There were a number of important catalysts. In the later seventeenth century, after a long period in which population expansion and short­age of resources had underpinned the tightening of attitudes towards immorality, demographic pressure levelled off and living standards started to rise: against this backdrop, fears about bastardy gradually receded.[8] The general ideal of personal liberty, meanwhile, was greatly enhanced by the political developments of the seventeenth and eight­eenth centuries. From the English Civil War to the American Revolution and beyond, tension between governmental authority and the rights of the subject was a central political issue, and ‘liberty’ per­haps the most potent ideological concept of all. What limits should be placed upon personal autonomy was a question not just about private conscience, but about the whole sphere of public action. It is no sur­prise that by the early eighteenth century many commentators linked the apparent rise of immorality to this growing spirit of political inde­pendence. The general presumption of personal freedom had grown so strong and unbounded, observed a bishop in 1730, that it had spawned a doctrine of moral licentiousness:

Nothing is thought liberty, which does not leave men an unrestrained power of saying and doing what they please, at least in every thing relating to them­selves. Reasonable liberty is a language they don’t understand; liberty in their opinion, ceases to be so, the minute it comes under rules and limitations.1

A more direct influence was the passage of the Toleration Act (1689), which legalized nonconformist worship. This did not happen because the intellectual arguments for toleration had become widely accepted. On the contrary, most mainstream opinion remained crit­ical of the idea. The new law was proposed only as a limited, regrettable, political concession, after the revolution of 1688 had deposed James II, and was meant to gain the support of religious dis­senters for the new regime, not as an inherently desirable policy. (Indeed, many churchmen rapidly came to regret its passage, and worked towards its repeal).2 Yet in practice it soon established a more or less complete freedom of conscience, at least for nominally Protest­ant men and women. It also made it possible for people to avoid worship altogether, despite the letter of the law. Above all, the estab­lishment of toleration helped to weaken the presumption that plurality in matters of faith inevitably caused social disorder. Despite the con­tinued ferocity of religious and political divisions after the Glorious Revolution, it became increasingly common to stress that divergence of speech and belief was inevitable, and that laws should govern only actions, not thoughts. English public life thus came to be character­ized by an unprecedented diversity of opinion and expression.

The question of to what extent personal freedom should extend to private actions as well as to beliefs was thrown into especially sharp focus by the campaign for reformation of manners. This also politi­cized the issue, so that the enforcement of sexual discipline became closely bound up with religious and party politics. For the movement was driven primarily by Whigs, and by dissenters and their sympa­thizers. Their method, of organizing themselves into private societies and punishing sinners through secular means, implicitly defied the Church of England’s authority. It also raised again the spectre of dan­gerous Interregnum precedents, as ‘reformation of manners’ had been a Puritan slogan. For such reasons the movement provoked fierce opposition from Tories and religious conservatives.3

The consequence was that, after 1689, enemies of nonconformity and critics of the campaign regularly attacked dissenters and moral activists for basking in liberty yet denying it to others. Was morality not equally a matter of personal conscience? Who were they to pre­scribe everybody else’s path to salvation? ‘Why can’t you be so civil to do as you would be done by, and give what you take? For is it not reasonable that people should go their own pace as well as their own way to heaven?’ So what if some chose to go slowly, stopping now and again ‘to drink (and it may be whore) by the way’? ‘You are for punk: I am for bottle’, argues a character in John Dennis’s play Gibral­tar (1705). ‘As long as there is liberty of conscience abroad. Why should not every man be damned in his own way?’. ‘Liberty of con­science, you know, Madam’, says Octavio to Belliza in Love’s Contrivance (1703), defending sexual freedom (‘Ay, and men’s con­sciences are very large,’ she replies). On the modern stage, observed the moralist Arthur Bedford, the Toleration Act was ‘particularly applied to encourage adultery’ – ‘If a man can commit a sin without a scruple, they say he hath his liberty by law, and may go on.’4

The growing prominence of this way of thinking hence revealed political and social tensions over the limits of governmental authority, the toleration of nonconformity, and the basis of moral policing. But it also reflected deeper intellectual trends. Three in particular boosted the idea that sexual behaviour was essentially a private matter: chang­ing conceptions of conscience, of punishment, and of moral laws.

