Archive for the ‘William Ewart Gladstone’ Tag

Feast of John Dalberg Acton (June 19)   1 comment

Above:  John Dalberg Acton

Image in the Public Domain



(JANUARY 10, 1834-JUNE 19, 1902)

English Roman Catholic Historian, Philosopher, and Social Critic


Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

–Lord Acton


John Dalberg Acton comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via Robert Ellsberg, All Saints:  Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (1997).

The first issue I choose to address is the question of the hyphen.  Depending on the source one consults, one may read our saint’s name as John Dalberg Acton or as John Dalberg-Acton.  If one consults editions of our saint’s writings published during his lifetime, as one can easily do at, one sees his name listed both ways.  I choose to forgo the hyphen.

Lord Acton was a child of expatriates.  His grandfather had been Sir John Francis Edward Acton, Sixth Baronet Acton (1736-1811), a Neopolitan admiral and prime minister.  Our saint’s mother was German, hence “Dalberg” in his name.  Lord Acton’s father was Sir Richard Acton, who died before 1840.  Our saint, born in Naples, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, on January 10, 1834, grew up with his stepfather, Granville George Leveson-Gower, Second Earl Granville (1815-1891).  The stepfather, prominent in the Liberal Party, brought Lord Acton into the orbit of William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, and 1892-1894).  Lord Acton became one of Gladstone’s chief advisors.

First, however, Lord Acton had to study and travel.  He studied at Oscott College, Warwickshire, then continued his studies in Munich.  Our saint’s teacher and mentor in Munich was Father Johann Josef Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890), a Roman Catholic priest, historian, and theologian.  Döllinger taught Lord Acton proper historical methodology.  The two men remained friends and allies for the rest of Döllinger’s life.  Our saint also traveled in Europe and the United States before returning to England in 1858.

[Aside:  I have made a note to myself to add Father Döllinger to this Ecumenical Calendar eventually, on schedule.]

Lord Acton blended public service and private-sector religious activity for a while.  From 1859 to 1864, he edited The Rambler, renamed Home and Foreign Review in 1862.  (He succeeded John Henry Newman in that role.)  Our saint could not imagine not being a Roman Catholic, even when maintaining that identity became difficult for him.  Pope Pius IX (reigned 1846-1878) was, for most of his papacy, a reactionary; he disapproved of modernism, science, constitutional government, the loss of the Papal States to the new Kingdom of Italy, et cetera.  Lord Acton, however, approved of all of the above.  According to our saint, there was no discrepancy between correct Christian doctrine and the properly rigorous, scientific study of the past, and, for that matter, science.

Lord Acton retired for public life circa 1870.  He, the First Baron Acton from 1869, openly disagreed with Pio Nono and papal allies in person at the First Vatican Council (Vatican I) in 1870.  Our saint never supported papal infallibility.  Father Döllinger also argued against papal infallibility and kept doing so after Vatican I.  He, excommunicated in 1871, joined the Old Catholic Church and continued as a priest.  Lord Acton somehow talked his way out of an excommunication.  That conversation with Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892), the Archbishop of Westminster from 1865 to 1892, must have been exceptional.  Lord Acton was not renowned for personal diplomacy.  In fact, he did not suffer fools easily.  His customary bluntness made him many enemies.

Lord Acton married Bavarian Countess Marie von Arco-Vallery in 1865.  The couple raised three daughters and one son.

Lord Acton offered a distinct political philosophy.  He would have argued with Samuel and Henrietta Barnett regarding Christian Socialism.  (I support disagreement among saints on my Ecumenical Calendar.)  Lord Acton drew influences from Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859).  Our saint, an opponent of nationalism, had an internationalist approach.  His background informed that opinion.  Our saint argued that the union of sacred and temporal power was dangerous.  He also distrusted any state with what he considered excessive power.  Such a state posed a threat to liberty, he insisted.  And, when one’s conscience conflicted with the state, our saint favored acting on conscience.  Lord Acton was neither an anarchist nor a libertarian.  The state was necessary and could be a force for he good, he understood.  Our saint also made a distinction between the nation and the state, and understood the Biblical concept of collective responsibility.  He cautioned

The nation is responsible to heaven for the acts of the state.

