Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Butler, Joseph

BUTLER, JOSEPH (1692–1752), bishop of Durham, was born at Wantage 18 May 1692. He was the youngest of the eight children of a well-to-do draper who had retired from business, and occupied a house called 'The Priory,' on the outskirts of the town. The room in which the bishop was born is still shown. He was first sent to the Latin school under the Rev. Philip Barton. Long afterwards, on becoming dean of St. Paul's, he bestowed one of his first pieces of patronage, the rectory of Hutton, in Essex, upon his old schoolmaster. (According to a statement by G. Lavington in the 'Rawlinson MSS.' he was educated at St. Paul's School. The statement is made on behalf of Butler, who 'doth not care to fill up' Rawlinson's form. He 'likes not to have his life wrote while he is living.') Butler's father intended him for the presbyterian ministry. He therefore sent the boy to a dissenting academy kept by Samuel Jones at Gloucester, and afterwards at Tewkesbury. Among Butler's fellow-pupils were Seeker, afterwards archbishop, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship; Maddox, afterwards bishop of Worcester; and a well-known dissenting divine, Samuel Chandler. Jones's academy is described in a letter from Seeker to Dr. Watts (Gibbons, Memoirs of Isaac Watts (1780), p. 346). There were sixteen pupils who studied logic, Hebrew, mathematics, and classics. Butler's intellectual development is proved by the correspondence which he carried on while still at Tewkesbury with Samuel Clarke, a philosopher frequently consulted by youthful inquirers. Butler in his first letter (4 Nov. 1713) advances two objections to the arguments by which Clarke in the Boyle Lectures of 1704–5 sought to demonstrate the existence and attributes of God. Butler doubts whether it is a contradiction to assert the ‘self-existence of a finite being,’ but declares himself convinced (in his fourth letter) by Clarke's arguments. He also doubts whether it is a contradiction to suppose the existence of two independent self-existing beings. This latter difficulty, after some discussion, resolves itself into a question as to the nature of time and space; and at the close of the correspondence Butler is still in doubt. At a later period he professed himself to be fully satisfied upon this point also (Steere's Remains, p. 18). Butler did not give his name, and sent his letters to the post through his friend Secker, describing himself to Clarke as ‘a gentleman from Gloucestershire.’ [The letters are given in Butler's ‘Works’ and in Clarke's ‘Works,’ vol. ii. 1738.] He declares in the fourth that he designs ‘the search after truth as the business of his life,’ and his obvious candour and ability made a favourable impression upon Clarke, with whom he soon afterwards corresponded under his own name. He had decided to conform to the church of England, and persuaded his father, after a little trouble, to allow him to enter at Oriel, March 1714–15, to pursue the necessary studies. He expresses to Clarke his dissatisfaction with Oxford. He regrets that he is obliged to quit his divinity studies by the want of encouragement to independent thinkers (Steere's Remains, p. 12). He has made up his mind (30 Sept. 1717) to migrate to Cambridge to avoid the ‘frivolous lectures’ and ‘unintelligible disputations’ by which he is ‘quite tired out’ at Oxford (European Magazine, xli. 9). Meanwhile he had become intimate with Edward Talbot, son of the bishop of Salisbury. In 1717 Talbot became vicar of East Hendred, near Wantage; and from entries in the parish registers it appears that Butler helped him in some of his duties. Butler took his B.A. degree on 16 Oct. 1718, and the B.C.L. on 10 June 1721. He was ordained deacon and priest by Bishop Talbot at Salisbury in October and December 1718 (Rawlinson MSS. fol. 16, 144), and was appointed in July 1719, through the influence of Clarke and Talbot, to the preachership at the Rolls Chapel. His friend Talbot died in December 1720, leaving a widow and a posthumous daughter, who became the intimate friend of Mrs. Carter, and speaks with warmth of Butler's continued courtesy and kindness to her through his life (Memoirs of Mrs. Carter, i. 128). Mrs. Talbot and her daughter became inmates of Secker's family after his marriage in 1725. Talbot had on his deathbed recommended Butler and Secker (known to him through Butler) to his father, the bishop. In 1721 Butler became prebendary of Salisbury. In the same year Bishop Talbot was translated to Durham, and in 1722 gave Butler the rectory of Houghton-le-Skerne, near Darlington. Butler was still a poor man, and received money at times from an elder brother, the last sum paid being 100l. in January 1725. A taste for building, which he showed through life, led him to spend more than he could afford upon repairing the Houghton parsonage. Meanwhile Bishop Talbot had ordained Secker in 1722, and in 1724 presented him to the rectory of Houghton-le-Spring. Secker, we are told, now used his influence with the bishop, due in the first instance to Butler's friendship, by inducing him to bestow upon Butler, in 1725, the rectory of Stanhope in Weardale, known in the north as the ‘golden rectory.’ Butler then became independent for the first time; and in the autumn of 1726 he resigned his preachership, and published the celebrated ‘Fifteen Sermons.’ In the preface to the second edition, dated 6 Sept. 1729, he says that the selection of these from many others preached in the same place was ‘in great measure accidental.’ Butler led a secluded life at Stanhope, and little is known of his pursuits. A tradition, collected by Bishop Phillpotts, a successor in the living, tells us that he ‘rode a black pony, and rode very fast’ (Bartlett's Butler, p. 76), though a remoter tradition adds that he fell into reveries, and allowed his pony to graze at will (Egglestone). We are also told that he found it hard to resist the importunity of beggars, and would try to escape them by shutting himself up in his house. His main occupation must have been the composition of the ‘Analogy,’ which was published in 1736. The ‘Analogy’ is dedicated to Charles, lord Talbot, who became chancellor in 1733, ‘in acknowledgment of the highest obligations to the late Lord Bishop of Durham’ (Talbot's father) ‘and himself.’ Talbot, on becoming chancellor, had appointed Butler his chaplain, and upon this occasion Butler took the D.C.L. degree at Oxford in December 1733. Talbot further made him a prebendary of Rochester (July 1736), and the same month he had become clerk of the closet to Queen Caroline. The old connection with the Talbots might well account for these preferments, to which, however, we are told that Secker again contributed. Queen Caroline took great interest in philosophical discussions. The controversy between Clarke and Leibnitz had been carried on through her, and Clarke, Berkeley, Hoadly, and Sherlock had held conversations in her presence. Butler, as a friend of Clarke's, may have been introduced at these during his preachership at the Rolls. Secker, who in 1733 had become chaplain to the king, mentioned his friend soon afterwards to the queen, who said that she thought he had been dead. She repeated this to Archbishop Blackburne of York, who replied, ‘No, madame, he is not dead, but he is buried.’ However this may be, the queen became interested in Butler, and commanded his attendance, we are told, every evening from seven till nine. The queen died next year (20 Nov. 1737), and just before her death commended Butler to Potter, the new archbishop of Canterbury. Butler, according to Lord Hervey (Memoirs, ii. 529), was the only person whom she recommended ‘particularly and by name’ during her illness. A month later, as Secker told Jekyll, who told Dr. Thomas Wilson, son of the bishop of Man, he preached a sermon before the king upon profiting by affliction; his hearer was much affected, and promised to ‘do something very good for him’ (Steere's Remains, p. 5).

