What should a reader make of this “proof,” with its shallow, silly, and shocking arguments? Why would Swift defend nominal Christianity? Have Christianity and the Church of England been defended? One way of approaching an answer is to consider the historical context. In 1708, when the Argument Against Abolishing Christianity was written, Swift was in England representing the interests of the Irish (Anglican) Church. At this time the Whig government was considering relaxation of the Test Act, a 1673 law requiring all persons holding office to receive the Eucharist according to the rites of the Church of England. The act effectively barred Catholics and Dissenters from the government and the universities. Swift, a strong supporter of the state church, opposed the Whig position and wrote several treatises defending the established church. Some of these are straightforward; the Argument Against Abolishing Christianity is not, though it was published with the other treatises.
The work can be seen either as a cynical or purely pragmatic defense of even a nominally Christian established church (positions held by some modern scholars) or as an ironic exposure of the weakness of nominal Christianity and the real motives of the Dissenters and freethinkers eager to weaken the position of the state church. Readers later in Swift’s century tended to see it in this latter way. Some saw it as laughing readers into religion, and Samuel Johnson, a...
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