The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 3/The Examiner, Number 42


THURSDAY, MAY 24, 1711.

Delicta majorum immeritus lues,
Romane, donec templa refeceris,
Ædesque labentes deorum.

You of your father's crimes the guilt shall bear,
Unless the sacred temples you repair.

SEVERAL letters have been lately sent me, desiring I would make honourable mention of the pious design of building fifty churches in several parts of London and Westminster, where they are most wanted, occasioned by an address of the convocation to the queen, and recommended by her majesty to the house of commons; who immediately promised they would enable her to accomplish so excellent a design, and are now preparing a bill accordingly. I thought to have deferred any notice of this important affair until the end of this session; at which time, I proposed to deliver a particular account of the great and useful things, already performed by this present parliament. But, in compliance to[1] those who give themselves the trouble of advising me, and partly convinced by the reasons they offer, I am content to bestow a paper upon a subject that indeed so well deserves it.

The clergy, and whoever else have a true concern for the constitution of the church, cannot but be highly pleased with one prospect in this new scene of public affairs. They may very well remember the time, when every session of parliament was like a cloud hanging over their heads: and if it happened to pass without bursting into some storm upon the church, we thanked God, and thought it a happy escape until the next meeting; upon which we resumed our secret apprehensions, although we were not allowed to believe any danger. Things are now altered; the parliament takes the necessities of the church into consideration, receives the proposals of the clergy met in convocation, and amid all the exigencies of a long expensive war, and under the pressure of heavy debts, finds a supply for erecting fifty edifices for the service of God. And it appears by the address of the commons to her majesty upon this occasion, (wherein they discovered a true spirit of religion) that applying the money granted to accomplish so excellent a design, would, in their opinion, be the most effectual way of carrying on the war; that it would (to use their own words) be a means of drawing down blessings on her majesty's undertakings, as it adds to the number of those places, where the prayers of her devout and faithful subjects will be daily offered up to God, for the prosperity of her government at home, and the success of her arms abroad.

I am sometimes hoping, that we are not naturally so bad a people, as we have appeared for some years past. Faction, in order to support itself, is generally forced to make use of such abominable instruments, that as long as it prevails, the genius of a nation is overpressed, and cannot appear to exert itself; but, when that is broken and suppressed, when things return to the old course, mankind will naturally fall to act from principles of reason and religion. The Romans, upon a great victory or escape from publick danger, frequently built a temple in honour of some god, to whose peculiar favour they imputed their success or delivery; and sometimes the general did the like, at his own expense, to acquit himself of some pious vow he had made. How little of any thing resembling this has been done by us after all our victories! And perhaps, for that reason among others, they have turned to so little account. But what could we expect? We acted all along as if we believed nothing of a God, or his providence; and therefore it was consistent to offer up our edifices only to those, whom we looked upon as givers of all victory, in his stead.

I have computed that fifty churches may be built, by a medium, at six thousand pounds for a church, which is somewhat under the price of a subject's palace; yet perhaps the care of above two hundred thousand souls, with the benefit of their prayers for the prosperity of their queen and country, may be almost put in the balance with the domestick convenience, or even magnificence, of any subject whatsoever.

Sir William Petty, who, under the name of captain Graunt, published some observations upon the bills of mortality above five years after the Restoration, tells us, the parishes in London were even then so unequally divided, that some were two hundred times larger than others. Since that time, the increase of trade, the frequency of parliaments, the desire of living in the metropolis, together with that genius for building which began after the fire, and has ever since continued, have prodigiously enlarged this town on all sides where it was capable of increase; and those tracts of land built into streets, have generally continued of the same parish they belonged to while they lay in fields; so that the care of about thirty thousand souls has been sometimes committed to one minister, whose church would hardly contain the twentieth part of his flock: neither, I think, was any family in those parishes obliged to pay above a groat a year to their spiritual pastor. Some few of those parishes have been since divided; in others were erected chapels of ease, where a preacher is maintained by general contribution. Such poor shifts and expedients, to the infinite shame and scandal of so vast and flourishing a city, have been thought sufficient for the service of God and religion, as if they were circumstances wholly indifferent.

