HCR and Religion

The Religion of Crabb Robinson

Timothy Whelan


On 31 December 1823, as he contemplated the state of his life, Crabb Robinson wrote in his diary, “As to myself, I have become more and more desirous to be religious, but seem to be further off than ever.  Whenever I draw near, the negative side of the magnet works, and I am pushed back by an invisible power.”[1] Robinson does not explain what he means here by the “negative side” of the religious magnet, but from numerous comments in his dairy, reminiscences, and correspondence, it was most likely the residue of his Calvinist upbringing. Though Robinson would eventually gain intellectual freedom from what he believed were the worst vestiges of his childhood exposure to Calvinism, that freedom did not come easily. By the close of 1823, Robinson’s desire “to be religious” was proving elusive because the qualities he sought were less the result of what one believed and more the consequence of how one lived, made evident through one’s character, not doctrinal creed. However, despite his emphasis upon Christianity being a “life” and not a “system,” Robinson nevertheless placed a high value on right thinking.  To Robinson, being “religious” meant possessing a personal faith that could be demonstrated by human actions, a faith that would satisfy the demands of the intellect and reason as well as the heart. His life-long quest for such a rational faith brought him repeatedly into conflict with that “negative side of the [religious] magnet,” that “invisible power”—the legacy of his early introduction to evangelical Calvinism and other forms of religious intolerance and narrow-mindedness. 

Robinson’s earliest religious experiences were shaped by his family’s attendance at the Presbyterian meeting in Churchgate Street, Bury St. Edmunds, where William Lincolne, a Calvininst, ministered. The Robinsons went twice to meetings on Sunday, at times pushing the limit of young Crabb’s patience; he writes in his reminiscences that he was “often sent to bed without my supper for bad behaviour at Meeting.”[2] During Robinson’s childhood, Rev. Lincolne regularly exchanged pulpits with Thomas Waldegrave, Calvinist minister of the Independent meeting at Whiting Street in Bury. Robinson was unimpressed with the more evangelical Waldegrave, describing him some years later as “an ignorant, noisy, ranting preacher.”[3] Regarding the Dissenters in Bury St. Edmunds, he would later write in his reminiscences “that the Independents were more orthodox than was reasonable,” but in regard to the Presbyterians, he found they possessed “a degree of rationality compatible with sound doctrine.”[4]  To his mother (who died in 1793) Robinson ascribed “every good moral or religious feeling I had in my childhood or youth.”[5] Her faith, though orthodox, was tolerant, a quality Robinson would later value so highly in his own quest for religious faith. “She had no doctrinal zeal,” he writes in his reminiscences, “and seems, though educated in a rigidly orthodox family, to have had very little knowledge of religious controversy.”[6]

Between 1786 and 1789, Robinson attended a boarding school in Devizes operated by John Ludd Fenner and Habbakuk Crabb, both of whom where Robinson’s uncles and Independent ministers.  Robinson would later admit that he gained little religious instruction during his time at Devizes, though he did find Defoe’s Family Instructor quite inspiring, at one point impersonating “a religious teacher.”[7] In the summer of 1789 Robinson removed to Wattisfield, joining his uncle Crabb who had recently been appointed minister of the local Independent congregation. During his short time in Wattisfield, the French Revolution occurred, an event Crabb and his uncle celebrated for its “great promise,” he writes in his reminiscences, for “Popery and absolute government were both to be destroyed.”[8] This event did much to cement Robinson’s growing identity with Dissenting culture, especially its disadvantaged political status in 1789. “Though I had no proper political knowledge,” he writes, “yet I had strong party feelings.  In my childhood I had always heard the Church spoken of as an unjust institution, and thought Dissenters a persecuted body.”[9] It was most likely at Wattisfield that Robinson first began to question the “Calvinistic feelings” he had acquired as a child in Bury, largely as a result of the teachings of his uncle, who by this time had become a pronounced Arian.[10]   

In 1790, Robinson removed to Colchester, spending the next five years as an apprentice in the law office of William Francis, a Dissenter. During these years he followed the political affairs of Dissenters[11] and faithfully attended meetings on Sundays and even weekdays at local Dissenting congregations, alternating at times among the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Independents. He tells his mother on 1 February 1790 that he had attended the Baptist meeting the previous Sunday. “I think the Preacher is nothing remarkable,” he writes, referring to the Rev. Thomas Steevens (1745-1802).[12]  “I was in the parlour all day.  Mr. Francis is very literal in his sentiments  he is fond of my asking him questions.”[13] Robinson primarily attended the ministry of Rees Harris, a Socinian, at the Independent meeting at Helen’s Lane, where Mr. Francis also attended.[14] Robinson was often present when visiting preachers came to town, such as the time he heard the aged John Wesley preach.[15]  “Mortified” that his work might keep him from hearing Wesley, Robinson was greatly relieved when Mr. Francis allowed him to leave work early to attend the meeting. “I look’t upon [Wesley] with a Respect bordering upon Enthusiasm,” Robinson writes to his older brother, Thomas, on 18 October 1790, especially pleased by Wesley’s call for toleration among the orthodox toward those of other opinions, such as Socinians and Arians. “If they do but fear God work righteousness & keep his Commandments,” Wesley preached, “we have nothing to object to.”[16] In the same letter Robinson mentions a sermon by Rees Harris attacking the doctrine of original sin. Robinson writes that Harris regarded the notion of original sin “in the same Light Dr P-----ly does   the sentiment he expressed certainly appears more conformable to both the Justice and Mercy of God but I cannot say I was quite satisfied But what appears to me rather inconsistent he believes in the Atonement . . .”[17] Though he would not officially avow Unitarianism for many years, by the early 1790s Robinson had clearly become sympathetic to many of its doctrines. At a political meeting of Dissenters at Chelmsford late in 1791, Robinson writes that he “was irritated by the objection of one who was present that he did not know Dr. Priestley to be a Christian.  I replied that if this gentleman had read Priestley’s Letter to the Swedenborgians he would have learned more of real Christianity than he seemed to know.” Robinson adds, however, that at this time he had “not formed any distinct religious opinions, but felt deeply the importance of religious liberty and the rights of conscience.”[18] 

    Though not “religious” in the way he would describe in 1823, Robinson’s life prior to his removal to Germany in 1800 nevertheless demonstrated a devotion to Dissenting culture, both ecclesiastically and politically. Nearly all his friends and correspondents during this period were Dissenters, scattered among Independents, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Unitarians. These included the Pattissons of Witham; Catherine Buck Clarkson, Sarah Jane Maling, and Evan Johns of Bury; William Taylor of Norwich; Benjamin Flower and Robert Hall of Cambridge; James Phillips of Haverford-West; and a host of leading Dissenters in London, including Capel Lofft, John Towill Rutt, Anthony Robinson, Gilbert Wakefield, George Dyer, Mary Hays, and William Hazlitt.  His closest links to Dissenting culture, however, were his Royston friends, the Nashes and Fordhams, two families “liberal in religious opinion and zealous for political reform,”[19] and his older brother, Thomas Robinson (1770-1860) of Bury St. Edmunds. Crabb’s religious opinions at this time were also informed by his reading, which his pocket book diaries tell us included works by such controversial Dissenters as Joseph Priestley, Anna Letitia Barbauld, William Winterbotham (the Baptist minister convicted of preaching sedition in 1792), and William Godwin, the skeptical philosopher who had once been an orthodox Independent minister.

