Last Essays on Church and Religion


By Matthew Arnold




Ballantyne Press






V - In all serious literary work, the question of religion and the church appears indirectly. Here it will appear directly. 


He has lost friends over this subject, but the effort has not been about ‘personal considerations.’

He wishes, after this, to return to literature proper with what remains of his life.


Vi – We must apply “flexibility, perceptiveness, and judgment” to religion.  Gladstone says that intellectual religion is too much for our people.  But, culture changes.  Witness the turn away from miracles. 


Vii – In England and America religion has retained such a hold on people that churches underestimate the trouble they’re in.


In America ‘Literature and Dogma’ was received with great hostility.


Vii – In Italy a person said that the Bible is many things, but will never inspire people’s daily actions.  But, paternalistically said, it’s nice  that someone made that their object.  

This is the continental view: the Bible is irrelevant. This idea will spread to England and the US.  


Xi – “Therefore is it so all-important to insist on what I call the natural truth of Christianity.” [italics in original] 


Rather than miracles, we must continue with the Protestant step towards ‘natural truth.’   Or?  We may ask, does Christianity not have any natural truth?


“Of questions about religion, it may be said to be at the present time, for a serious man, the only important one.”


He wishes to attack this without intellectual pretense, recalling that conduct is ¾ of life.  People quibble about the percentage, but suffice it to say, conduct is a lot of life.


Xiii – Conduct brings us at last to the fact of two selves, or instincts, or forces, . . . contending for the mastery in man;” one: “called generally a movement of man’s ordinary or passing self, of sense, appetite, desire; the other a movement of reflexion and more voluntary, leading us to submit inclination to some rule, and called generally a movement of man’s higher or enduring self, of reason, spirit, will.” 


Xiv – And though using different words, all nations agree “that to obey the higher self, or reason, or whatever it is called, is happiness and life for him; to obey the lower is death and misery.”


And “whatever men’s minds fasten and rest upon, whatever is to hold their attention and to rule their practice naturally embodies itself for them in certain examples, precepts, and sayings, to which they perpetually recur.  Without a frame or body of this kind, a set of thoughts cannot abide with men and sustain them.”


Jesus said if you abide in him, you’ll be free.  This is not gotten by “skipping about all over the world for various renderings of it.”


Epicetus said, “That a principle can hardly establish itself with a man, unless he every day utters the same things.” 


And naturally, that which should be used is that which is best at “commending itself to their minds for respect and attention.  And the more the precepts are used, the more will men’s sentiments cluster around them, and the more dear and solemn they will be.”


Xv - Jewish hopes for righteousness went from national hopes to Christianity.   Jesus took it from the national backing for righteousness to the idea of the higher and lower self.   This became his formula, his secret.


Xvi – We can go further, there is the reproductive instinct and the instinct of self-preservation.  These are both lower.  They are controlled by the two grand virtues:  kindness / charity and chastity / pureness.


These urgings would mean nothing, if they did not agree with experience. 


Xvii – As for charity:


If there is a lesson which have learned, it is the lesson of “solidarity.” [italic in original].   Every man for himself is tempting to human nature.  But it turns out that “the only real happiness is a kind of impersonal higher life, where the happiness of others counts with a man as essential to his own.  He that loves his life does really turn out to lose it, and the new commandment proves its own truth by experience.”


As for pureness:


Scientists now doubt the value of this virtue.  Goethe prized it and how we decide on it is very important. 


Christianity came to dominate in the “part of the world which most counted.”


Xix – And let us not forget Jesus’ “sweet reason.”   Jesus is so charming that we think anything not charming must be from the person writing about him, not him.


For example, medieval charity and medieval chastity are manifest misgrowths of the ideas of kindness and purity. They cannot be what Jesus meant.


Xxi - Finding joy in renouncement is why Jesus is better than Schopenhauer.


Not only is it more right to give than to receive, it is more blessed.


Xxiv – Some object that Arnold picks and chooses his Jesus passages.  But, we cannot assume that all is reported accurately.  AND, we should assume that Jesus was very reasonable and smart. 

MA believes time will show reliance on the Bible. Whatever progress in science, art, and literary culture, the Bible will not disappear.  It will be there as the indispensable background to the 3/4s that is conduct.


