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Debating Hume on Miracles

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

In “On Miracles”3 Hume argues that “A wise man […] proportions his belief to the evidence” (E10.4), including the reliability of the testimony and the probability of the reported event. “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined” (E 10.12). The Indian prince, Hume says, who refused to believe reports of frost reasoned justly (E 10.100).

Frontispiece of “Ophiomaches : or, Deism revealed” (1749)

In the fifth dialogue of Deism Revealed4 , Skelton’s deist character Dechaine summarises Hume’s argument as follows: “when testimonies are alleged for facts, we are to weigh the improbability of the facts against the credibility of the witnesses” and that “no testimony of men for the resurrection of one who was dead, can be as strong as this evidence of experience” (p. 15).

But the theist mouthpiece, Shephard, proceeds to use Hume’s theory of inductive reasoning against Hume’s argument against miracles. Experience tells us the sun will rise tomorrow, but “it implies no contradiction to say it will not arise” (p. 16), an echo of Hume: “it implies no contradiction, that the course of nature may change” (Enquiry, E 4.18). So the fact no one has experience of people rising from the dead does not, according to Hume’s own arguments, give warrant to assert it is definitely impossible. Shephard argues that it would be unreasonable to expect a messenger from God not to be associated with miracles (in Hume’s “contrary to experience” sense); if he wasn’t, why should a Plato or a modern philosopher believe him? (p. 17)

Against Hume’s Indian prince, Skelton sets an enlightened African who will believe in ice “from the repeated, disinterested testimony of northern people…who have no temptation to combine, in order to impose on him in a thing of this nature.” His conviction would be increased if those testifying have much to lose by lying and keep to their story even at the risk of being put to death (p. 19). The two are not so unalike: in Hume’s account the Indian prince is finally convinced by “very strong testimony to engage his assent to facts, that arose from a state of nature with which he was unacquainted” – but based on Hume’s earlier argument, it would seem that he shouldn’t.

Skelton’s dialogue “does not generate asserted conclusions, [but] the impression left [is] that Hume has not provided a serious threat to belief in miracles”5

Skelton was the first but was far from the only person attacking Hume’s essay on miracles. It was the most answered of all Hume’s essays in the Enquiry. Philip Skelton’s bishop, Robert Clayton (possibly the model for Skelton’s deist character Dechaine6, also argued against Hume in his A vindication of the histories of the Old and New Testament (1752)7. Clayton’s argument goes back to Locke, to determine the criteria for testimony which he finds Hume is “far from treating this matter in as masterly a manner as Mr Locke” (p. 165.) Using these, Clayton lays out the number of witnesses (surprisingly, he reduces these to four, and accepts Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses), their integrity (“the evidence of their integrity is so glaring and manifest that one would think it sufficient to overcome even the diffidence of Mr. Hume.”, p. 166), their skill, the aim of the author, consistency and circumstances, and contrary testimonies. Based on these, Clayton says, the New Testament testimony is irreproachable8

Unlike Skelton who was orthodox to a fault, Robert Clayton had unorthodox Arian-type views, shown already in the anonymous Essay in Spirit (1751), possibly written in answer to his curate Skelton’s Opiomaches and The Censor Censored (1750). Clayton’s third part of the Vindication of the Old and New Testament published in 1757 was sufficiently extreme that the government ordered a prosecution against him. Clearly different versions of unorthodox belief were not automatically friendly to each other9.

John Leland, a dissenting minister, made extensive criticisms of David Hume in the later editions of his View of the Principal Deistical writers. Much of his argument against Hume on miracles draws on earlier criticism by Irish and English writers. He does, however, anticipate Paley (natural theologian famous for the watchmaker analogy) in finding the key issue being Hume’s use of the term “experience”: “It is…a kind of cant term, proposed in a loose indeterminate way” (p. 286.). Once the meaning of “experience” is refined, direct experience of a miracle can be seen as possible, and testimony can be a way to judge if an event we did not experience really occurred. Leland also follows Clayton in reviewing Hume’s criteria of evidence. Leland argues that based on Hume’s own criteria, the testimony for the New Testament is sound 10

Skelton may have been the Irish critic that Hume noticed most: David Berman suggests that Hume’s character Demea in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion may have been based on Skelton/Shepard11. Towards the end of his life Philip Skelton decided that arguing against Hume was ultimately pointless. In a criticism of the Common Sense school, he declared Hume would have been better left alone: “His scepticism is the strongest Refutation and the severest Satire on Philosophy, whether in or out of the Church, that ever was or ever will be published.” 12 Readers are free to judge for themselves!

Further Reading

Alexander Stewart (2005) “Hume’s reception in Ireland” (chap.1) in Peter Jones (ed.) The reception of David Hume in Europe, London : Continuum, p. 12-29.

Thomas Duddy (2002) A History of Irish Thought London:Routledge, pp. 309-310 (Skelton), 120- (Clayton).


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. Featured Image: A Club of Gentlemen – Joseph Highmore (c. 1730)
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  1. Samuel Burdy (1792/1914) The Life of Philip Skelton reprint of 1792 edition with preface by Norman Moore, London: (Archive.org, pp. 29, 10, 100-1, 106
  2. Burdy (1792/1914), pp. 98-99. Burdy speaks of the “Essays” but the book we know was published as Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding, see 1777 edition frontispiece here.
  3. David Hume (1748, 1777) “Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding, London: Andrew Millar (Online at davidhume.org)
  4. Philip Skelton (1751) Deism Revealed Vol II, London:Andrew Millar (Google books)
  5. Tom L. Beauchamp (2000) “Introduction: A history of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in Tom L. Beauchamp (eds) and David Hume An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: A Critical Edition, Oxford: Claredon Press, p. lxxxiv.
  6. David Berman (2004a) “Skelton, Philip” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes, pp. 309-10.
  7. Robert Clayton (1752, 1759) A vindication of the histories of the Old and New Testament London : Reprinted for W. Bowyer.
  8. Alexander Stewart (2005) “Hume’s reception in Ireland” (chap.1) in Peter Jones (ed.) The reception of David Hume in Europe, London : Continuum, p. 12-29. See pp. 15-6.
  9. David Berman (2004a), p. 310. David Berman (2004b) “Clayton, Robert” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes, pp. 75-77. See p. 77.
  10. Norman Vance (2004) “Leland, John” in Thomas Duddy (ed)A Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes, pp. 192-5. Beauchamp (2000), p. lxxxi. Stewart (2005), pp. 16-7.
  11. Berman (2004a), p. 309.
  12. Quoted in Stewart (2005) p. 15.
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