‘Élargissez Dieu’

In the stained glass of the chapel at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, the phrase ‘Élargissez Dieu’ – Make God bigger – appears several times. I confess that, despite being Principal of the college for the past four years, I had not paid any attention to it until recently when Professor Nicholas Cronk, Director of the Voltaire Foundation, was visiting and pointed it out.

Close-up of the stained glass window at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, showing the quotation ‘Élargissez Dieu’ from Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques.

The phrase is from the eighteenth-century French philosopher Diderot, from his Pensées philosophiques, fragment 26. This was Diderot’s first original work (he had worked on translations up until then) and it appeared anonymously in 1746. But, despite the attempt at anonymity, his name as author leaked out and its arguments in favour of deism and materialism, along with its critique of Christianity, caused trouble for him and he soon landed up imprisoned.

What is a quotation from one of the Enlightenment’s most sceptical philosophers (and a French one, at that) doing in stained glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones, in a very English, late nineteenth-century arts and crafts chapel?

This chapel – although built in the late nineteenth century when Manchester College (as it was then named) came to Oxford – has its roots in the Enlightenment because the college was founded at the height of the Enlightenment in the 1780s. It was begun by and for those who could not accept the dogma of any denomination; those who had absorbed the words of Diderot and other Enlightenment philosophers and found themselves questioning many aspects of Christian theology.  In practice, many of those people were Unitarians.

The Unitarians shared Diderot’s quest for an expansive God. It is no surprise, then, that this quotation from Diderot was a favourite of James Losh (1763–1833) a Unitarian lawyer, reformer, and ardent campaigner for the abolition of slavery, who was much influenced by the Enlightenment and visited revolutionary France in the 1790s. Losh was the grandfather of James Arlosh (1834–1904), a prominent Unitarian and trustee of Manchester College in the 1890s when the chapel was built. James and his wife Isabella funded the six days of creation windows in memory of their son, Godfrey, who had died in a riding accident on Port Meadow in Oxford. At the top of each of these six windows, Diderot’s words ‘Élargissez Dieu’ are inscribed. The portraits of James, Isabella, and Godfrey are in the college’s dining hall, named the Arlosh Hall in acknowledgement of their generosity to the college.

Harris Manchester College Chapel, Oxford.

In Harris Manchester College chapel, Diderot’s words in the stained glass stand as a reminder of the deep influence of the Enlightenment on the liberal and reformed thinking of the college’s founders and benefactors. And that influence came not just from the English Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley, who was one of the college’s tutors, but also the French philosophes.  In the spirit of both the Unitarians and Diderot, we might translate ‘Élargissez Dieu’ as ‘You – make your God bigger!’

Jane Shaw, Principal of Harris Manchester College, Oxford

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