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Thick-Skinned Tolerance

Satire, the Sacred, and the Rise of the Modern

Christopher S. Grenda

Satire has a long history. Its epochs of wit have long tended to offend. The sixteenth-century Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus invoked that history in prefacing The Praise of Folly (1509): "But those who are offended at the lightness and pedantry of this subject, I would have them consider that I do not set myself for the first example of this kind, but that the same has been oft done by many considerable authors." He cited distinguished forebears, such as famed authors of Greek and Roman antiquity, to whom he might have added Geoffrey Chaucer, whose satirizing of religious figures in The Canterbury Tales (1475) resembled his own witty criticism of contemporary religion. Erasmus voiced his wit in satirical oration: "Satire and panegyric, distant be, / Yet jointly here they both in one agree." He believed that the satirical style engaged public attention: "So does the humour of the age require, / To chafe the touch, and so foment desire." The mocking manner was no mere pomp but integral to critical commentary: "The mould o' th' subject alters the success; / What's serious, like sleep, grants writs of ease, / Satire and ridicule can only please." Erasmus was pleased to identify the father of his protagonist, Folly, as the author of the universe forever overturning all things sacred and profane: "Plutus . . . the primary father of the universe; at whose alone beck, for all ages, religion and civil policy, have been successively undermined and re-established." Uncertain that all would delight in satire, Erasmus resorted to historical assertion: "Wits have always been allowed this privilege."

Though Erasmus satirized contemporary religion, the objects of satire have varied throughout history. Planetary thinking engaged Galileo's wit. Aesthetic appraisal drew Rembrandt's ire. Rebellious politics and literary style spurred John Dryden's scorn. Entire social classes have incited ridicule, from Alexander Pope's and Mark Twain's jeers at aristocracy to Sinclair Lewis's and W. B. Yates's derision of the middle class.

Among all wit's objects, though, the target of Erasmus's wit-religion-has proved particularly appealing and enduring. The French humorist Molière resembled Chaucer in parodying pretensions to piety so well, in the title character of Tartuffe (1664), that contemporaries began to use the name as a synonym for "hypocrite." The English pamphleteer Ralph Wallis was less subtle in Room for the Cobler of Gloucester and His Wife: With Several Cartloads of Abominable Irregular, Pitiful Stinking Priests (1668). He echoed Erasmus in ridiculing religion's seduction by worldly pomp and power:

Room for Prelates, here comes a Company;

Room for Prelates, and ev'ry Coat-Card;

Archbishops and Bishops, Archdeacons and Deans;

Room for Prelates, and for the Black Guard.

Cathedrals and Chapters, with Anthems and Raptures,

And all the Hierarchical Rabble,

With all of that sort, that makes as good sport

In the Chore, as a Fool with his Bable. (4)

The history of religious satire entered a new, defining phase near the start of the eighteenth century. Though inherited forms of ridicule persisted, satire in cultural and political debates about religion began to inform an emerging discourse of religious toleration that was recognizably modern. Such satire was not without danger. Prosecutions for seditious and blasphemous libel continued in the Age of Enlightenment. Nevertheless, the use of irony, humor, and ridicule in quarrels over religious texts, practices, and beliefs was intertwined with the development of modern sensibilities in tolerating sectarian differences. This novel form of tolerance differed from earlier forms of humanist forbearance which had extended the range of permissible doctrinal views within a catholic church. Erasmus himself proposed an inclusive ecclesiology accommodating diverse views of nonessential doctrinal matters, called adiaphora. The purpose of such an inclusive ecclesiology was to incorporate believers into one church, not to permit denominational sectarianism or heterodox views of essential doctrines such as original sin or the divinity of Christ. Erasmus's catholic vision continued into the post-Reformation era of confessional sovereignties with similar proposals for indulgent unity, or concordia, advocated by Dutch Arminians, the Saxon Samuel Pufendorf, and the Latitudinarians of England. Separately, though, the outlines of a more discernibly modern tolerance, which drew a harder line between civil and ecclesiastical concerns and made room for individual expressions of conscience, began emerging with force in the mid-to-late seventeenth century. "The civil state and Magistrate are merely and essentially civil," Roger Williams declared in 1652, with the outward "bodies and goods of the people the proper or adequate object of the civil Magistrate."

Contemporaries often expressed the modern notion of limiting state authority to civil matters in terms of restricting the state's penal power to the outward things of persons and property, not the inward things of conscience and belief. This modern notion was intended to allow the practice of denominational and confessional sectarianism in sovereign societies. It circulated widely in the decades and generations after the mid-seventeenth century. As the Quaker William Penn affirmed in 1679, "Civil Interest is the Foundation and End of Civil Government." By the turn of the century, many described the sectarianism that "every Church is Orthodox to itself" as a fact to be accommodated. Such toleration, to be sure, remained a radical position for some time. Religious minorities throughout Europe and North America continued to suffer exclusion from public institutions or prohibitions on their very existence. Yet sectarian diversity persisted. Religious minorities, especially in the Anglo-American world, gradually gained enough security in their social status to demand not merely the right of worship but the abolition or reform of discriminatory laws such as religious taxes and test oaths.

