HCR and Godwinism

Henry Crabb Robinson and Godwinism in Two Letters to

the Cambridge Intelligencer,  August 1, 1795, and April 5, 1800


Timothy Whelan




    Between 1790 and 1795, while working as an articled clerk for a Dissenting attorney in Colchester, Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) participated in the fervor of political radicalism that had been festering among so many English Dissenters since their attempts in the late 1780s to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts and reform Parliament.   In 1795, as he was nearing the end of his apprenticeship and approaching manhood, Robinson entered the political arena for himself, both in public debates at the Royston Book Club, in his letters, and in his first two pieces of journalism.  The first of these essays has received some attention from Robinson scholars.  It originally appeared in late autumn, 1794, in The Cabinet, a radical Norwich periodical headed by William Taylor,  the German scholar who would later influence Robinson’s mind significantly toward the thought and literature of that country.  Robinson had been introduced to the periodical by his friend from Witham, William Pattisson, who, Robinson says, first “set me on fleshing my maiden sword in ink” (Sadler 1.15).  Robinson’s essay was a response to what he termed an “ill-written” essay published in the Cabinet on “Spies and Informers” (Sadler 1.14).1 

  Robinson’s second political essay appeared the next year in Benjamin Flower’s Cambridge Intelligencer.2    Entitled “Godwin” and signed “Philo Godwin,” the letter appeared on August 1, 1795, and reveals both the youthful Robinson’s allegiance to the principles of Godwin (principles thought “radical” by the majority of his young Dissenting friends) as well as the fundamental beliefs of religious and political dissent in general, principles he had been developing since 1790.  The letter also demonstrates Robinson’s emerging rhetorical and journalistic skills, gifts he would make use of the rest of his life.  However, this letter has received only scant  mention from commentators and editors of Robinson’s life and works, and to my knowledge has never appeared in print since its original publication nor has any portion of it been quoted by any commentator on Robinson.    Thomas Sadler, in The Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, includes only a terse statement by Robinson concerning the letter (1.20).  Edith Morley’s Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and their Writers includes a similarly brief version by Robinson of the event (1.3).   John Milton Baker’s Henry Crabb Robinson of Bury, Jena, The Times, and Russell Square merely paraphrases Robinson’s statements concerning the letter (as recorded by Sadler and Morley),  and in his bibliography Baker provides only a general date of 1795 (73, 246).  Penelope Corfield and Chris Evans, in their recent book Youth and Revolution in the 1790s, though discussing at length Robinson’s Godwinianism between 1795 and 1800 (16, 29-35), never mention this letter at all.  Peter Marshall, in his excellent biography of Godwin, makes extensive use of the Crabb Robinson Correspondence at Dr. Williams’s Library, and, as a result, not only refers to Robinson’s letter in the Cambridge Intelligencer, but also records the date of the letter and its nom de plume.  Marshall obviously read the letter, but he does not quote any part of it (122, 214).  Born into a family of orthodox Dissenters at Bury St. Edmunds (Robinson’s mother’s family, the Crabbs, were leading members of the Independent chapel at Wattisfield), Crabb Robinson’s upbringing was staunchly Calvinistic and fiercely Independent.  Between 1787 and 1789, Robinson attended two Independent (Congregational) Dissenting academies, the first at Devizes in a school operated by his uncle, John Fenner, and the second at Wattisfield, where another uncle, the Rev. Habbakkuk Crabb, conducted a school.  While at Wattisfield, Robinson experienced the thrill of the French Revolution as well as the subtle influence of his uncle’s more radical Dissenting views, both in politics and religion.  Rev. Crabb left Wattisfield in 1790 to assume the pastorate of the Independent chapel at Royston.  Though reared in the Wattisfield church (like his sister, Jemima, Crabb Robinson’s mother) in the orthodox Calvinism of their pastor, the Rev. Thomas Harmer, Habbakuk Crabb, following the lead of his Baptist friend and mentor, the Rev. Robert Robinson of Cambridge, had adopted by 1790 an Arian position similar to the Unitarianism of Joseph Priestley and Richard Price.  About the same time Habbakuk Crabb arrived in Royston, Crabb Robinson began his apprenticeship in Colchester.  During his first year there, Robinson began to identify with the views of his uncle, exchanging the orthodox Calvinism of his parents for Dr. Priestley’s brand of rational Christianity, yet Robinson always maintained a loyalty to “the importance of religious liberty and the rights of conscience” (Sadler 1.9), principles shared by nearly all Dissenters during that period.  Late in 1790 he joined with Dissenters of every stripe, from Unitarians to Baptists, in appointing deputies who would go to London to seek the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts.  The violence following the first year of the French Revolution “modified” his “Jacobinical feelings” somewhat, but he remained for several years “a Jacobin notwithstanding” (Sadler 1.9).

At Royston, Habbakuk Crabb furthered his involvement in Dissenting politics by joining the Royston Book Club, a semi-annual gathering of some of the brightest minds and eloquent speakers between London and Cambridge, including both Dissenters and Churchmen.3  Among the prominent Dissenters in attendance in the early 1790s were several friends of Rev. Crabb, such as Edward King Fordham, Anthony Robinson,  J. T. Rutt, and the Rev. Robert Hall.   Edward King Fordham was a prominent Dissenter from Royston, a leader on many occasions of the debates at the Royston Book Club, and a close friend of the Robinson family for many years, especially Crabb’s older brother, Thomas (1770-1860).  As Robinson says of him in his Reminiscences, Fordham was always “liberal in religious opinion and zealous for political reform” (Sadler 1.21).  Anthony Robinson received his education at the Baptist Academy in Bristol, where he was tutored by Robert Hall and roomed with Joseph Kinghorn, who later became a Baptist minister of much repute in Norwich (Wilkin 75-76).  Introduced to Crabb Robinson at a meeting of a London debating society in 1796, Anthony Robinson, Crabb later writes, had “powers of conversation . . . far greater than those of any other of my acquaintance” (Sadler 1.21).   In 1792, Anthony Robinson published A Short History of the Persecution of Christianity.  A regular during the 1790s at the Royston Book Club as well, Crabb Robinson notes in a letter to his brother Thomas on June 9, 1797, that Anthony Robinson continues to speak “of our late Uncle Crabb with great kindness & esteem.”4  Anthony Robinson would later be associated with the Analytical Review.  Raised in a prominent Dissenting family in London, John Towill Rutt (1760-1841) studied at Taunton under Joshua Toulmin, a General Baptist minister who later turned Unitarian.  Rutt could have “died rich,” Robinson recounts in his Reminiscences, “if he had not been a man of too much literary taste, public spirit, and religious zeal to be able to devote his best energies to business” (Sadler 1.20).  He became a leading member of the Unitarian congregation at Gravel Pit in Hackney, eventually writing biographies of Gilbert Wakefield and Joseph Priestley, as well as editing the entire works of the latter, and remained a life-long friend of Crabb Robinson.   William Nash, for many years a deacon in the congregation at St. Andrew’s Street (Church Book 121), had recently published A Letter to  the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, Esq. from a Dissenting Country Attorney (1791), in which he countered Burke’s position concerning the role Dissenters should play in England.   After reading the pamphlet, Rev. Crabb’s opinion, as he expressed it to Crabb Robinson, was that he thought “it contains solid judgement, expressed in a manner animated and manly” (November 9, 1791).5