The defence of sexual freedom on grounds of conscience grew partly out of arguments for religious indulgence. Some theorists of spiritual liberty did take the idea to its logical conclusion, and argue that one’s conscience should be the ultimate guide in all things. This gradual elevation of personal instinct as the supreme moral arbiter was one of the most striking conceptual developments of the period.5 Nowadays the idea that one should follow one’s conscience when wrestling with ethical problems seems simple and straightforward. Already by 1750 it could be taken for granted: ‘that every man should regulate his actions by his own conscience, without any regard to the opinions of the rest of the world, is one of the first precepts of moral prudence’, noted Samuel Johnson. Before 1700, however, it consti­tuted a direct repudiation of conventional thinking about the inherent corruption of humanity and the fallibility of private scruples. To make sincerity the final judge of sinfulness was to bypass the essential duty of informing one’s self adequately, of seeking truth and taking respon­sibility for error. It unjustifiably presumed that individual men and women could judge right and wrong for themselves, without the aid of scripture, laws, or teachers. It even implied that moral norms might be relative. Of all the seditious doctrines that could poison a com­monwealth, declared Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651), the very first was ‘that every private man is judge of good and evil actions’, and the second, ‘that whatsoever a man does against his conscience, is sin’.6

Yet notions like the supremacy of the ‘inner spirit’ over scripture and outward authority, or the actual presence of God in believers, had a long history. They grew out of medieval and continental mysticism, and were closely connected to orthodox Protestant doctrines about God’s direct, unmediated influence upon his chosen people. The same was true of ideas about Christ’s redemption of humankind and the banishment of all sin through spiritual perfection.

In consequence, they had had a powerful impact in the early years of the Reformation, when questions of marriage and sexuality were opened up to wide-ranging debate. From the 1520s onwards, various radical continental groups experimented with new marital and sexual arrangements, including voluntary divorce and multiple marriage. Several of the leading reformers, including Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and Philipp Melanchthon, were willing to countenance polygamy in certain circumstances. Similar ideas circulated in Eng­land. Some late fourteenth – and early fifteenth-century Lollards had defended extra-marital sex, free love, and divorce. Amongst the Mar­ian martyrs of the 1550s were several who apparently advocated polygamy or community of wives, as did other groups discovered in 1553 and 1572. The influential Bernardino Ochino, whom Arch­bishop Cranmer had brought to London in the reign of Edward VI to help advance the English Reformation, published a notoriously open – minded treatise on the issue. (In it, one character advances at length all the apparent biblical justifications in support of his desire to marry more than one wife. His opponent tries but fails to gainsay him – in the end he is forced simply to conclude that ‘If you then do that to which God shall incline you, so that you are sure that you are led by Divine instigation, you shall not err.’) These were not attempts to enlarge personal freedom so much as to rethink the character of sex­ual purity, discipline, and patriarchy – as well as compulsory polygamy, the Anabaptists of Munster accordingly instituted the death penalty for adultery, fornication, intercourse with a pregnant or menstruating spouse, female bigamy, and even for simply lusting after another man’s wife.7

The lasting influence of these early examples was mainly negative. The association with promiscuity and the horrible example of Mun­ster helped to taint such ideas in the eyes of most observers. Partly in response, mainstream reformers gradually came to reaffirm conven­tional norms of marriage and monogamy. Nonetheless, the underlying ways of thinking persisted amongst some groups on the fringes of the

Church of England.8 For if salvation was a matter of faith alone, as orthodox Calvinism would have it, then one logical conclusion (the so-called ‘antinomian’ view) was that no action, however extreme, could contradict one’s inner purity. In 1616 the charismatic northern preacher Roger Brereley and his congregation were in trouble for alleging, amongst other things, that ‘the christian assured can never commit a gross sin’. Robert Towne, another clergyman active in Lan­cashire and Yorkshire in the 1630s and 1640s, was similarly committed to the view that an enlightened conscience was above the moral law laid down in scripture. Normally such propositions were to be understood in a refined theological and metaphorical sense only. To conclude from them that God’s commandments were not to be obeyed was an error of ‘palpable ugliness, and gross vileness’, com­plained Towne. ‘I was never guilty of lewdness’, protested the Quaker leader James Nayler, ‘I abhor filthiness.’9

