Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 July 2014
Historians examining the critical response to Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire have remained largely true to the presentation Gibbon himself laid down in his Memoirs: the primary focus is on the first volume of 1776 and the storm provoked by chapters fifteen and sixteen on the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. But publication of Gibbon's Vindication in 1779 neither marked the final crushing of his opponents, nor did it close down controversy: it merely led the troops of the orthodox to regroup. The appearance of volumes two and three in 1781, then volumes four to six in 1788, once again brought them out into the field, and their writings and critical preoccupations deserve serious attention. It is all too easy to overlook the high standard of Anglican apologetics throughout the eighteenth century and, indeed, the continuing role of the clergy as the guardians of the state's intellectual inheritance, especially its distinctively Christian character.
I wish to thank Thomas Jemielity, Tony Lentin, and Jeffrey Smitten for their comments on earlier versions of this article. A Small Personal Research Award from the British Academy is gratefully acknowledged. References to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [hereafter cited as D. & F.] are to the A. Strahan & T. Cadell edition of 1776–88.
1 Cf. Trevor-Roper, Hugh, Preface to Gibbon's A Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 1961), p. viiGoogle Scholar.
2 See Aston, Nigel, “‘A Disorderly Squadron?’ A fresh look at clerical responses to the Decline and Fall,” unpublished paper given at the Gibbon Bicentenary Colloquium, Jesus College, Oxford, June 1994Google Scholar.
3 George Horne (1730–92). University College, Oxford, 1746; Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford, 1750; President, 1768–91; Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, 1776; Chaplain-in-Ordinary to George III, 1771–81; Dean of Canterbury, 1781; Bishop of Norwich, 1790-d.
6 Most recently discussed in Mather, F. C., High Church Prophet: Bishop Samuel Horsley (1733–1806) and the Caroline Tradition in the Later Georgian Church (Oxford, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Sharp, Richard, “New perspectives on the Anglican High Church tradition: historical background 1730–1780,” in Rowell, Geoffrey, ed., Tradition Renewed: the Oxford Movement Conference Papers (London, 1986), pp. 4–23Google Scholar.
10 Noonkester, Myron C., “Gibbon and the Clergy: Private Virtues, Public Vices,” in Harvard Theological Review 83 (1990): 407CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Walmsley, Peter, The Rhetoric of Berkeley's Philosophy (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 116–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kantra, Robert A., All Things Vain. Religious Satirists and their Art (Pennsylvania and London, 1984)Google Scholar.
11 Magdalen College, Oxford, MS. 471, f. 19. Bp. of Gloucester to Horne, 12 June 1784.
12 Horne's criticism of Warburton in 1770 is instructive. See Porter, Roy, Edward Gibbon (London, 1988) pp. 15–26, 64Google Scholar.
13 Vryonis, Speros Jr., “Hellas Resurgent,” in White, Lynn Jr., ed., The Transformation of the Roman World. Gibbon's Problem after Two Centuries (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966), p. 115Google Scholar.
15 Thus Howes, Thomas, A Discourse on the Abuse of the Talent of Disputation in religion, particularly as practised by Dr. Priestley, Mr. Gibbon, and others of the modern sect of Philosophical Christians (Norwich, 1784), p. 27Google Scholar: “Christian teachers became the historians of this revealed religion, and in order to discharge their trust faithfully, they were forced to confine themselves to the truth of facts, and to the sense of phrases, as they actually found them to have been understood by the earliest disciples of Christ.”
17 “Let reason be kept to her province, be respected, cherished, and be encouraged in it by every method. But let her not pretend to incorporate with spirit itself, though she may judge of the circumstances that relate to it.” Milner, Joseph, Gibbon's Account of Christianity considered: Together with some strictures on Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (York, 1781), p. 162Google Scholar.
