Montesquieu, after a visit to England in 1736, declared,
"Je passe en France pour avoir peu de religion, en Angleterre pour en avoir trop."
The Decay Of Religion
In a Protestant country the outward observance of religion is less marked than in a Catholic and possibly had Montesquieu come to England twenty years earlier he might have had a different opinion. In Queen Anne's reign there was marked religious activity. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel which had been founded in the previous reign were both very active. There were societies for the suppression of vice, the reform of morals, and for encouraging Christian faith and the leading of a godly life. Daily services and frequent celebrations of the Holy Communion were advocated in print and pulpit and in the larger towns were often adopted. Sermons, provided they were good, would hold an audience attentive for an hour or two and printed in book form they were eagerly read. Sterne declared that he made more money from his sermons than he got from the sale of the Sentimental Journey. Queen Anne had, no doubt, an influence on her reign. The influence of the sovereign was in those days very considerable and, though she may not have had great sense or intellect, she was a good woman and devoted to the church. She bestowed upon the clergy the first fruits and tenths which Henry VIII, at the Reformation, took away from the Pope and appropriated. The moral and religious societies, of which we have spoken, had even some effect on the legislature. Magistrates were often coerced into reviving almost obsolete statutes against incontinence, swearing, Sunday trading or travel. Some justices, indeed, refused to receive the evidence tendered them by informers from these societies. Informers have always been disliked, one was even murdered by the mob, and magistrates may have had an uneasy feeling that their own lives would not have satisfied the society for the Suppression of Vice. The zeal for religion and morality unfortunately did not last. Queen Anne died, the first two Georges and their courts had an evil influence upon society, Convocation had been suppressed owing to an unfortunate wrangle between the Upper and Lower Houses. The Bishops and clergy had now no rallying point, no meeting-place where they could discuss matters of importance and encourage each other in a religious life. Men were made bishops rather for their political opinions than for their piety and learning. The clergy were miserably underpaid. Queen Anne's Bounty amounted to only £17,000 a year, which, even in those days, was not sufficient to augment the stipends of all the poorer clergy. Many of them eeked out their miserable incomes as best they could. Some farmed their glebes, some, who were scholarly men, took pupils, others engaged in trade. Macky tells us that
"the parsons at Bristol talked of nothing but trade and how to turn the penny".
The English Clergy
"The English clergy, and I fear still more particularly those who live in London" Moritz declares "are noticibly and lamentably conspicuous by a very free, secular and irregular way of life. Since my residence in England one has fought a duel in Hyde Park and shot his antagonist."
The jury in this case, in spite of the judge's summing up, brought in a verdict of manslaughter, and the accused, pleading Benefit of Clergy, was merely burnt in the hand by a cold iron. Benefit of Clergy was originally instituted in the twelfth century and by it anyone in orders, who was convicted of a crime punishable with death, could be tried in the ecclesiastical courts, where a lesser penalty would be imposed. When the authority of the ecclesiastical courts was much curtailed the ordinary courts retained the practice. Very heinous offences such as murder could not claim Benefit of Clergy and if the jury in this case had brought in a verdict of murder the duellist would have been hanged. Juries, however, in those days of barbarous punishments, tended to be lenient, and a duellist, provided he fought fairly, was generally sure of sympathy. It was certainly unusual for clergy to fight duels, indeed they were protected by their "cloth ", and public opinion would not have altogether approved of their fighting. There was, however, one clergyman who fought three duels and afterwards became a dean, and the man Allen, of whom Moritz speaks, was never censured by his bishop. Voltaire, commenting on the clergy, says,
"A Church of England minister appears as another Cato in the presence of a juvenile or undergraduate, who bawls for a whole morning in the divinity schools and hums a song in chorus with ladies in the evening."
Services and Sermons
Moritz gives a pleasing picture of the village church at Nettlebed.