Lord Acton was primarily a historian after Vatican I.  He wrote and lectured on an elite academic level.  Our saint, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge (1895-1902), died in Tegernsee, Bavaria, German Empire, on June 19, 1902.

Lord Acton was a man of his time.  He pondered principles quoted in his faith, in real time.  He also changed his mind over time, as well-adjusted people have done since time immemorial.

His example challenges us to do the same in our contexts.










O God, you have endowed us with memory, reason, and skill.

We thank you for the faithful legacy of [John Dalberg Acton and all others]

who have dedicated their lives to you and to the intellectual pursuits.

May we, like them, respect your gift of intelligence fully and to your glory.

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Psalm 103

Philippians 4:8-9

Mark 12:28-34






Feast of Edward White Benson (October 10)   7 comments

Edward White Benson

Above:  Edward White Benson

Image in the Public Domain



Archbishop of Canterbury

Edward White Benson was a leading figure in The Church of England in the late 1800s.

Benson was a native of Birmingham, England, where he entered the world on July 14, 1829.  His mother was Harriet Baker Benson (1805-1850).  Our saint’s father, Edward White Benson, Sr. (1802-1843), was a manufacturing chemist.  His death impoverished the family.  Benson studied at King Edward’s School, Birmingham.  James Prince Lee (1804-1869), the headmaster, influenced the young saint greatly.  Benson revered Lee, who went on to become the Bishop of Manchester in 1847  Our saint even preached at Lee’s funeral.  At King Edward’s School Benson forged lifelong friendships with other future leading lights of The Church of England and continued to be their classmate at Trinity College, Cambridge.  These friends were:

  1. Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1828-1889), later the Bishop of Durham (1879-1889);
  2. Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901), who succeeded Lightfoot immediately as the Bishop of Durham; and
  3. Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892), who, like Lightfoot and Westcott, was a Biblical scholar and translator.

Benson, who graduated from Trinity College in 1852, won the Chancellor’s medal there that year and became a fellow of that institution in 1853.

Benson became a priest and an educator.  From 1852 to 1858 he served as the Assistant Headmaster of Rugby School, succeeding George Edward Lynch Cotton (1813-1866), later the Bishop of Calcutta and Metropolitan of India.  Frederick Temple (1821-1902) became the Headmaster of Rugby School in 1858.  On June 23, 1859 he conducted the marriage ceremony of our saint and Mary Sidgwick (1841-1918).  Also in 1859 Benson, on the recommendation of Temple, became the first headmaster of Wellington College, an institution for the orphans of army officers.

The Bensons had six children:

  1. Martin White Benson (1860-1878), who died of tubercular meningitis at the age of 17 years;
  2. Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925), who became a school master, a prolific writer, the biographer of his brother Robert Hugh Benson as well as his father, and who wrote the lyrics of “Land of Hope and Glory;”
  3. Mary Eleanor Benson (1863-1890), who became an activist for poor people and died of diphtheria, contracted while engaging in that work;
  4. Margaret Benson (1865-1916), an Egyptologist and author;
  5. Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940), a prolific novelist; and
  6. Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914), an Anglican priest (1895-1903), convert to Roman Catholicism (1903), Roman Catholic priest (1904-1914), and papal chamberlain (1911f).

None of the Bensons’ children married and all seem to have suffered from congenital mental illness.   Our saint was subject to fits of depression, and not just because he buried two of his children.  (Aside:  One might wonder how much better their lives would have been if certain medications would have been available to them.)

Benson built up Wellington College.  It began as a poorly endowed institution, but he transformed it into a great school by the time he left for Lincoln.  Our saint, while leader of Wellington College, began his study of the life of St. Cyprian of Carthage (died in 258).  Benson’s interest in patristics and ecclesiastical symbolism was obvious in the architecture, mosaics, carvings, and windows of the college chapel, the construction of which he oversaw.

