The Minster and the rectory that once stood on the site of the Empire Theatre and Dun Cow pub was home to one of the most influential, but also controversial, clergymen of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Bishop William Paley

Paley was born in Peterborough in 1743 and grew up in a clergyman and headmaster’s family. He attended Christ’s College in Cambridge from 1759, where he excelled in his studies and won numerous prizes. In 1766 he was ordained as a deacon and worked as a curate in Greenwich, before returning to Cambridge as a fellow of Christ’s College. Here, between 1768 and 1776, Paley taught students moral philosophy. His approach was utilitarian and he argued that ‘whatever renders religion more rational, renders it more credible’. His ideas influenced generations of young clergymen.

In 1775 he was granted a parish in Westmorland in north-west England, to which he moved upon marrying Jane Hewitt in 1776. Paley developed his Cambridge lectures into The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785). Its clear, accessible language made it highly successful and lucrative, with many editions printed. His utilitarian statements in this book that ‘whatever is expedient, is right’, that actions should be judged by their overall ‘tendency’ towards or against ‘public happiness’, and that ‘it is the utility of any moral rule alone which constitutes the obligation of it’ were surprisingly liberal statements for an Anglican minister.

Even more notorious was his analogy of the benefits of monarch to the industry inspired among a flock of pigeons that labours for ‘one, and that the weakest, perhaps worst, pigeon of the flock’. George III did not think Paley was orthodox and in subsequent years he missed out on significant promotions within the church and was nicknamed ‘Pigeon Paley’.

In 1791, his wife died, but Paley continued his writing and preaching and supported prison reform and the end of the slave trade. Following the French Revolution, there was concern that radicals in Britain sought to stir up discontent among the poor. He surprised many of his liberal admirers with a sermon he gave in Dalston, Westmorland in 1793, later published as Reasons for Contentment, Addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public. In this work he discouraged the poor from involving themselves in political debate, to be satisfied with their humble existence, and to look forward to bliss in heaven instead. Radicals attacked him for what they saw as a complacent defence of the established order. Paley believed that the Anglican Church was an important bulwark against disorder, and his extremely successful Evidences of Christianity (1794) defended religious faith, especially the belief in miracles, against Enlightenment scepticism and atheism.

In recognition of his writings, on 14 March 1795, Paley was granted the rectory of Bishopwearmouth by Bishop Shute Barrington of Durham. At this time, the rents attached to the church meant that it was one of the most valuable clerical livings in England. On 14 December 1795, he married Catherine Dobinson from Carlisle. From now on, Paley divided his time between Bishopwearmouth and Lincoln.

During his tenure at Bishopwearmouth, Paley produced his most famous work, Natural Theology (1802), which he dedicated to Bishop Barrington. The book aims to prove, from the evidence of nature and the universe that the world was designed by God. It begins with a famous analogy, comparing the universe to the intricate mechanism of a watch (then an expensive new piece of technology), and deducing in both cases a creator of that complex mechanism. Legend has it that Paley delayed working on the book to enjoy the fly-fishing season.

From 1800, Paley’s health declined and he died in Lincoln in 1805.

As a Cambridge student in the 1820s, Charles Darwin read Natural Theology and admired Paley’s skill as a writer, even if he sought an alternative to Paley’s argument from design. Paley’s book may well have been an important influence that led him to develop his theory of evolution and the title of Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker (1986) is a nod to Paley’s famous analogy.

 

Extracts from Natural Theology (1802):

Chapter One

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be enquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch, as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case, as the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the several parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use, that is now served by it. […] the inference we think, is inevitable; that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

Chapter Two

The conclusion which the first examination of the watch, of its works, construction, and movement suggested, was, that it must have had, for the cause and author of that construction, and artificer, who understood its mechanism, and designed its use. This conclusion is invincible. A second examination presents us with a new discovery. The watch is found, in the course of its movement, to produce another watch, similar to itself: and not only so, but we perceive in it a system of organization, separately calculated for that purpose. What effect would this discovery have, or ought it to have, upon our former inference? What, as hath already been said, but to increase, beyond measure, our admiration of the skill, which had been employed in the formation of such a machine? Or shall it, instead of this, all at once turn us round to an opposite conclusion, viz. that no art of skill whatever has been concerned in the business, although all other evidences of art and skill remain as they were, and this last and supreme piece of art be now added to the rest? Can this be maintained without absurdity? Yet this is atheism.

 

Sources

James E. Crimmins, ‘William Paley (1743-1805)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21155, accessed 2 Sept 2016]

Matthew D. Eddy and David M. Knight, Introduction to William Paley, Natural Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).