Joseph Butler (1692-1752), English divine and philosopher, bishop of Durham, was born at Wantage, in Berkshire, on the 18th of May 1692. His father, a linen-draper of that town, was a Presbyterian, and it was his wish that young Butler should be educated for the ministry in that church. The boy was placed under the care of the Rev. Philip Barton, master of the grammar school at Wantage, and remained there for some years. He was then sent to Samuel Jones's dissenting academy at Gloucester, and afterwards at Tewkesbury, where his most intimate friend was Thomas Seeker, who became archbishop of Canterbury.
While at this academy Butler became dissatisfied with the principles of Presbyterianism, and after much deliberation resolved to join the Church of England. About the same time he began to study with care Samuel Clarke's celebrated Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, which had been published as the Boyle Lectures a few years previously. With great modesty and secrecy Butler, then in his twenty-second year, wrote to the author propounding certain difficulties with regard to the proofs of the unity and omnipresence of the Divine Being. Clarke answered his unknown opponent with a gravity and care that showed his high opinion of the metaphysical acuteness displayed in the objections, and published the correspondence in later editions of the Demonstration. Butler acknowledged that Clarke's reply satisfied him on one of the points, and he subsequently gave his adhesion to the other. In one of his letters we already find the germ of his famous dictum that "probability is the guide of life."
In March 1715 he entered at Oriel College, Oxford, but for some time found it uncongenial and thought of migrating to Cambridge. But he made a close friend in one of the resident fellows, Edward Talbot, son of William Talbot, then bishop of Oxford, and afterwards of Salisbury and Durham. In 1718 he took his degree, was ordained deacon and priest, and on the recommendation of Talbot and Clarke was nominated preacher at the chapel of the Rolls, where he continued till 1726. It was here that he preached his famous Fifteen Sermons (1726), including the well-known discourses on human nature. In 1721 he had been given a prebend at Salisbury by Bishop Talbot, who on his translation to Durham gave Butler the living of Houghton-le-Skerne in that county, and in 1725 presented him to the wealthy rectory of Stanhope. In 1726 he resigned his preachership at the Rolls.
For ten years Butler remained in perfect seclusion at Stanhope. He was only remembered in the neighbourhood as a man much loved and respected, who used to ride a black pony very fast, and whose known benevolence was much practised upon by beggars. Archbishop Blackburne, when asked by Queen Caroline whether he was still alive, answered, "He is not dead, madam, but buried." In 1733 he was made chaplain to Lord Chancellor Talbot, elder brother of his dead friend Edward, and in 1736 prebendary of Rochester. In the same year he was appointed clerk of the closet to the queen, and had to take part in the metaphysical conversation parties which she loved to gather round her. He met Berkeley frequently, but in his writings does not refer to him. In 1736 also appeared his great work, The Analogy of Religion.
In 1737 Queen Caroline died; on her deathbed she recommended Butler to the favour of her husband. George seemed to think his obligation sufficiently discharged by appointing Butler in 1738 to the bishopric of Bristol, the poorest see in the kingdom. The severe but dignified letter to Walpole, in which Butler accepted the preferment, showed that the slight was felt and resented. Two years later, however, the bishop was presented to the rich deanery of St Paul's, and in 1746 was made clerk of the closet to the king. In 1747 the primacy was offered to Butler, who, it is said, declined it, on the ground that "it was too late for him to try to support a falling church." The story has not the best authority, and though the desponding tone of some of Butler's writings may give it colour, it is not in harmony with the rest of his life, for in 1750 he accepted the see of Durham, vacant by the death of Edward Chandler. His charge to the clergy of the diocese, the only charge of his known to us, is a weighty and valuable address on the importance of external forms in religion.
This, together with the fact that over the altar of his private chapel at Bristol he had a cross of white marble, gave rise to an absurd rumour that the bishop had too great a leaning towards Romanism. At Durham he was very charitable, and expended large sums in building and decorating his church and residence. His private expenses were exceedingly small. Shortly after his translation his constitution began to break up, and he died on the 16th of June 1752, at Bath, whither he had removed for his health. He was buried in the cathedral of Bristol, and over his grave a monument was erected in 1834, with an epitaph by Southey. According to his express orders, all his MSS. were burned after his death. Bishop Butler was never married. His personal appearance has been sketched in a few lines by Hutchinson: - "He was of a most reverend aspect; his face thin and pale; but there was a divine placidness which inspired veneration, and expressed the most benevolent mind. His white hair hung gracefully on his shoulders, and his whole figure was patriarchal."
Butler was an earnest and deep-thinking Christian, melancholy by temperament, and grieved by what seemed to him the hopelessly irreligious condition of his age. In his view not only the religious life of the nation, but (what he regarded as synonymous) the church itself, was in an almost hopeless state of decay, as we see from his first and only charge to the diocese of Durham and from many passages in the Analogy. And though there was a complete remedy just coming into notice, in the Evangelical revival, it was not of a kind that commended itself to Butler, whose type of mind was opposed to everything that savoured of enthusiasm. He even asked John Wesley, in 1739, to desist from preaching in his diocese of Bristol, and in a memorable interview with the great preacher remarked that any claim to the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit was "a horrid thing, a very horrid thing, sir." Yet Butler was keenly interested in those very miners of Kingswood among whom Wesley preached, and left £500 towards building a church for them. It is a great mistake to suppose that because he took no great part in politics he had no interest in the practical questions of his time, or that he was so immersed in metaphysics as to live in the clouds.