Jonathan Swift's Religious Beliefs
David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College
Swift was a clergyman, a member of the Church of Ireland, the Irish branch of the Anglican Church; and as such he was a militant defender of his church (and his own career prospects) in the face of the threats to its continued existence posed by Roman Catholicism at home in Ireland (which was overwhelmingly Catholic) and in England, where Swift and his peers saw the Catholics (and, at the other religious and political extreme, the Dissenters) as threatening not only the Anglican Church but the English Constitution.
Swift was ostensibly a conservative by nature: he instinctively sought stability in religion as in politics, but stability which insured personal freedoms. Indeed, so far as he was concerned, religion, morality, and politics were inseparable: he consistently attacked theological attempts (even within Anglicanism itself) to define and limit orthodoxy--attempts which, he felt, led ultimately to anarchic dissent. The divisive tendencies of Mankind had, he believed, over the centuries, promoted the general decay of Christianity itself, which had lost its original clarity, simplicity, and coherence. The Truth had been mishandled, corrupted, by men who had behaved like Yahoos. He adhered to the tenets of the Anglican Church because he had been brought up to respect them, because the Church of Ireland was the church of his social class, and because his own ambitions were involved in its success, but also because he saw the Church as a force for rationality and moderation; as occupying a perilous middle ground between the opposing adherents of Rome and Geneva.
Underlying all of Swift's religious concerns, underlying his apparent conservatism, which was really a form of radicalism, was his belief that in Man God had created an animal which was not inherently rational but only capable, on occasion, of behaving reasonably: only, as he put it, rationis capax. It is our tendency to disappoint, in this respect, that he rages against: his works embody his attempts to maintain order and reason in a world which tended toward chaos and disorder, and he concerned himself more with the concrete social, political, and moral aspects of human nature than with the abstractions of philosophy, theology, and metaphysics.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000