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  Joseph Butler (1692–1752), by Mr Taylor of Durham, 1750–52 Joseph Butler (1692–1752), by Mr Taylor of Durham, 1750–52
Butler, Joseph (1692–1752), moral philosopher and theologian, was born on 18 May 1692 in Wantage, Berkshire. He was the youngest among the eight children of Thomas Butler (d. 1731), variously described as a prominent cloth merchant or linen draper in the town and as ‘gentleman’ in the records of Oriel College, Oxford, on Butler's admission as an undergraduate there in 1715. Six of the children—three boys and three girls—survived infancy, and the family lived in a house now called The Priory, leased from the dean and chapter of Windsor, at the south-west corner of the parish churchyard. The eldest child, Robert, who died in 1749, helped Butler financially during the early part of his career. Robert's son Joseph was ordained by Butler in 1741, and it was this branch of the family that settled at Kirby House, Inkpen, Berkshire, and provided information about Butler's life to Thomas Bartlett, his biographer. Butler's other brother, Jonathan, and his eldest sister, Deborah, are also named by Bartlett. The Butler family was Presbyterian, part of a thriving community in Wantage with its own chapel.

Early years and education, 1692–1718

Butler stipulated in his will that all his papers should be destroyed after his death, and as he did not marry there is little surviving correspondence or manuscript evidence to provide details of his personal life. He was sent to the grammar school in Wantage, which was situated alongside the parish church, just a few yards from his home. The schoolmaster, the Revd Philip Barton, clearly had a significant influence on Butler, who was to appoint him to the living of Hutton, Essex, in 1740, although no evidence survives of the curriculum followed at the school.

It is likely that Butler originally intended to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and in 1711 or 1712 he was sent to the dissenting academy recently opened by Samuel Jones in Gloucester, which moved to Tewkesbury in 1713. Jones had been a student at Leiden and brought to his teaching a depth and range that soon gave his academy a high reputation. One of his pupils was Thomas Secker, the future archbishop of Canterbury, whom Butler met when he went to Gloucester and who was to become a significant figure in his life. Secker's autobiography attests to the range of Jones's teaching, which included study of the ancient languages, logic, mathematics, geography, and biblical studies. Through Jones's lectures on logic Butler was introduced to John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

It is clear that Butler was also reading contemporary theological texts, for it is from this time that his correspondence with Samuel Clarke dates. Clarke's Boyle lectures of 1704, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, were first published in 1705 and caused a great deal of interest, generating intense debate about the nature of God's existence, the relationship between God and space, and the immateriality of the soul. Butler was one of many who challenged Clarke on particular aspects of his argument, in a series of anonymous letters in 1713 and 1714, to which Clarke replied. The correspondence concerned matters of divine omnipresence and divine necessity. Clarke was so impressed by the perspicacity and manner of his young critic that the correspondence was published in an appendix in 1716 as Several letters to the Reverend Dr Clarke from a gentleman in Gloucestershire relating to the ‘Discourse concerning the being and attributes of God’. A French translation of A Demonstration, which included the exchange with Butler, appeared in Amsterdam in 1717. The relationship thus established with Clarke, cemented by further correspondence, was to serve Butler well in his future career.

By 1714 Butler had acquired a sound general education, together with a familiarity with contemporary philosophical and theological literature. It was at this point that he took the decision to conform to the Church of England. There is no surviving evidence to cast light on his reasons for conforming, although Secker's autobiography refers to correspondence that he himself, who had not yet conformed, had with Butler over subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles. An early biographer connected with the Butler family suggests that Butler's father tried to dissuade him from this course of action and then relented. Membership of the Church of England opened up the ancient universities to Butler and he entered Oriel College, Oxford, on 17 March 1715. After the depth and rigour of his education at Jones's academy Oxford was something of a disappointment to him. He wrote to Clarke that he had to ‘mis-spend so much time here in attending frivolous lectures and unintelligible disputations’ (30 Sept 1717, Works, 1.332), and considered the possibility of moving to Cambridge. That he stayed in Oxford may have been due to his friendship with Edward Talbot, a fellow of Oriel since 1712 and second son of William Talbot, bishop of Salisbury and, later, of Durham. Until his early death, in 1720, Talbot did much to advance the prospects of Butler and, later, Secker and their mutual friend Martin Benson. Butler graduated BA from Oriel on 11 October 1718, and on 26 October was ordained deacon by William Talbot. His ordination to the priesthood, again by Talbot, took place on 21 December 1718 in Clarke's church, St James's, Piccadilly.

