Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Book Review: "Miracles in Enlightenment England"

Jane Shaw's new book Miracles in Enlightenment England (Yale University Press) is an important new survey of the debate over miracles in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She argues that what this debate shows is not a measured, steady trend toward skepticism, but rather a broad, wide-ranging discussion over the potentiality of miracles within the Protestant religious culture of post-Restoration England.

Shaw discusses three different streams of thought which arose regarding miracles: first, the doctrine of the cessation of miracles, which argued that miracles as such did not happen after the first few years of the Christian church, and that unexplained occurrences of contemporary times could be explained instead by the imposition of divine "providence" (in effect replacing the miraculous with the providential); second, the re-emergence of miracles or similar events among various Protestant sects (i.e. the Quakers, the Baptists) and in the monarch's "healing touch"; and thirdly the development of a "middle way," as early scientists and clerics sought a way to explain or prove the existence of miracles in some empirical way based on evidence and probability.

These three developments came under fire from the deists in the late seventeenth century, an attack which culminated in Hume's 1748 essay On Miracles (in which he declares them impossible). This debate between deists and what Shaw terms apologists is examined closely, and what Shaw finds is that in the end, even in the middle of the eighteenth century, a huge range of opinions regarding the plausibility of miracles continued to exist.

Shaw offers an excellent scholarly treatment of the works of Valentine Greatrakes, who was the subject of A Small Moment of Great Illumination (review) which I read recently. Her commentary on the role of the Royal Society (Boyle, Oldenburg, &c.) as important arbiters of the miraculous as well as the discussion of some of the leading divines of the day (Stillingfleet, Burnet) is most interesting and well done.

This book is well researched (witness the copious notes and excellent bibliography), well written, and clearly argued. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the beginnings of the Enlightenment and/or English social-religious-political culture in the Restoration period.