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'Scepticism in excess': Gibbon and eighteenth-century Christianity
journal contributionposted on 2023-06-07, 23:09 authored by Brian W Young
Since the appearance of volume I of The decline and fall of the Roman empire in 1776, the religion of Edward Gibbon has been subject to intense debate. He has been variously identified as an atheist, a deist, even as a somewhat detached Christian. Examination of his relations, both personal and scholarly, with the varieties of religion and irreligion current in eighteenth-century Britain leads to the conclusion that he remained resolutely critical of all such positions. He did not share the convictions of dogmatic freethinkers, still less those of determined atheists. The product of a nonjuring family, Gibbon benefited from the scholarly legacy of several high church writers, while maintaining a critical attitude towards the claims of Anglican orthodoxy. It was through the deliberate and ironical adoption of the idiom of via media Anglicanism, represented by such theologians as the clerical historian John Jortin, that Gibbon developed a woundingly sceptical appraisal of the history of the early church. This stance made it as difficult for his contemporaries to identify Gibbon's religion as it has since proved to be for modern historians. Gibbon appreciated the central role of religion in shaping history, but he remained decidedly sceptical as to Christianity's ultimate status as revealed and unassailable truth.
PublisherCambridge University Press
Department affiliated with
- History Publications
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