Isolating Burke from the 18th century obscures his character and his theological mission

In the late 18th century, the most vocal opponents of the English constitution were heterodox Dissenters. The Unitarian minister Richard Price supported the American Revolution because he envisioned an “empire, extended over an immense continent, without bishops, without nobles, and without kings.” For Price, the causes against the monarchies and the Trinitarian churches of Europe were inextricably linked. Both monarchs and bishops claimed their authority from Christ, but for Unitarians and Deists who denied Christ’s divinity, tying the earthly power of magistrates and bishops to Christ was a corruption of His simple and enlightened morality. Price’s friend Thomas Paine similarly cannot be fully understood without reference to his heterodox theological views. Paine showed his theological colors gradually. In Common Sense and Rights of Man he made pragmatic attacks on the church-state alliances of Europe often employing biblical imagery and history to appeal to Trinitarian Dissenters. But by the time he published The Age of Reason, Paine began wearing his heresy on his sleeve: for Paine, New Testament was a forgery, and the doctrine of the Trinity a corruption. 

In England, Anglican churchmen had recognized from the beginning that radical politics were a fundamentally theological problem. With the teachings of Richard Hooker and the memory of the English Civil War in mind, the Anglican establishment had looked on the Dissenting churches with grave suspicion. They were cesspools of enthusiasm which led to religious heresy and revolutionary politics. Even the very conservative Wesleyan movement (which supported the Anglican and Royalist constitutional settlement well into the 19th century), was famously described by Bishop Butler as “a very horrid thing.” This divide permeated the expression of Anglican ideas in law, literature, academia, and theology. Samuel Johnson can hardly contain his disdain for Dissent and “the sectaries.” Blackstone compares the two challengers to the English constitution, the Roman Catholics and Dissenters, by pointing out that the Roman Catholics at least had material reasons for their divide and had for centuries failed to achieve their ends. Dissenters, however, were driven by blind zeal. They had divided “upon no reason at all” and had “once totally effected the Ruin of the Constitution both of Church and state.”

To our modern ears this may all seem reactionary or ideological. But the Anglican and Royalist constitutional settlement of 18th century England was remarkably tolerant and centrist while also remaining explicitly Anglican. It stood against the theocracy of intolerant Puritan biblicism, the indefeasible divine right monarchy of Catholic Jacobites, and the heterodox or (explicitly anti-Christian) zeal of revolutionaries. This constitutional settlement enjoyed support from both the Whigs and Tories. It was a rule of law based middle ground that was as tolerant as it could be without compromising on what it viewed as essential for a Christian society. For instance, the now infamous legal requirement that elected officials receive Holy Communion in an Anglican church was designed to exclude only Catholics and heterodox Dissenters. The historian J.C.D. Clark notes that Trinitarian Dissenters had been in the habit of practicing occasional communion as a gesture of fellowship anyways.    

At the end of the 18th century, when English society was rocked by the American revolution, the Gordon riots, the French revolution, and troubles in Ireland, the Anglican establishment quite naturally identified heterodox Dissent as the most likely vehicle for bringing revolution to England. Political controversies were often accompanied by theological pamphlet wars. John Wesley and the Archbishop of York both wrote tracts responding to Richard Price over the American Revolution. In a review of 150 loyalist tracts from the 1790s, Ofir Haivry determined that Anglican clergy authored half of the tracts whose authorship can be firmly established. Counting those with ties to the Anglican church pushes the Anglicans into a substantial majority. The Anglican loyalists in the debate surrounding the French Revolution argued that popular elections of bishops would be “the last corruption of the church,” that the non-sacramental and non-liturgical nature of radical Dissent fostered an unhealthy union of politics and the pulpit, a “novelty not wholly without danger” because zealots would “under the name of religion teach little else than wild and dangerous politics” that stifled “the healing voice of Christian charity.”

Hardly any of these pamphlets are widely read anymore. On the Anglican side, most of the names are forgotten. In fact, all of the arguments and quotations in the preceding paragraph come from one specific Anglican tract. It’s the only Anglican pamphlet that is still widely read: Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

That Burke is an Anglican figure who deployed Anglican arguments in defense of an Anglican constitutional settlement should be obvious. Burke’s chosen antagonist in Reflections is none other than Richard Price. At least a third of the book is a defense of the Trinitarian churches of England and France against their heterodox detractors. The explicitly theological enemies of Christian civilization were never far from Burke’s mind. Despite often being remembered as a liberal and a reformer, he voted against enfranchisement for Unitarians. His advocacy for the emancipation of Irish Catholics was in part a tactical move to empower anti-revolutionary Trinitarian Catholics to counter the more radical Calvinist Society of United Irishmen. Burke believed the American Revolution was due in part to the “dissidence of dissent.” He lost his seat in Bristol in part because of his refusal to capitulate to anti-Catholic mobs on the question of Catholic emancipation. During the Gordon Riots, which saw radical Dissenters attack Anglican Bishops and cathedrals, Burke himself was attacked in the streets and was forced to draw his sword against a mob that accused him of being a Jesuit. 

