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Guilt by Association: The Atheist Cabal and the Rise of the Public Sphere in Augustan England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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It is a cliché of literary history that the natives of the long eighteenth century were uniquely “clubbable” men and women. As Peter Clark points out, by the mid-eighteenth century voluntary associations of all sorts had become “an essential part of the social and cultural language of urban life.” Clark chronicles the rise of coffee houses, benefit societies, lodges, fraternal organizations, and clubs of every kind. As he points out, however, while the “image and concept of the voluntary society increasingly penetrated every nook and cranny of British social and cultural life” in the eighteenth century, there was no “extended philosophical justification for the importance and freedom of voluntary associations in society.” The absence of such justifications may be traced, at least in part, to a relatively wide-spread suspicion of voluntary association as manifested in “atheist” clubs and heterodox conventicles, forms of association that figured prominently in the imagination of Augustan pamphleteers, but whose history, as Justin Champion remarks, “is obscure and little studied.” As I argue in this essay, a brief study of atheist clubs that presumably flourished in the early decades of the eighteenth century reveals a resistance on the part of High-Church Anglican pamphleteers to the growth of clubs and private associations because they presumably posed a threat to the establishment both in Church and State.

Research Article
Albion , Volume 34 , Issue 3 , Fall 2002 , pp. 391 - 421
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 2002

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1 Clark, Peter, British Clubs and Societies 1580–1800 (Oxford, 2000), p. 94Google Scholar.

2 Ibid., pp. 4, 177.

3 Champion, J. A. I., The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken (Cambridge, 1992), p. 8Google Scholar.

4 On this question of the relationship between clubs and the rise of the public sphere, see Shields, David S., “Anglo-American Clubs: Their Wit, Their Heterodoxy, Their Sedition,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd. ser., 51, 2 (04 1994): 293304CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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7 Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Burger, Thomas (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), p. 32Google Scholar.

8 Ibid., p. 33.

9 Klein, Lawrence E., Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness (Cambridge, 1994), p. 11CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Klein speaks of the development of a new urbanism as part of the growth of the public sphere: “Coffee-houses, clubs, assemblies, gardens, and theaters were nodal points in the network of the new urban culture….They also enabled new forms of sociability and discussion or invigorated and expanded older ones” (p. 11). See also Pincus, Steve, “Coffee Politicians Does Create: Coffeehouses and Restoration Political Culture,” Journal of History 67 (12 1995): 807–34Google Scholar.

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12 Coffee-houses remained under intermittent surveillance. In 1688 Francis Jeffreys, the Lord Chancellor, ordered the Justices of the Peace in Middlesex to suppress all coffee-houses that dealt in foreign or domestic news. See Lillywhite, Bryant, London Coffee Houses (London, 1963), pp. 1727Google Scholar.

13 Sacheverell, Henry, The Character of a Low-Churchman (London, 1702), p. 15Google Scholar.

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16 Klein, , Shaftesbury, p. 12Google Scholar.

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19 Behn, Aphra, Epilogue to the Second Part of the Rover (London, 1681)Google Scholar.

20 North, Examen (1740), p. 139, Quotde. in Allen, R. J., The Clubs of Augustan London (Cambridge, Mass., 1933), p. 21CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 As Allen points out in Clubs of Augustan London, the Tories were not as active in clubs as were the Whigs (p. 73). Nor were they attacked as frequently. For poetic treatments of Tory clubs see Walsh, William, The Worcester Cabal (1701)Google Scholar, and [Daniel Defoe] The Address (1704).

22 Pincus, , “Coffee Politicians,” p. 827Google Scholar.

23 Lillywhite, , London Coffee Houses, p. 18Google Scholar.

24 This argument differs from that of Pincus who contends that all constitutencies from radicals to former cavaliers were unanimous in their rejection of the king's proclamation “precisely because they were no longer convinced that public discussion led ineluctably to rebellion” (p. 832).

25 The Character of a Coffee-House, with the Symptoms of a Town-Wit (London, 1673)Google Scholar. This portrait is recapitulated in The Character of a Town-Gallant (London 1675)Google Scholar.

26 Quoted in Ashcraft, Richard, Revolutionary Politics and Locke's Two Treatises on Government (Princeton, 1986), pp. 434–35Google Scholar.

