Seminar 2014

1. 8 January 2014
‘Henry Crabb Robinson and the Dissenters: His Reading in Colchester 1790-95’
Jane Giscombe (Dr Williams’s Library, London)

In this paper I wish to examine the claim of the mature Robinson that in Colchester when he was aged between 14 and 20 years old he ‘learned nothing’.
In 1844 Henry Crabb Robinson began to write his reminiscences, intending them for posterity. He wrote in a clear hand, set out in well-spaced lines. To assist his memory of the five years he spent as an attorney’s clerk in Colchester, he relied on his letters and pocket books written before he went to Germany in 1800 and the papers of his brother Thomas: ‘From these I will extract the few facts I wish not entirely to forget’.  Of the 11,600 folios used to cover 68 years of Robinson’s life, only a tiny minority were devoted to the years 1790-95.
I shall argue that Robinson’s pocketbooks and letters from the Colchester years nevertheless show that his experiences there were fundamental to his later development.  At this formative time Robinson laid down the groundwork for a lifetime’s reading. In this paper I shall scrutinize his dismissal of William Francis, for whom he clerked in Colchester, and other dissenters who provided books, shared ideas and helped Robinson set up patterns that would inform his future interests.
That this seminal reading took place among and was encouraged by dissenters from Baptist, Presbyterian and Independent backgrounds, and both by men and women of a variety of ages, is evident.  Yet Robinson later belittled the majority of these people who shared their lives, their homes and, in particular, their books with him.

2. 5 February 2014
‘Friedrich Breckling, Jane Leade and the Philadelphian Society: Controversy and Consensus in the European Network of Behmenism and Radical Pietism’
Dr Guido Naschert (Erfurt)

The Lutheran preacher and erudite dissident Friedrich Breckling (1629–1711) is one of the central figures of Behemenism and nonconformist Lutheranism in the second half of the 17th century. As an ‘archivist’ or ‘topographer’ of contemporary heterodoxy, he tried to continue the monumental project of a Catalogus testium veritatis (1556) by Matthias Flacius up to his own day. In published writings as well as in hundreds of unpublished registers and lists, which are today part of the Research Library Gotha, he described his ‘invisible church’. Most of his ‘Wahrheitszeugen’ (testes veritatis, witnesses of truth) suffered religious persecution. Breckling himself was exiled in Zwolle (Netherlands) since 1660. Later he worked as a corrector for publishing houses in Amsterdam. Since 1690 he ran an unofficial library of spiritual writings in The Hague. In these later days he had hundreds of visitors, who frequently travelled between England and the Reich. Johann Dittmar, the German agent of the Philadelphian Society, was in 1702 one of them; he propagated for a short time the ideas of Jane Leade in Germany. In my paper I will compare the network of Breckling’s ‘invisible church’ with the network of the so-called ‘German friends of the Philadelphian Society’. And I will try to discuss the intellectual conflict between Jane Leade and the Philadelphians on the one side and the nonconformist Lutherans like Breckling on the other. The constellation of Breckling and Leade will exemplify how since the initial period of German Pietism in the 1690s, former friends and testes veritatis who had shared a common interest in Behemenism were again excluded as heretics.

3. 12 March 2014
‘The Toleration Act, Chapels-of-Ease, and the Legacy of Restoration Partial Conformity’
Ralph Stevens (Cambridge)

Recent historiography has rightly emphasised the fluidity and ambiguity of the legal, theological, and social boundaries between ‘conformity’ and ‘dissent’ after 1662, exemplified in the persistence of discreet nonconformity within establishment structures. This was fostered particularly by the geographical isolation, precarious finances, and legal peculiarity of some chapels-of-ease within unmanageably large rural parishes. Relief from prosecution after James II’s 1687 Indulgence and the 1689 Toleration Act prompted many previously concealed groups to move from partial conformity into open dissent, leading to conflict with local conformist elites and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, who perceived a hostile takeover of the Church of England’s patrimony by newly emboldened separatists. This paper will explore how chapels-of-ease became physical manifestations of the wider issues raised by England’s transition to even limited religious plurality, as various Protestant groups became distinct denominations and asserted a place in national life. At the same time, however, we will see how the attachment of many moderate Dissenters to these chapels illustrated both their tenacious commitment to the ideal of a national Church and their theological self-conception as fundamentally different from strict sectarians. Action by local elites and clergy to recover these chapels for establishment use often forced godly groups out of worship spaces they had used for decades, pushing still further away those Dissenters who hoped for Protestant unity and ironically fostering the development of the multi-denominational society that so troubled many churchmen.