18 Sermon no. 12, Proverbs 4: 7, preached on 26 Aug. 1784. The D.F. ref. is II. 369. Horne, George, Sixteen Sermons on Various Subjects and Occasions (London, 1793), pp. 289–90Google Scholar. The equation of “philosopher” with religious infidel had become the norm by the late eighteenth century. Cf. Disney, W., A Sermon Preached before the University of Cambridge on Sunday, June 28, 1789, with some strictures on the licentious notions avowed or insinuated in the Three last Volumes of Mr Gibbon's Roman History (Cambridge, 1789), p. 10n.Google Scholar, and Jones, William, An Essay on the Holy Trinity (Oxford, 1756), p. 10Google Scholar: “The apostle foresaw that a thing calling itself philosophy would set all its engines at work to destroy the notion of Christ's true and absolute divinity.”
19 Is it in favour of infidelity alone that, in this reasoning age, irrational disgust must pass for argument, and supercilious contempt for argument?” Milner, , Gibbon's Account of Christianity, pp. 35–36Google Scholar.
20 Horne, , Considerations on the Life and Death of St. John the Baptist (Oxford, 1769), p. iiiGoogle Scholar.
21 Horne, , “God the Preserver of Princes,” Psalm 144. 10, [5 Nov.]Google Scholar, Discourses on Several Subjects and Occasions, 5 vols. (4th ed.; London, 1804), 4: 191Google Scholar. Cf. the warning given to the young in White, Joseph, Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford, in the Year 1784 (Sermons containing a view of Christianity, and Mahometanism, in their history, their evidence, and their effects) (3rd ed.; London, 1789), p. 153Google Scholar.
22 Horne noted with approval how Priestley was “laughed at even by Gibbon for his scanty creed.” Cambridge University Library [C.U.L.], Add. MS 8134, B/8/86.
23 “Neither Mr Hume nor Mr Gibbon was a thousand part so obnoxious to the clergy as I am.” Quoted in ed. Cooper, T., Memoirs of Doctor Joseph Priestley to the Year 1795 (London, 1806), p. 31Google Scholar.
24 C.U.L., Add. Mss. 8134/E.
25 For instance the undated attack from the pulpit that berated Gibbon for his presentation of the early Christians. Horne, , “The Duty of Self Denial,” Matt. XVI. v. 24Google Scholar, Discourses on Several Subjects, 3: 128Google Scholar: “And we have seen the pen of a celebrated historian employed in representing the primitive Christians as a set of poor, moping, melancholy, miserable fanatics, because they observed the self-denying precepts of their Saviour, instead of adopting the ‘elegant mythology of the Greeks,’ and the no less elegant manners of the Romans.”
26 Horne, , Letters on Infidelity (2nd ed.; Oxford, 1786), p. 73Google Scholar, on the subject of Gibbon's conversion. This volume deliberately imitated a Voltairean form of presentation, but in the services of religion rather than against it.
27 Jones, William, Memoirs of the Life, Studies, and Writings of the Rt. Rev. George Horne, D.D., late Lord Bishop of Norwich (London, 1795), p. 144Google Scholar.
29 Mather, High Church Prophet, passim.
30 Gibbon had arrived in London with the completed manuscript in Aug. 1787. Norton, J. E., A Bibliography of the Works of Edward Gibbon (Oxford, 1940), p. 58Google Scholar.
31 See Horne to W. S. [William Stevens], 2 July 1788, letter given in Jones, , Memoirs of Horne, p. 195Google Scholar.
32 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/7/16, 1 Jan. 1788. For Gibbon's love of reading and intellectual self-sufficiency see Brownley, Martin Watson, “The Formation of Mind and Character,” in Bowerstock, G. W., Clive, John, and Graubard, Stephen R., eds., Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), pp. 13–25, at pp. 21–22Google Scholar; Jordan, David, Gibbon and his Roman Empire (Urbana, 1971), p. 149Google Scholar.
33 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/105, 7 Aug. 1788. See also B/8/80. See Bond, Harold L., The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon (Oxford, 1960), pp. 23Google Scholar for his great erudition, and Craddock, Patricia B., Edward Gibbon: Luminous historian (Baltimore, 1989), p. 301Google Scholar for his industry.