In conjunction with notions of toleration, the literati of the English-speaking public sphere used satire to scrutinize the communities, beliefs, and practices of the increasingly diverse religious landscape, just as they did in examining other dimensions of social life, such as politics, art, and social hierarchy. Charges of blasphemy remained a real threat. Yet wit, humor, and even ridicule in debates about religious systems and institutions were integral to Enlightenment conceptions of tolerance. Raillery regarding the uses and meanings of religion, and tolerance of religious differences, in other words, were related endeavors. Both were refined forms of expression, exhibiting the cultivation of the self in wit and noncoercion and the civility of the polis in letters and nonpersecution. The practice of satirical tolerance informed the belletristic culture of freethinkers and aesthetics as well as the civic endeavors of sectarians and orthodox Christians. It thus helped shape the eighteenth century's burgeoning republic of letters, creating civic space for contending trends in religious beliefs and practices and for related disputes over pedagogy and rights. It fostered the rendering of critical judgment by conceiving of the self more as an expressive agent of moral discernment than as a protected identity. It thus crafted, and bequeathed, a particular type of tolerance, a hearty, thick-skinned liberality able to accommodate substantive moral differences.

Freethinking and Christian Satire around 1700

The satirical republic included moral judgments as dissonant as those of Ralph Wallis and Charles Blount. Both were Restoration-era Englishmen who lived under penal laws that prohibited religious worship outside the Church of England (though Blount lived just beyond the Act of Toleration [1689], which ended corporal punishment for orthodox Protestant dissent). They berated the established church because the state had invested it with financial resources for its parishes and ecclesiastical courts and with cultural authority in education and print licensing. Blount's scorn was palpable in "The Deist: A Satyr on the Parsons" (c. 1686):

Religion's a Politick Law,

Devis'd by the Priggs of the Schools;

To keep the Rabble in awe

And amuse poor Bigotted Fools.


And they, for good vitualls and Bubb,

Will bellow their Nonsense aloud,

And rant out a Tale of a Tub,

To fright the ignorant Croude.

Wallis was similarly anticlerical, though with a prophetic tone portending the demolition of episcopal structures:

Come down ye Bishops, fear a fall,

Your Kingdom 'gins to shake,

The hand is writing on the wall,

Which makes your knees to quake;


Of all this Pomp and glorious train,

Which caused God to frown,

Which sin of yours he doth so hate,

That sure you must come down;

For sure the Word of God is

True, and do it not forget,

He will pluck up, I say to you,

Those plants he never set.

Blount and Wallis differed in their backgrounds and social standings. Blount was an English country gentlemen; Wallis a nonconforming pamphleteer. Though Wallis had been a freeman of London before the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, his publications were illegal thereafter, and he suffered arrest on at least one occasion. The two also differed in their religious views. Blount was a deist critical of traditional, orthodox religion. Wallis was an orthodox Christian who, unlike deists, believed in the divinity of Christ and original sin. Despite such differences, the two similarly ridiculed the established church as vulgar in its worldliness. They also viewed it as an entrenched obstacle to their respective programs of cultural reform, deism and Christian evangelism.

Deists rejected much of orthodox Christianity for natural religion, forswearing revelation beyond what natural philosophy revealed about nature's God. Though not monolithic, deists criticized biblical text, disputed Christ's divinity, disavowed miracles, and portrayed Christian doctrines on human nature, sin, and redemption as disingenuous theological schemes promoted by a professional class of publicly funded clerics. They called such schemes "priestcraft." Blount portrayed established religion as a political tool, nonsense devised by well-fed thieves to "keep the rabble in awe." Deists viewed such religion as entrenched in public institutions, through which it distorted thought and morality and thus impeded human flourishing and cultural progress. Its claims of revealed truth, they maintained, encouraged intolerance and suppressed the expression of conscience and opinions; its focus on sin fettered moral striving and the cultivation of virtue; its featuring of hell and miracles furthered fear, ignorance, and passivity; and its suspicion of freethinking hindered advances in science. Deists used these depictions of orthodox Christianity as rhetorical weapons in their battle for cultural stewardship as they sought to emancipate society from orthodoxy's hegemony. For them, orthodox Christianity, as one scholar notes, was "a fundamental obstacle to the improvement of humankind and the amelioration of social and political injustices."

In contrast, Wallis's ridicule of established religion and its intolerance was grounded in religious motives that were thoroughly orthodox. Similar to Blount, he viewed England's church as using pomp and ceremony for temporal gain, but he proclaimed the living God as liberating society from episcopal structures. In this, he evoked biblical imagery of an active God promoting cultural renewal by pulling down the moral and institutional structures of human iniquity. His social vision grew from his orthodoxy, which warranted restricting state power to civil things because of the low moral condition of governing authorities. "The Magistrates power extends no further than to the outward man, to require obedience in Civil things," he proclaimed, because "neither can Great men (as we see) reform themselves" nor "undertake to sanctifie, justifie, or glorifie a soul." "What is the Magistrates place then?" Wallis continued. "Doth not this derogate from the honour of a Magistrate, if his power extend only to temporal things?" Wallis's answer referenced the command to political obedience in Romans 13, declaring, "Whereas the Apostle bids, Submit &ampc. he means only in Civil things."

