William Warburton was a man who, as a theologian living through the debates of the Enlightenment, readapted his role while staying true to its intentions. His was a distinctive voice in these debates because he attacked all sides equally, seeing a paradox between human thought and history.

Part of the purpose of intellectual history is to acquaint and even reacquaint ourselves with thinkers whose writings may have been lost to history. As no singular thought is perfect, it can be aided by the thought of another—but this concept is nothing new. What may be new, even to those familiar with English history, is the name William Warburton. He was Bishop of Gloucester during the same time as the Enlightenment was taking hold over Europe. The culture of our intellectual and political circles might dictate certain dispositions towards that word, enlightenment, and even stronger reactions towards that momentous point in history, the Enlightenment. It is criticized for being the start of the end: The origins of modernity lie in the push for “reason” above traditional epistemology. The Enlightenment’s secular rationalism in philosophy and its godless liberalism in politics deserves to be criticized on many levels, but it also deserves to be studied and praised for the level of intellectual ingenuity that it demanded of its philosophers. Warburton was one such man who, as a theologian living through the Enlightenment, readapted his role while staying true to its intentions.

The thoughts and lives of Enlightenment theologians—a fascinating topic—has been explored by historian, David Sorkin in his book, The Religious Enlightenment (2008). Sorkin’s book reveals how faith and religion needed to be reimagined during the Enlightenment in order to repair the mistakes for which the Church was being criticized. Sorkin’s inclusion of William Warburton among these Enlightenment theologians corroborates that it is worth revisiting the important writings of a man who, during a time of crisis, opted for a middle ground—a “via media.” This essay, however, departs from Sorkin’s book to explore Warburton’s treatise, The Alliance Between Church and State, and its significance for the compromise it advanced: Alliance through utility. The concept of utility as it relates to the relationship that ought to exist between Church and State is suspicious on its own, but it is demonstrative of an Enlightenment theologian’s adaptive mind working to find compromise.

First published in 1736 as a response to the political climate around him, The Alliance Between Church and State, reads more like a work of political philosophy than of theology. In the introduction to Warburton’s most famous work, The Divine Legation of Moses, Warburton’s Alliance is referred to as a theory of civil government, much like the contract between a prince and his people.[1] But was it actually a political treatise? Warburton saw a paradox between human thought and history, to which he wanted to respond.[2] Instead of firmly planting his feet in the theological camp, as was the ecclesiastical custom at the time, Warburton’s alliance theory develops a practical concept of alliance that he deduced from experience.[3]

For Warburton, Roman Catholicism and Hobbes represented the extremes of church and state that needed aversion, for they both believe it their right “to dictate over people’s consciences.”[4] The Church regarded radical men like Hobbes as dangerous for sparking a debate amongst religious sects that proved problematic for Church-State relations. Much of the High Church movement at this time evolved as a reaction to growing sects of Socinianism, Deism, and other forms of religion considered heretical after the Revolution.[5] Warburton’s thoughts on the complicating effect that this plurality of religions had on politics was best demonstrated by his famous quote, “the papist makes the state a creature of the church; the Erastian makes the church a creature of the state: the Presbyterian would regulate the state on church ideas; the Hobbeist, the church, on reasons of state: and, to complete the farce, the Quaker abolishes the very being of a church; and the Mennonite suppresses the office of civil magistrate.”[6] His was a distinctive voice in these debates because he attacked all sides equally, saying that those who advocated a state church or rejected the idea were both equally mistaken.[7]

Utility resolved an earlier problem regarding the Church’s role in earthly politics. The Church, in its essence, represents a spiritual truth that is supposed to be a-temporal: It stands for a universality in principles that should not accommodate its views to the transient nature of politics, which is a servant to the times.[8] Warburton, too, recognized that the aim of the state is practical while the aim of the church is more universal.[9] This temporal-spiritual conflict was not a political and theological concern that was unique to Warburton alone. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes recognized the problem with the temporal versus spiritual, which he considered to be “two words brought into the world to make men see double” erringly since men’s bodies on Earth are not spiritual, and therefore required no form of “spiritual commonwealth.”[10] Hobbes concluded that ecclesiastical power should be subject to the temporal ruler.[11] Civil society can only secure “temporal liberty and the property of man,” while religion can concern itself with what falls outside of human temporality: The salvation of souls.[12] Warburton echoed Hobbes by concluding that, since politics is derived from the invention of civil society, man should only concern himself—insofar as politics is concerned—with the temporal.

