Debate about the Destruction of Sodom, 1766

NOTE: The following series of letters to the Editor of The St. James's Chronicle provide interesting evidence that some members of the general public were doubtful about the claim that fire and brimstone rained down upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as punishment for the inhabitants' practice of homosexual behaviour, but believed, instead, that the sin of Sodom was idolatry. The opponent of this proposed reinterpretation ends his argument by saying that anyone who has doubts about the usual Christian interpretation should not express them, for fear of giving some consolation to contemporary homosexuals who believe they have been falsely maligned.

9–11 January 1766

To the Printer of The S. J. CHRONICLE.
THERE is a Controversy on Foot between two very learned Men concerning the Cause for which Sodom was destroyed. What I have to observe upon the Subject arises from reading the eighteenth and nneteenth Chapters of the Book of Genesis, which plainly prove to me that the Vengeance of Heaven upon Sodom was for Idolatry, and not for the unnatural Crime usually supposed. It is unreasonable to believe that there should not be ten Persons in Sodom, who were not guilty of that Sin; it is equally incredible that the "Men of the City, even the Men of Sodom, should compass the House round, both old and young," all the People in every Quarter, in order to commit that Sin upon the two Angels. But it is very conceivable that there should not be ten Pesons who were not Idolaters. It is very credible also, that all the Men of Sodom, both old and young, should compass the House of Lot, in order to destroy the two Angels, sent from the true God, to whom as Idolaters, they were in a State of Rebellion. And to the Objection that may be made to this Opinion from Lot's offering his two Daughters to the Men of Sodom, to save the Angels from being made a Sacrifice to their Brutality, I answer, that it does not follow from its being allowed that that unnatural Passion prevailed among the Inhabitants of Sodom, that it was also the immediate Cause of their Destruction. It is on the contrary evident to me from the following Passage in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, Chap. i. Ver. 25. that that preposterous Vice was a judicial Effect and Consequence only of their Departure from the Service of the Living God. For this Cause, (viz. the Changing the Truth of God into a Lie, and worshipping and serving the Creature, more than the Creator, vid. Ver. 24.) For this Cause "God gave them up unto vile Affections, the Men leaving the natural Use of the Women, burned in their Lust one towards another, &c." And that Idolatry was the principal primary Cause for which the Inhabitants of Sodom were destroyed, I conclude from their being ranked by St. Jude in the Numbers of some who experienced a total Overthrow on Account of their denying the only Lord God, &c.
          "There are (says he) certain Men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this Condemnation, ungodly Men, turning the Face of God into Lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ. I will therefore put you in Remembrance, though you once knew this, how that the Lord having saved the People out of the Land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed them that believed not. And the Angels which kept not their first Estate, but left, &c. he hath reserved in everlasting Chains, &c. – Even as Sodom and Gomorrah and the Cities about them, in like Manner giving themselves over to Fornication*, and going after strange Flesh, &c."
                              I am, Sir, your's, &c.
                                                  C. B.
* Idolatry is frequently represented in Scripture as a spiritual Kind of Uncleanness, and metaphorically stiled Fornication.
                                                  (St. James's Chronicle)