London and Stanhope, 1718–1738

It was not long before the patronage of the Talbot family bore further fruit. After a brief period assisting Edward Talbot in the parish of East Hendred, near Wantage, at that time in the diocese of Salisbury, Butler was appointed preacher at the Rolls Chapel, in London, in 1719 by Sir Joseph Jekyll, the independently-minded whig MP and master of the rolls, on the recommendation of Bishop Talbot and Samuel Clarke. Jekyll, himself the product of a dissenting academy, was known for his sympathy with unorthodox theological opinions and was a patron of William Whiston and Thomas Chubb. The Rolls Chapel, which no longer survives, was assigned by Edward III in 1377 to the keeper of the rolls of chancery and eventually became a chapel for the legal profession as well as a record repository. The chapel, in Chancery Lane, was rebuilt by Inigo Jones in 1617, and in the early eighteenth century attracted a sophisticated congregation receptive to the careful and reasoned discourses that Butler preached to them. From his six or seven years at the Rolls Chapel only the Fifteen Sermons, published in 1726 and dedicated to Jekyll, survive. Secker helped Butler to prepare the sermons for publication and also assisted with the clarification of Butler's argument in the preface to the second edition in 1729.

Butler was now established in London and was beginning to move in prominent ecclesiastical and legal circles. His place in the legal establishment was marked by his proceeding to the BCL degree at Oxford on 10 June 1721, and he was made a prebendary of Salisbury Cathedral in the same year. Yet he soon had additional responsibilities outside London as the patronage of the Talbots expanded. In November 1721 William Talbot was translated from Salisbury to Durham and soon took advantage of his new position to help the friends whom his son Edward had commended to him. In 1722 Bishop Talbot presented Butler to the living of Haughton-le-Skerne, near Darlington, and in 1724 presented Secker, who had now conformed and been ordained by Talbot, to the benefice of Houghton-le-Spring, providing Benson with a prebendal stall at the cathedral in the same year. Thus began Butler's long association with the diocese and county of Durham. From 1722 he began to divide the year between his living and his duties at the Rolls Chapel but was hampered by the dilapidated state of the rectory at Haughton until Secker persuaded Talbot to allow Butler to exchange the living for the richer benefice of Stanhope, in Weardale, where the income was boosted by tithes from lead mining and where the rectory was in good order. The generous income of Stanhope, where he moved in 1725, allowed Butler to resign the Rolls preachership, and he resided entirely at Stanhope until 1733, working as a diligent parish priest and writing his most famous work, the Analogy of Religion.

Very little evidence remains of the routine of Butler's life at Stanhope. He was known throughout his adult life for his modest lifestyle, his generosity with money, and his sense of obligation towards the needy, and these characteristics were probably evident in his work as a parish priest. There is evidence that he was visited in Stanhope more than once by the Seckers and the Talbots—Edward Talbot's widow, Mary, and their daughter Catherine, who lived with Secker and his wife, Benson's sister. Catherine Talbot, a future member of the Bluestocking Circle, became a close friend. Butler's father died in 1731, and Butler was joint executor of the will with his brother Robert. Much time must have been spent in the writing of the Analogy. Although written as a defence of the Christian religion against the criticisms of deist and freethinking writers such as Matthew Tindal and Anthony Collins, it is also possible to see in the Analogy a more personal attempt by Butler to position himself with respect to the influences of his youth, such as Locke and Clarke, and to debates within the Church of England in the 1720s and 1730s about the nature of Christian belief and the place of the church. For Butler, as for Secker, the breadth of his formative education, his journey from dissent to conformity, and his familiarity—through the Talbots—with thinkers and writers on the verge of heterodoxy, such as Whiston and Thomas Rundle, provided additional motivation for a statement of Christian belief that took careful account of criticisms and that was cast in an empirical mould rather than a rationalistic one.

Secker, who had become a royal chaplain in 1732 and rector of St James's, Piccadilly, in 1733, was concerned that his old friend was becoming isolated in Stanhope and commended him to Queen Caroline, the philosophically literate consort of George II. Caroline, a former pupil of Leibniz, was interested in following contemporary theological debates, summoning churchmen such as George Berkeley, Samuel Clarke, and Benjamin Hoadly to discuss theology with her. The queen expressed some surprise, thinking that Butler was dead, but the archbishop of York, Lancelot Blackburne, is believed to have replied, ‘No, Madam; but he is buried’ (Works of the Right Reverend Father in God, Joseph, Late Lord Bishop of Durham, ed. S. Halifax, 1849, 1.xlviii). An opportunity soon presented itself, in November 1733, when Charles Talbot, the elder brother of Edward, became lord chancellor. He immediately made Butler his chaplain, at Secker's suggestion, which Butler accepted on the understanding that he would continue to reside in Stanhope for half the year. Butler proceeded to the degree of DCL at Oxford on 8 December 1733, which was presumably the occasion of his presenting a silver claret jug to Oriel College.

Now that Butler and his friends were back under Talbot and royal patronage they soon succeeded to prominent positions in the church, at a time of some turbulence in its relationship with the government. A number of government measures, such as the Mortmain Bill and the Quaker's Tithe Bill, were thought to erode the status and privileges of the Church of England in favour of nonconformity and anticlericalism. The nomination of Thomas Rundle, another Talbot protégé, to the see of Gloucester in December 1733 was blocked by Edmund Gibson, bishop of London and Walpole's principal ecclesiastical adviser, on the grounds of Rundle's suspected deistic tendencies. In the event Butler's friend Benson was appointed in Rundle's place and Benson and Secker were consecrated bishop together—Secker to the neighbouring diocese of Bristol—in January 1734.

