Terminology Tuesday: LATITUDINARIANISM

LATITUDINARIANISM. This term describes the attitudes and opinions of those in the English church of the late 17th and 18th centuries who sought a pattern of religious belief and experience free from what were perceived as the opposing extremes of Puritan fanaticism and High Church extremism. As the name suggests, it was characterized by breadth and variety, but its most salient features were the appeal to reason as authoritative in religious questions, the pursuit of toleration and irenicism in theological and ecclesiastical debate, and a deep-seated horror of ‘enthusiasm’. The movement marks the emergence of that tendency to liberal and pluralistic opinions which is so characteristic of the broad middle ground within the Church of England (cf. Anglicanism).

The origins of Latitudinarianism can be traced back to Richard Hooker’s appeal to the light of reason as a supplementary authority to the Bible, which was taken up in the early 17th century by divines such as William Chillingworth (1602–44). The original Latitudinarians were a group including Chillingworth who were associated with Lord Falkland at Great Tew in Oxfordshire during the 1630s. The term was also applied to the Cambridge Platonists of the Interregnum because of their breadth of sympathy and rejection of the personal animosities which characterized Puritan controversial theology. However, the term is most commonly used today of a wide group of leading churchmen of the late 17th century, many of whom were disciples of the Cambridge Platonists, but who neglected their mysticismand emphasis on religious experience in favour of their appeal to reason as ‘the candle of the Lord’ in the soul. And even in this respect the Latitudinarians were less than completely faithful to their mentors, for where the Platonists saw reason as a divine light permeating the whole personality, they tended to identify it with common sense. As a result, by comparison, they appear worthy, but pedestrian and pragmatic.

The background to the emergence of Latitudinarianism was the low level of personal morality characteristic of Restoration court circles, and the rise of natural science in the intellectual world. In this context its adherents appealed to reason as a defence against what they saw as the unbridled ‘enthusiasm’ of the dissenting sects. As the counterpart of the new natural science they emphasized natural theology and the ability of the rational mind to grasp the fundamentals of religion without recourse to revelation, and this led to a tendency to formulate the faith in minimal terms. For them the basic religious motivation was the hope of immortality, and on this foundation they erected a utilitarian appeal to moral behaviour, commending religion for its advantages, as in John Tillotson’s (1630–94) sermon The Wisdom of Being Religious (London, 1664). They were opponents of all kinds of superstition and of the dogmatism which had characterized the Calvinist theology of the preceding age. Theological complexity was regarded with suspicion as a plot by divines to keep simple people from perceiving the truth, and they cultivated a preaching and writing style of dispassionate simplicity. Their preaching lacked the drama of the Puritan pulpit, but appealed to an age that had grown weary of religious controversy. Pastoral care was a high priority though its substance was of a piece with their whole approach. They knew something of the inwardness of religion, though they rejected the public expression of emotion. Like the Platonists before them, they passed on to succeeding generations less than all that they were, and their evacuation of feeling from religion was an important contribution to that emotional starvation which made the Evangelical Awakening of the mid-18th century so cathartic an experience for so many.

BibliographyG. R. Cragg, From Puritanism to the Age of Reason (Cambridge, 1950); idem, Reason and Authority in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1964); N. Sykes, From Sheldon to Secker (Cambridge, 1959); B. Willey, The Eighteenth Century Background (Harmondsworth, 1972).

Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. I. (2000). In New dictionary of theology (electronic ed., pp. 375–376). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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Mark A. Lester has been a dedicated movie reviewer since the age of 13, from the classics of the golden age to the blockbusters of the 21st century. He currently lives in the western suburbs of Chicago.

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