27 See Harris, Tim, London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 92–93, 100–01Google Scholar, and Zook, , Radical Whigs and Conspiratorial Politics, p. 7Google Scholar. The Tories were right; coffee houses did serve as incubators of sedition. Twenty four of the Green Ribbonites were later implicated in the Rye House conspiracy, and fourteen more participated in or supported Monmouth's rebellion. See Ashcraft, , Revolutionary Politics, p. 144Google Scholar, and Zook, , Radical Whigs and Conspiratorial Politics, p. 8Google Scholar.

28 Ashcraft, , Revolutionary Politics, p. 143Google Scholar. On the history of the Green Ribbon Club, see Jones, J. R.The Green Ribbon Club,” Durham University Journal 18 n.s (1956): 1720Google Scholar.

29 Ashcraft, , Revolutionary Politics, p. 143Google Scholar.

30 Harris, Tim, “Introduction,” The Politics of Religion in Restoration England, ed. Harris, Tim, Seaward, Paul, and Goldie, Mark (Oxford, 1990), pp. 1011Google Scholar. See also De Krey, Gary S., “London Radicals and Revolutionary Politics, 1675–1683,” pp. 142–43 in this same volumeGoogle Scholar.

31 Zaret, David, “Religion, Science, and Printing in the Public Spheres in Seventeenth-Century England,” in Calhoun, Craig, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, 1992), p. 226Google Scholar. As Clark, J. C. D. has argued in English Society 1688–1832 (Cambridge, 1985)Google Scholar, it was the fear of heterodoxy that led to suspicion of the Whigs after 1688.

32 On the linkage between Interregnum sectarianism and eighteenth-century heterodoxy, see Hill, Christopher, “Freethinking and libertinism: the legacy of the English Revolution,” in The Margins of Orthodoxy: Heterodox Writing and Cultural Response 1660–1750, ed. Lund, Roger D. (Cambridge. 1995), pp. 5473CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Lund, Roger D., “Strange Complicities: Atheism and Conspiracy in A Tale of a Tub,” Eighteenth-Century Life 13 (11. 1989), pp. 3458Google Scholar. For an encyclopedic account of the High-Church assault on the Quakers, see Ormsby-Lennon, Hugh, “Swift and the Quakers (I),” Swift Studies 4 (1989): 3462Google Scholar, and Swift and the Quakers (II),” Swift Studies 5 (1990): 5389Google Scholar.

33 Poems on Affairs of State, vol. 2: 1678–1681, ed. Mengel, Elias F. Jr., (New Haven, 1965), ll. 2534Google Scholar.

34 English Historical Documents, 1660–1714, ed. Browning, Andrew (London, 1953), p. 384Google Scholar. The language of this act finds a perfect analogue in Samuel Parker's attack on the witty libertinism of infidel cabals in his Discourse of Ecclesiastical Politie, 3rd. ed. (1671): “there is no man that laughs at the Folly of Religion, who is not angry at the Superstition of Government. And therefore I leave it to Authority to consider, how much it concerns them to restrain the Insolence of this wanton Humour; and to punish those, who make it their business to propagate Irreligious Principles, as the worst and most dangerous Enemies to the state” (pp. xxxiv–xxxv).

35 [Shannon, William Boyle], Moral Essays and Discourses Upon Several Subjects Chiefly Relating to the Present Times (1690), pp. 134–35Google Scholar.

36 Davenant, Charles, Tom Double Returned Out of the Country: or, The True Picture of a Modern Whig, in The Political and Commercial Works of…Charles D'Avenant, LL.D., 5 vols. (London, 1771), 4: 147, 241Google Scholar. Like other atheistical and seditious clubs, the Calves-Head Club is regarded as but another form of conventicle. In Rehearsal, 29, Sat. February 10–Sat. Feb 17, 1705 a Whig announces that he spent January 30th “most Religiously!” at “Salter's Hall…And then I went to our CALVES-HEAD Refreshment in Southwark. But, asks Leslie's spokesperson, “doesn't the Law Require YOUR Conventicles to be shut up that Day, as well as the Shops?

37 Ward, Edward, Secret History of London Clubs (1709), pp. 4445Google Scholar.

38 Swift, Jonathan, A Preface to the B—p of S-r-m's Introduction to the Third Volume of the History of the Reformation of the Church of England (1713)Google Scholar, in The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, 14 vols. ed. Davis, Herbert (Oxford, 1957), 4: 63Google Scholar.

39 Ward, Edward, Vulgus Britannicus, Fourth Part (1710), Canto XI, p. 129Google Scholar.

40 SirBlackmore, Richard, The Creation (London, 1713), p. 17Google Scholar. Blackmore's complaint is significant because he is a Whig.