The discourse on civil things reflected vital cultural undercurrents. Wallis and Blount titled their respective works Magna Charta and Oracles of Reason to suggest programs of cultural renewal that would remedy the ills they associated with established religion. Satire was an essential tool of their programs and remained so for many after England's Act of Toleration. Not only did various forms of intolerance continue to thrive in parts of Europe, with French Huguenots and German Palatinates still fleeing their homelands for England and elsewhere, but the Toleration Act itself was merely a provisional suspension of penal laws against select English dissenters. It allowed their worship as second-class subjects but was neither universal nor irrevocable. Daniel Defoe parodied the fragility of the situation in The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters (1702). Raised a dissenting Presbyterian and educated at a leading dissenting academy, he wrote the work in the voice of a High Church Tory Anglican advocating the persecution of England's sectarians. "Her Majesty did never promise to maintain the Toleration to the destruction of the Church," he exclaimed. "I am not supposing that all the Dissenters in England should be hanged or banished. But as in case of rebellions and insurrections, if a few of the ringleaders suffer, the multitude are dismissed." The work was a hoax. It mocked religious intolerance by satirizing the contemporary revival of Tory Anglicanism and its call for a robust confessional culture. The hoax was so subtle, though, that readers were confused when Defoe's authorship was revealed. Authorities, however, used this revelation to place him in the pillory for seditious libel.

Defoe had been less subtle in ridiculing intolerance in The True-Born Englishman: A Satyr (1701). He began with a religious proverb, "WHEREVER God erects a house of prayer / The Devil always builds a chapel there." Identifying "the largest congregation" as the Devil's, Defoe derided Tory aspirations to confessional uniformity and the suppression of religious nonconformity:

With uniformity of service, he

Reigns with a general aristocracy.

No non-conforming sects disturb his reign,

For of his yoke there's very few complain.

Satirical expression through the early decades of the eighteenth century aimed not only at institutions of established religion or programs of intolerance but also at the deeper social structures of behavioral norms and habits. Discourses on social behavior proliferated in a process of evaluating the manners most appropriate for a post-Glorious Revolution social order. "Manners" and "refinement" became important touchstones, with satire being a means of scrutinizing social norms and promoting cultural reform. "Satire, if you can / Their temper show, for manners make the man," Defoe exhorted. Such critics understood how the established church and the royal court had shaped English culture to date, and they sought new cultural and institutional means of achieving a more tolerant-postpuritan and post-Tory-society. Christian satirists such as Defoe advocated the manners of a nonsectarian Protestantism independent of social status. "The end of satire is reformation," he explained, but "all our reformations are banters, and will be so till our magistrates and gentry reform themselves by way of example." England was "a nation that wants manners," "ill-natured and uncivil." Others, critics of Christianity, sought refinement in coffeehouses, clubs, and theaters characterized by politeness and toleration, an aesthetic and freethinking counterpoise to the church and the court.

Central to these eighteenth-century experiments in refinement was the cultivation of the self in a revised cultural order. Whig thinkers viewed the self and the polity as exchanging domineering patterns of religious coercion and intolerance for sociable discourses of wit, irony, humor, and ridicule. Satire pervaded such projects as they became central to the many strains of Enlightenment conceptions of religious toleration.

The role of satire in shaping toleration was evident in Anthony Ashley Cooper's Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711). Cooper, like Blount, was a country gentleman, the third Earl of Shaftesbury and a former member of Parliament. His essays constituted, according to one scholar, "a foundational work in English Deism" and were widely reprinted throughout the eighteenth century. Though Shaftesbury eschewed the aggressive tone of many deists, he similarly criticized contemporary Christianity, viewing it not just as a corrupt institution but as an inferior cultural system whose teachings on human nature inhibited human flourishing and social development. As an alternative, he offered a freethinking vision of a natural religion aimed at rehabilitating human nature and restoring natural virtue while, in his words, "asserting thus zealously the Notion of a religious Liberty, and mutual Toleration."

Shaftesbury also contributed a distinct moral philosophy, an aestheticism in which virtue was a performance art to be admired for its beauty. The performance involved characters in dialogue exhibiting the refined manners of polite conversation. The manners were the philosophy, less proving moral truth through knowledge and logic than displaying it in the communal affections of sociable selves. It was a "moral Painting, by way of Dialogue," as Shaftesbury's Philocles character notes in his "Recital of Certain Conversations." The philosophical method was itself a socialization process. It used literary characters to draw readers into a community of sociable exchange whose manners formed common moral standards for shaping the character of its participants, both fictitious and real. "We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision," the Third Earl explained. The dialogue's common moral sense inheres in the display of wit's assorted hues-raillery, humor, irony, and ridicule-as Shaftesbury details in Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor: "One of those principal Lights or natural Mediums, by which Things are to be view'd, in order to a thorow Recognition, is Ridicule." His objects of ridicule included confessional uniformity, religious intolerance, and Christian revelation. He undermined belief in the accuracy of biblical text and mocked popular understandings of its basis for morality, all "without fearing what disturbance I might possibly give to some formal Censors of the Age."

Shaftesbury also celebrated the virtue of ridicule in A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm. It was particularly useful for evaluating personal beliefs, "for in the manner we may conceive 'em, they may peradventure be very grave and weighty in our Imagination; but very ridiculous and impertinent in their own nature." He also advised "applying the Ridicule" in dialogue to subject conventions to humorous censure, calling them "Cowards" who "are so afraid to stand the Test of Ridicule." Shaftesbury viewed such raillery as replacing older relations characterized by religious domineering. Polite wit undermined the solemnity that sustained older habits by displaying the more tolerant sensibility of critical humor. Wit's wisdom was "never to punish seriously what deserv'd only to be laugh'd at," an indulgence that Shaftesbury modeled by mocking the apostolic author of the Christian epistles. The Third Earl also applauded the theatrical jeering of religious inspiration in "a choice Droll or Puppet-Show at Bart'lemy-Faire." Prophets were parodied "upon the Stage" as puppets, "being not in their own power, but (as they say themselves) mere passive Organs actuated by an exterior Force." He labeled such humor the "Bart'lemy-Faire Method." Critical in its parody and polite in its tolerance, it superseded the need for penal laws in religion. Shaftesbury thus recommended that the magistrate dispense with the "supernatural Charity" of the "saving of Souls" to focus on the administering of temporal affairs.

