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England under James II
by [?]

Gilbert Burnet, in liberality as a politician and tolerance as a Churchman, was far in advance of his order and time. It is true that he shut out the Catholics from the pale of his charity and barely tolerated the Dissenters. The idea of entire religious liberty and equality shocked even his moderate degree of sensitiveness. He met Penn at the court of the Prince of Orange, and, after a long and fruitless effort to convince the Dissenter that the penal laws against the Catholics should be enforced, and allegiance to the Established Church continue the condition of qualification for offices of trust and honor, and that he and his friends should rest contented with simple toleration, he became irritated by the inflexible adherence of Penn to the principle of entire religious freedom. One of the most worthy sons of the Episcopal Church, Thomas Clarkson, alluding to this discussion, says “Burnet never mentioned him (Penn) afterwards but coldly or sneeringly, or in a way to lower him in the estimation of the reader, whenever he had occasion to speak of him in his History of his Own Times.”

He was a man of strong prejudices; he lived in the midst of revolutions, plots, and intrigues; he saw much of the worst side of human nature; and he candidly admits, in the preface to his great work, that he was inclined to think generally the worst of men and parties, and that the reader should make allowance for this inclination, although he had honestly tried to give the truth. Dr. King, of Oxford, in his Anecdotes of his Own Times, p. 185, says: “I knew Burnet: he was a furious party-man, and easily imposed upon by any lying spirit of his faction; but he was a better pastor than any man who is now seated on the bishops’ bench.” The Tory writers –Swift, Pope, Arbuthnot, and others–have undoubtedly exaggerated the defects of Burnet’s narrative; while, on the other hand, his Whig commentators have excused them on the ground of his avowed and fierce partisanship. Dr. Johnson, in his blunt way, says: “I do not believe Burnet intentionally lied; but he was so much prejudiced that he took no pains to find out the truth.” On the contrary, Sir James Mackintosh, in the Edinburgh Review, speaks of the Bishop as an honest writer, seldom substantially erroneous, though often inaccurate in points of detail; and Macaulay, who has quite too closely followed him in his history, defends him as at least quite as accurate as his contemporary writers, and says that, “in his moral character, as in his intellectual, great blemishes were more than compensated by great excellences.”