    Robinson would later write in his reminiscences that during his years in Colchester he “very quietly” gave up his “orthodoxy,”[20] largely due to the influence of his uncle Crabb and his attraction to Priestleian rational Christianity. Another important reason, however, was his outspoken advocacy of Godwinian philosophy, acquired through his reading of Political Justice, which he purchased in the spring of 1795. Almost immediately, Robinson says, he

entered fully into its spirit, it left all others behind in my admiration, and I was willing even to become a martyr for it … 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 . . . .[21]

That July Robinson contributed a letter to Benjamin Flower’s Cambridge Intelligencer in which he defended Godwin from his detractors, primarily those among the Dissenting community. The next year Robinson would find himself defending Godwin again, this time at a meeting of the Royston Book Club.  In his reminiscences he notes that at one of the debates in 1796, the question was posed, “Is private affection inconsistent with universal benevolence?” “Not a disputable point,” he writes, “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,” which included J. T. Rutt, Benjamin Flower, and probably Robert Hall, minister of the Baptist congregation at St. Andrew’s Street in Cambridge where Flower and Crabb Robinson’s close friend, William Nash, attended.[22] 

After his removal to London in the spring of 1796, Robinson attended services regularly among several Dissenting congregations, hearing such leading Unitarian preachers as Thomas Belsham and John Disney of London; John Edwards of Birmingham; “the Torified Fanatick the Baptist [John] Martin” of Keppel Street, London; and even Robert Hall when he preached at Samuel Palmer’s Independent meeting in Hackney.[23] Anthony Robinson, a former student of Hall’s at Bristol Baptist Academy but now a leading Unitarian and editor of the Analytical Review, sought “to ungodwinise” young Crabb; the latter, however, remained unshaken in his devotion to Godwinism, confessing to his brother in December 1797, “Upon Speculative Topicks I feel myself gradually subsiding into fixed general Scepticism.”[24] Though he bragged at times about his skepticism, Robinson was never able to completely extricate himself from his earlier beliefs. He confesses in his reminiscences that during the last half of the 1790s he possessed “a much greater degree of internal religious sentim.t than I ever thot proper to allow,” mainly, he adds, “because it was hostile to my imagined philos.y[25]

Many years later Robinson would write about this period of his life and his religious turmoil in a letter to his friend, the German philosopher, theologian, and marine insurance analyst, William Benecke (1776-1837). “I was very ill-educated, or rather had no regular instruction,” he writes,

but heard what are called orthodox notions preached in my childhood, when I, like other children, believed all that I heard uncontradicted.  But before I was twenty years old, I met with anti-religious books, and had nothing to oppose to sceptical arguments.  I sprang at once from one extreme to another, and from believing everything I believed nothing … Having originally heard the popular doctrines … stated in the most gross way, the moment the inherent absurdity of such notions was made palpable to my mind, I rejected them without hesitation . . . The one doctrine which forms at present an insurmountable stumbling-block is that of the atonement—the doctrine of justification through the merits of Jesus Christ.[26] 

His letter to Benecke was dated 26 January 1834, and though nearly forty years after his introduction to Godwin and many years after his repudiation of materialism and skepticism, Robinson admits that he was still struggling with certain doctrines of the Christian faith. He blamed much of his uncertainty upon the “ultra-Calvinist” Jonathan Edwards, the “most awfully tremendous of all metaphysical divines” whose book on “Original Sin” he “unhappily read” in his youth. “It did me an irreparable mischief,” he writes in another letter to Benecke,

But it is a work of transcendent intellectual power . . . Its object was to display the Calvinistic scheme in all its intensity and merciless severity. The strict justice of punishing all men eternally for the sin of one man was insisted on as a consequence of the infinite justice of God; the possibility of salvation was deduced from the sovereignty of God’s grace; and the absolute and invincible predestination to eternal suffering of all on whom that grace was not freely conferred (for whom alone the atoning sacrifice of Christ was performed) was most barbarously maintained.[27]

In the fall of 1800, Robinson, still flaunting his Godwinism, distanced himself even further from his Dissenting roots by enrolling in the University of Jena.  Though some of his friends and family feared his exposure to German philosophy and literature would only augment his skepticism, the end result of his nearly five-year stay in Germany would prove otherwise. One reason may have been his correspondence with his brother Thomas, a moderately orthodox Dissenter who resided in Bury St. Edmunds the entirety of his life. Thomas kept Crabb informed of all the news within the local Dissenting community as well as goings on in Cambridge, London, and elsewhere. Shortly before he returned to England in 1805, Crabb’s religious frame of mind was still uppermost in the mind of his more conservative brother. He writes to Crabb on 21 May 1805:

On the subject of Religion you have said as much as I expected you could say … Your candid language and the allowances you are disposed to make for one whom you must consider as entrammelled by his early prejudices deserves my thanks … I am more apprehensive for your habits of society---But however I will not go on to anticipate evils which perhaps may never exist.  I do not wish for a perfect coincidence of thinking upon all important subjects, because it would very much take away from the interest of social intercourse.  So long as we do not think worse of the moral character of each other on account of our opinion no great evil will result from it.  Indeed I will frankly confess that I think that your affections have been improved by the new train of ideas which have passed through your mind. [Robert] Hall I am told expressed great satisfaction to hear the nature of your studies.  I can easily conceive that he should think that Kantianism in any of its forms is preferable to french philosophy or frigid Socinianism.[28]

In his next letter, Thomas admitted that he was relieved that “after all the turns your mind has taken … I am satisfied that you are not quite gone over to the enemy’s quarters.”[29]

    Edith Morley spent many years chronicling Crabb Robinson’s intimate involvement with the British literary world after his return from Germany in 1805, especially his close and lasting relationships with numerous members of the Wordsworth-Coleridge circle.[30] It is important to remember, however, that Robinson continued to maintain close ties as well to the Dissenting culture in which he had spent his youth prior to 1800, especially his friendships with J. T. Rutt and Anthony Robinson in London, the Pattisons in Witham, and the Nashes and Fordhams in Royston, often spending Christmas vacations with the latter.[31] In fact, it was William Nash who accompanied Robinson one Sunday in November 1812 to hear the controversial antinomian preacher William Huntington, an account of which Robinson would later include in his 1845 essay on Robert Robinson, the popular but highly controversial Baptist minister at Cambridge from 1759 to 1790.[32] While visiting the Pattissons in September 1815, Crabb entered into a conversation about Samuel Newton, an Independent minister in Norwich, whose “orthodoxy,” Robinson declared, “would deter me from Christianity.  I cannot wish to have a belief which excludes from salvation such persons as my own dear mother, my uncle Crabb, and a large portion of the best people I have ever known.”[33] Many years later, after hearing a sermon on hell from a Catholic priest, Robinson showed no signs of altering his opinion, declaring that such sermons are “calculated to deter all who actually believe, from allowing themselves to doubt, but at the same time to keep out all who are not already in the Church.”[34]

Robinson’s identification as a Dissenter also played a role in his life as a barrister. As part of his bar examination in 1813, he was asked what university he had attended and whether he would conform to the Church of England. Of course, he replied that he was a Dissenter and had attended neither Oxford nor Cambridge. This question of conformity, though demanding a rather obvious response from Robinson, nevertheless caused him some consternation as he thought about the implications his decision would have upon his future profession. Though he had lived all his life intimately connected to Dissenting culture, he nevertheless felt that, in some ways, he was little more than “a Dissenter by accident,” an identification determined more by his relationships with family and friends than by deeply felt theological convictions or personal religious experience.  As he writes in his diary on 9 May 1813,

Certainly I am indifferent or nearly indifferent on the Subjt of Religious Dissent.  These consids would satisfy some of my friends.  Rough & A. Robinson for instance; but other of my friends wod be greatly offended perhaps hurt by such a conduct; the Pattissons, Bucks, Nashes & their respective connections.  By conforming I shod at least lose a moral distinction I shod lose the honour of refinemt of integrity & honour at least and I shod give pain to persons I sincerely love & esteem. These consids are strong agt the deed  My friend A. R. ingeniously said---By refusing to conform you express a stronger feeling agt the Church than by conformg you wod declare in favour of it  And you in that depart from the central position of indifference yo wish to stand in---Certainly  I am swayed more by considers of the judgment of others than I am by my own---And were my Brother Mr Rutt Mr Nash &c to give their sanction I shod be shaken greatly; for I do not think I am of necessity to consider myself as testifying a falshood. My Opinions wod not be mistaken by anyone who knows me, the very meanness of the inducemt wod occasion itself to be known. Still I wish to be removed from the conflict in wch I shod be involved ….[35]

