by guest contributor Peter Walker
Is it possible to be a fanatical Anglican? The idea sounds like a contradiction in terms. One readily thinks of George Eliot’s Casaubon, the stuffy and pedantic academic, or more sympathetically, Dawn French’s jolly and down-to-earth Vicar of Dibley. But Anglicans—in contrast to members of every other religious group I can think of—are never represented as “militant” or “fanatical.” They might, occasionally, be “pious” or “devout.” They are more likely to be “strict” or “staunch,” although staunchness is usually reserved for Catholics. An Anglican fundamentalist, of course, is entirely out of the question. Instead, the epithet most readily associated with Anglicanism seems to be “moderate.”
These speculations are confirmed by an unscientific dabble into Google Ngrams. Searching for the frequency of particular phrases in Google’s library of digitized books, this experiment yields the following conclusions: Protestant fanaticism ceased to be a problem in 1937. Muslims overtook Catholics as the most fanatical religious group in 1947. Fanatical Jews haunted the middle decades of the twentieth century. Only Buddhists and Anglicans have never been fanatics. The partial and intriguing exception is the 1960s, when the concept of fanatical Anglicanism seems to have held a small amount of currency. (There is a story there, which I would like to hear told.)
Ironically, Anglicanism’s very success in defining itself in terms of moderation has proved a major disincentive to scholarship on the Church of England. Who wants to study the moderate, when one can study the militant or the fanatical? The exceptions to this rule lie in those periods where the Church of England’s ascendancy was under particular threat or contention. We might look for Anglican spirituality in the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement, or in the Prayer-Book Protestants of the seventeenth-century Civil War, but never in the history of the eighteenth-century Church of England, which on this blog earlier this year Emily Rutherford called “the biggest gap in the secondary literature of all time.” Indeed, who can name an eighteenth-century Anglican clergyman? We tend to think of John Wesley as a Methodist rather than an Anglican, although the Methodist movement only left the Church of England after Wesley’s death. Jonathan Swift was a clergyman: something we tend to ignore or forget. After that, the most famous three are probably William Paley, George Berkeley, and Henry Sacheverell: hardly household names, even for historians of eighteenth-century Britain. Or perhaps the country parson James Woodforde, whose diary, discovered and published in the 1920s, is primarily a record of forty-three years’ worth of dinners. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Woodforde “seems not to have possessed a markedly religious temperament.”
The assumption has been that moderation is intrinsically inoffensive, unremarkable, and—ultimately—boring. More moderation, less religion. This assumption belies precisely what is important and interesting about the history of the Church of England: its always-contested claim to be the National Church, which entailed not just compromise and leniency but also exclusion and coercion. One of the most insightful recent contributions to the history of Anglicanism is Ethan Shagan’s The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion, and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England, which recasts moderation as a tool of social, political, and religious power, focusing on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: in the eighteenth, he concludes, moderation was displaced and superseded by politeness (329-35). Shagan is right to note the novelty of the eighteenth-century turn to self-control and self-discipline, but even allowing for this crucial reconfiguration, the ideal of moderation remained centrally important in public life. Nowhere is this more true than in the identity of the eighteenth-century Church of England, a bulwark of moderation, defined against enthusiasm, superstition, and atheism. Moderation was a religious ideal: it did not indicate an absence of religion. It is a testament to the success of the eighteenth-century Church of England that it has become so invisible.
Peter Walker is a PhD candidate in History at Columbia University. His dissertation is about militant Anglicans.