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Reviewed by:
  • Enlightenment Prelate. Benjamin Hoadly, 1676-1761
  • Andrew Starkie
Enlightenment Prelate. Benjamin Hoadly, 1676-1761. By William Gibson. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co.2004. 416 pp. £50.00. ISBN 0227679784.

Benjamin Hoadly was the bishop of Bangor who was the focus of the 'Bangorian controversy', arguably the fiercest and bitterest party contest of eighteenth-century England. Hoadly had already made a name for himself as a strong whig pamphleteer in Queen Anne's reign. Favoured by the new Hanoverian regime, Hoadly was elevated to the see of Bangor in 1716. In March 1717 a sermon he preached before George I caused a row which dominated the printing presses and was the talk of the country for months. Entitled 'The nature of the Kingdom, or Church, of Christ', it maintained that Christ had not founded a visible church on earth, and that spiritual authority subsisted only in the individual conscience. The implications of Hoadly's teaching for church order and doctrine were substantial, and he was opposed by both moderate whigs and tories, though supported by the king's chief ministers, Stanhope and Sunderland.

Hoadly maintains a notorious reputation as a lax latitudinarian, notably from the ecclesiastical histories of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, few of his personal papers have survived. Gibson, who charitably attributes Hoadly's practice of destroying correspondence to his prodigious memory, has laboured to find references to his subject in the printed and manuscript records of contemporary correspondence.

This is, surprisingly, the first full-length biography of this consequential prelate, and in it Gibson attempts to rehabilitate the man from the charges laid against him. He is adding his voice to a general revision of the history of the Church of England in this era which has already been well done. Certainly the Hogarthian caricature of the eighteenth-century church as lax and spiritually lethargic has been comprehensively laid to rest. Much of Gibson's work of rehabilitating Hoadly hangs on the account of his time as a bishop in Salisbury and Winchester. Hoadly, we are assured, was 'scrupulous in checking that pluralists were properly qualified and their benefices within the prescribed distance from one another' and 'meticulous in arranging the practicalities of confirmations' (p. 268). Good use has been made of diocesan records.

It is the early Hoadly, however, who is of more interest than the elder statesman. In examining the early pamphlets, Gibson notes two important points often overlooked. First, Hoadly was concerned, not for religious toleration, but for a comprehension of the vast majority within the national church, and that this was a key and consistent element in his thinking and writing. Secondly, about 1714, Hoadly became more radical, developing and modifying the views he had expressed before that date. Gibson sees this radicalization as a reaction to the success, after 1710, of the high-church agenda.

Gibson's work, he concedes, is not a theological analysis. However, some engagement with theological ideas might have made Hoadly's controversial engagements more comprehensible. William Wake and William Nicolson, both strong whigs, had been fellow-labourers with Hoadly against the high-church claims of Francis Atterbury in Queen Anne's reign. We are at a loss to explain their opposition to him in the Bangorian controversy. Whilst Hoadly is portrayed as the exemplar of heroic whiggery against 'extreme High Church doctrines' (p. 146), the existence of a spectrum of theological belief amongst whigs is barely acknowledged. Neither can Gibson explain, except by suggesting personal disappointment or eccentricity, the opposition [End Page 282] to Hoadly from strong low church whigs such as Francis Hare and William Whiston, both of whom had been censured by convocation for their theological views. On the other hand more radically heterodox voices were raised in Hoadly's defence. Deists such as Anthony Collins and John Toland rushed to applaud the bishop. There seems no reason to doubt the veracity of Hoadly's heterodox reputation.

In places, Gibson is less than sure-footed with his details. Lord North and Grey (p. 110) is treated as two peers. Archbishop Tension, who died in 1715, is reported to have conferred a Lambeth D.D. on Hoadly in January 1715/16 (p. 132). Not only was 'Mrs...


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