It is from about this time that there is evidence of a cooling in relations between Secker and Butler. Secker, according to his autobiography, clearly thought Butler did not sufficiently appreciate his efforts to commend him to Lord Chancellor Talbot:
on his telling me & my Wife & Mrs Talbot, how well he was in the Chancellors Family we told him how much we had suffered on account of our getting him into it; & that we had concealed it from him, to prevent his being uneasy. But we could never get him, in several Conversations which we had with him on the Subject, [to say] either that he was obliged to us, or that he was sorry for us: but he rather appeared to slight us, & take the Part of Dr Rundle & Mr William Talbot against us. (Autobiography of Thomas Secker, 15–16)
In the early years of his episcopate Secker was regarded by Walpole and others as an unreliable supporter in the House of Lords and it is possible that this caused some tension between him and Butler.

1736 was an important year for Butler. The Analogy of Religion was published in May. Again Secker had helped with the preparation of the text, ‘which cost me a great deal of time & pains’ (Autobiography of Thomas Secker, 16), improving some of the style and language. A second, corrected, edition appeared in the same year. Queen Caroline appointed Butler as her clerk of the closet—the head of her ecclesiastical household—and he administered the sacrament privately to her on 4 July 1736. His duties included daily attendance on the queen between 7 and 9 in the evening to take part in theological discussion, and necessitated the renting of lodgings near the court (both at Kensington Palace and Hampton Court). His income was boosted by his appointment on 16 July 1736, through the influence of Lord Chancellor Talbot, to a prebendal stall at Rochester Cathedral, of which he was elected vice-dean on 25 November 1738. This was the last act of Talbot patronage that Butler received: William Talbot had died in 1730 and Lord Chancellor Talbot died in December 1736.

Queen Caroline died on 20 November 1737, and it was reported by Lord Hervey that on her deathbed she commended Butler to John Potter, the archbishop of Canterbury. It is clear that in his brief tenure of office as her clerk of the closet Butler had been highly regarded by the queen and it was not long before her wishes were fulfilled. On Secker's translation to Oxford, Butler was nominated to the see of Bristol, on 19 October 1738, and consecrated in the chapel of Lambeth Palace on 3 December 1738.

Major works

By the time that he became a bishop Butler had written and published the writings that made a major contribution to philosophy and theology in the English language. The Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel and The Analogy of Religion were the fruit of the years between 1719 and 1736, although they also drew on the intellectual exploration of Butler's years in Tewkesbury and Oxford, which is evident in the correspondence with Clarke.

The Fifteen Sermons were first published in 1726, although Butler added an important preface to the second edition, in 1729, in which he says that the sermons were chosen from among his preaching output at the chapel rather than having been written as a series of discourses to argue a particular case. The book is widely accepted as one of the most significant ethical writings of the eighteenth century; in it Butler uses a searching analysis of human nature as the foundation of an ethical theory that propounds that virtue consists in following nature, while vice is deviation from nature. One of Butler's targets is the psychological egoism of writers such as Thomas Hobbes and, more recently, Bernard de Mandeville. Yet he is not an uncritical follower of the ‘moral sense’ theory of the third earl of Shaftesbury, who tended to emphasize feeling rather than reason as the basis for morality and posited an innate human capacity to distinguish virtue from vice.

In his analysis Butler puts forward an essentially hierarchical view of human nature in which the various motivational principles in the human personality are ranked and need to be integrated properly if virtuous action is to ensue. Thus conscience, implanted by God, is the most important principle, which ‘pronounces determinately some actions to be in themselves just, right, good; others to be in themselves evil, wrong, unjust’ (J. Butler, Fifteen Sermons, 2.8). Self-love and benevolence are principles that are not entirely consistently handled by Butler, although it is reasonably clear that he regards ‘cool self-love’ as superior to benevolence, which in its turn holds greater sway than particular appetites and passions such as hunger, thirst, love, and hate. The relationship between conscience and self-love is crucial in Butler's attempt to provide an account of moral behaviour that avoids the extremes of psychological egoism on the one hand and a highly abstract metaphysical system on the other. Butler the preacher is concerned to help his congregation to lead virtuous lives by stripping away the moral and intellectual confusion that may hinder them. His theological presuppositions—the existence of an ordered universe created by God and the existence of a future life—enable him to minimize the possibility of conflict between conscience and self-love, between duty and long term self-interest:
Conscience and self-love, if we understand our true happiness, always lead us the same way. Duty and interest are perfectly coincident; for the most part in this world, but entirely and in every instance if we take in the future and the whole; this being implied in the notion of a good and perfect administration of things. (ibid., 3.9)
The careful and nuanced approach to complex issues of the Fifteen Sermons is also apparent in Butler's principal contribution to contemporary theological debate, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, published in 1736. In the Analogy Butler does not attempt to create an imposing intellectual system de novo. He is, rather, the calm apologist grappling with contemporary arguments that challenged the Christian faith and dealing methodically with their errors and inconsistencies. In particular he deals with the challenge of deism, of which the principal recent expression was Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation, published in 1730. Deism cannot be presented as a clearly defined or systematic philosophy but was a term used to describe an outlook in contemporary religious thought that asserted the supremacy of reason over revelation in understanding and explaining the Christian faith. The deists, who as individuals ranged from active Christian ministers to those on the verge of atheism, typically based their estimate of religious truth on what could be known to the enquiring mind through the use of reason alone. For them reason can at best prove the existence of a God who is an impersonal and distant creator necessary for the maintenance of the laws of nature. Such central beliefs of revealed religion as the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the authority of the church are rejected by them as irrational and incoherent. Together with this intellectual critique of revealed religion goes an anticlerical attack on the power and institutions of the church and, in some instances at least, a radical political outlook.