By the close of 1823, Robinson was no longer debating his position as a Dissenter and was clearly showing signs of overcoming his religious “indifference.”  It was about this time that Robinson was introduced to the preaching of Edward Irving, the dynamic Scotsman who was just beginning his extraordinary ministry in London.[36] After reading Irving’s For Judgment to Come, an Argument, a work, Robinson says, “written rather to alarm than persuade,” he was struck by the difference between Irving’s work and another religious work he had just finished reading, John Woolman’s Journal. Woolman, an American Quaker, possessed a “beautiful soul” and his Journal was “a perfect gem,” reflecting his religion of love.  If Irving’s orthodoxy exuded a spirit of fear and judgment, Woolman’s “whole existence and all his passions were love! If one could venture to impute to his creed, and not to his personal character, the delightful frame of mind which he exhibited, one could not hesitate to be a convert.  His Christianity is most inviting,¾it is fascinating.”[37] In the spring of 1824, Robinson presented Irving with a copy of Woolman’s Journal.  The effect upon Irving appeared to be negligible, for in November 1825, after hearing Irving preach on “Justification by Faith,” Robinson could only lament in his diary, “That which [Irving] calls religion and the gospel is a something I have a repugnance to. I must, indeed, be new-born before I can accept it. But his eloquence is captivating.”[38] By this time, Robinson understood that his rejection of the doctrines of original sin, the atonement, and eternal punishment placed an insurmountable barrier between himself and those who professed more orthodox views, such as Robert Hall, Edward Irving, and even his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.[39] Even the celebrated Scottish preacher, Thomas Chalmers, came under similar criticism.  After hearing him preach several times during a tour of Scotland, Robinson noted in his diary, “I admired him highly, ranking him with Robert Hall; but I heard him once too often, for in his final sermon he affirmed the doctrine of original sin in its most offensive form.”[40]

Robinson’s growing desire to discover the essence of true religion was severely tested by his new friendship with the aging poet/engraver William Blake. The portions from Robinson’s diary and reminiscences that concern Blake focus almost entirely upon the latter’s religious opinions, which Robinson thought genuinely sincere though highly bizarre.  Most of Blake’s “peculiar sentiments,” as Robinson termed them,[41] revealed his striking heterodoxy, an odd mixture of Platonism, Spinozism, and Christianity, centering upon his beliefs in the duality of spirit and matter, the divinity of man, and the eternality of God. According to Blake, the natural world was evil and in league with the Devil, little more than an illusion and a distraction.  The spiritual world, on the other hand, was ultimately real and good. During a conversation about the nature of the Devil, Robinson observed that he had thought the Manichaean doctrine a “rational one,” to which Blake assented, even suggesting that “he did not believe in the omnipotence of God.  The language of the Bible on that subject is only poetical or allegorical.” To Robinson’s great surprise, however, Blake immediately “denied that the natural world is anything.  It is all nothing & Satan’s empire is the empire of nothing.”[42] Despite Blake’s dualism, he was hostile to Plato and thought Wordsworth a Platonist and a pagan but not a Christian, for Blake was convinced Wordsworth did not truly believe in the Bible as divine scripture.[43]  According to Robinson, Blake believed he had been commissioned by God to become a divine artist, and it was this confidence in his mystical union with the divine that so fascinated Crabb Robinson.[44]  In a February 1826 letter to Dorothy Wordsworth, Robinson attempted to assess Blake’s religious opinions, especially in relation to Wordsworth’s poetry: 

Now according to Blake Atheism consists in worshiping the natural world, which same natural world properly speaking is nothing real, but a mere illusion produced by Satan.  Milton was for a great part of his life an Atheist, & therefore has fatal errors in his Paradise Lost which he has often begged Blake to confute. Dante (tho’ now with God) lived & died an Atheist.  He was the slave of the world & time  But Dante & Wordsw. In spight of their Atheism were inspired by the Holy Ghost, & Wordsworth’s poems, (a large proportion at least) are the work of divine inspiration.  Unhappily he is left by God to his own illusions, & then the Atheism is apparent.[45]

After several discussions with Blake prior to his death in 1827, Robinson could only wonder whether he would ever be able to “make any progress in ascertaining [Blake’s religious] opinions & feelings.”[46] During the 1830s, Robinson began to assume an ever-increasing public role in the affairs of English Dissenters, especially the Unitarians. At the behest of his friend Robert Aspland, Robinson became a member of the Unitarian Association, a member of the Unitarian Non-Con Club in 1837,[47] and a regular contributor to Aspland’s Unitarian magazine, the Christian Reformer, by 1838.  Robinson also began to take a great interest in Dissenting education, playing a major role in the formation and ongoing governance of the newly formed London University.  Writing to Wordsworth in 1836, Robinson makes some interesting comments about the “merits and demerits of Disenters” and Dissenting education in relation to their counterparts in the Established Church:

The Test and Corporation Acts forced the Dissenters into a sort of hostility against the church.  The repeal of those laws has already produced a formal separation of the three bodies amongst the Dissenters.  They would be quite annihilated by their admission to the Universities.  The worst enemies to the Church are those who have no religion whatever, and pretend to belong to it, merely from political motives.  What with the fanatics of faith—the Calvinistic evangelicals … and the fanatics of High-Church formalism … and the people who want to save their pockets and plunder the Church merely from mercenary motives, the wise and conscientious Churchman will recognize conscientious and liberal Dissenters as enemies far less dangerous.  Indeed, they ought not to be enemies at all….[48]

Robinson’s desire to be “religious” demanded not only integrity in his social, ecclesiastical, and political life, whether among Dissenters or those of other persuasions, but also confidence, both intellectually and emotionally, in a rational Christianity.  His quest for such a faith was greatly aided by his discovery in January 1839 of Isaac Taylor’s Physical Theory of Another Life.[49] a work that strengthened Robinson’s “belief in a future life” by enabling his “imagination” to realize it more fully than he had ever known before.  “It does not leave heaven to be thought of as a spot for ecstatic enjoyment in the love and worship of God,” Robinson writes in his diary, “which to cold natures like mine gives no warmth; but a field is opened on which the mind can rest with hope.”[50] He describes the book to his brother, Thomas, as

a work of pure speculation, but rich in thoughts and in imaginations, which are not given presumptuously as truths; he does not reason from Revelation, but to it; that is, shows that all he imagines as possible is compatible with it.  He says it will not please those who think of heaven as a place where angels are engaged in ecstatic contemplations of God, for he supposes, in the other life, analogous occupations, and a scheme of duties arising out of an expansion of our powers.[51]

It was this emotional and intellectual assurance of faith that Robinson, now approaching his fifty-fifth year, had been seeking for much of his adult life but from which, as he so acutely perceived in 1823, he was still being “pushed back by an invisible power.”[52] “Oh, how earnestly do I hope that I may one day be able to believe,” he writes after finishing Taylor’s book.  “But I feel the faith must be given me; I cannot gain it for myself. I will try, but I doubt my power energetically to will anything so pure and elevated.”[53] Taylor’s theological “speculations,” Crabb relates to Thomas Robinson,

are precisely of the kind that most interest you; and unless years have too hardly ossified your mind (to use a favourite image of Goethe), will renew the pleasure which Priestley’s metaphysics afforded you forty years ago.  At least, as for myself, I can say that they have delighted me as much as Godwin and Hume delighted me forty years ago, notwithstanding their highly religious and even orthodox character.[54]

