Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Letter to Venn
By Conyers Middleton (16831750)
SIR, I have been well informed, that some time ago you took the liberty to call me by name an apostate priest. I find the same calumny more publicly repeated in the Miscellany of 15th February, on a certain person, not named, whose writings have had the misfortune to displease you; and as you are said to be concerned in the furnishing out this weekly paper, in partnership with another worthy divine, so I cannot avoid considering myself as the object of your abuse in both cases.
The only thing that puzzles me, is to discover by what principle of Christianity you think yourself justified in such a licence of calumniating; or how you can imagine a behaviour so shocking to good nature, good sense, and good manners, to be the effect of any good religion.
There must needs be some strange mistake between us on one side or the other. The word religion, perhaps, may have something in it equivocal, and denote quite a different thing with you and with me. If your religion prescribes, permits, or does not condemn, all such defamation as impious and detestable, you clear me at once of apostasy; for that religion was never mine; and I cannot be charged with deserting what I had never professed.
Be so good, sir, as to favour me with some account of this matter. I have a right, I think, to require at least this satisfaction. You are the only man who has ventured to call me an apostate; and if you are an honest man, you would not be particular in your accusation without a particular assurance of the truth of it; nor so forward with your charge, without being as ready with your proof. Tell me, then, in Gods name, nay, tell the public all that you know of me: speak out freely; charge everything, that either your own malice suggests, or that of others has supplied you with. If you can convict me of anything immoral or irreligious, of any apostacy from what is laudable or virtuous, I will take shame to myself and own it; if not, shall seek no other revenge than that of leaving you to the reproach of your conscience, and the scorn of all good men.
I could wish likewise to be informed, of what use it can be to the interest of Christianity, of what advantage to religion, to proclaim to the world that I am an apostate. Should your Miscellany fall into the hands of men wavering in the faith, staggering at every scruple, shaken by every breath of scandal, and there must be many such in this sceptical age, might it not be of weight enough in the equilibrium of their doubts, to turn the scale on the infidel side, to be assured by you, that a clergyman, trained in the bosom of the church, of some reputation and many friends, after a life spent in temperance, study, and the search of truth, had by choice and judgment deserted it? It is the constant policy of all sects, to challenge to their party any man of merit, supposed even on the slightest grounds to have discovered some inclination to them; but your absurd zeal would forcibly drive from the service of religion men of virtue and learning, against their will, against their profession, against truth.
These were the men, who first began the clamour, and raised the first envy upon me; and I am now but paying the arrears of that old grudge, as you seem to intimate in this very Miscellany; for you say, that it was natural for me to hate, what I had before betrayed; as if there was a guilt upon me, previous to that I have been lately charged with, and the era of my apostacy was to bear the same date with my Letter from Rome. The more I reflect on your rashness, the more I am inclined to impute it to some selfish motive of interest, some hopes of glory or of gain to accrue from it. It is common with the writers of your class to run the risk of a pillory to raise the fame and value of their weekly productions; and we read of a hero in antiquity, who set the temple of his country on fire, to perpetuate his name to posterity. In this view you act consistently, though in all views wickedly. But to talk of reforming morals, and recommending religion, by a method destructive of all morality, and contrary to all religion, is a mere banter and affront to common sense. But whilst you dispense so freely the titles of profane and apostate, let me recommend to you to consider the history of that first and chief apostate, the pattern, as well as author, of every apostacy in the world. You will find his abominable qualities summed up in this short character, The accuser of the brethren (Rev. xii. 10). You will find him described as defaming day and night; continually going about roaring and seeking to devour. This, says St. John, is the old dragon, which is the Devil, and Satan (Rev. xx. 2). And what, sir, is the Devil, that is Satan, but names drawn from his very essence, signifying the adversary, the hater, the accuser of mankind? His followers, like their master, are described by David, under the person of Doeg, the malicious accuser of the priests, with tongues that devise mischief, that love devouring words (Psal. lii. 2, 4); and as men set on fire, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword (Psal. lvii. 4). This is the grand, the sovereign apostasy, the defection from all religion; a delight in defaming, an alacrity in accusing; and I leave it to you to determine, where the reproach of it is the most likely to fall, on yourself or on me. You have called me an apostate; all people, I daresay, or at least all who know me, will be shocked at it; but should I chance to describe a certain priest by the title of the accuser, there is scarce a man in England who would not immediately think on Mr. Venn. A reflection sufficient, methinks, to admonish you, that instead of being so busy with other mens characters, it behoves you much more to turn your thoughts and attention to your own.
But if it be possible, after all, that I should ever have it in my power to say of you, what you declare of me, that through a conviction of your wickedness, you had changed your conduct, and desisted from calumniating; I should still act on this, as I shall do on every occasion, just contrary to the example you set me; I should rejoice in the change, begin to entertain hopes and a better opinion of you, and forget the accuser to applaud the convert.