3063. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 3 January 1818

3063. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 3 January 1818⁠* 

Keswick. 3 Jany. 1818.

My dear Sir

I return Lord Castlereaghs letter, whatever may xxx be the result of the application, both Koster & myself are equally indebted to you for this kindness. [1] 

That Mr Pitt [2]  was a disinterested man I never doubted, – nor that he was a man of great & extraordinary talents. I doubt the extent of his foresight, & the wisdom of many of his measures: – perhaps there would be little difference in our opinions, now that we must look back upon his administration as a part of past history.

There is no likelihood of my moving southward during the present year. But I should be most glad to receive from you any information, or hints respecting Wesley. [3]  I consider him as the most influential mind of the last century, – the man who will have produced the greatest effects centuries, or perhaps millenniums hence, if the present race of men should continue so long. The early excesses of Methodism I can account & allow for. I admire his tolerant & truly catholic spirit; & I accord so far with his opinions, as they are expressed in his latter years, that where he goes beyond me in his belief I feel a conviction it is because I have not <yet> advanced far enough. I wish he had been less credulous, – his credulity weakens the effect of his testimony, & the weight of his opinion. For instance, – I am as deeply & fully persuaded as he was that the spirits of the departed are sometimes permitted to manifest themselves; – there is a body of evidence upon this subject xxx which it is impossible for me to disbelieve; besides it is good that it should be so, & this with me (in such matters) is sufficient reason for concluding that it is probable, – but it is also probable upon the strictest reasoning. But I do not believe in witchcraft, & very much doubt the reality of demoniacal possession, – even however if both were admitted the absurd stories which he credited impeach his judgement, & consequently weaken the force of his authority when he is right.

I shall very soon begin upon an essential & interesting part of the work, – a view of the state of religion in this country from the Reformation to his time. [4]  Even now after all that the Methodists have done, & all that they have caused the church to do, there is no part of Christendom where the populace state of religion in the populace is so utterly neglected. The field is left fallow, – & then we wonder to find that a more active spirit has been sowing tares! I am not surprized at the result of these late trials, – they are a fit & proper example of the consequences of Mr Fox’s law of libel; [5]  – whether there be courage enough to put that law upon its proper footing – valde dubito! [6] 

Believe me my dear Sir

respectfully & truly yrs

Robert Southey.


* Endorsement: Pri/ Mr Southey Jany/ 1818. abt Mr Pitt/ & his History of/ Revd Mr Wesley
MS: Berg Collection, New York Public Library. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: R. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, The Correspondence of William Wilberforce, 2 vols (London, 1840), II, pp. 389–390. BACK

[1] Southey had requested Wilberforce to use his influence to obtain the Consulship of Maranhao, Brazil, for Henry Koster. Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh (1769–1822; DNB), Foreign Secretary 1812–1822, was ultimately responsible for the appointment. BACK

[2] William Pitt (1759–1806; DNB), Prime Minster 1783–1810, 1804–1806. BACK

[3] Southey was researching the career of John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB) for The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[4] Chapter 9, The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism, 2 vols (London, 1820), I, pp. 305–336. BACK

[5] Southey refers to the acquittal of William Hone in three trials for blasphemous libel held on 18, 19 and 20 December 1817. The Libel Act (1792) changed the law so that juries, and not judges, had the main role in deciding on whether a publication was libellous. Its architect was Charles James Fox. BACK

[6] ‘I rather doubt’. BACK

People mentioned

Koster, Henry (1793–1820) (mentioned 1 time)
Hone, William (1780–1842) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)