There is some evidence that Butler engaged in correspondence, now lost, with Lord Kames during the 1730s on the evidences of natural and revealed religion. This is the subject of the Analogy, in which Butler counters the deist critique by arguing both that the investigation of nature can show us more than the deists allow—such as the existence of a future life and that this life is a time of moral probation—and that the difficulties apparent in Christian revelation are analagous to the difficulties apparent in the account of natural religion offered by the deists. Butler criticizes his opponents for setting standards of proof for revelation that are not satisfied either by the deistic beliefs that they proclaim or by a range of commonsense beliefs that they do not question. The evidence of Christianity is
the kind of evidence upon which most questions of difficulty in common practice are determined: evidence arriving from various coincidences, which support and confirm each other, and in this manner prove, with more or less certainty, the point under consideration. (J. Butler, Analogy of Religion, pt 2, chap. 7, para. 30)
Butler constantly directs attention to the way that we ordinarily think and insists that we cannot and should not proceed differently in matters of religion. In religion as in ordinary life what is needed for reasonable belief is not certainty but enough probability to warrant action. The arguments about the need to rely on probabilities—‘probability is the very guide of life’—and the necessity of deciding in practice between alternatives that can none of them be proved beyond doubt have a more general application than Butler's particular argument with the deists.

Butler appended two dissertations, ‘Of personal identity’ and ‘Of the nature of virtue’, to the Analogy, the first of which has become influential, arguing against Locke and others for the existence of a real identity throughout a person's life. The second, originally intended to form part of the main text of the Analogy, clarifies Butler's account of the role of conscience by placing it in the realm of God's providence and so restricting its sphere of authority.

Bishop of Bristol, 1738–1750

Butler did not greet his preferment to Bristol with unalloyed enthusiasm. Writing to Robert Walpole on receiving the news that he was to be appointed to Bristol he commented: ‘Indeed, the bishoprick of Bristol is not very suitable either to the condition of my fortune, or the circumstances of my preferment; nor, as I should have thought, answerable to the recommendation with which I was honoured’ (Bartlett, 73–4). Bristol was the poorest diocese in England, yielding an annual income of between £300 and £450 for much of the eighteenth century, insufficient for Butler's needs. He therefore retained his incumbency at Stanhope, which provided an income almost twice that of Bristol, and his prebendal stall at Rochester. In addition to Bristol and Stanhope, however, he had to maintain a household in London during parliamentary sessions, which he did by hiring lodgings. It was not until 1740 that a convenient solution was found and Butler was appointed to the deanery of St Paul's Cathedral, where he was installed on 24 May 1740, providing him with a realistic income and a house in London. He was then able to resign from his posts at Stanhope and Rochester.

It is unlikely that Butler took up residence in Bristol until after the parliamentary session of 1739, which ended on 14 June. He conformed to contemporary practice and resided in his diocese during the summer months and on other special occasions, moving to London in the autumn for the parliamentary session. After the first two or three years of his episcopate his normal custom was to come to London in mid-October and stay there until the end of June, moving back to his diocese for three months or so in the summer. Incumbents who wished to be instituted to their livings had therefore in many cases to travel to London to go through the formalities with their bishop—until 1740 in St James's, Piccadilly, and latterly in the deanery of St Paul's. On occasion such duties were carried out in Bristol by the bishop's commissary.

The diocese of Bristol consisted of the deanery of Bristol, roughly coterminous with the city, and the county of Dorset. Bristol was the second city and second port in the kingdom. Its port dominated the Irish and West Indian trade and was the principal centre for the slave trade, though there was a marked decline in the volume of trade during the middle years of Butler's episcopate. The city had an active civic and social life with a prosperous merchant community and a growing working population on the margins of the city, who provided a willing congregation for George Whitefield and John Wesley from 1739 onwards. The evidence suggests that Butler was among the more diligent of eighteenth-century bishops in the regularity of his ordinations, visitations, and confirmations. Surviving records suggest a primary visitation of the diocese in 1739 or 1740, and further visitations in 1743, 1746, and 1749, a triennial pattern of visitations that matched the requirements of canon law.

