The depiction of religion in eighteenth-century English literature from Swift to Johnson

Beverly Trescott Mueller, Marquette University


The eighteenth century is often characterized as the Age of enlightenment. J. C. D. Clark argues that this characterization distorts the important place of religion in eighteenth-century England. The purpose of my dissertation was to test Clark's thesis by examining the importance of religion in secular literature. To that end, I analyzed the works of ten outstanding English authors of literature (1700-1785). References to religious themes and issues found in their works provided a measure and reflection of religious influence in society in general. A locus on the rode of religion in the authors' personal lives determined how much this influenced their writings. My research involved reading numerous works about eighteenth-century English religion, several biographies of each author, and scholarly articles and books concerning them. The dissertation begins with an extensive look at religious institutions in England (1700-1785) and includes a history of the Anglicans, the Dissenters, and the Roman Catholics. The following nine chapters concentrate on ten famous and influential authors of the period: Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele, Alexander Pope, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith, and Samuel Johnson. These particular authors were chosen because of their originality, because they truly represent the broad history of the literature of that period, and because their works have stood the test of time. Each author's chapter contains a biography which analyzes the importance of religion in his life. His works are then dissected to ascertain his views concerning six religious areas of paramount importance at that time: (1) virtue, (2) eternity, (3) bigotry, (4) use of Scripture, (5) interaction of Church and State, and (6) personal and institutionally-oriented religion. The final chapter draws comparisons of the force of religion in the ten authors' lives and works and concludes that the religious dimension in which all moved was pervasive. It is my conclusion that the secular literature of these authors reflects the omnipresence of religion in England during this era and proves J. C. D. Clark correct when he suggests that too many of today's historians view the eighteenth century as essentially modern and miss the religious aura in which the English person moved.

Recommended Citation

Mueller, Beverly Trescott, "The depiction of religion in eighteenth-century English literature from Swift to Johnson" (1999). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9929167.