    The most famous of Rev. Crabb’s fellow members and friends at the Book Club was Robert Hall, the controversial Baptist minister in Cambridge.  Originally from Arnsby, near Leicester, Hall (1764-1831) received his formal education at the Northampton Academy (1775-76), founded and directed by the Rev. John Ryland, Sr. (1725-92); the Baptist Academy in Bristol (1778-81), where he studied under the Rev. Caleb Evans (1737-91), political activist and pastor of the influential Baptist congregation at Broadmead and President of the Academy and the Bristol Education Society; and  King’s College, Aberdeen, where he completed his A.M. in 1785.  Hall then returned to Bristol to resume his position as assistant pastor at Broadmead and to commence his new duties as classical tutor at the Baptist Academy, where he would remain until December, 1790.  In 1791, Hall began his ministry at St. Andrew’s Street in Cambridge, succeeding the controversial Baptist minister Robert Robinson (1735-90) as pastor of one of the most theologically heterodox and politically radical of all the Particular Baptist congregations in England.   For most of that decade Hall would continue Robinson’s liberal tradition of freedom of conscience, allowing many Socinians and Arians to remain within his congregation, all the while developing a ministry that would prove of great importance to himself and his denomination, both politically and ecclesiastically.  Like his predecessor, Robert Hall arrived in Cambridge bearing an outspoken allegiance to the fundamental principles of political dissent, as his pen soon demonstrated, resulting in two classics of Dissenting literature from the 1790s, Christianity Consistent with a Love of Freedom (1791) and An Apology for the Freedom of the Press (1793).6  He would remain at Cambridge until 1806, and later pastored successfully at Leicester (1807-26) and Bristol (1826-31).7 

    Habbakkuk Crabb died in late December, 1794, and Robert Hall was asked to bring the graveside sermon.   During the early early years of his ministry in Cambridge, Hall became friends not only with Habbakkuk Crabb but also with Crabb Robinson’s family at Bury St. Edmunds, where they were faithful attendants at the Independent chapel meeting at Whiting Street.8  As Crabb Robinson’s letters reveal, Hall knew Robinson’s parents as well as his older brother Thomas, visiting the latter’s home on several occasions and speaking very highly of his wife, Mary (Sadler 1.43). Crabb Robinson would most likely have been present at the funeral.9  He had probably heard Hall speak before at meetings he attended with his uncle and Mr. Nash at the Royston Book Club.   On this occasion, however, Hall, though still involved in the politics of reform, seemed concerned about the consequences of Godwinianism within the ranks of Dissenters around the Cambridge area (many of whom had once been and some who still were members of his own congregation).  In his oration, Hall advocated an orthodoxy which he believed mediated between the claims of Godwinian enthusiasm and Priestleian materialism.  “Revelation,” he asserts, “can alone boast of having brought life and immortality to light.  The religion of Jesus Christ places the reality of a future state at the foundation of its truths.  It is there so constantly reverted to, so often repeated, and so solemnly enforced, that it has never been by any class of Christians disputed or denied” (Hall 3).   This adherence to “revelation,” now under attack by Godwin and the Socinians, is not an irrational effusion of blind faith; instead, it is a faith that consists “not in sensual gratifications, or festive bowers, the visions of a Mahometan paradise, but in enjoyments the most suited to the rational and immortal mind; and union with God, the knowledge of his perfections, and the eternal fruition of his love” (3).  To Hall, this view of revelation is more “rational,” more ethical, and more religious than any of the arguments put forth by the Socinians  and truer to the reality of human affections than anything argued by the Godwinites.  It is “as much the dictate of reason as of scripture” (4).  “Let the men of the world,” he warns Godwinites like Robinson, “who disbelieve the declarations of the gospel respecting eternal realities, lead a life, if they please, of dissipation and vice; but for a professor of religion to confine his affections to the earth is equally impious and absurd” (4).

    Despite Hall’s words of caution aimed at Dissenters leaning toward Godwinian skepticism, Crabb Robinson moved steadily toward a heterodox position, especially after his reading of Godwin’s Political Justice (he had already read Holcroft’s novels) in late spring 1795 .  In his Pocket Account Book for Wednesday, June 3, 1795, Robinson writes: “Pd Mrs Haffenden for Godwin’s Political Justice wch Mr H. Bot for me at Book Club 17s.”10  Although he says he never accepted Godwin’s atheism, “his thinking seems to have been completely dominated by the ‘Philosopher’ for about two years” (Baker 72),  much to the dismay of his family and numerous friends.  Robinson would later comment about his Godwinian phase in his Reminiscences:

I entered fully into its spirit, it left all others behind in my admiration, and I was willing even to become a martyr for it; for it soon became a reproach to be a follower of Godwin, on account of his supposed atheism.  I never became an atheist, but I could not feel aversion or contempt towards G. on account of any of his views. . . . His idea of justice I then adopted and still retain; nor was I alarmed by the declamations so generally uttered against his opinions on the obligations of gratitude, the fulfilment of promises, and the duties arising out of the personal relations of life.  I perceived then the difference between principles as universal laws, and maxims of conduct as prudential rules.  And I thought myself qualified to be his defender, for which purpose I wrote a paper which was printed in Flower’s Cambridge Intelligencer.  (Sadler 1.20)  

Crabb Robinson “paper,” dated July 22, 1795, was a response to a letter in the Intelligencer on  July 18, 1795, from a Dissenting minister, who signed his letter “A.V.”   Like Hall, A.V.  presented himself as a reformist politically but an orthodox believer theologically.  A.V. was clearly not ready to adopt the kind of radical political, social, and religious reform advocated by Godwin.  The minister proposed in a facetious manner that by means of the more radical and, to many reformers, offensive ideas of Godwin’s Political Justice--such as equality of property, “unrestrained communication between the sexes,” general depravity among princes and monarchs, and the vilification of all laws as “the fetters of the human mind”--Godwin had become “an instrument employed by Ministers, to bring the doctrines of Liberty, Freedom and Equality into disrepute.”   Godwin accomplishes this, A.V.  asserts, by insinuating in his work that his views are the sentiments of all advocates of freedom. By associating Political Justice with the reform movement, A. V. contends that the administration gains the advantage of dampening “the present rage for innovation and reform, and make[s] men willing to submit to any government, rather than embrace a system which leads to the flagrant enormities” of Godwinian skepticism.  Weak men might fall within Godwin’s sphere, but stronger “friends of freedom” will recognize Godwin’s “Atheistical complexion” and reject it.   The writer fears that Godwin is but another foe the true friends of freedom must fight, just as they had been fighting an “impudent” administration which was busy labelling “all popular assemblies” as “mobs,” with proper governance only found in the king and his ministers.  Not Godwin, George III, or Pitt could “make an impression upon an honest independent lover of truth, who sees with pleasure, that mankind are gradually ripening into a relish for things of a much superior nature, and is persuaded that neither bars, nor bolts, nor fetters, nor the coalition of despots, can long prevent the bulk of mankind from seeing the truth . . .”  

    Robinson’s letter was a serious reply to A.V.’s sarcastic letter, defending Godwin against his antagonist point by point. What follows is the full text of the letter as it appeared in the Cambridge Intelligencer for Saturday, August 1, 1795.



To the Editor of the Cambridge Intelligencer.


    I was much surprised by reading in our Intelligencer of last week, an attack upon William Godwin, the Author of Political Justice.  Your character for impartiality is too well established to permit my doubting, a moment, that you will refuse inserting the present attempt, to reply to the insinuations of A. V. and to counteract the effect which his garbled statement of Godwin’s opinions, might make upon those who are unacquainted with his Works.  Justice to a respectable individual, and a regard for truth, equally demand a refutation of the accusation brought by A.V. which is as severe as any I can imagine: it blasts at once the fair fame of one who at present is high in the esteem of many, and would therefore deprive him of the power of benefitting mankind by the exercise of his literary talents.  To suppose that a man is the coadjutor of the present ministry, in the detestable project of enslaving the minds and bodies of the present race of men, is no slight charge; but to accuse the political writer, who appears to be the fixed enemy of Kings and the eloquent defender of Republicanism; of being hired by Ministers to “caricature the system of freedom and the Rights of Man,” is to bring a charge of the blackest villany.  An anonymous suggestion may be fairly answered by an anonymous denial.  Had not A. V. adduced some seeming proofs in support of that opinion in which he is “much inclined to form” though he has not yet a “full persuasion of it,” I should content myself with observing, that the remoteness of A. V’s abode from the metropolis and his want of intelligence, alone suffered him to retain his opinion; that Godwin’s former profession, that of a Dissenting Minister, the subsequent period of his life spent in literary pursuits, his intimacy with Thomas Holcroft, and the rest of the excellent characters against whom the foulest plot that ever disgraced an English Administration, was so lately formed and so happily destroyed; and the circle of his present friends and acquaintance, render A.  V’s supposition most unlikely.

