Middleton, Conyers

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Middleton, Conyers (1683-1750): English Historian

Conyers Middleton introduced critical historical analysis into the debate over whether or not Christian truth was verified by miracles and other signs from God. Middleton’s position in this dispute was ambiguous. He claimed he merely intended to preserve Protestantism against error by anchoring it strictly in the Gospels, as interpreted by common sense, experience, and reason.

Born in Yorkshire, the son of an Anglican clergyman, Middleton was educated at Trinity College and became chief librarian for Cambridge University in 1723. He was widely criticized for his essay A Letter from Rome (1729), which argued many of the Catholic Church’s rituals and beliefs were borrowed from paganism. Even more controversial was his contention in A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (1748) that genuine miracles in Christianity ended with the apostolic age and later examples, often used by Church leaders to justify doctrinal innovations, were delusions or frauds. Middleton could never convincingly defend himself against charges of undermining the validity of all miracles, including those recorded in Scripture. His Life of Cicero (1741) was a popular and profitable book, although he was accused, erroneously, of plagiarizing William Bellenden’s 1634 biography of the Roman statesman.

Largely forgotten today, Middleton nevertheless was significant in engendering modern religious skepticism. Jefferson, Thomas credited Middleton and Priestley, Joseph with inspiring his own nontraditional religious outlook.

Further Reading:

Michael Snow, Conyers Middleton: Polemic Historian, 1683-1750 (1969).

Robert Luehrs

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