Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > Supernatural Religion (1874)
A Reply to Dr Lightfoot's Essays (1889)


"Do not waste life clinging to ecclesiastical dogmas which represent no eternal verities,
but search elsewhere for truth which may haply be found."

W R Cassels Walter Richard Cassels was born in London on 4 September 1826. His father Robert was a British consular official, and Walter spent much of his early life in India. Eventually he went into partnership with two of his brothers in a business firm in Bombay. He served in the legislative council of Bombay from 1863 to 1865. After 1865 Cassels returned to England.

In 1874 an anonymous work appeared entitled Supernatural Religion: An Inquiry into the Reality of Divine Revelation. The work attracted immediate attention, and there was much speculation as to the identity of the learned author; however, no one would admit to the authorship. Many books and articles were soon written responding to the criticism of Christianity made in Supernatural Religion. The most famous of these is a series of essays by Bishop J.B. Lightfoot. The Bishop's essays were later collected and published as a book. Meanwhile, the author of Supernatural Religion was finding his book had gone into a sixth printing by 1875. In 1877 a third volume was added, and a completely revised edition appeared in 1879. A series of anonymous replies to Bishop Lightfoot and other critics appeared -- one as a series of magazine articles, the others as notes or prefaces to subsequent printings of Supernatural Religion. These refutations were also collected and published as a book.

Word of Cassels' authorship of Supernatural Religion began to leak out in 1895, when he published a series of signed articles on theology. However, Cassels never made public acknowledgement of the fact that he wrote Supernatural Religion. In fact, very little is actually known about Cassels' private life, or of how he became such an expert in the early history of Christianity. It is known that he collected art, wrote poetry, and was a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. He never married and died in London on 10 June 1907.



Works published by Cassels under his own name

Eidolon, or the Course of a Soul; and other poems.
   William Pickering: London, 1850.

   Smith, Elder & Co.: London, 1856.

Cotton: An Account of its Culture in the Bombay Presidency.
ay Education Society Press, 1862.
[Offsite review]

Works published anonymously:

Supernatural Religion: An Inquiry into the Reality of Divine Revelation.
   Longmans & Co.: London, 1874 (Volumes I and II). Six editions, 1874-1876. Volume III, 1877.
   Complete Edition (3 vols), 1879.
   Popular edition (in 1 volume), 1902, Watts & Co. (Reprinted 1905.)

"Supernatural Religion... excited much interest by the outspoken criticism pervading it. The learned work furnishes efficient aid to rational inquiry, and deserves to be studied by all lovers of free investigation. The assaults which were made upon minor details leave its main positions unharmed."

-- Samuel Davidson, D.D., L.L.D., Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, Preface to 2nd edition (1882).

A Reply to Dr. Lightfoot's Essays.
   Longmans & Co.: London, 1889.

"The answer which Lightfoot, the late Bishop of Durham, offered in the name of orthodoxy... is extraordinarily weak... the short-sighted scholar [Lightfoot] found nothing better to do than to submit [Cassels'] examination of references in the Fathers to the Gospels to petty criticism; while, even if all the Bishop's deductions were correct, the general result of [Cassels'] inquiries would not be in any way altered. It is not surprising that in his reply to Bishop Lightfoot... [Cassels] not only adheres to his historical positions as not upset, but that he also repeats his general conclusions in a form of more pronounced antagonism."

-- Otto Pfleiderer, D.D., The Development of Theology since Kant (1890).

 The Gospel according to Peter: A Study.
   Longmans & Co.: London, 1894.


Tracks of a Rolling Stone (1905), autobiography of Cassels' friend, neighbour, and fellow freethinker, Henry J. Coke (1827-1916). Includes a brief account of Coke's friendship with Cassels.

"Matthew Arnold and 'The Author of Supernatural Religion': The Background to God and the Bible", by Jerold J. Savory. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Autumn 1976 (Vol 16 no 4), pp. 677-91. Article contrasting Cassels' work with the liberal theology of Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). [Note: subscription required.]

"Male Diagnosis of the Female Pen in Late Victorian Britain: Private Assessments of Supernatural Religion", by Alan H. Cadwallader.  Journal of Anglican Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 69-88 (2007).  Article dealing with Victorian speculation that the anonymous author of Supernatural Religion was a woman.  [Note: subscription required.]

Critiques of Supernatural Religion

The Supernatural in the New Testament Possible, Credible, and Historical (1875), by Charles A. Row (1816-1896). "An Examination of the validity of some recent objections against Christianity as a divine revelation."

A Brief Defence of Supernatural Christianity (1875), by John Kennedy (1813-1900). "A Review of the Philosophical Principles and Historical Arguments of Supernatural Religion."

The Wave of Scepticism and the Rock of Truth (1875), by Matthew H. Habershon (1821- ??). "A Reply to Supernatural Religion".

The Lost Gospel and Its Contents (1875), by Michael F. Sadler (1819-1895). "The Author of Supernatural Religion refuted by himself."

The Gospels in the Second Century (1876), by William Sanday (1843-1920). "An Examination of the Critical Part of a Work Entitled Supernatural Religion."

Essays on Supernatural Religion (1889), by Joseph B. Lightfoot (1828-1889).  "Reprinted from the Contemporary Review."