    It is certainly true that Godwin makes a series of propositions, which when viewed alone and independently of the principles upon which they are built, startle us with their novelty, and alarm us from the fear of a pernicious application of them.  But A. V’s statement is very delusive; you will excuse my correcting it in detail.  I will be careful not to introduce any remarks which do not arise in reply to A. V.  I will be the defender, not the Eulogist of Godwin.  Godwin adopts as his principle of conduct, benevolence, which he defines to be the love of intelligent Being; he does not admit of any confined affections and considers the relations of social life as subordinate to the duty of putting in practice the principles of benevolence, which he terms, acting according to the laws of justice; his morality is so strict, that considering it our duty at all times to do good, and that on the most extensive scale, he does not admit of any selfish considerations, or of any other rule of conduct than that of doing good to as many intelligent beings as are placed within the sphere of his influence.  Hence he affirms that no man ought to possess more property than is sufficient to gratify the wants of nature and society, since it is obvious that he who engrosses more of the earth’s produce, or the means of procuring subsistence than is necessary for his welfare, deprives others of that which may be essential to their well being.  But he no where desires men to share their property with the unworthy.  For the same principles, Godwin deduces the injustice of adopting gratitude as a principle of conduct, or of making promises.  His reasoning is perspicuous and (I think) convincing. 

    It is our duty to do good; we can do so, only by acting according to our judgment, arising from the circumstances of the moment; it is impossible that by the intervention of unforeseen events, that which I, to day, esteem it my duty to do; it may on the morrow be my duty to avoid.  It is criminal to bind our conduct by promises, which are presumptuous, since they presume an anticipation of events which may never happen.  If, after we have improperly made a promise, we find that it will be “more honoured in the breach than in the observance,” that a compliance with it will produce evil, we ought not to regard it.  But to avoid a dilemma of that nature, we ought not ever to make promises, but to content ourselves with declaring our present intention. 

    A similar process is observed in the discussion of gratitude.  It is our duty to do good extensively.  Imagine this alternative, we can do an important service either to a Friend, a Benefactor, a Patron, a Relation, a Parent, or to a man, whose welfare is connected with that of society at large, suppose that the service performed to the one, will evaporate in the individual, the benefit expended on the other, will diffuse itself over a nation.  Shall we be grateful or just? that is, shall we do a great or a little good?  Godwin’s answer is obvious.  He no where considers gratitude as an evil positively, it may be of accidental service by generating kindness, from the expectation of reward.  But as he esteems it of importance, that our principles of moral conduct should be clearly known, he considers the popular notions respecting gratitude and promises, independently of the partial good arising from an adherence to them.  Godwin, afterwards treats of Monarchy and Aristocracy, in the manner that A. V. states, which perhaps gave rise to his anger, but it excited in me only admiration and applause.---A.V. next puts into the mouth of the Minister instructions to his Disciple, for so Godwin is dubbed, but they appear on several accounts improbable, for, first, the Minister must have doubted the effect of such a work, and if the effect was, as supposed by A. V. his conduct was like that of a man who would surrender himself bound to his enemy to be beaten, that the severity with which he should be treated might excite compassion. I know that Godwin’s work instead of having excited contempt of Democracy, has served to encrease the number of its Votaries, and I know several persons within a narrow compass, who have dated their political conversion from a perusal of it.  Again, it is improbable, if such directions, were given, that they should be so ill obeyed.  The Minister says--- “You must abolish the Rights of honest Industry to its own fair acquisitions, by insisting upon a community of goods, perfect and unlimited in every case.” Now, Godwin does no such thing.  At the close of his Work he writes a Chapter of speculations, he avows that he wrote it merely as such, and cautions his readers against supposing it a necessary part of his system; he there gives the reins to his imagination, and fired with his favorite ideas of the “omnipotence of truth,” and the perfectibility of mind, which are surely by no means immoral in their tendency, ventures into the trackless regions of fancy, whither the cooler headed Philosopher not inspired by his enthusiasm, may not venture to follow him; and imagines a nation with ideas so different from our’s, and with habits so opposite, that we scarcely recognize our fellow creatures: amongst other romantic conjectures, he supposes that all ideas of property will be extinct, and that no man will desire exclusive possessions.  But he does not allow of a compulsive equalisation of property or abolish any Rights to what a man may esteem essential to his happiness---In the same speculative chapter, (and in no other place) he offers some eccentric opinions, respecting the connection of the sexes.  I will not defend them, I am inadequate to the task, though he has not convinced me of their truth, his reasoning is too respectable, and his motives are apparently too pure, to excite my contempt or censure.  But Godwin has not been sent to the Tower!  nor has the political justice been proscribed!  It is a fact, the Author of the Rights of Man was not prosecuted till the cheap Edition was published.  The works are very different.  The Rights of Man addresses all persons, it is an appeal to the common sense of the lowest order of men, addresses their feelings, argues from present facts and philosophical only, it is expensive, its arguments are drawn from abstract reasoning, and there are very few applications to the events of the day; its style is by no means attractive to common readers, though frequently very energetick and eloquent. The one was calculated to rouse us on a sudden and induce us to put in practice the theory which was taught.  The other said to us, though you are convinced certain arbitrary institutions ought no longer to remain; beware of attempting to destroy them too soon, practice virtue, improve your intellect, exercise your mind on the subjects of Morals and Politicks, diffuse knowledge and propagate truth, and leave to the silent operation of opinion, the destruction of these air built establishments of error, they will disappear gradually, and leave no track behind.  The sublime sentiments of Godwin, on coercion and punishment, leave impressions of practical moderation on the mind, which must excite respect from a very Despot.  I am willing to admit that many of Godwin’s opinions are problematical; some, I believe to be false; but their tendency is virtuous, and I believe, no one can rise from the perusal of the Political justice, but his hatred of despotism must be encreased, his love of virtue heightened, and his habits of benevolence confirmed, though he may occasionally censure his daring singularites which strike at the basis of many of our fixed ideas, or smile at systematick absurdities, or romantick speculations.  Christian charity forbids our interpreting unfavourably what is equivocal in our neighbour.---Did I think Godwin’s Work was a mass of error, as I believe it to be a compound in which truth predominates; I should think that he who considers the infinite variety of fancies which have long amused philosophers, would be more inclined to consider his eccentricities as the sparks of a genius, which has accidentally received a peculiar bias, than as the Work of deeply rooted malignity, labouring to destroy all that is good and estimable.  Could I be induced to believe the insinuations of A. V.  I should in despair adopt the misanthropical maxims of Rochefoucault, consider virtue as a creature of imagination, and look for integrity of conduct and benevolence of feeling, only in the compositions of Poets.   


Philo Godwin.

July 22, 1795.



