Joseph Butler, once called “the greatest of all the thinkers of the English Church,” was born at Wantage, Berkshire, in 1692, into a Dissenting (Presbyterian) family. He received his education at dissenting academies, first at Gloucester and then at Tewkesbury. While at Tewkesbury, he undertook an “Examination of the Principles of Nonconformity”, which led him to the Church of England. In spite of his father’s attempts at dissuasion, Butler entered Oriel College, Oxford, in 1715, as a Commoner. He was ordained to the ministry of the Church of England in 1718.
As preacher at the Rolls Chapel for eight years he made his mark, especially for his sermons on human nature. He served as rector of Houghton-le-Skerne and of Stanhope, and as prebendary of Rochester, before his appointment as Bishop of Bristol, and in 1740 he was made Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, when he resigned the living of Stanhope. He declined the offer of the primacy of Canterbury in 1747, saying according to family tradition, that it was “too late to try to support a falling Church”. He accepted the see of Durham in 1750, where he set about repairing the two episcopal residences, appointed three days in every week for public hospitalities, and was munificent in the distribution of his large income. He died at Bath on June 16, 1752, and was buried in Bristol Cathedral.
Butler’s reputation rests chiefly on his incisive apology for orthodox Christianity against the Deist thought prevalent in England at the time. In The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, published in 1736, he maintained by careful argument the “reasonable probability” of Christianity, with action upon that probability as a basis of faith. His rationalism was grounded in a deep personal piety, although he had little sympathy for the enthusiasm of the Wesleyan revival movement. Yet, in their different ways, Bishop Butler and John Wesley both contributed to the renewal of “a falling Church” in eighteenth century England.
take from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980), with additions
O God, by your Holy Spirit you give to some the word of wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith; We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested in your servant Joseph Butler, and we pray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Joseph Butler, Bishop of Durham, are published on the Lectionary Page website.