16 September 1789

Robert Robinson, Chesterton, [near Cambridge], to Mary Hays, [Gainsford Street], 16 September 1789.1

 

Chesterton, Sept. 16, 1789


My Dear Miss Hays

      This day I received your favour of the 9th instant, and as I intend about 10 days hence to go into Berkshire by London, I write this to take with me and send you under cover. Know, my friend, that though I could justly and truly say much to you on the subject of personal esteem, yet I omit all, assuring you that what I value in you not being of the perishable kind, as far as I see, will not diminish but increase with years, and of course as the object magnifies, the esteem attached to it will increase. So much for the compliment: now to the business of yours.

      Thus it is, I have spent three years in attention to a History of the Baptists. I found it necessary to divide my plan into four parts. The first, I made a History of Baptism: the second, a History of Baptists in the Primitive Ages, the third a History of Baptists in the Middle Ages: the last a History of the same people from the Reformation to the present time. I have written three quarto volumes, the work being great, I lately resolved to publish the first volume only, being independent of the rest, and by way of trial whether a work of the kind would pay for printing. The publication of the other three will depend wholly on circumstances; but whether I ever print them or not, the first volume is intended for a complete History of Baptism.2

      Some time ago, I printed one sheet by way of specimen; but having no conveyance I could not send you one. These first principles, I trust, will enable you to unravel all the mysterious accounts you mention.

      How shall I enter upon speculative questions, now that I am correcting a proof-sheet and preparing more copy to send by post to my printer in London?

      Believe men, I am neither a Socinian nor an Arian.I do not know among what class of heretics to place myself. Sometimes I think I am a Paulianist or Samosaatenian,for I think Jesus a man in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells, and give him more dignity than they do who ascribe to him only a third part of the Deity. Years ago, reverence for great names misled me. I said after Clarkethere was a Scripture Trinity, and I would say so still if I could tell what I meant; and as I cannot, I cast that phrase also to the bats and moles. There is, there can be, only one First Cause, Jesus is his Son, his representative, and, if you please your God, – the vice-regent of the Supreme, whom you honour by honouring him. I do not think God ever proposed the question of the nature of Jesus to us to determine; it is a child of the schools, born in litigation and subsisting by it to this day, to the utter ruin of genuine piety and Christian benevolence.

      I have done answering vague scholastic questions for they lead into intricate and endless labyrinths. The sense of any passage of Scripture I am willing to discuss. By this distinction I save myself a deal of trouble.

      Pray, says one, do you believe Jesus Christ is God? I do and I do not. Pray do you believe the Atonement? Not your gross description of it, yet I cannot think all the passages that speak of the death of Christ are to be taken figuratively. In brief, I believe the Scriptures, the record that God hath given of his Son; but as for the rash questions which the schools in their great wisdom have started, be so good as settle them among yourselves and allow one disciple of Christ to sit at his feet, and be content with hearing his word and no more.

    Disputants here want me to take a side, and because I refuse to do so they represent me as a man void of all principles, to whom truth and error are alike indifferent. What I say of scholastic theology, that they apply to the Gospel of our Lord, – as if a man who held their wrangles indifferent, held the sacred truths of Revelation so. But these knight-errants of Orthodoxy are a fierce, calumniating generation and those I extremely dislike in them. If orthodoxy were alone in them, one would pity and pardon their nonsense; but when it is accompanied, as it mostly is, with a spirit of persecution, say what they will about faithfulness and zeal, it is and must be offensive to God and good men. I adore God so loving the world as to send his Son. I embrace him as an unspeakable gift; I believe his doctrine, trust his promises, copy his life and imbibe his disposition, and live in hope of the glory he has promised all his disciples. I have no doubts, and I want none of the reputation which this host of men lavish upon one another. The difference between them and us is, they represent us as the enemies of Christ, and treat us accordingly; but we take them to be babes in Christ’s family, patiently hear their babblings, and only will not suffer them to govern the family. What they are about you, I know not, but here they are the greatest gossips, the busiest censors, the most zealous calumniators in the county. I had rather believe all the heresies stirring than rob one man of his character or injure in any degree my fellow-creatures.

      By faith, Calvin, barbarous Calvin! burnt Servetus,and by faith, that false, drunken debauchee, Saint Augustine,obtained a good report; and the followers make nothing of a holy life, but, like the masters, cry up faith in their nostrum to heaven. In a free country, what occasion have we to be gulled so? Let us return to the purest ages, before such troubles of the world had uttered their oracles, and let the oracles of God be our faith, and the Life of Jesus our model of living. – On the darling topics of pulpit scolds I have nothing to say, except, take care in the crowd you do no mischief to your friends. Beware how you distribute sentences of damnation. Oh that you would altogether hold your peace! – it should be your wisdom. Such are my wishes for the biggest faith among my orthodox neighbours. I hope you have none like them. I wish you were here; I would burn this scratch and sit down at your feet, and you should catechize me. I perceive I have not replied as I ought to your letter. In truth, the papers before me have irritated me to haste, insomuch that I have not allowed myself time to mend my pen, and I only allow this to pass in order to prove my inclination to obey you; for assure yourself that I am &c &c

                        Robt Robinson


1 Only surviving text is from the Christian Reformer 11(1844), 943-44; Brooks, Correspondence 261-63. This letter belonged to the set held by Sarah Dunkin Wedd, who would have loaned them to E. F. Kell for publication in the Christian Reformer. It may be one letter did not return to her from Kell, but more likely one was given to a friend or relation as a gift. The above letter is the most important of the set as far as explicating Robinson's theology late in his life after he had moved away from some of the more orthodox tenets of the Particular Baptists. Thus, it would have been of considerable value to those who were writing about his at that time, such as Crabb Robinson, who published his "Robinsoniana" in the Christian Reformer one year after these letters, in February and June 1845 (89-92, and 347-52). 