    Crabb Robinson continued to defend the beauties of Godwinian philosophy for several years after the publication of his 1795 letter.  At a meeting of the Royston Book Club in 1796, he led a heated debate on the question, “Is private affection inconsistent with universal benevolence?” “Not a disputable point,” he writes in his Reminiscences, “but it was meant to involve the merits of Godwin as a philosopher, and as I had thought, or rather talked much about him, I had an advantage over most of those who were present” (Sadler 1.21).  During that same year, Robinson completed his apprenticeship as an articled clerk in Colchester and headed for London, with the design of becoming a barrister.  However, during the next three years he devoted himself mostly to writing literary and political essays for the Monthly Review and the Analytical Review, nearly always using the nom de plume “Sinboron.”  Between 1796 and 1800, Crabb was employed “for less than seventeen months and idle for three whole years” (Baker 77), largely due to an annual legacy of £100 he began receiving in January, 1798, from the estate of his uncle Thomas Robinson.  According to John Milton Baker, his letters from 1797-99 “stress politics” (81), making frequent references to Edmund Burke, William Godwin, the French Revolution, and Jacobin politics. Before leaving for Germany in 1800, “he was overwhelmed by self-mistrust, melancholy, and apprehension for his future bordering on despair.” “Yet,” as Baker asserts, “in the face of all these obstacles he had learned enough about the background of questions of the hour to view passing events with some intelligence, and he had won the friendship of some of the leading spirits among the extreme Liberals.  With the exception of Hazlitt, he did not know any of the great literary figures of his generation, but he was strong in the friendship of J. T. Rutt, John D. Collier, Anthony Robinson, Thomas Amyot, William Pattisson, Catherine Buck, and his brother Tom” (92).  Though never in the same category of friendship as the above-mentioned names, another name that should have been added by Baker to this list of prominent Dissenting voices from the region around Bury, Royston, Witham and Cambridge whom Crabb had come to know in the 1790s was that of Robert Hall.    During 1798 and 1799, Hall and Robinson engaged in an exchange of letters and a series of subsequent interviews which resulted in two publications in 1800--Hall’s  Modern Infidelity Considered with respect to its Influence on Society and Robinson’s response to Hall’s sermon in a letter to the Cambridge Intelligencer in April 1800--that not only created a stir among the Dissenters in the Cambridge area, but in many ways defined each man’s position as a Dissenter for the rest of his life.  Once again, Godwin was under attack, and just as he had done in 1795, Robinson came to Godwin’s defense, only now the opponent was considerably more formidable than “A.V.”  Robinson had honed his rhetorical skills considerably since 1795, demonstrating in his letter of 1800 that he was indeed, as Baker put it, more than capable of “view[ing] passing events with some intelligence.”

    Surprisingly, the relationship between Robinson and Hall has gone virtually unnoticed by editors and commentators upon the life and works of both men.  Within the first four volumes of the Crabb Robinson Correspondence at Dr. Williams’s Library, London, substantial portions of sixteen letters deal with Robert Hall,11 yet Robinson’s chief twentieth-century editor, Edith Morley, in The Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson with the Wordsworth Circle (2 vols., 1927), The Life and Times of Henry Crabb Robinson (1935), and Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and Their Writers (3 vols., 1938), never mentions Robert Hall.  Her focus on Robinson’s “literary” development evidently precluded any interest in his activities and correspondence involving a Dissenting minister, even one of Robert Hall’s stature.  Thomas Sadler, in The Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (2 vols., 3rd ed., 1872), includes a reference to Robinson’s dispute with Hall, as well as the letter exchange between the two men in 1798 and Robinson’s account of his accidental meeting with Hall in late 1799, but he does not include any other portion of the Hall material found in the letters of Crabb Robinson and his brother Thomas written between 1795 and 1805 (1.27-34; 43-44).   I have found no other discussion of Crabb Robinson that mentions his knowledge of or relationship to Robert Hall, other than that of Mrs. Oliphant’s The Literary History of the Nineteenth Century (1889), which essentially summarizes the Sadler material (3.318-19).  John Milton Baker’s Henry Crabb Robinson of Bury, Jena, The Times, and Russell Square (1937) discusses at length Robinson’s association with Godwinism and makes much use of Crabb’s correspondence with his brother Thomas, yet never mentions the Hall controversy; nor does Derek Hudson in his Introduction to The Diary of Henry Crabb Robinson: An Abridgement (1967), a work based on Morley’s Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and their Writers.   His judgment about Crabb Robinson seems representative of most Robinson researchers: “On writers and their works Crabb Robinson is an irreplaceable commentator and witness--on other subjects he is interesting but dispensable” (xvii).  More recently, in their book Youth and Revolution in the 1790s, Penelope Corfield and Chris Evans have transcribed over fifty letters of William Pattisson, Thomas Amyot, and Crabb Robinson written during the heyday of their friendship between 1795 and 1800.  In their Introduction they note Robinson’s Unitarian leanings and his Godwinian enthusiam during this period, as well as his acquaintance with J. T. Rutt, who married William Pattison’s first cousin, Sarah.12  Hall is mentioned in one of the letters (#5, Elizabeth Pattisson to William Pattisson, February 12, 1794), but surprisingly is described in the footnote as “the heterodox Baptist minister at the Stone Yard Chapel in Cambridge from 1791-1806” (52).  Hall’s predecessor, Robert Robinson, was indeed heterodox at the end of his ministry, but Hall was always an orthodox moderate Calvinist.  Though these letters provide a penetrating look at the political interests of this trio of young radicals between 1795 and 1800, no mention is made by the editors, however, of Robinson’s ongoing battle with Hall over Godwinism, the commotion that battle made in the communities of Bury, Royston, and Cambridge between 1798 and 1800, nor the publications to which it led. 

    Though Hall and Robinson had obviously not agreed about Godwin for several years, they seemed to have moved even further apart by 1798, with each man hardening his position considerably.  While at Royston in the summer of 1798, Robinson spent some time in the home of William Nash, a family friend who was also a deacon in Hall’s church in Cambridge.  Apparently, while in Nash’s home Robinson attempted to expound on the beauties of Godwinism.  Though not considered a sinister act by Nash and his family, upon hearing of the situation, Hall became livid, commenting to Nash and others in his congregation about the evils of Godwinianism and warning them not to allow Crabb Robinson into their homes.  This infuriated Robinson, who, against the advice of some of his friends, decided to respond to Hall in a letter of August 30, 1798,  berating Hall for his uncalled for and, in many ways, unchristian behavior.13   Though not accusing him “of personal malignity,” he did charge him with “wantonly casting Arrows & Death.” He writes, “I do not think yo capable of inventing Calumny but it seems that yo have heedlessly built Opinions on vague Report, drawn unwarrantable Inferences from general Appellations & carelessly trifled with the happiness of others as Objects below your regard.” He already knew of Hall’s position on Godwin’s Political Justice, learning from one friend how Hall, upon hearing “any Incident of unnatural depravity or abandoned profligacy,” would exclaim, “I could not have supposed any man capable of such an Action except Godwin.” Admitting Hall’s reputation and prowess, he writes that he cannot “despise” him, but he is certain his views on Godwin (and hence himself) are “confined and partial” because Hall has “reasoned absurdly” in the following manner: 

R[obinson]. is a Godwinite--therefore an Atheist--therefore incapable of virtuous habits or benevolent feelings--therefore disposed only to commit Crimes & make Proselytes--therefore I ought to use my appropriate weapons of excommunication by exciting agt him both his friends & strangers & deprive him of all Power to do Injury by blasting his Reputn and making him an Object of Hatred and Contempt---Thus by the ruin of one, I shall save many.

Upon completing the letter to Hall, Crabb apparently sent a copy to his brother Thomas, hoping that his letter was written in a “spirit” of which his sister-in-law (a great supporter of Hall) would approve, though concerning the “style,” he confesses, he is “far from satisfied.”  The import, however, he knows will not be lost on Hall, and “What sort of a Dressing I shall have in return,” he admits somewhat fearfully, “I can guess” (2 September 1798).

    Hall responded in a lengthy letter of October 13, 1798, but not with the violent tone Robinson anticipated.  Hall admitted that he had counseled others about Robinson, but not out of malice, nor did he ever impeach his character.  His comments were directed at certain beliefs, not actions, and only a few people heard these comments, confining his efforts to a small circle, he argued, in order “to warn some young people against forming a close intimacy with a person who by the possession of the most captivating talents was likely to give circulation and effect to the most dangerous errors.”  He notes that Robinson “makes no scruple on all occasions to avow [his] religious skepticism,” even

declaring, I believe at the Royston Book Club, that no man ever understood the nature of virtue so well as Mr. Godwin; from which I have drawn the following inference, either that you disbelieve the being of God and future state, or that admitting them to be true, in your opinion they have no connection with the nature of virtue; the first of which is direct and avowed, the second practical atheism.  For whether there be a God is merely a question of curious speculation, unless the belief in him be allowed to direct and enforce the practice of virtue.  The theopathetic affections, such as love, reverence, resignation, &c, form in the estimation of all theists a very sublime and important class of virtues.  Mr. Godwin as a professed atheist is very consistent in excluding them from his catalogue; but how he who does so can be allowed best to understand the nature of virtue, by any man who is not himself an atheist, I am at a loss to conceive.