In the mid-1840s, Crabb Robinson began attending the Essex Street Unitarian Chapel where his old friend, Thomas Madge (1786-1870), the former Unitarian minister at Bury St. Edmunds and Norwich and a devoted admirer of Wordsworth, had recently succeeded Thomas Belsham as pastor. During his days as a barrister, when Robinson worked the Norwich circuit, he often called on Madge, usually to discuss “the productions of their favourite poet.”[55] Madge was “a Unitarian of the old school,” Walter Bagehot once wrote, “with as little mystical and transcendental in his nature as any one who ever lived.”[56] Madge’s fundamental approach to biblical exigesis and traditional Unitarian doctrine and his straightforward preaching style endeared him to Robinson, who found himself often mediating in his later years between traditional Unitarian theology and the extreme liberal theology emerging in America through the efforts of Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others. Madge was one of the few Unitarian ministers of his day who occasionally received praise from the usually vituperative orthodox reviewers.  In a February 1845 review of Madge’s Lectures on Puseyism, a writer for the Eclectic Review, though clearly at odds with Madge’s Unitarianism, was nevertheless grateful to hear Madge

speak as if all opinions were not exactly alike, refer with respect to Scripture, as possessing some authority, and as bold enforce the duty of thinking wisely as maintain the right of thinking independently, is no small treat after that to which we have been used as the teaching of not a few of his most gifted brethren.  Mr. Madge, however, is not ashamed of these old-fashioned ideas, and he clothes them in language clear, correct, elegant, and well adapted both to express and to commend them.[57]

Madge’s “old-fashioned ideas” became clear in his funeral sermon for Crabb Robinson’s friend, Robert Aspland, Unitarian minister at the Gravel-Pit congregation in Hackney and editor of the Monthly Repository.  Madge argued that some within the Unitarian denomination were preaching doctrines

subversive of the very foundations of our Christian faith.  I confess, my brethren, that I understand not the Christianity which is disrobed of its miraculous vesture.  A gospel without the sanction of divine authority, without the impress of a supernatural origin, unencircled by the radiance of a celestial light, without the glory of the resurrection, without the triumph of the ascension, without the descent of the Comforter, would be no gospel to me … I avail myself of this solemn occasion strongly to protest against the justice, against the propriety, of placing under the same denomination, and of calling by the same name, parties differing so entirely and fundamentally as to the authoritative character of the Christian religion.… Take from Christianity that divine sanction and testimony which miracles alone can impart, and it is like taking the jewel from the casket, the soul from the body.[58]

By 1845 Crabb Robinson, though comfortable within this more “orthodox” wing of the Unitarian denomination, was nevertheless far more reticent than Madge to divide over theological differences. In March 1845, the Christian Reformer continued its campaign against the ultra-liberals, publishing a short excerpt from Thomas Belsham’s  “Definition of the Word Christian.”  Belsham, a Unitarian minister with whom Robinson had had a nearly fifty-year connection, writes,

To believe in the Christian revelation, is to believe that Jesus of Nazareth, the greatest of all the prophets of God, was commissioned by God to reveal the doctrine of a future life, in which virtue will find a correspondent reward, and vice shall suffer condign punishment; and, that of this commission he gave satisfactory evidence by his resurrection from the dead … he who does not believe that Jesus was commissioned to teach the doctrine of eternal life, or who denies his resurrection from the dead, is not a Christian.  He may, for any thing that appears, be a learned man, a wise man, and a good man; but he cannot, in propriety of language, be called a believer in Christ.[59] 

    Robinson countered Belsham’s remarks with his own essay entitled, “Who is a Christian,” which appeared in the Christian Reformer in February 1846. Here Robinson sought to find a middle ground between the extremes of the “sacramental” test for Christians being advocated by the Anglo-Catholic and High Church Puseyites, the orthodox “doctrinal” tests desired by the Calvinistic Dissenters, and the relatively few foundational beliefs revered by the conservative Unitarians.  Robinson proposed instead a “practical” test based on one’s actions or “character,” not a liturgy or creed. He argues that the Unitarian who espouses

the system promulgated by Dr. Priestley or Dr. Channing, would not hesitate to say, The God I worship is not the God of John Calvin.  His gospel is in my eyes no gospel.  It announces no glad tidings, but is the most frightful denunciation of misery to the human race that was ever proclaimed by lunatic or fanatic.  Hence it follows that, in the college or lecture-room in which dogmatic theology is taught, the Professor must of necessity deny the Christian character to the teacher of the opposite system, as in the middle ages Pope and Anti-pope reciprocally excommunicated each other.[60]

Thus, the question became, Should conservative Unitarians mimic the orthodox Dissenters and withhold fellowship from more liberal Unitarians, such as the American Theodore Parker, or even refuse, as one Independent minister had done, to recognize Parker as a Christian?  Robinson argued they should not, a position typical of the tolerance and moderation he consistently practiced in matters of faith. Whoever strives “to exhibit in his life all that Christ taught as the end of his instruction,” Robinson contends,

might fairly claim the Christian name, notwithstanding his avowed denial of the claims set up for Christ as, in a peculiar sense, the only Son of God and the especial Messenger of his will. This, in fact, is what is claimed on behalf of Mr. Theodore Parker and the other deniers of the Christian miracles.  It is contended that perfect acquiescence in Christ’s morals, and a recognition of the transcendent excellences of his character, --moral excellences, we mean, as distinguished from supernatural powers and the assumption of a superhuman authority,-- are all that is required to give a just title to the Christian name.[61] 

Robinson continued his defense of a “practical” Christianity in his short translation of Lessing’s “The Testament of St. John,” which appeared in the Christian Reformer in April 1846. The essence of John’s apocryphal final testament to his church at Ephesus was simply, “Children, love one another.”[62] In this short dramatic exchange between two friends, the primary speaker raises two important questions: first, “Is Christian charity, then, not the Christian religion?”  and second, Is it more difficult to “accept and acknowledge the Christian faith, or exercise Christian charity?”[63]  The point of Lessing’s  “Testament,” which Robinson first read during his time in Germany some forty years earlier, was more pertinent than ever: those who demonstrate Christian charity should be, above all others, allowed the name of Christian. 

The majority of Robinson’s contributions to the Christian Reformer concerned questions of religion, not literature, and most with issues affecting Unitarians in particular.  One article, which appeared in March 1847,[64] dealt with the proposal to establish a Unitarian college in connection with London University, an effort that eventually led to the removal of Manchester New College to Gordon Square in London, now the home of Dr. Williams’s Library. Many promoters of this new institution wanted the students and faculty to be distinctively Unitarian. Robinson thought this an unwise idea, arguing instead that the school should be “unsectarian.”[65] Robinson, however, did not wish to imply that the institution could not therefore teach “definite and well-ascertained principles” of Unitarianism, for “though the institution in prospect cannot be established for Unitarians, yet in the nature of things it cannot but be the institution of Unitarians.”[66] That same year he took George Dawson (1821-76), popular minister of the Church of the Saviour in Birmingham, to task for comments Dawson had made in his recent pamphlet, “The Demands of the Age upon the Church.”[67] Dawson claimed that the primary concerns of the contemporary church were “freedom of thought, brotherhood, equality and unity,” and not doctrines or creeds.[68] “Let the sects endeavour to keep up their little systems of theology, in spite of the change of things,” Dawson contended. As for his church, however, they would “subordinate theology to religion; teach what faith truly is; and proclaim divinity of being to be the end to be gained.  We have no wish to keep up any particular theological system.” To Robinson, such statements merely illustrate “the mischief of rhetorical amplification, by which ingredients of unequal value are blended together.” He doubted “whether, without a particular theological system … a church of any kind” could be duly constituted and effectively function.[69] He also rejected the notion that religious sects “propagate doctrinal peculiarities,” proposing instead that “everything in the intellect that is of value is a doctrinal peculiarity.”[70] “Sectarian, as a term of reproach,” Robinson writes, “should be applied only when the sectary attaches more importance to that in which he differs from other Christians, than to that which they have in common.  Except in opposition to this error, the claim of being unsectarian,” as Dawson had boasted, was “most arrogant,” for it assumed “that the totality of Christianity” existed in his congregation and “in them alone.”[71] “A church in which no opinions at all are allowed,” Robinson continues,

or all are deemed alike indifferent, can only resemble an American revival or Methodist love-feast.  Sentiment and sensation must reign supreme … With all this, we do not mean to insist that opinion, which is the result of the exercise of the discursive understanding, constitutes the whole of the spiritual intercourse among men.  A religion of mere opinions or notions would be worthless.  We freely admit that, without piety and the purest affections, mere thought would be inert and dead.  We acknowledge that these constitute the holiest portion in the structure of the Christian mind; they are the salt by which churches are preserved from corruption; but thought must still be the staple of intellectual intercourse among church-members; and it would be as absurd to suppose that that intercourse could be maintained by the mere flow of sentiment and feeling, as that a meal could be made of seasoning.[72] 

