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Prose and Dr. Tillotson (1958)

Non-Fiction > Points of View >


I looked with misgiving at the thinnish parcel that lay on the hall table with the letters that had come by the morning's post. I guessed what it contained. Like all authors who have achieved a certain notoriety, I am sent manuscripts by strangers who ask me to tell them what I think of their productions and, not seldom, beg me to use such influence as I may have to get them published. Publishers send me novels, generally of inordinate length, with the request that I should offer an opinion that they can use in their advertisements. I am sent works of edification to convert me, something of a sceptic, to the particular variety of religion that the author holds; and long treatises, written often enough by superannuated civil servants or retired colonels, on abstruse subjects that only specialists are competent to deal with. Poets send me slim volumes of verse obviously published at their own expense. I regard them with a pang. With what high hopes of fame has each one launched on the world his elegantly printed, his austerely bound, little volume! If reviewed at all, it will be in two or three casual lines, and the friends to whom he has sent it will skim the pages in half an hour. It would be impossible to read all the books I receive, and the chances are that they are not worth reading. What can I do but write to one author after another a polite note of thanks and add, without strict regard to the truth, that I look forward to reading his work with interest when my own occupations allow me sufficient leisure? I did not open the parcel till after I had read my letters, and when I did so, it was, naturally enough, with composure. It contained, as I had surmised, a book, but not at all the sort of book I could possibly have expected. It was a slim volume, octavo, and the calf binding, though sadly battered, was handsomely tooled. The title was: Maxims and Discourses, Moral and Divine: Taken from the works of Arch-Bishop Tillotson, and Methodized and Connected. It was "printed for J. Tonson, at Shakespear's Head, over-against Katherine Street in the Strand", in the year 1719. The dedication ran as follows, "To the Most Excellent, Most Pious, and Beneficent Lady, Cassandra, Countess of Carnarvon: Illustrious in Her Family and Fortune, and more so in her Merits and Virtues, which are an Ornament to Her Station, and a Pattern to Her Sex: These Select Passages from Arch-Bishop Tillotson (Whose Writings are Entitled to the most Accomplish'd Persons) are with all Humility, Gratitude, and Veneration, Inscribed by Her Ladyship's Most Oblig'd, Humble, and Devoted Servant, Lawrence Echard."

At the end of the volume there is a list of the books printed by Jacob Tonson from which one learns that Lawrence Echard, Archdeacon of Stowe, was the author of an History of England in three volumes in folio and a general Ecclesiastical History from the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour to the first establishment of Christianity by Human Laws under the Emperor Constantine the Great. The list is imposing. It contains Remarks On Several Parts of Italy, in the years 1701, 1702, 1703. By Mr. Addison; the works of Mr. William Congreve, in three volumes; and the works of Mr. Francis Beaumont and Mr. John Fletcher in seven volumes, adorned with cuts. Jacob Tonson was an eminent member of his respectable profession. He was Dryden's publisher and, as everyone knows, had bought from one Aylmer half his share of Paradise Lost, the copyright of which the said Aylmer had bought for five pounds. I don't know that I have ever seen a picture of a bookshop early in the eighteenth century, but I suppose it was small and dark and crowded with books. The printing press was at the back. Jacob Tonson, having prospered, bought himself a house in the village of Barnes, but it is likely enough that his nephew and partner, also called Jacob Tonson, lived with his family over the shop. Doubtless, as they do now at Bumpus's, bookish persons wandered from shelf to shelf glancing at one volume or another; and it amused me to think that among them may have been a young scholar from Oxford, recently ordained, who was passing through London on his way to the country, where he was to act as tutor to the scion of a noble house. It may be that he caught sight of the Poetical Works of Mr. John Milton in two volumes and, curiosity overcoming prejudice, took down one of them. As a Tory and an Oxford man, he held in execration the Usurper's former secretary, and it must have disconcerted him to be forced to admit that the lines he had come across by chance looked very like great poetry. He put the volume back quickly when a coach stopped at the door and a woman of quality, stylishly dressed, entered the shop and asked for Ovid's Art of Love in three books, together with his Remedy of Love. While I was allowing my fancy to run wild over Jacob Tonson's list of publications, I suddenly remembered why this particular book had been sent me. In something of mine I had had occasion to give a brief quotation from a piece that Dr. Tillotson had written. I must have come across it in some anthology of English prose and been taken by it.


In the preface which the Archdeacon of Stowe wrote to introduce the maxims and discourses which he had culled from the Archbishop's sermons, he remarks that works of this nature have been looked upon as both useful and entertaining in all ages, but admits that in productions of this kind no nation seems to have gone further than our neighbours the French. Among these writers "none have been more celebrated than the Duke of Rochefuocaut (for thus he spells his name) and Monsieur la Bruyere; Persons that have penetrated deep into Mankind and the secret Springs of Action, but have often brought up the Mud and the Dregs, as well as the Riches and Treasures of Human Nature." He expresses his regret that little of this amiable variety of literature has appeared in England, and that little, with the exception of what is to be found in the "works of the late famous Marquess of Halifax, who in Knowledge and Penetration has not been inferior to either Foreign or English writers," has never been highly esteemed. He proceeds as follows, "I have been long of opinion that out of the English writers many Apothegms, Wise Sentences and Contracted Arguments, as beneficial and agreeable as any in Foreign Authors, may be selected to excellent good purpose: And more particularly in Archbishop Tillotson's works may be found a number of Passages not inferior to the fore-mention'd Rochefuocaut and la Bruyere." In this, I am afraid, the Archdeacon was in error. True, he admits that they (La Rochefoucault and La Bruyère) "had sometimes a more artful turn, which the French Nation have study'd and practis'd almost to Affectation; his (Tillotson's) have a native Simplicity and Grandeur more agreeable to the English Taste." Echard's object was to make his selection "a most Useful and Beneficent One, and such as will be Pleasant and Entertaining to all who have a true Taste for polite and correct Writing." He would, perhaps, have done better not to mention the two French writers, for it arouses in the reader an expectation that is not fulfilled. He divided his book into two parts. The first deals with the "Being and Nature of God and his Worship, and Religion both in Theory and Practice"; the second with "What most immediately concerns Man, and his natural Dispositions, together with the Social Virtues and contrary Vices." I confess that this is the part that I myself have found most interesting, and in the hope of interesting the reader I propose to make some quotations from it.

I think Lawrence Echard made a mistake when he entitled his work Maxims and Discourses Moral and Divine. Discourse indicates a discussion of some subject at length and a maxim is a proposition stating a truth in a pithy and sententious manner. The passages dealing with religion in general and the nature and being of God are for the most part less than a page long, and the moral maxims are far from pithy. They are sensible enough, the observations of a man of wide experience, but there is none which, once you have read, you can never forget, none that has the bitter truth of the French Duke's, Entre deux amants il y a un qui aime et un qui se laisse aimer. But what Tillotson had to say he put in an easy and telling manner. Here are some examples of it.

"Early habits of virtue, like new clothes upon a young and comely body, fit very gracefully upon a straight and well-shaped mind, and do mightily become it."

"By a general mistake ill-nature passes for wit, as cunning does for wisdom; though in truth they are nothing akin to one another, but as far distant as vice and virtue."

"Wit is a commendable quality, but then a wise man should always have the keeping of it. It is a sharp weapon, as apt for mischief as for good purposes, if it be not well managed. The proper use of it is to season conversation, to represent what is praiseworthy to the greatest advantage and to expose the vices and follies of men, such things as are themselves ridiculous."

"To praise anything well is an argument of much more wit than to abuse."

Dr. Tillotson knew very well that to commend does not come easily to men. "But in the way of invective, the invention of men is a plentiful and never failing spring; and this kind of wit is not more easy than it is acceptable. It is greedily entertained and greatly applauded, and every man is glad to hear others abused, not considering how soon it may come to his own turn to lie down and make sport of others."

Finally, "There is something of vanity mingled with all our earthly enjoyments. There is no sensual pleasure, but it is either purchased with some pain, or attended with it, or ends in it. A great estate is neither got without care, nor kept without fear, nor lost without trouble. Dignity and greatness is troublesome to almost all mankind; it is commonly uneasy to them that have it, and it is usually hated and envied by those that have it not."

