Cover of The Fringes of Belief by Sarah Ellenzweig
The Fringes of Belief
English Literature, Ancient Heresy, and the Politics of Freethinking, 1660-1760
Sarah Ellenzweig

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2008
256 pages.
$62.50

Cloth ISBN: 9780804758772

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The Fringes of Belief is the first literary study of freethinking and religious skepticism in the English Enlightenment. Ellenzweig aims to redress this scholarly lacuna, arguing that a literature of English freethinking has been overlooked because it unexpectedly supported aspects of institutional religion. Analyzing works by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Aphra Behn, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, she foregrounds a strand of the English freethinking tradition that was suspicious of revealed religion yet often strongly opposed to the open denigration of Anglican Christianity and its laws. By exposing the contradictory and volatile status of categories like belief and doubt this book participates in the larger argument in Enlightenment studies—as well as in current scholarship on the condition of modernity more generally—-that religion is not so simply left behind in the shift from the pre-modern to the modern world.

About the author

Sarah Ellenzweig is Assistant Professor of English at Rice University.

"Sarah Ellenzweig's important book intriguingly, and successfully explor[es] the ways in which certain free-thinkers in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England, while suspicious of the tenets of revealed religion, nevertheless defended the religious establishment as being the key to preserving order in society after the traumas of the Interregnum. . . [L]ively and intelligent."

—Jeremy Gregory, English Historical Review

"At a moment of intense debate over the nature of the Enlightenment, Sarah Ellenzweig's The Fringes of Belief comes as an added reminder of just how complex and contrapuntal intellectual history can be . . . [T]his engaging study will be of interest to literary scholars, historians, and scholars of the Enlightenment more generally."

—Kenneth Sheppard, Histoire sociale / Social History

"The Fringes of Belief is one of those all-too-rare books that makes a sharp, original, and provocative argument in a clear and engaging way. Expressing dissatisfaction with the secularization narrative has become commonplace. But it is much harder to come up with alternatives—let alone a subtle, profoundly revisionist one like Ellenzweig's."

—Dror Wahrman, Indiana University

"In The Fringes of Belief, Sarah Ellenzweig excavates a fascinating but generally overlooked intellectual tradition that combined political conservatism with radical skepticism. Challenging traditional categories with cogent insight, perceptive reading, and revised versions of intellectual history, Ellenzweig offers fresh and complex appreciations of Aphra Behn, the Earl of Rochester, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and others."

—Laura Rosenthal, University of Maryland

"The sophisticated, learned, and self-consciously literary world of eighteenth-century religious controversy certainly included an intense engagement with the past and a familiarity with heterodox beliefs. By addressing these issues, Ms. Ellenzweig opens a valuable conversation."

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