He returned to this same subject in April 1849 in an essay critiquing a popular phrase used by Liberals, in necessariis unitas; in dubiis libertas; in omnibus caritas.[73]  As to the first phrase, he agreed that “all rational beings ought to unite in maintaining all the truths that are necessary to the well-being of men.  But then what are necessary? There’s the rub! And in this there will be a universal and interminable warfare.”[74] Robinson contends that the second phrase, a freedom to think as one pleases about all doubtful matters, “means nothing,” for again, different groups will never agree even on this.  The “Church-Christian” will say, “Where the church is silent, anybody may speak.”  The “Bible-Christian” will say, “Any thing may be said that does not contradict Scripture.”[75] He believes the third phrase, “in all things charity,” to be the “quintessence of hypocrisy, when it is recollected that religious persecution has always been pompously proclaimed to be an act of Christian love.”  “How utterly without meaning …,” he writes, “is the word that ought to import Christian love, Caritas, which without violence may be conscientiously applied to acts otherwise of the deepest atrocity, and most repugnant to the religion professed by those who perpetrate them!”[76] Robinson could find examples of such intolerance and hatred in his own day, as evident in his 1839 review of a sermon included by Christopher Wordsworth, at that time Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, in a new book on Christian polemics designed for newly trained ministers.[77] According to Robinson, one sentiment runs throughout the sermon: “that every variety of dissent from the Establishment is to be deemed the work of the devil himself in person.  And all forms of scorn, hatred and contempt, are systematically impressed on young divines by the Master of the most liberal College of the least illiberal English University, towards all Christians without the narrow limits of his own Establishment.”[78] To Robinson, such hypocrisy was endemic to the Anglican Church for, despite its ostensible role as a unifying via media among England’s numerous religius sects, Anglicanism professed two “irreconcilable” principles¾the acknowledged authority of the Church in controversies of faith, and the right of private judgment¾two principles which made the Anglican bishops at the time of the Reformation “manifestly guilty of the enormous sin of schism …”[79] No sooner had the Anglicans opened the door to the Reformation grounded upon this right of private judgment, than they set about closing that door, establishing a climate of conflict with Dissenters thereafter. “It is not possible,” Robinson writes in 1843, “for Churchmen to hate the Dissenters, Popish and Protestant, more cordially than they do one another at this moment.”[80]

    Robinson soon found an unfortunate victim of this “unchristian” spirit in the protagonist of J. A. Froude’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Nemesis of Faith, which Robinson reviewed in May 1849.[81] Froude (1818-94), formerly a member of the Oxford Movement and a disciple of John Newman, had subsequently fallen under the spell of Thomas Carlyle and become a skeptic, resulting in his forced resignation from Exeter College, Oxford.  His book depicts the depths of despair into which his main character, Markland Sutherland (patterned after Froude) falls into over the loss of his faith and resulting rejection by his orthodox friends.  The book was sharply criticized for its contents and its obvious connection with Froude’s life.  Despite his disagreement with the final state of the protagonist’s mind, Robinson did not believe the book or author deserved the scorn that had been cast upon them. Concerning the protagonist’s rejection of the orthodox doctrine of the Atonement, a doctrine he and Robinson had once accepted but now find “hostile to common sense and to the moral sense,” Robinson contends that Unitarian writers have made similar judgments for more than a century.[82]  Besides Froude’s final position on the Incarnation and the humanity of Christ,[83] Robinson was also pleased with the protagonist’s rejection of the orthodox doctrine of “the eternal misery of the condemned.” “To know that one single creature is in that dreadful place,” Sutherland confesses, 

would make a hell of heaven itself … I believe that fallen creatures perish, perish for ever; for only good can live, and good has not been theirs: but how durst men forge our Saviour’s words, ‘eternal death,’ into so horrible a meaning?[84] 

Robinson counters Sutherland’s loss of faith with the emotionally satisfying, intellectually stimulating faith he had finally achieved within the confines of a more tolerant Unitarianism:

We have laid the book down with a strengthened sense of the evil of that generally-received system called Orthodox or Evangelical Christianity, which can by its hateful character turn a mind so constituted as Mr. Froude’s is from the impartial contemplation and consequent love of real Christianity, of which he certainly knew nothing in his youth, when impressions were permanent and influential…. A knowledge of the sad tendency of orthodoxy to repel from the church of Christ the purest and the tenderest of mankind, constitutes the strongest reason why Unitarians should strenuously exert themselves to make their doctrine known.  As to those who are satisfied with their orthodox faith, the Unitarian has little inducement to strive for their conversion, since he does not believe in the guilt of involuntary error.  It is for the sake of such men as Froude, whose work does not betray one ignoble thought, one ungenerous feeling,—in whom the love of truth and of mankind is manifest.  We cannot think him to be in an healthy state of mind, and we should not willingly entrust to his care the training up of youth, with his gloomy views of human life; but we do not withhold from him our esteem, nor should we withdraw from him our friendship.[85]

In the late 1840s, Robinson began attending occasionally upon the ministry of the liberal Anglican F. W. Robertson (1816-53), recently installed at Trinity Chapel in Brighton, at one point referring to him as “the best preacher I ever saw in a pulpit,”[86] a remarkable statement considering his familiarity with Robert Hall, Edward Irving, Thomas Madge, and so many other preachers of his day.  He first met Robertson in Heidelberg in November 1846, when both men were on extended holidays in Germany. Robinson was immediately impressed with the young minister, noting in his diary, “He is liberal in his opinions; and though he is alarmed by the Puseyites, he seems to dislike the Evangelicals much more.  I like him much.”[87] Robinson may also have been influenced by the young preacher’s high appreciation for German literature and England’s poet laureate, William Wordsworth. While visting Brighton in October 1847, Robinson attended Robertson’s chapel, noting in his diary that the young preacher was “already popular, and had stirred all who came to hear him,” yet he was keenly aware that Robertson’s liberalism would soon “make him many enemies.”  Robinson returned the next Sunday and was forced to stand in the gallery for both the morning and afternoon services, declaring nevertheless that  “the morning discourse was one of the best I ever heard.”[88] Like Robinson, Robertson adhered to certain foundational beliefs of the Christian faith at the same time that he refused to grant any permanent validity to traditional denominational creeds. As his biographer Stopford Brooke put it, Robertson

insisted on the historical reality of the Life of Christ.  He preached those facts as the foundation of all spiritual life and he held that with the loss of the reality of the incarnation, the childhood, the temptation, the daily life, the miracles, the death, and the resurrection of Christ, we should lose Christianity.  In this he differed … from all forms of negative theology; and, at the same time … he differed from every form of theology which seeks to reduce all minds to one mode of doctrinal conception.  For he rested on a Life, not on a system ….[89]

Robertson, like Crabb Robinson, took both Liberals and Evangelicals to task for their intolerance. To Robinson, Robertson’s preaching was clear and rational.  “I never heard him without having some stumbling-block removed,” he later remarked, “and doctrines that appeared to me absurd in the orthodox system shown to be in harmony with eternal reason and truth.”[90]  Robinson probably attended Robertson’s lecture on Wordsworth before the Atheneum Club in February 1853, only a few months before the minister’s death. Accused of ignoring Wordsworth’s early pantheism and disparaging the High Church movement, Robertson’s public response evoking toleration and love could easily have come from the pen of Crabb Robinson. “To affirm, whatever may be taught by our savage polemics,” declared Robertson,

whether Tractarian or Evangelical, that the new commandment is not this¾ ‘that ye hate one another,’ and that discipleship to Christ is proved more by the intensity of love for God than by the vehemence of bitterness against error is with me a desire too deep, too perpetual, and too unsatisfied to have allowed the possibility of my joining even for one moment in the cowardly cry with which the terrors and the passions of the half-informed are lashed by platform rhetoric into hatred of High Churchism.[91] 

