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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: March 2020

4 - Rational Philanthropy: Theory and Practice in the Emergence of British Unitarianism, c. 1750–1820


In 1996, in one of the most wide-ranging collections of essays on the subject of British rational dissent, Professor R. K. Webb contributed a chapter with the title ‘rational piety’. He raised the question as to whether the very notion of ‘rational piety’ was oxymoronic; after all, he asked, was not the worship of rational dissent characterised by carefully modulated, enlightened common sense, politeness and a high intellectual quality, eschewing and despising ‘enthusiasm’, mysticism and fervent displays of emotion? But Professor Webb made out a convincing case for ‘rational piety’, evident through the growing liturgical tradition and hymnody in the devotions of many congregations that were adopting unitarian tenets. Those devotional exercises evinced in particular a deep reverence for the created world and a strong sense of duty towards others. The lawyer and unitarian sympathiser Capel Lofft declared in 1788: ‘By rational piety, I understand gratitude to the Supreme Goodness, manifested in an affectionate interest in the welfare of that part of the creation which is accessible to our good offices.’ That last theme suggests the possibility that a case might be examined for a distinctively ‘rational’ approach to philanthropy in its broadest senses, during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Unitarianism and philanthropy: definitions

Before proceeding with that enquiry, however, one should recall the dictum of Professor Webb in the essay cited above, namely that ‘Debates are won by those who control the definitions.’ There is an obvious case for clarity in the use of key terms, ‘Unitarian’ and ‘Philanthropy’. As Alan Ruston has observed, it is inappropriate to use the term ‘Unitarian’ with a capital ‘U’, implying a fully fledged religious denomination, at least before 1825–26, the years in which three existing unitarian organisations – the Unitarian Fund, the Association for the Protection of the Civil Rights of Unitarians, and the Unitarian Society, established in 1791 by the former Anglican clergyman and founder of the first openly unitarian congregation in Britain Theophilus Lindsey, merged to form the British and Foreign Unitarian Association. Only then did more formal denominational structures take shape. Nonetheless, the existence of these earlier bodies, reinforced by periodical literature, notably (from 1806) the Monthly Repository, indicates a growing sense of denominational consciousness among unitarians (with a lower-case ‘u’), and with that consciousness came increasing evidence of organised unitarian responses to poverty.