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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 298-309

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Review Essay

Rethinking Christianity in Enlightened Europe

Robert Sullivan

John Bossy. Peace in the Post-Reformation: The Birkbeck Lectures 1995 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Pp. x + 105. $49.95 cloth.

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

David Hempton. Religion and Political Culture in Britain and Ireland: From the Glorious Revolution to the Decline of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Pp. xii + 191. $59.95 cloth, $22.95 paper.

John McManners. The Clerical Establishment and Its Social Ramifications, vol. 1, Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). Pp. xviii + 817. $165.00 cloth.

John W. O'Malley. Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000). Pp. 219. $24.95 cloth.

J. G. A. Pocock. Barbarism and Religion, 2 vols., vol. 1, The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-1764. Pp. xvi + 339, vol. 2, Narratives of Civil [End Page 298] Government. Pp. xiv + 422 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). $90.00 cloth.

Isabel Rivers. Shaftesbury to Hume, vol. 2, Reason, Grace, and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660-1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. xiv + 386. $74.00 cloth.

Alison Shell. Catholicism and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. xii + 309. $59.95 cloth.

Raymond D. Tumbleson. Catholicism in the English Protestant Imagination: Nationalism, Religion, and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Pp. x + 254. $54.95 cloth.

David Womersley, John Burrow, and John Pocock, eds. Edward Gibbon: Bicentenary Essays (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1997). Pp. xii + 429. £70.00 cloth.

B. W. Young. Religion and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century England: Theological Debate from Locke to Burke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). Pp. xiii + 259. $74.00 cloth.

The "disaggregation" of Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is an achievement of contemporary scholarship that both captured and advanced the disaggregation of the familiar story about the cultural role of Christianity in enlightened Europe. At the end of the nineteenth century J. B. Bury, a historian of late antiquity, the idea of progress, and modern rationalism, produced what became the edition of the Decline and Fall for the next century. If naively positivist, his edition, an aggregation of Gibbon's texts sculpted by a tight corset of supplemental bibliographies and amendments, also seemed monumental. Hence Bury's simple interpretation of Gibbon's message sounded almost lapidary: "The guiding idea or 'moral' of his history is briefly stated in his epigram: 'I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion'. In other words, the historical development of human societies, since the second century after Christ, was a retrogression (according to ordinary views of 'progress'), for which Christianity is mainly to blame. . . . all that has been added to his knowledge of facts has neither reversed nor blunted the point of the 'Decline and Fall.'" 1 For Bury, the phrase "the triumph of barbarism and religion" encapsulated the theme of the whole of Gibbon's book, not just its famous fifteenth and sixteenth chapters on "The Progress of the Christian Religion" and "The Conduct of the Roman Government towards the Christians," which appeared in volume one. It is suggestive that, in the copy in the library at Notre Dame, the passage where Bury summarized Gibbon is marked with fading black ink, while all the surrounding pages remain pristine. Gibbon as an anglophone Voltaire: Bury's simplifying aggregation of the Decline and Fall probably liberated generations of readers from the heavy chore of slogging through and thinking carefully about the Decline and Fall.

Bury and those who accepted or acquiesced in his interpretation of the Decline and Fall ignored that Gibbon took at least twenty years to write and rewrite his monumental book. When Gibbon started writing, the design and the burden of his project were indeterminate. Originally, he intended to describe the [End Page 299] decay of the city of Rome and...


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