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No valid analysis of any historical phenomenon can be isolated from the preceding or subsequent decades. The increasing importance of Rational Dissent, the growth of hostility towards it, and its gradual evolution between 1770 and 1800 contrast markedly with the situation in the previous thirty years. What then was the situation after 1800 – the legacy of Rational Dissent? Attacks on Unitarians, legal constraints on the activities of Rational Dissenters, and their efforts to overcome them, did not disappear in 1800. The Trinity Act, which made rejection of the Trinity no longer a legal offence, was not passed until 1813; the sacramental provisions of the Test and Corporation Acts remained in force until 1828; and not until 1836 was the legal requirement for Dissenters’ marriages to be celebrated by clergy of the Church of England removed.
How far did the theological beliefs underpinning Rational Dissent in the late eighteenth century survive into the early nineteenth, and how far did they alter? These questions raise a number of considerations – the nature of its appeal and audience in the early nineteenth century and the extent to which its characteristics were rooted in those of late eighteenth-century Rational Dissent. Unitarianism became formalised, but how far did it become much more clearly a denomination with a defined and openly declared creed that separated it from Arianism? And what was the fate of Arianism as a detectable, distinctive element of Rational Dissent?
Allegations against those described disparagingly as Socinians (professing belief in God and adherence to the Christian Scriptures, but denying the divinity of Christ and consequently denying the Trinity) continued to appear in the metropolitan and provincial press. Socinians themselves from the 1790s onwards increasingly distanced themselves from this hostility by adopting the label Unitarian. Abusive attacks against Rational Dissent no longer appeared with the same intensity or frequency as in the last thirty years of the eighteenth century. Amongst ten newspapers publishing such attacks between 1804 and 1820, the majority featured in The London Morning Chronicle and Trewman's Exeter Flying Post. In The London Morning Chronicle eleven attacks appeared between 1814 and 1820, in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post ten attacks between 1804 and 1820.
Chapters 3 and 4 concentrated upon the affinities that underpinned Rational Dissenting theology and the nuances, and sometimes tensions, within these affinities. Chapters 5 and 6 move on to analyse the ways in which the significant differences that separated Rational Dissenting from orthodox theology led to differences in ideas and argument on issues of liberty. The argument of these two chapters is that the Rational Dissenting concepts of liberty were the direct outcome of their specific theological identity.
The theological basis of Rational Dissenting ideas on liberty has so far received relatively little scholarly attention. Robert Hole's important study of 1989 touched upon religious arguments relating to liberty and politics, but his book's first priority was the application of religious ideas to support the traditional order in Church and state. The main emphasis of H. T. Dickinson's Liberty and Property viewed its subject in essentially secular terms. Although many (but far from all) Dissenters participated in campaigns for reform, as many historians have noted, the theological motivation behind their political involvement remains relatively unexplored. J. C. D. Clark's challenge to this approach is apposite:
We must recall the degree of suspicion and conflict between different denominations of Nonconformists over ecclesiastical polity which made common action on the basis of shared beliefs about a right of private judgement or shared practical grievances, highly problematic.
With the proviso that ‘suspicion and conflict’ between Dissenters concerned doctrine as well as ecclesiastical polity, Professor Clark reminds us of the need for a detailed exploration of Rational Dissenting concepts of liberty, looking not just at the views of a handful of key players but what we can glean from the ‘hinterland’ – the lesser-known individuals, chapels, societies, publications, and private documents. Rational Dissenters other than Price and Priestley have not so far received sufficient close attention. Although Martin Fitzpatrick has devoted attention to other Rational Dissenters, Priestley's commitment to universal toleration has been his principal subject of enquiry. James E. Bradley's assertion that ‘provincial Dissenting ministers are especially important because they linked local to national political issues’ is highly relevant to the present discussion, but his most detailed analysis is based on detailed analysis of three Orthodox and only two Rational Dissenting ministers.
Valerie Anne Smith (née Hopkins) (18/9/52 to 19/6/19)
From a child, Valerie Smith was interested in history. The vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, when awarding her doctorate degree (at the age of sixty-four) at the Canterbury Cathedral ceremony, joked ambiguously ‘What took you so long?!’
Her lifelong passion for history meant that she finally became what she had admired – a respected academic historian and a Ph.D. Her modest self-image, diffidence, and putting others before herself meant that it was a long road. She completed her (first) undergraduate degree in history at Southampton University. Her enthusiasm then seemed to be for the Crusades, and her historian hero, Sir Stephen Runciman. She then settled into teaching history at a Kent secondary school where she remained for thirty years.
After the death of her husband she needed to fill a gap in her life. After a couple of false starts (one was a short course on astronomy), she returned to her first love, history. Short courses in history at her local University of Kent led to a part-time Certificate in Local History, some undergraduate history modules, and finally a complete BA in History – for the second time. She explained that she wanted to do a history degree again – but better! – and as a more mature individual. Her excitement grew as she realised her grades would earn her a first-class degree. Encouraged, she moved on to a master's degree, still at the University of Kent. The study sustained her while she underwent treatments for cancer, and her determination won her an MA with distinction.
