1. 16 January 2008‘ “our schismatical societies”: Joseph Priestley and the development of rational dissent, 1769-1793’Simon Mills (Queen Mary, University of London)
During the last three decades of the eighteenth century Joseph Priestley published over one hundred separate works of theology, many of which went through multiple editions, and more than fifty shorter articles. Through these works he formulated the theological system that came to underpin the emergent Unitarian movement. This paper examines the circulation of these works among Priestley’s network of rational dissenters. It draws on the newly published electronic edition of Priestley’s letters to Theophilus Lindsey to bring to light some previously unpublished details on Priestley’s links with London and provincial booksellers and distributors, and on the composition of Priestley’s works.
2. 13 February 2008‘Farewell to a Hero: printed responses in prose and verse to the death of William III (1702)’Dr Nicholas Tyacke (University College London)
Williamite propaganda is currently a hotly debated topic, historians disagreeing as to whether it was primarily religious (providentialist) or secular (nationalist) in nature. This paper sheds fresh light on the subject by examining the various summations of the reign, attempted especially by preachers and poets, on the occasion of the king’s death, and drawing on the extensive collections of Dr Williams’s Library. The twin themes of religion and liberty, with William III as providential deliverer of Europe and not just England from the tyrant Louis XIV, emerge particularly strongly. Dissenter authors are also disproportionately prominent, reflecting the decidedly ambiguous attitude towards the late monarch by the successor regime of Queen Anne as well as their own sense of debt. The hallmark of much of this Williamite material turns out in fact to be politico-religious and internationalist.
3. 12 March 2008‘Devotional reading and note-taking in seventeenth-century England: a non-conformist case study c. 1665-1712’Jeremy Schildt (Royal Holloway, University of London)
This paper makes use of a substantial and underused collection of manuscript materials housed at the Dr Williams’s Library, in comparison with printed advice literature, to offer unique insight into the activities associated with biblical literacy in seventeenth-century England. The manuscript archive relates to the nonconformist Suffolk minister Owen Stockton (1630-80) and his wife Elianor Rant (1627/8-1712) and includes their diaries and over eighty-five of Stockton’s sermons. Their example, it is argued, sheds light on a cultural practice for Protestant Bible-reading concerned with the bespoke application of God’s Word to questions of assurance of salvation and the manner of the godly life. Here, readers utilised protean sets of practical techniques, routines and materials associated with keeping a commonplace-book. A consequential theme of the paper is that the discipline of Bible-reading was directed not only toward personal, spiritual commitments but was the machine code of everyday life: a foundation for how one encountered others within the household, parish and wider community.
4. 30 April 2008‘Representative Congregationalist? P. T. Forsyth as Chairman of the Union, 1905–6’
Professor Clyde Binfield (University of Sheffield)
The enduring reputation of P. T. Forsyth (1848–1921) is as a theologian. That reputation, supposedly subject to constant rediscovery, has in fact been sustained throughout the last century. In 1905 he was Chairman of the Congregational Union of England and Wales. The Chairman of the Union was, for a year, his denomination’s representative figure. He was potentially, sometimes actually, a figure of national note. To that extent the Chairmanship was a recognition of leadership. Was it also a position of leadership? What did leadership mean for a determinedly non-hierarchical union of churches? How did Forsyth exercise his role? He came to it as principal of a theological college, after twenty-five years in London and provincial pastorates, at a time of unusual social and political expectancy and of considerable theological excitement: and his most important work had yet to be published. Contemporary Congregationalists recognised that Forsyth was a man apart, as difficult as he was remarkable. Liberals were in the Congregational ascendant, in his younger days Forsyth had been a liberal of the liberals, and liberals remained among his oldest friends. Yet was he a liberal? He was hardly conservative. This paper focuses on his year of office, especially as reported in the Christian World. It concentrates on its impact on him and his impact on the Churches.
5. 18 June 2008‘The letters of a Congregational family: the Batemans of Manchester and the Wilsons of London (1760-1820)’Dr Susan Whyman (Princeton University)
This paper explores the wide-ranging motives, uses, and impacts of letter writing for two Congregational families. Their private lives are intimately revealed in the Wilson papers in the Congregational Library (which the Wilsons helped to establish) and the unpublished Bateman papers in Yale University’s Beinecke Library. Religion was the overriding epistolary concern of both families. At the same time, letters show their struggles with problems regarding family relationships, gender issues, and the world of commerce. Though letter writers strove to put God first, human interests kept demanding their attention. Letters offered a crucial space for focusing on the Lord, striving for grace, and alleviating tensions of daily life. The paper shows how two families defined their faith in letters as they strove to achieve grace in a commercial world.
6. 9 July 2008‘Henry Crabb Robinson’s “conversion to Kantianism” ’Dr James Vigus (University of Jena)
Henry Crabb Robinson travelled to Germany in 1800 as a necessitarian, an adherent of Godwin, and a self-proclaimed ‘sceptic’. His freethinking tended to alarm the more orthodox Dissenters in his circle, who nevertheless admired his unusual mastery of the empiricist tradition. His brother and several other correspondents were therefore astonished when Robinson soon began to proclaim his ‘conversion’ to a new system called ‘Kantianism’. The English press had assumed that Kant’s philosophy rested on what Locke had long ago exploded, an appeal to ‘innate ideas’ rather than experience as the source of human knowledge. Robinson, however, found in the Kantian doctrine of freedom an antidote to his scepticism, one that pointed him towards an attractive form of rational religion. Drawing on Robinson’s articles on Kant and his correspondence in Dr Williams’s Library, this paper explores Robinson’s struggle to relate German thought to his previous ‘masters’ such as Godwin and Locke.