The reason why Warburton sides with a temporal approach to matters that challenge the integrity of the Church lies in his concept of utility. While religion does have spiritual duties that fall outside the legislation of the state, the Church also has a “secondary” end; that is, the “advancement and improvement” of man, which can be improved with the help of government.[13] Likewise, civil society has a secondary end that is aided by religion: the improving of our “animal nature.”[14] Warburton implemented the concept of utility in order to “reconcile natural and revealed religion, natural law and theocracy, as well as to defend established religion.”[15] It is clear from reading his alliance theory that Warburton viewed the establishment of religion as being useful to society and indispensable for civil government since it was founded on both faith and reason, thereby reconciling that gap between Scripture and natural law.[16]

Warburton’s suggestion that the Church ought to agree to political alliance with the State from a utilitarian argument was not entirely unique in English political discussions. At the end of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century, questions of religious toleration were debated in Parliament in largely pragmatic terms by politicians, as “questions of expediency” and a “weighing of the probable consequences of divergent religious traditions.”[17] Opting for utility as a leader in the Church, however, was a more controversial stance to take. Pushback from other church leaders on Warburton focused on the fact that his defence of religious establishment was not based on any conviction that Christianity is the true religion, but rather because of its use for the state.[18] The English church eventually conceded to a “constitution in church and state” which, in matters of governance, permitted a revolution settlement and Protestant succession, and it promoted toleration as well as an established church and test acts.[19]

It is worth responding to the contention that Warburton’s argument of utility for the church was disrespectful to its divine ordinance: Warburton’s emphasis on the utility of an established church during the Enlightenment indicates that Warburton’s worries were political rather than spiritual.[20] It was not Christian theology that was in danger, but the authority of the Church in relation to the state. This practical threat is what motivated Warburton to re-analyse the role of the Church in a public, civic sphere. There was an option for a middle way where the church could help in shaping the efficiency of the temporal civil magistrate while remaining true to its greater, spiritual mission of saving souls. His treaty is not an overreaching work of radical change that attempted to construct a utopic society, as much of the Enlightenment became. In its alliance to the State, Warburton believed that the Church should not push any form of religious truth.[21] So, the establishment of a church allied with the State was a pragmatic solution because it “was expedient, not because its doctrine was true.”[22] Warburton focused on the utility of an established church because he based his Alliance on the benefit that one could serve to the other. The temporal relationship of church and state, in other words, bears no weight on the spiritual purpose of the church.

Warburton’s writings bridged a gap between “natural and revealed religion” because he based his theories on observations during a time when the concept of natural law was taken to be the foundation of civil law.[23] It is important to highlight, moreover, that Warburton was not interested in settling the debate between Church and State on grounds of theological Truth. Instead, he based his judgement on visible proof of the benefit of an alliance. Warburton’s search for a middle way came from a perceived deficiency in the reasoning men who argued from principles only, without any thought to the practical implications of said principles. He noted an inconsistency between what he called “practicable life” and “letters,” and criticized scholars and men of “high stations”—both civil magistrates and clergymen—for lacking a “knowledge of affairs.”[24] Warburton’s caveat in the Alliance, then, is his recognizing that it is only a momentary, and potentially fallible, solution because his theory is based on deductions, not facts, from the debates going on around him. He admits:

But our theory is an explanation of an artificial, not a natural system…for truth being the end of all kinds of theories, a right theory of nature is to be obtained only by pursuing fact; for God is the author of that system: but in a theory of politics, which is an artificial system, to follow fact is no certain way to truth, because man is the author of that system. Abstract ideas, and their general relations, are the guides to lead us into truth; and fact hath, with good reason, but a subsidiary use… This theory must be founded on the principles of right reason to render it just; so, to satisfy us that it is real, that it is practicable, and no fanciful Utopia, it must be shewn that the policy, explained and justified in the theory, hath been practiced to the common benefit of all.[25]

Warburton is clear: His theory was written with “no other view” than the usefulness that both parties in this alliance could have for one another, and he asserts that religion, namely Christianity, has “a political use” that attests to its truthfulness.[26] The concept of utility for Warburton, nevertheless, is more complex than simply being “useful” for society. Warburton believed that utility was a central concept that manifested religious truth: Utility can lead to a knowledge of divine truth, but only through the proper, tolerant practice of Christianity as a revealed religion.[27] Warburton’s middle way did not mean that English society in the eighteenth century had been utterly secularized and reduced to “a merely pragmatic, utilitarian idiom.”[28]

Instead, Warburton’s concept of utility demonstrates that there can be multiple facets to the way in which a Church functions in our secular world. Warburton’s “via media” by way of his Alliance Between Church and State is an example of a man thinking and reacting to the political issues at the time, which were the result of the Enlightenment. He considered the theoretical arguments on both sides, and then reconciled them into a practical political settlement. The lingering question for the intellectual historian, then, is why Warburton’s name fell into anonymity if his role in this period of religious and political controversy was so uniquely distinct to the point that it sparked a debate within ecclesiastic circles.