As Plato taught, virtue and knowledge are interconnected.














2 – Herein he will dispel what he calls “arguments of despair.”


Remember, Paul is properly speaking about spiritual resurrection.  But undoubtedly he believes in physical resurrection for individuals and mankind too.


4 – Admittedly, Paul was wrong about the end of the world and resurrection, but these were errors of expectations, not experience.


Many scientists also believed, that does not mean their science is invalid.


In England the last witches were executed in 1716.  But for most of the 17th century, the English believed in witches.


7 – The witch trials are interesting because “they show how to live in a certain atmosphere of belief will govern men’s conclusions from what they see and hear.”


The symptoms at the trial are all explainable via poverty and disease.


11 – One court case showed a witch possession to be ‘a mere imposture.”  That a child is terrified does not prove someone else is a witch, they reasoned.


12 – There were witches they said, but herein we had no proof.


But the jury found the witches guilty and they were hanged.


14 – Cambridge Platonists wrote intellectual, treatise.


16 – They had religious boons for the wants of their time.


MA likes John Smith’s work the best; he thinks they have a place in English literary history.   But their best merit is their showing the natural truth of Christianity.


If candidates for the clergy had to read Smith’s work, all might be well. 


19 – Smith gave a speech on witchcraft, where he blamed ‘the spirit of apostasy which is lodged in all men’s natures.’ And, attempted to substitute this spirit for devil and hell. 

The tyranny of men is within them.  He said, “all sin and vice is our own creature.”


21 – So people can be in their zeit-geist and taken by it, and some can see over it a bit. 


Jesus spoke of his coming resurrection, as did many, so we can see how confirmation of resurrection could be started and believed.  Belief in bodily resurrection was a part “of the mental atmosphere.”


22 – It was inevitable that they should believe their master to have risen again in the body” and built upon it.


But Paul, like the Cambridge Platonist, “instinctively sought in an idea, used for religion, a side by which the idea could enter into his religious experience and become real to him.”  This couldn’t only come via the external fact of Jesus’ resurrection.


So this is the rejoinder to the idea that since Paul believed in the resurrection, he must be an imbecile (the so called ‘argument of despair’).  Once can see around their own time’s beliefs.


23 – This common belief is nothing against him.


We see the inability to parse impacting many.  One person wrote “there is nothing I and many others should like better than to take service as ministers in the Church as a national society for the promotion of goodness.” [emphasis in the original].  But how can we if we need first believe in miracles, which every intelligent man rejects?


24 – MA wants to ask whether such a man must break with the Church of his country and childhood. 


Currently you must assent to the 39 articles and whatever is contained in the Book of Common Prayer.   And if you don’t believe in the miracles it affirms, you cannot be ordained as a pastor. 


25 – Politicians should remove such clauses instead of playing with political dissent or marriage with a deceased wife’s sister.


26 – “The Church is properly a national society for the promotion of goodness.” 


Butler does not rehearse the articles, he rehearses the prayers and services of the Church.  He believes in some of it, and the rest he reads as “language thrown out by other men, in other times, at immense objects which deeply engage their affections and awe.”


27 - “The Church of our country is to be considered as a national Christian society for the promotion of goodness, to which a man cannot but wish well, and in which he might rejoice to minister.”


28 - There are two big beliefs: Salvation by righteousness and Righteousness by Jesus.  This is the sum of the old and new testaments.


And, there are many attempts to approximate, explain, enhance these beliefs. But these are the core ones.


29 If you get rid of Christianity and try some newer basis of generating society, it will not work.  Habits and associations are not formed in a day. 


“Nay, but so prodigious a revolution does the changing the whole form and feature of religion turn out to be, that it even unsettles all other things too, and brings back chaos. When it happens, the civilization and the society to which it happens are disintegrated, and men have to begin again.”  


“People may say that there is a fund of ideas common to all religions.”


30 – They are mistaken.


The whole civilization of the Roman world was disintegrated by change and had to begin again. 


“We can hardly conceive modern civilization breaking up as the Roman did.” But removal of Christianity, “so vast a revolution would this be, that it would involve” the end of our civilization.