In seeking to restrict the magistrate's authority, Shaftesbury expressed important developments regarding the state and toleration. His focus on temporal affairs resembles Wallis's argument about civil things. Neither was a philosopher examining the origins of political authority, though both articulated a vision of good government through religious satire. By ridiculing prominent religious practices, institutions, and beliefs, they encouraged greater tolerance of religious worship and sects, the one from a freethinking perspective, the other from orthodox conviction.

Satire before Revolution: Not for the Multitude

Shaftesbury's Characteristicks enjoyed significant influence throughout the eighteenth century, promoting religious criticism, moral sense philosophy, and literary dialogue. It also advanced an ongoing debate about expressive manners that was entwined in the period's contests over religious toleration. Respondents to Shaftesbury's essays, even before they were compiled in Charactersticks, included the Whig Edward Fowler, in Reflections upon a Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1709), and the Tory Mary Astell, "the first English feminist," in Bart'lemy Fair: Or, An Enquiry after Wit (1709). Both decried Shaftesbury's influence in promoting wit and ridicule in discussions about religion. "Wit, Liberty, and Ridicule reign; and yet we lie in all our vices and Maladies," Fowler bemoaned. Shaftesbury's Letter is "industriously spread in the Nation," Astell lamented, even though many "reckon it a very poor, incoherent, contradictory, senseless, Piece; weak in every thing but Malice to Religion, and even to GOD Himself."

Opponents viewed Shaftesbury as encouraging a form of expression that tended to promote disorder. "Let it be remember'd," Astell warned, "that it is of the very Essence of Wit to be out of Rule, and above all Measure." Measure restrained expression; wit freed it to subvert social conventions. "Method is a Restraint, not to be suffer'd by Free Writers in a Free Nation," Astell complained. "So Free that not any thing is sacred enough to be Privileg'd; not our Laws, nor our Religion, not our Sovereign, nor our GOD." Fowler thus advocated that "with regard to things truly sacred, or of the greatest Importance, [wit] ought strictly to be Forborn or Restrained."

Restraint had potential legal implications. Since the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, the English press was free from the prior restraint of licensing but not immune from postpublication prosecution for libel. In Rex v. Taylor (1675), Lord Chief Justice Matthew Hale had declared Christianity part of English common law and the Church of England part of the English constitution. The result was amorphous notions of seditious and blasphemous libel indictable at common law, as Defoe experienced. Shaftesbury argued that the threat of prosecution was reason for more wit, as an authorial method of legal evasion: "If Men are forbid to speak their minds seriously on certain Subjects, they will do it ironically. If they are forbid to speak at all upon such Subjects, or if they find it really dangerous to do so; they will then redouble their Disguise, involve themselves in Mysteriousness, and talk so as hardly to be understood." Wit disguised its author as it exposed its subject, as in feigning Christian orthodoxy while subverting biblical authority. Wit thus maintained privacy in the process of publicity. Shaftesbury published his "essay on the freedom of wit and humour" as "a letter to a friend." The guise of personal correspondence covered his promulgating, through several published editions, the freedom of wit enjoyed in private clubs: "For you are to remember (my Friend!) that I am writing to you in defence only of the Liberty of the Club." "The Publick is not, on any account, to be laugh'd at," at least not "to its face." Wit disguised laughter from "the Multitude" as it criticized standing institutions and conventions for the sophisticated. It was intended for highbrow consumption.

The English cleric Thomas Woolston employed "this clancular and subtil Method" of writing to his own detriment, being convicted of blasphemous libel in 1729. In Six Discourses on the Miracles of Our Saviour (1727-30), he mocks biblical miracles as "the grossest Absurdities," commenting on Jesus casting demons into swine, "If any Exorcist in this our Age and Nation" had done likewise, "our Laws and Judges too of the last Age, would have made him to swing for it." Critics denounced this "profane Ridicule of the most Sacred things." Yet Woolston had cloaked his ridicule in allegorical exegesis, a hermeneutics with patristic roots, to suggest that Jesus's miracles were "prophetical and parabolical Narratives." His counsel even raised this point at trial, arguing that the defendant intended only to "shew, That the Miracles of our Saviour were to be understood in a Metaphorical Sense, and not as they were Literally Written." Critics, however, viewed the erudite veneer as evidence of dissembling intent. Edmund Gibson, the bishop of London, decried Woolston's "Blasphemous Manner" while noting "the Duty of the Civil Magistrate at all time, to take care that Religion be not treated either in a ludicrous, or a reproachful manner." Because Woolston's manner deceived, Gibson continued, it subverted all standards, striking "at the Foundation of all Religion, and of Truth, Virtue, Seriousness, and good Manners; and by consequence at the Foundation of Civil Society." The justice presiding over the case agreed, citing Rex v. Taylor to remind defense counsel, "Whatever strikes at the very root of Christianity, tends manifestly to the dissolution of civil government."