Benson served in other capacities prior to becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury.  As the Chancellor of Lincoln (Cathedral) from 1873 to 1877 he founded a theological college and established night schools and university extension lectures.  As the first Bishop of Truro our saint revitalized Anglicanism in Cornwall, an area in which religious nonconformity was strong  He also founded the cathedral, the construction of which continued after he died.

Archibald Campbell Tait (1811-1882), former Headmaster of Rugby School (1842-1848) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1868-1882), died, creating the vacancy Benson filled in 1883. As the leader of The Church of England our saint opposed attempts to disestablish the Welsh Church, supported high church ritualism at a time when that was controversial, opened talks with the Russian Orthodox Church, and re-established the Anglican bishopric in Jerusalem.  Benson also resolved the schism in the Natal resulting from the heterodoxy of John William Colenso (1814-1883), the deposed and excommunicated Bishop of Natal (1853-1883), who, due to legal maneuverings, retained his title despite his deposition and excommunication.  The official bishop in the area from 1869 to 1892 was William Macrorie (1831-1905), the Bishop of Maritzburg.  Arthur Hamilton Baynes (1854-1942) succeeded Macrorie in 1892 and Colenso the following year, serving until 1901.  (Aside:  “The Church’s One Foundation” contains references to the Colenso Affair.  Consider, O reader, “By schisms rent asunder,/By heresies distressed.”)  Benson was also properly suspicious of the Roman Catholic investigation into the validity of Anglican holy orders relative to Apostolic Succession, for Holy Mother Church ruled Anglican holy orders invalid in 1896.

Benson’s published works included the following:

  1. Work, Friendship, Worship:  Three Sermons Preached Before The University of Cambridge, October, 1871 (1872);
  2. Phoebe the Servant of the Church:  A Sermon, Preached at St. Peter’s Church, South Kensington, on May 11, 1873, in the Aid of the Parochial Mission-Women Fund (1873);
  3. Scholae Cancellarii:  Training of Candidates for Holy Orders at Lincoln:  A Letter to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of the Diocese (1875);
  4. Singleheart (1877);
  5. The Cathedral:  Its Necessary Place in the Life and Work of the Church (1878);
  6. The Voice and Its Homes:  A Sermon Preached in Behalf of the Incorporated Church Building Society, in S. Paul’s Cathedral, London, on May 20, 1881:  Being the First Anniversary of the Foundation of Truro Cathedral (1881);
  7. The Primate and Church Defense (1883);
  8. Boy-Life, Its Trial, Its Strength, Its Fulness:  Sundays in Wellington College, 1859-1873:  Three Books–New Edition (1883);
  9. Report of a Speech Delivered at the 183rd Annual Public Meeting of the Society:  Held in St. James’s Hall, on Tuesday, June 17, 1884 (1884);
  10. The Seven Gifts (1885);
  11. The Liquor Traffic with Native Races:  A Letter from the Archbishops (1887);
  12. An Address Given at Croyden:  At a Meeting of the Canterbury Diocesan Church Reading Society, on Monday, Nov. 28th, 1887 (1887);
  13. Christ and His Times:  Addressed to the Diocese of Canterbury on His Second Visitation (1890);
  14. Technical Education and Its Influence on Society:  An Address (1892);
  15. The Church in Wales:  Shall We Forsake Her?  A Speech by His Grace the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury at the Church Congress, Rhyl, on Tuesday, October 6, 1891 (1892);
  16. Fishers of Men:  Addressed to the Diocese of Canterbury in His Third Visitation (1893); and
  17. Living Theology (1893).