George II, in any case, desired to carry out the queen's wishes. Butler received next year an offer from Walpole of the bishopric of Bristol, from which Dr. Gooch was translated to Norwich. In a letter to Walpole (dated Stanhope, 28 Aug. 1738) Butler accepts the offer, but says that it was ‘not very suitable either to the condition of my fortune or the circumstances of my preferment, nor, as I should have thought, to the recommendation’ (that is the queen's) ‘with which I was honoured.’ The bishopric was in fact the poorest in England. Butler was allowed to hold his prebend at Rochester (resigning that at Salisbury) and his rectory at Stanhope in commendam, until 1740, when he was appointed dean of St. Paul's. He was installed 24 May, and resigned his other preferments. Butler spent considerable sums in improving the bishop's palace at Bristol; some report from three to five thousand pounds, others the whole income of the see for twelve years (Bartlett's, Butler, p. 89, (Steere's Remains). The merchants of the town offered a large gift of cedar, part of which he carried afterwards to Durham. The few glimpses of Butler's private life belong to this period. In March 1737 John Byrom was introduced to him by the famous David Hartley, at whose house they met. A long argument took place, in which Butler supported the claims of reason, while Byrom defended the claims of authority. Byrom ends by wishing that he had ‘Dr. Butler's temper and calmness, yet not quite, because I thought he was a little too little vigorous’ (Byrom's Remains (Chetham Soc.), ii. 96–9). Byrom dined with Butler 14 Feb. 1749, when the bishop entertained a party of fifteen, and was ‘very civil and courteous’ (ib. p. 486). In August 1739 Wesley had an interview with Butler. Wesley was at the beginning of his career as a preacher, and his sermons had caused some of those phenomena which to Wesley appeared to be proofs of divine power, while Butler would regard them with suspicion as symptoms of ‘enthusiasm’ in the bad sense of the word. They had caused scandal, and the bishop probably felt it a duty to remonstrate. After some argument about faith and works, Butler spoke with horror of claims to ‘extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit;’ he spoke of people falling into fits at the meetings of the society, and ended by advising Wesley to leave his diocese. Wesley declined to give any promise (Tyerman's Life of Wesley, i. 247). At Bristol, Butler made the acquaintance of Josiah Tucker, afterwards the well-known dean of Gloucester. Butler made Tucker his domestic chaplain, and gave him a prebend in the cathedral. Tucker tells us that Butler used to walk for hours in the garden behind his palace at night, and upon one such occasion suddenly asked his chaplain whether public bodies might not go mad as well as individuals, adding that nothing else could account for most of the transactions in history (Tucker's Humble Address and earnest Appeal to the Landed Interest, p. 20, note).

