Edward Gibbon

John W. Draper on the Rise and Corruption of Christianity

Historians of science have long been frustrated that “no reference stains the clear white pages” of John W. Draper’s work. But searching for Draper’s sources has been made easier in recent years thanks to online databases and search engines such as Google Books. One particularly interesting search I’ve recently come across had to do with Draper’s understanding of the rise of Christianity. In his 1863 A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, Draper spends several chapters discussing the origins and progress of Christianity. At the outset, he makes an important distinction that scholars have usually ignored.

I here, at the outset, emphatically distinguish between Christianity and ecclesiastical organizations. The former is a gift of God; the latter are the product of human exigencies and human invention, and therefore open to criticism, or, if need be, to condemnation.

Now, historians have typically taken Andrew D. White at his word when he claimed in his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) that Draper failed to make such distinctions between “religion” and “theology.” But in his Intellectual Development of Europe, that is exactly what Draper did.

The argumentative spine of Draper’s discussion is actually borrowed from an older author. In these chapters Draper is laying out essentially a “pagano-papism” polemic. Here he quotes “a very astute ecclesiastical historian,” writing that

A clear and unpolluted fountain, fed by secret channels with the dew of Heaven, when it grows a large river, and takes a long and winding course, receives a tincture from the various soils through which it passes.

This “tincture,” according to Draper, is ultimately what had corrupted primitive Christianity. The ecclesiastical historian in question was John Jortin (1698-1770), the quote taken from his well-known and popular Remarks on Ecclesiastical History, a five-volume collection first published in 1751. Jortin was the product of the Huguenot diaspora, his father a refugee from the persecutions of Louis XIV. Interestingly enough, Edward Gibbon had also made several approving references to Jortin in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a text which Draper almost certainly made use of as well. Gibbon, for example, noted that Jortin had treated the Arian controversy “with learning, candour, and ingenuity” and he described him as “a correct and liberal scholar.” According to ODNB, Jortin’s writings “constitute the most significant Anglican ecclesiastical history of the eighteenth century and were written from a markedly latitudinarian perspective.”

That Draper found inspiration from the historical work of an ecclesiastic who had rejected the Athanasian creed, but not “Christianity” nor religion, should complicate our understanding of his philosophy of religion.