Defoe on Dissenters and Damsels

by Paul Mathers

The song above is by Noël Coward (one of my favorite people in the history of people). It is a satirical song about the reaction of certain types to World War II, specifically the leg of it fought on British soil. To fully grasp the irony of the piece, one should imagine listening to it in a London that looks like this:

ImageMy intention is to highlight the importance of tone, tact, and taste. Daniel Defoe, in his essay The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters: or Proposals for the Establishment of the Church, lacks all three of these qualities. Or, rather, he does have a tone, it is simply the vitriolic hate-speak that we are wallowing in with today’s prevailing agitprop school of journalism. At some point, the din of hollering turns into white noise. In the days of Dr. Eliot, such pieces, judiciously placed, may have retained the intended power of the speaker. Today, I find it difficult not to tune out such a piece as I would an O’Reilly or a Michael Savage.

To illustrate that last remark, here is a sampling of said vitriol:

“I answer, It is cruelty to kill a snake or a toad in cold blood, but the poison of their nature makes it a charity to our neighbors, to destroy those creatures!”

Uh oh.

“not for any personal injury received, but for prevention; not for the evil they have done, but the evil they may do! Serpents, toads, vipers, &c., are noxious to the body, and poison the sensitive life: these poison the soul! corrupt our posterity! ensnare our children!”

Won’t somebody please think of the children!

“destroy the vitals of our happiness, our future felicity! and contaminate the whole mass!”

Who are the snakes and toads in question? Those who were not in the Church of England. Yeah, it’s one of those. It was written post-Restoration, with Queen Anne newly enthroned, in response to the Dissenter’s call for Christian unity and peace. Here are a few choice bits from the summation at the end of the piece:

“Alas, the Church of England! What with Popery on one hand, and Schismatics on the other, how has She been crucified between two thieves. NOW, LET US CRUCIFY THE THIEVES!”

“Let all true sons of so holy and oppressed a Mother, exasperated by her afflictions, harden their hearts against those who have oppressed her!”

Within the history of the Christian church, there are so many examples of those who claim to be within the Church writing the most anti-Christian messages imaginable. If one were compiling what would likely be a horse-choking tome of such pieces, this would be an essential inclusion. I understand the complexities of that particular point in history. And I do not wish to suggest that there are not times in which a firm hand is necessary for the correction of a society. However, to sacrifice your ideals on the altar of your ideals is absolute foolishness… and par for the course of human history.

Hot on the heels of this infernal rhetoric, I had the perfect example of finding a regrettable person on your side. Sometimes you really do not want a person to be in agreement with you due to their highly visible, disgraceful behavior in other arenas.

Defoe argues, from the vantage point of a remarkably less enlightened age, for the education of women for the betterment of society in general. Sounds great, right? Well, maybe, until you read his reasons. His chief reason why women ought to be educated is that they would then make better wives and more amusing companions to men.

And so, I now can articulate why I dislike Daniel Defoe.

Did I enjoy it? No. Did I gain from reading it? Yes. Would I recommend them? … Yes, I suppose I would after I had put as fine a point as I possibly could on the importance of reading and understanding the opinions of the despicable, for the purpose of understanding why they are wrong.