Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Article excerpt

Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Edited by Knud Haakonssen. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. xii + 348 pp. $59.95 (cloth).

Two central questions animate this volume of essays: 1) how politically radical were Rational Dissenters? and 2) how much did religion and theology influence their political ideas? Both of these questions derive from recent historiography of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. The former question is reminiscent of the efforts of historians to discover and characterize the radicalism (if, indeed, it was radicalism) of the Civil War and Interregnum, and the second is clearly related to the call of eighteenth-century historians-in reaction to a sterile Namierism-to take the religious ideas of the period seriously. Thus the essays in this volume trace the developmentespecially the religious elements-of Rational Dissent, examine its political implications, and grapple with the influence of its proponents. The book contains some intriguing and provocative essays, some of the best of which include the following. Martin Fitzpatrick's entry on "The Enlightenment, politics and providence: some Scottish and English comparisons" is a wonderfully nuanced case study of the different political conclusions of two heirs of enlightened religion; John Seed's contribution, "'A set of men powerful enough in many things': Rational Dissent and political opposition in England, 1770-1790," proves that, though Rational Dissenters were few, they had a significant effect on the politics in the late eighteenth century; Alan Saunders's "The state as highwayman: from candour to rights" pulls together many elements of the book in a lively and incisive fashion, and brings to light a rhetorical shift which would seem to indicate a transformation to radicality; Iain McCalman's "New Jerusalems: prophecy, Dissent and radical culture in England, 1786-1830" examines the link between Joseph Priestley's millenialism and its influence on other radicals.

But the collection also includes some essays which are more problematic. David Wykes's chapter "The contribution of the Dissenting academy to the emergence of Rational Dissent," for example, concludes rather lamely (and anticlimactically) that the academies were significant in the rise of Rational Dissent only because the students were encouraged to think critically and read eclectically. …

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