41 Robbins, Caroline, The Eighteenth Century Commonwealthman (New York, 1968), p. 403Google Scholar. See also Harris, Jonathan, “The Grecian Coffee House and Political Debate in London 1688–1714,” London Journal 25, 1 (2000): 113CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Sullivan, Robert E., John Toland and the Deist Controversy (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), pp. 1415Google Scholar.

43 Hill, Samuel, A Thorough Examination of the False Principles… (London, 1708), p. xiiiGoogle Scholar.

44 Sullivan, , John Toland, p. 14Google Scholar. In Visits from the Shades (London, 1704)Google ScholarPubMed, “Dialogue V. Between Hobs and the Pious Mr. Asgill,” p. 37, Hobbes invites Asgill to join “admirers” and “friends” at the Grecian Coffee House.” On the other side of the argument Stephen Daniel, has suggested that there is only “weak circumstantial evidence” that the coterie of “Commonwealthmen and freethinkers” known as the “College,” which presumably included Locke, Toland, Tindal, Robert Molesworth and a variety of Whig propagandists and publishers, actually engaged in organized meetings at the Grecian.” John Toland: His Methods, Manners, and Mind (Montreal, 1984), p. 213Google Scholar.

45 The Guardian 39, April 25, 1713, in British Essayists, 45 vols., ed. Ferguson, James (London, 1816), 16: 198204Google Scholar. The Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus, ed, Kirby-Miller, Charles (1959; rpt. New York, 1966), p. 138Google Scholar.

46 Cockman, Thomas, Free-Thinking Rightly Stated (London 1713), p. 9Google Scholar. See also An Account of a Discourse at the Grecian Coffee House (London, 1713), pp. 3739Google Scholar.

47 Throughout this essay I have copied the idiosyncratic spelling of “Calves-Head” used by eighteenth-century writers who generally omit the apostrophe and never spell the word “Calf's Head,” the correct form by modern standards.

48 Brown, Tom, “An Answer by the Calves-Head Club to Ludlow the Regicide,” Letters from the Living to the Dead, in Amusements Serious and Comical, ed. with notes by Hayward, Arthur L. (London, 1927), p. 405Google Scholar.

49 Preeminent among these myths was the widely shared conclusion that John Milton and “some other Creatures of the Commonwealth, had instituted this Club.” Edward Ward, The Secret History of the Calves-Head Club, sixth ed. (1706), pp, 17.

50 Ward, , Secret History, p. 16Google Scholar A number of other writers vouch for the authenticity of such reports. See Wesley, Samuel, A Defense of a Letter (1704), pp. 45Google Scholar.

51 Ward, , Secret History, pp. 1718Google Scholar.

52 Ibid., p. 19.

53 According to Stephen Daniel, not long after Toland became recognized as a spokesman for Whig interests, “Tory adversaries began to cite his participation in the Calves-Head Club,” p. 212. See also, Shippen's, WilliamFaction Display'd (1704)Google Scholar.

54 Examiner No. 39, Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, 3: 142Google Scholar.

55 Brown, Thomas, Upon the Anonymous Author of Legion's Humble Address to the Lords (1704), Poems on Affairs of State, 2: 676Google Scholar.

56 Shippen, , Faction Display'd (1704)Google Scholar, Poems on Affairs of State, 2: 654, ll. 85–88Google Scholar. Not surprisingly, Tindal is associated with the Calves-Head Club. In Abel Evans' The Apparition (1710), 1. 23, Satan asks Tindal when he next intends to the join the Calves-Head Club to toast the devil's health with “Acherontick Wine.”

57 Sacheverell, Henry, The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted (1705), p. 23Google Scholar. See also Leslie, Charles, A Case of Present Concern in a Letter to a Member of the House of Commons (London, 1710), p. 3Google Scholar; also The New Association of those Called Moderate-Church-Man, with the Modern-Whig and Fanaticks (1702), p. 12Google Scholar. In Brown's, TomLetters from the Dead to the Living (p. 403Google Scholar), the Calves-Head Club even comes to be conflated with the Societies for the Reformation of Manners.

58 Ward, , Secret History, p. 29Google Scholar.

59 Ibid., p. 17.

60 Ibid., p. 95.

61 Ibid., p. 97. Ward then cites a more recent gathering at Pinners and Salter's Hall to “commemorate the horrid and cruel murther of their late dread Sovereign.” This same gathering is commemorated Leviathan, one of the Poems on Affairs of State: “Thus, thus great Salters-Hall shall ring;/Thus, thus the Calve's-Head-Club shall sing,/Leviathan, our God and King. Poems on Affairs of State, 7: 356.