A pause of a few months (‘a wobble’, as she called it) in which she was unsure of her direction, resolved into an M.Phil. in history, then a doctorate. Her earlier focus on researching local newspapers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led on to her archive research into late eighteenth-century religious dissent in England. Mentored throughout her more advanced studies by Professor Grayson Ditchfield, whom she hugely admired, she had many of the attributes of a fine historical scholar: a genuinely original mind; an unquenchable interest in the past; meticulous research skills; persistence and stamina in lengthy projects; perfectionism over details; modesty and willingness to take on board colleagues’ suggestions.
Many contemporary critics held Rational Dissenters, and especially Socinians, to be guilty of doctrinal opinions that led towards republicanism. Just as they were more extreme in their theology than Orthodox Dissenters, it was believed that they were also more extreme in their view of the constitution. Republicanism in the eighteenth century had several connotations, one of which involved the existence and acceptance of republican values of citizenship, public service, and libertarianism within a monarchical state. However, most definitions of republicanism in eighteenth-century England focused in a hostile manner upon its anti-monarchical trends. As an ideal, republicanism had been discredited by the regicide of 1649, of which denunciations were regularly preached by Church of England clergymen in their January 30th sermons, and many of these sermons took on a shriller anti-republican tone during the War of American Independence. During the 1790s republicanism was increasingly associated with revolutionary France, especially after the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793. Linda Colley, with many others, argues convincingly for a royalist resurgence in Britain after 1780, ‘part of the conservative reaction to the American, and still more the French Revolution’. Tellingly, one of the most prominent of the royalist, or loyalist societies, founded in 1792, was named the ‘Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers’.
Rational Dissenters uniformly protested their loyalty to the king and Parliament, and, stung by the accusation of sympathy for revolutionary causes in America and France, insisted that their methods of seeking religious and other reforms were strictly constitutional. Joseph Fownes in 1772 defined the legal respectability of their efforts; they would appeal to ‘the judgement of the legislature, to which their petition is again submitted’. They were keen to establish their patriotism more fully than ever before. The accusation of admiration for revolutionary causes, while directed against Dissenters as a whole, was particularly damaging for Rational Dissent. Its adherents were singled out, even by Orthodox Dissenters, as well as by senior churchmen such as George Pretyman, bishop of Lincoln and William Pitt the Younger's ecclesiastical adviser, and by various newspaper correspondents.
Individuals and Rational Dissenters referred to in the text – authors of letters, diaries, published sermons and discourses; prominent figures in public life; committee members of Unitarian Society in the West of England SCI = Society for Constitutional Information 70s, 80s, 90s = numbers of publications during 1770–79, 1780–89, 1790–1800
To be able to come to one's own conclusions about the messages of religious texts implies time and opportunity to consider and reflect on them; and preferably access to read and study them. In the late eighteenth century the complex language and theological concepts of Rational Dissenting sermons were often based on individual interpretation of Scriptures in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. This had largely confined their appeal to the educated, although Hugh Worthington, William Tayleur, and Theophilus Lindsey, for example, had been keenly aware of a need for dissemination of theological ideas to the lower classes. In the early nineteenth century this awareness persisted. The London Unitarian Tract Society aimed to reach out to the poor, devoting three tracts specifically for this audience: William's Return or Good News for Cottagers; a second tract by Richard Wright, the travelling missionary; and a third by Catharine Cappe, who was still actively involved in propagating Unitarian ideas. By 1820 the Newcastle Unitarian Tract Society was sending copies of its tracts to Sunderland, Liverpool, Leeds, and London. An article in The Monthly Repository recorded that The Christian Reflector and Theological Inquirer ‘was published in cheap numbers to furnish those who have not access to a variety of books with short expositions of Scripture’. That it was still being issued in 1821 clearly suggests that this need had not yet been met.
Richard Wright, son of a Norfolk labourer, travelled around the country preaching between 1806 and 1819. One of many of his published pamphlets stated his object as being:
To present the unlearned, and those who cannot afford to purchase large publications, with such hints as may lead them to a careful examination of the Scriptures. The reader is requested to examine with care the passages of Scripture referred to and to judge for himself.
Sold at 2d, its price made it accessible to the literate amongst the less skilled. Its length of fourteen pages suggests a serious attempt at simplifying a complex theological message, although it still required the reader to cross-reference the Scriptures. Wright's own preaching style was recorded by Robert Brook Aspland as ‘simple’, but, although he travelled extensively, ‘his great obstacle was the ignorance of the masses of the people’.
The last thirty years of the eighteenth century were decisive in the development of the identity of Rational Dissent. To understand that evolution we need to analyse the common and diverse strands of theological ideas within it, and external contemporary perceptions of those ideas. Having examined the ways in which these ideas directed and determined their concepts of liberty and of the constitution, Chapter 7 moves forward, firstly to explore a number of trends in its evolution and some changes in the character of its identity during those thirty years. Secondly it examines the significance of the increasing tensions between Rational and Orthodox Dissenters; tensions within Rational Dissent itself during the 1790s; and the impact they had exerted upon its identity by 1800.
