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A Natural History of Religion

Hume, The Natural History of Religion (1757): The Online Library of Liberty
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IN the only cheap edition of Hume’s “Essays and Treatises” now in the British market,
the essays on “Miracles” and “A Particular Providence and a Future State” have been
omitted, while the “Natural History of Religion” has been extensively mutilated, at least
thirteen separate passages, some of them lengthy, being suppressed in the interests of
the popular religion. This edition, now or lately published by Messrs. Ward, Lock, and
Tyler, was first issued by Messrs. A. Murray and Son; and its mutilated character is the
more scandalous, seeing that the title-page bears the statement: “A careful reprint of
the two vols. octavo edition”. If there ever was a two-volume edition of a similarly
curtailed kind, it is certainly not generally known; and the effect of the publishers’
announcement is simply to deceive the reading public, who are led to suppose that the
book offered them corresponds to the various complete two-volume editions of the
latter part of last century and the earlier part of this. The facts that for about fifty years
there were no fresh issues of the “Essays”, widely sold as they had been in Hume’s own
day and the next generation, and that the only recent edition at a moderate price is
thus piously fraudulent, are significant of the nature of our social and intellectual history
since the French Revolution.
A cheap and complete edition of Hume will doubtless ere long be forthcoming.
Meantime, there being already separate issues of the essay on “Miracles1”, it has
seemed desirable to similarly reprint the “Natural History of Religion”, one of Hume’s
most important treatises; the more so as so many readers have been led to suppose
they had perused the whole of it in the mutilated edition above mentioned. It does not
save the credit of the pious publisher that his excisions fail to make the treatise
innocuous to his faith; and many readers may have found the pruned version very
sufficient for its purpose. To every independent student, however, the mutilation of a
text in the interests of orthodoxy is an intolerable presumption; and for such students
the present issue is intended. Thanks to the careful edition of Hume’s works by Messrs.
Green and Grose, which has been followed in this matter, it gives the many classical
references in full, and according to the standard texts.
“The Natural History of Religion” was published by Hume at the beginning of 1757, after
his reputation had been established by his earlier “Essays” and the first two volumes of
his “History of England”. It is the one of his works which most explicitly asserts his
Deism; but on account of its rationalistic treatment of concrete religion in general,
which only nominally spared Christianity, it was that which first brought upon him much
theological odium in England. The pugnacious Warburton saw a copy before publication,
and wrote to Millar, who was Hume’s publisher as well as his own, urging its
suppression. “Sir”, he characteristically begins, “I suppose you would be glad to know
what sort of book it is which you are to publish with Hume’s name and yours to it. . . .
He is establishing Atheism; and in one single line of a long essay professes to believe
Christianity. . . . You have often told me of this man’s moral virtues. He may have