“Our feeling does not connect itself with any language about righteousness and religion, but with that language.” [italics in original].


31 – “Salvation through Jesus Christ,” is “poetry consecrated, moreover, by having been on the tongue of all our forefathers for two thousand years, and on our own tongue ever since we were born.  As such, then, we can feel them even when we no longer take them literally; while, as approximations to a profound truth, we can use them.” 


32 – If Jesus talked in terms of his life after death, and salvation, “it must have been because it was the best way and the only one. For it was not by introducing a brand-new religious language, and by parting with all the old and cherished images, that popular religion could be transformed.”


We must love the idea of the Son of Man coming in his glory with the holy angels, setting the good on his right hand and the bad on his left.


35 – And, hardly a phrase of Jesus’ in Matthew is not a reference or paraphrase of an Old Testament prophet.  He speaks in the people’s language.


36 – He looks at the un-canonical book of Enoch.


38 – Just as Jesus used his sources poetically, so should we.  His statements, “the associations which cluster around them give them always pathos and solemnity.”


 39 – Just as it wasn’t wise for Jesus to reject all of the religious precedent around him, it is unwise for us.  And, we shouldn’t reject the poetry of popular religion.


This essay has not focused on the content of Jesus’ message.  To that end, he lists 2 1/2 pages of Jesus quotes.


42 – The truth of miracles does not have bearing on morality.  It is metaphysics.


43 – “Whoever believes in the final triumph of Christianity, the Christianisation of the world, to have all the necessity and grandeur of natural law, will never lack a bond of profound sympathy with popular religion.”




45 – Whenever Butler’s sermons or Aristotle’s Ethics seem obscure it is us that are lacking.  That was how much faith Oxford students read these two authors.


46 – But when you are old, you must ask yourself, what you think of your old masters.


47 – Butler’s three sermons on human nature were, in moral philosophy, perhaps the three most valuable essays that were ever published, because they contain his doctrine of conscience.


A fan said, he pursued the science of morals in the same way Newton did to nature.


 Butler said in his sermon on self – deceit, “Religion is true, or it is not.  If it be not, there is no reason for any concern about it.”


49 – Butler was born on May 18th, in 1692.  He went to Oxford.


51 – He died at the age of 60, never having married.  MA fills in the life with a couple of anecdotes and letters.


52 – MA notes Butler’s 18th century phraseology and willingness to give money away as having it was a demerit for a Bishop. 


There is much more in biography and anecdotes which have not coalesced into an argument. 


58 – Butler stood alone in his time and amongst his generation.  Yet, there is a constant reference to the controversies of his time.


59 – He wrestled with deists.


60 – Butler notes that some reject Christianity on speculative grounds, then do so on the imaginary freedom from its restraint and then deride God’s moral judgment over the world, renounce his protection and defy his justice.


61 – MA thinks, seeing the calmness of Britain during the French Revolution, Butler may have oversold the loss of religion in his time.


62 – MA parallels Butler to France’s Turgot. 


63 – And this comparison is done to demonstrate that the decline of religion had not yet gone so far in Britain as Butler thought.


65 – There is a Greek word MA loves Epiekes or epieikeia, which he translates as “sweet reasonableness.’  It is the very word to characterize Christianity.


And true Christianity wins, not by an argumentative victory, not by going through a long debate with a person, examining arguments.  No, it puts a particular thing in such a way before a man that he feels disposed and eager to lay hold of it.


66 – Butler has a totally different way.  Butler goes for proof via evidence and reason.


67 – But, no one can hear Butler’s tact without a secret dissatisfaction.  For, after all, the object of religion is conversion, and to change people’s behavior.”  So where is the use in not inquiring into what people are but how they ought to behave?  It is what people are that determines how they out to behave.


But “Butler’s line is what it is.  We are concerned with what we can use of it.”


And it is Butler’s science of morals, paralleling Newton’s naturalism, that we can use.  So did Butler succeed in this?


68 – Butler’s argument from Sermon at the Rolls is as follows:  Mankind have various instincts and principles.  Their expressions are dependent on circumstance.