The considerable size of the Eighteenth Century Collections Online database of printed sermons, discourses, letters, and other primary documents allows us not only to search documents for particular authors and how they explored particular theological ideas, but also to draw conclusions based upon a solid corpus of evidence. A study of trends in the number of references to various themes allows us to follow the development of Rational Dissent. In the analysis that follows, works published in multiple volumes are counted as separate works, since this is how they came to the attention of eighteenth-century audiences and readerships. Subsequent editions of works are counted in the same way, since they were often more extended versions, frequently replying to criticism, and giving the reading public further opportunities to engage with Rational Dissenting ideas.
A critical examination of the number of works published by Rational Dissenters who feature in the Biographical Register reveals a rise from 129 during the 1770s, to 175 in the 1780s, and 332 between 1790 and 1800. Table 3 lists works of a number of Rational Dissenters included in the Biographical Register, which ran to more than two editions. In 1792 alone, three editions of Anna Letitia Barbauld's Remarks on Mr. Gilbert Wakefield's Enquiry were printed, in response to the second and third editions of Wakefield's own Enquiry in the same year. The following year saw the appearance of three editions of Ann Jebb's Two Pennyworth more of Truth. Between 1791 and 1796 there were five editions of Helen Maria Williams's Letters containing a Sketch of the Politics of France between 1791 and 1796.
Powerful responses to Rational Dissenting beliefs from ministers and laity within the Church of England and from Orthodox Dissenters demonstrate the strength of feeling and the fears that those beliefs aroused in England during the last thirty years of the eighteenth century. Analysis of the arguments of those who rejected and felt threatened by Rational Dissent illuminates the complex and to date little-explored range of contemporary perceptions of its nature and composition. The adherents of any system of beliefs under attack find it damaging to allow allegations against them to go unanswered, and their answers help to define, redefine, and refine those beliefs themselves. Accordingly this chapter examines the impact of external perceptions upon Rational Dissenters themselves through their written responses to attack, and in so doing explores ways in which its identity was in part moulded by the hostile responses directed against it.
For most religious thinkers in the late eighteenth century the key issue was the relationship between reason and revelation, which they saw as mutually reinforcing. The term ‘rational’ could be used positively by those who were not themselves Rational Dissenters. Most members of the Established Church did not see themselves as ‘non-rational’. John Wesley, though far from divorcing faith from reason, nevertheless held that reason must always be subject to scriptural authority. Orthodox Dissenters, such as the Particular Baptist John Macgowan in his Familiar Epistles of 1771, likewise took exception to the suggestion that those who adopted a Rational Dissenting approach were more rational than those who did not: ‘I would know from whom [the name Rational Dissenter] can distinguish you, except from such as are deemed irrational among the Dissenters.’
High Churchmen, Methodists, and Evangelical Calvinists within the Church of England, together with Orthodox Dissenters, reacted strongly against key Rational Dissenting beliefs. These beliefs included rejection of doctrines of the Trinity, of predestination, of original sin and atonement; doubts about eternal punishment; and, in the case of Unitarians, an assertion of the total humanity of Christ. Many Latitudinarians reacted in a similarly hostile way, although some took less orthodox positions on the Trinity and the person of Christ than others in the Established Church. By virtue of their profession clergymen debated and explored doctrine more extensively than did laypeople.
Chapter 3 identified the common core of theological beliefs shared by Rational Dissenters and the methods by which those beliefs were arrived at and refined. However, there remains an apparent paradox in Rational Dissent's identity. The pursuit of reason and individual exploration of the Scriptures, as well as exerting a unifying influence, also encouraged a significant degree of diversity over doctrine. That diversity has been underestimated by previous historians of the subject, and this has led to an overconcentration on the doctrine and practice of Richard Price and Joseph Priestley, and a diminution of the roles played by other Rational Dissenters, and especially by its female and male lay adherents.
Although most Rational Dissenters belonged to a congregation, they were not part of a formally constituted denomination, and consequently did not think themselves governed by rules or constrained by any kind of overriding church hierarchy. This remained the case even after the foundation of Unitarian societies. This characteristic constituted an extremely important feature of their identity in this period. One of the key ways in which Rational Dissent was distinctive lay in its strong rejection of the imposition of dogma and its opposition to human formularies. This non-subscribing tradition was not peculiar to Rational Dissenters, but they held and proclaimed it much more firmly than by any other group. Hugh Worthington, minister and tutor at Hackney New College, London, agreed with Joseph Priestley that ‘in being free from the rage of proselytism, I wish all to think for themselves’, and, amongst the Unitarian laity, William Tayleur in Shropshire wrote to Lindsey, ‘I should condemn myself if I ever purposely offered an argument to bring off anyone from his Arian opinion.’ In Taunton Jane Toulmin in 1790 urged the laity to ‘consider a spirit of free enquiry both amongst themselves and their ministers as their greatest glory and privilege’. The level of diversity amongst Rational Dissenters heightened the priority they attached to theological debate. There could be differences of opinion, frankly and honestly debated within Rational Dissent, without diminishing the perception of diversity as a virtue. Candour was a Rational Dissenting watchword.