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A Crisis of Authority: Early Nineteenth-Century British Thought

  • R. K. Webb


This talk represents a crisis of principle. I have long held that a presidential address to a learned society should not belabor that society with laments or summonses, nor should it ask whither the discipline; rather, it should be a serious scholarly or interpretive effort. But it is an equally compelling principle with me that an after-dinner talk should suit the mood of relaxed good feeling that is likely to characterize the occasion. To answer both requirements is no easy task. In defining a genre new to the North American Conference on British Studies, my two predecessors have admirably fulfilled my criteria, combining the serious scholarship one would expect from their distinguished careers with the precise lightness of touch called for on such an occasion.

I will not, I fear, follow their example in either respect. The grand, refractory subject I have chosen has interested me for many years, but I have not earlier addressed it in either research or writing: it has been rather like the unheard theme that Elgar said was present in his Enigma Variations. In now making the theme explicit, as Elgar wisely never did, I shall begin by calling attention to some concerns and perceptions among the English Unitarians over a hundred years, concerns and perceptions that I think reflect a crisis of authority. I shall then suggest ways in which that same analysis might be applied to larger, more important and familiar, segments of nineteenth-century intellectual life.



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1 Note should be taken of a persuasive circumstantial claim by the pianist Joseph Cooper that the theme is to be found in the Andante of Mozart's Symphony No. 38 (Prague). Whitney, Craig R., New York Times, November 7, 1991.

2 Kavanagh, Dennis, Thatcherism and British Politics: The End of Consensus? (Oxford, 1987), p. 250.

3 Compare Heyck, T. W., The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England (New York, 1982), which displays none of Knights' tendentiousness, but which is none the less concerned primarily with the structure of intellectual life and with leading individuals and institutions.

4 The Parallelism of Deism and Classicism,” Essays in the History of Ideas (Baltimore, 1948), p. 78.

5 A word search in the Library of Congress catalog turned up 78 post-1950 titles, overwhelmingly reflective of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent questions about the authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals, while only a few appear to be concerned with political authority, which would no doubt have dominated a pre-1950 search. But this may be a distinction without a difference.

6 Signs of the TimesEdinburgh Review 49 (June 1829): 139–59). Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (1899) 2: 58.

7 Foord, Archibald S., “The Waning of ‘The Influence of the Crown,’English Historical Review 62 (1947): 484507.

8 Loss and Gain in Recent Theology,” Essays, Reviews, and Addresses (London, 1891), 4: 321–35. A less searching and eloquent but also suggestive canvassing of the same question can be found in a sermon by the celebrated Unitarian minister Herford, Brooke, What is Left after the Questionings of our Time? (London, 1885).

9 The challenge to the canonical was posed directly in English Unitarian congregations and newspapers, at least from the 1870s, by discussion of the use and provision of an “extended lectionary,” readings from sources other than the Bible, whether religious or secular. One day nearly twenty years ago, I emerged from a vestry in the North of England much excited about having found in the minutes of that congregation the earliest discussion of the question I had yet encountered. When I mentioned it to the young minister, he was astonished that it had ever been thought necessary to have any readings from the Bible.

10 On the Rivulet controversy, Johnson, Mark D., The Dissolution of Dissent, 1850–1918 (New York, 1987). On the Downgrade controversy, which has been largely skirted by Baptist historians, Kruppa, Patricia Stallings, Charles Haddon Spurgeon: A Preacher's Progress (New York, 1982), ch. 8; on p. 404, she quotes Spurgeon as saying, “If this book [the Bible] be not infallible, where shall we find infallibility?” Ellis, Ieuan, Seven against Christ: A Study of “Essays and Reviews” (Leiden, 1980). The other great change noted by Martineau was the loss of faith in the mythology of the Messiah and the falling away of “everything official, attached to [Jesus] by evangelists and divines.” Although he deals with these two vast transformations in tandem, with equally stimulating perception, my purposes here have led me to concentrate on the loss of authority.

11 The study of Priestley's accomplishment has taken a giant leap in the past quarter century. See Schwartz, A. Truman and McEvoy, John, Motion Toward Perfection: The Achievement of Joseph Priestley (Boston, 1990), and works there cited.

12 “On the Life, Character, and Works of Dr. Priestley” and “Memoir and Papers of Dr. Channing,” reprinted with changes in Essays, Reviews, and Addresses (London, 1891), 1: 1–42, 81148.