Benson died at Hawarden, Wales, on Sunday, October 11, 1896.  He, a house guest of former Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) at Hawarden Castle, had returned from an exhausting tour of Ireland.  Our saint suffered a stroke while attending a morning service at the local parish church.  He was 67 years old.  Frederick Temple succeeded him as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Benson left some unpublished writings, which others made available to the public via printing presses.  These works included the following;

  1. Archbishop Benson in Ireland:  A Record of the Irish Sermons and Addresses (1896);
  2. Cyprian:  His Life, His Times, His Work (1897);
  3. The Apocalypse:  An Introductory Study of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, Being a Presentment of the Structure of the Book and of the Fundamental Principles of Its Interpretation (1900); and
  4. On Convocation:  A Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury; and a Speech in the Upper House of the Convocation of the Southern Province (1917).

Arthur Christopher Benson wrote his father’s biography, The Life of Edward White Benson, Sometime Archbishop of Canterbury (1899)–Volumes I and II.

Edward White Benson worked to glorify God and benefit his fellow human beings.  He pursued these goals in particular ways, at a particular era, and in a particular setting.  The details of his spiritual vocation were specific to him.  Nevertheless, the general calling to glorify God and to benefit others remains unbounded by identity, geography, and time.








O God, our heavenly Father, who raised up your faithful servant Edward White Benson

to be a faithful bishop and pastor in your Church and to feed your flock:

Give abundantly to all pastors the gifts of your Holy Spirit,  that they may minister

in your household as true servants of Christ and stewards of your divine mysteries;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you

and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Acts 20:17-35

Psalm 84 or 84:7-11

Ephesians 3:14-21

Matthew 24:42-47

–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 719


Feast of George Berkeley and Joseph Butler (June 16)   1 comment

British Flag 1707-1801

Above:  The British Flag, 1707-1801

Image in the Public Domain



Irish Anglican Bishop and Philosopher


JOSEPH BUTLER (MAY 18, 1692-JUNE 16, 1752)

Anglican Bishop and Theologian



These two men come to my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days via The Church of England and The Episcopal Church.  Common Worship:  Services and Prayers for the Church of England (2000) lists June 16 as the feast day for Joseph Butler.  Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010) sets aside June 16 to commemorate the lives of Joseph Butler and George Berkeley.  Celebrating these two saints on the same day makes sense.  Yes, they had some major differences, but they had much more in common than not.  I, after taking notes on both men, have noted the following similarities, among others:

  1. They were contemporaries;
  2. They were great intellectuals;
  3. They, like John Locke, were empiricists;
  4. They criticized aspects of Locke’s philosophy;
  5. They influenced major subsequent philosophers;
  6. They were philosophers and theologians;
  7. They defended the truth of Christianity against assumptions of Deism;
  8. They were published authors;
  9. They were Anglican bishops; and
  10. They rejected speculative philosophy and theology in favor of practical theology.

The God of Deism was a non-interventionist figure.  He was like a watchmaker, for he, to follow the analogy, created the watch, wound it up, then left it alone.  The God of Deism was not the God to whom Psalmists in distress called out for help.  Deism was a theological system grounded in reason, not in reason and revelation or in revelation.  Its existence and prominence in the 1600s and 1700s fed a long-running debate in which our saints participated.  Another debater was the composer George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), whose Messiah (1742) argued against Deism.

I respond favorably to Christian intellectuals.  Christianity has an ancient and venerable tradition of reconciling science, reason, and philosophy with theology.

  1. One might consider, for example, St. Clement of Alexandria (circa 150-circa 210/215), the “Pioneer of Christian Scholarship,” who melded pagan Platonism with Christianity.  Truth is truth, St. Clement, insisted, regardless of its origin.  His star pupil, Origenes Adamantius (185-254), Origen, for short, carried on the good work.
  2. Pope Sylvester II (lived circa 945-1003; reigned 999-1003), unlike some of his contemporaries, did not fear technology (such as the abacus and the telescope) or classics of Greco-Roman literature and philosophy.  He did not care if valid knowledge and useful technology came from Muslims or ancient pagans.  For this reason many in the anti-intellectual wing of the Roman Catholic Church accused him of being in league with Satan.
  3. St. Thomas Aquinas (circa 1225-1274), who reconciled faith with reason, and Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity.
  4. St. Albert the Great (1200-1280), a Dominican priest and Roman Catholic Bishop, was also a scientist.
  5. The birth of modern science in the 1500s overlapped with the Protestant Reformation, the proper context in which to consider the Church’s shameful treatment of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), a faithful Catholic who preferred good science to bad theology.
  6. The Society of Jesus has a mixed record regarding science, for many Jesuit priests have been scientists yet one of their greatest members, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), labored under a Vatican-imposed gag order because of his synthesis of theology, reason, philosophy, and evolutionary science.
  7. The Roman Catholic Church has, fortunately, been more accepting of science since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), than it was during the period immediately Vatican II.

