Sir Edward Herbert

On this date in 1582, Edward Herbert, later 1st Baron Herbert of Chirbury (sometimes spelled Cherbury), was born in Shropshire, England. His father, Richard Herbert, was the Sheriff of Montgomeryshire as well as a Member of Parliament. Herbert studied at University College, Oxford, from 1595 to 1600, at which time Herbert moved with his wife and children to London. In 1603, he was knighted by James I. In 1608, he traveled to the Continent, where he fought and studied in France, the Low Countries, Italy, and Geneva, returning to England in 1609. He was made ambassador to France from 1619 to 1621, and was given the Irish peerage of Castle Island in 1624. In 1629, Charles I raised him to the English peerage as Lord Herbert of Chirbury. Towards the end of his life, Herbert chose to side with Parliament during the English Civil War, so that he could keep his library; he did not live to see the monarchy restored. Herbert left behind much diverse writing, including a light-hearted autobiography, a history of the reign of Henry VIII, a collection of Occasional Verses, and a collection of lute music including some original compositions. He also contributed many philosophical works, either metaphysical or on religious themes, including De veritate (On Truth), and Religio laici (The Religion of the Laity).

Herbert is considered to be the father of English deism, as well as a founder of the field of comparative religion. According to R.D. Bedford's The Defence of Truth, Herbert was strongly influenced in his philosophy by Continental deists, atheists, and others of a rationalistic bent who were not widely read in England in the 17th century. Herbert was interested in the problem of finding a rational form of religion, rather than a revealed one. In his De religione gentium (Pagan Religions), published posthumously in Amsterdam in 1663, and in England in 1705, he discussed what he saw as five important propositions common to pre-Christian and then-modern religions: “I. That there is one Supreme God. II. That he ought to be worshipped. III. That virtue and piety are the chief parts of divine worship. IV. That we ought to be sorry for our sins, and repent of them. V. That divine goodness doth dispense rewards and punishments both in this life and after it.” Later chapters in De religione gentium include “Why so many various appellations were formerly given to God, and what they were,” “Of the worship of the Moon, and its different names,” and “Of the most sound parts of the religion of the heathens.” D. 1648.

“Now when I perceived that they [modern divines] resolved the causes of eternal salvation or damnation only to the good pleasure of God, and the death of Christ; I found that their opinion was grounded not on reason, but some peremptory decrees, which no body did pretend to know, and I could not think that they were so privy to the secret counsels of God, as to be able to establish any thing for certain; wherefore I left them, as entertaining mean, base, and unworthy thoughts of the most good and great God, and mankind in general."

—Edward Herbert, De religione gentium (1663), trans. 1705 by William Lewis The Antient Religion of the Gentiles

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

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