On one point, Robinson and Robertson did not agree, and that involved the furor that arose in England in 1851 over the alleged “papal aggression” of Pope Pious IX, a controversy that led to Robinson’s final contribution to the Christian Reformer.[92] English Catholics had for more than three centuries been without a national hierarchy.  Since the reign of James II, Catholics in England had been without a national hierarchy, led instead by a small group of “vicars apostolic.”  In 1847 the English government made an overture toward opening diplomatic relations with the Vatican.  After consultation with the English church, the Pope issued a papal brief on 29 September 1850 in which he proclaimed the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England, appointing Dr. Nicholas Wiseman as Archbishop of Westminster and leader of the Catholics in England. In Wiseman’s inaugural pastoral letter to the Catholics of England, he declared that “The great work … is complete; what you have long desired and prayed for is granted.  Your beloved country has received a place among the fair Churches, which, normally constituted, from the glorious aggregate of the Catholic Communion; Catholic England has been restored to its orbit in the ecclesiastical firmament, from which its light has long vanished…”[93]  The majority of Anglicans and Dissenters, however, took these words to mean the imposition of Catholic authority over all of England, even though the Pope’s intent had been only to signify new leadership to the Catholic population. On 4 November Lord John Russell, the Prime Minister, sent a letter to the Bishop of Durham denouncing the papal action and suggesting retaliation by the government.  “No foreign prince or potentate,” Russell wrote, “will be at liberty to fasten his fetters upon a nation which has so long and so nobly vindicated its right to freedom of opinion, civil, political and religious.”[94] Anglicans and orthodox Dissenters, for the first time since the Glorious Revolution, formed a united front in denouncing the pope’s actions, which they viewed as an overt attack upon the authority of the Queen and English sovereignty. Much of the real fervor behind the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill of 1851, on the part of Anglicans, had more to do with the growth of Puseyism and Tractarianism within the English church than the apparent assault on royal power and prerogative. The orthodox Dissenters, given their inbred dislike of Catholic doctrine and the church’s practice of intolerance, needed little provocation to rise up against the Roman church.  The Unitarians, however, and their Liberal friends of various persuasions, remained largely passive, believing that the ideal of religious liberty, if it ever was to become a reality in England, required equality for Catholics as well as Protestants. Robertson, though an Anglican, was part of that Liberal minority, writing in early 1852:  “What appals me is to see the way in which people, once liberal, are now recoiling from their own principles, terrified by the state of the Continent, and saying we must stem the tide of democracy, and therefore support the Conservatives.”[95]

One of those “recoiling” Liberals was Crabb Robinson, and in his article on this controversy took a position at odds with his friends as well as his own long-held opinions on civil and religious liberty. As much as he disliked the narrowmindedness of the orthodox Dissenters, Robinson declared that his  “sympathies” in this instance were “with that national instinct which chalks ‘No Popery’ on our pavements and walls, than with the clerical dissertations which end in indifference, if not approbation, of giving to the Pope of Rome concurrent jurisdiction with the Queen of Great Britain in the ecclesiastical demarcation of her dominions.”[96] According to Robinson, Unitarian sermons on the papal aggression were “sectarian and selfish” and failed to address the most pressing question, “How will this measure affect the nation or community at large?”[97]  As much as he disliked the Anglican church for its perceived intolerance and arrogance, Robinson nevertheless argued that it was dangerous for England’s national church to be weakened by a new Catholic hierarchy.  Robinson’s eighteenth-century heritage among the orthodox Presbyterians of Bury St. Edmunds was never more evident than in this controversy. The “Church of Rome,” he writes,

is an establishment of pure despotism, skilfully framed as to be secure from any other opposition than that of separation.  The infallibility which is inherent in the Church is not an inert principle, but may be called into action at any moment, for it has a living organ in its Head, the Pope, whose announcements, as such Head, are also infallible.  This, the theoretical perfection of the Church of Rome, constitutes at the same time its malignity.  It suffers no contradiction; wherever the Church has spoken, resistance is impossible; private judgment is unknown.  When the oppression arising from this state of mental slavery became intolerable, and a successful rebellion ended in the establishment of independent and reformed churches, the separation was justified by an enumeration of supposed false doctrines, corruptions and abominations, with which I have now nothing to do. The ony material question is, What in this most important particular is the character of the English Church? Here I observe a uniform inadvertence in all these sermons, &c., to this great fact, that though there are in the Church many Popish elements, these are to a great degree rendered inoperative by the counteracting operation of the Protestant element.[98] 

That “element” was the right to free inquiry, which, though not always practiced by the Anglican church, was nevertheless a vital part of its Protestant tradition. Thus, to ignore the history of the two churches--one upholding free inquiry, the other forbidding it--and to argue, as the Unitarians were doing, that to oppose the advances of the Catholic church in England was to oppose the ideals of civil and religious liberty and a much needed reformation in the Anglican church, was tantamount, according to Robinson, to overlooking Catholicism’s essential “character of obtrusive insolence.”  How could his Unitarian friends be so historically blind as not to know that “one [church] is the idol of the nation, erected by the national will; the other is an insolent imposition upon the nation by an Italian priest.”[99]

In this instance, Crabb Robinson would find himself uncharacteristically on the losing end of an argument, for history would eventually vindicate the more liberal position of F. W. Robertson and Crabb’s Unitarian friends.  After Robertson’s death in 1853, Crabb began attending the Unitarian chapel at Little Portland Street, where J. J. Taylor and James Martineau were co-ministers.  Before long, however, his increasing deafnes prevented him from following the pulpit discourse, and his attendance became less frequent.  The Dissenting chapel, however, had played a significant role throughout Robinson’s life, from the Presbyterian chapel of his childhood days in Bury St. Edmunds to Robert Aspland’s Gravel Pit Chapel in Hackney, Thomas Madge’s Essex Street Chapel, and J. J. Taylor’s chapel in Little Portland Street. In fact, Robinson considered his contribution in procuring passage of the Dissenters’ Chapel Act in 1844 to be one of the greatest achievements of his life.  On a visit to Wattisfield in September 1858, Robinson returned to a chapel that held special significance for him.  After an absence of nearly seventy years, he sat once again in the Crabb family pew in the old Independent meetinghouse.  “It awakened old feelings,” he wrote in his diary, “which have no other value than that they connect the latter end with the beginning of one’s life.”[100]  It was at Wattisfield, studying under his uncle Crabb, that Robinson began his movement away from the orthodoxy of his family and church, a journy that would lead him first to skepticism and indifference and finally to a settled faith in a rational, tolerant Unitarianism. Along the way he would maintain an ongoing argument with certain tenets of orthodoxy¾original sin, the atonement, and eternal punishment for unbelievers—arguing that these doctrines were not rational or consistent with the nature of God.  Though it was important to him what one believed as a Christian, Robinson placed his greatest emphasis upon how one behaved as a Christian, and his harshest criticisms were always directed at those who violated the latter dictum.  Though Robinson’s desire in December 1823 to become truly “religious” may have been hindered at that time by the “negative” pull of an “invisible power” -- the legacy of his Calvinist upbringing -- the evidence of his life thereafter, recorded in his diary, letters, and published writings, reveals that he overcame that hindrance, finding peace in a faith that satisfied both the mind and the heart, a faith that was both rational and practical. 

1.     A draft of this essay was first present  at a Seminar on Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) at Dr. Williams’s Library, London, 21 April 2007, sponsored by the Centre for Dissenting Studies, Dr. Williams’s Library, in collaboration with Queen Mary, University of London. A final version of this essay can be found in the the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society 24 (2008), 112-34.