Even so, they were sometimes interpreted more loosely. In the febrile atmosphere of the 1640s and 1650s, as in earlier times of spir­itual ferment, they were explored with new-found enthusiasm. In 1650 the popular preacher Laurence Clarkson urged the world that, as all actions were inspired by God, nothing could be sinful if done with a clear conscience, ‘though it be that act called adultery’ – ‘No matter what scripture, saints, or churches say’. Indeed, he implied, to be able to engage in extra-marital sex with a pure mind was a mark of spiritual liberation: ‘for my part, till I acted that so called sin, I could not predominate over sin’, whereas now he felt at one with all his fellow creatures.10

As political and religious authority broke down, the rhetoric of lib­erty and revelation was likewise used by adulterers, bigamists, and sexual adventurers to argue that public discipline was but ‘persecu­tion for conscience’; that it was wrong to restrict a wife to the ‘bondage’ of monogamy; and that when ‘a man did commit adultery [this was] moved and acted by God’.11 The parson of Langley Burrell in Wiltshire, the long-haired, music-loving antinomian Thomas Webbe, set up house with his third wife, his mistress, her husband, and several other men and women. In the early 1650s, when he pub­licly confessed to adultery, and was twice put on trial for it, he was said to have maintained that ‘there’s no heaven but women, nor no hell save marriage’, that ‘God requires no obedience to any scripture – commands’, and that he himself ‘did live above ordinances’ and ‘could lie with any woman except his own mother’. Observing ‘a great cock pigeon’ mating, so one of his companions testified, Webbe had instructed the assembled company that copulation ‘was lawful for every man and woman, and that they ought to take that liberty and freedom one with the other, as those pigeons did, although they were not married the one to the other’.12[9]

Though they provoked considerable publicity, the direct spread of such spiritually inspired doctrines of sexual freedom was always extremely limited.13 Yet in certain respects the intellectual outlook of the antinomians prefigured more general trends. In particular, their emphasis on sin as a matter primarily of personal scruple was increas­ingly shared by theorists of conscience in the more pluralist climate around the turn of the century. Foremost among these was the great Huguenot thinker Pierre Bayle, whose defence of spiritual freedom led him to conclude that, in the end, all moral good and evil lay simply in the intention of the actor. Nothing done in a sincere belief of its rightness could be condemned as wrong. To use one of his favourite examples, a woman who has sex with a man she erroneously believes to be her husband is not guilty of anything; in fact, she does a good thing. In following her conscience, she commits neither adultery nor sin.14

Theologians such as Bayle were always careful to maintain a clear distinction between immoral opinions, which were necessarily pri­vate, and immoral acts, which were not. 1 5 Hence the elevation of conscience did not in itself immediately promote sexual licence. Its main effect was rather to extend the scope of personal liberty to cover all moral judgements and beliefs. In turn, though, this sharpened the division between private ethics and public actions: only the latter were now to be judged by church or state.

Moreover, as it came to be presumed that people’s consciences could not be compelled, the punishment of sexual transgression lost much of its traditional justification. This was the second notable trend. In the 1690s, at the beginning of the campaign for moral reform, it was still widely held that punishing sinners would help bring about their inner reformation. Within a few decades, however, the balance had shifted towards the view that true penitence could not be encouraged by force, only through gentler methods, such as charity, education, and persuasion. The idea of rehabilitation through punishment never went away completely. But the view that men and women’s ethics were essentially private and beyond legal coercion marked a notable reduction in the scope of sexual discipline. The main task left to the law was now only the residual one of upholding public order. It should deal with people’s outward actions, rather than their inner consciences. Its business was only crime, not sin. It was useless trying to reform sinners, conceded the clergyman William Bis – set in 1704. ‘We grant ’tis in their power to do what they will with their own [souls] . . . They may be as secretly wicked, lewd, and worldly as they please’: nobody was going to force them ‘to an heav­enly mind, much less to heaven against their liking’. The aim of policing was simply to make sure that other people were not harmed.16