“They are not wholly governed by self-love, the love of power, and sensual appetites; they are frequently influence by friendship, compassion, gratitude; and even a general abhorrence of what is base, and liking of what is fair and just.”


69 – Mankind also has, Butler continues “conscience or reflection.”    And, he says if someone asks themselves if what they’re about to do is good or evil, they’ll largely get the right answer.


70 – Butler calls our nature ‘the voice of God within us.’  And, he suggests a ‘fellow feeling common to mankind.’   MA likes this.


And, the errors that his scheme is to correct are errors. 


71 – And Butler asks if we’re under an obligation to follow our good nature.  He says yes as it is the law of your nature. 

But Arnold asks what human nature corresponds to right “in a general way, but not more.” Then Butler cannot follow us.   And there comes a time when all is broken up and people want a surer guide than general human nature.  They ask themselves, what this general correspondence is really worth.  They sift the facts of their conscious and consciousness and want proof that they’re to be good.


72 – If it passes this test it is Newtonian. 


And whereas Butler talks of perfect goodness, MA notes “some of our passions and propensions seem to go against goodness and benevolence.”


And Butler says, reason alone is not enough, we need reason joined with affections for God.   And, Butler notes that some of our negative passions have their functionality. So God gave them to us, in order that we live in this imperfect world.


MA Objects that this “is not physiology, but fanciful hypothesis.” It is not based on observation and experiment. So, people would become impatient with it and MA must leave Butler for the present.



74 - Butler does some details that we can test. For example, he says that “compassion for the distresses of others is felt much more generally than delight in their prosperity.”


And, Butler supposes that this is because people who have prosperity don’t need your attention; People in distress do.


But this is, like Hobbes, fanciful.


75 - And, anger, Butler tells us, prevents injustice.


76 – This too, if we scrutinize, is fantastic.   Butler tells us that reason decides between passions in the name of good. 


79 – But, if we take Butler’s idea that it is unnatural not to help people because compassion is natural, then having a suffering universe is also natural.


80 – But if desire justifies actions, decadence is a good thing.


81 – And his attempts to square self-love with benevolence does not work. Butler sees self-love as a private contracted affection, consisting in a cool deliberate pursuit of our private interest.    This is defective as natural history.


82 – Our desires and interests are not things laid out on a table before us.



84 – MA wants experience, not instinct to be the basis of our actions. 


85 - And, our higher and lower self do conflict.  the cool study of our private interest’ is not the voice of God.  It is a hasty erroneous interpretation by us.”


The desire to live and desire to be happy, corrected by experience, is the voice of God.

Jesus’ saying you must lose your life to save it, indicates that we do have two lives.


86 – Conscience is a recognition of the fact that our movement towards life and happiness is long, painful and irresistible.


87 - We get joy from following rules.  But, these rules are the result of experience that by purely pursuing his own interests, man made a shipwreck of life.


“In morals, we must not rejly just on what may ‘have the appearance’ to the individual, but on the experience of the race as to happiness.”


88 – Butler published his theory at 34.  At that age, men are “more likely to attempt a highly systematic, intricate theory of human nature and morals, than he is afterwards.”


89 - Butler’s later work, the Analogy is better.  It aims at getting men to embrace religion.


90 – The book makes an analogy between moral government and the government after life.  And, it proves what we want in the second world, but not that that second world exists.


93 – Butler says  people lose some limbs and still live so life and the body are separate. But, MA says, that doesn’t mean we can lose any of our limbs and live!


Butler says it is not inconceivable that God punishes bad.  Yes.  But, does he?  And, let’s concede that conscience makes some folks feel bad, that doesn’t prove God put the feelings there.


95 – It just proves man is anthropomorphic.  This is not a safe basis upon which to build religion.


97 – If this is a perfect world, why does moral discipline fail in a vast majority of cases?


98 – And today no one would speak of the Bible being ‘authentic genuine history.”   The Bible has plenty of truth and plenty of legend. 


100 – And, while Butler admits his evidence is not totally convincing, he thinks plausible doubt is enough for most things in life.  MA says it is not.

MA finds the certainty of people in the Bible to be a relief after reading Butler.


101 - Butler’s book is a failure. Wow, MA is harsh!


