Civil Religion and the Enlightenment in England, 1707-1800

Our thanks to Dr Ashley Walsh for this absorbing introduction to the concept of civil religion and the particular significance of the Church of England in Enlightenment thought. It is also particularly timely given current concerns, felt around the world, over whether a state need be secular in order for religious toleration to survive.

Is it possible to legislate for a state church and religious toleration? This is the central problem of my book. Today, it might not seem like much of a problem. Looking to examples like the ‘wall of separation’ in the USA, French laïcité, and the accusation that Narendra Modi is undermining India’s secular constitution, we tend to assume that interfaith tolerance needs a secular state – a neutral umpire that guarantees everyone’s rights and freedoms.

We also tend to suppose that modern ideas of tolerance have roots in the Enlightenment. However, during the Enlightenment, states were fundamentally Christian and arguments for religious toleration usually had Christian assumptions. In fact, Enlightened thinkers put my problem differently. They asked: can Christians be civil?

In The Social Contact (1762), Jean-Jacques Rousseau solved the problem with a simple ‘no’. He argued that Christians were priest-ridden, superstitious, and intolerant. Rousseau argued that each citizen of the state must profess a simple public religion. The state religion affirmed little more than the sanctity of the social contract and its laws, the deity, rewards and punishments in the next life, and toleration.

In making his argument, Rousseau coined the term ‘civil religion’. To the liberal, secular mind, a civil religion seems like a contradiction. But Rousseau drew on a long tradition in western philosophy that connects ancient Rome, Renaissance humanism, the Enlightenment, and even present-day social and political theory.

Rousseau’s argument provided much of the inspiration for my book because he used the example of the Church of England to argue that Christianity could not be a civil religion. Alongside Niccolò Machiavelli, he namechecked two Englishmen: Thomas Hobbes and Bishop William Warburton, who, in his day, was both famous and infamous for his controversial literary style.

Why would Rousseau, a Genevan known for his reception in the viciously anticlerical Enlightenment in France and even the Terror and de-Christianisation of the French Revolution, discuss England?

Applying ‘civil religion’ as a category of analysis, I argue that eighteenth-century intellectuals transformed the Church of England into a civil religion and that much of the Enlightenment in England was concerned with creating a stable state and a tolerant society after the bloody seventeenth-century religious wars.

To develop a Christian civil religion, Enlightened thinkers drew from a long anticlerical tradition of Christian thought. Priests, they argued, made Christianity uncivil with their ‘priestcraft’ of superstition and intolerance. Civil religionists studied the efforts of Christian reformers in the medieval and early modern ages to strip Christianity back to the message of Jesus Christ in the primitive gospel. Anything else was corrupt ‘Priestianity’.

For example, we associate the great Enlightened historian, Edward Gibbon, with religious scepticism. The biting irony of The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89) suggests contempt for Christianity. Historians have called Gibbon a ‘modern pagan’ who preferred the traditional tales of Roman republican religion, which reinforced the patriotism and civic virtue of the ancient Roman citizenry, over otherworldly Christians.

However, I argue that Gibbon was a defender of Christian civil religion. By subjecting the Church of England to the state and taking it back to basics, Gibbon hoped to render the Church of England a benign and pastoral institution that encouraged good citizenship and religious toleration. Pious Christians would tolerate if they understood that all they needed for their salvation was to profess the faith of Christ alone.

The concept of civil religion solves the problem of how Enlightened thinkers thought that a state church could create peaceful civic life and religious toleration, challenging our assumptions that tolerance must depend on a process of ‘secularisation’. It also helps us to think about why societies like England still have state churches and to conceptualise their role in contemporary society.


This guest post is written by Ashley Walsh, a Lecturer in Early Modern History at Cardiff University.

Civil Religion and the Enlightenment in England, 1707-1800
By Ashley Walsh
Hardback, 9781783274901, £48.75 or $74.75