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Interpreting Tillotson

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Gerard Reedy S.J.
Fordham University


As archbishop of Canterbury after 1691, John Tillotson (1630–1694) guided the Church of England in the years following the accession of William and Mary in 1688. Whether he guided the church wisely has always been a matter of contention, because Tillotson not only took the oaths to the new monarchs but also helped to fill the vacated offices and sees of those who had not. Although apparently of a genial disposition, with personal gifts of generosity and piety, Tillotson made many enemies because of his church politics. The theological importance of his writings and their place in intellectual history have also provoked controversy. I believe that he is one of the great, yet much misunderstood, writers of late seventeenth-century England; this article offers a new model for interpreting his intellectual significance.

Research Article
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1993

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1 Burnet, Gilbert, A Sermon Preached at the Funeral of the Most Reverend Father in God, By the Divine Providence, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury (London: Chiswell, 1694) 13Google Scholar.

2 Stephen, Leslie, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (3d ed; 2 vols.; New York: Smith, 1949) 1Google Scholar. 79.

3 Ibid., 77–81. See Mark Pattison, “Tendencies of Religious Thought in England, 1688–1750,” in idem, Essays (ed. Nettleship, Henry; 2 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1889) 2Google Scholar. 42–118.

4 Sykes, Norman, The English Religious Tradition: Sketches of Its Influence on Church, State, and Society (London: SCM, 1953) 5556Google Scholar.

5 Cragg, Gerald R., The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648–1789 (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1960) 72Google Scholar, 77.

6 Davies, Horton, Worship and Theology in England: From Watts and Wesley to Maurice, 1690–1850 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961) 731Google Scholar. The application of the term “latitudinarian” to theology in this period has been questioned by Spurr, John, “‘Latitudinarianism’ and the Restoration Church,” The Historical Journal 31 (1988) 6182Google Scholar. Recent historians are rebuilding Tillotson's reputation as a serious theologian. See, for example, Simon, Irène, Three Restoration Divines: Barrow, South, and Tillotson (3 vols.; Paris: Societé d'Editions “Les Belles Lettres,” 19671976) 1Google Scholar. 274–300; 2. 349–62; Marshall, John, “The Ecclesiology of the Latitude-men; Stillingfleet, Tillotson, and ‘Hobbism,’” JEH 36 (1985) 407–27Google Scholar; Spellman, William M., “Archbishop Tillotson and the Meaning of Moralism,” Anglican and Episcopal History 56 (1987) 404–22Google Scholar; and idem, The Latitudinarians and the Church of England, 1660–1700 (Athens, GA/London: University of Georgia Press, 1993) 3840Google Scholar, 81–83, 101–3, 132–33, 141–43.

7 Burnet, Sermon, 17; and Tillotson, John, Works (ed. Birch, Thomas; 5th ed.; 3 vols.; London: Tonson, 1752) 1Google Scholar. ix.

8 Tate, Nahum, An Elegy on the Most Reverend Father in God, His Grace, John, Late Lord Arch-bishop of Canterbury (London: n.p., 1695) 6Google Scholar; Wesley, Samuel, A Poem on the Death of His Grace John, Late Arch-bishop of Canterbury (London: n.p., 1695) 20Google Scholar. These elegies were written with the awareness that freethinkers were claiming association with Tillotson; the speaker of Jonathan Swift's “Mr. C n's Discourse of Freethinking” (1713), already claims Tillotson as the “father of freethinkers” (see the Prose Works of Jonathan Swift [ed. Davis, Herbert; 16 vols.; Oxford: Blackwell, 1957] 4Google Scholar. 47). Some commentators on Tillotson persist in equating the speaker of this discourse with Swift himself; such an equation would have delighted Swift, the ultimate entrapper of the unwary reader.

9 Commentators frequently reduce the six to two, and “The Wisdom of Being Religious” and “The Precepts of Christianity Not Grievous” become, in effect, the entire canon. See Sykes, Norman, Church and State in England in the XVIIIth Century (1934; reprinted Hamden, CT: Archon, 1962) 258–60Google Scholar; idem, From Sheldon to Seeker: Aspects of English Church History, 1660–1786 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959) 176Google Scholar; and, with a little wider reading, idem, “The Sermons of Archbishop Tillotson,” Theology 58 (1955) 297303Google Scholar. See also Cragg, Gerald R., Reason and Authority in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964) 22Google Scholar; and Davies, Worship and Theology, 56. Even one recent and distinguished work concentrates on the early sermons; see Rivers, Isabel, Reason, Grace, and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660–1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 72Google Scholar, 84–85.

10 Tillotson, Works, 1. 25.

11 Ibid., 117.

12 Burnet, Gilbert, History of His Own Time (London: Ward, 1724) 1Google Scholar. 189.

13 Burnet, Sermon, 19.

14 Tillotson, Works, 1. lxxxviii-xc.

15 For a judicious appraisal of Tillotson's success, see Humphrey, W. G., “Tillotson (The Practical Preacher),” in Kempe, John Edward, ed., The Classic Preachers of the English Church (2d series; London: Murray, 1878) 143–44Google Scholar; and Locke, Louis G., Tillotson: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Literature (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1954) 93Google Scholar. For background sympathetic to the Socinians of the 1690s, see McLachlan, H. John, Socinianism in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951) 317–35Google Scholar; and Wallace, Robert, Antitrinitarian Biography: Sketches of the Lives and Writings of Distinguished Antitrinitarians (3 vols.; London: Whitfield, 1850) 1Google Scholar. 187–392.

16 Hampshire, Stuart, Spinoza (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1962) 17Google Scholar.

17 Tillotson, Works, 1. 461.

18 Ibid., 463.

19 Ibid., 464.

20 See, for example, ibid., 466–67.

2I Ibid., 438.

22 Ibid., 429, 435, 464–66, 454–56.

23 Ibid., 428.

24 Ibid., 444, 446, 457, 458.

25 Ibid., 446.

26 Ibid., 430.

27 Ibid., 456.

28 Ibid., 471.

29 Ibid., 439.

30 Ibid., 439–43.

31 For the usual Anglican treatment of pagan mysteries and myth, see Simon Patrick, “Mensa Mystica” (1660), in idem. Works (ed. Taylor, Alexander; 9 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1858) 1Google Scholar. 87–92; and Stillingfleet, Edward, Origines Sacrae (3d ed.; London: Mortlock, 1666) 577–78Google Scholar, 590–98. The most substantial criticism of the theology of the sermon from the side of the nonjurors is that of Leslie, Charles, The Charge of Socinianism Against Dr. Tillotson Considered (Edinburgh: n.p., 1695)Google Scholar esp. 13–14.

32 Tillotson, Works, 1. 435, 424, 459, 420.

33 Ibid., xcvi.

34 Ibid., 62.

35 Ibid., 63.

36 Ibid.

37 Sykes, Norman, William Wake: Archbishop of Canterbury, 1657–1737 (2 vols.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957) 1Google Scholar. 58.

38 Tillotson, Works, 1. xcvii.

39 Ibid., 430.

40 Irène Simon (Three Restoration Divines, 2. 361) has called attention to the fact that many of the sermons in volumes two and three of the folio are repetitious. Perhaps the sermons that Tillotson had prepared for publication or even wished published are fewer than the two hundred and fifty-four extant sermons.