"I cannot well express" he says "how affecting and edifying it seemed to me to hear this whole orderly and decent congregation in this small country church joining together with vocal and instrumental music in praise of their Maker."
He goes on to say that the music affected him even to tears, and that the sermon lasted for only half an hour. After the service he went out into the churchyard where he found the following inscription on a tombstone which had been erected to a parishioner who was a blacksmith:
My sledge and anvil lie declined
My bellows too have lost their wind
My fire's extinct my forge decayed
My coals are spent, my iron's gone
My nails are drove, my work is done.
These rhyming inscriptions were very common in the eighteenth century and many are in existence at the present day. There were men who composed them and who supplied many parishes in the neighbourhood, which may account for the similarities we often find. Meister, after visiting Quaker and Methodist services and the chapel of the Spanish Ambassador, goes to an ordinary parish church where he was
"much edified by a discourse full of sound doctrine and the sublimest tenets of religion. I was greatly affected" he says "by the exemplary modesty and piety of the preacher's deportment, and the respectful silence and attention of the congregation."
Another traveller comments on the simplicity of the sermon.
"Discourses" he says "aiming at the pathetic and accompanied by violent gestures would excite laughter in an English congregation. For as they are fond of inflated language and the most impressioned eloquence on the stage, so in the pulpit they affect the most unornamental simplicity."
"The English clergy" Voltaire says "have retained a great number of the Romish ceremonies and especially that of receiving, with a most scrupulous attention, their tithes. They also have the pious ambition to aim at superiority. Moreover they inspire very religiously their flock with a holy zeal against Dissenters of all denominations."
He considered that the morals of the English clergy were better than those of the French.
"All the clergy" he says "(a very few excepted) are educated in the universities of Oxford or Cambridge far from the depravity and corruption which reign in the capital. They are not called to dignities till very late, at a time of life when men are sensible of no other passion but avarice."
He noticed that in England it was not possible for a young man of dissolute habits to be raised to the highest dignities of the Church by the intrigues of a courtesan and to continue to conduct himself with no attention to morals or decency. When he tells the English clergy that such a state of things exists in France,
"They bless God for their being Protestants. But these" Voltaire adds "are shameless heretics, who deserve to be blown hence through the flames to old Nick, as Rabelais says, and for this reason I don't trouble myself about them."
We may judge from these extracts, as well as from the literature and letters of the eighteenth century that the Church of England had its careless, worldly congregations and ministers and its good devout men who served God with a quiet, simple piety. To say that the eighteenth-century Church was utterly slothful and had no religious sense is to disregard history.
There were no doubt many aspects of religion in England that would not have appealed to foreigners and certainly not to Catholics. De Saussure went to a Presbyterian service.
"These ministers" he says "are not permitted either to learn their sermons by heart, or even to write them out or prepare them . . . they preach through their noses in the peculiar manner that the English call cant . . . they scarcely ever smile, they cannot tolerate a jest or a joke and they are so easily scandalized and altogether so very saintly that you cannot refrain from wondering whether it is entirely sincere."
The extreme rigidity of the nonconformists was in some measure no doubt a protest against the laxity and worldliness of the established church. A traveller from Germany describes a Methodist service which he attended at the Countess of Huntingdon's Chapel at Bath. He tells us that it was
"a little church with benches and slightly raised places for the clergy and singers. The sexes sit apart from each other. On Sunday I attended one of their meetings to which one is admitted by ticket and listened awhile to their psalm singing, but did not stay long. As far as I could judge the service is monotonous though there is a good deal of ranting too."
Lady Huntingdon had been much impressed by the teaching of John Wesley. She was, however, a woman of strong originality and she afterwards quarrelled with her mentor, broke away from him and from the Church of England to which he belonged. She set up a training college for her ministers and there were chapels of her denomination in many parts of England. The most celebrated was the chapel in Spa Fields in London and many members of the aristocracy and some distinguished men occasionally attended it. At her house in Chelsea, Chesterfield, Bolingbroke, Selwyn and Chatham would come and listen to Calvinistic doctrine; some of them even supported the sect with handsome donations.