36 Fully treated in Aston, “‘A Disorderly Squadron?’ A fresh look at clerical responses to the Decline and Fall.”
38 A distaste Horne shared. See letter to W. S., 2 July 1788, Memoirs, ed. Jones, , p. 194Google Scholar. The allegations centered on the character of the Empress Theodora. See particularly Porson, R., Letters to Mr Archdeacon Travis, in answer to his Defence of the Three Heavenly Witnesses (London, 1790), Preface, p. xxxiGoogle Scholar. In his defence Gibbon later argued that “the vices of Theodora form an essential feature in the reign and character of Justinian.” He had also taken care not to translate passages with sexual references. Autobiographies, p. 337; Craddock, , Gibbon, pp. 263–64Google Scholar for reaction to the last three vols.
39 C.U.L., Add, MS. 8134, B7/48, on D. & F. 4: 453.
40 Well exemplified in Horne's best-selling A Commentary on the Book of Psalms in two volumes (Oxford, 1776)Google Scholar, and illustrated in C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, E.
41 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/57, on D. & F., 5: 229. There was another instance of questioning God's activity in creation when he mentioned the whale Porphyrio whom the historian Procopius alleged had infested the seas off Constantinople during Justinian's reign. Gibbon's explanation was that it had to be “a stranger & wanderer” because the Mediterranean does not contain such a species. Horne detected a wish to cast doubt on the existence of such a beast, and had two answers ready: “either God had prepared a whale specially for the purpose, or it was not a whale at all,” C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/7/43, on D. & F., 4: 98. Horne disapproved of Gibbon's inclination to demand an intellectual understanding of all we are to believe in.
43 For Enlightenment interest in the distinctive cultural and political circumstances of Judaism, see Champion, J. A. I., The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken. The Church of England and its Enemies, 1560–1730 (Cambridge, 1992), p. 158Google Scholar; Jordan, , Gibbon and his Roman Empire, p. 106Google Scholar; Pocock, J. G. A., “Gibbon and the late Enlightenment,” in Virtue, Commerce and History (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 152–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
44 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/67, on D. & F., 5: 431. Gibbon was discussing the accusation levelled at Averroes of despising Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism.
45 Ibid., B/8/60, on D. & F., 5: 383, n. 198
47 See D. & F., 6: 559 n. 88.
48 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/97, on D. & F., 6: 559.
50 White, , Sermons, p. lxiGoogle Scholar. Horne would have been aware of Charles Leslie's, Socinian Controversy Discussed (1708)Google Scholar with its insistence on the resemblances between Socinian and Islamic theology. Champion, , The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken, pp. 111, 113–14Google Scholar.
51 Cf. D. & F., 2: 244 on Trinitarian disputes: “These speculations, instead of being treated as the amusement of a vacant hour, became the most serious business of the present, and the most useful preparation for a future life.” John Pocock has astutely noted that “behind all his Jokes and innuendoes about theologians lies an unalterable determination that the critical investigation of theology must be maintained and not given up.” “Gibbon and the Idol Fo: Chinese and Christian in the Enlightenment,” in Katz, David S. and Israel, Jonathan I., eds. Sceptics, Millenarians and Jews (Leiden, 1990), pp. 15–34, at p. 19Google Scholar. For Gibbon's attempt at theological impartiality see Frend, W. H. C., “Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) and Early Christianity,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 45 (1994): 666CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Gibbon's status as “theologian manqué” is considered in Brown, Peter, Society and the holy in late antiquity (Cambridge, 1982), p. 52Google Scholar. Brown echoes John Whitaker: “But nothing can stop Mr Gibbon's predominant love for theological dissertation. He bursts every band that would tie him up from indulging it.” Gibbon's History of the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Reviewed (London, 1791), p. 199Google Scholar.
52 D. & F.. 5: 272.
53 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/B1 on D. & F., 5: 272. Bernard Lewis argues that Gibbon was not directly interested in the religious doctrines of Islam. “Gibbon on Muhammad,’ in Bowerstock, , Clive, , and Graubard, , Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, pp. 60–73, at p. 71Google Scholar.