Robinson kept these letters and years later in his Reminscences commented about the controversy:

In my visit to Bury I found I had already acquired a bad character for free thinking.  This led to a correspondence between the famous Robt. Hall and me.  I heard that he had told Mr. Nash it was disgraceful to him as a Christian to admit me into his house.  I remonstrated with Mr. Hall for this officious interference, and asked him why he had defamed me.  He answered me in a letter which I have preserved as a curiosity.  It is an excellent letter of the kind.  He said he believed me to be a professor of infidelity, or pantheism, and therefore as became him he warned a Christian brother of the peril of intercourse with me.  On his own principles he was right.  My letter I have also preserved.  It is as ill as his is well written.   (Sadler 1.27-28)

Though not by design, Robinson would experience two encounters with Hall the next year.14  Though not changing his position on Godwin as a result of these interviews with Hall, he did gain a better appreciation of the gifted polemicist.  As he writes to his brother Thomas on October 1, 1799, “On the whole I like Hall much better than I expected and yet I assure you it was not that he bribed my judgement by personal civility.  There was a friendliness of reception--which showed that he felt no bitterness but in our disputes on Godwin he did not spare either my opinions or myself and he was very far from flattering me.”

    It may well have been Hall’s confrontation with Robinson, both in their exchange of letters in 1798 and in their conversations of 1799, that finally led Hall to commit his views on Godwinism and infidelity to paper, resulting in his famous sermon Modern Infidelity Considered with respect to its Influence on Society.   In his sermon, Hall sought to show "the total incompatibility of sceptical principles with the existence of society" (Morris 92), chastising those individuals who, like Robinson, seem to have been taken in by this brand of infidelity, but who are miserable because their earlier religion still has some grasp upon them:

Is it surprising to find a mind thus bewildered in uncertainty, and dissatisfied with itself, court deception, and embracing with eagerness every pretext to mutilate the claims and enervate the authority of Christianity, forgetting that it is of the very essence of the religious principle to preside and control, and that it is impossible to serve God and mammon?  It is this class of professors who are chiefly in danger of being entangled in the snares of infidelity.   (Hall, Modern Infidelity 78)

Consequently, parents (like William Nash) have a great responsibility to protect the young from such views by watching “not only over the morals, but the principles of those committed to their care; to make it appear that a concern for their eternal welfare is their chief concern, and to imbue them early with that knowledge of the evidences of Christianity, and that profound reverence for the Scriptures . . . “ (81).

     Modern Infidelity provoked praise from several former enemies of Hall, including Pitt himself.  Glowing reviews appeared in numerous periodicals, and references to the sermon soon found their way into Kett's Elements of General Knowledge, Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon, James Mackintosh’s Lectures, and William Belsham's History of Great Britain. " From that time Mr. Hall's reputation was placed upon an eminence,” according to his Cambridge friend and biographer Olinthus Gregory (6.64), going through thirteen editions by 1834.  Not everyone, however, agreed with the lavish encomiums given Hall for his sermon, and Crabb Robinson was the first to voice his disapproval.  Using the nom de plume “Vigilance,” Robinson sent a lengthy letter to Benjamin Flower’s Cambridge Intelligencer which voiced sentiments many were fearful to express concerning Hall’s apparent political “apostasy.”  Robinson believed the sermon reflected Hall’s “literary excellence” as a gifted scholar and orator,  but not his political heritage as a radical Baptist Dissenter.  Nor did he believe Hall had been “candid and just” in his portrayal of the “character of atheism and scepticism.” Robinson’s letter makes little if any attempt to justify skepticism or infidelity; his purpose is more to expose the illiberality of Hall’s new position as antithetical to his earlier position, in which Hall had advocated that freedom of conscience and speech should prevail over any form of censorship.  In doing so, Robinson was in many ways removing the mantle of “radical Dissenter” that had been placed upon Hall by Dissenters of all persuasions between 1791 and 1796, declaring at the same time that he, Crabb Robinson, was willing to bear that mantle in 1800 if need be, even at the risk of losing his friends by exposing what he perceived to be inconsistencies in someone so brilliant and revered as Robert Hall.  Unlike Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and so many other political radicals of the early and mid-1790s, Robinson refused to succumb to what he considered the political “apostasy” running rampant through the ranks of Dissenters between 1798 and 1800.  What follows is the complete text of the letter as it originally appeared in the Cambridge Intelligencer for Saturday,  April 5, 1800.


Strictures on Mr. Hall’s Sermon

To the Editor of the Cambridge Intelligencer.


    The religious and political character which, with singular consistency, your paper has maintained, and your frequent indulgence of local criticism and animadversions, lead me to solicit a place for a few strictures on the recent publication of your townsman Mr. Hall, against Modern Infidelity:---A work which from its author’s just celebrity, and its own literary excellence cannot fail to be widely spread and generally admired; and, I fear from the critical period of its publication, as widely and generally injurious to the cause of peace and liberty.

    It is observed by, I forget whom, that it is the height of practical wisdom to understand the spirit of the age we live in; this wisdom is necessary to the useful exercise of the most exalted talents and virtues.  It is the object of Mr. Hall’s Sermon to display in the most horrid and terrific features, the character of modern Infidelity, and to awaken a lively dread of its progress amongst us: this I allow to be in itself a laudable task, but surely there are times and seasons for the promulgation of truths, as well as for all other acts.

    Whether Mr. Hall has been candid and just in his character of atheism and scepticism, is a question of comparatively trifling importance, and which I have no inclination at present to discuss.  Whether, admitting the general truths of the discourse, its “influence on society” will be such as Mr. Hall will rejoice at, is a question to be answered only by considering the present singular state of the public mind, arising out of the long duration and apprehended protraction of the present War.  The baneful effects of this War have reached so widely, and pressed so closely in all directions; and the concurrent measures of the combined powers threaten so imminently all that is valuable in the laws, institutions and habits of society: misery is springing up in such various forms; and oppression proceeds in its destructive course with a rapidity so alarming, that as far as society is concerned, I confess the speculative opinions of Individuals, even on the great points of religion appear to me comparatively insignificant:---And I deprecate as the most fatal of errors every sentiment which leads to an acquiescence in the continuance of that war and its consequent evils.  All the inferior political pretexts have answered their temporary purpose and been forgotten; and it is now confidently declared that this is a war of principles, in support of religion and good government.  Hence no means have been spared to excite all the strong passions of the soul.  Religious zeal has been pressed into the service from the pulpit; and from the professor’s chair, the bench of justice and the senator’s seat, one monotonous strain of alarm and terror has resounded.  The French people, like the victims of an Auto de fe, have been dressed in the garments of devils, and a domestic inquisition established among us hitherto unexampled.  Literature has changed its character.  The solemn lessons of political and religious instruction have been aided by the graver of the caricaturist.  The friends of Liberty have been calumniated and terrified into silence; against them the Press is nearly shut.  The watch Dogs of the state, the popular Orators have retired in despair from their posts, and so great an apathy to all public concerns has taken place, that the Journeyman’s act passed the Senate without debate.*---All the resources of calumny and imposture have been employed.   A popish priest, by repute a faithful son of Loyola, and a Scotch presbyterian professor, have even in this age of romance, displayed both novelty and imagination, in the form of anti-christian, anti-social, and anti-monarchical conspiracies; and as there are no limits to human credulity, even Robison and Barruel have their believers:15 all these representations have been uniformly made, to centre in one great proposition, the grand political lie of the day,---that, the crimes of the French Revolution, and the recent convulsion into which Europe has been thrown, are the result of a new system of opinions and principles, of which Atheism is the prime theorem, and anarchy the great practical consequence, and which is commonly indicated by the senseless term---Jacobinism, and the invidious phrase---French principles.  Whilst these measures were confined to the hirelings and tools of administration, though they made us grieve, we could not wonder.  It was in the ordinary course of things.  But astonishment will be mingled with sorrow, in the minds of those few who have hitherto stood apart and uninfected by the epidemic, when they behold one of their warmest friends, and most able champions enter the lists, and fall into the ranks of the adversary.  They will not be consoled by believing, that he has been deluded into the alliance, become undesignedly the humble follower of Horsley and Ramsden,16 and unconsciously compleated the triumvirate with his quondon adversary--the Rev. John Clayton, and his brother baptist, the Rev. John Martin.17  They who recollect the services Mr. Hall has formerly performed to the holy cause of civil and religious freedom, will be anxious to save him from reproach; but they will not be able, when they find in his Sermon an elaborate attempt to prove that ferocity, is one of the effects of Atheism (in itself a very disputable position) by shewing that from its prevalence have arisen the cruelties which have recently disgraced the French nation.

