Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
The Argument Against Abolishing Christianity by the Irish clergyman and satirist Jonathan Swift presents itself as a case for maintaining Christianity as the official religion of England. The author undertakes this task hesitantly, acknowledging that he is going against popular opinion and the wisdom of the age. Early in the work, however, he makes it clear that he is defending only nominal Christianity; to try to restore real Christianity would be a “wild project” that would destroy wit and learning, ruin trade, and disrupt the entire frame of society.
Having thus limited the scope of his argument, the author describes and dismisses eight proposed advantages of abolishing Christianity. First, it would considerably “enlarge and establish liberty of conscience.” His reply is that nominal Christianity is useful as a subject of mockery for “great wits” who would otherwise target an important institution such as the government. A second supposed advantage is that freethinkers would no longer be required to believe things they find difficult. The response is that the English can already believe and publish whatever they please without endangering their careers or being prosecuted for blasphemy.
The third and fourth points are more pragmatic. Abolishing Christianity would free up the funds devoted to supporting ten thousand parsons plus the bishops; it would also gain another usable day in the week. The rebuttals are equally pragmatic. The income of the clergy would support only one hundred or two hundred fashionable young gentlemen, and the country needs the clergy as “restorers of our breed” rather than the sickly offspring of dissipated gentlemen. As for Sunday, its observance is no “hindrance to business or pleasure,” and churches are fine places to meet for business or gallantry or to sleep.
The author finds the fifth advantage attractive: Abolishing Christianity would eliminate the party differences “of High and Low Church, of Whig and Tory, Presbyterian and Church of England,” which interfere with the functioning of...
(The entire section is 854 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Sources for Further Study
Fox, Christopher. The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A collection of essays providing overviews of many topics related to the author, including religion.
Hoppit, Julian. A Land of Liberty? England 1689-1727. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. The chapter “Faith and Fervour” surveys the social, political, and theological conditions of the church in this era.
Phiddian, Robert. Swift’s Parody. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Discusses the Argument Against Abolishing Christianity as an instance of “open” and hence “anarchic” parody that eludes definitive interpretation.
Robertson, Mary F. “Swift’s Argument: The Fact and the Fiction of Fighting with Beasts.” Modern Philology 74 (1976): 124-141. Considers the Argument Against Abolishing Christianity in the light of Swift’s sermons and political/ecclesiastical pamphlets and offers a sophisticated reading of the work.
Rosenheim, Edward W., Jr. Swift and the Satirist’s Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. This provocative discussion of Swift’s masks sees the nominal Christian “author” as the satiric victim.