The religious body which inspired foreigners with the most respect and even veneration was the Society of Friends. After having supper with Lettsom, the celebrated doctor who was a member of that Society, Faujas de St. Fond tells us that
"During the remainder of the night I meditated how I should become a Quaker, for if happiness exists anywhere on earth it certainly dwells among these worthy people. . . .I love the Quakers, they inspire me with involuntary veneration."
He goes on to tell us that "all Quakers are merchants", which as he had just had supper with Lettsom he should have known was inaccurate. It was quite true that members of the Society engaged in trade. The Test and Corporation Acts debarred them from many other occupations. De Saussure goes on to say that the Friends
"never charge more for their goods than they are worth. Many youthful Quakers" he continues "whose fathers have died leaving them rich, have a longing to wear buttons on their sleeves and live after the fashion of other young men."
The Quakers, their years of persecution and of initial extravagance being over, had settled down to a middleclass respectability. They were looked up to by their fellow countrymen for their honesty and the goodness and charity of their lives. They were a small exclusive body and they did not seek to make converts; but their influence was great. Even Voltaire was attracted by them. No doubt, as de Saussure says, some of their young men rebelled against the strictness of the sect, and their numbers began to decline.
If religion was losing its hold on the people there was one particular in which it was strictly observed. This was the keeping of Sunday. Von Uffenbach remarks with his usual bitterness that this keeping of Sunday was
"the only point in which one sees that the English profess to be Christians".
His landlady had refused to allow some foreigners, staying in her house, to play the viol de gamba or the flute on a Sunday. She would have been liable to be fined for Sabbath breaking and there were plenty of informers looking out for the reward which was given to such people. Pastor Moritz astonished his landlady's young son by whistling a lively tune on a Sunday morning. This extreme rigour as regards the first day of the week seems to have been entirely a British characteristic and most foreigners commented on it with much bitterness. It is true that Sophie de la Roche writes of the delightful quiet and peace of the day; but Sophie would praise everything English. Other foreigners were far from complimentary and speak of the horrors of Sunday with much feeling.
"On that day" Grosley says "the theatres and all houses of entertainment are shut. All forms of gaming and dancing are forbid. People are neither allowed to sing at home or play upon any instrument. The newspapers, the favourite food of national curiosity, are discontinued, the watermen cease to ply upon the River Thames, the tolls to be paid upon coming into London are doubled and some of them even trebled . . . except in Church time the inhabitants of London wait with their arms across till service is again celebrated or until the day is over without having any other amusement but to gaze in melancholy mood at those who pass to and fro in the streets ".
Sunday was not observed with such extreme rigour by some of the rich or by what would have been known in those days as "the lower orders". George III rebuked the Archbishop of Canterbury for holding card parties on a Sunday and Count Kielmansegg tells us how he went to court on a Sunday during the reign of George II, dined with Lady Yarmouth, the King's mistress, and in the evening attended a reception at the Princess Severin's.
"Even cards" von Uffenbach tells us "are so expressly forbid that none but persons of quality and those we call genteel play on that day. The rest of the nation go either to church, to the tavern or to see their mistresses."
Moritz describes how the working people of London rose early and, after church on a Sunday morning, went out into the country. The metropolis, though it housed a great number of persons in its congested streets, was then so small that the country could be reached in a half-hour's walk or less from any part of it. Some of these people may have gone to church as Moritz suggests; but a very large portion of the poor knew nothing of religion and never entered a church except for a funeral or a wedding. They wandered out to the taverns and ale-houses in the suburbs of London, and indulged in such sports as cock-fighting, bear- and bull-baiting or prize-fights. Amusements were forbidden on a Sunday; but they were held secretly with the fear of an informer always hanging over them.
