Voltaire, "On the Church of England"

Voltaire was the pen name of François–Marie Arouet (1694–1778), an Enlightenment writer known for his plays and histories and his acerbic criticism of the French Catholic Church. Although Voltaire eventually became a kind of cultural icon celebrated even by kings and ministers, he often faced harassment and persecution for his views in his early days. In Letters on England of 1733, Voltaire holds up English toleration of dissident Protestant sects as a model for the French (even though the English did not extend the same toleration to Catholics) that was republished in his Philosophical Dictionary of 1764. Despite his more positive inclinations, Voltaire’s hostility to religion inclined him to critical digs as well.


This is the country of sects. An Englishman, as a free man, goes to Heaven by whatever road he pleases.

Yet, though everyone here may serve God in his own fashion, their genuine Religion, the one in which people make their fortune, is the sect of Episcopalians, called the Church of England, or preeminently The Church. No one can hold office in England or in Ireland unless he is a faithful Anglican. This argument, in itself, a convincing proof, has converted so many nonconformists that today not a twentieth of the population lives outside the lap of the established Church.

The Anglican clergy has retained many of the Catholic ceremonies, particularly that of gathering in tithes with the most scrupulous attention. They also have the pious ambition of being the Masters.

Moreover, they work up in their flocks as much hold zeal against nonconformists as possible. This zeal was lively enough under the government of the Tories in the last years of Queen Anne, but it went no further than sometimes breaking the windows of heretical chapels; for the fury of the sects was over, in England, with the civil wars, and under Queen Anne nothing was left but the restless noises of a sea still heaving a long time after the storm. When Whigs and Tories were rending their native land as Guelphs and Ghibellines once had done, it was of course necessary that religion should become a party issue. The Tories were for episcopacy, the Whigs wanted to abolish it—but when they were on top they were content to humble it.

In the days when Harley, Earl of Oxford, and Lord Bolingbroke were having people drink the health of the Tories, the Church of England looked upon them as the defenders of its holy privileges. The lower house of convocation, which is a sort of house of commons made up of clergymen, had then some importance; at least they enjoyed the liberty of meeting, or arguing controversial points, and of now and then burning a few impious books—that is, books written against them. The ministry, which is a Whig one nowadays, does not even allow these gentlemen to hold their convocation; they are reduced, in the obscurity of their parishes, to the sad occupation of praying for a government they would not be sorry to distress. As for the bishops, who are twenty-six in all, they sit in the House of Lords in spite of the Whigs, for the old abuse of considering them the equivalent of barons still subsists; but they have no more power in the House than the ducal peers in the Parlement of Paris.

There is a clause in the oath that one must take to the state that sorely tries the Christian patience of these gentlemen: this is one's promise to be of the Church as it was established by law. There is hardly a bishop, a dean, an archdeacon, who does not think he holds his position by divine right; it is therefore highly mortifying to them to have to acknowledge that they owe everything to a miserable law made by profane laymen. A monk (Father Courayer) recently wrote a book to confirm the validity and the succession of ordinations in the Church of England. This work was condemned in France, but do you think it pleased the English ministry? Not in the least. It's of very little concern to these cursed Whigs whether the succession of bishops has been interrupted in their country or not, and whether Bishop Parker was consecrated in a tavern (as it is rumored) or in church. They prefer that bishops derive their authority from Parliament rather than from the Apostles. Lord B. says that this concept of divine right can only make tyrants in miters but that citizens are made by the law.

With regard to morals, the Anglican clergy are better ordered than those of France, and this is the reason: all clergymen are brought up in Oxford University, or in Cambridge far from the corruption of the capital. They are not called to high station in the Church until very late, and at an age when men have no other passion but avarice, if their ambition goes unfed. Positions of rank are here the reward of long service in the Church just as in the army; one does not see young fellows made bishops or colonels on leaving school. Besides, the priests are almost all married; the awkwardness they pick up in the university, and the fact that, socially, Englishmen have little to do with women, result in a bishop's ordinarily being forced to content himself with his own wife. Clergymen go to the tavern sometimes, for custom allows it; if they get drunk they do so in a serious-minded way and with perfect propriety.

That indefinable being which is neither ecclesiastical nor secular—in a word, that which is called an Abbé is a species unknown in England. Clergymen here are all reserved, by temperament, and almost all pedantic. When they learn that in France young men, who are known for their debauchery and who have been raised to the prelacy by the plots of women, make love in public, divert themselves with the composing of sentimental songs, entertain daily with long and exquisite supper parties, and go from there to beseech the light of the Holy Spirit, and boldly to call themselves the successors of the Apostles—then the English thank God they are Protestants. But they are nasty heretics, fit to be burned to Hell and back, as Master François Rabelais says. That's why I keep out of it.

These gentlemen, who also have some churches in England, have made grave airs and severe expressions all the fashion in this country. To them is owing the sanctification of Sunday in the three kingdoms. On that day it is forbidden to work and play, which is double the severity of the Catholic churches. No opera, no plays, no concerts in London on Sunday; even cards are so expressly forbidden that only the aristocracy, and those we call well-bred people, play on that day. The rest of the nation go to church, to the tavern, and to the brothel.

Although the Episcopalian and the Presbyterian are the two main sects in Great Britain, all others are welcome there and live pretty comfortably together, though most of their preachers detest one another almost as cordially as a Jansenist damns a Jesuit.

Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt. There the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Church of England man accepts the promise of the Quaker. On leaving these peaceable and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others in search of a drink; this man is on the way to be baptized in a great tub in the name of the Father, by the Son, to the Holy Ghost; that man is having the foreskin of his son cut off, and a Hebraic formula mumbled over the child that he himself can make nothing of; these others are going to their church to await the inspiration of God with their hats on; and all are satisfied.

If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other's throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.

Source: Dilworth, Ernest, PHILOSOPHICAL LETTERS: Voltaire, copyright 1961. Electronically reproduced by permission of Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 22–26.