Unfortunately, anti-intellectualism persists in much of Christianity.  According to an old joke, a fundamentalist says to a liberal,

I will agree to call you a Christian if you agree to call me a scholar.

That witticism is, due to its genre, necessarily an exaggeration, but it contains such truth.  Although some of the greatest Christian scholars have been Evangelicals, Calvinist (with ties to the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Evangelical Presbyterian ChurchMark A. Noll, who has joined the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, found ample material to research and write The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994).  And Dr. Francis S. Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health since 2009, is an Evangelical Protestant who has led the Human Genome Project.  He wrote The Language of God (2006), in which he criticized Intelligent Design as failing to hold its own under scientific scrutiny.  He as received much condemnation for that last point.

I recall an awkward lunch I ate at home some years ago.  My father was pastor of Warwick United Methodist Church, Warwick, Georgia, U.S.A., in the borderlands of rural Worth and Crisp Counties.  One day I accompanied him to have lunch with two of his parishioners.  One of our hosts, a man I would never mistake for an intellectual, made a much too-broad comment about educational attainment and piety.  Well-educated people, he insisted, had a different (and implicitly inferior) type of faith than did others.  Both my father and I, aside from being well-educated, were also tactful in the moment.  Nobody created an unfortunate scene.

Now, without further ado, I proceed to summarize then lives and part of the thought of two saints who belied that man’s stereotype more than my father and I did.


Bishop George Berkeley

Above:  Bishop George Berkeley, by John Smybert

Image in the Public Domain


Berkeley, a native of County Kilkenny, Ireland, was an empiricist and a metaphysical philosopher.  Our saint, of English ancestry, studied at Kilkenny school then at Trinity College, Dublin (1700-1704), from which he graduated.  He maintained an association with his alma mater until 1724, serving as a fellow (lecturing in the subjects of Greek, Hebrew, and theology) from 1707 to 1724.  He took some leaves of absence during that time, touring in Europe in 1713-1714 and 1716-1720, as well as spending time in London, where he associated with Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Alexander Pope, and Joseph Addison.

Berkeley, a clergyman since 1709, served as the Dean of Dromore in 1721-1722.   In 1724 he resigned his fellowship at Trinity College, Dublin, to become the Dean of Derry, a post he held until 1733.  He sought unsuccessfully to found a college for colonists and Native Americans in Bermuda.  He married Anne Forster in 1728 then moved to Newport, Rhode Island.  There he encouraged higher education in North America until he left for Ireland in 1731.  He donated his library to Yale College (now University), New Haven, Connecticut, hence Berkeley College and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.  Another namesake is the city of Berkeley, California.

In 1734 Berkeley became the Bishop of Cloyne.  He retired in late 1752 and retired to Oxford, England.  There he died a few months later, on January 14, 1753, shortly after securing the admission of his son, George, as an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford.

Berkeley was a man of his time, responding to issues contemporary to him.  One issue was materialism, meaning not the accumulation of material goods but matter, that is, the stuff of which physical reality consists.  As a student at Trinity College, Dublin, Berkeley had studied the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), by John Locke (1632-1704).  Locke argued for the following propositions:

Ideas originate in one’s brain because of the influence of the universe, a material system in which the universe’s “bodies” act mechanically, that is, by “impulse,” upon each other and upon human senses.