4. 30 April 2014
‘The Radical Welsh Baptist Minister, Morgan John Rhys and his American Travel Diary, 1794-95’
Professor E. Wyn James (Cardiff)

The Welsh Baptist minister, Morgan John Rhys (1760–1804), was a complex and fascinating figure who in many ways combined in his person the various creative and conflicting forces that were at work in his day, including radicalism, enlightenment thinking, evangelicalism, romanticism and millennialism. He trained at the Bristol Baptist Academy and became a pastor in south-east Wales. Following a period of mission work in Revolutionary France, he emigrated to America in 1794 where he moved in influential Enlightenment circles in Philadelphia. During 1794–95 he conducted a year-long horseback journey around the United States in order to find a suitable location for a Welsh Settlement. On that journey he had significant encounters with black slaves and Native Americans, among others. While travelling he kept a journal. The original manuscript, which is some 70,000 words in length, is a document of considerable import. Indeed, one leading historian has described it as ‘a primary source of major significance’ and ‘one of the best of the travel diaries of the period’. It has never been published in full and Professor James is currently working on a new, complete edition. The diary abounds with lively eye-witness accounts of the places he visits and the people he meets, and Morgan John Rhys is always ready to voice his opinion forcibly. In the first section of this talk, Professor James will give an overview of Morgan John Rhys’s life and work, before proceeding to discuss his travel diary, giving special attention to his reaction to the various nationalities and ethnic groups he meets on his journey.

5. 11 June 2014
‘Family, Memory and Materiality in Nonconformist Life-Writings of the Long Eighteenth Century’
Dr Tessa Whitehouse (Queen Mary, University of London)


Life writing encompasses a diversity of purposes, forms and repositories, making it a challenging subject for literary historians of religion. For religious dissenters, collective and individual records were crucial to sustaining their traditions and understanding their place in national history. This paper will pursue two related questions: why was biography so important for dissenters in the eighteenth century, and what was the role of women in the production of nonconformist culture? It will do so by investigating the material circumstances of production, preservation and dissemination of life writings as well as their form and content. It will concentrate on the activities of Mercy Doddridge and Jane Attwater and the exemplary memory of Elizabeth Rowe for dissenting women writers, asking how an author’s confessional identity might find its way into the structure and content of her writing, and with what literary effect. The relationship between the archival practices of familial and religious communities over time and individuals’ writings will also be a central aspect of this paper.

6. 2 July 2014
‘The Tribulations of Johann Christoph Haberkorn: An Eighteenth-Century London Printer and his Dealings with Pietists and Moravians’
Graham Jefcoate (Nijmegen and Chiang Mai)


In March 1771 Friedrich Wilhelm Pasche, a Lutheran clergyman in London, met Mr. Metcalf, an attorney, to discuss the matter of the “Haberkornian debt”. Johann Christoph Haberkorn, a printer formerly of Grafton Street, Soho, owed money for goods he had received on credit many years before. In this lecture we shall trace the background of the “Haberkornian debt” through the printer’s dealings with German Lutheran Pietists and Moravians in mid-eighteenth-century London.
Although Haberkorn’s account books have not been preserved, a range of archival sources, including the correspondence of London’s Pietist clergy, enables us to reconstruct the sequence of events in outline. The sources also provide a (perhaps unexpected) insight into the role of the clergy within London’s large German-speaking community. The narrative that emerges may also challenge some preconceived ideas about foreign communities in eighteenth-century England. At the centre of that narrative is Haberkorn himself, a significant figure in the contemporary book trade but also an individual profoundly affected by the religious thinking and the confessional conflicts of his time.