It is only natural that Burke would be acutely aware of the dangers posed by radical Dissenting theology. Burke knew his Richard Hooker, and his debt to Hooker is evident in both substance and method. Burke is said to have been able to quote from memory the passage of Hooker which reads “The reason why we do admire those things which are ancientest, is because the one are the least distant from the infinite substance, the other from the infinite continuance, of God.” This passage is crucial to understanding Hooker’s and Burke’s belief in a Providential history. Like Hooker, Burke believed in a preferential option for what has already been established. But unlike modern Burkeans who defend the status quo merely because it is the status quo, Burke and Hooker believed establishments should be preferred because they had been established either by Christ himself, or by Christian civilizations and institutions which had been guided by Providence. 

Paine would accuse Burke of setting up a “political Adam” who bound all his descendants in a political community in the same way that the Biblical Adam bound all his descendants in original sin. Paine was perhaps unintentionally closer to the mark than he realized. Paine believed in neither the biblical Adam, original sin, or the divinity of the second Adam. And anti-Trinitarianism was the real root of the matter. As a Trinitarian, Burke believed that Christ could and did establish authority on earth. God both guided history and had entered history. In anti-Trinitarianism, radical protestant millenarianism, and abstract theories of natural rights, Burke saw an attempt to emancipate man from his place in Providential history. When Burke said “the individual is foolish” but the species “almost always acts right” he was following Hooker who had first said “The generall and perpetuall voice of men is as the sentence of God himself.”

In his method, Burke employs tactics that readers of Hooker will immediately recognize. The similarities between the ways the two men argue are too many to list. The more you read of each of them the more they jump off the page. And this is surely not an accident, as Burke thought his and Hooker’s enemies were the same. Hooker looked on the radicals of his day and saw that “zeal had conquered charity.” Burke looked on the revolutionaries and saw “by hating vices too much, they come to love men too little.” Hooker also liked to point out the ways in which the Puritan’s excess led them into the same errors as the Catholics they claimed to oppose. Biblicism was as totalitarian as the papacy, if not more so because it gave too much scope to the “witt of man.” Burke deployed the same method against the philosophes and radicals. He refers to Price as the “Archpontiff of the rights of men, with all the plenitude, and with more than the boldness, of the papal deposing power in its meridian fervour of the twelfth century.” This is a point that Burke makes at least four times in Reflections, comparing those who “learnt to talk against monks with the spirit of a monk” and deriding the “superstition of the pretended philosophers of the hour.” 

Other examples of Burke’s explicitly Christian thinking are numerous. He thought the British lost the American colonies as divine punishment for their treatment of India. He opposed granting Americans direct representation in Parliament because he believed that slaveowners, who had allowed “themselves unlimited right over the liberties and lives of others,” should not be given a say in the making of laws for a Christian country. I have limited myself here to the specifically Anglican religious debates in which Burke took part. Attention to these makes the image of Burke as a lay theologian impossible to ignore. Yet Burke as a primarily Anglican thinker is a concept lost to so many of us. This could be because so much of what Burke defended has been desacralized. In a post-Christian society, the virtues of the thoroughly Christian Burke have been let loose and lost their coherence. Burke is today “the founder of modern conservatism” even though he applies arguments that were handed down to him from centuries before. He is sometimes a liberal and a reformer even though he defends an expressly Anglican religious settlement. Burke is a historicist, a romantic, a closet Catholic, a reactionary, or a progressive. He was ahead of his time or behind the times. Many of these labels have elements of the truth but none capture Burke with the same comprehensiveness as identifying him as an ordinary Anglican of 18th century English society.

Burke is also not identified as an Anglican thinker because so many of his friends and enemies are no longer read together. Samuel Johnson is consigned to English departments. Blackstone to Law schools. Wesley to seminaries. And Burke and Paine to political science departments. A passing familiarity with each of these men and their works will make it impossible to ignore the religious concerns of the society they lived in. But their study has been siloed.

Burke remains relevant, but not for the reasons the modern Burkeans will tell you. Burke defended a centrist constitutional order that eschewed the radicalism of Calvinist biblicism and Roman Catholic integralism. But he did so while maintaining a commitment to an essentially Christian view of the state and society. We do not need Burke today for a reinvigorated defense of the status quo or to advocate for gradual reform. We don’t even need another essay that encourages us to treasure our “little platoons.” Instead, we need Burke because he understood the theological underpinnings of our social order. Burke is a defender of the institutions of Christian civilization. Understanding this liberates us from the need to defend failing institutions simply because those institutions happen to exist. 

In the famous opening lines of The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, Hooker says he wrote “for no other cause, yet for this; that posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream.” Burke would surely have felt similarly. And while many of the things he defended have passed away, Burke’s testimony has remained for us. The fact that he is still as widely read as he is makes him one of the most successful popular expositors of Anglican theology to have ever lived. His only rival, perhaps, is C.S. Lewis. Like Lewis, Burke deserves to be remembered as such.