3224. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 24 December 1818

3224. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 24 December 1818⁠* 

My dear Sir

I cannot but feel myself greatly honoured by receiving from you such a letter as your last upon such a subject. The want of zeal in the Clergy has been one of the many causes which has produced the present deplorable state of morals among the peasantry & the populace. You may have perceived that I have often adverted to this, & if I have not gone as far as you could have wished, – xx xx I have gone to the length of my tether. Less effect would have been produced if more had been said, even if more would have been permitted thro that channel; where what I would say is often suppressed or mutilated, – & not always judiciously. – But in the Life of Wesley [1]  I am under no controul of this kind, & tho I shall lay myself open in it to the charge of superstition & weakness of mind, yet the book will be so free from any sectarian spirit, or bigotry of any kind, that it will have its weight. And here I shall distinctly state point out among the good effects of Methodism, the spirit which it has excited in the Establishment, & endeavour to show both directly & by implication (which is sometimes the surest, & safest way) how desirable it is that that spirit should be cherished, & that the Church Establishment should condescend to take from Methodism what there is really good in its practices & detail. –

Of the Clergymen whom you mention Mr Cunningham of Harrow [2]  is the only one I ever heard. I have indeed seen Mr Stewart of Percy Chapel, [3]  who was here on his bridal excursion, with his brother in law Robert Owen of Lanark. [4]  What he may be in the pulpit I know not, – but he seemed to be a very poor creature out of it. With regard to doctrines oh how much it is to be wished that men would not presumptuously attempt to search into the inscrutable, & to define what the scriptures have left indefinite! I do not think they have much influence upon the lives of men, – as far as my observation goes indeed, less than I should theoretically have expected: but the evils which they occasion by exciting angry & uncharitable feelings & schisms & factions where the spirit in which these originate cannot have its full scope so as to bring forth persecution {& civil war} – are serious indeed.

When I was a young man I was proud, presumptuous & positive. My views were clear because they were confined, – I saw only the single point before me on which my attention was fixed. I had no misgivings, & was so conscious that my intentions were right that it never occurred to me even as a possibility that my opinions might be wrong. This was for want of an adviser As men grow older they become less dogmatical & more tolerant. I have learnt to believe some things, & to doubt concerning others which I once totally disbelieved, (xxx preternatural appearances or impressions, xxx the agency of the invisible world, & the existence of an Evil Principle) & my belief in the great truths of Revelation has ripened into an habitual feeling I should still scruple at subscription, [5]  – but not from the same cause. My objection would be, not that I held an opposite opinion to this article or that, but that I am unable to form an opinion upon such subjects; they seem to me to be beyond the scope & sphere of human knowledge, & xxx fitter (as Milton [6]  represents them) to be {the} speculations of fallen Angels, than to be digested into formulas of faith. Just as with regard to our own immortality it suffices for us to know that we are xxx created in the image of our Makers eternity to be immortal, – to be the image of our Makers eternity, – without understanding the mode of our future existence, – so I wish that our fathers had been contented to leave other points in the same reverential obscurity. In proportion as {I know} the Evangelical Clergy only by report, & know how little report is to be trusted, but as far as I know them I am led to distrust their judgement while I admire their zeal.

You were surprized at seeing Huntingtons Works [7]  upon my table. I have lately looked thro twenty volumes of the Gospel Magazine (from 1796 to 1816), [8]  & should scarcely have believed that such opinions were entertained by any body of people in the country if I had not raked in this rubbish. The writers were {are} mostly Hutchinsonians; [9]  & all Antinomians [10]  – they dispute for the propriety of praying for all men, or of inviting all into the way of salvation, they have an essay on the Blessings of Predestination, & they notice it as “worthy of remark that the words moral & morality never occur throughout the whole Bible.” They give you credit for good intentions, but set you down for a Baxterian. [11]  They say that Wesley [12]  was as weak as he was vicious, & call him a forger & a blasphemer. This life, they maintain, is not a state of probation. And as for Arminianism it is the direct road to everlasting perdition. – If the doctrines of these men were to influence their practice their morality would be like that of the Jesuits. [13] 

Perhaps I have not expressed myself plainly concerning the Evangelical Clergy. – Do they not dwell rather upon the dark parts of the Epistles, than in the light & sunshine of the Gospels? [14]  Do they not sometimes exaggerate the doctrine of Original Sin? [15]  Do they not exclude Turk, Jew & Gentile from salvation xxx & thus, whether Predestinarians or not, reprobate at once the larger part of the human race? – I cannot but believe that God will deal mercifully with all his creatures: – that they who seek him with sincerity under any dispensation will find him; & that there may be a state of farther probation after death, for those who, by the fatal circumstances in which they were placed here, have lived & died in darkness. Will you think me Perhaps the for Reformers were led astray in more points than one by their just indignation against the corruptions of Popery. Would they not otherwise have admitted that less than an eternity of torments would suffice {as punishment} for certain sins, & that grossly as the do hypothesis of a Purgatory [16]  had been abused, it is in itself neither absurd, nor contradictory to scripture? –

I think it is St Evremont who records the saying of a Dutch General that ‘when men have taken out of Christianity all that they have put into it, – all men will be Christians.’ [17]  Tho this is too strongly expressed, there is some truth in it.

