The Historical Journal


Sir Robert Walpole, the Church of England, and the Quakers Tithe Bill of 1736*

Stephen Taylora1

a1 Peterhouse, Cambridge

The Church of England has received little attention either as an issue or as a force in mid-eighteenth-century politics. The contrast with the immediate post-revolutionary decades, when the Church and churchmen were at the centre of political debate, is striking. This development has been explained in terms of the achievement of political stability, one manifestation of which was the transition from the whig–tory dichotomy of the reign of Anne into a court–country one by 1725, with the issues dividing the two parties losing both ideological and political significance. Among the debates which were ‘overtaken by events’ was religion which ‘ceased to be a central issue of political debate’. Indeed, Geoffrey Holmes has argued that the decline of religious controversy began with the Sacheverell trial, claiming that most of the eighteenth century was characterized by ‘spiritual inertia’ and ‘religious tranquillity, within the framework of an Erastian polity’. Such views accord well with the secularist interpretation of the enlightenment, epitomized by Peter Gay's portrayal of it as ‘a volatile mixture of classicism, impiety, and science’, and they have been little challenged by ecclesiastical historians. Norman Sykes may have vindicated the pastoral and administrative standards of the Georgian Church, but the overwhelming impression remains one of Stability and intellectual torpor.