30 January – 1 February 1766

To the Printer of The S. J. CHRONICLE.
I HAVE with great Care and Attention read the eighteenth and nineteenth Chapters of Genesis; but cannot agree with your Correspondent C.B. in believing that Idolatry was the Cause of the Destruction of Sodom, and not the Vice which from that City takes its Name. Instead of proving any thing from those Chapters he seems to ground his Asseretion chiefly on the Unreasonableness of supposing, that the Men of the City, old and young, should compass the House of Lot in order to commit that Sin upon the Angels. But in Answer to this, is it not expressly said, in the nineteenth Chapter, for what Purpose they did want them? not to destroy them: Bring them out unto us, say they, that we may know them. And nothing can, I think, be more absurd thab that Lot, to preserve the Laws of Hospitality involate, should offer his Daughters for one Purpose, when he knew the Men demanded his Guests for another: Besides, how does it appear, that the Men of the City knew what C.B. suppposes, that the Guests of Lot were Angels sent from God? it rather seems that he himself did not know them to be so till afterwards.
          As to the Number for which Abraham interceded, I cannot, I own, see why it is more reasonable to believe there should not be ten Persons in the Place untainted with that Vice, than with the Sin of Idolatry.
          His Quotation from Romans I do not think to the Purpose, as none of the Marginal Notes refer us to the Destruction of Sodom. And St. Jude is, in my Opinion, clearly against them, because, though Idolatry may be called sometimes Fornication, yet, going after strange Flesh seems plainly to point at the particular Sin of that People. That they were Idolaters is not denied, but so was at that Time almost the whole World, consequently this Sin would not have been represented as calling down a particular and dreadful Punishment on that Place.
          I give this only as my own Opinion, and submit to your Readers, whether I am right or wrong; one Thing, however, I am sure of, that I am, Mr. Baldwin's well Wisher,
                    And humble Servant,
                                                            (St. James's Chronicle)

8–11 March 1766

To the Printer of The S. J. CHRONICLE.
THERE is no knowing how to reason with a Writer to whom Absurdities appear in the Light of Probabilities; nor have I any Expectation of convincing your Correspondent Philographes of the Absurdity of supposing, that all the Men of the City of Soidom, both old and young, should compass the House of Lot to commit upon the two Angels the Sin, which takes its Name from that Place. It will, however, be not a little to my Purpose to shew that Philographes's Opinion has not that Support from Scripture which he imagines.
          The Words "bring them out unto us that we may know them" do by no Means prove that the Men of Sodom wanted Lot's Guests for a sensual Purpose. The Word know is not either in the Original or as translated in the Septuagint or the Latin Version, limited to (the Comprehensive of) that particular Meaning. It signifies the holding a Conversation with, a making an Enquiry about, or making oneself known to another Person. Vid. Gen xviii. 19. and xlv. 1. and Exod. 5. 8. &c. &c. And it is very reasonable, I think, to suppose that the Appearance of the Angels was attended with some Circumstances, which giving the Inhabitants some Suspicion of the Business upon which they came, might excite a general Curiosity in old and young, and make them desirous of questioning them concerning it. In Support of this Opinion take the following Extract from Pool's Synopsis.
          "Ut Cognoscamus Turpiter; ut cocamus. Alid sie Volumus scire quosnam tu Hospites in Urbem itroducas." – We want to know who are those Strangers which you have brought among us. And (to make Use of Philographes's Observation, strangely intended as an Argument against C.B.) "Nothing can, I think, be more absurd than that Lot, to preserve the Laws of Hospitality inviolate, should offer his Daughters for one Purpose, when he knew the Men demanded his Guests for another."
          "As to the Number for which Abraham interceded, I cannot see, says Philographes, why it is more reasonable to beieve there should not be ten Persons in the Place, untained with that Vice than with the Sin of Idolatry." In Answer to this, I shall only observe, that the latter is universally allowed to have been the then almost universal Vice of the World, the former must be considered as a Crime in the Nature of Things not capable of being perpetrated by Persons of every Age and of every Sex. Again, "His Quotation from Romans, says Philographes, I do not think to the Purpose, as none of the Marginal Notes refer us to the Destruction of Sodom." But is a Want of a Marginal-Reference to that Event a Proof that St. Paul had not an Eye to it? By no Means. But the manifest Similarity of Cases is a presumptive Proof, I think, that he had. But "St. Jude is, in my Opinion, says Philographes, clearly against C.B. because, though Idolatry may be called sometimes Fornication, yet, going after strange Flesh seems plainly to point at the particular Sin of that People."
          The Words Fornication and going after strange Flesh are, I am persuaded, synonymous Terms, metaphorically expressive of Idolatry, or going after strange Gods, which St. Jude uses in Allusion to the figurative Account given of them in the sixteenth Chapter of Ezekiel.
          And if the Vice, which takes its Name from the City of Sodom, was the sole Cause of its Destruction, I would beg Leave to ask Philographes how it came to pass, that St. Jude should rank the Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, &c. with the Angels that sinned, as similar Sufferers under the Vengeance of Heaven from a similar Cause? Were the Angels guilty of the Crime charged upon them?
                              I am, Sir, your's, &c.
                                                  (St. James's Chronicle)