An eighteenth-century bishop was expected to provide hospitality both to his clergy and to the leading citizens of the diocese. As Butler's later practice in Durham was to keep open house three days a week it is probable that he instituted a similar regime in Bristol, particularly when he was able to use his income from the deanery of St Paul's to refurbish his palace. His relations with the mercantile community were good and he received a gift of cedar wood from the merchants of Bristol, some of which he used in the renovation of his chapel and the rest he took to Durham, where it was later used by Bishop Barrington for furniture.

An important intermediary in Butler's relations with the city of Bristol was Josiah Tucker, whom Butler made his domestic chaplain. Tucker was Butler's frequent companion—he later wrote of Butler's habit of taking nocturnal walks in the garden of the bishop's palace—and was, like his bishop, closely involved in the development of the new Bristol Infirmary, for which Butler preached a sermon, now lost, in 1747. It was a sermon by Tucker that triggered a series of meetings between Butler and John Wesley in August 1739, at one of which Butler said to Wesley, ‘Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing’ (H. Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast, 2nd edn, 1992, 209). Butler's attempts to respond to the increasing activity of the Methodists in Bristol took a number of forms. He prompted Tucker to write a pamphlet, A Brief History of the Principles of Methodism, one of the most balanced and perceptive of the many attacks on Methodism at the time. The popularity of Wesley and Whitefield in the mining area of Kingswood Chase also convinced Butler that something should be done for the unchurched working people on the margins of Bristol society. He therefore spent time and money, buying the land himself for £400, to secure the necessary financial and parliamentary support for the establishment of the new parish and church of St George, built after he had left Bristol.

As a bishop of the Church of England, Butler had a seat in the House of Lords and sat in fourteen parliamentary sessions, from February 1739 to March 1752. After the first session, when he was frequently in the house, his attendance record was not notably regular or frequent. In every other session, with the exception of 1742–3, he was absent more often than he was present, with attendance tailing off in the second half of his episcopate. The king's ministers sought to appoint to the bench of bishops those who would provide political support for the government. On the whole the bishops were compliant with ministerial pressure of this kind and were usually to be relied upon in the lobby. Butler was among the more compliant and usually voted with the government when he was present, although he joined Secker, Benson, and two other bishops to vote against the Spirituous Liquors Bill on 25 February 1743. However, this was an unusual act of opposition and Secker was later to contrast Butler's support for the government with his own more principled stance:
As my Favour with the Court & Ministry declined, his [Butler's] friendship did. He said to me, at the End of the first Session, in which he sat in the House of Lords [1739], that the ministers were both wicked Men & wicked Ministers. Yet he not only always voted with them, but expressed Contempt & Dislike of me for doing otherwise: & never, that I could hear, spoke a Word by way of Apology for me to any other Person. (Autobiography of Thomas Secker, 22)
That Butler's consistent support for the government was part of a carefully considered political stance is probable; his sermons display a sophisticated and nuanced support for the status quo and a characteristic horror of political disorder, the prospect of which was raised by events such as the Jacobite rising of 1745. At the same time many junior bishops in the eighteenth century recognized the spur of ministerial pressure as an incentive to preferment. As clerk of the closet after 1746 Butler was once again a member of the royal household, and in contention for promotion to a wealthier and more significant see.

Another body with which Butler had a connection was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). His attendance at the monthly meetings between November 1738 and December 1750 was erratic but he left the society £500 in his will and took a close interest in its affairs. A particular cause in which the SPG was involved in the late 1740s and early 1750s was the proposal to introduce the episcopate in the American colonies, and Butler was one of a number of bishops to present suggestions. His scheme, dating from 1750, was very cautious and would only have given bishops spiritual jurisdiction over their clergy and not civil powers over the large dissenting population. Yet it was not possible to win the support of Newcastle's government for any of the proposals, and the episcopate was not established until after American independence.

An important feature of Butler's public ministry as a bishop was the preaching of sermons before public institutions, many of which had an annual sermon or sermons. His Six Sermons on Public Occasions, published in a collected edition in 1749, were preached in London churches between 1738 and 1749, forming a small fraction of his preaching output as bishop. Of the six sermons three are concerned with the responsibility for charitable giving, two—preached before the House of Lords, in 1741 and 1747—raise questions about political society, while the first addresses the mission of the church. They display the same characteristics as his other writing: a cautious approach to the complexity of the issues, an awareness of the other side of the argument, and careful attention to criticisms that have been raised. Butler sees his teaching function as a bishop as being to strengthen the religious cement that holds a civilized society together and provides it with shared assumptions and a common moral discourse. He stresses the need to steer a middle course—of true religion, rather than atheism on the one hand or superstition on the other; and of civil liberty—that ‘severe and … restrained thing’ (J. Butler, Six Sermons, 3.17)—rather than tyranny or licentiousness. And he is acutely aware of the danger of disorder whenever people stray from the middle way, both religiously and socially; the danger of excess is a constant theme of his preaching, as it is of his writing.