The deist Anthony Collins responded to Woolston's predicament by popularizing Shaftesbury's method and argument. Collins satirized the orthodox view of the Christian gospels as literal fulfillments of Hebraic prophecy, clothing his ridicule in exaggerated piety. He tied his endeavor to religious toleration, citing Pierre Bayle and John Locke and advocating "that universal liberty be established in respect to opinions and practices not prejudicial to the peace and welfare of society." Yet this argument assumed the point in dispute by supposing that ridiculing religion did not subvert social order. Making the supposition explicit, Collins authored A Discourse Concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing (1729), which shows that even Anglican divines have long used wit in debating religion. Lest that fail to convince, he articulated Shaftesbury's argument that religious intolerance is reason for more ridicule of religion. In this, Collins exhibited a form of what Jacques Berlinerblau calls the profanity loop (see chapter 2)-countering intolerance of wit with yet more satire and ridicule. Collins presented this strategy as a biblical command, invoking "the noble Sarcasm of Elijah"; "the Psalmist" who suggested "laughing to scorn, and deriding the greatest men upon Earth"; and "the following Sarcasm or Irony" about humanity's fall into sin in Genesis 3:22: "This Passage shews, that the whole Affair of the Fall . . . was a very entertaining Scene." Original sin, the orthodox view of human nature, was a subject of humor.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume employed similar humor more subtly. In his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), Hume describes irony as "conceal'd strokes of satire." Though "the open declaration of our sentiments is call'd the taking off the mask," he explains, "the secret intimations of our opinions is said to be the veiling of them." The veil mitigates offense: it "moves not my indignation to such a degree, as if [one] flatly told me I was a fool." Such playfulness also informs Hume's essay "Of Miracles," which he withheld from the Treatise but included in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Therein, he describes advocates of the use of reason in religious matters as pretend Christians. In good humor, he dons their mask to profane revelation, asking readers to consider "the Pentateuch, which we shall examine, according to the principles of these pretended Christians, not as the word or testimony of God himself, but as the production of a mere human writer and historian. Here then we are first to consider a book, presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more barbarous, and in all probability long after the facts which it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous accounts which every nation gives of it origin." The irony is conspicuous in its guise. Hume proceeds as if merely describing the biblical accounts of the Fall, the Flood, and the Covenant, refraining from irony until his concluding thought: "Upon reading this book, we find it full of prodigies and miracles. It gives an account of a state of the world and of human nature entirely different from the present: Of our fall from that state: Of the age of man, extended to near a thousand years: Of the destruction of the world by a deluge: Of the arbitrary choice of one people, as the favourites of heaven; and that people the countrymen of the author."

Hume combined satire and "the principles of toleration" in his Natural History of Religion (1757). He emphasized that toleration "proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priests and bigots." And he decried "a religion (and we may suspect Mahometanism of this inconsistence) which sometimes painted the Deity in the most sublime colors" and "sometimes degraded him nearly to a level with human creatures." His irony, regarding a religion of divine incarnation in human form, was again reserved for his conclusion, "Happily this is the case with Christianity that it is free from a contradiction, so incident to human nature."

Hume was long conscious of the importance of politeness, even before he was denied an Edinburgh professorship on charges of heterodoxy. He intentionally avoided militant tones. He thus found writing in dialogue an inviting style, because it allowed significant license under cover of literary characters. In "Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State," Hume's first-person character relates "a conversation with a friend who loves sceptical paradoxes; where, though he advanced many principles, of which I can by no means approve, yet as they seem to be curious, . . . I shall here copy them . . . in order to submit them to the judgment of the reader." The conversation begins with shared admiration of "freedom and toleration" against "creeds, confessions, or penal statutes" and culminates in the friend's undermining of reasoned arguments for divine benevolence, nature's deity being "both uncertain and useless." The friend's severing of morality from religion was Hume's doing and implied, contra the Woolston case, that religion was not a necessary social foundation. Hume voiced the same argument through the skeptical Philo in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, begun in the early 1750s and published posthumously in 1779. Hume's dialogues were not unlike Shaftesbury's in important respects. The ease of their give-and-take exhibits a degree of license, a tolerant picture of free exchange and opinion laced with irony and ridicule.

Orthodox Christians also used satirical wit in dialogue to advance the case for toleration. From British North America, the Yale-educated Jonathan Dickinson exposed legal inequities resulting from the ensnaring of religion in human power and vice. He was an orthodox evangelical who proclaimed original sin and imputed righteousness in works such as The Nature and Necessity of Regeneration (1743). He was a founding trustee and the first president of the College of New Jersey (1746), later Princeton University, which, unlike contemporary English universities, disclaimed subscriptions of faith for enrollment.

Dickinson's 1732 work The Scripture-Bishop embodies the English tradition of religious nonconformity, which had long maintained biblical warrant for an ecclesiology of clerical peers rather than bishops. In simulated astonishment, Dickinson recalled past persecutions for resistance to the power and pomp of English episcopacy: "Having read the ecclesiastical Story of our Kingdom since the Reformation, I was surpriz'd to find such Clouds of Sufferers for Nonconformity to Prelacy and Ceremony. What a dark Scene." He continued, "How severe were the Persecutions after the Restoration," when many "were stript of their Estates, languished and died, in Prisons, for preaching the Gospel."