The ignorance and vice of many of the working classes had moved the consciences of religious people. In the reign of Queen Anne and to a less extent during the later part of the century, charity schools had been founded, the S.P.C.K. had endeavoured to reach such of them who could read, Wesley's missions had converted thousands; but still there remained a very large number who were quite untouched by religion.
Catholics and Jews
The tolerance of the English in matters of religion is noted by some foreigners, though when we remember the Gordon Riots and other demonstrations against Catholics and Jews, the brutal attacks upon Wesley and his followers and the extreme bigotry of some English clerics, the virtue of tolerance may not seem very conspicuous. Here again it is a matter of comparison; the Inquisition still survived in Spain, and in France the Church did not tolerate Protestants. De la Rochefoucauld, speaking of the English Catholics, says,
"The Catholics are wholly undisturbed, in spite of the severity of the laws against them."
An informer might, as he explains, go to a magistrate and report that he had seen a certain person at a Catholic service, or that a priest had said Mass. The justice, however, who loathed informers and probably had Catholic friends, would ask him if he could swear that the prayers were Catholic prayers, was he sure that the priest was actually eating and drinking the sacred bread and wine.
"In fact" de la Rochefoucauld says "he put so many questions, demanding so much detail of explanation, that the informer is barely able to answer them and is dismissed without having made good his case".
"The Church of England" Grosley says "baptizes all that offer, marries all, buries all, somewhat dearly indeed, but without disturbing the public tranquility by impertinent inquiries."
He also noted how men of all sects met together in assemblies and learned societies. One traveller remarks with surprise and approbation that there was no ghetto in London and that Jews did not have to wear any special dress or badge; but Moritz says that the prejudice against Jews was more pronounced in England than in Germany. This, in the light of recent events, strikes us as curious. The Jews were allowed to worship in their synagogues without any interference from the law and the wealthy among them enjoyed a certain amount of protection, at least in the City of London. The English mob were, however, quite capable of setting upon the poor Jews as they walked about the streets on their lawful occasions and they would sometimes wreck Jewish shops. The prejudice may have been more racial than religious. The Jews had returned to England only during the Commonwealth. They had and largely maintained their own customs and even languages and were looked upon as foreigners. In 1753 a bill was passed to naturalize the Jews, but it was repealed the next year in deference to popular outcry. The prejudice against the Chosen People was very strong and has unhappily lasted to the present day.
Of the morals of Englishmen there are varying accounts. They depended naturally upon the kind of Englishmen with whom the foreigner mixed. He was generally impressed by the honesty of the English merchant, he praised the generosity and charity of the people. In another chapter we have mentioned the large sums of money which were given and bequeathed to the poor. De la Rochefoucauld tells us how the new St. Paul's Cathedral was rebuilt by voluntary subscriptions.
"In this way" he says "not only was sufficient money raised, but in the end there was a surplus fund available — a fact which reflects great honour upon the English nation and would not, I fear, have happened in France."
Freedom and Independence
The freedom and independence of the populace is much commented upon by foreigners.
"I had not walked" Meister says "fifty yards on English ground before I thought I felt sensations of freedom and the dignity of human nature rising in my breast which I had never experienced before, not even on that day when I trampled upon the ruins of the Bastile."
On the other hand de Saussure tells us that
"an immeasurable number of Englishmen are still more corrupt in their morals than in their religion. Debauch runs riot with an unblushing countenance."
The English, he says, were "mighty swearers" and he is shocked to see clergymen drinking and smoking in eating-houses and taverns. The English clergy have never been a caste apart as in Catholic countries, but have generally mixed with the people on terms of equality, sometimes indeed and in the eighteenth century particularly, on too gross an equality.
Alfieri was so much pleased with
"the beauty of the country, the unaffected morality of the inhabitants, the charm and modesty of the females and above all with the freedom of thought and action everywhere apparent," that he was "almost inclined to forgive the fickleness of the climate and the melancholy which it engendered".