But Butler is still a person of grandeur for us.


102 – Butler drives home that inattention to religion implies a dissolute moral temper of mind.  His feeling that religion somehow does fall within the natural sense of things.  And that it should be established on reason is valuable.


105 – Butler based his vision on the posited reality of a perfect coming world.  And, if people think this virtuous world can be made on earth, they’ll work to make it so.   And, if people dedicate themselves to this higher and impersonal life, they do conform themselves to the doctrine and example of Christ. 


And, the proof of this is in what a good life he lived, hungering and thirsting after righteousness.




108 - People say the Church of England is so artificial that only weird notions can justify it.


109 – But he should speak to the religious audience, perhaps on something they do not agree on!  The case, perhaps, against the Church.


But, the Church of England is national and so not just of concern to clergy.  


110 – Many have assured Arnold that he, far from a defender, is the worst enemy of the Church.  


“I regard the Church of England as, in fact, a great national society for the promotion of what is commonly called goodness, and for promoting it through the most effectual means possible, the only means which are really and truly effectual for the object; through the means of the Christian religion and of the Bible. 


113 – Far from hostile, this argument gives the church a reason for living.   And nothing interests people as much as goodness.   Only very important things are given to public institutions, things it seems the whole community feel the importance of. 

Art and literature are important, but they are not done via public institution, so why religion?  This is because the whole  community does not feel them to be important.


114 – Only in ancient Athens were art and literature made public institutions. 


Yes the US has no national church, but that’s cause it was founded by separatists.


116 – It is necessary, yet there are many disestablishmentarians.  They cite the ‘spirit of the times’ as the reason to get rid of it.


This ‘scientific liberalism’ is uniting all on the left, though nothing else will.


But the biggest worry is the alienation of the working class, and the working class of the future.  If they give up on the Church it is gone.


118 – “Exception is taken to its being said that there is communism in the Bible, because we see that communists are fierce, violent, insurrectionary people, with temper and actions abhorrent to the Bible.” 


119 – Does the Bible stand for the redistribution of wealth? 


120 - Religious people, like Pascal scorned private property eloquently.  More so than any secular writer.


Many do see the Church as ‘the ally of political and social injustice.” 


But, institutions are to be judged by their great men.


122 – A quote MA gives is used to show that the Church is not tied up with ‘awe of class – privileges.’ 


123 – Renan said, “the future will belong to that party which can get a hold of the popular classes and elevate them.”  

Now the clergy is becoming more diverse and this probably has some good effects. They are laboring for the working classes.  But this is not enough without a positive sympathy with popular ideas.”    And, much of the clergy’s role is to make people believe in a positive future world.


124 – He told people to pray for it.  This was the good news.  And this good news about the future went on after Jesus’ death.


125 – If a view of the bible only takes righteousness into account, and not the kingdom, it is lopsided. 


126 – In regards to having popular support MA quotes Burke, ‘the ancient and inbred integrity, piety, good nature, and good humour of the English people.”


127 - He believes a wave of religious reaction is passing over Europe. People have a religious bent and if not provided one will “take up with almostany superstition that is thrown their way.”


128 – People join the Catholic Working Men’s Union for a lack of religion, which should surprise no one “who considers how strong is the need in human nature for a moral rule and bridle, such as religion.” 


Obedience is a real need of human nature. Above all, moral and religious obedience.


And, as the population of England has what Burke calls “integrity,” the Catholic church was never really a threat to the Church of England.


129 – The Church of England is, fundamentally, a reasonable establishment.


Show us another clergy that, like Butler, doesn’t insist his proof is entirely sound.  Reasonable.  English.  The Church matches the English character.


131 – The more we think of the Church as a national society for the promotion of goodness, the more we see it as reasonable. And, people should assent to unite in promoting goodness.


132 – And this institution is stronger for being national.   And, the dissenter’s religious objections to joining the church are trivial.  Especially as this is for the good of all, not just a sect. ‘’


134 – And, while some dissenters have remarkable intellects, their temper is problematic. 


135 – The Church must get past the idea that only those baptized can be buried on its grounds.


