Writing about Bishop Edward Synge requires some care. There were three of them, all related. The Edward Synge who is the subject of this post was the son of Edward Synge, bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross. He was also the nephew of George Synge (1594–1653), bishop of Cloyne; and the father of Bishops Edward Synge (1691–1762) and Nicholas Synge (1693–1771).
Edward Synge the Elder, as we will distinguish him from his father and son, was born in Inishannon, Cork on 6 April 1659. After his education in Cork, Oxford and Dublin he was rector in Laracor, Co. Meath (1682–6) and then vicar of Holy Trinity and prebendary of Christ Church, Cork (1686-1706). In that period he wrote his first major work A Gentleman’s Religion (1693), originally published anonymously.
After the challenge of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), Edward Synge added an appendix to later editions of Gentleman’s Religion (David Berman suggests as a direct response.) Toland had argued that religious mysterious such as the Holy Trinity could not be properly part of Christianity since they could not be believed, since they were contrary to or above reason.
While Synge shares Toland’s rationalism, he disagrees that there can be no mysteries in religion. Synge says that, though mysteries cannot be contrary to reason, they can be “above reason” when the “proposition is in itself true, but we are unable to clearly to apprehend or form a Notion or Conception of the things contained under the Terms of it.” Such things a person may have sufficient reason to give assent to. Synge cites a conversation with a blind man, who had no memory of sight whatsoever. Synge asked him if he had any idea of colour or light at all; the blind man replied that he had often tried to gain such an idea, but had failed. He had theorised, says Synge, that others were attempting to fool him by speaking of colours and sight, but their ability to do things that the blind man could not eventually convinced him that they could indeed see. So, concludes Synge, in the same way Scripture can indicate truths that human reason cannot grasp itself.
In making a defence along these lines, Synge joined others such as Peter Browne. After recommendations from William King Archbishop of Dublin, Synge was promoted, becoming Chancellor of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (1705–1714) and then Bishop of Raphoe (1714–1716).
He wrote his second major work in 1715 A Plain and Easy Method whereby a Man of Moderate Capacity may arrive at Full Satisfaction in all Things that concern his Everlasting Salvation. This book aimed to present the Christian faith in an accessible and rational manner – so rational in fact that Browne attacked it as too close to Toland, since it left no room for faith. This suggestion that Synge had deistic leanings was sharply replied to by Synge. It didn’t affect his career, since he was then elevated to Archbishop of Tuam (1716–1741).
Synge argued for toleration in religion, despite joining Archbishop King in resisting the Toleration Act (1719) which gave rights to protestant dissenters. Synge believed that Catholics and Dissenters should not be prosecuted unless they were a real danger to the state and put forward an oath of allegiance that he hoped Catholics would be able to take, allowing them rights in civil society. This was supported with reservations by Cornelius Nary, a Catholic priest who replied to Synge’s A Charitable Address to the Catholics of Ireland resulting in a series of printed tracts back and forth. In the introduction to Synge’s last pamphlet in the debate, he put forward the following theory: “That men may live virtuously and holily in this life, and be eternally happy in the next, and that God may thereby be glorified in their salvation, is the only end and design of religion”1.
Lecky says that Synge had great influence with the gentry of Ireland, even more than Archbishop King. Modern commentators would agree he was one of the most influential religious commentators of his time, publishing nearly sixty volumes of sermons and religious tracts in his lifetime. Edward Synge bishop of Tuam died on 24th July, 1741.
- Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, SYNGE, Edward the elder, by Peter Kail.
- Dictionary of Irish Biography, Synge, Edward by Marie-Louise Legg
- A Gentleman’s Religion (fifth edition). The Appendix starts on page 275.
- Post Reformation Digital Library: Edward Synge
- Quoted in Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy, p. 183 ↩