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04 May

Orthodox Opinions, Primitive Manners: Philip Skelton

Early or pre-Christian statue, Boa Island, Loch Erne Wikimedia, Public Domain

Early or pre-Christian statue, Boa Island, Loch Erne, near Pettigo
Wikimedia, Public Domain

Philip Skelton, a scholar and prolific writer on religious matters, was born near Lisburn Co. Antrim in February 1707. He studied in Trinity, graduating BA in 1728. In 1729 he became a curate in of Drummilly, County Fermanagh, moving to a curacy in Monaghan in 1732 where he stayed until 1750, with a brief interlude in 1742-3 as tutor to James Caulfeild, later 1st Earl of Charlemont. Between 1750 and 1759 he was Church of Ireland Minister in Pettigo, later obtaining the living of Devenish, County Fermanagh (allowing him to live in Enniskillen) from 1759 to 1766, finally moving to Fintona (or Donacavey) County Tyrone. He retired to Dublin in 1780, dying on 4th May 1787, and buried near the west door of St. Peter’s Church.

So far, so orthodox, apparently, but Philip Skelton was a memorable man.

His biography is filled with anecdotes (some of which appear in Wikipedia). In his youth he was strong and handsome, adept at swords, cudgels and boxing and with a “warm” temper. At Trinity the Provost became his enemy (a fellow student and relative of the Provost who Skelton was to duel accused Skelton of Jacobinism.) However Skelton also formed a lifelong friendship with his lecturer Patrick Delany (part of Swift’s circle). This was a repeating pattern in his life – he had warm friendships, but his forthright manner, inability to lie and habit of dissolving friendships when affronted meant he remained in a lowly position in the Church of Ireland hierarchy. Hence “as his opinions were orthodox, his manners were primitive”, a description of him included on his tombstone (Life, p. 245).

His orthodox opinions are clearly shown in his writing. His major concern was divisions in the Anglican church. In the 1730s he published a number of pamphlets, including A Letter to the Authors of Divine Analogy and the Minute Philosopher (1733) calling on Berkeley and Peter Browne to abandon their theological differences in the interest of church unity against deism, A Vindication of the Right Rec. the Bishop of Winchester (1736), which satirically attacked Benjamin Hoadly’s work on Communion and Some Proposals for the Revival of Christianity(1736).

deism revealed

His major work was Ophiomaches, or Deism Revealed (1749, subsequent editions were published as Deism Revealed). The aim of this book is to “bring real Deism and real Christianity, into the field, to confront each other”, removing the confusion involved when deists like Toland presented themselves as Christians and Christians such as Locke and Clarke used deistic arguments. Skelton opposes the view that a person can know the truth and live a good life without the help of (religious) revelation.

The book takes the form of eight dialogues. The fifth dialogue contains the earliest criticism of Hume’s essay “On Miracles”, with Skelton’s mouthpiece “Shephard” asserting that experience cannot rule out such miracles as Jesus’ resurrection and that God’s compassion for humanity would lead to sending a miracle-worker as emissary. (Skelton’s biographer reports that Skelton only saw Hume’s Essays when shown them by Dr Connebear in Oxford, while travelling to London in 1748 to get the book printed, and added replies at Connebear’s request. See pp. 98-99) The eighth dialogue contains a history of deism from Lord Herbert of Cherbury to the 1740s, and was extended in later editions.

According to his biography, when Skelton submitted the work to the printer, Andrew Millar, Millar asked for permission for a “gentleman of great abilities” to judge if it was worthy of printing. Apparently Millar submitted the work to David Hume himself who came to the shop, “examined it here and there for about an hour, and then said to Andrew, print” (p. 100). The biography reports that, though defective in style, the book was popular, requiring a second printing just over a year later.

David Berman (p. 310) says that it seems to have been widely read in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though forgotten now. It was not universally praised: one reviewer objected to Skelton’s apparent assumption that the smallest deviation from orthodoxy was enough to make you an deist (Fieser, p. 1). Coleridge reading 75 years later noted in the margins of the book, “so great a man” but also “a Bit of a Bully” (quoted in Berman, p. 310)

Skelton’s bishop Robert Clayton was not particularly enthusiastic either. He reportedly told the Bishop of London offhandedly that the writer was a curate in his diocese when the book was discussed. Given that Clayton was an Arian, that is probably not surprising. Skelton’s work probably provoked Clayton’s notorious Letter on Spirit against the doctrine Trinity. The Bishop of London’s subsequent offer of promotion to Skelton if Skelton wrote on morals characteristically received an off-handed reply (Life, pp. 106-7).

Hume was not the only Scottish Enlightenment philosopher that Skelton argued against. During a visit to a Northern bishop, Skelton managed to annoy the Bishop’s wife, who apparently was all but the bishop herself. She was a fan of Francis Hutcheson and arranged to have a book by a disciple of Hutcheson placed in Skelton’s room. The next morning she sent a deacon to discuss the book with Skelton, but Skelton described the book as full of nonsense, raising her ire (Life, pp. 107-8).

This period of Skelton’s life also saw a more unexpected publication – Richardson’s novel Clarissa was published around this date, and Skelton’s letter of commendation was included in later editions. (One commentator suggests Skelton is stretching a point calling Clarissa realistic. If half his Life is accurate, it probably seemed perfectly so to him.)

That letter was written in 1750, the year Skelton was sent to Pettigo, remote from scholarly company. He continued to write, though the isolation seems to have encouraged hypochondria and religious despair. Norman Moore in the preface to the reprinted “Life” suggests that Skelton knew the Catholic bishop and prior on Lough Derg (a site of pilgrimage) and may have read John Colgan’s Trias Thaumaturga on Patrick. The biography itself reports that Skelton always “had a regard for those of the Catholic persuasion” due to the preservation of his family farm by neighbouring Catholics, citing him as saying that “the poor original Irish were naturally faithful, humane and adverse to blood” (Life, p. 12). Moore tells us that Skelton was still remembered in Pettigo in 1880. (Today Skelton is featured on the Pettigo.org website).

St Peter's Church, 1880 Wikimedia, Public Domain

St Peter’s Church, 1880
Wikimedia, Public Domain

Skelton was moved to a less rural parish after the death of Clayton. His biography describes many charitable works he performed, especially in terms of famine relief, including twice selling his library to raise relief funds. He continued to write, with his admiration for honesty in religion shown in his tract Observations on a late Resignation. In the tract he argues against William Robertson’s An Attempt to explain the Words, Reason, Substance, which suggests the church should abandon all disputed theological points but Skelton goes on to praise Robertson’s resignation from the Established Church on grounds of principle. Skelton later offered Robertson financial support, an offer which Robertson refused but that triggered an long-term correspondence between them.

Despite his work and prolific publications, he is largely forgotten today. Even his grave is lost, with St. Peters Church being demolished in the 1980s.

References and Further Reading

David Berman (2004) “Skelton, Philip” in Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thomas Duddy (ed), pp. 309-10.

Samuel Burdy (1914) The Life of Philip Skelton, reprint of 1792 edition with preface by Norman Moore. (Archive.org)

Philip Skelton Deism Revealed (Google, 2nd ed)

James Fieser, Early Responses to Hume’s Writings on Religion

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