1. 14 January 2015
‘Writing the Lives of Dissent: Community, Biography, and Historiography in Late Eighteenth-Century Rational Dissent’
Felicity James (Leicester)
Can we use the term ‘community’ in relation to a disparate religious group such as Rational Dissenters – lacking a unifying creed, drawn from a range of backgrounds and often professing different and sometimes contradictory theological beliefs? This talk explores the ways in which Dissenters may have nourished a collective identity, particularly through their life-writing practices. Through biography, autobiography, familial memoir, and conversion narratives, I argue, they sought to construct a story of Dissent and a sense of community across time and place. The paper will discuss specific examples including the MS biography of Theophilus Lindsey, written by his wife, and some narratives surrounding Essex Street Chapel. In particular, I want to think about how Lindsey’s story of secession and exile might shed further light on the complicated narratives of Dissenting culture in the late eighteenth century, and the development of a Unitarian identity through the nineteenth century.
2. 11 February 2015
‘Dissenting Gospels: Edward Harwood’s A Liberal Translation of the New Testament’
Anthony Ossa-Richardson (Queen Mary)
This paper focuses on Edward Harwood’s English translation of the New Testament, published in 1768. The translation has long incurred mockery and opprobrium for its stylistic eccentricity, since it attempts to mimic the polite literature of the mid-eighteenth century, an incongruous effect for any used to the solemn rhythms of the King James Version. Behind this facade, however, lay a rigorous effort to refigure the Bible according to the principles of Arian theology, and Harwood’s contemporaries, both in Britain and on the Continent, were fully aware of this strategy. This paper, then, situates the translation against (1) Harwood’s wider intellectual activity, including his theological works and his textual criticism, (2) dissenting biblical scholarship of the eighteenth century, and (3) his hostile readers, who included both orthodox critics from Scotland and the Netherlands, and the English Socinian writer William Hazlitt, Sr.
3. 11 March 2015
‘John Wood Oman, the Prophet of Westminster’
Fleur Houston (Macclesfield)
In 1907, John Oman (1860–1939) left his charge at Clayport church, Alnwick, to take up the chair of Theology at Westminster College, the training college for ministers of the Presbyterian Church of England, in Cambridge. In 1922 he was called to be Principal. These years were of particular significance for the Presbyterian Church and the College, and for Oman himself. In 1913 the removal of religious tests for degrees in Divinity gave the College a new status within the University; the intellectual calibre of the Senatus was quickly recognised and that year Oman was the first non-conformist to be appointed to give the University Stanton lectures in philosophy of religion. This paper will argue that up to that date Oman’s thinking was formed by his early years in Orkney and in Edinburgh and his theological education in the United Presbyterian Church. But the outbreak of War in 1914 dispersed the students, taking Oman to the Front with the YMCA, and then to Birmingham with a remnant of the college community. This severely tested his theological scheme, and in his writing during this period there is a fresh emphasis and a new urgency. His contribution to post-war regeneration was significant and several generations of students were said to be deeply changed by their time at Westminster. The paper will finally attempt to assess the originality of Oman’s work.
4. 22 April 2015
‘Dissenters at the polls in Ireland, 1692-1760’
David Hayton (Queen’s University Belfast)
The social and political profile of Dissent in eighteenth-century Ireland was shaped by the heavy immigration of Presbyterians into Ulster during the preceding hundred years, and especially in the 1690s. This created a situation in which Dissenters constituted a majority of Protestants in some northern counties, and a substantial minority in others, while in the other three provinces they were dispersed and, with the exception of Dublin, unimportant politically. The concentration of Dissenters in Ulster aroused fear and antagonism among the clergy and laity of the established church, and led to the introduction for the first time in Ireland in 1703 of a sacramental test, which applied to crown and municipal office-holders and had an immediate effect on Presbyterians in some parliamentary boroughs. It is often stated, erroneously, that Dissenters were disenfranchised by the Test, but this was not true either in theory or in practice. In Ulster, however, the effect of the Test was twofold, to weaken Presbyterian representation among the social elite, many of whom began to conform in consequence, but to maintain a sense of grievance which kept Presbyterians together in some constituencies as a coherent political force. This paper will try to determine the reality of Dissenting electoral influence in the half-century after the passage of the Test, and its importance in providing the backbone of the ‘patriot’ movement of the 1750s and 1760s, which paved the way for political reform.
5. 17 June 2015
‘Mary Hays and Henry Crabb Robinson: Reconstructing a “Female Biography”’
Timothy Whelan (Georgia Southern)
Mary Hays has received considerable attention in the past two decades, through an edition of her correspondence, new editions of her novels and other prose, and important biographical studies, including Gina Luria Walker’s Mary Hays (1759-1843): The Growth of a Woman’s Mind (2006). Hays was herself concerned to record the lives of gifted women. Yet her own life history has been unnecessarily truncated and inaccurately presented owing to the absence of one critical resource: the life writings of Henry Crabb Robinson. Robinson met Hays in 1799 and, despite the sixteen-year difference in their ages, the friendship continued until her death in 1843. Robinson’s diary makes over 170 references to Hays, of which only seven have been published. Together with a valuable letter on Hays by Robinson to Catherine Clarkson in early 1800 concerning Hays’s affair with Charles Lloyd, these references provide an extensive genealogical record of Hays’s family after 1800 and their important involvement with Baptists and Unitarians, as well as Hays’s introduction to a vibrant group of Dissenting women from Leicester and their connections in the West Country that intersected at the same time with Godwin and his circle. Though Walker has referred to Hays’s life after 1806 as “buried”, Robinson’s accounts reveal something quite different, a woman who viewed herself and her life from within the prism of religious Dissent; a woman devoted to her family and their connections through marriage with several prominent Dissenting families (all friends of Robinson); a woman who held to many of the same opinions on religion, politics, and women’s rights she had first espoused in the 1790s; and who passed these ideals on to her niece and namesake, Matilda Mary Hays (1820-97), feminist and translator of George Sand.
6. 8 July 2015
‘Dissenting lives in dissenting records: reading the manuscript Church books’
Anne Dunan-Page (Aix-Marseille)
This paper is based on a work-in-progress whose objective is to define the collective experience of gathered Churches, across several denominations (c.1640-1714), based on the evidence of their own records, a body of manuscripts still largely unknown and little studied. It is often assumed that Church records, because of their essentially documentary nature, are not the best sources on Dissenting spirituality because they focus on the daily management of the Church and ecclesiastical affairs. I will attempt to show that by concentrating on the issue of the so-called conversion narratives, which were often required for admission to a gathered Church, we acquire a window onto the Dissenters’ inner lives, their complex relationship with the written word and the tension between collective and individual experiences. Accounts of spiritual experience were, for the most part, delivered orally. I will explore the reasons why some Churches thought it necessary to introduce written accounts and to limit the audience, but why most, until the 18th century, showed remarkable resistance to a translation of oral expressions of grace into writing. This, in turn, will lead us to revise the relationship between conversion narratives in 17th-century gathered Churches and the development of the autobiographical genre.