25 March – 1 April 1766

To the Printer of The S. J. CHRONICLE.
GIVE me Leave to make a few Observations upon C.B.'s last Letter in Answer to Philographes. I desire this Favour, because I suspect that Ph. thinks C.B. unworthy of further Notice.
          C.B.'s Criticisms upon the Hebrew [know], and its Translations in Greek and Latin, afford him no Assistance. Their being not limited to the particular Meaning, contended for by Ph. does not hinder, but that they may sometimes be so used. And they undoubtedly have that Meaning, or a Meaning analagous to it, in other Parts of Scripture, though not limited to that only. Would it not be a weak Argument to prove, that, when St. Matthew affirms of Joseph that he know not Mary, he did not abstain from her Bed, because the Word [know] is jnot limited to Cohabitation? This, indeed, is not always the Sense of [know]; but it is the Sense of it here, and in other Places of the Bible.
          C.B.'s Quotation from the Synopsis surprizes me; not so much because it is unfair, as that it refers the Reader to a Place, which is unfavourable to the Opinion it is alledged to countenance. Pole first give the usual Sense, Turpiter, &c. and quotes many Authorities for it. Then, as an honest Compiler, he says, slightly, and without mentioning his Authhors – Others thus – We want to know who these Strangers are; giving the Reason of this Interpretation – Otherwise the Sodomites would have expressed that abominable Vice, in a more petulant, or broader Manner. He stops not here, but removes the Force of this Notion by adding finally – That they charged Lot with receiving Strangers, only to conceal their Wickedness. It is not improbable, that these Sinners used coarser Expressions, the Sense of which Moses chose to represent by the modest Term, to know. I ask C.B. what other Reason he has to think, that the Sodomites had some Suspicion of the business, upon which the Angels came, except that it favour his Hypothesis?
          If they only asked to know who these Strangers were, can it be thought that Lot would have given so foreign an Answwer? – I pray you Brethren do not so wickedly, I have two Daughters, &c. Not that I believe he really made that Offer. There are many Instances in Scripture, where a Thing is spoken positively, that must be understood comparatively. His Meaning was, that of the two Sins, to violate his Daughters would be the least. And thus his Offer, or rather Judgement, notwithstanding C.B.'s pretending to turn Ph.'s Observation upon himself, was natural and proper.
          C.B. mistakes the Passage of St Jude. It is not said of the Angels, that they suffered from a similar Cause, to that of the Sodomites, but of the Cities about Sodom and Gomorrha. This Meaning the Greek will bear, without any Force, and Common Sense forbids the other.
          I think the 20th and 21st Verses of the xviiith Chapter of Genesis, put it out of all Doubt, that the grievous Sin of Sodom was not the common Sin of Idolatry, but an abominable Wickedness, pecular to themselves. And this abominable Wickedness was the Occasion of their amazing Destruction.
          Nor can I imagine what good Purpose C.B. intends to serve by publishing a contrary Opinion. Does he not thereby afford some Consolation to those who are guilty of the same detestable Crime, by arguing that the Sodomites were not punished in such a tremendous Manner, for that Abominable crime, but for their Idolatry? And would it not have been more prudent, whatever his private Thoughts are, to have left the common Notion, concerning the Sin and Punishment of the Sodomites, undisturbed, which has generally prevailed among all Nations, where the Scriptures have been received from the Time of Moses to this present Hour?
                              I am, Sir, your humble Servant.
                                                  A. Z.
                                        (St. James's Chronicle)

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Debate about the Destruction of Sodom, 1765", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 22 January 2021 <>.

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