He hopes this is the last time he’ll speak on this topic, because, “as one grows old, one feels that it is not one’s business to go on for ever expostulating with other people upon their waste of life, but to make progress in grace and peace oneself.”




137 – MA thinks, to the extent reasonable, dissenters should be allowed to be buried in the Church cemetery.  Hymns and silence and other accommodations should be made. 


141 – But we do have grounds for not allowing all sorts of unregulated crudity into the Church.


“The moment a place has a public and national character, there emerges the requirement of a public form for use there.”  It can’t be vulgar.


142 – Religious liberty applies in private places, not public ones.


143 – Burial is necessary, but not burial in public places.  But people are not all free in such regards.  And, they must marry.  And, if so, they feel they have a right to do so in the local parish.   But people worry that if you let him into the church graveyard, he’ll soon have a right to go into the Church.


And having a natural desire does not equal a right.  What bars it from being so?  the higher right of the community.” 


144 - And, yes, clergy have been needlessly individually willful in turning people away.  But individual discretion of clergy is not the issue here; it is a community issue. Clergy should lost this discretion.


146 – There are differences between Christian groups that divide them.  And, except in England, they all have the churchyard in common.  They do in Scotland and Ireland.  Yet, in Scotland, all are admitted to the churchyard. 


And the Church of England was intended to satisfy all, Catholics and Protestants.


148 – But England has more divisions.  There are 138 dissenting churches. And, they say they have a right, no matter how whacky.


149 – And many are pledged to never conform to anything.


150 – And they all want to make scenes and to make their stamp on the church grounds.   If allow this we will be plunged into barbarism.


151 – England’s situation is not like France and Germany where they have only a few and well established dissenting churches.


153 – All have the right to be buried in the churchyard with the approved ceremony.


But, the idea of denying people who do not fit the fold, (if they’re willing to take the standard ceremony) is also wrong.


The ceremony is approved and approvable.  But Lord Granville seems wounded unless he may also approve the minister who reads it.


154 – Baptists baptize later.  They are still Christians.   If you withhold burial service to such folks, you do harm to the Church.


155 – And denying burial to suicides punishes the family.  What good is served by this?   


156 - The vast majority of those who reject Christianity were baptized in it.  They cannot be denied burial.  So what is the deal about people that believe and skipped this ceremony?


Ironically, they deny it because Jesus said, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That meant unless he receive a new influence.  Ironically, the Church fathers missed this new influence.


158 – MA is against hymns: bad poetry and bad music, to whatever purpose, are in themselves mischievous and deteriorating to man!  Somewhere and somehow, and at some time or other, he has to pay a penalty and to suffer a loss for taking delight in them.” 


But now, both Church folks and dissenters like them.   And, as they are not changed, they are not a source of strain.  All agree. 

Some dissenters want to “sing a hymn at the grave. Let them.” 


159 – Hymns make funerals longer.  MA proposes taking something from the First Epistle to the Corinthians for a hymn.  a lesson of Scripture should make, as far as possible, a broad, deep, simple, single impression.”

A lesson from the Old Testament is desired also.  MA suggests Ezekiel.


161 - Thus, like the Catholics, rather than one long and difficult less, four short, clear, and mostly powerfully impressive ones.  We do this shorter one and add a hymn and we’re golden.


The Church of Scotland likes silent funerals.  As long as they’re solemn, what is the problem?


162 – Some dissenters, and even more their political reps, want more.  No.  MA has sketched out what would seem reasonable to anyone, taking the circumstances of our country into account. 


163 - He wishes not to punish clergy or anything else, but simply to arrive at what is most for the good and for the dignity of the whole community.  Certainly it is postulated that to accept some public form shall be the condition for using public and venerable places.”  But, we must know “what ‘things lovely and of good report’ are, and the value of them.” 


164 – The big winner via “the dissidence of Dissent and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion is the Church of Rome.  Unity and continuity in public religious worship are a need of human nature, an eternal aspiration of Christendom; but unity and continuity in religious worship joined with perfect mental sanity and freedom.  A Catholic Church transformed is, I believe, the Church of the future.” But the dissidents prolong the transformation.   


But, MA is counting of the “time and progress, in alliance with the ancient and inbred integrity, piety, good nature, and good humour of the English people.”