Bishop of Durham, 1750–1752

By the late 1740s Butler's name was being mentioned in connection with a number of episcopal appointments and his appointment as clerk of the closet in 1746, which involved more frequent attendance at court, was an indication of the regard in which he was held by George II. When Edward Chandler, who had succeeded Butler's old patron William Talbot as bishop of Durham in 1730, died on 20 July 1750 Butler was rapidly nominated to the vacant see. The appointment was confirmed in October and Butler did homage and was enthroned by proxy at Durham on 9 November. However, he did not take possession of the see until the following June, and died only a year later. Butler's characteristic scrupulousness had threatened to delay the appointment. He objected to Newcastle's wish to detach the bishopric from the lord lieutenancy of the county palatine and said that he would not accept the bishopric on those terms. He also resisted Newcastle's attempt to appoint Thomas Chapman to a prebendal stall at Durham lest Chapman's appointment should be seen as a condition of his own preferment. His apprehension was expressed in a letter to a friend:
It would be a melancholy thing in the close of life, to have no reflections to entertain oneself with, but that one had spent the revenues of the bishoprick of Durham, in a sumptuous course of living, and enriched one's friends with the promotions of it, instead of having really set one's self to do good, and promote worthy men. (Bartlett, 116)
When his appointment was announced it was thought that Butler was ‘a man of unexceptionable character in private life’ who would ‘be much loved in the County’ (Shuler, 116). His arrival in Durham on 28 June 1751 was a happy occasion, with its attendant official dinners and social functions. Butler then immediately began the primary visitation of his new diocese, which covered the counties of Durham and Northumberland—a gruelling schedule of travel with occasional periods of rest. Starting in Newcastle on 17 July he travelled as far north as Berwick before returning to Durham on 27 July. The visitation of the deaneries in co. Durham was completed in August.

The middle of the eighteenth century saw the church in the diocese of Durham under severe pressure. Decaying buildings, especially in Northumberland, and significant population changes demanded a level of flexibility of response that it proved very difficult to provide. Wesley's activity in Durham and Northumberland between 1742 and 1753 increased the pressure on the established church and its leaders, prompting the long-serving archdeacon of Northumberland, Thomas Sharp, to report on the ‘visible decay of religion’ (Shuler, 204) in his archdeaconry by 1752. It was this sense of decay and of a growth in scepticism about the claims of the Christian religion that had fuelled much of Butler's preaching over the previous decade and was the context for his primary visitation charge of 1751, one of the most significant pastoral documents written by a member of the eighteenth-century episcopate.

The Butler of the 1751 Charge to the Clergy of the Diocese of Durham is the Butler of the confrontation with Wesley: wary of religious enthusiasm; reticent in his own articulation of the Christian faith, which is not a matter for common conversation; aware of the part played by external forms of religion in generating a settled and confident faith. It is not that he doubts the truth of what he preaches but that he is acutely aware of the risks involved in communicating a religion, the evidence for which ‘is complex and various’ (J. Butler, Charge, para. 5), to an audience with the alarming capacity to misinterpret the message. This concern lies behind his practical suggestions about handling religious subjects when they arise in conversation and his conviction that sermons are inappropriate vehicles for open theological speculation. Butler's aim is to encourage his clergy to make constructive use of the opportunities available to them to press the claims of the Christian religion on a sceptical, or simply apathetic, society. He is aware of the difficulty of the task, as he states at the beginning of the Charge:
It is impossible for me, my brethren, upon our first meeting of this kind, to forbear lamenting with you the general decay of religion in this nation; which is now observed by every one, and has been for some time the complaint of all serious persons. (ibid., para. 1)
This is not, however, a situation in which to despair. Butler stresses the absurdity of taking ‘the supposed doubtfulness of religion for the same thing as proof of its falsehood’ (ibid., para. 4). The author of the Analogy is well equipped to expose the slipshod thinking of those who demand knock-down proofs of religious truth. It is in conscientious pastoral practice that the clergy should be engaged. This will be difficult. Some parishes are very large, many people will resist the kind of serious conversation in which Butler wishes his clergy to engage them, and many parents will not be interested in their children's welfare. However, the task is sufficiently important to be persevered with.

As in Bristol, Butler was concerned with the social and charitable aspects of Christian witness. His interest in charity schools stood out among eighteenth-century bishops of Durham and he maintained his support for the hospital movement. On 5 September 1751, as its grand visitor, he laid the foundation stone of the new infirmary in Newcastle. The sermon that he had preached before the governors of the London Hospital in 1748 was reprinted in Newcastle, together with a covering letter from Butler to Archdeacon Sharp, as a way of raising interest and money for the infirmary. In the initial list of subscribers his was the most generous gift: £100 a year for five years and then £20 a year for life. He was to leave the infirmary £500 in his will.