Dickinson's work is a dialogue, a literary affectation of privacy. It mimics a "free and unreserv'd converse" among gentlemen "without the interruption, or observation of others." Its purpose was to publicize the predicament of its protagonist Eleutherius, whose name means "liberator" in Greek. "Eleutherius was a Gentleman of a plentiful Substance, a liberal Education," Dickinson explained, "and possess'd those ministerial Qualifications as would have intitled him to some of the highest Preferments in the Episcopal Church, had he consulted his promotion in the choice of his Profession, and declared himself for the national Establishment." Yet Eleutherius was Presbyterian, not Anglican. "This being a matter of great grief to some of his ambitious and aspiring Friends, whose Heads ran much upon his Promotion, occasion'd him a Visit from one of them, a Clergyman of the establish'd Church" named Praelaticus. The visit from this ambitious friend of the establishment, allured by worldly advance and power, is the occasion of the dialogue.

Though Dickinson's provincial New Jersey lacked a religious establishment, he used the literary forms of the imperial literati to criticize English constitutional inequities. On those literary forms, Hume commented, "All polite letters are nothing but pictures of human life"; authors "place opposite characters in a proper contrast; and alluring us into the paths of virtue by the views of glory and happiness, direct our steps in these paths." Dickinson did not use views of glory and happiness but described Eleutherius in terms of the unjust denial of glory. Despite eminent qualifications, Eleutherius was denied worldly advance for nonconformity. "I cannot conform to the legal Establishment," he exclaimed as a provincial minority. Hume suggested that polite letters were to coax readers toward virtue; Dickinson used letters to define vice as inequitable treatment for religious belief, a policy that he associated with the imperial center of the British Empire. Local representatives of England's Whig regime responded. James Wetmore of New York authored Eleutherius Enervatus, warning about "the Subversion of all Government, civil and ecclesiastical." John Beach of Connecticut reproached Dickinson's "design to propagate this brutish noise." "Established clergy," Dickinson rejoined, "every where exact their Salary, from those of other Persuasions."

Dickinson's views resembled those of the Scottish provincial John Witherspoon, who was also an orthodox Christian and a subsequent president of Princeton. Before immigrating to New Jersey, Witherspoon was involved in heated debates among Scottish Presbyterians. The nature of those debates is evident in his Practical Treatise on Regeneration (1764), wherein he criticizes how "the new birth is a subject, at present, very unfashionable," even "held in derision." Witherspoon led the "popular," or evangelical, wing in the Church of Scotland against the so-called moderates, who downplayed experiential piety and traditional doctrine in favor of benevolence and the common good. In engaging with the moderates, Witherspoon satirically debated religious practices and beliefs in Ecclesiastical Characteristics (1753), whose title is mockingly suggestive of Shaftesbury's, and A Serious Apology for "The Ecclesiastical Characteristics" (1763).

Ecclesiastical Characteristics was first published in Glasgow and then circulated widely, with enlarged editions appearing in London (1754), Glasgow (1754 and 1755), Edinburgh (1763), Rotterdam (n.d.), and Philadelphia (1767). Witherspoon called it "a satire upon clergymen of a certain character," explaining that "a satire that does not bite, is good for nothing," for "it is essential to this manner of writing, to provoke and give offence." The satirized clerics were self-styled British "moderates," whom Witherspoon viewed as corrupt in their "open solicitation of ecclesiastical preferment" and their partisan favoring of those who endorsed their refashioned morality. The new morality embodied the aestheticism of Shaftesbury, the poet Mark Akenside, and the moral sense philosophers Francis Hutcheson and David Fordyce (at the Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen, respectively). Witherspoon viewed such polite authors as offering "a pretended theory of moral virtue" that promoted aesthetic sensibility over consciousness of sin, the beauty of benevolence and social harmony over the experience of redeeming grace. At stake was stewardship of the church, schools, and culture, as moderates sought to transfer the traditional religious virtues of "modesty and other bastard virtues of the same class," Witherspoon jeered, into "the opposite column, that is to say the column of vices."

Witherspoon viewed the new morality as having contemptuous and authoritarian streaks. The contempt concerned common standards. Aesthetic sensibility was "not to be confined to common forms," he derided, but developed "in opposition to the bulk of mankind, who through want of taste, are not able to relish the finest performances." Witherspoon's criticism of pretentious claims to moral discernment that transcended common thoughts and habits informed his satirical discussion of biblical text. He assumed moderate pretensions to mock the moderate reading of Christian liberty in Romans 14, clarifying the claim that "the worst of all heresies is a bad life": "Now, if instead of worst, which is an uncomely expression, you would read greatest in that passage, then a libertine is the greatest of all heretics and to be honored in proportion. Even the apostle Paul (who is very seldom of any use to us in our reasonings) seems to suppose that they are men of most knowledge who are most free and bold in their practice, and that they are only weak brethren who are filled with scruples. The weak man is restrained and confirmed by his narrow conscience."

Witherspoon's satire also pointed toward the moderates' authoritarian streak. He charged them with using patronage to impose ministers of the new morality on parishes against the traditional call and assent of the congregation, "a settlement decided over the belly perhaps of the whole people in the parish." He viewed this practice as reflecting a broader temperament, which he described in mockingly voicing the moderates' authoritarian reading of "the third chapter of the Romans": "If human authority be once duly interposed, it is obeying God to comply with whatever is enjoined thereby."