I should like the reader to notice how modern these passages seem. The prose the Archbishop wrote is not very much different from that which an educated person would write today. Macaulay has described it as correct, lucid and workman-like, but without brilliance. The word brilliance applied to prose makes me faintly uneasy. It suggests a flashy glitter that is not altogether agreeable. Half a century ago, I suppose one would have described Carlyle's prose as brilliant, and a generation or so later George Meredith's and Kipling's. Time has made their way of writing exasperating. It is possible that Macaulay looked upon his own style as brilliant, and not unjustly. The critics tell us that he founded it on that of Dr. Johnson. Instead of the Doctor's long, elaborate periods, Macaulay used short, brisk sentences, and he made abundant use of the antithesis which had been all the rage in the late eighteenth century. He wrote a prose that was rapid, effective, dramatic, persuasive and eminently readable. If in the long run it is a trifle monotonous, so that it gives you the effect of an express train bumping at full speed over a slightly ill-laid track, it serves as a good example of Dr. Johnson's dictum that when once a man has developed a style he can seldom write in any other way.

During the last quarter of the seventeenth century a considerable change was effected in English prose–to see how great, you have only to compare Hobbes with John Locke and Milton with Addison. Rich and vivid as Hobbes's prose is, it is crowded and muddled: Locke's is orderly; it is not exciting, but it is compact and seemly. Milton's prose is rhetorical, splendid often and passionate, but cumbrous; Addison's is easy, graceful, and urbane. It is said, I do not know with what justification, that this change was occasioned in part by the fact that the royalist exiles who had fled to France, when they could no longer fight for their unhappy King, gained a taste for lucidity and concision from the French authors whom they read during their sojourn abroad; and later, after the Restoration, from their frequentation of coffee-houses, where the interminable conversations they indulged in led them, when they set pen to paper, to use the same sort of language as they had found effective in discussion. The fact remains that written English became more limpid, simpler and more natural. "The proprieties and delicacies of English are known to few," said Dryden," 'tis impossible for even a good wit to understand and practice them without the help of a liberal education, long reading and digesting of those few good authors we have among us; the knowledge of men and manners; the freedom and habitude of conversations with the best company of both sexes; and, in short, without wearing off the rust he has acquired while laying in a stock of learning." These are wise words. The Life of John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, was written by Thomas Birch and in it he states that "Mr. Dryden frequently owned with pleasure, that if he had any talent for English prose, which must be allowed to have been a great one, it was owing to his having often read his Grace's writings. And Dr. Swift, whose judgment was not usually biassed by excess of civility, vouches (in a letter to a young gentleman lately entered into Holy Orders) the Archbishop the title of excellent." A little later, Thomas Birch adds, "Mr. Addison considered his writings as the chief standard of our language, and accordingly marked the particular phrases in the sermons published during his Grace's life-time, as the ground-work for an English dictionary, projected by that elegant writer, when he was out of all public employment after the change of ministry in the reign of Queen Anne." No one has written better English than these three distinguished authors, Dryden, Swift and Addison, and if it is true that they learnt and profited by the works of Tillotson, it gives him an importance that he would not otherwise have had. It may be that it is not too rash to suggest that if we write as we do now it is in part because the Archbishop wrote as he did.

There are two ways of writing English prose, the plain and the ornate. The greatest examples in our literature of the latter are, of course, Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor in Holy Dying. No one would be so foolish as to deny the beauty of their respective styles. To describe that of either as brilliant would be to depreciate it. In a different class, you might add Dr. Johnson and Gibbon. Here opinions are divided. There arc persons of discrimination who have nothing bad enough to say of them. The truth is, they are a drug, which, when you have once acquired a taste for it, you can hardly do without any more than the addict can do without his dope. Whatever their pomposity, their grandiloquence, you read with the same intense, increasing and amused delight. Of these two styles, the plain and ornate, you cannot say that one is better than the other. There is no right or wrong here. It is merely a matter of taste. I would suggest that the plain style is more suited to matters of practical interest than the ornate. If you are concerned with the subject of your discourse, the bread and butter of it, rather than the jam, you will be more persuasive if you eschew ornament. To substantiate this, I would ask the reader to compare Jeremy Taylor's Liberty of Prophesying with his Holy Dying. Holy Dying, is remarkable for its dazzling embroideries and the luxuriance of its images. The Liberty of Prophesying is written as plainly and straightforwardly, though of course in the idiom of the period, as if it were an official report on the condition of the navy. In this Jeremy Taylor was dealing with a matter in which he had a personal concern. His rich living had been sequestered, his estate seized, his house plundered and his family turned out of doors. After various hazards he found a refuge in South Wales, where the local grandee, the Earl of Carbery, welcomed him. His wife and children joined him. Lord Carbery made him his private chaplain, but the salary was small and, it is suggested, irregularly paid. It was in these untoward circumstances that he wrote The Liberty of Prophesying. He had suffered much, his future was dark, and he was dependent on the uncertain liberality of his patron; it is not strange that when he came to write this book, it should not have the "pomp of imagery", I am quoting Edmund Gosse, "which is characteristic of his finest writing." The style is pure and direct, though a trifle dry. The argument can be stated in a few words; and has been well put by the historian of the early Stuarts, "Reason is the ultimate judge of religion as of other matters; now, since reason is an individual attribute, there are likely to be different opinions. As no man can be certain that his opinion is right or better than another's, it is wrong to persecute unorthodox beliefs, for there is no demonstrable proof that they are erroneous." Could anything be more sensible?

The Liberty of Prophesying was written in 1646, Holy Dying in 1651. During the years Jeremy Taylor passed at Golden Grove, Lord Carbery's seat, his chief mainstay was the Earl's wife, who appears to have been a good, clever and courageous woman. After thirteen years of marriage, worn out by constant pregnancies, she died on giving birth to her tenth child. This was in 1650. A year later Jeremy Taylor's wife died. It is natural to suppose that it was these events which gave him the impulse to write Holy Dying. Everyone agrees that it is the greatest of his works. Critics have vied with one another to praise the sustained beauty and profusion of its style, its "limpid and continuous glory" and the amazing abundance of its images. It is written in a very different manner from that of The Liberty of Prophecying. In this he was concerned with his own private wrongs and he wrote, not to edify, but to persuade. In Holy Dying he gave free rein to his more precious gifts. There can be no doubt that his grief at the loss of the amiable Countess and of his affectionate wife was sincere. In Holy Dying he not only erected an imperishable monument to their memory, but it may well be found solace in the ingenious conceits that his fertile imagination presented to him and in the melodious sentences that his pen put to paper. For it is the inestimable privilege of the creative artist to win in creation release from the pains of life.

Of these two ways of writing English, I have a notion that the plain wears better than the ornate. The ornate demands a perfection which can only very rarely be achieved, and in all our literature, so far as I know, this has only been done by the two authors I have hitherto mentioned. Less gifted writers have practised it, but time has sorely maltreated it. Thomas de Quincey in the middle of last century was regarded by competent critics as supreme among the masters of English prose. They praised his power of dealing in unrivalled fashion with the subtleties and splendours of our language. I find his style affected and turgid. Some years ago Mr. Richard Aldington published an anthology of prose and verse by nineteenth century writers which he called The Religion of Beauty. The verse has maintained the charm it had when first written, but the stylists, George Meredith, Walter Pater, Max Beerbohm, are sadly dated. You can hardly read the delicious scene of the meeting of Ferdinand and Miranda in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel without embarrassment. The passage from Walter Pater's Æsthetic Poetry is dry and airless; you feel that it was imagined without inspiration and written with labour. The only pieces of prose in this interesting volume that can be read with pleasure are those, like Arthur Symons's piece on poor Ernest Dawson, in which the author has not tried to write finely, but in good plain English.


If one wanted an instance of the truth of Buffon's saying that le style est l'homme même, it would be difficult to do better than to adduce Dr. Tillotson. I propose now to give, as briefly as I can, an account of his life. Though he lived through stirring times, the Civil War, the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, the Restoration, the wars with the Dutch, the Plague, the Fire of London, the Glorious Revolution, his life was strangely uneventful. He was a good man and, as everyone knows, it is harder to write interestingly about a good man than about a bad one. There is a portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery. It is that of an elderly, good-natured man, somewhat full in the face, but comely and of a pleasing appearance. Except for the canonicals you might take it for the portrait of a prosperous innkeeper. Though with age he grew corpulent, he is said in youth to have been slender and good-looking with eyes full of expression. He seems to have had to a considerable degree a quality which, so far as I know, the seventeenth century did not make the to-do about that we do now–charm. It is a dubious quality, for it is often an attribute of worthless creatures, and then you have to be on your guard against it; but when it is combined with talent, uprightness and high moral character, it makes its happy possessor irresistible.