13 Wicksteed is quoted in Upton, C. B., Dr. Martineau's Philosophy: A Survey, (rev. ed.; London, 1905), pp. 181–82; S. S. Hennell to Harriet Martineau, April 13, 1860, Birmingham University Library, HM 428. James Martineau was oddly compulsive about maintaining links to past friends and colleagues, even after he had taken up positions certain to alienate them. See Webb, R. K., “The Faith of Nineteenth-Century Unitarians: A Curious Incident,” in Helmstadter, Richard J. and Lightman, Bernard, eds., Victorian Faith in Crisis: Essays on Continuity and Change in Nineteenth-Century Religious Belief (London and Stanford, 1990), pp. 126–49; and, on the ambiguity of Martineau's accomplishment, Transplanting the Vine: Manchester College in London and Oxford,” Faith and Freedom 44 (Autumn 1991): 7897.

14 Priestley's, Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768) incorporates his earlier attack on Dr. John Brown's scheme of education in the second edition of 1772. Rutt, J. T., ed., Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Dr. Joseph Priestley (London, 18171832), 22: 1144. His openness on future religious evolution is evident in The Importance and Extent of Free Inquiry in Matters of Religion. A Sermon preached to the Old and New Meetings in Birmingham, November 5, 1785, in Rutt, , Works 15: 7082. On candor, Fitzpatrick, Martin, “Varieties of Candour: English and Scottish Style,” Enlightenment and Dissent 7 (1988): 3556, and my own interpretation, with a nod as well at Priestley's emphasis on the importance of education, in Webb, R. K., “From Toleration to Religious Liberty,” in Jones, J. R., ed., Liberty Secured? Britain before and after 1688 (Stanford, 1992), pp. 158–98. Webb, , Harriet Martineau, A Radical Victorian (London and New York, 1960), pp. 6570; Harriet Martineau to Francis Julia Wedgwood, May 4, 1857, in Arbuckle, Elisabeth Sanders, ed., Harriet Martineau's Letters to Fanny Wedgwood (Stanford, 1983), p. 153. Compare Bailey, Samuel, Essays on the Formation and Publication of Opinions (London, 1821) and many subsequent editions.

15 Anna Laetitia Barbauld to Nicholas Clayton, February 21, [1776], Nicholson Collection, Liverpool Public Library. Lucy Aikin to W. E. Charming, October 23, 1831, in LeBreton, Anna Letitia, ed., The Correspondence of William Ellery Channing, D. D. and Lucy Aikin, from 1826 to 1842 (London, 1874), pp. 9296.

16 Hymns for the Christian Church and Home (London, 1840), preface: “Worship is an attitude which our nature assumes, not for a purpose, but from an emotion.

17 “Martineau made his own visit to Germany late, in the late 1840s, and on his return shocked the elderly Germanophile literary light (and celebrated diarist) Henry Crabb Robinson by his criticisms of what he had found there. Crabb Robinson's Travel Diary, October 18, 1849, Dr. Williams's Library.

18 Tayler to Thom, September 6, 1859, in Thom, J. H., Letters embracing his Life of John James Tayler, B.A. (London, 1872), 2: 142–43.

19 Philip Doddridge's academy at Northampton was not the first to adopt the technique, but it was the most celebrated. Priestley entered the successor academy at Daventry in 1752, the year following Doddridge's death, and his often-quoted description bears repeating: “In my time, the academy was in a state peculiarly favourable to the serious pursuit of truth, as the students were about equally divided upon every question of importance, such as Liberty and Necessity, the sleep of the soul, and all the articles of theological orthodoxy and heresy; in consequence of which, all these topics were the subject of continual discussion. Our tutors were also of different opinions; Dr. Ashworth taking the orthodox side of every question, and Mr. Clark, the sub-tutor, that of heresy, though always with the greatest modesty.” Memoirs of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley, to the year 1795, written by Himself (London, 1809), pp. 115–16.

20 Examiner, January 6–May 29, 1831, reprinted in Himmelfarb, Gertrude, ed., Essays on Politics and Culture (New York, 1962), pp. 350.

21 Ibid., 67-68. “Civilization” appeared in the London and Westminster Review 3 and 25 (April 1836): pp. 128.

22 “Spirit of the Age,” Himmelfarb, , Essays, pp. 4546; “Civilization,” ibid., p. 62. Compare Hole, Robert, Pulpits, Politics and Public Order in England, 1760–1832 (Cambridge, 1989), which argues that the Church's political argumentation shifted at the time of the French Revolution from constitutional and dynastic defenses to defenses of the social order.

23 Fifoot, C. H. S., Judge and Jurist in the Reign of Victoria (London, 1958). Robson, Robert, The Attorney in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1959). The history of the expert witness in England has apparently not yet been written, but I am indebted to my colleague Professor James C. Mohr for an early view of his history of medical jurisprudence in the United States, in which controversy over the role and authority of professional experts plays a very large part.