A potential answer lies in the nature of moderation: It is a simple solution to which man, full of convictions, cannot so easily surrender. Regardless of Warburton’s own religious convictions, The Alliance Between Church and State identified the terms under which all parties could accept such an alliance, and this need for compromise required that the terms be secular and directly tied to experience and history. What is distinct about Warburton’s thought on the relationship between church and state, then, is the very fact that he detached himself from any distinct political or ecclesiastic camp, and instead argued from the impartial standpoint of utility.

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Primary Sources:

Hurd, Richard, The Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated. By the Right Reverend William Warburton, D.D., Lord Bishop of Gloucester. To Which is Prefixed, an Account of the Life, Writings, and Character of the Author. By Richard Hurd, D.D., Lord Bishop of Worcester (London, 1837).

Warburton, William, The Alliance Between Church and State: Or, The Necessity and Equity of an Established Religion and a Test Law Demonstrated. In Three Books. The Fourth Edition, Corrected and Enlarged. By Dr. W. Warburton, Lord Bishop of Gloucester (London, 1766) [Electronic book] Available through Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO). Part of Historical Texts.

Warburton, William, The Works of the Right Reverend William Warburton, Lord Bishop of Gloucester. In Seven Volumes… (London, 1788) [Electronic book] Available through Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO). Part of Historical Texts.

Secondary Sources:

Bennett, Gareth Vaughan, The Tory Crisis in Church and State, 1688-1730: The Career of Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester. (Oxford, 1975).

Clark, J. C. D., English Society, 1688-1823: Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice During the Ancien Regime. (Cambridge, 1987).

Clark, J. C. D., English Society, 1660-1832: Religion, Ideology, and Politics During the Ancien Regime. 2 nd Ed. (Cambridge, 2000).

Cragg, Gerald R., Reason and Authority in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 2013).

Evans, A. W., Warburton and the Warburtonians. (Dublin, 1932).

Kenyon, John Philipps, Revolution Principles: The Politics of Party, 1689-1720. (Cambridge, 2003).

Moore, Norman, “Benjamin Hoadly” Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies.

Sorkin, David Jan, The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna. (Princeton, 2011).

Starkie, Andrew, The Church of England and the Bangorian Controversy, 1716-1721 (Woodbridge, 2007).

Taylor, Stephen, “William Wake” Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies.

Young, B. W., “William Warburton” Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies.

Young, Brian W., Religion and Enlightenment in Eighteenth Century England: Theological Debate from Locke to Burke (Oxford, 2001)

1 Richard Hurd, The Divine Legation of Moses, (London, 1837), p. vii-x.

2 Gerald R. Cragg, Reason and Authority, (Cambridge, 2013), p. 41.

3 William Warburton, The Works of the Right Reverend William Warburton, Lord Bishop of Gloucester. In Seven Volumes (London: 1788) p. 289.

4 William Warburton, The Alliance Between Church and State: Or, The Necessity and Equity of an Established Religion and a Test Law Demonstrated. In Three Books. The Fourth Edition, Corrected and Enlarged. By Dr. W. Warburton, Lord Bishop of Gloucester, (London: 1766), p. 66.

5 John Philipps Kenyon, Revolution Principles: The Politics of Party, 1689-1720, (Cambridge, 2003), 83.

6 Warburton, The Alliance Between Church and State, p. 28.

7 Cragg, Reason and Authority, p. 202.

8 Ibid., p. 189.

9 Warburton, Alliance, p. 202.

10 Cragg, Reason and Authority, p. 181, quoting Hobbes’s Leviathan.

11 Ibid., p. 181.

12 Warburton, Alliance, p. 30.

13 Ibid., p. 53.

14 Ibid., p. 53.

15 David Jan Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna. (Princeton, N.J., 2011), p. 54.

16 B. W. Young, Religion and Enlightenment in Eighteenth Century England: Theological Debate from Locke to Burke, (Oxford, 1998), p. 133.

17 Ibid., p. 316.

18 A.W. Evans, Warburton and Warburtonians, (Dublin, 1932), p. 44.

19 Sorkin, Religious Enlightenment, pp. 25-30, quoting J. G. A. Pocock, “Clergy and Commerce: The Conservative Enlightenment in England,” in l’éta dei lumi: studi storici sul settecento europeo in Onore di Franco Venturi, [2 vols.].

20 J.C.D. Clark, English Society, 1660-1832: Religion, Ideology, and Politics During the Ancien Regime. 2 nd Ed., (Cambridge, 2000), p. 104.

21 Evans, Warburton, p. 33.

22 Clark, English Society, p. 237.

23 Cragg, Reason and Authority, p. 202.

24 Warburton, Alliance, p. viii.

25 Warburton, Works, p. 289, Emphasis original.

26 Ibid., pp. 289-291.

27 Young, “William Warburton” Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies.

28 Clark, English Society, p. 316.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a portrait of Bishop William Warburton by Edward Kilvert, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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