So the use of the law increasingly came to be seen as separate from, and less fundamental than, the project of making people virtuous. Punishment merely checked the effects of vice; only constructive methods could address the causes of immorality. This separation helps to explain why there was such an upsurge in new forms of philan­thropy in early eighteenth-century England. Charities, educational works, persuasive literature – these were now regarded as the best ways of improving the morals of the lower classes, and vast energies were poured into them. By the 1720s and 1730s even the propaganda of the societies for reformation tended to highlight their various pre­ventative and constructive ‘methods of instruction, admonition, and reproof’: punishment was increasingly seen as appropriate only for the utterly reprobate. The same shift is evident in the new ethos of politeness that became fashionable amongst the propertied classes. Instead of the fear of divine wrath and damnation, arguments against adultery were now increasingly couched in terms of good manners, civility, and conscience. The impulse to virtue was supposed to come from within. None of the leading theorists of politeness had much

regard for punishment. ‘For, tho’ I am a Reformer’, announced Rich­ard Steele in the Tatler, ‘I scorn to be an Inquisitor’ – and he went on to attack the hypocrisy and futility of sexual policing.17

This trend was reinforced by the fading of providence. At a national and communal level, fear of God’s fury had been a major justification for the public punishment of sexual sinners throughout medieval, Tudor, and early Stuart times. During the Interregnum it provided one of the grounds for the passage of the Adultery Act. In the wake of the Glorious Revolution it underpinned the urgent activism of the cam­paign for reformation of manners. Yet as the eighteenth century progressed, most Anglicans and moderate evangelicals came to believe that divine providence worked only ‘generally’, through predictable laws of cause and effect, rather than ‘specially’, by intervening directly to punish particular human action or inaction. This interpretation was also popular with deists and religious sceptics. ‘The providence of the deity’, wrote David Hume in the 1750s, ‘appears not immediately in any operation, but governs every thing by those general and immut­able laws, which have been established from the beginning of time.’ It was ‘plainly false’ that God ever interceded directly: all things depended simply on ‘the general laws of matter and motion’. When the idea was invoked by moral campaigners in the second half of the eighteenth century, its appeal was consequently more limited and its tone strikingly different. Providence was now usually regarded as a benign and distant force. Though the English were a nation in need of reform, they also enjoyed ‘invaluable blessings’, ‘benign government’, and ‘national successes’. As a reforming sermon put it in 1765, Eng­land was ‘this our sinful, while highly favoured, distinguished land’. The impetus to punish vice now tended to come less from moral panic at the prospect of imminent disaster than from a more positive desire to improve society and glorify God.18

There was a similar tendency to emphasize Christ’s benevolence, and to presume the superiority of the Gospel over the harsh and com­plex doctrines of the Old Testament. Traditionally, theologians had asserted the essential compatibility of the two texts, developing sophisticated systems of exegesis to explain the apparent inconsisten­cies of God’s word. Thus some parts of the Mosaic code (its ‘moral’ law, such as the Ten Commandments) were generally regarded as eter­nal, and some (its ‘ceremonial’ dietary and religious prescriptions) as no longer relevant, whilst the continuing validity of its ‘judicial’ laws was fiercely contested. (As John Whitgift, later Archbishop of Canter­bury, noted excitedly in 1574, ‘It is now debated at every table whether the magistrate be of necessity bound to the judicials of Moses’.) But now such learned and complicated reasoning became increasingly suspect as a basis for supposedly self-evident truths. Instead, even staunch defenders of sexual discipline stressed that Christian morality derived primarily from Jesus’s own charitable example. In this gentler, plainer theology, the burden of sin and its rectification fell much more upon private conscience than on public justice. So rarely did God nowadays strike down whoremongers, observed a dismayed moralist in 1693, ‘that we cannot but be filled with wonder and amazement, at the long-suffering patience, of that Immaculate Undefiled Being’.19

The fear of future punishment was likewise increasingly outweighed by optimism about God’s infinite clemency. The existence of hell had always been the ultimate argument against sin. Why then, asked a clergyman in 1720, did modern Christians indulge so widely in sexual licence? It was not because people didn’t believe in hell, but because they had come to think that sin and salvation were reconcilable. ‘Many take refuge in the divine goodness and mercy’, presuming that God would understand or except their sins; ‘others flatter themselves, that though God has threatened eternal punishment to sinners, yet he reserves the power of executing his threats in his own hands, and pos­sibly after all may not execute them’.20 Some even argued that unchastity was so prevalent in the world only because omnipotent benevolent God permitted it: from which they concluded that ‘that sin is not of that malignant nature, or mischievous consequence as ’tis reported to be.’21