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Matthew Tindal

Matthew Tindal (c. 1653 - August 16, 1733), English deist, the son of a clergyman, was born at Beer Ferrers (Ferris), Devonshire, probably in 1653.

He studied law at Lincoln College, Oxford, under the high churchman George Hickes, dean of Worcester; in 1678 he was elected fellow of All Souls College. About 1685 he saw "that upon his High Church notions a separation from the Church of Rome could not be justified," and accordingly he joined the latter. But discerning "the absurdities of popery," he returned to the Church of England at Easter 1688.

His early works were an Essay of Obedience to the Supreme Powers (1694); an Essay on the Power of the Magistrate and the Rights of Mankind in Matters of Religion (1697); and The Liberty of the Press (1698). The first of his two larger works, The Rights of the Christian Church associated against the Romish and all other priests who claim an independent power over it, pt. i., appeared anonymously in 1706 (2nd ed., 1706; 3rd, 1707; 4th, 1709). The book was regarded in its day as a forcible defence of the Erastian theory of the supremacy of the state over the Church, and at once provoked criticism and abuse.

After several attempts to proscribe the work had failed, a case against the author, publisher and printer succeeded on December 14 1707, and another against a bookseller for selling a copy the next day. The prosecution did not prevent the issue of a fourth edition and gave the author the opportunity of issuing A Defence of the Rights of the Christian Church, in two parts (2nd ed., 1709). The book was, by order of the House of Commons, burned, along with Sacheverell's sermon, by the common hangman (1710). It continued to be the subject of denunciation for years, and Tindal believed he was charged by Dr Gibson, bishop of London, in a Pastoral Letter, with having undermined religion and promoted atheism and infidelity--a charge to which he replied in the anonymous tract, An Address to the Inhabitants of London and Westminster, a second and larger edition of which appeared in 1730. In this tract he makes a valiant defence of the deists, and anticipates here and there his Christianity as Old as the Creation; or, the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature (London, 1730, 2nd ed., 1731; 3rd, 1732; 4th, 1733), which was regarded as the "Bible" of deism. It was really only the first part of the whole work, and the second, though written and entrusted in manuscript to a friend, never saw the light. The work evoked many replies, of which the ablest were by James Foster (1730), John Conybeare (1732), John Leland (1833) and Bishop Butler (1736). It was translated into German by J Lorenz Schmidt (1741), and from it dates the influence of English deism on German theology. Tindal had probably adopted the principles it expounds before he wrote his essay of 1697. He claimed the name of "Christian deist," holding that true Christianity is identical with the eternal religion of nature.

The religious system expounded in Christianity as Old as the Creation, unlike the earlier system of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, was based on the empirical principles of Locke. It assumed the traditional deistic antitheses of external and internal, positive and natural, revelations and religions, and perpetuated at the same time the prevalent misconceptions as to the nature of religion and revelation. The system was worked out by the a priori method, with an all but total disregard of the facts of religious history. It starts from the assumptions that true religion must, from the nature of God and things, be eternal, universal, simple and perfect; that this religion can consist of nothing but the simple and universal duties towards God and man, the first consisting in the fulfilment of the second--in other words, the practice of morality. The author's moral system, somewhat confused and inconsistent, is essentially utilitarian. True revealed religion is simply a republication of the religion of nature or reason, and Christianity, if it is the perfect religion, can only be that republication, and must be as old as creation. The special mission of Christianity, therefore, is simply to deliver men from the superstition which had perverted the religion of nature. True Christianity must be a perfectly "reasonable service," reason must be supreme, and the Scriptures as well as all religious doctrines must submit; only those writings can be regarded as divine Scripture which tend to the honour of God and the good of man.

The strength of Tindal's position was the conviction of the essential harmony between man's religious and rational nature. Its weakness from the standpoint of modern theology was that, like the whole religious philosophy of the time, it was founded on a misconception of religion and revelation, and on a disregard of the course of man's religious development.