  1. Ideas are the only things of which people can be directly aware.
  2. Ideas of “primary qualities” represent accurately the real character of material things.
  3. Ideas of “secondary qualities” do not represent accurately the real character of material things.
  4. We humans mistakenly “attribute reality” to smell, taste, sound, and color.
  5. There are also “immaterial substances,” but Locke admitted that he did not know how to prove this point.
  6. Consciousness might be nothing more than a property of matter, one rooted in memory.

Berkeley argued against these points, preferring immaterialism.  He countered that the physical world exists only in experiences of it.  He found no good reason to accept the existence of matter, as Locke understood it.  Rather, the principle of

Esse is percipi,


to be is to be perceived,

held sway in Berkeley’s thought.  Ergo:

For the mind of God is present always and everywhere; all ideas are always in the mind of God, and it is by direct communion with His mind that human beings are supplied with the ideas that make up their experience.  It is literally true that “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.”  Thus, the reality of the everyday world is secured by being made directly dependent upon the mind of God, and the notion of “matter,” the very foundation of the scientific world view, is simply rejected.

Encyclopedia Americana (1962), Volume 3, Page 554

Berkeley, true to his Anglicanism, rejected abstract speculations in favor of practical theology.  He affirmed one of the core principles of the Law of Moses–complete human dependence upon God.  As for Berkeley’s rejection of the basis of modern science, that point is up for debate.  (I favor science and theology.)

Berkeley’s philosophical theory of immaterialism became influential after he died.  Thomas Reid (1710-1796) criticized it in Inquiry into the Human Mind (1764).  The theory influenced subsequent philosophers such as David Hume (1711-1776), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860).  Another critic was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

Berkeley was a varied thinker and an excellent literary stylist.  Major works included the following:

  1. Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and its counterpart for the mass audience, Three Dialogues Between Hyles and Philonus (1713);
  2. An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), a work of psychology;
  3. De Motu (1721), a work in Latin on the philosophy of science;
  4. Aleiphron, or the Minute Philosopher (1732), a defense of morality and religion against Deism;
  5. The Analyst (1734), a critique of Isaac Newton’s differential calculus;
  6. The Querist (1735-1737), regarding economic problems in Ireland; and
  7. Sirus (1744), regarding science and philosophy.

The author of the article about Berkeley in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1968), Volume 3, on page 508:

The most patent features of his style are precision, economy and a seemingly inevitable grace; with here and there salty satire and teasing wit; the roots of it are a natural logicality, a rare purity of sentiment and a deep philanthropy. provides copies of Berkeley’s works.  Examples include the following:

  1. The Works of George Berkeley, D.D., Late Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland; To Which is Added, an Account of His Life; and Several of His Letters to Thomas Prior, Esq., Dean Gervais, Mr. Pope, Etc. (1820)–Volumes I and II;
  2. The Works of George Berkeley, D.D., Formerly Bishop of Cloyne; Including Many of His Writings Hitherto Unpublished; With Prefaces, Annotations, His Life and Letters, and an account of His Philosophy (1871), by Alexander Campbell Fraser–Volumes I, II, III, and IV; and
  3. The Works of George Berkeley, D.D., Bishop of Cloyne (1897), edited by George Sampson–Volumes I, II, and III.


Joseph Butler

Above:  Bishop Butler

Image in the Public Domain

JOSEPH BUTLER (MAY 18, 1692-JUNE 16, 1752)

Butler, a native of Wantage, Berkshire, England, was an empiricist thinker.  He differed from Berkeley by accepting science.  Butler’s rational orthodoxy stood in contrast to the Methodist enthusiasm of John Wesley (1703-1791), his fellow Anglican.  Our saint understood correctly that we humans act based on probabilities.  He also grasped that actions, not certainties, are the bases of religion.  Thus he rejected the quest for certainty, that idol of fundamentalism, and defended Christianity as a “rational probability.”