54 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/65.
55 ibid., B/8/93 on D. & F., 6: 506.
56 Cf. the more recent opinion of Von Grunebaum, that “Admiration for the Prophet as a person is curtailed by aversion to the prophet as a type.” “Islam. The Problem of Changing Perspective,” in White, , The Transformation of the Roman World, p. 158Google Scholar.
57 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/66.
58 See Gibbon's final assessment, chap. 50, 5: 272–75, and his refusal to offer a “summary description.” Womersley, , Transformation, p. 230Google Scholar.
60 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/67–68 on D. & F., 5: 431. Cf. Travis, George, Letters to Edward Gibbon, Esq., Author of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (2nd ed.; London, 1785), pp. 363–64Google Scholar.
61 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, 8/8/91–92 on D. & F., 6: 503.
62 Ibid., B/7/48–9 on D. & F., 4: 441. Cf. B/8/94, where Horne noted another sneer at St. Peter and St. Paul at VI. 616n. at a reference to the ecclesiastical government of sixteenth-century Rome. A Protestant, Gibbon wrote, “will not rashly condemn the zeal or Judgment of Sixtus V who placed the statues of the apostles, St. Peter & St. Paul, on the vacant columns of Trajan and Antonine.”
63 Gibbon rejected the typical Protestant tradition of criticizing Roman Catholic practices per se, and limited himself to measured jibes at excessive credulity. Arguably, one can detect in this restraint a residual if unacknowledged influence of his family's High Church disposition. Owen Chadwick, however, sees no such qualification: “On Catholic dogma. Gibbon wrote like any Protestant critic, though more amusingly.” “Gibbon and the Church Historians,” in Bowerstock, , Clive, and Graubard, , Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, p. 221Google Scholar.
64 Aston, Nigel, “The Dean of Canterbury and the Sage of Ferney: George Horne looks at Voltaire,” in Jacob, W. M. and Yates, Nigel, eds., Crown and Mitre. Religion and Society in Northern Europe since the Reformation (Woodbridge, 1993), pp. 149–50Google Scholar.
65 For Gibbon's dislike of priesthood and the Clergy as an order see McCloy, , Gibbon's Antagonism, p. 31Google Scholar.
66 D. & F., 4: 457. Cf. Frend, , “Gibbon and Early Christianity,” 662Google Scholar, argues that “the popes are noticeably more mercifully treated than other clerics,”
68 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/97 on D. &. F., 6: 559.
69 D. & F., 4: 417.
70 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/7/48, on D. & F., 4: 438.
71 Ibid,, B/8/94, on D. & F., VI. 614. For Hume's pervasive influence on Gibbon, see Manuel, Frank E., “Edward Gibbon: Historien-Philosophe,” in Bowerstock, , Clive, , and Graubard, , Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, p. 173Google Scholar, Manuel argues that “It was the man and his writings in their totality that were congenial to him and set Hume above all other contemporary philosophical writers.”
72 C.U.L., Add. MS. B/7/43, on D. & F., 5: 539; Frend, , “Gibbon and Early Christianity,” p. 670Google Scholar.
74 C.U.L., Add. Ms, 8134, B/7/56, on D. & F., 5: 214.
75 Ibid., B/8/94, on D. & F., 6: 610.
76 Sometimes even Horne was left guessing. When Gibbon observes that the conquest of Britain reflected more glory on Gregory the Great than on Caesar, Horne was flummoxed: “Q. a sneer, or not,” was his gloss. C. U. L., Add. MS. B/7/49, on D. &F, 4: 459. Clive, John, “Gibbon's Humor,” in Bowerstock, , Clive, and Graubard, , Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, pp. 183–91Google Scholar. Few current historians would wholly agree with Duncan S. Ferguson that “unchecked prejudice allows him [Gibbon] in his treatment of the Christian faith to degenerate from an able historian into a propagandist.” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 52 (1983): 403Google Scholar. This article greatly exaggerates the impact of secularist trends in the eighteenth century.