62 The New Association, p. 1.

63 Ibid., p. 12.

64 The Case of Moderation and Occasional Communion (London, 1705), p. 27)Google Scholar See also, Moderation Truly Stated: Or, a Review of a Late Pamphlet, Entitul'd, Moderation a Vertue (London, 1704), pp. 110–11Google Scholar.

65 Lacy, John, The Political and Ecclesiastical History of Whigland (London, 1714), p. 48Google Scholar.

66 Ibid., p. 50.

67 Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 5, 1735, p. 158Google Scholar. See also The Loyal Calves-Head-Club; or, Commonwealths-Men, who Meet every Night at the Sign of the Tatler, Newgate-Street; to Settle Affairs of Church and State, Just as Before, in Forty Eight (London, 1710)Google ScholarPubMed.

68 Trapp, Joseph, The Character and Principles of the Present Set of Whigs (London, 1711), pp. 4142Google Scholar.

69 A Complete and Humourous Account of the Clubs of London (London, 1756), p. 306Google Scholar. This pamphlet seems to be another versionn of Ward's, Secret History of London Clubs (London, 1709)Google Scholar See also SirBlackmore's, Richard, The Kit-Cats. A Poem (1708)Google Scholar, which praises these men of wit.

70 A Complete and Humorous Account, p. 312. On Kit-Cats as agents of Whig policy see The Tackers Vindicated: or, an Answer to the Whigs New Black-List (London 1705), p. 6Google Scholar.

71 Shippen, , Faction Display'd (1704), ll. 389–92Google Scholar. The Kit-Club's Lamentation (London, 1711)Google Scholar, asserts that these “Seditious Patriots” still “adore the D—1 for our G-d.”

72 Astell, Mary, Bart'lemy Fair: Or An Enquiry After Wit… (London, 1709), p. 4Google Scholar.

73 An Excellent Old Ballad. Made at the Restauration of King Charles II. (1712), Part II: Canto v.

74 The Tackers Vindicated: or, An Answer to the Whigs New Black-List (London, 1705), pp 6, 5Google Scholar.

75 The Case of the Church of England's Memorial Fairly Stated (London, 1705), p. 9Google Scholar.

76 An Address to the Clergy of the Church of England (London, 1705), p. 10Google Scholar. All of these categories are conflated on the title page of The Vanity of Free-Thinking, Expos'd in a Satyr. Dedicated to Mr. C—ns, Proprietor, and the Rest of the Thoughtless Members of the Kitt-Katt Club (London, 1713)Google Scholar.

77 Leslie, Charles, The Rehearsal, No. 44. 05 26–June 2, 1705Google Scholar.

78 See An Address to the Clergy of England, p. 9.

79 Trapp, , The Character…of the Present Set of Whigs, p. 32Google Scholar.

80 Swift, Jonathan, Remarks on Fleetwood's Preface, in The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, 6: 151Google Scholar. Given the absolute character of these charges one is tempted to forget that Swift was an habitue of St. James's Coffee House, that he preened himself on spending evenings with Harley and Viscount Bolingbroke in what he described as the “Brothers Club.”

81 A True and Exact List of all the Blasphemous Names and Persons that are us'd by the Chairmen, Presidents and Masters of Those Impious and Wicked Clubs Call'd by the Several Names of the Hell-fir'd Club, the Sulphur Society, Demi-red Dragons, &c. (London, 1720)Google Scholar.

82 A True and Exact List of all the Blasphemous Names and Persons.…

83 The Practical Atheist: Or Blasphemous Clubs Taxed (Edinburgh, 1721), p. 7Google Scholar. Mary Davys offers an extended description of Sir John Galliard a young libertine who seeks to join “a goodly set of men who distinguished themselves by the name of the Hell-Fire Club” in The Accomplish'd Rake: or the Modern Fine Gentleman (1727) in Four Before Richardson: Selected English Novels, 1720–1727, ed. McBurney, W. H. (Nebraska, 1963), p. 300Google Scholar.

84 The Practical Atheist, p. 6.

85 See A True and Exact List of all the Blasphemous Names and Persons…for a copy of “The King's Order. At the Court of St. James, the 28th Day of April 1721.” For another copy of this proclamation see also The Hell Fire Club: Kept by a Society of Blasphemers. A Satyr (London 1721)Google Scholar.

86 Trenchard, John and Gordon, Thomas, Cato's Letters, 2 vols. (Indianapolis, 1995), no. 29, Saturday, 05 13, 1721, 2: 213Google Scholar.