Tillotson was born in 1630 at Sowerby in Yorkshire. His father was descended from an ancient county family and was by calling a clothier. It was then by no means unusual for gentlemen, the younger sons even of great noblemen, to go into trade. If we may judge from the novels of Jane Austen it was not till towards the end of the eighteenth century that this came to be considered degrading, an attitude which reached its culmination in the reign of Queen Victoria and needed two disastrous wars to be discarded. A clothier was a middleman who bought the newly sheared wool from the shearers and put it out among the local cottagers to spin the yarn and weave the cloth, which he then sold at a profit. Tillotson's father was a zealous Puritan and the boy's early education was austere. At the age of seventeen, having passed through the grammar schools with credit, he went to Cambridge. There he read "the immortal work of Mr. Chillingworth" and so became intimately acquainted with the Cambridge Platonists. His biographer, Thomas Birch, a member of the Established Church, states that he was thus freed from his early prejudices; yet, he adds, "he still adhered to the strictness of life to which he was bred, and retained a just value and due tenderness for the men of that persuasion" (the Puritans). In due course he took his degree and at the age of twenty-one was elected a Fellow of his college. His Tutor, Mr. Clarkson, transferred his own pupils to him. One of them, John Beardmore, has left an account of the way in which Tillotson performed his duties. "He was a very good scholar," he states, "an acute logician and philosopher, a quick disputant, of a solid judgment, and no way unqualified for the trust and charge incumbent upon him. . . . When we went to prayers in his chamber a-nights, he put us for some time at first upon construing or rendering into Latin a chapter in the Greek Testament, and afterwards, in process of time, he used to put some or other upon giving account of the day's reading. . . . This was ever done in Latin; for I know not that ever he spoke a word of English to us, whilst we were so together, or permitted any of us to do so." His prayers according to the use of Presbyterian style were what was called 'conceived', that is to say extemporary. On weekdays, after prayers, as his pupils were leaving, he would retain one of them, talk to him kindly, encourage him to studiousness, seriousness and diligence, or tell him of "any fault he either observed or heard of in him and would reprove very sharply anyone who deserved it. He was careful of his pupils' behaviour and manner; had a love for those of us that he saw deport themselves well and was respectful to them, but very severe to those that did otherwise." John Beardmore adds that his Tutor was "a person of a very good wit, sharp and acute, pleasant in conversation, but with much decorum and gravity for his years." I may remind the reader that he was then in his early twenties.

In 1656, Tillotson left Cambridge to be tutor to the son of Edmund Prideaux, who was then Attorney-General. To occupy such a position in the household of a man of rank or of political importance was the surest way to preferment that any young man in orders could have, and after the Restoration it led almost certainly to prebends, deaneries and even bishoprics. Since Tillotson acted also as Mr. Prideaux's chaplain he must have been ordained, but when he was has remained obscure. As he could only have been ordained by a Presbyterian minister, it was doubtless better in later years not to refer to the matter. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658 and in 166o Charles II began his disastrous reign. Tillotson submitted to the Act of Uniformity and so became a member of the Church by Law Established. He took Holy Orders from an old Scottish Bishop of Galloway, "who at that time had great recourse made to him on that account." In a note John Beardmore states that this bishop ordained all the English clergy who came to him, without demanding either oaths or subscriptions from them; and this he was presumed to have done merely for a subsistence from the fees for the letters of orders granted by him, for he was poor. The first office in the Church that Tillotson occupied was that of curate at Cheshunt in Hertfordshire; it was so near London that he was able frequently to visit his friends there and, having apparently already won some reputation as a preacher, he was often invited into the pulpits of the city. In 1663 he was presented to the rectory of Ketton in Suffolk, vacant by the ejection of the former rector for nonconformity. It was worth two hundred pounds a year. Thomas Birch, somewhat naïvely, says that the ejected minister had the satisfaction of being succeeded by a person of such eminent abilities, candour and moderation. While there, Tillotson was asked to preach before the Society of Lincoln's Inn in place of the usual lecturer, and it so happened that one of the benchers, Mr. Atkins by name, was present, and so pleased was he with the sermon "that he went to him in the vestry and offered his interest for the place of preacher at Lincoln's Inn, which would soon be vacant". Tillotson was accordingly elected to that office, "upon the terms allowed his predecessor, of one hundred pounds, payable at the end of every term by equal portions; the first payment to begin at the end of the next term, and twenty-five pounds more for vacation commons; with commons for himself and his servant in term time, and a chamber. And five of the masters of the bench were appointed to acquaint him with his election, and to inform him of the duty expected from him, that he should preach twice every Lord's day in term time, and next before and after term, and in reading time, and on every Lord's day in the vacation, and as other occasions should require; and administer the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, together with the chaplain of the house, every term and vacation; and reside constantly in the Society, without absenting himself thence, without leave of the masters of the bench in council."

It must be admitted that the benchers of Lincoln's Inn were demanding a good deal for their money. The arrangement, however, was so satisfactory to Tillotson that he determined to settle in London. He had recently married. His wife was Oliver Cromwell's niece. We know little about her except that she bore her husband two daughters and survived him. If we like to indulge in surmise we may suppose that he met her when he was chaplain to the Protector's Attorney-General, and it may be that there was an 'understanding' between them; but he was at the time in no position to marry. The connection then would doubtless have been advantageous; when he did marry her, which his salary at Ketton enabled him to do, it was honourable; the carcase of Cromwell had been drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn and hanged up in his coffin, and kinship with the usurper was regarded with suspicion. The salary Dr. Tillotson received from Lincoln's Inn was small and, with a wife to support, he badly needed the additional income which his living at Ketton brought him. Though obliged to spend most of the year in London, he could very well have done what many beneficed clergymen, who did not care to live in their parish, did not scruple to do–engage a curate for as little as twenty pounds a year to do their duty for them; but this went against the grain with him, and he resigned his cure. It may be that he did so not without relief, for his parishioners, Puritans and Presbyterians, had not relished his sermons. Fortunately they were so successful at Lincoln's Inn that within a year Tillotson was appointed lecturer at St. Lawrence Jewry. There "he was commonly attended by a numerous audience, brought together from the remotest parts of the metropolis, and by a great concourse of the clergy, who came thither to form their minds". Many that heard him on Sunday at Lincoln's Inn went to St. Lawrence Jewry on the following Tuesday in the hope of hearing the same sermon over again.

There was at the time an enormous appetite for sermons. So great was their influence that the statesmen of the Restoration thought fit to exercise control over them. Preachers were bidden to dwell on the moral duties of the individual and to avoid the intricacies of theology. Free grace and predestination, which the Puritans had preached, were to be ignored. Sermons were long, often inordinately so, and it is told that the vergers of Westminster Abbey ordered the organ to strike up when they thought that Isaac Barrow, Master of Trinity, should bring his discourse to an end. On one occasion he preached on the subject of charity for three hours and a half. It may be that one reason for Tillotson's success was that "he retrenched both the luxuriance of style and the length of sermons". His biographer has described his as solid and yet lively, and grave as well as elegant. He laid aside all long and affected periods. His sentences were short and clear, and the whole thread was of a piece, plain and distinct. He very soon came to be considered the greatest preacher of his day.

When he had been settled in London for a couple of years the Great Plague broke out. Many of the clergy, both churchmen and nonconformists, fled the stricken city. Tillotson was not the man to follow their example. He remained throughout to tend the sick and minister to the dying.

His merits did not go unrewarded. In course of time he was presented to a prebend at Canterbury and to a prebend and a residentiaryship at St. Paul's. In case the reader does not know what that is, I may explain that it is an ecclesiastical term denoting an official abode, with an income attached, awarded to a canon of a cathedral. At the suggestion of Burnet, author of the history, he was appointed chaplain to Charles II. In 1672 he was advanced to the Deanery of Canterbury. One day he was called unexpectedly to preach before the King. At the end of his sermon, a certain nobleman stepped up to the monarch, who had slept soundly through it, and said to him, "Tis pity your Majesty slept, for we had the rarest piece of Hobbism that ever you heard in your life." "Ods fish, he shall print it then," answered the King, and immediately called the Lord Chamberlain and gave him his command to the Dean to print his sermon. The thesis of Hobbes, as perhaps not everyone remembers, is that the powers of the sovereign are unlimited. Unbounded power on the one side corresponds with unconditional obedience on the other. The sovereign may be despotic, but despotism is better than anarchy, and resistance to him is as futile as it is criminal. There is only one limitation to his power: the right of self-defence is absolute, and the subject has the right of self-defence even against the sovereign.