The extreme melancholy of the English is constantly harped upon by foreigners. According to them they frequently lived in a state of unmitigated gloom and depression and often ended in suicide. Grosley declares that this was caused by eating too much beef and drinking vast quantities of beer, which must, he says,
"give rise to chyle, whose viscous heaviness can transmit naught but bilious melancholy juices to the brain. If they would drink wine the English would grow more tractable, more gay and less speculative."
If gaiety may be acquired by eating little meat and drinking little beer, we ought certainly at the present time to be a very gay nation, though possibly the high price of wine prevents complete ecstasy. Grosley, though admitting that after being in the company of English men of all ranks, conditions and stations and
"having experienced in all the same indulgence, the same complaisance, the same kindness," speaks of the melancholy which characterized them and "which in France is seen only on the countenances of those who have just buried their dearest friends".
Another traveller tells us that there were people whose families had not laughed for three generations. This extreme gravity is not borne out by eighteenth-century novelists. Fielding and Smollett give us pictures of coarseness and brutality, but their characters are never melancholy. Sterne and Richardson, though they may be accused of sentimentality, are never depressing. It is true that Englishmen did not talk much among themselves and still less with foreigners, they did not embrace each other after the manner of Frenchmen and Germans, and this may have given rise to an idea that they were melancholy. When Mme Vigée le Brun stayed at Knole the Duchess of Dorset told her as they sat down to dinner, "You will find it very dull for we never speak at table." English funeral customs, moreover, may have suggested a general depression and there were many funerals in eighteenth-century England with its high death-rate. Meister considers that these customs were a sign of religious feeling.
"As there is here" he says "a greater degree of religious respect and regard shown to young children when newly born, so likewise is there for deceased persons in their departure from this life, and these are both of them convincing proofs of the morality of a people. From the highest to the lowest classes no funeral is conducted without a degree of solemnity. The dead are kept longer above ground here than in any other country in Europe. It is seldom that they are buried before the third day."
This was an understatement, the body was usually kept for a week or more before interment, as the fear of being buried alive had come down from the days of the plague when hasty funerals were necessary. The fashion of lying in state was not confined to the rich and great. Except in the case of the very poor the corpse was dressed in its best clothes, the face painted by an undertaker and, in this condition, it was visited by streams of friends and acquaintances and even by total strangers, actuated, some by the wish to pay tribute to a friend or neighbour and many by a gruesome curiosity. Meister goes on to describe the funeral procession, how the hearse had its plumes of ostrich feathers and was preceded by men dressed in black with black bands and scarves. In the case of the unmarried, he tells us, the scarves and plumes were of white.
"The burial places" he goes on to say "are preserved in neat order and some of them form pleasant walks where serious persons may indulge themselves in reflections and sentiments of religion and piety."
De Saussure sums up the English character in these words:
"My opinion on the whole of Englishmen is that among them you find more sensible, thoughtful, trustworthy and noble-hearted men than in any other nation; but on the other hand a great number of them are whimsical, capricious, surly and changeable."
Crime and Punishment
Baretti had called London "a sink of vice" and a later writer has described it as "the wickedest city in the world because the largest". Both may be true comment; it is difficult to compare degrees of wickedness. Was London worse than Paris or Vienna or Rome? There is no doubt, however, that crime very much increased during the century. Religion and morality declined, the poor became poorer, the enclosures threw the countryman out of work and often drove him to the slums and rookeries of London. In 1753 a gang of criminals terrorized the City of London by their robberies and violence, and officers of justice told Fielding that they had often passed offenders in the street, and though they had warrants in their pockets for their arrest, dared not apprehend them. Penalties increased and at the end of the century there were two hundred offences on the statute book which were punishable with death. The barbarity of the English penal code struck many foreigners with surprise and horror. They declared that it exceeded in rigour anything to be found in France, Italy or the German states. It had certainly no effect in diminishing crime, which became far worse and more widespread as the century advanced and penalties increased.