Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Tindal, Matthew

TINDAL, Matthew (1656–1733), one of the ablest and most popular of the English deists, the son of a clergyman, was born at Beer Ferris, Devonshire, in 1656. He studied law at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he came under the influence of the High Churchman George Hickes, dean of Worcester; and in his twenty-second year he was elected fellow of All Souls College, and held his fellowship till his death. About 1685 he saw "that upon his High Church notions a separation from the Church of Rome could not be justified," and accordingly he joined the latter. But, discerning the baselessness and absurdity of Rome's claims, he returned to the Church of England at Easter 1688. In 1694 he published an Essay of Obedience to the Supreme Powers, in which he justified the Revolution against notions of passive obedience and jus divinum; in 1697 an Essay on the Power of the Magistrate and the Rights of Mankind in Matters of Religion, an able vindica tion of liberty of conscience, though he allows no right of toleration to "atheists"; and in 1698 an essay on The Liberty of the Press, a vigorous exposure of the proposal to appoint licensers of the press and a powerful plea for the free discussion of religion. The first of his two larger works, The Rights of the Christian Church associated against the Romish and all other priests who claim an independent power over it, part i., appeared anonymously in 1706 (2d ed., 1706; 3d, 1707; 4th, 1709). The book was regarded in its day as an extremely forcible defence of the Erastian theory of the supremacy of the state over the church, and at once provoked a storm of counter-argument and abuse on the part of those who maintained the independent rights and authority of the church. The law also was invoked against it, and, after several attempts to proscribe the work had failed, one against the author, publisher, and printer succeeded on 12th December 1707, and another against a bookseller for selling a copy the next day. The prosecution did not prevent the issue of a fourth edition and gave the author the opportunity of issuing A Defence of the Rights of the Christian Church, in two parts (2d ed., 1709). The book continued to be the subject of denunciation for years, and Tindal believed he was charged by Dr Gibson, bishop of London, in a Pastoral Letter, with having undermined religion and promoted atheism and infidelity,—a charge to which he replied in an anonymous tract, An Address to the Inhabitants of London and Westminster, a second and larger edition of which appeared in 1730. In this tract[1] he makes a valiant defence of the deists and of the use of reason in religious matters, and anticipates here and there his Christianity as Old as the Creation; or the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature, London, 1730 (2d ed., 1731; 3d, 1732; 4th, 1733), which was regarded by friends and foes alike as the "Bible" of deism. It was really only the first part of the whole work, and the second, though written and entrusted in manuscript to a friend, never saw the light. It was said that Dr Gibson prevented its publication. The first part made a great noise, and the answers to it were numerous, the most able being by Dr James Foster (1730), Dr John Conybeare (1732), Dr John Leland (1733), and Bishop Butler (1736). It was translated into German by J. Lorenz Schmidt (1741), and from it dates the influence of English deism on German theology. It is by this book that Tindal is now chiefly remembered; but he had probably adopted substantially the principles it expounds before he wrote his essay of 1697. He objected to be called a simple deist, and claimed the name of " Christian deist," as he held that true Christianity is identical with the eternal religion of nature. He died at Oxford on 16th August 1733.

The religious system expounded in Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation, unlike the earlier system of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, was based on the empirical principles of Locke's philosophy. It assumed the traditional deistic antitheses of external and internal, positive and natural, revelations and religions, and perpetuated at the same time the prevalent misconceptions as to the nature of religion and revelation. The system was, moreover, worked out by the purely a priori method, with all but a total disregard of the facts of religious history. It starts from the tremendous assumptions that true religion must, both from the nature of God and the nature of things, be eternal, universal, simple, and perfect; it maintains that this religion can consist of nothing but the simple and universal duties towards God and man, the first consisting in the fulfilment of the second, in other words, the practice of morality. The author's moral system is somewhat confused and inconsistent, but is essentially utilitarian. From such principles it follows necessarily that the true revealed religion can be nothing more nor less than a republication of the religion of nature or reason, and that, if Christianity is the perfect religion, it can only be that republication, and must be as old as the creation. The special mission of Christianity, therefore, was simply to deliver men from the superstition which had in course of time got mixed up with the religion of nature. True Christianity consequently must be a perfectly "reasonable service"; arbitrary and positive precepts can form no true part of it; revelation and reason can never disagree; reason must be supreme, and the Scriptures as well as all religious doc trines must submit to its tests; and only such writings can be regarded as Divine Scripture which tend to the honour of God and the good of man. Thus tested, much in the Old and the New Testaments must be rejected as defective in morality or erroneous in fact and principle. The strength of Tindal's position was the underlying conviction of the essential harmony between man's religious and rational nature, and consequently of the rationality of Christianity. Its weakness was that, like the whole religious philosophy of the time, it was founded on a total misconception of the nature of religion and of revelation, and on as complete a disregard of the course of man's religious development. Weak points in it were ably exposed by Foster, Conybeare, Butler, and others; but its radical errors needed for their complete exposure the higher conceptions of religion and religious history which were originated by Lessing, Schleiermacher, and Hegel.

See Leland, View of the Principal Deistical Writers (London, 1798); Lechler, Geschichte des Englischen Deismus (Stuttgart, 1841); Theological Review, November 1864; Hunt, Religious Thought in England from the Reformation to the End of Last Century (London, 1870–73); Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1876–80); A. S. Farrar, Bampton Lecture (1862), lect. iv.


  1. A Second Address to the Inhabitants, &c., with replies to some of the critics of that book, bears the same date, 1730, though some of the works it refers to appeared in 1731.