Butler, who came from a Presbyterian family, became a great Anglican theologian.  He was the youngest of eight children of a wealthy linen and woolen draper.  Our saint, educated at Gloucester then Tewkesbury, had once intended to become a Presbyterian minister, but he came to prefer Anglicanism instead.  He converted in 1714 and matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford, the following year.  He studied philosophy, one of his favorite subjects, if not his favorite subject.  Our saint found himself disenchanted with the conservatism of the course of study, for he noticed defenses of Aristotelian thought against Newtonian physics and the thought of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and John Locke.  Butler complained:

Our people have never had any doubt in their lives concerning a received opinion.

–Quoted in Gibbs, The Middle Way (1991), page 48

Butler graduated with his B.A. degree in 1718.  Subsequent degrees from the same institution were Bachelor of Law (1721) and Doctor of Law (1733).

Our saint, ordained in 1719, found his niche in The Church of England.  From 1719 to 1725 he preached at Rolls Chapel, London.  He became the Rector of Stanhoppe in 1725 and maintained that title and received its income for 15 years.  From 1733 to 1736 Butler doubled as the Chaplain to Lord Chancellor Charles Talbot.  In 1736 he became the Clerk of the Closet to Queen Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737), consort of King George II (reigned 1727-1760).  Butler and Queen Caroline became friends and engaged in theological discussions.  She spoke highly of him to King George II and recommended Butler for promotion.  (The monarch was the titular head of The Church of England.)  In 1738 Butler became the Bishop of Bristol, in charge of a poor see.  He remained as Rector of Stanhoppe until 1740, when be began to double as the Dean of St. Paul’s, London.  From 1746 to 1750 he did triple duty as the Clerk of the Closet to King George II.

As the Bishop of Bristol (1738-1750) Butler locked horns with John Wesley.  The founder of Methodism was preaching without authorization to miners in the Diocese of Bristol.  Wesley was not canonically resident in the Diocese of Bristol.  Butler ordered Wesley to go home and stated that he (Wesley) should cease to pretend to have received special revelations from the Holy Spirit.

Butler refused an offer to become the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1747.  According to an apocryphal story, he said,

It is too late for me to try to support a falling Church.

–Quoted in Gibbs, The Middle Way (1991), page 50

Our saint had complained about the “decay of religion” in England.  Certainly part of that decay was the influence of Deism.  His preferred method of supporting the “falling Church” in his final years was ritualism.  Thus Butler foreshadowed the Oxford Movement of the 1800s.  Critics accused him of having succumbed to Papism, an allegation tantamount to accusing one of being bound for Hell.

Butler, translated to the wealthy Diocese of Durham in 1750, died of stomach and intestinal disorders at Bath, Somerset, England, on June 16, 1752.  He never married, thus he lived in a manner consistent with his opposition to the marriage of the clergy.  He also lived simply and gave away the vast majority of his money.

Ernest Campbell Mossner, author of Bishop Butler and the Age of Reason:  A Study in the History of Thought (1936), wrote:

In the history of eighteenth century English culture, what Locke is to philosophy, what Newton is to physics, what Burke is to politics, Butler is to theology…And the spokesman is by no means unworthy of his distinguished associates.

–Quoted in Gibbs, The Middle Way (1991), pages 47-48

Butler affirmed science, reason, and orthodox Christianity.  He shared many yet by no means all of the points of Deism, for he argued against that system.  Our saint affirmed among other things, miracles, human sinfulness, the Incarnation of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, and the Atonement.  He also accepted scientific developments and knowledge, and had a high opinion of human reason.  Scripture, tradition, and reason–Richard Hooker’s Three-Legged Stool–defined Butler’s theology.

Butler rejected speculative thought in favor of practical theology.  He insisted that religion is a matter of practice, not certainty.  In his theology probability, not certainty, is the grounding of human knowledge and actions.  Furthermore, Butler wrote, nature contains much mystery, perplexity, and obscurity; reason and order do not rule supreme there.  Via experience one can discern facts upon which to infer probable truth.  Ergo, theological and natural forms of knowledge are equally indispensable and probable.  Simply put, the grounding of Christianity is divine revelation, not nature.  One can access much of truth via science and reason, but one cannot perceive other aspects of truth by those methods.  There is more than one way to perceive truth correctly.