    To prove this, we are told that the men who by their activity and talents prepared the minds of the people for that great change, Rousseau, Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire, and others, were avowed enemies of Revelation.  This is an unfortunate enumeration.  Rousseau was not the enemy of all Revelation, and Voltaire was not a political reformer.  The philosopher of Ferney was the friend of Frederic, and the eulogist of Louis.  And though “Scepticism and Revolutionary principles might go hand in hand,” though the “Christian Priesthood” were the objects of persecution, these acts prove not that Atheism was the stimulating cause, nor that Christianity as such was the object of persecution.   In truth, there was little, very little, Christianity in France to persecute; at least if we credit Mr. Hall’s assertion that “it is a most fatal mistake to regard religion as an engine of policy;” for was not that which bore the name of Christianity in France an engine of policy?  Was is not the great prop of its detestable government?  And has there existed a period since the alliance between church and state, in which nominal Christianity has not been the support and advocate of the most profligate and barbarous tyrannies.  It is equally notorious that the body of priests in France were the rallying point of counter-revolution.  From their nature they could not be otherwise; the constitutional oaths were no security, for the Popish Church reigns paramount over all moral relations, and authorises perjury by system.  I appeal to the sober judgment of your readers, whether that Christianity, which is alone valuable, was ever persecuted?  I do not mean to justify the proscription even of the absurd and superstitious rites of the Romish Church; but does it become a protestant dissenting teacher to identify himself with the corrupt imposture of the Church of Rome?  The pure morality and simple discipline of primitive and apostolic christianity require to be most accurately distinguished from those monstrous, absurd, and often detestable masses of rites, ceremonies, creeds, canons, anathemas, proscriptions, and decrees which established churches have in all ages presented, and which deserve the execration of all good men!

    Instead of ascribing the mad atrocities of the revolutionary government to the spirit of Atheism, may we not find a simple cause in the apprehensions of the new government.  The established Christianity of France was clearly hostile to the growing spirit of liberty and salutary reform; hence they were interested in discrediting it.  The altar was placed before the throne as its safeguard; hence they did not scruple to trample it under foot.  It is surely unjust to ascribe the cruelties of Republican France to Atheism, when monarchical and religious France has displayed a barbarity far more horrible, because more systematic and deliberate.  Seventy Thousand Hugonots were cooly massacred on St. Bartholemew’s day in vindication of religious truths, at the Instigation of the “Christian Priesthood;” it was sanctioned by splendid religious services in the “Temples of God,” princes and nobles were the executioners.  They were not enraged by any sense of danger; these were the crimes of deliberation and repose.  The dye of Jacobin guilt grows faint after a contemplation of this transaction.  During the reign of terror, the functions, of the body politic were suspended: it was a moment of delirious stupidity.  If a Bedlamite urged a decree of insanity, there was not courage enough in the capital to urge the plainest principles of reason.  I doubt not that were the circumstances known which attended the mad decree of eternal sleep, it would appear to have passed (if it were ever regularly decreed) without the active consent of Twenty persons.  And with as little publicity or general interest as the resolutions of a parish vestry.

    Could Mr. Hall demonstrate the truth of his own exaggerated description of modern infidelity, it would not be enough to vindicate his publication because he must be aware that

“With the Cunning, truth itself’s a lye.”

Judging of his mind by his former productions, I should have supposed that the identity of his own language, with that of the hackneyed tribe of ministerial advocates would have suggested a salutary suspicion of the tendency of his work.   When he saw on his own page the favourite phrases, “rash innovation” and “daring empiricism, disdain of established usages”, “overflowing the mounds of regular authority,” “treading underfoot the precedents of antiquity and experience of ages,”---could he forget what frauds and impositions such language had formerly supported, and by what writers it had been used?  If warm feeling and comprehensive observation were not hard to unite in one mind, probably such a recollection would have led to others of weighty concern.  It would have occurred to him, that the present fashionable zeal for religion is one of the artful expedients of the day, one of the tubs thrown out to amuse the whale.  He might perhaps have been reminded of one of the excellent fables of good old Esop.  “The one eyed stag  while he watched the hunters from the forest was shot from a boat on the sea.”  He would have cooly enquired into the reality and extent of the danger.  Abroad he would have acknowledged that French principles as far as they are political, are nothing more than the ancient fundamental principles on which England has repeatedly acted, and to which our present King is indebted for his Crown.  That the spirit of innovation has ceased in France, and that all distinctive morality is unknown.  The invasion of Italy, Switzerland and Egypt, bring acts of vulgar ambition and tyranny, in their mode of execution exactly selon les regles, and vindicated by the “last reason of Kings.”§  That Religion in France is now placed on its due level, neither depressed by persecution nor exalted by the patronage of the government.  It is left to support itself by its own energies.  At home he must have observed that what is called religion now basks in the sunshine of courtly favor, that it forms the fashionable topic of eloquence, and takes its share in the amusements of the day.  Had such been happily the course of Mr. Hall’s reflections, he would perhaps have been led to consider how this public patronage of religion might be turned to a good account.  It would have been a less popular but far more useful exercise of his genius, had he applied the acknowledged principles of religion to the great events of the day; had he shewn that that Christianity which sanctions every act of domestic oppression, and vindicates a refusal to terminate the miseries of war, is not vital but putrid, and that there is something worse than saying there is no God, namely, asserting that there is one and that he sanctions the crimes of Courts and Ministers.

    I confess that had such been Mr. Hall’s employment, he would not have been cheered by learning that a minister of State had been making enquiries concerning his new ally; he might not have been so often greeted in the market place by the titled and dignified; nor have been refreshed by so pleasant a breeze of popular favor.  But to counterbalance these privations, he might hereafter, in a day of national calamity have been consoled by reflecting, that he had not been silent while the train was in preparation for destroying at once, the manly spirit and the intellectual freedom of his countrymen.  But now, if that day should ever arrive, to which all public proceedings tend as to a centre, if ever a system of predial servitude should be spread over the country, converting the husbandman and manufacturer into a cerf, or beast of burden; if ever the body of the Clergy should be trained and disciplined to be Overseers, of an impoverished and degraded people, urging to them as Mr. Burke expresses it “the Consolations of a life hereafter as an Indemnity for their sufferings here.”  If ever the maxims of a limited and constitutional Monarchy, should be exchanged, for the lofty pretentions of Imperial dignity, and supported by imperial alliances: If the accumulation of property into large masses, and of political power into one body, should ever lead to an oppressive Union, and concert of liberticidal measures: If ever religious persecution should arise again, first excited against modern Infidels which I fear Mr. Hall would sanction, till it gradually reached that slight departure from Orthodoxy, which, if I mistake not, would reach Mr. Hall himself---If that day should arrive, Mr. Hall will not then be able to absolve himself from the charge of having aided and promoted the general destruction, though he might then be relieved from the pains of remorse, by recollecting the purity of his intentions!



*This act, which perhaps some of your readers know nothing about will bear a melancholy distinction in the future history of the decline and fall of British freedom.

§Some of our readers may not recollect the above phrase (ultima ratio regum) is the usual motto on the mouth of a cannon. 