The King's command had unfortunate results. The sermon gave offence to churchmen and dissenters alike. There was one passage which gave rise to virulent criticism: "I cannot think," said Tillotson, "till I am better informed, which I am always ready to be, that any pretence of conscience warrants any man . . . to affront the established religion of a nation, though it be false, and openly to draw men off from the profession of it, in contempt of the magistrate and the law. All that persons of a different religion can in such a case reasonably pretend to, is to enjoy the private liberty and exercise of their own conscience and religion, for which they might be very thankful, and to forbear the open making of proselytes to their own religion (though they be never so sure that they are in the right) till they have either an extraordinary commission from God to that purpose, or the providence of God makes way for it by the permission of the magistrate." To us, today, this may well seem reasonable, but passions were high, and the Dean of Canterbury was violently attacked. Dr. Patrick, afterwards Bishop of Ely, urged that he should give satisfaction by a retraction, and if he would not, should have no mercy, but be hounded out of the Christian Church. Mr. Howe, a learned nonconformist minister, in the course of a long conversation with the Dean, told him how much he was grieved that, in a sermon against popery, he should plead the popish cause against all the reformers. "The Dean at length fell to weeping freely, and said, that this was the most unhappy thing that had for a long time befallen him; and that he saw what he had offered was not to be maintained." It did not help. When this admission of his was made known, he was accused of having given satisfaction to the dissenters, without doing anything to remove the offence given to the brethren of his own Church.

What gave a certain plausibility to these charges was that Tillotson, whose early years had been spent in a Puritan atmosphere, had always remained on good terms with his nonconformist friends. But he had submitted to the Act of Uniformity with sincerity. The principles of the Established Church, which rejected the asperities of the dissenting sects on the one hand and the dogmas of what was somewhat incivilly called popery on the other, well suited his mild, pious and sensible temper, and there is no evidence that he took a very serious view of the differences that divided the Protestant parties. His earnest wish was that each side should make concessions so that the less rabid nonconformists should be drawn back to the Church. But his moderation was looked upon as a vice, rather than a virtue.

It is not to my purpose to deal with the religious dissensions that caused such grave troubles during the reign of Charles II. To us they may well seem trivial. Whether a clergyman should, or should not, wear a surplice does not seem so important as to be worth quarrelling about. That a communicant should receive the sacrament kneeling at the altar steps or seated in his pew one would have thought a matter of decorum rather than of religious principle. The Act of Uniformity deprived some two thousand ministers of their cures, and the Five Mile Act, which forbade them to go within five miles of a corporate body, made it hard for them to earn a living. Many, reduced to poverty, were forced to menial occupations. The Test Act rendered all who refused to take the oath of allegiance and supremacy, to receive the sacraments according to the Church of England, and who would not renounce belief in transubstantiation incapable of any employment, military or civil. This affected nonconformists and Roman Catholics alike. The oath of allegiance, I may add, demanded the recognition of the sovereign as lawful and rightful King and repudiated the papal claim that a heretic and excommunicated prince might be deposed and murdered.

The great mass of the English people looked upon Catholics as traitors, and many ascribed the Great Fire of London in 1666 to their malice. Even Milton felt that reasons of state justified their exclusion from toleration.


In 1683 an event occurred which for the remainder of his life gravely affected Dr. Tillotson. This was the discovery of what came to be known as the Rye House Plot. An anabaptist, Keeling by name, a salter and oil-man by calling, whose business was decaying, began to think, as Burnet puts it, that that of a witness would be a better trade. He went to Lord Dartmouth, who then held an office at Court, with a story of a scheme to kill the King and the Duke of York. Dartmouth sent him to Sir Leoline Jenkins, Secretary of State and an ardent royalist, who communicated the matter to the rest of the Ministry. News of this soon leaked out. Two men, Rumsey and West, whom Keeling had mentioned, were implicated. They had served in the parliamentary armies and, according to Burnet, had talked rashly of the fantastic schemes they had in mind, but "apprehending that they had trusted themselves to too many persons, who might discover them, they laid a story in which they resolved to agree so well together that they should not contradict one another". They formed a plan to come in of their own accord and make a confession which would not only save their lives, but might gain for them employment as informers "against the numerous emissaries of Satan then flourishing in England."

West declared that, on a day decided upon, the King and the Duke of York were to be killed on their way back to London from Newmarket, to which they went regularly for the races. The spot chosen was The Rye House, a farm belonging to a certain Rumbold, one of the alleged conspirators, which he offered for this purpose, since the royal coach had there to pass through a narrow road between high banks and could conveniently be stopped and the King's person seized. What seemed to confirm the story was that, owing to a fire that burnt out half the town, the King and his brother left Newmarket a week earlier than they had intended and so the plan miscarried. West charged Monmouth, Lord Russell, the Earl of Essex, Algernon Sydney and Lord Howard of Escrick with being parties to it. All, with the exception of Monmouth, were arrested. Lord Russell, son and heir of the Earl of Bedford, was the leader of the Country Party, later to be known as Whigs. He could have fled the country, but preferred to stay and face his accusers. He was committed to the Tower and brought to trial on a charge of high treason. Lord Howard, the dishonoured bearer of an honoured name, was found after a long search standing up within a chimney and, as soon as he was taken, fell a-crying. To save his life, he turned King's Evidence. He swore that there had been talk of a rising during the previous year. This was true. Shaftesbury, Dryden's Achitophel, "sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit," disgraced, had been arrested and indicted for high treason, but was released on bail and, fearing for his life, had gone into hiding. A meeting was held at his lodgings at Wapping attended by the Duke of Monmouth, Lord Essex, Lord Russell and others of less consequence, at which the possibility of an insurrection was discussed; but for various reasons nothing came of it; and Shaftesbury, discouraged, in bad health and fearful, fled to Holland disguised as a Presbyterian minister and soon afterwards died. At the trial Rumsey swore that at a meeting at the house of a wine-merchant called Shephard, in whom the conspirators had complete trust, at which Russell among others was present, there was a proposal to seize the King's guard, which the Lord Chief Justice in his summing up said could have no other end but to kill the King. Shephard in the witness-box confirmed this. Lord Russell admitted that he had been at Shephard's but said he had gone with the Duke of Monmouth, at his suggestion, to taste sherry. When there he had overheard some loose talk, but had not joined in it and soon left. It was a great deal to ask the jury to believe that the Duke would have made an appointment with Russell to go to a wine-merchant's merely to sample wine. Unfortunately for Russell, Lord Essex, who had been deeply depressed by his arrest, for reasons that seemed obvious committed suicide on the day the trial began. It looked like an admission of guilt and greatly prejudiced the defendant in the dock. The informers agreed fairly well in their stories, Lord Howard's evidence was damning, and the jury brought in a verdict of guilty of high treason. Lord Russell was condemned to death.

Efforts were made to save him. Lord Bedford offered first fifty thousand pounds, then a hundred thousand, if his son's life were spared. The offers were rejected. Russell well knew that there was no hope for him; yet, so that his wife, to whom he was devoted, should not be left with the feeling that he had omitted in do anything that might save his life, he consented, moved by her distress, to write petitions to the King and the Duke of York in which he offered to live abroad and never more concern himself with the affairs of England. Lady Russell, the daughter of the Earl of Southampton, was the widow of Lord Vaughan when Russell married her. She was a woman of a type not rare in English history, a loving wife and an affectionate mother, of strict moral principles, intelligent and cultured, courageous and unflinching in her devotion to duty, a noble woman, not only by birth, but in character. In that corrupt Court, where the greatest of the land accepted bribes and when woman to be chaste was to be ridiculous, she was respected, loved and admired. The petitions availed nothing. The King and the Duke of York were bitterly hostile to Russell because he had so strongly supported the Bill of Exclusion which sought to prevent the Duke, as a Roman Catholic, from succeeding to the throne on his brother's death.

