*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 19th of October 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Today is the anniversary of the death of Jonathan Swift in 1745. You’ve probably heard of Swift, a famous Anglo-Irish author who wrote Gulliver’s Travels among other satires and political treatises. I myself pretended to read “A Modest Proposal” when it was assigned to me as a junior higher. And I only knew of the Mickey Mouse cartoon version of Gulliver’s Travels and thought it was just a story about a guy living on an island with very small people.
Swift has since become one of my favorite Enlightenment-era authors, thinkers, and Christians. But it is his faith that is so often overlooked, despite being an ordained Anglican priest and the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Today on the show on the anniversary of his death, let me present you with a thumbnail sketch of the faith of Ireland’s greatest satirist: Jonathan Swift.
Swift was Anglo-Irish, born to English parents in Ireland, he would nonetheless gladly obscure the answers of his origins. He seemed to delight in taking on personas in his work. His personal life is somewhat obscured by his own possible mental illness. His relationships to certain women seem secretive and complicated. It seems that Kierkegaard was something of a Danish Swift.
His life has to be understood in the context of the Restoration of the British Monarchy in 1660 and the Glorious revolution of 1688. We should keep in mind his constant moving between Ireland and England on account of political and religious disturbances. You had three main branches of Christianity in the British isles at the time: the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, and the dissenting Protestant groups. In this context, Swift published his first major work albeit anonymously: A Tale of the Tub. It’s a purposefully perplexing read. There are digressions and tangents and while the whole thing is worth working through, the actual Tale of the Tub tells us what we need to know about Swift’s view of the state of the church. The tale is about one of three brothers whose father dies and leaves them his will and each a coat. The brothers are Peter, Martin, and Jack. Peter represents the Catholic Church while Jack represents the dissenters and Martin represents the Anglican Church.
[Peter represents St. Peter who the Catholics who was the first bishop of Rome, Jack is a common nickname for John who would probably be John Calvin and representative of the dissenters and then interestingly Martin would represent the moderating Anglican Church]
The will tells the sons that they are not to do anything to their coats but when a fashion trend sweeps in Peter starts adorning his jacket with non-will approved baubles and soon Jack and Martin start to do the same albeit Jack wildly and Martin with some caution.
The book was blasted for being anti-Christian. Like his later misunderstood satire “A Modest Proposal” it came from his desire to save the church from absurdity and pain. A Modest Proposal was written out of disgust for the English Christians contempt for the suffering of their Irish brothers and sisters. A Tale of the Tub was written by a committed Anglican priest who sought to engage in questions of tradition and history.
Other sections in the tale of the Tub, and certainly large portions of his later Gulliver’s Travels deal with the paradox of an enlightened society dealing with its own sin and blindness. Like Kierkegaard, Swift wrote in pseudonyms and as a variety of different narrators. He lived between contempt for the folly of society but with a deep love for his neighbors suffering under that folly. He wrote
“I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals…I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years”
Swift was unwell during the last years of his life and he died on this, the 19th of October in 1745. His tombstone carries the epitaph he composed for himself, it includes Here Lies Jonathan Swift “where savage indignation can no longer tear his heart.” Born in 1667 Jonathan Swift was 77 years old.
The last word for today comes from the book of Job:
“O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;[d]
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 19th of October 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man of Brobdingnagian stature. He is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a real Yahoo, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.