the higher order of clergymen, Wesley concentrated on human natural desire to be happy that could be reached in Methodism.
No wonder that thousand people started turning their faces from the official Church some tens of years later. By the beginning of the 19th century a lot of Englishmen striving for revelation would enter the embraces of religious sextants. Finally, I would like to express my admiration at Philip Stanhope’s letters to his son who was in Germany. It seems that the fourth Earl of Chesterfield showed us a human face of the 18th century. All his thoughts are applicable to the modern times. First, he warned his son against “laziness of mind” adding, “Whatever you do, do it to the purpose” (78).
It is surprising that almost 200 years ago the purpose of a human life was regarded as a longitudinal process of gaining knowledge and skills. Who could argue the idea that life and experience ensure the most perfect learning environment for a thinking being? Any modern educator could trace the pre-ideas of active learning and experimental instructions in those Stanhope’s words. Stanhope wanted his son and any other intellectual individual to think critically and rationally because the world was far too wide for any frames.
Simultaneously, he was sure that being rational did not necessarily mean mocking at different points of view. In Stanhope’s opinion, a man of knowledge should care about himself and the interests of the state. Given all these, the right to know becomes a privilege for a clever person. I would like to cite here marvelous words by Stanhope about human knowledge: Wear your learning like a watch, in a private pocket: and do not pull it out and strike it; merely to show that you have one. If you are asked what o’clock it is, tell it; but do not proclaim it hourly and unasked, like the watchman.
Like knowledge in Stanhope’s metaphor about a watch, religion should also be present in human life but without imposing itself on a person. The best kind of religion is the sincere one. Then, there are no angels and devils in regard to Protestants, Catholics or others. Every man believes in God sincerely and freely. The faith is not the same as the Church. Such intellectual and religious tolerance admired me to the greatest extent. I think that Stanhope genuinely revealed the spirit of that Age which was eclectic, diverse and inquisitive.