Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Miracles in Enlightenment England

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Miracles in Enlightenment England

Article excerpt

Miracles in Enlightenment England. By Jane Shaw. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006, Pp. x, 244. $45.00.)

The conventional wisdom on the eighteenth-century English miracles debate runs something like this. The "new learning" of the seventeenth century made belief in an interventionist God problematic at best, implausible at worst. That, combined with the relative freedom to publish which followed in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, opened up miracles to intense public scrutiny from religious skeptics. The "great debate" concerning miracles, which began in earnest during the 1690s, drew into the fray most of the best minds of the day until David Hume put the matter to rest with the tenth chapter ("Of Miracles") of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (HAS). Many now concede that Hume's argument against miracles was often derivative; John Earman even goes so far as to describe it as an "abject failure" from a philosophical point of view. Nevertheless, insofar as most historians are concerned, Hume's intervention brought an effective close to a debate that had run for the last seven decades. Miracles henceforth became a non-subject.

Jane Shaw's Miracles in Enlightenment England challenges nearly every aspect of the conventional wisdom. To begin with, she cautions against taking an overly-restricted view of what constituted the miraculous, for, in the minds of early moderns, wonders, miracles, and providence were phenomena which were not always easily distinguishable. In addition, Shaw's is a study of "lived religion," rather than an intellectual history of the miracles debate. She gives primacy of place, in other words, to practice, not to ideas, so that doctrine "is understood to emerge from and, in turn, inform particular practices" (10). The premise that the primary lines of historical causation lead from action to intellection means that her starting point and her cast of characters differs markedly from more traditional studies of miracles. Where John Toland, Thomas Chubb, Peter Annet, Thomas Woolston, and others received the lion's chare of attention in previous accounts of the miracles debate, they are largely secondary figures in Shaw's study.

Her story begins in the 1650s, during England's first sustained experiments with republicanism and with a less constrained market in religion. While traditional Protestant doctrine insisted that miracles had ceased sometime not long after Christ's life, there nevertheless were those, especially among those outside the Church of England, who claimed to be acting under divine inspiration or authority; indeed, Shaw shows quite convincingly that the "number of people claiming to be miracle-workers increased rather than declined in the second half of the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century" (97). …

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