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26 Apr

Debating Hume on Miracles

A group of wigged gentlemen sit around a table in discussion. They are attended by a servant and a gun-dog. One man, dressed in blue, stares out at the viewer.

On the Strand in London in 1748, a large clergyman of majestic appearance carrying a weighty manuscript entered the shop of the famous printer and bookseller Andrew Millar. In an accent that marked him as an Ulster man, he asked if Millar would buy the manuscript to print. Millar asked that the manuscript be left in the shop for a few days, so Millar could submit it to an expert who could judge if it was worth the cost of printing. The clergyman did so. Later, (the yet more famous) David Hume came to Millars and examined the manuscript for a few hours, then told Millar, print. It was a good call: the two-volume book was one of the most popular books in its day, requiring a second edition after just over a year. The author got £200 which he spent in book purchases1

The book was Ophiomaches, or Deism Revealed (1749, known as Deism Revealed in the 1751 and subsequent editions) and the writer was Lisburn-born Philip Skelton. The story reveals Hume’s generosity to critics, because the book contains the earliest criticism of Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Skelton had only seen Hume’s Enquiry when travelling to London with his manuscript of Ophiomaches, a book attacking deism in the form of dialogues. He was shown it by Dr Connebear in Oxford and added replies to Hume’s work at Connebear’s request. One of the most important changes was the reworking of the fifth dialogue of Ophiomaches to address Hume’s essay on miracles2

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04 May

Orthodox Opinions, Primitive Manners: the dramatic life of 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

In the dead of night, the lady was awoken by voices. The first begged that the household rise and pray for the speaker, a poor sinner. The second, the house-owner Robert Plunket, tried to comfort the first, telling him he was a charitable, pious clergyman, with few or none as good as he. The seeker of prayers was the rector of the parish, Philip Skelton, who rented an earth-floored room from Plunket for lack of a rectory.

It was true that the clergyman toiled for the people in the parish of Templecarn, instructing them in religion (whether they wanted it or not), distributing charity and even acting as doctor when needed. A place of wild moorland surrounding Lough Derg, it was not a place where one would expect to find the author of Deism Revealed, one of the most popular books of the age, already in its second edition1 .

This religious despair was (his biographer suggests) a result of his intellectual isolation. The biography also paints Skelton as a person of strong emotion. Born near Lisburn Co. Antrim, in February 1707, in his youth he was strong and handsome, adept at swords, cudgels and boxing and with a “warm” temper. He reportedly fought at Donnybrook Fair, beating all comers but returning the prize-money so the ladies’ entertainment could continue. At Trinity College (where he graduated BA in 1728), he argued with a fellow student, who then accused Skelton of Jacobitism to the Provost, the student’s relation. This resulted in the Provost’s emity towards Skelton for the rest of his life, almost resulting in Skelton losing his scholarship. Yet Skelton also formed a life-long friendship with his tutor, Patrick Delany, friend of Swift2. 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 tombstone3.
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