After his condemnation, Russell sent for Tillotson, Dean of Canterbury, and Burnet. Tillotson, an old friend of the Russells, had attended the trial and given evidence on Russell's behalf. The two clergymen sought to persuade him to make a declaration against the lawfulness of resistance to the sovereign, in which case it might be possible to induce the King to pardon him. Burnet seems to have believed that he had persuaded Russell to do this and desired Tillotson to go to Lord Halifax, acquaint him with the fact and inform the King of it. This Halifax did and afterwards told the Dean that the King seemed more moved by it than by anything that had been said before. A day later, Tillotson, waiting on Russell, told him that he was very glad that he was satisfied on the point in question and hoped it would turn to his advantage. To his consternation, Russell told him that this was not the case. "He was still of opinion that the King was limited by law, and that when he broke through these limits, his subjects might defend themselves and restrain him." The Dean, much troubled, resolved the next day, the day before the execution, to bring Russell to change his mind. Thinking that his family might be with him, so that he would not have the opportunity to speak with him alone, he wrote a letter which he decided to give him with the request that he should read and consider it. It ran as follows:

"My Lord,

"I was heartily glad to see your Lordship this morning in that calm and devout temper at receiving the Sacrament. But peace of mind, unless it be well grounded, will avail little. And because transient discourse many times hath little effect for want of time to weigh and considerate, therefore, in tender compassion of your Lordship's case, and from all the good will that one man can bear to another, I do humbly offer to your Lordship's deliberate thoughts these following considerations concerning the points of resistance, if our religion and rights should be invaded, as your Lordship puts the case, concerning which, I understood by Dr. Burnet, that your Lordship had once received satisfaction, and am sorry to find a change.

"First, that the Christian religion doth plainly forbid the resistance of authority.

"Secondly, that though our religion be established by law (which your Lordship argues as a difference between our case and that of the primitive Christians) yet in the same law, which established our religion, it is declared, 'that it is not lawful upon any pretence whatsoever to take up arms, etc.' Besides that, there is a particular law declaring the power of the militia to be solely in the King. And this ties the hands of subjects, though the law of nature and the general rules of Scripture had left us at liberty, which I believe they do not, because the government and peace of human society could not well subsist upon these terms.

"Thirdly, your Lordship's opinion is contrary to the declared doctrine of all Protestant churches. And though some particular persons have thought otherwise, yet they have been contradicted herein, and condemned for it by the generality of Protestants. And I beg of your Lordship to consider how it will agree with an absurd asserting of the Protestant religion, to go contrary to the general doctrines of the Protestants.

"My end in this is to convince your Lordship, that you are in a very great and dangerous mistake; and, being so convinced, that, which before was a sort of ignorance, will appear of a much more heinous nature, as in truth it is, and calls for a very particular and deep repentance; which if your Lordship sincerely exercise upon the sight of your error by a penitent acknowledgment of it to God and man, you will not only obtain forgiveness of God, but prevent a mighty scandal to the reformed religion.

"I am very loth to give your Lordship any disquiet in the distress you are in, which I commiserate from my heart; but am much more concerned, that you do not leave the world in a delusion and false peace, to the hindrance of your eternal happiness.

"I heartily pray for you, and beseech your Lordship to believe that I am with the greatest sincerity and compassion in the world,

"My Lord,

"Your Lordship's most faithful and afflicted servant


It is the letter of a good and sincere man; but what a hideous brutality there may be in the goodness of the good!

When Tillotson was introduced into the presence of Lord Russell, he found him alone with his wife. He handed him the letter. Russell took it and with it went into an inner room. On returning, he said that "he had read the letter and was willing to be convinced, but could not say that he was so; and that it was not a time to trouble himself with politics; but that, though he was in error, yet being willing to be convinced, he hoped that God would forgive him too!" He returned the letter to Tillotson, who, on leaving him, took it to Lord Halifax, so that his own position on the matter with which it dealt should be made plain.

I will here quote Burnet's account of Russell's last hours. "The day before his death, he received the Sacrament from Tillotson with much devotion; and I preached two short sermons to him, which he heard with great affection; and we were shut up till towards the evening. Then he suffered his children that were very young, and some few of his friends, to take leave of him; in which he maintained his constancy of temper, though he was a very fond father. He also parted with his lady with a composed silence; and, as soon as she was gone, he said to me, the bitterness of death is past; for he loved and esteemed her beyond expression, as she well deserved it in all respects. She had the command of herself so much, that at parting she gave him no disturbance. He went into his chamber about midnight, and I staid all night in the outward room, and was fast asleep till four, when, according to his order, we called him. He was quickly dressed, but would lose no time in shaving; for he said, he was not concerned in his good looks that day."

Russell was executed in Lincoln's Inn Fields in the presence of a great and silent crowd. Some, looking upon him as a martyr, dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood. Tillotson attended him to the scaffold, and in the course of the prayer he spoke to the people present uttered the following words, "Grant that all we, who survive, may learn our duty to God and to the King."

Russell was a man of no remarkable talents, but of conspicuous integrity. There is in the National Portrait Gallery a portrait of him as a young man. It is by an unknown painter. He is wearing a full-bottomed wig and a lace jabot. With his fine eyes and handsome, strong nose, he has, notwithstanding the beginnings of a double chin, a fine romantic look. I don't know on what authority this is claimed to be a portrait of Lord Russell: it does not at all resemble that, by Sir Peter Lely, which is at Woburn. That one shows a much older man, with insignificant features, fat of face, with something of a smirk in the eyes and on the lips. You would never guess that the man thus portrayed had qualities of moral greatness which put him on a level with those old heroes of Roman history.

So great an outcry was raised at Court against Burnet and Tillotson owing to their ministrations to Russell that Halifax, to excuse them, felt constrained to show the Dean's letter to the King. Tillotson was summoned to a Cabinet meeting and closely examined. He was able to convince the King that there had been nothing to blame in his conduct or in that of Burnet, and when the Duke of York continued to badger him, "Brother," said the King, "the Dean speaks like an honest man, press him no farther." By the public at large, however, the two clerics were viciously assailed for having urged Russell to save his life by retracting an opinion of which his conscience was persuaded. Burnet thought it well to go to Holland and did not return till after the Revolution. Tillotson's biographer, writing long after William of Orange had landed at Torbay and James the Second fled the country, states that "it is not improbable that neither of them (Burnet and Tillotson) had then sufficiently considered the point, with so much attention and exactness, as the subsequent manners of that reign, and the whole series of conduct of the following one, necessarily led them to do." This means that circumstances alter cases. With William and Mary King and Queen of England it was only sensible to discard the opinion that "faith and patience are the proper ways for the preservation of religion, and the method of the Gospel is to suffer persecution rather than to use resistance."

During the next few years Tillotson seems to have lived as quietly as his position allowed. He bought himself a house at Edmonton, a country village later to be known in literary history, and he stayed there most of the year, only coming to London to deliver his lectures at Lincoln's Inn. In 1685 Charles II died and James II reigned in his stead. In 1687 the Dean had a stroke. He recovered, but to re-establish his health went to Tunbridge Wells to drink the waters. There he made the acquaintance of the Princess Anne, James the Second's younger daughter, who was spending the season at Tunbridge Wells with her husband, Prince George of Denmark. Tillotson had frequent conversations with her and preached before her in September 1688. Two months later the Prince of Orange landed. The events that followed are part of the History of England. I may mention that by gaining the confidence of Princess Anne, Tillotson was able to do a service which entitles him to a small place in that history. He persuaded the Princess to consent to William of Orange retaining his right to the crown after his wife's death, which till then, since it deprived her of the right to the succession, she had stubbornly refused to do.


William and Mary were proclaimed and crowned. Dr. Tillotson was admitted into a "high degree of favour and confidence with the King and Queen'', and was appointed Clerk of the Closet to the King. This required his frequent attendance on their Majesties. The Deanery of St. Paul's fell vacant and, as it was more convenient for him to be within call of Whitehall, he exchanged his Deanery of Canterbury for that. It was a considerable loss of income to him, since, unwilling to hold two offices of profit at the same time, he felt constrained to resign his residentiaryship at St. Paul's.