On the death of Archbishop Potter in 1747 an offer of the primacy was made to Butler, who had in 1746 been made clerk of the closet to the king (on the death of Egerton, bishop of Hereford). Butler is said to have declined it on the ground that ‘it was too late for him to try to support a falling church’ (Bartlett, p. 96). One of his nephews, John Butler, a rich bachelor, had previously shown his appreciation of the ‘Analogy’ by exchanging a presentation copy from his uncle for an iron vice belonging to a ‘shrewd Scotch solicitor’ named Thomson. Hearing, however, that his uncle had a chance of the archbishopric, he came up to town prepared to advance 20,000l. to meet his first expenses. In 1750 the bishopric of Durham was offered to Butler. It was proposed to him that the lord-lieutenancy of the county, previously attached to the bishopric, should be given to a layman, and that the deanery of St. Paul's to be vacated by him should be conferred upon Secker on condition that Butler should give the stall at Durham vacated by Secker to Dr. Chapman (master of Magdalene, Cambridge). Butler declined to allow the dignity of the see to be diminished by the separation of the lord-lieutenancy, or to agree to a contract which he thought simoniacal. He was accordingly appointed to the bishopric unconditionally. The arrangement, however, as to Chapman and Secker was carried into effect. The lord-lieutenancy was not separated from the bishopric till the next vacancy. A plan for establishing bishops in the American colonies was suggested at this time by Butler (Annual Register, 1765, p. 108). It came to nothing, but was noticed in a later controversy between Secker and a Dr. Mayhew, of Boston, in 1763. A contemporary reference is made in R. Baron's ‘Cordial for Low Spirits’ (1751, preface to vol. iii.) [see Baron, R.] Butler was translated to Durham in July 1750, succeeding E. Chandler. He delivered a charge in 1751 (printed in his works). In this, after speaking strongly of the ‘general decay of religion in the nation,’ and speaking of the evil effects of light conversation in promoting scepticism, he insists upon the importance of observing outward forms, of maintaining churches, and regular services, as well as impressing the people by proper personal admonitions. He speaks incidentally of the influence of outward form in strengthening the beliefs, superstitions, and religions of heathens, Mahommedans, and Catholics. This passage gave very needless offence, and in 1752 Archdeacon Blackburne published an anonymous pamphlet called ‘A Serious Enquiry into the Use and Importance of External Religion,’ &c., in which Butler was accused of a tendency to Romanism. This pamphlet was republished with Blackburne's name by R. Baron, in a collection called ‘The Pillars of Priestcraft and Orthodoxy shaken,’ and is included in Blackburne's works. It is only worth notice as partly accounting for the report afterwards spread, that Butler had died a catholic. Another circumstance which aroused the suspicions of his contemporaries was his erection in the chapel of his palace at Bristol of a slab of black marble over the altar, with an inlaid cross of white marble. It remained till the destruction of the palace in the Bristol riots of 1831.

