Bob's blog – A skeptical lawyer

George Lyttelton and Gilbert West – Debunking an apologetic fable.

Posted on June 19, 2018


Gilbert West and George (Lord) Lyttelton were good friends, and each wrote a popular apologetic treatise published in England in 1747: Observations on the History and Evidences of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by West and Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul in a Letter to Gilbert West, Esq. by Lyttelton. This real event should be interesting enough, but apologists have embellished it.

Numerous apologists tell the inspirational tale of how West and Lyttelton supposedly started out trying to debunk Jesus’ resurrection and Paul’s conversion, but the powerful evidence of these miracles convinced them to become Christians. Nothing written by or about the pair supports this cock and bull story, which originated a century after West and Lyttelton published their books.

Beginning in 1825 and continuing today, the American Tract Society circulates religious tracts. In 1848, the Society published a book, Circulation and Character of the Volumes of the American Tract Society – for the Society’s Colportuers. A colportuer is a traveling Bible salesman. On page 83, the Society passed on an anecdote allegedly told by a Church of England minister.

It is stated by Rev. T. T. Biddolph, that Lord Lyttelton and his friend Gilbert West, Esq., both men of acknowledged talents, had imbibed the principles of infidelity from a superficial view of the Scriptures. Fully persuaded that the Bible was an imposture, they were determined to expose the cheat. Lord Lyttelton chose the Conversion of Paul and Mr. West the Resurrection of Christ for the subject of hostile criticism. Both sat down to their respective tasks full of prejudice; but the result of their separate attempts was, that they were both converted by their efforts to overthrow the truth of Christianity. They came together, not as they expected, to exult over an imposture exposed to ridicule, but to lament over their own folly and to felicitate each other on their joint conviction that the Bible was the word of God. Their able inquiries have furnished two of the most valuable treatises in favor of revelation.

One need only read the introductions to the books in question to find that this yarn has no basis in fact. West states that he wrote his book in reply to The Resurrection of Jesus considered, in Answer to the Trial of the Witnesses by Peter Arnett, an English Deist and freethinker. Instead of challenging Christianity, West wrote his book because he felt offended when Arnett questioned the Gospels’ reliability.

Lyttelton wrote his book in the form of an extended letter to West. In the introduction, he reminded West of their recent conversation in which West suggested that a book on Paul’s conversion “might be of Use to convince those Unbelievers that will not attend to a longer Series of Arguments.” Therefore, Lyttelton was already a believer when West suggested he write a book to convince unbelievers.

In 1917, Rev. J. L. Campbell, a Baptist minister, wrote a review of Lyttelton’s book in which he attempted to bolster the American Tract Society’s fiction. Campbell claimed, “Like so many of the literary men of his time, George Lyttelton and his friend Gilbert West were led at first to reject the Christian religion.” This may be partially true, but Campbell glossed over two issues.

First, Campbell simply ignores what Lyttelton and West say in their books’ introductions about why they wrote their books. It is disingenuous to focus on the one part of the American Tract Society story that might be true (Lyttelton and/or West may have rejected Christianity at some point in their lives), but disregard the definitive proof that the story as a whole is false.

Second, there is not a scintilla of evidence to support the American Tract Society’s version of events. Samuel Johnson wrote short biographical sketches of both Lyttelton and West in his Lives of the Poets series. Johnson lauds their apologetic books, but never mentions how they were “both converted by their efforts to overthrow the truth of Christianity.” Likewise, we have correspondence between Lyttelton and Gilbert in which they discuss Observations on the Conversion of St. Paul, and no one says anything about Lyttelton accepting Christ because of his research. To the contrary, Lyttelton says he wrote the book to prevent “weak minds” from being carried away. If Lyttelton had ever strayed from the true Faith, he studiously avoided saying so.

The only evidence that vaguely resembles the American Tract Society story is Samuel Johnson’s claim that:

Lyttelton had in the pride of juvenile confidence, with the help of corrupt conversation, entertained doubts of the truth of Christianity; but he thought the time now come when it was no longer fit to doubt or believe by chance, and applied himself seriously to the great question. His studies being honest, ended in conviction. He found that religion was true; and what he had learned he endeavoured to teach by ‘Observations on the Conversion of St. Paul.’

Johnson’s story does not jibe with other accounts  regarding Lyttelton, and he does not say how he knew that Lyttelton’s juvenile doubts supposedly inspired him to write his apologetic masterpiece at the age of thirty-eight. Even if this version of events is true, it does not mention a deal with West, and Lyttelton merely entertained doubts, a far cry from being “fully persuaded that the Bible was an imposture.”

Although the American Tract Society fable is patently false, apologists are happy to embellish it. Apologists often claim that Lyttelton and West set out to disprove Christianity while studying together at Oxford. Littelton and West both attended Oxford, but, given their six-year age difference, it is unlikely they went at the same time. In any event, they did not publish their respective books until years after both had left Oxford.

Other apologists cite nonexistent evidence regarding Littelton and West, such as “Their correspondence back and forth, showing their surprise at the quality of the evidence, can be found in any university microfilm library.” As I mentioned above, we have correspondence between Littelton and West, but none of their letters expressed surprise regarding evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.

In sum, the American Tract Society’s story about Littelton and West being “converted by their efforts to overthrow the truth of Christianity” is a trite fiction intended to inspire credulous Christians. The fact that apologists regularly cite this myth without even checking the introductions of the books at issue speaks volumes about the intellectual rigor of Christian apologists.