Butler continued the tradition of episcopal hospitality and generosity that he had established at Bristol. He kept open house at Auckland Castle or Durham Castle, his two residences, for three days a week. He was always happy to retire to Auckland Castle, where the extensive park gave him some escape from the rigours of his work, ‘my Park being a favourite article with me as, before I had one, my garden was’ (Shuler, 119). His time there saw the addition of the South Park and the rebuilding of the garden wall; ‘Butler's Steps’ still survive in the castle. There is a charming tradition, too, that Butler, when tired, sat in the chapel at Auckland Castle, listening to the organ being played by his secretary. He also had work done at Durham Castle, in particular the decoration of the dining room in the Strawberry Hill Gothic style. Butler's generosity to those in need became legendary also, with much of his greatly increased income—Durham was the second wealthiest see in the Church of England—being spent on worthy causes. It was not in his nature to be profligate, however, and generosity with his own income went hand in hand with a firm and shrewd oversight of diocesan property.

Death and influence

Only four months after his arrival in Durham Butler returned to London, to Vane House, the house in Hampstead that he bought after leaving the deanery of St Paul's, for the new session of parliament, which began on 14 November 1751. There is no evidence that he ever returned to Durham. He sat in the House of Lords on only eight occasions during the session, which ended on 26 March 1752—an indication of his declining health. He wrote his will on 22 April, added a codicil on 25 April, and by the end of May his health was causing sufficient concern to his doctors for a visit to Bath to be recommended. He arrived there on 3 June, having stayed for two nights at Cuddesdon, with Secker, on the way. Although it was Secker's impression that Butler was not alarmed by his condition he deteriorated rapidly, displaying the symptoms of acute liver disease. Benson reported to Secker on 12 June that Butler's case was hopeless. He died in Bath on 16 June, attended by his chaplain, Nathaniel Forster.

Butler's last days were a harrowing time for his friends. Benson interrupted his diocesan duties to visit Butler at least once, and he and the fretful and exhausted Forster kept Secker in constant touch with Butler's progress, detailing the treatment prescribed, agonizing over the adequacy of the medical attention, coping with those of Butler's relatives who were present, and making tentative arrangements for the funeral. Benson found his leave-taking exceptionally painful and it was left to Forster to announce tersely to Secker: ‘This morning about eleven o'clock my best of Friends exchang'd this life for a far better’ (LPL, MS 1373, fols. 18–19). Butler's body was taken to Bristol, where it was buried in the chancel of the cathedral (now the lesser lady chapel) on the afternoon of 20 June 1752. The news of his death did not reach Durham until three days after the funeral, although it had been known that he was beyond recovery. At ‘about 6 the great bell in the Abbey tolled a short space on account of the bishop's death’ (Gyll, 191). At Bristol Butler is commemorated by a memorial with an inscription by Robert Southey, and at Durham by a late nineteenth-century memorial in the choir with an inscription by W. E. Gladstone.

Butler's defence of the external forms of religion in the Durham Charge was attacked by Francis Blackburne in A Serious Enquiry into the Use and Importance of Religion (1752). The Charge, together with Butler's refurbishment of his chapel at Bristol and the use of stained glass at Vane House, later led to a rumour that he had died a Roman Catholic. This occasioned a flurry of pamphlet and periodical exchanges in 1767 into which Secker, by now archbishop of Canterbury, was drawn in order to issue an authoritative refutation.

Butler left an intellectual legacy that was refracted through many different lenses. Ten editions of the Analogy were published in England, and five in Scotland, during the eighteenth century, while there were six English editions of the Fifteen Sermons, three of which were combined with the Six Sermons. During his lifetime Butler's work had attracted the attention of Kames and of Hume, who sent Butler a copy of his Treatise on Human Nature and tried to meet him. It was also reviewed in the learned journals of the time. The Scottish dimension was particularly significant, as Butler took his place in the debate about the relationship between religion and ethics generated by Shaftesbury's followers and their critics. In this context his influence on Francis Hutcheson, Kames, David Fordyce, Thomas Reid, and Adam Smith was pervasive. In England his moral philosophy had a marked influence on the work of David Hartley, who was a friend, and Richard Price, while the Analogy continued to attract attention in theological discussion. The German theologian J. J. Spalding translated the Analogy in 1756 and used it to defend the Lutheran church against the attacks of secularist critics while also distancing himself from the conservative pietism of many contemporary German clergy.

It was in the nineteenth century that Butler's influence became more institutionalized, as his work appeared on university syllabuses in Oxford and Cambridge from the 1830s, with R. D. Hampden in Oxford and William Whewell in Cambridge as influential proponents. John Henry Newman famously described Butler as ‘the greatest name in the Anglican Church’ (J. H. Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, 1959, 103) and wrote appreciatively of his influence. Yet Butler was also read outside university circles. Samuel Taylor Coleridge introduced William Hazlitt to Butler's work in 1798 and Hazlitt, who gave a public lecture on Butler, was later to write:
the Analogy is a tissue of sophistry, of wire-drawn, theological special-pleading; the Sermons (with the Preface to them) are in a fine vein of deep, matured reflection, a candid appeal to our observation of human nature, without pedantry and without bias. (A. C. Grayling, The Quarrel of the Age, 2000, 56)
Coleridge's enthusiasm for Butler was influential in Cambridge and was also apparent in the work of F. D. Maurice.

