« Butler, John George Butler, Joseph Butler, William »

Butler, Joseph

BUTLER, JOSEPH: Bishop of Durham; b. at Wantage (14 m. s.w. of Oxford) May 18, 1692; d. at Bath June 16, 1752. He was the youngest of the eight children of Thomas Butler, a retired linen-draper and stanch Presbyterian, but was allowed to enter Oriel College, Oxford, and in 1718 the ministry of the Church of England. From 1719 to 1726 he was preacher at the Rolls Chapel, London, where most of the congregation were lawyers and the pay small; from 1721 to 1738 he was prebendary of Salisbury; from 1721 to 1725, rector of Haughton-le-Skerne (2 m. n.e. of Darlington); and from 1725 to 1740 of Stanhope (26 m. n. of Darlington). From 1733 to 1740 he was a prebendary of Rochester; from 1733 to 1736 chaplain to the lord chancellor; from 1736 to her death in 1737 clerk of the closet to Caroline, queen consort of George II.; from 1738 to 1750 bishop of Bristol, the poorest see in England; from 1740 to 1750 dean of St. Paul's with a prebend and residentiary canony; from 1746 to 1750 clerk of the closet to the King (George II.); from 1750 till his death, bishop of Durham, the richest see in England. As appears from the above, he was a pluralist. He was not, however, avaricious, but generous to a fault. He was shy, reticent, sensitive, more of a thinker than a reader, and he never married. His one great aim was to combat the current Deism and contempt for religion. This he did with unrivaled force. He had the very expensive taste of building and spent much money in reconstructing his episcopal residences.

His reputation rests upon his writings, all published by himself or in his lifetime, as his literary remains were destroyed at his death, according to his direction. These writings are few in number but weighty in matter. This is the full list: Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726); The Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736); six occasional sermons of various dates; a part of his episcopal charge at Bristol in 1749, and his episcopal charge at Durham in 1751; and the correspondence, down to 1714, between himself and Samuel Clarke, which the latter published in the fourth edition (1716) of his Boyle lectures on the Being and Attributes of God, and separately the same year, but which has received additions.

To understand and appreciate these writings of Butler one must bear in mind two facts: Butler lived in the "golden age of English Deism," when Christianity, as he himself says, was "not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is, now at length, discovered to be fictitious"; and secondly that he was intensely practical. He wrote his famous Fifteen Sermons, as J. H. Bernard says, "not to propound a new basis for speculative ethics, but to justify to practical men the practice 321 of the common virtues, benevolence, compassion, and the like. He desires to take human nature as an existing fact, and to analyze its constituents just so far as is necessary to bring to light the obligations to right living." His Six Sermons are likewise practical: The first is a defense of foreign missions; the second is an appeal for the London hospitals; the third is on the true way to safeguard liberty; the fourth is a plea for charity schools; the fifth is upon the uses to which the union of Church and State should be put, and the sixth upon the proper management of infirmaries. Of like practicality is his more famous Analogy. He took the Deists on their own ground and strove to cut the ground from under their feet in order that he might bring them to the Christian foundation. To quote Bernard again: "We find in Butler's works no attempt to construct a philosophy of religion nor . . . an analysis of the religious consciousness. . . . Religion is treated altogether from the historical point of view. Its main doctrines are facts and are susceptible of proof, just like any other facts. . . . It is an argumentum ad hominem all through, and is not intended to present an absolute and consecutive statement of the grounds of faith. . . . His point was, not that the difficulties of revelation repeat the difficulties of nature, but rather the difficulties of revelation, admitted to be embarrassing in themselves, cannot be counted destructive of religious belief, inasmuch as difficulties of a similar nature beset the recognition of nature as a coherent and systematic whole."

The first part of the Analogy, consisting of seven chapters, is the Analogy of Natural Religion to the constitution and course of Nature; and is generally considered more successful than the second part, in eight chapters, on the Analogy of Revealed Religion to the constitution and course of Nature (or a kind of evidences of Christianity). But both parts are very hard reading, because, though perfectly clear, the argument is very profound. It has been a college and university text-book for nigh 175 years and the quarry of innumerable works.

There are many editions of Butler. Two of remarkable excellence are that by the late W. E. Gladstone (two vols., Oxford, 1896, with a volume of Gladstone's Studies subsidiary to Butler's works) and that by J. H. Bernard (2 vols., London, 1900).

BibliographyThe earliest Life appeared in the Biographia Britannica, in the Supplement, London, 1753, and the Life by Kippis, which appeared in his ed, of the Biographie, London, 1778–93, is often prefixed to the Works or to the Analogy. Consult further: T. Bartlett, Memoirs of Joseph Butler, London, 1839; John Hunt, Religious Thought in Englad, vols. ii., iii., ib. 1871–73; C. J. Abbey and J. H. Overton, English Church in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols., ib. 1878; T. R. Pynchon, Bishop Butter, a Sketch of his Life with an Examination of the Analogy, New York, 1889; Bishop-Butler, An Appreciation, with the best passages of his Writings, London, 1903; DNB, viii. 67–72.

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