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Benthamite Radicalism and its Scots Presbyterian Contexts


This article argues that James Mill's immersion in Presbyterianism inspired an aversion to hierarchical government and a bias in favour of the Church of Scotland. These views are discernible in Bentham's Church-of-Englandism. Bentham argued for disestablishment on principle but, praising the Scottish Church as a ‘model of perfection’, omitted the Kirk from his church reform manifesto. His position on disestablishment, however, and his endorsement of Presbyterianism were aligned with a voluntaryist strain of Presbyterian ecclesiological theory; Presbyterian dissenters and Benthamite Radicals began to protest against the Kirk's established status. Underpinned significantly by Presbyterian tradition and laced with Benthamic influence, a radical voluntary campaign emerged in Scotland which sought to dismantle the old order and usher in a new era of political democracy and religious voluntaryism. Radicalism in Scotland was not solely characterized by the ‘programmatic atheism’ which J. C. D. Clark believes defined Benthamite ideology; Benthamism, it transpires, was not straightforwardly secularist.

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1 Mill John Stuart, Autobiography and Literary Essays, ed. Robson J. M. and Stillinger J. (Toronto, 1981), p. 81; Galt John, Annals of the Parish (Edinburgh, 1821).

2 Burns J. H., ‘Bentham and the Scots’, Journal of Bentham Studies 7 (2004), pp. 112.

3 Schofield P., ‘Political and Religious Radicalism in the Thought of Jeremy Bentham’, History of Political Thought 20 (1999), pp. 272–91; Crimmins J. E., ‘Bentham's Religious Radicalism Revisited: A Response to Schofield’, History of Political Thought 22 (2001), pp. 495500; Clark J. C. D., ‘Religion and the Origins of Radicalism in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, English Radicalism 1550–1850, ed Burgess G. and Festenstein M. (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 241–84; Crimmins J., Secular Utilitarianism: Social Science and the Critique of Religion in the Thought of Jeremy Bentham (Oxford, 1990); Steintrager J., ‘Language and Politics: Bentham on Religion’, Bentham Newsletter 4 (1980), pp. 420.

4 Recent work by Gordon Pentland has helped to shed light on the distinctive nature of the Scottish reform movement within a wider British context; see e.g. Pentland G., Radicalism, Reform and National Identity in Scotland, 1820–1833 (Woodbridge, 2008). Nevertheless, there remain many gaps in the historiography of Scottish radicalism, particularly regarding the influence of Bentham and Benthamism in Scotland.

5 Schofield, ‘Political and Religious Radicalism’.

6 Clark, ‘Origins of Radicalism’, p. 241.

7 It is unclear whether Bentham was an atheist; see Schofield, ‘Political and Religious Radicalism’, pp. 280–1.

8 Bain Alexander, James Mill: A Biography (London, 1882), pp. 22, 63.

9 Bain, Mill, p. 150.

10 Forsyth N., ‘Presbyterian Historians and the Scottish Invention of British Liberty’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society 34 (2004), pp. 91110.

11 Brent R., Liberal Anglican Politics: Whiggery, Religion and Reform, 1830–1841 (Oxford, 1987), pp. 42–9.

12 McCrie Thomas, The Life of Thomas McCrie (Edinburgh, 1840), p. 55.

13 Edinburgh Review (July 1812); ‘Literature’, The Scotsman (1 Jan. 1820).

14 Pitts J., A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, 2005), pp. 123–33; Haakonsen K., ‘James Mill and Scottish Moral Philosophy’, Political Studies 33 (1985), pp. 628–41.

15 Anna Plassart has recently considered the influence of Mill's Presbyterian background and his links with dissenters on his History of British India. See Plassart A., ‘James Mill's Treatment of Religion and the History of British India’, History of European Ideas 34 (2008), pp. 526–34.

16 Mill, Autobiography, pp. 11, 45.

17 F. Espinasse, ‘Brodie, George (1786?–1867)’, rev. H. C. G. Matthew, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <> (2004: Oxford, online edn., 2007); T. F. Henderson, ‘Laing, Malcolm (1762–1818)’, rev. P. J. deGategno, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <> (2004: Oxford, online edn., 2007).