77 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/92 on D. & F., 6: 502. Clive, , “Gibbon's Humor,” p. 184Google Scholar, notes “The combination of sex and Christianity seem to be particularly effective in triggering Gibbon's risibilities.”
78 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/7/48 on D. & F., 4: 414: “But the precepts of the gospel, or the church, have at length imposed a pious servitude on the minds of Christians, and condemn them to expect, without a murmur, the last stroke of disease or the executioner.”
79 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/95 on D. & F., 6: 525. Gibbon's citation of Hume's History of England at this point aggravated his offence in Horne's eyes.
80 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134 B/8/96, on D. & F., 5: 534.
81 Ibid,. B/8/89 on D. & F., 5: 442.
82 To W. S., 2 July 1788, in Memoirs, ed. Jones, , p. 195Google Scholar. For Gibbon as theologian see footnote 51 supra.
83 Gibbon's reflections on a merciful Caliph were approved. C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134, B/8/69–70. Horne found himself in admitting that even Muslims could possess moral virtues.
84 C.U.L., Add. MS. B/8/92, on D. & F., 6: 504.
85 D. & F., 5: 85–86, ch. 48 introduction to Byzantine history.
86 C.U.L., Add. MS. 8134 B/7/51–52, on D. & F., 5: 85. On a quite different subject, Gibbon's observations on the decay of taste and the insipid culture of late Byzantium, similarly met Horne's approbation: “very Just & curious remarks on Greeks, & modern Europe.” C.U.L,. Add. MS. B/8/78, on D. & F., 6: 515–18.
87 Ibid,, B/8/63, on D. & F., 5: 419.
89 B.L., Add. MS. 39312, f, 73, Horne to Berkeley, (The Deanery, Canterbury), 2 Sept. 1788.
91 See Horne to W. S., 2 July 1788, Memoirs, ed. Jones, , p. 195Google Scholar. The G.M. article in question concentrated on volume five and appeared in 58 (1788), pp. 475–78, an issue which quickly sold out. As Norton, , A Gibbon Bibliography, points out (p. 67)Google Scholar, the periodical rarely had much to say favorably about Gibbon's work.
92 Richard Porson had tellingly noted: “And I wish that every writer who attacks the infidels, would weigh the accusations, and keep a strict watch over himself, lest his zeal should hurry him too far. For when an adversary can effectually overthrow one serious charge out of ten brought against him, the other nine, though they may be both true and important, will pass unheeded by the greater part of readers.” Letters to Mr Archdeacon Travis, p. xxviii. See also Aston, “‘A Disorderly Squadron?’ A fresh look at clerical responses to the Decline and Fall.”
93 Porson's replies to Travis beginning in August 1788 showed that any exchange might not necessarily be with Gibbon.
95 Ibid., p. 67; Craddock, P. B., Young Edward Gibbon: Gentleman of Letters (Baltimore, 1982), pp. 45–49Google Scholar, for his Oxford experience.
98 Ibid., p. 75. Another Magdalen man, pace Gibbon, noted how much the Common Room had been “enlivened by the pleasantry and good humor of Horne.” [Hurdis, James], A Word or Two in Vindication of Oxford and of Magdalen College in particular from the Posthumous Aspersions of Mr. Gibbon (Oxford, 1800), p. 33Google Scholar. See also pp. 29–30.
103 See Horne's, anonymous A letter to the Rt. Hon. the Lord North, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Concerning Subscription to the 39 Articles by a Member of Convocation (Oxford, 1834)Google Scholar.
104 Most notably his Fast Sermon preached before the House of Commons at St. Margaret's, Westminster, on 4 Feb. 1780 taking Deut. XXIII. 9 as his text. Horne, Sixteen Sermons, no. 8.
105 Voiced, for instance, in his “The Duty of Contending for the Faith,” preached in Canterbury cathedral, 1 July 1786, Sixteen Sermons, no. 14Google Scholar.
106 B.L., Add. MS. 39312, f. 69. Horne to George Berkeley, 16 May 1788.