William has had an indifferent press with posterity. On the whole, history has treated him as a hard, unsympathetic, on occasion ruthless, and cruel man, who used his position as King of England, not for the good of the country, but to further his own purposes on the continent; and it has only grudgingly admitted his greatness. Macaulay in his history has drawn a full-length portrait of him in a way that none could do better than he. It is a lively, effective piece of writing. There emerges from it a picture of a man, cold, sullen, devoid of ordinary human feelings, but of tenacity and courage, skilful in diplomacy and undismayed by failure. William was too good a judge of men not to become quickly conscious of John Tillotson's sincerity, disinterestedness and goodness; and it is possible that it was just his engaging sweetness that drew the stern, harsh King to him.

Throughout their connection William treated him with a kindness and consideration surprising in a man of his temper. It was to be expected that, since several bishoprics were vacant, he should wish that one of them should be filled by the Dean. Tillotson begged to be excused from accepting this preferment on the grounds of his age and infirmities. In a letter to the King's favourite and confidant, the newly created Earl of Portland, he wrote, "I thank God I have lived to have my last desire in this world, which was this happy Revolution; and now I care for no more but to see it established. And I have declared my sense of this great deliverance so openly, and I shall always do so, that I do not fear to be suspected of sullenness and discontent for my declining preferment."

Ten days after the Coronation, an Act of Parliament had been passed which enjoined certain oaths to be taken by all persons who were in any office, civil, military or ecclesiastical, in the Kingdom. "By the first of these, allegiance was sworn to their Majesties; by the second, the papal and foreign jurisdictions are renounced; and, by the statute which enjoins the taking of these oaths, it is enacted, that not only such as shall from that time be preferred to any ecclesiastical dignity or benefit, but all others, then in actual possession of any such preferments, should take the said oaths before the first of August following, on the penalty of suspension for six months following; and that at the end of the said six months, if they still persisted not to take the said oath, they were ipso facto to be deprived." Dr. Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, refused to take the oath and was suspended. He had neither waited upon the King and Queen after their arrival nor obeyed the summons to attend the House of Lords. On the day of their Majesties' proclamation, the Queen sent two of her chaplains to Lambeth to crave the Archbishop's blessing. His own chaplain, Mr. Wharton, asked him what he should do. The Archbishop left it to his discretion, whereupon he resolved to obey the government which Providence established and prayed in express terms for King William and Queen Mary. But the same evening his Grace sent for him and in a great passion, vehementer excandescens, told him he must either omit naming the new King and Queen in his prayers, or pray no more in his chapel, since they could not be so (namely King and Queen) during the life of King James. At the end of the allotted period, since he still refused to take the required oaths, Dr. Sancroft was deprived of his great office. It was necessary to look for a successor, and the King fixed upon Dr. Tillotson. I will quote part of a letter he wrote to Lady Russell in connection with this:

"After I had kissed the King's hand for the Deanery of St. Paul's, I gave his Majesty my most humble thanks, and told him that now he had set me at ease for the remainder of my life. He replied, 'No such matter, I assure you,' and spoke plainly about a great place, which I dread to think of, and said it was necessary for his service, and he must charge it upon my conscience. Just as he had said this, he was called to supper, and I had only time to say that when his Majesty was at leisure, I did believe I could satisfy him that it would be more for his service that I should continue in the station in which he had now placed me. This hath brought me into a real difficulty. For on the one hand it is hard to decline his Majesty's commands, and much harder yet to stand out against so much goodness as his Majesty is pleased to use towards me. On the other, I can neither bring my inclination nor my judgment to it. This I owe to the Bishop of Salisbury (Burnet), one of the worst and best friends I know. Best for his singular good opinion of me; and the worst for directing the King to this method, which I know he did; as if his Lordship and I had concerted the matter how to finish this foolish piece of dissimulation, in running away from a bishopric to catch at that of an archbishopric. This fine device hath thrown me so far into the briar that without his Majesty's great goodness I shall never get off without a scratched face. And now I will tell your Ladyship the bottom of my heart. I have for a long time, I thank God for it, devoted myself to the public service without any regard for myself, and to that end have done the best I could in the best manner I was able. Of late God hath been pleased by very severe ways, but in great goodness to me to wean me perfectly from the love of this world; so that worldly greatness is now not only undesirable, but distasteful to me. And I do verily believe that I shall be able to do as much or more good in my present station than in a higher, and shall not have one jot less interest or influence upon any others to any good purpose, for the people will naturally love a man that will take great pains and little preferment. But on the other hand if I could force my inclination to take this great place, I foresee that I should sink under it and grow melancholy and good for nothing, and after a little while die as a fool dies."

William III was not a man to be dissuaded from a course he had decided on, and for some months continued to press the Dean of St. Paul's to accept the office which he was determined he should occupy. Tillotson knew very well that his appointment would be violently resented by his fellow churchmen. They looked upon him "rather as an enemy of the Church, than fit to be a pillar of it; and when it was bruited abroad that he was to be made Archbishop of Canterbury, they said it was the end of the Established Church". To make their opinion more damning, they put it into Latin: actum est de Ecclesia Anglicana. He knew also that there were others who felt that their services, both before and after the Revolution, gave them claims to this eminent preferment. Bitter experience had taught him, as it teaches everyone in like case, that to have great success in life gives rise to the hatred, envy and malice of those who have not achieved it. Tillotson was a mild, gentle creature and it distressed him to make enemies. Honest man as he was, it went against the grain with him to step into the shoes of one who for reasons that he could not but respect had submitted to be deprived of a great office. The King brushed aside Tillotson's objections. As, in another letter to Lady Russell, the Dean put it, the King liked neither to importune nor to be denied. He had confidence in her judgment and, greatly troubled in spirit as he was, he wrote again, asking her to advise him. In her answer, she told him that she thought it was his duty to make the sacrifice, a noble sacrifice she called it, and no longer oppose the King's will. He gave in. He desired the King to give him an appointment, and then told him that he was prepared to accept the Primacy. The King "was graciously pleased to say that it was the best news that had come to him for a long while".

Tillotson requested that the appointment should be kept secret for the time, and the public declaration was not made till six months later. On the day this took place, Tillotson went to Lambeth with the purpose of seeing the deprived Archbishop. He sent in his name and waited for an answer, but received none and was obliged to go sadly away. Dr. Sancroft was warned by the Queen to leave the palace, but resolved not to stir till he was ejected by law. Proceedings were instituted and, after a legal squabble Dr. Sancroft, attended by his steward and the Master of the Faculties, took boat at Lambeth and went to a private house in the Temple. The Attorney-General sent a messenger to receive possession of the palace, but the steward left in charge, having orders to deliver it to none but the legal officer, refused to surrender it. The Under-Sheriff was then sent for and possession was delivered to him. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Sancroft left London and went to Fressingfield, in Suffolk, where he was born, and where two years later he died. Burnet described him as a man of learning and of solemn deportment, with a sullen gravity in his looks and a monastic strictness; dry, cold, reserved and peevish, so that none loved him and few esteemed him. That was unfair. Sancroft was a modest, retiring, contemplative man; and his mode of life was simple and frugal. Swift, in a note upon Burnet's accusation that he was avaricious, wrote, "False as Hell." Many years before the events I am dealing with, he went forth from Cambridge because he would not break his oath of allegiance to Charles I. He proved his courage when he refused to read in church King James's Declaration of Indulgence which suspended the penal laws against non-Anglicans. He was committed to the Tower with other bishops who had refused to obey the King's order, was tried and triumphantly acquitted. Seven bishops, Heads and Fellows of certain colleges and a number of beneficed clergymen refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Prince of Orange and his Consort and were duly suspended.

Macaulay had little but contempt for the non-jurors. "Scarcely one can be named," he wrote, "who was qualified to discuss any large question of morals or politics, scarcely one whose writings do not indicate either extreme feebleness or extreme flightiness of mind." That may be so. But after all, the non-jurors passionately believed in the Divine Right of Kings. The King was the Lord's Anointed and could do no wrong. True, James had violated the laws of England. True, he had persecuted the Established Church and sought to force upon the country the Church of Rome. It was the duty of pious churchmen to suffer persecution, and against the solemn precepts of their religion to offer resistance to the sovereign's will. Lord Russell and Algernon Sidney had been sentenced to death for just that, and many learned and pious men were of opinion that they had been rightly sentenced. The non-jurors looked upon it as a mere quibble to claim that when James left the country, he had abrogated his rights to the crown. When Charles I was beheaded, Charles II became King of England. He too had fled the country. As long as James lived he was King of England and William and Mary were usurpers. One would have thought that Macaulay might have accorded something in the nature of sympathy to men who for conscience' sake were prepared to relinquish offices of dignity and profit, and go forth, for all they knew without a roof over their heads, to earn their bread in sorrow.