The problem, for Witherspoon, inhered in the new morality itself. Its aesthetic ethic of benevolence possessed the authoritarian tendency to resolve all ethical and political disputes in "the good of the whole." This ethic, he wryly noted, "contains all knowledge of the whole and the good of the whole, more than which, I hope, will be allowed to be not only needless, but impossible." He feared that refined sensibilities were precluding individual obligations of conscience from taking precedence over collective claims of the common good. "Conscience," he remarked ironically, "is of all things the most stiff and inflexible and cannot by any art be molded into another shape," "whereas the whole principles of moderation are most gentle and ductile." Witherspoon suggested that in substituting benevolence for conscience, this moral ductility was equating God with society. "The good of the whole," he ridiculed, suggesting the image of idolatry from Exodus 20:3, "is not only true, but it is all truth, and will not suffer any thing to be true but itself."

In A Serious Apology, Witherspoon defends satire in debates about religion by explaining "that it is a lawful thing to employ ridicule in such a cause," which is sometimes "the most proper method, if not, in a manner, necessary." He describes his satirical censuring in terms of Enlightenment toleration: "No civil penalties follow upon it among us, and no civil penalties ought to follow upon it in any nation." The "highest authority" being biblical text, he engages the "many instances of irony in the sacred writings," ranging from Genesis and Kings to "an expression from our Saviour himself," who "uses a language plainly ironical; as in John x. 32." Underlying these biblical references is a distinctly evangelical rationale for satire, a religion of the Word leveling the impregnable forces of pride. "The lawfulness of employing ridicule," Witherspoon explained, is "founded upon the plainest reason. There is commonly a pride and self-sufficiency in men under the dominion of error, which makes them deaf to advice and impregnable to grave and serious reasoning; neither is there any getting at them till their pride is leveled a little with this dismaying weapon."

A Serious Apology appeared as the great war for empire between Britain and France was ending and tensions between the victorious Britain and its North American colonies began. Shortly thereafter, Witherspoon migrated to British America to become the president of Princeton, in 1768. As a member of the Continental Congress, he preached a fast-day sermon in Philadelphia on "the just view given us in scripture of our lost state" before returning to the city weeks later to sign the Declaration of Independence. He taught philosophy at Princeton. His students included almost one-fifth of the future delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. His teaching dwelt on "the depravity and corruption of our nature" as he continued to question aestheticism, identifying one of the "excesses" of moral sense theory as "the making the general good the ultimate practical rule to every particular person, so that he may violate particular obligations with a view to a more general benefit." Witherspoon's notion of particular obligations of conscience taking precedence over collective claims of the greater good influenced his most famous student, James Madison, who replicated the argument in helping to end Virginia's religious establishment in the 1780s. Though Witherspoon's use of satire and ridicule in debating religious texts, practices, and beliefs remained predominately highbrow, the age included increasingly popular forms of such expression in ongoing debates about religion and toleration.

Democratizing Satire: The Age of Revolution

More popular satirical discussions of religion and toleration proliferated in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. The voices widening the audience of the satirical republic included those of a younger generation, adept at writing in popular and assertive tones. Two such figures were the freethinking deist Thomas Paine and the Christian evangelical James Murray. Paine authored widely read tracts such as Common Sense (1776), The Rights of Man (1791-92), and The Age of Reason (1794-96). Murray's Sermons to Asses (1768) went through several editions in England and a Philadelphia printing in 1774. He followed with a second volume in 1771, defending the American Revolution in Sermons to Ministers of State, which also had multiple English editions and a Philadelphia run in 1783.

Both wrote in a style intended to reach wide audiences. Paine's "clear, simple, concise, and . . . manly" style in Common Sense reached hundreds of thousands, while Murray feigned "hope [that bishops] will not be offended at receiving a little assistance" from his printed appeals over their heads to their parishioners. Though neither inhabited the cultural mainstream, both conceived of what Murray called the "republic of letters" as an arena of moral judgment, persuasion, and competition, projecting themselves less as identities seeking recognition and protection than as agents of moral declaration. They both proclaimed much of contemporary religion corrupt, tainted by material allure and ensnared in worldly power, pomp, and ambition. "The church," Paine declared of Christianity, "has set up a religion of pomp and of revenue in pretended imitation of a person whose life was humility and poverty." Murray bemoaned the "interest, sordid self-interest" of "men in sacred offices." When "men began to corrupt religion," he sneered, "they were obliged to make up the want of Christian simplicity with honours borrowed from the kingdoms of this world."

Through their competing programs of deism and evangelism, Paine and Murray sought to free society from established religion. Both thus attacked religious establishments and promoted the natural rights of religious conscience. "All national institutions of churches," Paine declared, are "no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit." Murray similarly avowed, "If there were no alliance between church and state, there would be more civil and religious liberty." Seeking to limit state power to outward things, he continued, "The Laws of civil society have only a respect to the bodies of men, and cannot extend beyond what pertains to the body." Society, in other words, "cannot oblige men to part with their natural rights." "Asses, and worse than asses, surely you are," then, who surrender "the rights of your own consciences."