24 The best and most temperate introduction to all this is Peterson, M. Jeanne, The Medical Profession in Mid-Victorian London (Berkeley, 1978). See also Bynum, W. F. and Porter, Roy, eds., Medical Fringe and Medical Orthodoxy, 1750–1850 (London, 1987). The headiness of these bitter battles is well conveyed in Desmond, Adrian, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London (Chicago, 1989).

25 Blaug, Mark, Ricardian Economics (New Haven, 1957).

26 “Spirit of the Age,” pp. 12–13. Adrian Desmond, The Politics of Evolution is also relevant here. Of the vast literature on the subject some useful titles—the more recent additionally valuable for their references—are Gillispie, C. C., Genesis and Geology (New York, 1951); Porter, R. S., The Making of Geology: Earth Science in Britain, 1660–1815 (Cambridge, 1977); Morrell, Jack and Thackray, Arnold, Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Oxford, 1981); and the valuable and wide-ranging articles in Inkster, Ian and Morrell, Jack, eds., Metropolis and Province: Science in British Culture, 1780–1850 (Philadelphia, 1983). The most remarkable contemporary indictment of established science was Babbage, Charles, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (London, 1830).

27 The question of authority recurs again and again in William Robbins's splendid essay in comparative biography, The Newman Brothers (Cambridge, Mass., 1966). Vargish, Thomas, Newman: The Contemplation of Mind (Oxford, 1970), is a fine study of Newman's “grammar of assent.” Murphy, Martin, Blanco White: Self-banished Spaniard (New Haven, 1989).

28 SirTaylor, Henry, The Statesman (1836), ch. 22. It is tempting to think that Coleridge's idea of the clerisy is in some respect obligated to William Paley, whom Coleridge so thoroughly disparaged. Paley's most original and most emphasized argument for establishment is the maintenance of a class of learned men to sustain and enlarge religious knowledge. These scholars will always be a small part of the whole, but “we sow many seeds to raise one flower. In order to produce a few capable of improving and continuing the stock of Christian erudition, leisure and opportunity must be afforded to great numbers. Original knowledge of this kind can never be universal; but it is of the utmost importance, and it is enough that there be, at all times, found some qualified for such inquiries and in whose concurring and independent conclusions upon each subject, the rest of the Christian community may safely confide; whereas, without an order of clergy educated for the purpose, and led to the prosecution of these studies, by the habits, the leisure, and the object of their vocation it may well be questioned whether the learning itself would not have been lost, by which the records of our faith are interpreted and defended.” Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1786), ch. 10.

29 “Civilization,” Himmelfarb, , Essays, p. 73. Of Herr Teufelsdröckh's chair of Things in General, Carlyle wrote: “To all appearance, the enlightened Government of Weissnichtwo, in founding their New University, imagined they had done enough, if ‘in times like ours,’ as the half-official Program expressed it, ‘when all things are, rapidly or slowly, resolving themselves into Chaos, a Professorship of this kind had been established, whereby, as occasion called, the task of bodying somewhat forth again from such Chaos might be, even slightly, facilitated.’” Sartor Resartus (1834; New York, 1937), p. 18.

30 Green, Joseph Henry, Vital Dynamics. The Hunterian Oration before the Royal College of Surgeons in London, 14th February, 1840 (London, 1840); An Address delivered in King's College, London, at the Commencement of the Medical Session, October 1, 1832 (London, 1832). See also Distinction without Separation, in a Letter to the President of the College of Surgeons on the Present State of the Profession (London, 1831); The Touchstone of Medical Reform; in three letters, addressed to Sir Robert Harry Inglis, Bart., M.P. (London, 1841); Suggestions respecting the Intended Plan of Medical Reform, respectfully offered to the Legislature and the Profession (London, 1834); and Mental Dynamics, or Groundwork of a Professional Education. The Hunterian Oration…15th February, 1847 (London, 1847). Crabb Robinson's Diary, February 14, 1840, Dr. Williams's Library. Robinson also commented, April 14, 1847, on the second Hunterian Oration, that it was “a more luminous exposition of some of Coleridge's principles than has yet appeared.” Green, J. H., Spiritual Philosophy: founded on the Teachings of the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited, with a memoir, by John Simon, 2 vols. (London, 1865). Green and his gentlemanly colleagues are anathema to Adrian Desmond (The Politics of Evolution, passim).

A Crisis of Authority: Early Nineteenth-Century British Thought

  • R. K. Webb


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