The assertion that Butler died a catholic was made in 1767 in an anonymous pamphlet called ‘The Root of Protestant Errors Examined’ (attributed to Blackburne or Theophilus Lindsey). Secker replied in a letter to the ‘St. James's Chronicle’ (9 May), signed ‘Misopseudes,’ challenging the author to produce his authority. ‘Phileleutheros,’ the author, replied, giving no reasons beyond rumour, made probable, as he thought, by the circumstances of the Bristol cross and the Durham charge. Secker on 23 May said that he regretted the cross, but emphatically denied the truth of the rumour. Other letters appeared in the same paper, showing only that the writers were determined to believe, though without a tittle of evidence. Secker in a letter of 21 July replied, exposing sufficiently the utter groundlessness of the statement. Butler's ‘natural melancholy’ and his fondness for ‘lives of Romish saints and other books of mystic piety’ are noticed and apparently admitted by the archbishop. He says that Butler was ‘never a communicant in any dissenting assembly;’ that he attended the established worship from his early years, and became ‘a constant conformist’ from his entrance at Oxford. (A full account is given in the notes to Halifax's preface to Butler's Works, i. p. xxxiii.)

Butler does not appear to have taken any part in politics. He had been wafted to his see, says Horace Walpole, ‘in a cloud of metaphysics, and remained absorbed in it’ (George II, i. 148). He had, however, a house at Hampstead, which had once belonged to Sir Henry Vane. Butler had filled the windows with painted glass, including some figures of the apostles, presented to him by the pope, according to ‘local tradition.’ Miss Talbot describes it to Mrs. Carter as a ‘most enchanting, gay, pretty, elegant house’ (Letters of 29 Feb. and 9 April 1751). The house was sold upon his death (see Park's Hampstead, p. 269). During his short tenure of the see of Durham, Butler showed great liberality, received the principal gentry three times a week, subscribed liberally to charities, and visited his clergy. The story was told that, in answer to some application for a subscription, he asked his steward how much money he had in the house. ‘Five hundred pounds,’ was the reply; upon which the bishop bestowed the whole upon the applicant, saying that it was a shame for a bishop to have so much.

Butler's health was failing, and his physicians sent him to Bristol and afterwards to Bath, where he died on 16 June 1752. He was buried in the cathedral at Bristol. Bishop Benson (Secker's brother-in-law) and Nathaniel Forster, Butler's chaplain, were in attendance. The last tells Secker that Butler was constantly talking of writing to his old friend, even when unable to express himself clearly. By his will he left 200l. to Forster, whom he appointed executor. The balance of his estate after various bequests, including 500l. to the Newcastle Infirmary and 500l. to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, was to be distributed among his nephews and nieces. The total amount left seems to have been between 9,000l. and 10,000l. (Bartlett, 277). He also directed that ‘all his sermons, letters, and papers whatever, which are in a deal box locked, directed to Dr. Forster, and now standing in the little room within my library at Hampstead, be burnt, without being read by any one, as soon as may be after my decease.’ A writer in Nichols's ‘Literary Anecdotes’ (ix. 292) says that he has reason to know that some of Butler's manuscript sermons ‘are still (1815) in being.’

One portrait of Bishop Butler is in the Newcastle Infirmary, and was taken during his last illness. It is engraved in the Oxford edition of his works. A second was painted by Hudson for his nephew Joseph, and a third by Vanderbank in 1732, which is engraved in Bartlett's ‘Life.’ The last two were both at Kirby House, the residence of his nephew's grandson.