Butler also thought deeply about psychology.  He criticized John Locke’s theory of psychological continuity, based in memories.  Our saint opposed blind obedience to “received wisdom,” but he also evaluated alternatives critically, as he should have done.

Butler also critiqued the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who argued that self-love directs all human actions.  That is simplistic, our saint thought.  He countered that benevolence is a second influence, benevolence, is also at work in human nature and in harmony with self-love.  Related to benevolence, Butler wrote, is conscience, which he understood to mean the voice of God inside one’s head.  According to Butler, therefore, the conscience is sovereign, to follow one’s conscience is to behave virtuously, and to obey the will of God, and conscience is consistent with reason.

Lee W. Gibbs wrote of Butler, who, like Berkeley, influenced David Hume and Immanuel Kant, that;

In short, the life and work of Bishop Joseph Butler was thoroughly representative of the middle way.  He exemplified that perennial Anglican openness to the changing historical circumstances of his day, while maintaining at the same time that continuous body of traditional beliefs held to be essential to the Christian faith.

The Middle Way (1991), pages 58-59 makes available works by and about Butler.  They include the following:

  1. The Works of the Right Reverend Father in God Joseph Butler, D.C.L., Late Bishop of Durham; To Which is Prefixed, an Account of the Character and Writings of the Author, by Samuel Halifax, D.D. Late Lord Bishop of Gloucester (1828)–Volumes I and II;
  2. The Whole Works of Joseph Butler, LL.D., Late Lord Bishop of Durham (1852);
  3. The Works of Joseph Butler (1897), edited by William Ewart Gladstone (Prime Minister, 1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, and 1892-1894)–Volumes I, II, and III;
  4. Bishop Butler (1901), by William Archibald Spooner; and
  5. Bishop Joseph Butler (1923), by Albert Edward Baker.



My Ecumenical Calendar of Saint’s Days and Holy Days recognizes a wide range of saints.  I imagine that, if by means of a time machine, I could gather all of them in one place and, via a universal translator, they could all understand each other, some fascinating discussions–even arguments–would occur.  I would, in such a fanciful and hypothetical situation, engage in some arguments.  If agreeing with me across the board were a criterion for inclusion on my Ecumenical Calendar, it would not exist.

I admit that I disagree with Berkeley and Butler on certain points.  That is fine, for they disagreed with each other.  They also share the same commemoration on the calendar of saints of The Episcopal Church.  Anglican collegiality permits such unity in the midst of differences.

I also admit that despite my attempts to understand that, despite my attempts to understand some of the philosophical arguments of Butler, I remain uncertain regarding the objective definition of what he wrote sometimes.  For example, the contents of his critique of Locke’s theory of personality and consciousness remain a mystery to me.  That is fine, for that fact has no bearing on my opinion of Butler as a saint and a seeker of God.  I still recognize him as one who engaged his intellect vigorously, thought deeply, and did so for the glory of God.  Butler, true to his convictions, avoided the opposite errors of idolizing “received wisdom” on one hand and more recent developments in science and technology on the other hand.  I respect that.

The process of taking notes, processing them, and drafting this post has taken parts of several days and constituted a workout for my intellect and my right hand, for the draft is lengthy.  Typing this post has given my fingers a workout also.  I am better informed for the process of creating this post.  May you, O reader, be better informed after reading it.





Holy God, source of all wisdom:

We give thanks for your servants George Berkeley and Joseph Butler,

who by their life and work strengthened your Church and illumined your world.

Help us, following their examples, to place our hearts and minds in your service,

for the sake of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit

lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Isaiah 6:6-10

Psalm 119:89-96

Acts 13:38-44

John 3:11-16

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 431