Given that both the Analogy and the Fifteen Sermons had become set texts it is not surprising that many editions appeared during the nineteenth century and that they were translated into a number of languages. This was also the century of important collected editions of Butler's Works—most notably those by W. E. Gladstone (1896) and J. H. Bernard (1900)—and a number of books about Butler, culminating in W. A. Spooner's study (1901). Gladstone's edition was the culmination of a lifetime's enthusiasm for Butler, whose Analogy he had read as a set text at Oxford and whose thought provided him with a framework for his understanding of personal and political conduct as well as the relationship of Christianity to the modern world. His Studies Subsidiary to the Works of Bishop Butler (1896) was published as a companion volume to the Works and contained some material originally written in 1845, offering a somewhat conservative and defensive account of Butler's significance. Gladstone had earlier written to his son about Butler: ‘I place him before any other author, the spirit of wisdom is in every line’ (D. Lathbury, ed., Correspondence on Church and Religion of W. E. Gladstone, 1910, ii, 163).

Despite a period of relative decline in its reputation in the middle of the twentieth century Butler's moral philosophy continues to attract attention in the Anglo-American literature, not least because of his acute psychological insight into the human condition. If many of his theological preoccupations and strategies are now regarded as outdated, theologians and philosophers of religion are taking a greater interest in what might be extracted from his apologetic methodology and applied more generally, particularly in the use of probabilistic arguments. Spooner's judgement that Butler was apart from his own time in his life and modes of thinking, and was therefore misunderstood by his contemporaries, hints at the allure of a figure whose subtlety of thought and seriousness of purpose continue to attract attention.

Christopher Cunliffe


The works of Bishop Butler, ed. J. H. Bernard, 2 vols. (1900) · T. Bartlett, Memoirs of the life, character and writings of Joseph Butler (1839) · E. Steere, ed., The sermons and remains of … Joseph Butler (1862) · E. C. Mossner, Bishop Butler and the age of reason (1936) · T. Penelhum, Butler (1985) · C. Cunliffe, ed., Joseph Butler's moral and religious thought (1992) · DNB · I. Rivers, Reason, grace, and sentiment: a study of the language of religion and ethics in England, 1660–1780, 2 (2000) · J. C. Shuler, ‘The pastoral and ecclesiastical administration of the diocese of Durham, 1721–1771: with particular reference to the archdeaconry of Northumberland’, PhD diss., U. Durham, 1975 · The autobiography of Thomas Secker, archbishop of Canterbury (1988) · W. A. Spooner, Bishop Butler (1901) · J. B. Schneewind, The invention of autonomy: a history of modern moral philosophy (1998) · S. Clarke, A demonstration of the being and attributes of God and other writings, ed. E. Vailati (1998) · institution book, 1739–61, Bristol RO, EP/A/5/1/2 · 1746 visitation process, Bristol RO, EP/V/1 · confirmation schedule, Bristol RO, EP/A/21/1 · correspondence of Benson and Forster to Secker, LPL, MS 1373, fols. 5–24 · LPL, SPG papers, vols. 3–5 · will, U. Durham L., SGD 35/14 [copy] · W. M. Jacob, The making of the Anglican church worldwide (1997) · JHL, 25–7 (1736–52) · D. E. White, A Butler bibliography (privately printed, 1993) · J. G. A. Pocock, ‘Josiah Tucker on Burke, Locke, and Price’, Virtue, commerce, and history (1985) · G. Shelton, Dean Tucker and eighteenth-century economic and political thought (1981) · N. Hope, German and Scandinavian protestantism, 1700–1918 (1995) · T. Gyll, ‘Diary’, Six north country diaries, ed. [J. C. Hodgson], SurtS, 118 (1910) · VCH Berkshire, vol. 2 · H. C. G. Moule, Auckland Castle: a popular history and description (1918)


BL, letters and other papers, Add. MSS · U. Durham L., department of palaeography and diplomatic, papers · U. Durham L., register |  Bristol RO, Bristol diocesan records · LPL, letters; SPG minute books


attrib. W. Fayram, oils, c.1730, Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland, co. Durham · J. Vanderbank, oils, 1732, Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland, co. Durham · T. Hudson, oils, c.1740; formerly at Kirby House, Inkpen, Berksire · Mr Taylor of Durham, oils, 1750–52, Newcastle Infirmary; various versions · Mr Taylor of Durham, oils, another version, 1750–52, Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland, co. Durham [see illus.] · British school, oils, 1751–1752?, Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland, co. Durham; repro. in Cunliffe, ed., Joseph Butler's … thought · R. Cooper, stipple engraving, 1816 (after W. Fayram), BM · oils (as young man), Magd. Oxf.

Wealth at death  

£9000–£10,000: will, U. Durham, department of palaeography and diplomatic, SGD 35/14