18 [James Mill], ‘Brodie's History of the British Empire’, Westminster Review (Oct. 1824), pp. 346–402, at 347, 354, 362–8.

19 [James Mill], ‘Southey's Book of the Church, &c.’, Westminster Review (Jan. 1825), pp. 167–212, at 175–6, 181, 187, 198, 204–6.

20 [James Mill], ‘Ecclesiastical Establishments’, Westminster Review (Apr. 1826), pp. 504–48, at 517–23.

21 T. Ball, ‘Mill, James (1773–1836)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, <, accessed 28 July 2010> (2004: Oxford, online edn., 2007).

22 Ball T., Reappraising Political Theory (Oxford, 1995), p. 137. Robert Fenn remarks that as a ‘former presbyterian’, Mill ‘enjoyed Bishop-bashing’: Fenn R. A., James Mill's Political Thought (New York and London, 1987), p. 53.

23 V. Wallace, ‘Exporting Radicalism within the Empire: Scots Presbyterian Political Values in Scotland and British North America, c.1815–c.1850’ (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Glasgow, 2009).

24 Ball, Reappraising, ch. 6.

25 Fenn, Political Thought, p. 89.

26 Grote Mrs, The Personal Life of George Grote (London, 1873), p. 22.

27 Mill James, An Essay on the Spirit and Influence of the Reformation of Luther by Charles Villers translated and Illustrated with Copious Notes (London, 1805), pp. 142, 160–1.

28 Mill, Reformation of Luther, p. 161.

29 [Mill], ‘Book of the Church’, p. 206.

30 [Mill], ‘Ecclesiastical Establishments’, pp. 529–30.

31 Plassart emphasizes Mill's independence, insisting that the ‘tone of “Puritan censure”’ found in the History of British India could not have been inspired by atheistic Bentham. Religion had a more profound influence on Bentham than Plassart has considered and in fact Mill's tone of Puritan censure can be detected in Bentham's own work. Plassart, ‘History of British India’, p. 528.

32 Bentham did acquire information from other sources, including James Anderson, the political economist, who sent Bentham a detailed account of the system of poor relief in Scotland; see The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3, ed. I. R. Christie, The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham [hereafter CW] (London, 1971), pp. 30–43.

33 Schofield, ‘Political and Religious Radicalism’, pp. 286–7.

34 Church-of-Englandism and Its Catechism Examined, ed. J. E. Crimmins and C. Fuller, CW (Oxford, 2011), pp. 69–70.

35 Francis Jeffrey supplied information on subscription to the Confession in a letter sent via Henry Brougham to Bentham on 9 Feb. 1813; see The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 8, ed. Conway S., CW (Oxford, 1988), p. 306.

36 Church-of-Englandism, p. 478.

37 Church-of-Englandism, p. 361. There were actually 900 parishes in the Account.

38 Church-of-Englandism, p. 481.

39 Church-of-Englandism, pp. 283, 417.

40 This has been hinted at by William Thomas, though not explored in depth; Thomas W., The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice 1817–1841 (Oxford, 1979), p. 36.

41 Bentham to John Herbert Koe, 19 Aug. 1816, 27 Oct. 1816 and 8–9 Nov. 1816, The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, ed. S. Conway, vol. 8, CW (Oxford, 1988), pp. 551, 557, 561.

42 Bentham to Koe John Herbert, 21 Aug. 1817, The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 9, ed. Conway S., CW (Oxford, 1989), p. 46. George Cook protested against pluralities and non-residence in the Church, publishing a pamphlet on the subject in 1816. He also defended lay patronage. These are all themes considered by Bentham in Church-of-Englandism. On Cook see, T. F. Henderson, ‘Cook, George (1772–1845)’, rev. S. J. Brown, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, <> (Oxford, 2004).