This defect, among other consequences of it, has made schism a sort of necessary evil; there being at least three hundred thousand inhabitants in this town, whom the churches would not be able to contain, if the people were ever so well disposed: and in a city, not overstocked with zeal, the only way to preserve any degree of religion, is to make all attendance upon the duties of it as easy and cheap as possible: whereas, on the contrary, in the larger parishes, the press is so great, and the pew-keepers tax so exorbitant, that those who love to save trouble and money, either stay at home, or retire to the conventicles. I believe there are few examples, in any christian country, of so great a neglect of religion; and the dissenting teachers have made their advantage largely by it, sowing tares among the wheat while men slept, being much more expert at procuring contributions, which is a trade they are bred up in, than men of a liberal education.

And to say truth, the way practised by several parishes in and about this town, of maintaining their clergy by voluntary subscriptions, is not only an indignity to the character, but has many pernicious consequences attending it; such a precarious dependance subjecting a clergyman, who has not more than ordinary spirit and resolution, to many inconveniences, which are obvious to imagine[2]; but this defect will no doubt be remedied by the wisdom and piety of the present parliament; and a tax laid upon every house in a parish for the support of their pastor. Neither indeed can it be conceived, why a house, whose purchase is not reckoned above one third less than land of the same yearly rent, should not pay a twentieth part annually (which is half tithe) to the support of the minister. One thing I could wish, that in fixing the maintenance to the several ministers in these new intended parishes, no determinate sum of money may be named; which, in all perpetuities, ought by any means to be avoided; but rather a tax in proportion to the rent of each house, although it be but a twentieth, or even a thirtieth part. The contrary of this, I am told, was done in several parishes of the city after the fire, where the incumbent and his successors were to receive for ever a certain sum; for example, one or two hundred pounds a year. But the lawgivers did not consider, that what we call at present one hundred pounds, will not in process of time have the intrinsick value of twenty; as twenty pounds now, are hardly equal to forty shillings, three hundred years ago. There are a thousand instances of this all over England, in reserved rents applied to hospitals, in old chiefries, and even among the clergy themselves, in those payments which, I think, they call a modus.

As no prince had ever better dispositions than her present majesty for the advancement of true religion, so there never was any age that produced greater occasions to employ them on. It is an unspeakable misfortune, that any design of so excellent a queen should be checked by the necessities of a long and ruinous war, which the folly or corruption of modern politicians have involved us in, against all the maxims whereby our country flourished so many hundred years: else, her majesty's care of religion, would certainly have reached even to her American plantations. Those noble countries, stocked by numbers from hence, whereof too many are in no very great reputation for faith or morals, will be a perpetual reproach to us, until some better care be taken for cultivating christianity among them. If the governors of those several colonies were obliged, at certain times, to transmit an exact representation of the state of religion in their several districts, and the legislature here would, in a time of leisure, take that affair under their consideration, it might be perfected wiih little difficulty, and be a great addition to the glories of her majesty's reign.

But, to wave farther speculations upon so remote a scene, while we have subjects enough to employ them on at home; it is to be hoped the clergy will not let slip any proper opportunity of improving the pious dispositions of the queen and kingdom, for the advantage of the church; when, by the example of times past, they consider how rarely such conjunctures are likely to happen. What if some method were thought on toward the repairing of churches; for which there is likely to be too frequent occasion; those ancient Gothic structures throughout this kingdom going every year to decay? That expedient of repairing or rebuilding them by charitable collections, seems in my opinion not very suitable either to the dignity and usefulness of the work, or to the honour of our country; since it might be so easily done, with very little charge to the publick, in a much more decent and honourable manner, while parliaments are so frequently called. But these, and other regulations, must be left to a time of peace, which I shall humbly presume to wish may soon be our share, however offensive it may be to any, either abroad or at home, who are gainers by the war.

  1. It should be in compliance 'with' those, &c.
  2. 'Which are obvious to imagine' it should be 'Which are obvious to be imagined.'