87 Jacob, Margaret C., Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Oxford, 1991), pp. 23Google Scholar.

88 Ibid., p. 27.

89 Browne, Peter, A Letter in Answer to a Book Entituled Christianity Not Mysterious (London, 1697), p. 209Google Scholar.

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91 Browne, , A Letter in Answer to…Christianity Not Mysterious (1697), p. 177Google Scholar. According to Philip Skelton, Christianity Not Founded on Argument was said to have been “clubbed for by Tindal's disciples, a set of men whose debaucheries and blasphemies would have rendered them infamous in any other age or country but their own.” Ophiomaches: Or Deism Revealed, 2 vols. (1749; rpt. Bristol, 1990), 2: 276Google Scholar. John Witty lists Anthony Collins among “that Glorious Club of Heroes, whose Names will be had in Honour by those who abhor Christianity.” The First Principles of Modern Deism Confuted (London, 1707), preface, xv–xviGoogle Scholar.

92 [Bentley, Richard], Remarks Upon a Late Discourse of Free-Thinking: in a Letter to F.H. DD. By Lipsiensis, Phileleutherus (London, 1713), p. 4Google Scholar.

93 Ophiomaches, 2: 360Google Scholar. On the need for deists to form clubs, see Hildrop, John, An Essay for the Better Regulating of Free-Thinking (London, 1730), p. 9Google Scholar.

94 A True and Exact List.

95 Parsons, Robert, A Sermon Preached at the Funeral of the Rt. Honourable John Earl of Rochester (London, 1680), p. 23Google Scholar. Burnet, Gilbert, Some Passages of the Life and Death of the Right Honourable John, Earl of Rochester (London, 1680), p. 16Google Scholar.

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97 The Conversation of Gentlemen (London, 1749), pp. 1112Google Scholar.

98 A Complete and Humorous Account, p. 4.

99 Sacheverell, Henry, An Assize Sermon Preach'd before The University of Oxford (London, 1704), pp. 2526Google Scholar.

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101 Cooper, Anthony Ashley, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour (1709)Google Scholar, in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), ed. Klein, Lawrence E. (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 3637Google Scholar. In Reflections Upon a Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (London, 1709), pp. 3233Google Scholar, Edward Fowler imagines the “Raileries upon the Church and Religion” and the celebration of heterodox texts that mark Shaftesbury's “Select Club” of “rare Ingenioso's.”

102 Habermas, , Structural Transformations, pp. 67Google Scholar.

103 Ibid., pp. 11–12.

104 Locke, John, A Letter Concerning Toleration, trans. Popple, William (1689), (Indianapolis, 1955), p. 20Google Scholar.

105 Tindal, Matthew, The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted (London, 1706), pp. lxxxvii, and 24Google Scholar.

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108 The Rehearsal, 17, Sat. Nov. 18–Sat. Nov 25, 1704.

109 Locke, , Essay on Toleration, p. 21Google Scholar.

110 The Rehearsal, No. 17, Saturday Nov. 18–Sat. November 25, 1704.

111 Pocock, J. G. A., “Within the margins: the definitions of orthodoxy,” in The Margins of Orthodoxy, p. 48Google Scholar.

112 Ibid., p. 49.

113 Cornwall, , Visible and Apostolic, p. 71Google Scholar.

114 Toland, John, The Memorial of the State of England (London, 1705), pp. 5051Google Scholar.

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116 Proast, Jonas, The Argument of the Letter Concerning Toleration Briefly Considerd and Answered (1690)Google Scholar, quoted in Goldie, Mark, “The Theory of Religious Intolerance in Restoration England,” in From Persecution to Toleration: The Glorious Revolution and Religion in England, ed. Grell, Ole Peter, Israel, Jonathan I., and Tyacke, Nicholas (Oxford, 1991), p. 366Google Scholar.

117 Chandler, Samuel, Reflections on the Conduct of the Modern Deists (London, 1727), p. xxvGoogle Scholar.

118 Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), ed. Mitchell, L. G. (Oxford, 1993), pp. 1011Google Scholar.

119 For a fuller discussion of Burke's exploitation of Scriblerian and Opposition rhetoric, see De Bruyn, Frans, The Literary Genres of Edmund Burke: The Political Uses of Literary Form (Oxford, 1996)Google Scholar.

120 Burke, , Reflections, p., 11Google ScholarPubMed.

121 Ibid., p. 89.

122 Ibid., p. 90.

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