43 ‘Juggernautical Utility II’, in James Mill's Common Place Books, ed. R. A. Fenn (University of Sussex, 2010), vol. II, ch. 5, <> ‘The Balance’, in James Mill's Common Place Books, ed. R. A. Fenn (University of Sussex, 2010), vol. II, ch. 2, <>.

44 [James Mill], ‘The Church and its Reform’, London Review (July 1835), pp. 257–95.

45 Church-of-Englandism, pp. 290, 304–5, 349.

46 Brown C. G., The Social History of Religion in Scotland Since 1730 (London, 1987), pp. 61–2.

47 Brown C. G., ‘Protest in the Pews: Interpreting Presbyterianism and Society in Fracture during the Scottish Economic Revolution’, Conflict and Stability in Scottish Society 1700–1850, ed. Devine T. M. (Edinburgh, 1990), pp. 97–9.

48 See e.g. ‘Who Ought to be Substituted in the Room of Patronage?’, Scottish Advocate (Oct. 1834).

49 There was also a subscription controversy in the Synod of Ulster in the 1720s, which led to the expulsion of the Presbytery of Antrim, whose members had adopted Arian views, and who felt that they could not conscientiously subscribe. Kidd C., ‘Scotland's Invisible Enlightenment: Subscription and Heterodoxy in the Eighteenth-Century Kirk’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society 30 (2000), pp. 2859.

50 See McKerrow John, History of the Secession Church (Glasgow, 1841 rev. and enlarged edn.).

51 Bain, Mill, pp. 121–2, 168.

52 Following William Thomas, Plassart has suggested that since Mill read McCrie and distrusted the philosophes, he may have been an Evangelical. But his attitude to subscription suggests that, on this issue at least, Mill had a Moderate outlook. Plassart, ‘History of British India’, p. 530; Thomas, Philosophic Radicals, pp. 99–100. On the differences between the parties within the Church of Scotland see Brown S. J., The National Churches of England, Ireland and Scotland 1801–46 (Oxford, 2001), pp. 5962.

53 Brown S. J., ‘Religion and the Rise of Liberalism: The First Disestablishment Campaign in Scotland, 1829–1843’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 48.4 (1997), pp. 682704, at 686.

54 In fact Bentham was aware of the complex divisions within the Scottish religious community. Around 1809 he compiled detailed lists of the different Scottish sects – including the Antiburgher and Burgher Seceders, the Relief, and even the obscure Buchanites and McMillanite Covenanters – and the numbers belonging to them. Bentham took his figures from the twenty-one volumes of the Statistical Accounts published between 1791 and 1799. It is unclear what Bentham's purpose was in compiling this list, and he makes no mention of the significance of Scottish dissent in Church-of-Englandism, UC cix. 40–2.

55 Dissenting congregations were not legally obliged to distribute poor relief and their dependence on Church of Scotland session aid caused resentment. In some cases dissenting congregations were told to reimburse the Kirk or were denied relief altogether; see Cage R. A, The Scottish Poor Law 1745–1845 (Edinburgh, 1981), pp. 29, 52. This problem was alluded to by James Anderson in his letter to Bentham. Anderson declared there to be abuses which would ‘one day or other destroy the System’ (Correspondence, vol. 3, pp. 41–2). Anderson's prediction came true when the Disruption, which increased the number of dissenters and decreased the amount of aid available in the Kirk, rendered the system unworkable, helping to bring about poor law reform in 1845. Bentham, however, seems to have chosen to ignore the problem of dissent and emphasize instead the positive aspects of the Scottish establishment.

56 Marshall Andrew, Ecclesiastical Establishments Considered (Glasgow, 1829); Marshall Andrew, Ecclesiastical Establishments Further Considered (Glasgow, 1831).

57 See e.g. ‘Meeting, Resolutions, and Address of the Central Board of Scottish Dissenters’, United Secession Magazine (Jan. 1841).

58 Brown, ‘Rise of Liberalism’.

59 [Jeremy Bentham], Not Paul, but Jesus (London, 1823), pp. 391–2; Schofield P., Utility and Democracy: The Political Thought of Jeremy Bentham (Oxford, 2006), p. 197.