[1]Thomas Sadler, ed., Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, 3rd ed., 2 vols. (London and New York: Macmillan, 1872), vol. 1, p. 402.

[2]Ibid., p. 5.

[3]Ibid. For more on the historyof the these two congregations in Bury St. Edmunds, see T. J. Hosken, History of Congregationalism and Memorials of the Churches of our Order in Suffolk  (Ipswich, 1920), pp. 148-50.

[4]Sadler, vol. 1, p. 8.

[5]Ibid., p. 3.

[6]Ibid., p. 8.

[7]Sadler, vol. 1, p. 7.


[9]Ibid. See also Crabb Robinson [HCR] to Thomas Robinson [TR], 25 February 1792, letter 38, Crabb Robinson Correspondence, 1725-99, Dr. Williams’s Library, London.

[10]Robinson’s two uncles deserve some notice. John Ludd Fenner (1751-1833) attended the Dissenting academy at Daventry in 1766, where his fellow student was Thomas Belsham, who later ministered at the Gravel Pit Unitarian congregation in Hackney. Another fellow student was Habakkuk Crabb (1750-94); Fenner would marry Crabb’s sister in 1781. Crabb’s other sister, Jemima, married Henry Robinson of Bury St. Edmunds in 1766. Habakkuk Crabb, after somewhat unsuccessful pastorates of Independent congregations in Stowmarket and Cirencester, came to assist Fenner in his school at Devizes in mid-summer 1787, during the time that Crabb Robinson was attending. Habakkuk Crabb left Devizes in January 1789 for his home church at Watttisfield, where he would pastor until August 1790, having divided the congregation, unfortunately, over his Arianism.  He removed to the Independent congregation at Royston, where he remained until his death on Christmas day 1794. Fenner died at Taunton in 1833.  In 1795 Fenner became pastor of the Tancred Street Unitarian chapel at Taunton, where he would remain for the next twenty years. He maintained a school there as well.  See Christopher J. Wright,  “Crabb Robinson’s School Days: Daily Life in a late Eighteenth Century Unitarian School,” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society 16 (1975), pp. 1-11.

[11]Robinson was present  at meetings of the Dissenters in support of the ill-fated repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1790 and the abolition of the slave trade in 1792.

[12]Steevens, a native of Northampton, came to Colchester in late December 1773, and was ordained there in August 1774, remaining as pastor until his death in 1802.  During his tenure the church absorbed the non-unitarian General Baptists and the Sabbatarians in the area. In September 1791 the Colchester church was fairly large for a provincial Baptist congregation, consisting of 112 members.  See Edward Spurrier, Memorials of the Baptist Church worshipping at Eld Lane Chapel, Colchester (Colchester: F. Wright, 1889), pp. 28-29, 49.

[13]Quotation taken from Baker, p. 48.

[14]See “Brief Historical Sketch of the Church of Christ Meeting in Helen’s Lane, Colchester,” Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society 7 (1916-18), pp. 254-61. Harris, a Unitarian, came to Colchester in May 1783. According to a nineteenth-century history of the church (obviously written after the church had returned to orthodoxy), Harris continued the practices of his immediate predecessors who had “declared enmity to the doctrines of the Cross, kindled the flames of controversy, gave the people a relish for error, and planted the deadly Upas-tree of Socinianism on that spot which had seen the Holy and Divine Plant of Renown flourishing and affording both fruit and shade to weary and hungry souls.” The writer later adds that Harris “was a man of no religion, and therefore fell a prey to the temptations of sociality, and at his farewell adopted the folowing text as the ground of his discourse: ‘I was a reproach among all mine enemies, but especially among my neighbours, and a fear to mine acquaintance: they that did see me without fled from me’ (Psalm xxxi.2)” (ibid.,  pp. 257-58).

[15]He also heard the London Baptist minister, Abraham Booth, in May 1790, while he was still in Bury (Crabb Robinson Pocket Book Diary, 1790, Dr. Williams’s Library, London).

[16]HCR to TR, 18 October 1790, letter 37, Crabb Robinson Corresondence, 1725-99.


[18]Sadler, vol. 1, p. 9.

[19]Ibid., p. 21.

[20]Ibid., p. 9.

[21]Ibid., p. 18.

[22]Ibid., p. 21.

[23]HCR to TR, 9 May 1796; 10 November 1796; and 9 June 1797, letters 75, 80, 96, Crabb Robinson Correspondence, 1725-99.

[24]HCR to TR, 2 November 1797; HCR to TR, 18 December 1797, letters 99, 102, Crabb Robinson Correspondence, 1725-99. Shortly thereafter, Robert Hall declared Robinson a “devil” and requested his Royston friends—one of whom (William Nash) was a deacon in Hall’s congregation at St. Andrew’s Street in Cambridge—to avoid Robinson’s company, whose religious opinions Hall considered as little better than “practical atheism.” See HCR to TR, 4 February 1799; Robert Hall to HCR, 13 October 1798, letters 106, 118, Crabb Robinson Correspondence, 1725-99.

[25]Qtd. in John Milton Baker, Henry Crabb Robinson of Bury, Jena, The Times, and Russell Square  (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937), p. 75.

[26]Sadler, vol. 2, p. 144.

[27]Ibid., pp. 158-59. Benecke, whom Robinson first met in 1819, was a “philosopher, and of the most religious character: he professed orthodoxy, but he would not have been tolerated by our high-and-dry orthodox,” for he had a belief in the “final restoration,” which was “the redeeming article of his creed,” along with a belief in the divinity of Christ (ibid.,  vol. 1, p. 333).

[28]TR to HCR, letter 12, Crabb Robinson Correspondence, 1805-08.

[29]TR to HCR, 16 July 1805, letter 17, Crabb Robinson Correspondence, 1805-08.

[30]See Edith Morley, Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Lamb, etc.: Being Selections from the Remains of Henry Crabb Robinson (Manchester: University Press; London, New York: Longmans, 1922); The Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson with the Wordsworth Circle (1808-1866), 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927); Crabb Robinson in Germany 1800-1805: Extracts from his Correspondence  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929); Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and Their Writers, 3 vols. (London: J. M. Dent, 1938); The Life and Times of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: J. M. Dent, 1935).

[31]HCR to TR, 7 December 1805, letter 29, Crabb Robinson Correspondence, 1805-08.

[32]Robert Robinson (1735-90) was Robert Hall’s predecessor at the Baptist church in St. Andrew’s Street in Cambridge. See “Robinsoniana,” Christian Reformer, New Series, 1 (1845), pp. 89-92; 347-52.

[33]Sadler, vol. 1, p. 262.

[34]21 January 1838, Crabb Robinson Diary.

[35]Crabb Robinson Diary.

[36]Sadler, vol. 1, p. 397.

[37]Ibid., pp. 403, 404.

[38]Sadler, vol. 2, p. 6.

[39]After a visit to Highgate in June 1825, he writes that Coleridge’s “doctrines assume an orthodox air, but to me they are unintelligible” (ibid.,  p. 5).

[40]Ibid., vol. 1, p. 375.

[41]Edith Morley, ed., Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Lamb, etc.: Being Selections from the Remains of Henry Crabb Robinson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1922), p. 2.

[42]Ibid., pp. 7, 9.

[43]Ibid., pp. 3-4.

[44]Ibid., p. 5.

[45]Ibid., p. 15.

[46]Ibid., p. 8.

[47]In the fall of 1836 Robinson decided to join the Non-Con Club, an exclusive club in London consisting of about twenty Unitarians.  He writes in his diary, however, that he “almost regret[ted] becoming a member” of the club, for the majority “are cold men.”[47] His dislike apparently vanished, for in October 1837 he was unanimously elected a member of the Non-Con Club, which gave him much “pleasure as I have great respect for the class of persons (the Unitarians) of whom the club consists and have a particular regard for several especially Edgar and Richard Taylor, Madge and Aspland¾This is the only small club I belong to …” (15 October 1837, Crabb Robinson Diary).

[48]Morley, Blake, p. 175.

