Seminar 2007

1. 17 January
‘The Revd William Hazlitt (1737-1820) in print’
Professor Duncan Wu (St Catherine’s College, Oxford)

This paper surveys the life of the dissenting minister William Hazlitt (1737-1820), father of the essayist, and examines his claims to attention for those interested in dissenting thinkers of the eighteenth century. Wu draws on his new bibliography of Hazlitt’s writings and explore his published statements for evidence of his political and religious attitudes, taking in the full range of his work, from contributions to Priestley’s Theological Repository, articles published in American journals during his years in America (1784-7) which have not hitherto been identified as his, to articles in the Monthly Repository, the leading Unitarian journal of the early nineteenth century.

2. 14 February
‘Writing the History of Congregationalism, 1900-1980’
Rev. Dr Alan Argent (Minister, Trinity Congregational Church, Brixton)

This paper considers reasons for writing another history of Congregationalism.  The transformation and centralisation of Congregationalism in this period and the events leading up to the formation of the United Reformed Church are discussed.  The increasing importance of the Congregational Union of England and Wales and of its leading officials are examined and the work of significant individuals highlighted.  Was the transformation of Congregationalism in the 20th century justified?

3. 14 March
‘Literacy and Devotion in the Henry Family: The Evidence of Sarah Savage’s Diaries, 1714-1748’
Dr Gillian Wright (University of Birmingham)

Sarah Savage, daughter of Philip and sister of Matthew Henry, started to keep a diary in 1686, at the age of 22, and maintained the habit until her mid eighties. Several volumes of her diaries and other writings are extant, in repositories including Dr Williams’s Library and Harris Manchester College Library. These diaries are primarily concerned with the devotional practices of Savage and her family: practices in which the production and circulation of textual material of various kinds played an important part. This paper surveys the range of manuscripts and printed books alluded to in Savage’s diaries, and considers the role of reading and the dissemination of texts in the spiritual lives of her extended family.

4. 25 April
‘Dissenting from the Dissenters: Harriet Martineau, Unitarianism, and Social Reform’
Professor Deborah Logan (Western Kentucky University)

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) has been the subject of intense scholarly interest in recent years. Through reprints of her writing, conference presentations analyzing her contributions to nineteenth-century intellectual thought, and scholarly assessments of her life and work, Martineau’s intellectual legacy has been enormously revitalized. Her roles as literary and feminist ‘grandmother’ predate First Wave Feminism by a generation, revealing her contributions to intellectual, social, and political thought to be far more radical, influential, and insightful than previously assumed. Professor Logan’s discussion of Martineau’s dissent from the Dissenters is based primarily on her recent work with Martineau’s extant letters, which permit a broader perspective on the topic than her Autobiography alone. Martineau’s life and work illustrate her shift from religious dogmatism to agnosticism, and to a spiritual ethic based on social reform activism and the moral regeneration of industrialized society in the era of science and doubt.

5. 13 June
‘Toleration and the Development of Religious Dissent in Cheshire during the late 1680s’
Dr David Wykes (Dr Williams’s Library)

The Toleration Act (May 1689) is generally seen as granting liberty to dissenters to worship freely in public and thus allowing them to establish their own congregations. It is clear, however, that during the little studied period following James II’s second Declaration of Indulgence (April 1687) preaching resumed in many parts of the country.  This paper considers the evidence for nonconformist sermons and meetings before the Toleration Act in Cheshire using the Philip and Matthew Henry family correspondence at Dr Williams’s and other Libraries. It tries to resolve some of the questions about the nature of conformity and nonconformity during this period, and the forces behind the astonishing growth in dissenting meetings which occurred during the twenty-five year period following the Toleration Act.

6. 11 July
‘The Mystical Mary Pratt: A Female Blake?’
Professor Paul Monod (Middlebury College, Vermont)

The late eighteenth century witnessed a revival of occult and mystical thought in Britain. William Blake is today its best known representative, but many other less familiar figures believed they had found a direct way to connect with the divine.  Among them was Mary Pratt, a middle class London housewife who had visions of union with God and became a publicist for ‘magnetic healing.’ Her letters of the early 1790s, found in the Walton Collection at Dr. Williams’s Library, reveal the diverse sources of her mysticism, as well as its radical consequences.  Mary Pratt exemplified the complex role of gender in mystical thinking.  Married to a Swedenborgian, Pratt struggled against the ‘tyranny’, not just of her domineering husband, but of the formal beliefs that limited the scope of her visions.  Drawing on a particular feminine imagery of mystical marriage and childbirth, she looked beyond texts to ‘authentic’ or liberating experience.  Her unorthodox approach fostered male anxiety; but it also prefigured the career of the popular prophet, Joanna Southcott, and fed into the remarkable rekindling of interest in the supernatural that would sustain Romanticism.