Most of the material Robinson mentions here was published posthumously in one massive tome called Ecclesiastical Researches (Cambridge: Francis Hodson, 1792), with editorial assistance by William Frend (not yet known to Hays) and probably Dyer.  Once again, the subscription list published at the front of the volume was among the most impressive of its kind involving Dissenters in the 1790s. Mary Hays subscribed, listed in Gainsford Street, along with Mordecai Andrews, Captain Applegarth [sic] (most likely a relation of Hays), Samuel Brown, Miss Clapton of Royston (Crabb Robinson's future sister-in-law), John Dyer Collier (living then at Witney, Oxfordshire), William Curtis, John Disney, John Dunkin (listed at the Paragon, Surrey), Thomas Dunscombe of Coate (Mary Steele's future husband), George Dyer, John Prior Estlin (Hays's future pastor in Bristol), Joseph Jeffries Evans, Samuel Favell, Mr. Fenn (most likely the same Fenn who would be Mary Hays's landlord in Peckhan c. 1819), William Frend, Joseph Gurney and his son, John Gurney, of Walworth (they were members of the Baptist meeting at Maze Pond, Southwark), Henry Keene of Walworth (neighbor to the Gurneys and also a member at Maze Pond), Rev. Sampson Kingsford (later a friend of Mary and Elizabeth Hays), Theophilus Lindsey, Stephen Lowdell, Thomas Mullett, Robert Norton of Nailsworth (Mullett's brother-in-law), Joseph Pattisson of Malden (Crabb Robinson's friend and future relation), Richard Phillips of Leicester (later Hays's publisher in London at the Monthly Magazine), Joseph Priestley, Anthony Robinson, Samuel Rogers the poet, John Towill Rutt and Thomas Rutt (both former students at Ryland's academy in Northampton about the same time as John Dunkin), Henry Smithers (Keene's son-in-law), Mary Steele of Broughton (probably the only volume in which both Steele and Hays were subscribers, along with John Coltman, father of Elizabeth Coltman in Leicester), Gilbert Wakefield (Hays's soon-to-be pamphlet opponent), Thomas Walker of Manchester, Nathaniel Wedd of Cambridge (relation of two future husbands of two of Mary Hays's nieces and daughters of John Dunkin), and Hugh Worthington.  

3 W. J. Fox, in his sermon The Spirit of Unitarian Christianity (London: C. Fox and Co., 1824), set forth the three cardinal tenets of Unitarianism: (1) the doctrine of divine unity: ‘that there is one being or person, the Father, who alone is God, and to be adored; and whose dominion is sole, absolute, and universal’ (11-12); (2) the humanity of Christ: ‘that Jesus, the Messiah, the Messenger of the covenant, the author of our faith, the first-born from the dead, was of the human race, and like unto his brethren’ (12); and (3) the final universal restoration: ‘that the dispensation of grace with which his name is indissolubly connected, and which chiefly consists of the results of his teaching, sufferings, and resurrection, shall terminate in saving all that was lost, and bringing every rational creature to goodness and happiness’ (12). Arians would not have agreed with Fox’s second point, one of the central tenets of Socinianism; Arians argued Christ, though a subordinate messenger from God, was nevertheless pre-existent and divine.  Socinians, on the other hand, believed in a human Christ who became God’s chosen example for all mankind to follow. Unitarians, however, whether Socinians or Arians, were united in resisting all creeds and doctrinal tests, advocating a pure, simple, optimistic religion, one that expected its adherents to seek a moral perfection patterned after the life of Christ. Consequently, as Roland Stromberg contends, salvation was less the work of “divine grace” and more the result of “worthy conduct” (38).  “The Unitarians of this period," Stromberg adds, "accepted the Bible’s literal truth, and sought only to purge all subsequent accretions to it, in order to get back to the simplicity and clarity of early Christianity” (51). See Roland N. Stromberg,  Religious Liberalism in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954).

4 During the formation of the early church, Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch from 260-74 A.D., argued that Christ was a created being, not uncreated, who became like God and one with God but was never fully divine as was God the Father.  

5 Robinson's Plea for the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ (1776) was popular among the Particular Baptists and viewed then as a strong defense of Trinitarianism against the heterodox views of a writer like Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), philosopher and Anglican theologian whose The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712) set forth a moderate Arianism that Robinson argues against in his Plea. By the date of the above letter, however, Robinson's views had changed considerably in the direction of Clarke. 

6 Michael Servetus (c. 1510-55), a Spanish theologian and influence upon the English Unitarians, was burned at the stake at Geneva during Calvin's tenure as leader there for his anti-Trinitarian views of the nature of Christ. 

7 St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) led a famously immoral life prior to his conversion; he is still today the patron saint of brewers.