Butler's position in contemporary speculation was unique. The deist controversy, which culminated about 1730, is throughout in his mind, though he designedly abstains from special references. The method of abstract metaphysical reasoning applied by his early friend Clarke both to ethical and theological speculations had led to a system which tended to reduce the historical element of belief to a secondary position or to eliminate it entirely. Butler, while admitting the validity of Clarke's reasoning, adopts the different method of appealing to observation of facts (Preface to Sermons, p. vii). His ethical system is therefore psychological, or appeals to the constitution of human nature, as the ‘Analogy’ to the constitution of the world at large. In the sermons and the dissertation on ‘The Nature of Virtue’ he assails especially the egoistic utilitarianism of which Hobbes had been the great teacher in the previous age, and which was maintained both on à priori and empirical grounds. In this he follows Shaftesbury (the only writer to whom he explicitly refers), who had endeavoured to show the general harmony between virtue and happiness; but he tries to fill a gap in Shaftesbury's argument by showing the natural supremacy of conscience, and therefore the existence of moral obligation, even where self-interest is opposed to conscience. The main result of the sermons is therefore the psychological system, in which the conscience is represented as holding a supreme position by its own self-evidencing authority among the various faculties which constitute human nature; while other passions, and in particular self-love and benevolence, are independent but subordinate. The psychology, though somewhat perplexed, shows remarkable acuteness, and the argument that self-love, instead of being the sole or supreme faculty, really presupposes the existence of co-ordinate passions, is especially noteworthy. Butler greatly influenced the common-sense school of Hutcheson and his followers, who are also allied to Shaftesbury; and his influence upon Hume is perceptible, especially in Hume's admission of independent benevolent impulses, in connection with a utilitarian principle which had generally been interpreted as leading to pure egoism. Hume (it may be noticed) desired in 1737 to be introduced to Butler, and sent him a copy of the ‘Treatise on Human Nature’ on its publication in 1739. He expressed his pleasure in 1742 upon hearing that his first set of essays (which did not include those offensive to the orthodox) had been ‘everywhere recommended’ by Butler (Burton's Hume, i. 64, 106, 143).

The famous ‘Analogy’ is an endeavour to show that, as the particular frame of man reveals a supreme conscience, so the frame of nature shows a moral governor revealed through conscience. Assuming the validity of the à priori arguments for theism and the immortality of the soul, he maintains that the facts of observation fall in with the belief that this life is a probationary state where men are, as a matter of fact, under a system of government which encourages virtue as such and discourages vice, and therefore imply the probability that in a future life there will be a complete satisfaction of the claims of justice. This leads to a consideration of the problem of free will and necessity, while the second part argues for the conformity between the doctrine thus taught by fact and the nature of the christian revelation.

The impressiveness of Butler's argument, the candour of his reasonings, and the vigour and originality of his thought have been denied by no one. It is remarkable, indeed, that the greatest theological work of the time, and one of the most original of any time, produced little contemporary controversy. The only works directed against him during his life were a short and feeble tract, ‘Remarks upon Dr. Butler's sixth chapter, &c., by Philanthropus’ (Mr. Bott) [see Bott, Thomas], in 1737, and ‘A Second Vindication of Mr. Locke, wherein his sentiments relating to personal identity are cleared up from some mistakes of the Rev. Dr. Butler,’ &c., 1738, by Vincent Perronet, vicar of Shoreham. This is a sequel to a vindication of Locke against Bishop Browne, and includes an answer to Andrew Baxter. These pamphlets are worthless. Butler's contemporaries were perhaps deterred by the fear of venturing into the profundities of his argument. Hume's writings on theology, indeed, especially the essay upon ‘A Providence and a Future State,’ contain an implicit criticism of the ‘Analogy.’ At a later period the proofs of Butler's influence are abundant. To some thinkers he appears as the most profound apologist of christian theology, while others have held that his argument leads to scepticism, because, while conclusive against the optimism of the deists, it really shows only that the difficulties in revealed theology are equalled by the difficulties of natural religion. It is a retort, not an explanation, and therefore sceptical in essence. This was the view taken by James Mill, in whose mental history the study of the ‘Analogy’ was a turning point, according to his son (J. S. Mill's Autobiography, p. 38). A similar view is stated by Mr. James Martineau, who says (Studies of Christianity, p. 93) that Butler has unintentionally ‘furnished … one of the most terrible persuasives to atheism ever produced.’ A different view is expressed by Cardinal Newman, who says (Apologia, part iii.) that the study of the ‘Analogy’ formed an ‘era in his religious opinions.’ He learnt from it the view that the world is a ‘sacramental system’ in which ‘material phenomena are both the types and instruments of the things unseen;’ and he was deeply impressed by Butler's characteristic doctrine that ‘probability is the guide of life.’ Other references may be found in Mr. Hunt's ‘History of Religious Thought in England;’ Mr. Pattison's essay on the ‘Tendencies of Religious Thought in England (1688–1750);’ Hennell's ‘Sceptical Tendency of Butler's “Analogy,”’ 1865; Mr. Matthew Arnold's ‘Butler and the Zeitgeist’ in ‘Last Essays on the Church and Religion;’ and Mr. Lucas Collins's ‘Butler’ in Blackwood's ‘Philosophical Classics’.

