Conyers Middleton: Distinguished clergyman accused of being a "covert" enemy of Christianity
In 1988, Stephen Hawking suggested that if we found a physical theory to explain the universe, then "we would know the mind of God". What, if anything, he meant by this was never clear. Now, in association with Leonard Mlodinow of the California Institute of Technology, he has written a new book, entitled The Grand Design (Bantam). Yet it would seem there is no such design. God may be written out, but the more we know about the universe, the deeper the mystery of its creation. This should surprise nobody. It would not have surprised the Rev Conyers Middleton.
Middleton (1683-1750) was a Fellow of Trinity, Cambridge, and a Church of England clergyman described by Leslie Stephen as a "covert" enemy of Christianity and "one of the few divines who can fairly be accused of conscious insincerity". Despite this interesting judgment, Middleton's is not a well-known name. Indeed, he has been largely forgotten. This should now be corrected. In an essay, published for the first time in the collection History and the Enlightenment (Yale, £30), Hugh Trevor-Roper establishes his importance in the history of intellectual doubt, and demonstrates his influence on Gibbon and — two generations later — on Macaulay. A man who mattered so much to our two greatest historians deserves to be rescued from oblivion. His career was admittedly unsatisfying. Despite the patronage of Sir Robert Walpole, he never secured the preferment in the Church that he repeatedly sought. His opinions were regarded as subversive, even heretical.
Middleton's hero was Cicero, whose attitude to religion, expressed in the work De Natura Deorum, was founded in reason. That was Middleton's own position. Meanwhile, he discovered that, as Trevor-Roper puts it, "those ceremonies and forms of Catholic devotion which Protestants regarded as idolatrous were identical with, and copied from, and continuous with, those of pagan Rome." This conclusion might be regarded as a stout defence of Protestantism and the position of the Church of England.
Middleton, however, was not content to stop there. He proceeded over the last 30 years of his life to assail the Christian citadel and undermine its defences. There were three stout bastions: the Word of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Old Testament; the miracles wrought by Christ and the Fathers of the early Church, which proved that the Christian Church embodied the fulfilment of the Divine Plan for mankind; and the prophecies which prepared the way for the coming of Christ.
Moses, he decided, was a clever leader who had imposed himself on a "rude and illiterate tribe" and, to cement his position, had pretended that authority for the laws and customs he decreed had been granted him in dialogue with the Almighty. There was nothing, in Middleton's opinion, reprehensible in this. The second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, had in like manner drawn authority for the religion he had prescribed for his subjects from conversation with the nymph Egeria. But sensible men would no more believe in Moses and the Books of Genesis and Exodus than in Numa and Egeria.