60 Bentham acknowledged his debt to Conyers Middleton, who, in A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (1749), attacked the reliability of the church fathers; see Not Paul, but Jesus, p. 2. On Middleton see Trevor-Roper H., ‘From Deism to History: Conyers Middleton’, History and the Enlightenment, ed. Robertson J. (New Haven, 2010), pp. 71119. Jefferson, who was likewise influenced by Middleton, argued that Paul had corrupted Christianity; see The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. H. A. Washington, vol. 7 (Washington D.C., 1854), p. 156. Hoadly denied that episcopacy was ‘jure divino’ and accepted the validity of the ordinations of Presbyterians during the Interregnum. He also criticized High Church readings of Paul's advice in Romans 13; see S. Taylor, ‘Hoadly, Benjamin (1676–1761)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, <> (2004: Oxford, online edn., 2008).

61 Church-of-Englandism, p. 422.

62 Schofield, Utility and Democracy, p. 175.

63 Dick Andrew Coventry, Dissertations on Church Polity (Edinburgh, 1835), p. 6.

64 ‘Scottish Church Establishment’, Reformers’ Gazette (27 Apr. 1833). See also Marshall, Ecclesiastical Establishments; Marshall, Ecclesiastical Establishments Further Considered; Wardlaw Ralph, National Church Establishments Examined (London, 1839); Ballantyne John, A Comparison of Established and Dissenting Churches (Edinburgh, 1827). In response to these claims a Kirk spokesman maintained that Jesus’ statement should not be taken as an endorsement of the principle of voluntaryism. Jesus meant to condemn only those establishments ‘abused and corrupted by the secular ambition of ecclesiastics’, that is, the Church of Rome. The Church of Scotland, by contrast, with its two kingdoms ecclesiology, renounced all ‘pretensions to supremacy in the state’. Defence of Ecclesiastical Establishments (Edinburgh, 1830), pp. 12–13.

65 ‘Address to the Rev. Leaders of the Voluntary Church Movement’, United Secession Magazine (Sept. 1834). See also Marshall Andrew, Meditations for the Reform Jubilee (Glasgow, 1832).

66 Machin G. I. T., Politics and the Churches in Great Britain 1832–1868 (Oxford, 1977), pp. 100–1; Machin I., ‘Disestablishment and Democracy, c.1830–1940’, Citizenship and Community: Liberals, Radicals and Collective Identity in the British Isles 1865–1931, ed. Biagini E. F. (Cambridge, 1996), p. 122; Brown, ‘Rise of Liberalism’, p. 687; Brown S. J., Providence and Empire 1815–1914 (Harlow, 2008), pp. 83–5; Brown S. J., Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth (Oxford, 1982), pp. 220–1; Mackintosh W. H., Disestablishment and Liberation: The Movement for the Separation of the Anglican Church from State Control (London, 1972), pp. 35.

67 See e.g. Wardlaw, National Church Establishments.

68 See e.g. Peddie William, Discourses (Edinburgh, 1846), pp. 1213, 92; Rainy Robert and Mackenzie James, Life of William Cunningham D.D. (London, 1871), p. 88; Ferrier Andrew, Nebuchadnezzar's Golden Image: A Sermon on Civil Establishments of Religion (Glasgow, 1836), p. 36.

69 As did John Cairns, leading minister in the United Presbyterian Church in the second half the nineteenth century. Macewen Alexander R., Life and Letters of John Cairns D.D. L.L.D. (London, 1895), p. 515; Dick Andrew Coventry, The Nature and Office of the State (Edinburgh, 1848), pp. 56.

70 Edinburgh Voluntary Churchman (Aug. 1835).

71 S. J. Brown does allude to the influence of Bentham and Mill's writings on disestablishment in Providence and Empire, pp. 83–5, and National Churches, pp. 169–70.

72 The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. John Bowring, 11 vols. (Edinburgh, 1838–43), vol. 11, pp. 67–8.

