Andreas Zaupser’s Über den falschen Religionseifer – a German response to the Gordon Riots in 1780

In June 1780, London was shaken by anti-Catholic violence which came to be known as the ‘Gordon Riots’. These riots expressed popular disaffection and fear in regard to the Catholic Relief Act passed by King and Parliament. But although the destructive fervour of an enraged crowd was geographically limited to England’s capital city, the riots were anything but a local matter. They were closely connected with similar tumults in Glasgow and Edinburgh the year before but also attracted international attention. In the midst of the American war of Independence, continental Europe carefully monitored British imperial policy and the government’s treatment of hitherto discriminated minorities. And more importantly, foreign Catholic property was destroyed by the London rioters.

Whereas some Dutch pamphlets took sides with Lord Gordon or gleefully satirised Britain’s instability,[1] many German intellectuals seriously urged British authorities to introduce a strong national police force to secure the peace in a multi-confessional society.
A particularly ardent response to the Gordon riots was written by Catholic state servant Andreas Zaupser, secretary to the court counsellor of war in Electoral Palatinate and Bavaria, whose government’s embassy chapel had been affected by the London riots. Endorsing the accord which Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire had maintained with their Protestant neighbours since the Peace of Westphalia, his considerations On False Religious Fervour (Über den falschen Religionseifer[2]) were printed with the electoral censors’ official consent. In his treatise, which summarised the history of religious wars and persecution from Antiquity up to the late eighteenth century, Zaupser was surprisingly honest about the failures of Catholic rulers. He did not deny that French policy against the Huguenots and Spanish bloodshed in Latin America represented infringements of natural law and a betrayal of Christian morality.[3] But in his account of the present state of affairs, he was also eager to praise the reign of Catholic Elector Palatine Karl Theodor, who had protected a sizable minority of local Jews.[4] Zaupser’s idea of a perfect commonwealth rested on strong fundamental laws which guaranteed the citizens’ liberties and enforced ‘civil tolerance’ (bürgerliche Duldung[5]).

In Zaupser’s opinion, all denominations should be accorded equal rights to practice their faith as long as they did not ‘incite disturbances’.[6] Britain’s preventive policy against potentially seditious religious minorities struck him as counterproductive. Quoting a recent pastoral letter by the prince-bishop of Spires, Zaupser expressed hope that patriot church leaders in every country would cooperate as enlightened guardians of the European constitutions.[7] In this respect, Zaupser’s perceptions disclose notable differences between German and British reasoning.

Apart from the emphasis which he placed on authoritative peace-keeping, it was his more general reliance on the elite’s willingness and ability to set good examples for the lower classes which differed from contemporaneous English approaches to mob violence. While England held rioters fully accountable for their own actions, German commentators like Zaupser clang to more traditional perceptions of the people’s ‘blind fury’ (‘blinde Religionswuth des aufgebrachten Pöbels’[8]) or ‘epidemic franticness’ (‘epidemische Raserei’ [9]). In Zaupser’s view, revolt was inspired by ‘selfish, turbulent brains’ who ‘abuse religion (…) for their private interest’ and ‘abet the overzealous mob under this pretence to the most abominable deeds.’[10] He, therefore, suspected the greatest dangers for the state in high-ranking ‘fanatics’ (‘fanatische Mitglieder’[11]) who ‘mistake the voice of their passions, haughtiness and self-interest far too often for the voice of God’[12]. This was, of course, criticism aimed at Lord George Gordon and other leading members of his Protestant Association. Many German prints of the 1780s depicted Lord Gordon with his famous Protestant Petition and linked the preservation of public order to extensive government lobbying by British elites.
All in all, Zaupser suggested a middle way between the old British conception that Commonwealth and Church ought to be identical and the radical liberal conviction that religion was a private matter.

[1] Anon., Waare Afbeelding van Lord George Gordon, Gevolgt Na Het Echte Pourtret / A True Likeness of Lord George Gordon, Taken from His Real Portrait, 1800 1780,

[2] Andreas Dominikus Zaupser, Ueber Den Falschen Religionseifer Auf Veranlassung Der Nachricht von Der Heurigen Londner-Aufruhr (München: Strobl, 1780), title page,

[3] Zaupser, Ueber Den Falschen Religionseifer.

[4] Ibid., 15.

[5] Ibid., preface.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 29–31.

[8] Ibid., preface.

[9] Ibid.

[10] ‘Welch ein gräulicher Anblick für menschenfreundliche Augen – zu sehen, wie sehr noch ist die Religion von eigennüzigen, unruhigen Köpfen zu ihren Privatabsichten misbrauchet, und der blindeifrige Pöbel unter diesem Scheine zu den abscheulichsten Thaten verhetzt werden könne.’ Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

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