Tillotson had, of course, taken the oath of allegiance, and we may be sure that he took it with a good conscience. It is true that a few years before he had delivered a sermon on the Lawfulness and Obligation of Oaths in which he had asserted that "he is guilty of perjury who, having a real intention when he swears to perform what he promises, yet afterwards neglects to do it"; and, he added, perjury is a most heinous sin. But with his British common sense, that quality which foreigners too often mistake for hypocrisy, Tillotson doubtless believed that an oath could scarcely be binding when it entailed acquiescence in proceedings (the introduction of "popery and its inseparable companion, arbitrary power") which those who took it would never have assented to. In the Thanksgiving Sermon for Our Deliverance by the Prince of Orange which Tillotson preached before the Benchers of Lincoln's Inn he called attention to the ease with which the Revolution had been effected, "without a battle, and almost without blood", which proved that it was wrought by God. "And we may then say with the holy Psalmist: This is the Lord's doing, it is marvellous in our eyes." We may surmise that the learned Benchers thoroughly approved.

Dr. Sancroft left the palace in poor condition and while it was put in order Tillotson continued to live at the Deanery of St. Paul's. When everything was ready he moved to Lambeth. The non-juring party pursued him with unrelenting rage. The letter he had written to Lord Russell to persuade him to admit his errors had been printed at the time of the wretched man's execution and was now reprinted. In it Tillotson had declared in unmistakable terms that resistance to the Crown was a crime which deserved punishment both in this world and the next. The non-juring churchmen asked how he could reconcile the opinions he had held with his submission to the authority of one whom all right-thinking men regarded as an usurper. Cruel libels were published. When their authors were arrested, Tillotson went to see the Attorney-General and earnestly desired that no one should be punished on his account. On one occasion, while a gentleman was with him who had come to congratulate him on his preferment, a packet was brought to him. On opening it, he found a mask. "The Archbishop without any signs of emotion threw it carelessly among his papers on the table; and, on the gentleman expressing great surprise and indignation at the affront, his Grace only smiled and said that this was a gentle rebuke if compared with some others, that lay there in black and white-pointing to the papers on the table." A bundle of them was found among his effects after his death, on which he had written, "These are libels. I pray God forgive them. I do."


Not the least pertinacious of the Archbishop's enemies was an extraordinary man of whom, though it is something of a digression, I now propose to speak. This was Samuel Johnson. I was taken aback when I first came across the name, for to all bookish persons it seems naturally to belong to one particular man and out of the question that anyone else should venture to possess it. Of course, during the centuries there may well have been hundreds of Samuel Johnsons in England both before and after our cherished doctor. Him we know as we know hardly any character either in real life or in fiction. His true devotees love him not only for his personality, for his wit, his common sense and his kindness; they love him for his faults and would not have him less domineering in conversation, less voracious in his appetite, any more than they would have his prose less pompous, less ponderous and less orotund. Oddly enough, this earlier Samuel Johnson had somewhat of the lexicographer's character–his intolerance, his courage, his roughness in controversy, his doggedness, his intransigence. There is something in the English temper that produces now and then men of this stamp, men who refuse to see that there may be two sides to a question and who, fiercely convinced of the truth and importance of whatever opinions they may hold, will accept hardship, ruin, persecution, even imprisonment, rather than yield.

This Samuel Johnson was born in 1649 and, after being educated at St. Paul's School and Trinity College, Cambridge, was ordained. He left the living to which he had been presented, because he did not think the climate good for his health, and put it in charge of a curate. He settled in London and Lord Russell presently appointed him his domestic chaplain. In 1682 he published a work called Julian the Apostate, in which he fiercely attacked the doctrine of passive obedience and non-resistance. This was a dangerous thing to do at the time; the title he had given his book was an insulting reflection on the Duke of York, who had abandoned the faith of his fathers to join the Church of Rome. Johnson was prosecuted for what was claimed to be a scandalous and seditious libel. He was sentenced to pay a heavy fine and to be committed to prison till it was paid. The book was burnt by the common hangman. Since he could not pay the fine he remained in prison till, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, he regained his liberty before 1685. While still in jail he wrote a contumacious work to which he gave the formidable title: "An humble and hearty address to all English Protestants in the Present Army." Through the offices of a fellow prisoner who had connections with the outside world, he was able to smuggle the manuscript out of Newgate, and in 1686, James II having succeeded his charming, worthless brother, Johnson's book was printed and especially among the soldiers widely distributed. He must have known how dire the consequences would be, we must presume that such was his obdurate fanaticism, he was prepared to take them. Johnson was again tried and this time sentenced to stand in the pillory in Westminster, Charing Cross and the Royal Exchange, to pay a fine, and to be whipped from Newgate to Tyburn. He bore the whipping with rare fortitude. Before his punishment, he was degraded in the Chapter House of St. Paul's by three obsequious bishops and several divines of the City. He was not set free till after the Revolution, when the judgment against him was declared illegal and his degradation null.

Samuel Johnson had ability, learning and firmness of mind, but he was passionate, impatient of contradiction, dictatorial, arrogant, and apt not only to overrate his own merits, but to underrate those of others. He was immoderately ambitious. Lady Russell was interested in his welfare owing to his connection with her unfortunate husband, and she urged Tillotson, then still Dean of St. Paul's, to intercede with the King on his behalf. Through Tillotson's long and close friendship with the Russells, he and Johnson, their chaplain, must often have been thrown together. No two men could have been more unlike or less likely to be friends–one rough, violent and self-opinionated; the other tolerant, mild and kindly. Early during Johnson' s imprisonment, Tillotson sent him a present of money. He received it with contempt, but his necessities forced him to accept it. Tillotson continued to assist the wretched man, but took care from then on that he should not know from whom the gifts came. Notwithstanding Johnson's attacks on the Dean, chiefly owing to his famous letter to Lord Russell, Tillotson was not the man to stand aside when he could alleviate another's distress. He spoke to the King. William seemed inclined to do something, but, owing to Johnson's difficult character, could not decide what it should be. Johnson was far from tactful, and even at Court was apt to deliver himself with sardonic wit: on one occasion he said that on the principle of kings being accountable only to God, the Rump Parliament had done right to send King Charles I to Him. Eventually he was offered the rich Deanery of Durham, but, prepared to accept nothing less than a bishopric, haughtily refused it. He then solicited the King to grant him a pension, and Tillotson sought to persuade William to do so. The King changed the conversation. Halifax, Lord Privy Seal, afterwards told the Dean that his Majesty thought it hard that, with Church preferments at his disposal, he should be expected to give pensions out of his own purse. He added that Johnson spoke very bitterly of the Dean. It was characteristic that he should vilify the only man who had the will and the interest to serve him. Halifax then suggested that the King might give him a good bishopric in Ireland, there being several vacant, and Tillotson thought well of the plan if it was acceptable to Johnson. It was not: Johnson would have an English bishopric or nothing. He was granted an adequate pension, and that is the last we hear of him. A man none could like, but few could fail to respect.


Tillotson did not live long to occupy the great office which he had accepted so unwillingly and which brought him little happiness. He continued to be scurrilously attacked. One sermon he preached caused a great clamour against him. It was delivered before the Queen and it concerned the eternity of hell torments. He argued that the endless miseries and torments of the wicked were well consistent with the justice and goodness of God, but, notwithstanding His threatenings, "if it be in any wise inconsistent with righteousness or goodness, which He knows much better than we do, to make sinners miserable for ever, that He will not do it". Tillotson's enemies angrily claimed that he denied the eternity of hell torments in order to console the Queen "then under the horrors of despair on account of her behaviour to her father". He bore his troubles with patience and resignation. It appears that it was customary for the dignitaries of the Church to keep open house, and Tillotson kept a splendid and plentiful table. As his old pupil, John Beardmore, put it, "he was of a very sweet nature, friendly and obliging, and ready to serve his friends in any way that he could by his interest and authority, when they applied to him." He adds that his common and familiar discourse was witty and facetious. The examples given of this are disappointing. A certain Sir John Trevor, who had been Speaker of the House of Commons and was expelled for bribery, passing by the Archbishop in the House of Lords, said in a loud voice, "I hate a fanatic in lawn sleeves," to which the Archbishop answered, "And I hate a knave in any sleeves." Dr. South had written a book in which he spoke disparagingly of the Archbishop and begged a friend to find out what he thought of the performance. The Primate, mildly enough, one would think, said that Dr. South wrote like a man, but bit like a dog. To this Dr. South, when it was repeated to him, replied that he would sooner bite like a dog than fawn like one. The Archbishop answered that for his part he would choose to be a spaniel rather than a cur. As repartees they are not brilliant.

