Feature of the Month: a theological controversy

The Nature of the Kingdom, or Church, of Christ
10th edn
Benjamin Hoadly
London: James Knapton and Timothy Childe, 1717
[Porteus] B.P.27


On 31 March 1717, three hundred years ago this year, Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761), the then Bishop of Bangor, delivered a sermon before George I entitled The Nature of the Kingdom, or Church, of Christ, based on the biblical text: ‘Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world’—the first part of John 18:36, in which Pontius Pilate interrogates Christ shortly before the crucifixion.  The sermon was printed by the king’s order and was tremendously popular, running through fifteen London editions in 1717 in addition to being reprinted as far away as New York. An edition in Glasgow in 1783 is recorded as the thirtieth. The sermon was also exceedingly controversial, such that a rejoinder to it by Andrew Snape (1675-1742), one of the king’s chaplains in ordinary, appeared in no fewer than seventeen editions in 1717, and exchanges of pamphlets continued into the 1720s.

Hoadly’s sermon contributed to the Bangorian controversy, a theological debate with strong political overtones which began with the posthumous publication of George Hickes’s The Constitution of the Catholick Church in 1716 and which has been described as the most famous politico-religious controversy of the eighteenth century. Hickes, a prominent nonjuror, had believed that the Church of England was gaining power by insisting upon a particularly heretical form of obedience to the church from worshippers, and that the state had no rights or power over this institution. Hoadly found the nonjurors’ political espousal of Jacobism and their theological adoption of more Catholic rites and practices disturbing. The Nature of the Kingdom is the second of two responses by Hoadly to Hickes’s work. Whereas his pamphlet of 1716, A Preservative against the Principles and Practices of the Nonjurors, was ostensibly directed at nonjurors, the doctrines of The Nature of the Kingdom are more general. Hoadly contrasted the practice of Christianity in the first and in the eighteenth centuries, to the detriment of the latter:

Religion, in St. James’s days, was virtue and integrity, as to our selves, and charity and beneficence to others …. By degrees it is come to signify, in most of the countries throughout the whole world, the performance of every thing almost, except virtue and charity … (p. 5).

He proceeded to develop his previous arguments by arguing that in matters of salvation, Christ was the sole law-giver to His subjects and judge of their behaviour, without human viceregents (p. 11). He further argued that Christian rewards and punishments referred to a future state, such that the application of temporal rewards and punishments was contrary to the interests of true religion.

Hoadly’s sermon was embraced as justifying ideologically the repeal of the Test Act, by which only members of the Church of England were eligible to hold public office. But many churchmen thought that Hoadly’s doctrines denied authority to the visible church and thus undermined the position of the Church of England. The controversy in which Hoadly played so prominent a role not only reinforced divisions between high and low churchmen, but saw the fracturing of the low church alliance which had been popular during Queen Anne’s reign.

This copy of The Nature of the Kingdom is one of just six copies of this edition recorded within the United Kingdom (ESTC). It is one of numerous pamphlets previously owned by former Bishop of London Beilby Porteus (1731-1809), whose collection at Senate House Library also includes other works by Hoadly or responding to his writings.

This blog post was drafted by James Edmonds, a placement student at Senate House Library from Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia.

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