I have procured & read Baxters narrative of his Life & Times. [18] He The history of his own mental progress is in the highest degree interesting, & unquestionably he appears to have been a most conscientious & exemplary man. But the book rather lessens my than raises my respect for the Nonconformists; – so many of their objections to the liturgy were puerile & captious, that (setting all other considerations aside) it is no wonder than no attention was paid to those which really had some weight. – They were abominably used, – but they seem to have entirely forgotten the use which they themselves made of power when they possessed it. Baxter lays much of their sufferings to Clarendons account. [19]  Now Clarendon appears to me the perfect xx ideal of an English statesman.

In the course of a fortnight there will be an opportunity of sending up Kosters translation [20]  by John Wordsworth. [21] 

Believe me my dear Sir

most truly & respectfully yours

Robert Southey.

Keswick. 26 Dec. 1818.


* Endorsement: Pri Southey ans/ wer to mine on/ Characters of/ ηφανγελιχαλ / χλεργι [‘Evangelical clergy’]
MS: Berg Collection, New York Public Library. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[2] John William Cunningham (1780–1861; DNB), evangelical Vicar of Harrow from 1811 until his death and an associate of Wilberforce. He was also a writer, whose Velvet Cushion (1814) was a great success. BACK

[3] The evangelical Anglican clergyman James Haldane Stewart (1778–1854) was the Minister at Percy Chapel, London 1812–1828. Wilberforce attended Percy Chapel when he was in London. BACK

[4] Robert Owen (1771–1858; DNB), the humanitarian industrialist, who provided improved living conditions for the workers at his mills at New Lanark, Scotland 1799–1825. Stewart married Mary Dale (b. 1787), a daughter of David Dale (1739–1806; DNB), the merchant and founder of New Lanark, in Glasgow on 20 August 1816. Owen was married to one of Mary’s sisters, Ann Carolina Dale (1778–1831). BACK

[5] Subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, as set out in its Book of Common Prayer (1662). It was necessary for all Anglican clergymen to assent to these beliefs and, because he could not do this, Southey had declined the career in the church that his uncle, Herbert Hill, had planned for him. BACK

[6] John Milton (1608–1674; DNB) Paradise Lost (1667), Book 2, features a theological debate between the fallen angels in hell. BACK

[7] William Huntington (1745–1813; DNB), a coalheaver turned Calvinist preacher, who believed he would, on Judgement Day, be revealed as a prophet. Huntington became a popular, rich and controversial preacher. Southey reviewed his life and writings in Quarterly Review, 24 (January 1821), 462–510. BACK

[8] The Gospel Magazine (1766–present). An evangelical magazine, mainly aimed at Anglicans. BACK

[9] Followers of John Hutchinson (1674–1737; DNB), who claimed the Bible contained a complete explanation of the universe and that therefore the Newtonian system was false as it was not based on Biblical sources. BACK

[10] The idea that Christians who are predestined to salvation are free from moral laws, as they are saved by God’s grace and not their actions. Antinomians tended to believe that Christ only died for those who would be saved, not for all human beings. BACK

[11] A follower of Richard Baxter (1615–1691; DNB), a Puritan divine and religious controversialist who was deeply hostile to antinomianism and whose theology insisted Christians must obey moral laws. He attempted to find a middle way between those who believed all souls were predestined to salvation or damnation from before the beginning of the world, and those who believed in the agency of free will in determining a soul’s fate. BACK

[12] Southey was reading about theology because he was researching the career of John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB) towards his biography, The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). Wesley’s theology owed much to the beliefs of the Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609), especially the idea that Christ died for all humanity, but it was up to each individual to decide, with the help of God’s grace, whether to accept or reject salvation. BACK

[13] The idea associated with the Jesuit order that even sinful actions are permissible if they attain a good object. BACK

[14] St Paul’s Letters (or Epistles), such as Romans 8: 29, were often used to justify the idea of predestination, while those who favoured the concept of free will tended to look to the four Gospels, for instance, Matthew 11: 28–30. BACK

[15] The concept that, following Adam’s disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), all human beings are born in sin, have a natural tendency to wrong-doing and can only be saved by God’s grace. BACK

[16] The doctrine held in the Catholic Church that souls after death may undergo a period of purification before attaining Heaven. It was rejected by most Protestants. BACK

[17] Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis, Seigneur de Saint-Évremond (1613–1703), reporting a remark of the German General, Paul Wurtz (1612–1676). The remark is quoted in The Works of Monsieur de St. Evremond, 3 vols (London, 1714), II, p. 168; no. 1016 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[18] Richard Baxter, Narrative of His Life and Times (1696), no. 239 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. Baxter was a key figure in the failed negotiations at Savoy House in 1661 to include Presbyterians in the Church of England after the Restoration of the Monarchy. BACK

[19] Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609–1674; DNB). As the chief minister in 1660–1667 of Charles II (1630–1685; DNB), King of England 1660–1685; DNB), Clarendon’s name was given to the ‘Clarendon Code’ of laws passed 1661–1665, which were designed, after the years of Puritan ascendancy during the Commonwealth, to re–establish the supremacy of the Church of England and restrict Protestant dissent. BACK

[20] Koster had proposed to further the anti-slavery cause in Brazil by translating Clarkson’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave–Trade by the British Parliament (1808) into Portuguese. BACK

[21] Possibly Captain John Wordsworth (1754–1819), Wordsworth’s older cousin. BACK

People mentioned

Koster, Henry (1793–1820) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)


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