Paine and Murray infused their calls for greater religious liberty with wit, ridicule, satire, and irony. Murray suggested that Sermons to Asses "should have been dedicated to the A[rch]b[ishop]s, B[ishop]s, and their C[lerg]y," but with conspicuous irony, having just made the association he intended, "the author was afraid of offending their modesty with the flattery of a dedication, and for that reason altered his design." The people were thus the asses, ridden by the "two burdens of civil and religious oppression." Murray directed Sermons to Doctors in Divinity, however, at the leaders of established religion. "Doctors and Asses are synonymous terms," he scoffed, after noting, "Perhaps the title should be Sermons to wild asses." "Unless the Doctors be regenerated, the address is very proper," he continued, given that "there have been few disturbances in the church, or the world, of which they have not either been the parents or nurses." Murray echoed Dickinson in criticizing clerical ambition and Witherspoon in questioning the ethics of prominent belles letters and the authoritarian imposition of pastors. He also resembled Witherspoon in using satire to debate biblical meaning. Referencing 2 Corinthians 10:4, which renounces "carnal weapons," or temporal authority in religion, he mocked the erudite recourse to temporal power: "Some narrow minded bigoted people may perhaps alledge, that the weapons of the Church's warfare are not carnal,-and our translation of Paul's epistles seems to hint as much;-But as it is very likely that Doctors in divinity may find a various reading, and perhaps discover the word carnal to be genuine, but the particle not, an interpolation through the rashness of some transcriber, by rectifying the text and restoring it to its primitive state, it will read, The weapons of our warfare are carnal."

Paine's satire in promoting religious liberty derided orthodox Christianity. In Common Sense, he advocated independence from Great Britain by suggesting that hereditary rule was as ridiculous as original sin: "To say that the right of all future generations is taken away by the act of the first electors in their choice not only of a king, but of a family of kings forever, hath no parallel in or out of scripture but the doctrine of original sin, which supposes the free will of all men lost in Adam." "From such comparison," he chided, "hereditary succession can derive no glory. For as in Adam all sinned, and as in the first electros all men obeyed; as in the one all mankind were subjected to Satan, and in the other to sovereignty." It "unanswerably follows," Paine sarcastically concluded, "that original sin and hereditary succession are parallels. Dishonorable rank! Inglorious connection!"

To "the absurdity and profaneness of the story" of original sin, Paine added "the whole theory or doctrine of what is called the redemption" in The Age of Reason. This doctrine, he scoffed, "was originally fabricated on purpose to bring forward and build all those secondary and pecuniary redemptions upon." He not only filled the pamphlet with blasphemous statements about Christianity but described Christianity itself as blasphemous, "for what can be greater blasphemy than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the order of the Almighty[?]"Paine repeatedly mocked the very idea of revelation and undermined the notion of sacred text as a "fraud." In this, his purpose was not unlike Shaftesbury's, though pursued without literary disguise and in more militant tones. He unequivocally declared Christianity to be an inferior cultural system-"the age of ignorance commenced with the Christian system"-which he hoped to replace with "the pure and simple profession of Deism." A contemporary compared him to the Devil in turning "God's word into ridicule." When the British government charged Paine and his publisher with sedition in 1797, the prosecution criticized Paine's writing for having "excited a general avidity to read the book, particularly among the middling and lower classes." Supporters then published the trial transcript for popular audiences. Their response to this prosecution was a democratized version of Shaftesbury's earlier recommendation to counter intolerance with still more deistic wit and anti-Christian satire-a popular form of Berlinerblau's profanity loop.


Eighteenth-century opponents of satirical discussions of religion sought to preserve belief systems as buttresses to social hierarchy and authority. That judgment seems self-evident in retrospect. Yet the notion that certain forms of expression are potent agents of disorder threatening the social fabric is not always comfortably assessed from such distance. Ronald Dworkin defended the right to ridicule religion while endorsing media self-censorship to avoid causing psychological pain and social alienation for some religious readers and viewers. He opposes legal censorship by the state. Jeremy Waldron does not. He recommends criminalizing the verbal creation of a hostile environment for believers, meaning one that damages their psychological well-being or undermines their sense of equality. Of particular importance is his historicism. "There is a very considerable literature on hate speech," he explains, "but most of it lacks a historical dimension." Waldron seeks to provide that dimension by disclosing the "relation between religious toleration as an Enlightenment ideal and religious hate speech" prohibitions.

Most regimes, legal systems, and ideologies seek some form of historical legitimatization, a purported heritage of earlier developments as justifying grounds for programs of more recent vintage. John Rawls famously cast his liberal philosophy as the evolved product of political thinking following the early modern wars of religion. Americans routinely portray their competing views on church and state as faithful reflections of the First Amendment's religion clauses. Radical forms of political theology often appeal to a past of purer beginnings. And Waldron quotes from Locke, Bayle, Voltaire, and Denis Diderot in pursuing an Enlightenment pantheon to support current hate speech criminalization.

Yet the pursuit is misguided. Many Enlightenment figures were aware of the potency of expression. Following England's civil wars, a young and intolerant Locke "accused the pens of Englishmen of as much guilt as their swords." Following the American Revolution, an older and tolerant George Washington "practiced restraint," in the words of Chris Beneke, "a determination not to take certain kinds of actions-not to insult, not to offend, not to persecute, not to tyrannize over a minority group-a willful withholding of judgment." The restraint of personal decorum is fundamentally different from the restraint of criminal law. Advocacy of the former is not a natural ally of the latter; the one respects individual autonomy, while the other does not. Most Enlightenment writers took direct and primary aim at limiting state authority to criminalize, not empowering it. Slighting this fact elicits James Murray's irony regarding erudite exegesis, turning a renunciation of carnal weapons into an endorsement of their use.