    Other voices of dissent would follow Crabb’s,18 but this would be the last time Crabb would engage in debate with Robert Hall. While in Germany, Crabb continued to be informed about Hall’s activities and his continued reaction to Crabb’s letter and his Godwinian beliefs through the letters of his brother, Thomas.  In a letter of September 2, 1800, Thomas writes:

Hall continues in high fame.  The Bishop of London invited him to a dinner which he attended, and which he is making a merit of. . . Your friend Anthony [Robinson] has likewise entered the list against this famed divine; and I think has attacked him with considerable ability. . . Though, I was upon the whole a good deal pleased with the pamphlet; I can not but wish that it possessed a little more of the suaviter in modo.  But he uses the scalping knife most unmercifully, and seems to take delight in mangling the character of his adversary.  In short it partakes of all the bitterness of personal enmity.          To Mr. K[ing]. Fordham, Hall contrasted the personalities of this pamphlet with the respectful style of Vigilance.  Mr F. informed him you were the author of the last mentioned letter---And now a super plum for your vanity---At this information, he expressed a good deal of surprise, and said, in point of style it was one of the most elegant or eloquent (I forget which epithet) production he had ever read---though he would not allow it contained much argument.

Though Robert Hall may have over-reacted to Crabb Robinson’s brand of Godwinism in 1800, Robinson was not incorrect in his assessment of Hall’s political shift from radical reformer to the spokesman of established orthodoxy.  Robinson’s indictment of Hall must have stung him deeply.  As a Dissenter who had argued so eloquently in 1793 for toleration of Dissent and freedom of religion from the influence of the state and who blasted with such power the tyranny of an unjust war with France, to be labeled in 1800 as the promoter of the “public patronage of religion” and the mouthpiece of a “Christianity which sanctions every act of domestic oppression, and vindicates a refusal to terminate the miseries of war,” thus sanctioning “the crimes of Courts and Ministers,” Hall appeared as an apostate of monumental proportions to those who, like Crabb Robinson, J. T. Rutt, Anthony Robinson, and Benjamin Flower, refused to blame England’s woes upon “modern infidelity.”  Though neither Robinson nor Hall maintained the level of radical thought, either in politics or religion, each had espoused so boldly in the 1790s and for which each placed the other under such severe public scrutiny, both men would remain staunch Dissenters thoughout their lives.19


      After 1800, Crabb Robinson, like so many others who at one time appreciated the genius of Godwin, found himself questioning his own degree of skepticism as well as the ultimate social and political consequences of Godwinianism.    When he returned from Germany in 1805, he began a steady progression, not toward the religious orthodoxy of Robert Hall, but rather toward a moderate Dissenting position that permitted a wide breadth of liberal views yet stopped short of complete skepticism.   He never disavowed the importance of Godwin’s work and the brilliance of his mind, but he eventually grew weary of Godwin’s character.  By 1810 he writes that his acquaintance with Godwin was “of the least agreeable kind” (Morley, Life  63). 

    Ironically, one of the chief legacies of Godwin’s Political Justice upon the twenty-year-old apprentice in 1795 was that “no book,” Robinson says, “ever made me feel more generously.  I had never before, nor, I am afraid, have I ever since felt so strongly the duty of not living to one’s self, but of having for one’s sole object the good of the community” (Sadler 1.20).   Robinson learned his Godwinian lessons well, possibly better than Godwin himself, for years later his generosity would be extended on several occasions to the very man who, ironically, seemed then to know very little about true benevolence.  “Among the worst features of Godwin’s mind,” Robinson would later write, “was an utter insensibility to kindness.  He considered all acts of beneficence as a debt to his intellect” (Morley, Life 70).  Robinson would end this “acquaintance” with Godwin in the 1820s, primarily due to Godwin’s poor pecuniary habits and his inability to acknowledge his indebtedness to those who constantly relieved him of his own debts.   Though Robinson would become more politically and theologically conservative in his later years (much like Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth), his youthful infatuation with the principles of Godwin’s Political Justice, however, left an indelible mark upon him.  If “Godwin’s influence” in 1796 turned him away from becoming a lawyer (Morley, Life 4), his public defense of Godwin in the Cambridge Intelligencer in August, 1795, and later in April 1800, in some ways helped to lay the foundation for what would be his primary occupation for the next fifteen years--political journalism--as well as one of his primary concerns for the remainder of his long and productive life--the right to religious dissent.  For those reasons alone, these letters deserve to be read again.


A final version of this essay can be found in The Wordsworth Circle 33 (2002), 58-69.


1John Milton Baker discusses the essay in some detail (61-63).  The essay was recently republished as an appendix in Penelope Corfield’s and Chris Evans’s Youth and Revolution in the 1790s (184-86).

2Flower (1755-1829) came to Cambridge in 1793 as the first editor of the Cambridge Intelligencer.  Raised an orthodox dissenter, both theologically and politically, weaned on the Westminster Confession, and educated at John Ryland, Sr.’s, Dissenting academy at Northampton between 1766-69, Flower was an outspoken political radical during the 1790s.   After an extended stay in France shortly after the Revolution, Flower returned and published The French Constitution (1792).   For five years he was a member of Robert Hall’s Baptist congregation at St. Andrew’s Street in Cambridge, leaving in 1798 primarily over Hall’s changing views toward the French Revolution and the legitimacy of religious heterodoxy in general.  Despite being sentenced to six months imprisonment at Newgate in 1799 for libeling Richard Watson, the Archbishop of Llandaff, Flower never wavered in his allegiance to the principles of radical reform.  Discouraged with the state of British affairs after the resumption of war with France in 1803, Flower disbanded the Intelligencer and moved to Harlow in 1804, where he became a bookseller, publisher, and lay Unitarian minister until his death in 1829.

3Habbakkuk Crabb considered the debates at the Book Club important enough to include references to them in several letters to members of his family.  He writes to  his sister Jemima on August 27, 1790, that the recent “debates were very entertaining, and the speaking was conducted with great regularity under the direction of [Mr. Fordham] . . . The question had respect to the measures present in the late application to Parliament” concerning the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, an appeal which was denied.   The next year he writes to Thomas Robinson, now living near Bury, about another meeting in which “thirty members were present” to debate the question “Whether the national Assembly of France had a right to seize the church property.” Rev. Crabb notes that the debate “was kept up with spirit for two hours.  The opinion of a great Majority ‘That the Assembly had a right’” (November 9, 1791).

4Unless otherwise noted, all references to Robinson’s letters are from the Crabb Robinson Correspondence, Vol. I (1725-99), Dr. Williams’s Library, London, quoted by permission of the Director.

5Crabb Robinson later notes that Nash had been a Methodist in his youth, but turned Baptist and eventually Unitarian, and “Robert Robinson was the object of his admiration.  His single publication, in which he called himself ‘A Country Attorney,’ was one of the hundred and one answers to Burke on the French Revolution” (Sadler 2.228).

6In Christianity Consistent with a Love of Freedom (1791), Hall argued vigorously for religious toleration and the right for Dissenters to engage in English politics.   No Dissenter, Hall asserted, who understands the value of religious freedom, would "be content to suspend it on the clemency of a prince, the indulgence of ministers, or the liberality of bishops, if ever such a thing existed; he will never think it secure, till it has a constitutional basis . . ." (15).  An Apology for the Freedom of the Press (1793), the culmination of Hall’s political pamphleteering, set forth a brilliant argument for Parliamentary reform, freedom of the press, and general religious toleration, and it became one of the most powerful treatises of anti-ministerial dissent written during the 1790s.

7For more on Hall and his politics in Bristol and Cambridge, see Timothy Whelan’s “Coleridge and Robert Hall of Cambridge,” Wordsworth Circle 31 (2000): 38-47; and “Robert Hall and the Bristol Slave-Trade Debate of 1787-1788,” Baptist Quarterly 38 (1999-2000): 212-24.