One Sunday, in 1694, Tillotson was seized with a sudden illness while at the chapel in Whitehall, but thought it not decent to interrupt the service and so stayed till it ended. Four days later, in the sixty-fifth year of his age, he died. Owing to his generosity and manifold charities, he died penniless. He had nothing to leave his family, consisting of his wife, his son-in-law and his grandchildren, for his two daughters died before him, but the copyright of his unpublished sermons. They were sold for the then enormous sum of two thousand five hundred pounds. Tillotson was bitterly regretted by the Queen; and William III, that harsh, cold-blooded creature, said of him that he was the best man he ever knew and the best friend he had ever had. He granted the widow an annuity of four hundred pounds, which soon after was increased by another two hundred. So solicitous was the King that the pension should be paid regularly that he called for the money quarterly and sent it to her himself. Since the great ones of the earth are apt to look upon the services rendered them as their right, for which no thanks are needed, and seldom give a thought to those who can no longer be of use to them, this action of William's seems not only meritorious, but touching.

The sermons Tillotson had printed in his lifetime were translated into Dutch and French. On publication of the first volume, Monsieur Bernard in the course of a review in his Nouvelles de la République des Lettres remarked that the simplicity of the style "was no inconsiderable part of its merit among the English, so that many, who had no regard for religion, read these sermons merely for the beauty of the language". "It is to be observed," he added, "that the English do not love a pompous kind of eloquence, in which all the words are studied and placed with as much care as a statue of a saint in his niche. They are apprehensive of a design to surprise them, when they are approached with so much preparation; and they are zealous lest this elaborate dress should either conceal or disguise the truth. They prefer the simple beauty of nature to all this affected rhetoric, so oppressed, rather than adorned, by a thousand foreign ornaments." It is a pretty compliment that Monsieur Bernard has paid us, and I should like to think it deserved.

This is the place where by rights I should quote a passage from one of Tillotson's sermons so that the reader might see for himself what manner of writing it was that was so much admired. To do that is not easy. If one were writing, say, about Sir Thomas Browne or Burke, nothing would be easier. The paragraph in Urn Burial that begins with the words, "What song the Syrens sang," would give anyone a fair impression of Browne's rich and lovely style; or, with Burke, one would not have to seek far in the Letter to a Noble Lord to find a passage of noble rhetoric which would show him at his peerless best. I would not claim that Tillotson was a great artist. He was no genius. As I have repeatedly said, he was an honest, good, unselfish, pious and modest man. Unless the biographers have greatly deceived us, these are not qualities that are commonly attributes of genius. Tillotson's style was a workaday style; that of Sir Thomas Browne or of Jeremy Taylor in Holy Dying is not for daily use. It is like those crystal drinking cups, heavily engraved, with rich strands of gold or silver, that the craftsmen of Nuremberg made in the seventeenth century. They are so splendid, so elaborate, so rare, that they can only be put in a glass case. They are very good to look at, but if you are thirsty, a plain tumbler will serve your purpose better. Tillotson wrote his sermons to be delivered from the pulpit. He wrote simply and naturally, so that everyone should understand his meaning. He avoided rhetoric, high-sounding words, flowers of speech, the conceits that were fashionable at the time, similes and metaphors which might distract the listener from the purport of his address. It was like the conversation of a man of adequate learning, who knew what he wanted to say and was at pains to say it clearly and correctly. It is merely a matter of taste whether you like the conversational style or not; many distinguished writers, Flaubert for instance, have detested it: others have thought that it added to the dignity of letters to write in a formal manner, and have sought (often with success) by abundant use of balance, the triad and antithesis to give their productions a stately elegance. It is true that when you compare with these prose written in the conversational style, you may very well think that there is nothing much to it. It is not without hesitation, then, that I will quote some reflections which Tillotson wrote in shorthand in his commonplace book and which can never have been meant to be published. I will quote them not only for their manner, but for their matter. I do not think anyone can read them without sympathising with that maligned and amiable man.

"One would be apt to wonder that Nehemiah should reckon a huge bill of fare and a vast number of promiscuous guests among his virtues and good deeds, for which he desires God to remember him. But, upon better consideration, besides the bounty and sometimes charity, of a great table (provided there be nothing of vanity or ostentation in it) there may be exercised two very considerable virtues; one is temperance, and the other is self-denial, in a man's being contented, for the sake of the public, to deny himself so much as to sit down every day to a feast, and to eat continually in a crowd, and almost never alone, especially when, as it often happens, a great part of the company that a man may have is the company that a man would not have. I doubt it will prove but a melancholy business, when a man comes to die, to have made a great noise and bustle in the world and to have been known far and near, but all this while to have been hid and concealed from himself. It is a very odd and fantastical sort of life for a man to be continually from home and most of all a stranger in his own house.

"It is surely an uneasy thing to sit always in a frame and to be perpetually on a man's guard; not to be able to speak a careless word or to use a negligent posture without observation and censure.

"Men are apt to think that they who are in the highest places and have the most power, have more liberty to say and do what they please. But it is quite otherwise; for they have the least liberty because they are most observed. It is not mine own observation; a much wiser man (I mean Tully) says, 'In maxima quoque fortuna minimum licere.' They that are in the highest and greatest condition have of all others the least liberty.

"In a moderate station it is sufficient for a man to be indifferently wise. Such a man has the privilege to commit little follies and mistakes without having any great notice taken of them. But he that lives in the light, i.e., in the view of all men, his actions are exposed to everybody's observation and censure.

"We ought to be glad when those that are fit for government, and called to it, are willing to take the burden of it upon them; yea, and to be very thankful to them too that they will be at the pains, and can have the patience, to govern and to live publicly. Therefore it is happy for the world that there are some who are born and bred up to it; and that custom has made it easy, or at least tolerable to them. Else who that is wise would undertake it, since it is certainly much easier of the two to obey a just and wise government (I had almost said any government) than to govern justly and wisely. Not that I find fault with those who apply themselves to public business and affairs. They do well and we are beholden to them. Some by their education, and being bred up to great things, and to be able to bear and manage great business with more ease than others, are peculiarly fitted to serve God and the public in this way; and they that do are worthy of double honour.

"The advantage which men have by a more devout and retired and contemplative life is that they are not distracted about many things; their minds and affections arc set upon one thing; and the whole stream and force of their affections run one way. All their thoughts and endeavours are united in one great end and design, which makes their life all of a piece, and to be consistent with itself throughout.

"Nothing but necessity or the hope of doing more good than a man is capable of doing in a private state (which a modest man will not easily presume concerning himself) can recompense the trouble and uneasiness of a more public and busy life."

In order not to tire the reader I leave out three or four paragraphs. The end of this piece is as follows:

"The capacity and opportunity of doing greater good is the specious pretence under which ambition is wont to cover the eager desire of power and greatness. If it be said (which is the most spiteful thing that can be said) that some ambition is necessary to vindicate a man from being a fool: to this I think it may be fairly answered, and without offence, that there may perhaps be as much ambition in declining greatness as in courting it; only it is of a more unusual kind, and the example of it is less dangerous because it is not like to be contagious."

This passage was evidently written au courant de la plume, and it is probable that if the harassed Archbishop had revised it, he would have altered a word and a construction here and there, and tightened it up; but for all that, I do not think it an inadequate sample of his simple and honest style. It is likely enough that on reading it you may say to yourself, "Well, there's nothing extraordinary about it; anyone might write like that." There is a picture in the Museum of Modem Art at New York by the Dutch painter, Mondrian, which consists of a few black lines and one red one which divide the white ground into oblongs and squares. For a reason that I have never discovered, when you have once seen it, you can never quite forget it. There is something about it that is strangely haunting. It means nothing, and why it so curiously disturbs, and at the same time satisfies you, you cannot tell. It looks as though you had only to take a ruler, a tube of black paint and a tube of red, and you could do the thing yourself. Try.
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