73 The Old Radical: Representations of Jeremy Bentham, ed. C. Fuller (London, 1998), pp. 55–6.

74 See e.g. Maclaren Duncan, History of the Resistance to the Annuity Tax (Edinburgh, 1836).

75 Brown John, The Law of Christ Respecting Civil Disobedience (London, 1839). See also Russell Thomas, The Annuity Tax Opposed to the Law of God, and Therefore Not Binding on Man: In a Letter to Members of the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1836).

76 Memoirs of Adam Black, ed. Alexander Nicolson (Edinburgh, 1885), pp. 84–5.

77 ‘Scotland Taxed Because of Church-of-Englandism’, Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (May 1832); ‘Edinburgh Annuity Tax’, Cobbett's Weekly Register (24 Aug. 1833); ‘Passive Resistance of Edinburgh, to the Clergy-Tax’, Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (Sept. 1833).

78 A Second Exposure of the Sentiments and Projects of the Voluntary Church Association (Edinburgh, 1833), p. 6; ‘To Editor’, Presbyterian Magazine (Feb. 1833).

79 ‘The Scottish Members of Parliament’, Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (Feb. 1837); ‘The Elections’, Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (Sept. 1837).

80 Hutchison I. G. C., A Political History of Scotland 1832–1924: Parties, Elections and Issues (Edinburgh, 1986), p. 19.

81 See e.g. The Voluntaries in Belfast, 3rd edn. (Edinburgh, 1836), p. 13; Marshall Andrew, The Duty of Attempting to Reconcile the Unenfranchised with the Enfranchised Classes (Edinburgh, 1840).

82 Gauvreau M., ‘Covenanter Democracy: Scottish Popular Religion, Ethnicity, and the Varieties of Politio-religious Dissent in Upper Canada, 1815–1841’, Histoire Sociale/Social History 36 (2003), 5583; Wallace, ‘Exporting Radicalism’.

83 Bentham Jeremy, The Book of Church Reform (London, 1831), pp. 24–7.

84 Hansard HC Debs., 3rd ser., vol. V, 25–6 July 1831, cols. 282, 383.

85 See e.g. ‘Canada – Standing Armies’, Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (Nov. 1837); ‘Affairs of Nova Scotia’, The Scotsman (26 Jan. 1831). On the Radical Benthamite support in Britain for Canadian reform, see also M. J. Turner, ‘Radical Agitation and the Canada Question in British Politics, 1837–41’, Historical Research 79 (2006), pp. 90–114.

86 ‘Benthamisms’, Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (May 1838).

87 Lyon E. G., Politicians in the Pulpit: Christian Radicalism in Britain from the Fall of the Bastille to the Disintegration of Chartism (Aldershot, 1999), pp. 49, 72–3.

88 Pentland, Radicalism, p. 150.

89 ‘Passive Obedience; or Non-Resistance’, Herald to the Trades Advocate (4 Dec. 1830). For contemporary attitudes expressed in the paper, see also ‘To Editor’, Herald to the Trades Advocate, 6 Oct. 1830; ‘To Editor’, Herald to the Trades Advocate (20 Nov. 1830).

90 Reformers’ Gazette (15 Oct. 1831); Reformers’ Gazette (14 Apr. 1832).

91 ‘The Church’, Glasgow Argus (3 Mar. 1838).

92 The Rev. Thomas Chalmers, leader of the campaign to defend the national church, criticized Benthamite poor law reform. In response, an article in the Westminster Review by John Hill Burton declared Chalmers's godly commonwealth experiment in Glasgow to have been a failure. Brown, Thomas Chalmers, pp. 232, 294–5; [John Hill Burton], ‘Poor Laws and Pauperism in Scotland’, Westminster Review (Oct. 1841), pp. 381–403.

93 Esdaile James, The Voluntary Church Scheme without Foundation in Scripture, Reason or Common Sense (Perth, 1834), p. 36.

94 I should like to thank J. H. Burns, Colin Kidd, Michael Quinn, Philip Schofield and Miles Taylor for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this article.

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