8For information on the church history of the Robinson family, see The Wattisfield Church Book, originally compiled by the Rev. Thomas Harmer and transcribed by Joseph Davey in 1849 (Dr. Williams’s Library, London, MS Harmer 15); also The History of the Congregational Church in Bury St. Edmunds, by J. Duncan, also at Dr. Williams’s Library, Acc. No. 5106, SK.39.

9In his Pocket Account Book for 25 December 1794, Robinson writes: ”My much respected and valuable friend and Relation The Revd Habakkuk Crabb of Royston Dissenting Minister Youngest Bror of my late Mother died this Day--.” Robinson’s Pocket Account Book for 1795 begins with this entry for 1 January: “mourning Buckles 2s.6d.” Both manuscripts are in the possession of Dr. Williams’s Library, London.

10“Mr H” is probably Mr. Haffenden of Witham, from whom Crabb had originally borrowed the book in March (Corfield and Evans 30).  Robinson purchased other political works from several of his friends during his stay in Colchester, including a Mr. Harris, the local Dissenting minister at the Independent meeting and fellow member of the local Book Club.   Among other things, Harris had purchased for Robinson in March, 1794,  The Trial of Wm. Winterbotham, Assistant Preacher at How’ Lane Meeting, Plymouth, an account by the Baptist minister William Winterbotham of his own trial for treason at Plymouth in December, 1793, for two sermons preached in November, 1792.  Robinson also purchased from a Mr. Keymer in May, 1794, Burke’s Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, and in August, 1793, Mrs. Barbauld’s Sins of Government Sins of the Nation.  See Robinson’s Pocket Account Book for 1793 and 1794, Dr. Williams’s Library.  See Robinson’s Pocket Account Book for 1794 for other references to Haffenden.

11See Vol. 1 (1725-99): #80, 106, 108, 114, 116, 117, 118, 127, 132, and 134; Vol. 2 (1800-03): #5, 9, and 34; and Vol. 4 (1805-08): #8, 12, and 17.

12Like Hall, Robinson’s friend William Pattisson had by 1800 retreated significantly from his radical reformist views of 1794-96, much to Robinson’s dismay.  Like Hall, he never accepted the basic principles of Godwin’s Political Justice, and by 1800 he too had become disenchanted with politics and more inclined toward religion and domestic concerns (Corfield and Evans 35). Like Hall, Pattisson moved from enchantment with the French Revolution and opposition to the English-French War in 1793 to full support for the Crown and its ministers in the fight against Bonaparte in 1803.  Similarly, the one political issue that maintained the interest of both men in later years was the campaign against slavery (Corfield and Evans 39).

13Robinson had already experienced some heated discussions with the Rev. Samuel Newton, minister at the Independent congregation at Witham from 1786-1822, while visiting the Pattissons in the summer of 1795 (Corfield and Evans 36).  Robinson knew the consequences for opening avowing Godwinianism and infidelity.  As he would write later in his Reminiscences, even to moderately Calvinistic Independents and Baptists like the Pattissons, the Nashes, and Robert Hall, “the Scriptures forbid the disciples of Christ to form any near relation, any intimate bond of union, with professed infidels” (Sadler 1.52).

14For accounts of these interviews, see Crabb Robinson to J. T. Rutt, September 18, 1799, and Crabb Robinson to Thomas Robinson, February 4, 1799 (Crabb Robinson Correspondence, Dr. Williams Library, London); Crabb Robinson to William Pattisson, October 31, 1798, and February 19, 1799 (Corfield and Evans 163, 167); and the Reminiscences (Sadler 1.37-38).

15John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe: Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies (1797) went through five editions by 1798, published in Edinburgh, London, Dublin, Philadelphia, and New York.   The Abbe Barruel’s Memoirs, Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, translated from the French  (4 vols. 1797) was divided into “The Antichristian Conspiracy,” “The Antimonarchical Conspiracy,” and “The Antisocial Conspiracy.” Hall seems clearly aware of these works, but the primary “believer” Robinson may have in mind here is his friend Thomas Amyot, who in a letter to Robinson on December 15, 1797, endorsed Barruel’s theory and declared his intention of reading Robison (Crabb Robinson Correspondence, Dr. Williams’s Library). 

16Samuel Horsley (1733-1806), in A Review of the Case of the Protestant Dissenters with reference to the Corporation and Test Acts  (1790) and A Sermon Preached before the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, on Wednesday, January 30, 1793 (1793), reiterated the doctrine of unlimited submission to the King and his Church, and in so doing greatly angered Dissenting ministers throughout England.  The latter sermon so provoked Robert Hall that he delayed the publication of his Apology so that in his Preface he could attack the Bishop in language so daring [“when we reflect on the qualities which distinguish this prelate, that venom that hisses, and that meanness that creeps, the malice that attends him to the sanctuary and pollutes the altar, we feel a similar perplexity with that which springs from the origin of evil”(xvi)] that the youthful Crabb Robinson apparently thought sufficient to secure Hall’s position as a leading spokesman for radical reform forever, which explains his despair in 1800 over Hall’s Modern Infidelity.   The Rev. Richard Ramsden (1761-1831), a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, became a frequent target of Benjamin Flower’s anger during the late 1790s and early 1800s as a result of several sermons preached in Cambridge, such as The Origins and Ends of Government (January 1800), Reflections on War and the Final Cessation of All Hostility (March, 1800), and The Alliance betwen the Church and the State (November, 1800), in which Ramsden followed Horsley’s advocacy of submission to the government and support of the war with France, with anyone opposed to such a position being nothing less than a “vile Jacobin.”

17Hall’s Christianity Consistent with a Love of Freedom (1791) was a response to a sermon by the Calvinist Dissenting minister John Clayton (1754-1843), Benjamin Flower’s brother-in-law and pastor of the Independent congregation meeting at the Weigh-House in London.  In The Duty of Christians to Magistrates (July 24, 1791), Clayton chastised his fellow Dissenting ministers, such as Joseph Priestley and Robert Hall, for being disloyal both to the King and their vocation by engaging in political disputes with the government.  John Martin (1741-1820), another London Baptist minister, irritated Dissenters in 1791 with A Review of Some Things Pertaining to Civil Government, in which he argued, much like Clayton, that “every private man is bound, by divine authority, to submit peaceably to the civil power of that country in which he resides or lives, in all cases where his submission would leave him in the enjoyment of a good conscience” (28).  Martin was severely censured by many of his dissenting brethren for his conduct, "political subserviency," and catering to the good graces of the Established church by being appointed (after appealing directly to the Archibishop of Canterbury and Mr. Pitt) almoner of the Regium Donum in 1795, at which the other dissenting ministers withdrew and left Martin with the entire sum to dispense with as he so chose (about £1500 a year) (Morris 68).  In reference to this, Hall noted that "Judas had no acquaintance with the chief priests, till he went to transact business with them" (68).   Later, in 1798 Martin would provoke even more wrath among Dissenters when, after defending the Test and Corporation Acts, he boasted that many Dissenters would be willing to join with the French should they land in England.

18Flower, in his Proceedings of the House of Lords in the Case of Benjamin Flower, Printer of the Cambridge Intelligencer (1800), castigated Hall  as an “apostate” to the tenets of radical reform he had once so eloquently espoused. Anthony Robinson, like his friends Benjamin Flower and Crabb Robinson, contributed as well to this campaign to discredit Hall in his stinging rebuttal, An Examination of a Sermon, Preached at Cambridge, by Robert Hall, M.A. (1800).  Eventually, William Godwin would have his say about Hall in his Thoughts Occasioned by Dr. Parr’s Spital Sermon (1801), castigating the “much vaunted Sermon of Mr. Hall of Cambridge, in which every notion of toleration or decorum,” he complains, “was treated with infuriated contempt" (9).

19After much urging from his friends, Hall did enter the political arena once again in the mid-1820s, penning a bold response to the slavery question for the Leicester Auxiliary of the Anti-Slavery Society, but even then he did so anonymously.  His pamphlet was entitled An Address on the State of Slavery in the West India Islands.  Hall was a member of the Executive Committee, and delivered a stinging critique of the practice as it existed at that time among the British Colonies.



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