[49]London: Willliam Pickering, 1836. Taylor (1787-1865) was trained to be an engraver by his father, Isaac Taylor, Sr. (1759-1829).  The elder Taylor, originally from London, arrived at Colchester in January 1796 (just when a young Crabb Robinson was completing his apprenticeship), opening an engraving business as well as assuming charge of the local Independent congregation.  In 1810, the elder Taylor removed to Ongar, where he remained until his death, continuing his work as an engraver and Independent minister.  The younger Taylor, due to his poor health, gave up the engraving profession in 1812 and became a professional writer.  In his youth he published some poetry in conjunction with his two talented sisters, Ann and Jane Taylor, but he did not become known as a writer until he became a regular contributer to the Eclectic Review in 1818.

[50]Ibid., p. 12.

[51]Sadler, vol. 2, p. 216.

[52]Ibid., vol. 1, p. 402.

[53]Ibid., vol. 2, p. 212.

[54]Ibid., vol. 2, p. 216. Robinson was not the only person who found Taylor’s book enlightening.  In the spring of 1841, George Eliot, during a bout of sickness, also discovered the book.  She informed her friend, Martha Jackson, that while “nestled in my father’s armchair,” she “forgot headache cough and all their et ceteras in the rapture this precious book caused me, as intense as that of any school girl over her first novel.”[54] That June her letters to another friend, Maria Lewis, are dotted with references to Taylor¾“my jewel,” she terms him¾begging her friend “to pray with me that [this earthly body] may be purified and established in a world where kindred spirits will communicate without misunderstanding, and associate only to further their eternal progress in the knowledge adoration and performance of the will works and attributes of their common Father.”  See Gordon S. Haight, ed., The George Eliot Letters, 11 vols. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1954-78), vol. 1, pp. 93, 95, 98.

[55]Sadler, vol. 2, p. 271.

[56]See Edith Morley, ed., The Life and Times of Henry Crabb Robinson (New York: AMS Press, 1966 [orig. 1935]), p. 192.

[57]Christian Reformer 1 (1845), p. 183.

[58]Ibid., p. 163. The writer of the obituary for the Christian Reformer adds these remarks, to which Robinson would most likely have assented: “He who attempts to divest the Gospel of its miraculous character, by reducing miraculous to the rank of ordinary facts; he who aims at covering the Evangelical Narrative with the veil of Mythism; and he who distinguishes not between Christianity, as a Divine Message and Revelation to Man, and Christianity, in its application to the Conscience and spiritual frame of individual persons, labour, in our judgment, under great and dangerous errors; the tendency and effect of which are to impugn the records of God’s revealed Truth and Grace.  It is only by the cultivation of a habit of thinking clearly and definitely, by a just and well-proportioned regard to the exercise of all the faculties of our inward constitution, and by the diligent study of the Scriptures, that such mistakes can be obviated or removed” (pp. 163-64).

[59]Ibid., p. 262. Taken from Belsham’s A Summary of the Evidence and Practical Importance of the Christian Revelation, Discourse I, p. 5.

[60]“The Testament of St. John,” Christian Reformer, New Series, 2 (1846), p. 80.

[61]Ibid., pp. 80-81. Robinson was not above partisan feelings at times, but, as his long friendship with Wordsworth demonstrated, he could distinguish between the individual and his or her professed belief system when necessary. Writing to his brother Thomas from Rydal Mount on 23 January 1847, he declares, “I prefer Dissent to the Church, but I like Churchmen better than Dissenters … I am opposed to the pretensions of the High Church, but I like the Puseyites better than the Evangelicals.  In this respect also I have no doubt you feel as I do . . . We are perpetually misled when we suffer our dislike to persons to influence our conduct with respect to the principles which such persons profess.  When I say we, I mean all men.  I suspect that your dislike to the low-bred Rads of Bury, and mine to the intolerant Calvinistic Dissenters, has had somewhat more effect than it ought on both of us” (Sadler, vol. 2, p. 277).

[62]Ibid., p. 221.

[63]Ibid., p. 222.

[64]“Religious Endowment,” Christian Reformer, New Series, 3 (1847), pp. 145-47.  All his articles in the Christian Reformer were signed “H.C.R.”

[65]Ibid., p. 146.

[66]Ibid., p. 147.

[67]“Mr. Dawson and his Church of No Sect,” Christian Reformer, New Series, 3 (1847), pp. 742-45.

[68]Ibid., p. 742.

[69]Ibid., p. 743.

[70]Ibid., p. 744.



[73]“Big Words of Little Sense,” Christian Reformer, New Series, 5 (1849), pp. 219-21.

[74]Ibid., p. 220.


[76]Op. cit., p. 221.

[77]“Christian Polemics, Satan and Dr. South,” Christian Reformer  (1839), pp. 324-26.  The sermon was included in Christian Institutes, 4 vols. (London, 1837), edited by Christopher Wordsworth.

[78]Ibid., p. 325.

[79]“The Church and Religion,” Christian Reformer (1843), p. 700.

[80]“The Church and Religion,” p. 700.

[81]“The Nemesis of Faith,” Christian Reformer, New Series, 5 (1849), pp. 270-77. 

[82]Ibid., p. 274.

[83]Ibid., p. 275.

[84]Ibid., p. 276.

[85]Ibid., p. 277.  Other articles by Robinson in the Christian Reformer not cited elsewhere in this article, include “Coleridge on the Inspiration of the Scriptures,”  (1841), pp. 429-34; “Jean Paul and Coleridge,” New Series, 1 (1845), p. 675; “Original Letters of Dr. Geddes and Charles James Fox,” pp. 461-63; “The State of Religion of France,” New Series, 2 (1846): 257-62; “Pulpit Privilege,” pp. 375-77; “President Everett,” pp. 473-76; “Neander on Arnold and Blanco White,” pp. 667-73; “Review of A Vindication of Protestant Principles, by Philaleutherus Anglicanus,” New Series, 3 (1847), pp. 353-55; Goldsmid, New Series, 4 (1848), pp. 174-76; “Bishops Rundle and Hampden,” pp. 593-95; “Church Reaction by Means of Architecture and Archeology,” New Series, 5 (1849), pp. 20-22; “Why Infants Ought to be Damned,” pp. 413-14.

[86]Sadler, vol. 2, p. 340.  Robertson’s sermons were not published until after his death; his fame was furthered by Stopford Brooke’s popular biography, which first appeared in 1865.

[87]Quotation taken from James R. Blackwood, The Soul of Frederick W. Robertson, The Brighton Preacher (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947), p. 53.

[88]Ibid., p. 69.

[89]Stopford Brooke, Life and Letters of Frederick W. Robertson, M.A.  (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1868), pp. viii-ix.

[90]Quoted in Blackwood, p. 97.

[91]Blackwood, p. 166.

[92] See H.C.R., “Protest against the Unitarian Advocacy of Non-Resistance to the Pope’s Bull,” Christian Reformer, New Series 7 (1851), pp. 9-19.


[93]J. B. Conacher, “The Politics of the ‘Papal Aggression’ Crisis 1850-51,” CCHA, Report, 26 (1959), p. 14.


[95]Brooke, p. 394.

[96]H.C.R., “Protest against the Unitarian Advocacy of Non-Resistance to the Pope’s Bull,” Christian Reformer 7 (1851), pp. 9-19.


[97]Ibid., p. 10.

[98]Ibid., p. 11.

[99]Ibid., p. 16. In his essay, “The Church and Religion,” Robinson believed the Low Church would ultimately prevail against the Tractarians. “The Pusey controversy,” he writes, “has brought all the various disputes between the High and Low church to a head, and is leading to a crisis, the issue of which it wuld be presumptuous to anticipate.  If I may intimate what I expect, it is, that the Low party will prevail, and simply of this reason, that what is called practical good sense, and above all things, a regard to consequences, are qualities more generally found among men than stern logical correctnes and consistency” (p. 700).

[100]Ibid., p. 369.

[101]Ibid., p. 348.