Dissenters and Atheists in the Eighteenth Century

In 1700s England/Britain (the change from England to Britain, which began in 1707, was still a fairly new concept at the time of Pamela), religious conflicts were less between Protestants and Catholics and more between established Protestants--Anglicans--and Dissenters/Non-conformists, i.e. Puritans or Evangelicals.

Pamela is a non-conformist in spirit although she attends/supports the Anglican Church. Her religious feelings/convictions are crucial to the story since they motivate her continual resistance of Mr. B. She does not resist him because she is revolted by sex or afraid of disobeying her parish priest. She resists him because she believes that her status before God is not contingent on her status as a servant. Her master may appoint clergymen; that doesn't give him rights to her soul.

In the 13th and 14th installments of Mr. B Speaks! Pamela's gainsayers entirely fail to understand the nature and reality of her religious attitudes, falling back instead on cliches about "religious people"; I based these scenes on my own experience in  academe. Academic critics quite often fail to appreciate non-political/non-sociological factors in general, resulting in the rather bizarre black-hole that dogs much literary criticism.

William Wilberforce
Appropriately enough, Pamela's aristocratic gainsayers felt the same way. During the 1700s, becoming an Evangelical or Dissenter or Methodist was most common amongst the rising merchant class. In response, the wealthy intelligentsia/upper-classes considered so much religious enthusiasm rather crass and embarrassing. When William Wilberforce converted to evangelicalism in the 1780s, he was (initially) extremely careful not to make his interest widely known and even wondered if a Parliamentary career was out of the question. He was convinced by friends that he would do more good in Parliament than out of it, and of course, he was hugely instrumental in the abolition of the slave-trade by British merchants.

As a member of the wealthy upper-class--though not the intelligentsia--Mr. B has little interest in personal conversion (at least in Book 1). However, he would not have endorsed atheism. Although atheism was bandied about eighteenth century English literary circles, belief in the supernatural was too strong for atheism to have any lasting impact. (I am referring specifically to atheism as the deliberate proposal that there is no god or gods rather than as a challenge to orthodoxy/state religion; the second was common in the eighteenth century while the first was practically unheard of.) The average intellectual was more likely to be a deist than an atheist. It would take another 100 years for atheism to become "cool."

Sir Humphrey laying down the
unwritten rules of society.
In general, Mr. B's attitude can be summed up by a quote from BBC's Yes, Prime Minister. When funds to the arts are challenged, Sir Humphrey is scandalized. When Bernard points out that nobody actually listens to government-funded radio, Sir Humphrey replies, "Well, neither do I! But it's vital to know that it's there!"

This pretty much encapsulates the eighteenth-century, upper-class attitude towards the Church of England: "I may not believe or go or care, but it's vital to know that it's there! (Now please stop harping on and on about it.)"

2 comments:

Mike Cherniske said...

dang, I was hoping you'd post a 18th century Easter article!

Kate Woodbury said...

Here you go, Mike. (Pretty interesting stuff! I was surprised to find out what I did!!)