Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism

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Inscribed: Believe not every Spirit, but try the Spirits whether they are of God: because many false Prophets are gone out into the World.

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William Hogarth (1697-1764), Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism. A Medley. 15 March 1762. Etching with engraving. 3rd state. Graphic Arts, William Hogarth Collection.

This plate is a reworking of the unpublished Enthusiasm Delineated, engraved in 1760. It shows the interior of a Methodist meeting house, possibly Whitefield’s Tabernacle, in Tottenham Court Road. It is fun to note the preacher’s text is “I speak as a fool” (2 Corinthians, ii.23); the chandelier is inscribed “New and Correct Globe of Hell”; and the woman on the floor is Mary Toft, the Rabbit Woman.

The original Mary Toft attracted attention in the fall of 1726, when she claimed to have delivered several rabbits (one per day). At the end of November, she was brought to London to perform this feat but ultimately confessed that she had inserted the rabbit into her uterus.

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It is not known for certain why Hogarth began this scene under one title and published it, greatly revised, under another. Paulson suggests that Hogarth was originally influenced by an essay in the Idler written by Sir Joshua Reynolds (EX 3804.3.342), seen at the left. In this piece, Reynolds advocates for more enthusiasm in painting.

Later, Hogarth may have decided to switch titles after reading David Hume’s Essays, Moral and Political (EX 6100.1741). One particular chapter, entitled “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm” distinguishes between enthusiasm deriving from presumption and pride, and superstition deriving from weakness and fear.

One last image he might have seen was the popular broadside on English credulity, satirizing the play The Bottle Conjuror Hoax at the Haymarket Theatre.


English Credulity, or, Ye’re All Bottled. [broadside] London: Printed for B. Dickinson … , [1749]. London, 1749. Rare Books (Ex) Oversize PR3291.A1 E52q