Butler's works are:

  1. Fifteen Sermons preached at the Rolls Chapel,’ 1726 (dedicated to Sir Joseph Jekyll).
  2. ‘The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature. To which are added two brief dissertations: (1) Of Personal Identity; (2) Of the Nature of Virtue,’ 1736.
  3. Six Sermons preached upon Public Occasions,’ viz.: (1) before the Society for Propagating the Gospel, 16 Feb. 1739; (2) before the lord mayor, aldermen, and sheriffs, and the governors of the several hospitals of the city of London, Monday in Easter Week, 1740; (3) before the House of Lords, 30 Jan. 1740–1; (4) at the annual meeting of the charity children at Christ Church, 9 May 1745; (5) before the House of Lords, 11 June 1747; (6) before the governors of the London Infirmary, 31 March 1748.
  4. A Charge at the Primary Visitation of Durham in 1751.’

These, together with the correspondence with Clarke, form Butler's works. The first collected edition was published at Edinburgh in 1804. It contains a Life by Kippis from the ‘Biographia,’ and a preface and notes by Halifax, bishop of Gloucester. It has been reprinted, at Oxford in 1807 and subsequently. An edition of the ‘Analogy,’ with a careful collation of the first editions, was published at Dublin in 1860 by W. Fitzgerald, bishop of Cork. A sermon attributed to Butler was first printed in the appendix to Bartlett's ‘Life.’ An ‘Enquiry concerning Faith,’ London, 1744, has been attributed to him, but without probability (Notes and Queries, 1st ser. vi. 198). A list of writings upon the Bangorian controversy by a Mr. Herne says that ‘a letter of thanks from a young clergyman to the Rev. Dr. Hare for his visitation sermon at Putney in 1719’ was written by the author of some papers in the ‘Freethinker,’ including No. 125 (1 June 1719) upon ‘Optical Glasses.’ In the reprint of this list in Hoadly's ‘Works’ (1761) this author is identified with Butler. In all probability this is due to some confusion with Archbishop Boulter of Dublin, bishop of Bristol 1719–24, who helped Ambrose Philips in the ‘Freethinker.’

[The first Life of Butler is in the supplement to the Biog. Britannica (1753), with information from a nephew; a further Life by Kippis in his edition of the Biographia is prefixed to Butler's Works; Rawlinson MSS. fo. 16144, 8vo, v, 221, vi. 63; the Life by Thomas Bartlett (1839) gives the fullest information and refers to unpublished documents; see also Some Remains (hitherto unpublished) of Bishop Butler, 1853 (preface by E. Steere, chiefly from MSS. in the British Museum); Stanhope Memorials of Bishop Butler, by W. M. Egglestone, which adds very little; Porteus's Life of Secker; Le Neve's Fasti (Hardy), ii. 403, 584, 667.]

L. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.46
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
68 i 10 f.e. Butler, Joseph: after July insert 1719
69 i 19 f.e. after St. Paul's insert with a prebend and a residentiary canonry
18 f.e. after installed insert as dean
18-17 f.e. for his other preferments read his preferments at Rochester and Stanhope
ii 10 f.e. for 1741 read 1750