4 March 1789
Robert Robinson, Chesterton, [near Cambridge], to Mary Hays, [Gainsford Street], 4 March 1789.1
Chesterton Wedy March 4th 1789
Dear Miss Hayes
I owe you so many thanks that I know not where to begin. Your polite attention to my children gives us great pleasure, and Nancy, who is very delicate in her friendships, is, as Mrs Brown is, extremely gratified.2 You are one of the few, who most coincide with their views, which are far, very far, from those of the popular Londoners. Nancy has diverted and grieved us by informing us that one chief pulpit commandment is “Do not criticise!” By criticism they mean finding fault, and is not this curious? One person ascends the rostrum, and finds fault with five hundred hearers, at the same time prohibiting every individual to find fault with him! All people of any breeding abhor the rudeness of petulant and malicious fault-finding, but every one of good sense is at an equal distance from tame credulity, and knows how to judge of what is spoken with inoffensive modesty, and perfect good manners. Such self-important sacred men utter oracles, which they expect their hearers to receive with reverence, and they are offended when their hearers doubt what they affirm. Thus they murder free inquiry, and collect churches of believers, as they truly and emphatically style them, believers of they know not what, or why. My young folks have not so learned Christianity, they have been taught to set out on a mathematical principle, that is, Take nothing for granted.
I am obliged by your detail of sufferings, but they are too affecting to me, and harrow up my soul in wo[e]. I feel as I read, and seem to suffer step by step along with my afflicted friends. I have observed, however, before I met with it in Shakespeare, that –
“There is some soul of goodness in things evil
Would men observingly distil it out.”3 –
and I am of opinion that if it be good for mankind to bear the yoke, it is chiefly so by bearing it in their youth. Observe the most of those, who have grown to majority without any exercises of this kind. Absolute strangers to themselves, and to the world in which they live! The latent powers of their own minds unknown, diamonds in rocks unconvulsed. Strangers to the feelings of others, and never impregnated with sympathy, the ferment of the soul! Nothing so conducive to the knowledge of God, to the dignity of man, to the world in which we live, to that to which we go, as a smarting course of providential discipline, yet on the knowledge of these depends our safety. Well, the days are past. Let them be dated with the days before the flood.
The more I hear of the great religious world in town, the more content I am in obscurity. I have been a few past weeks writing sheet after sheet to some there against their ignorance and intolerance. There is in our congregation (for we receive all) a very worthy but very poor old minister who chose his last days should be spent with a people whom he esteems. The old man was advised to petition the baptist board for a share of that charity, which they annually assign to superannuated ministers. Instead of sending him charity they sent him faith, and informed him that they had made a law not to relieve any except they subscribed a creed, a human creed which they sent him, and the first article of which is, “there are three divine persons in the unity of the godhead.” Absolute nonsense! supported by tyranny over men’s consciences! The old man believes as they do, and he sent up a faith as sound as that of old Calvin himself, but he could not help boggling at the idea of a London lord over a country brother’s conscience. In this church we all hold inviolably the perfection of scripture without human additions, and for the rest the old man believes what he approves, and nobody troubles him, though nobody hardly believes with him, but we are only brethren, nobody plays Jupiter here. Did you ever see their book of “Rules and orders of the particular baptist fund”?4 The university have, unfortunately for the credit of the London particular baptists, got hold of it, and censure most severely this dominion over their country brethren. What possible right have five or six parsons in London to frame a human test for 260 country ministers, and their congregations? Are they less wise, less upright, less competent, less worthy of being trusted with pure scripture than those six great men, preachers only in blind alleys to the dregs of the populace? Pray excuse my warmth. Indignation at such preposterous dominion over conscience is a virtue in my opinion. Divine persons! yet they sing –
Great was the day, the joy was great,
When the divine disciples met.5
Is not this accuracy? Divine disciples, and a divine God! And such ignoramuses assume the seat and the tone of dictators! One of the articles for the old man to sign is “the doctrine of original sin.” Do not these wise divines (for they call themselves divines as well as their three persons) do they not know that there are twenty doctrines of the origin of evil? What then do they mean to require a man to profess to believe the doctrine of original sin? Such senseless stuff ought not to be criticised I allow. It is not their creed any more than their hats that we find fault with, it is their insufferable arrogance in imposing it that we object against. Are these men to ask government to repeal tests? Are these protestants contending for the sufficiency of scripture? My lords the bishops are better masters than they, for the bishops never offer five pounds for a slave, they bid much higher, and induct into the wealth and power of a kingdom for the doing what these poor crawling countrymen do for a place in the poor’s list. I have told them my mind, for which I dare say I shall be daubed all over with orthodox benedictions.
I hope, Madam, you will frequently commune with my dear Mrs Brown, and preserve her from the infection of your great city. I think she is clothed in armour of proof, but the subjection of a child of liberty to the sheepish tameness of a London believer, whose whole religion lies in believing all the parsons say, and in saying after them, is brought to pass under many godly pretences. If ever she sinks into credulousness and submission, I shall lose a christian communicative friend, and receive in lieu a lady’s maid, whose whole science is to courtesy, and her whole discourse, yes my lady, and no my lady. Such tame believers are not at all to my taste. I love the inquisitive, the reasoner, who never takes my sayso, and who wants to know the why, and the wherefore. Sometimes he convinces me, and sometimes I convince him, but we never look grave as if the world was at an end when we differ, and always part in perfect good humour and friendship.
After all, it is my opinion, the sourness of a bigot is nothing but a want of good breeding, though he, poor addle-headed creature, having never been admitted into good company, with the rudeness of a bear, and the stare of an ideot, imagines himself inspired by the celestial gods. His ideas are so sublime and his phrases so well-chosen, that none but a reprobate can differ from him! And yet – this same sober oracle is, not unfrequently, a fellow destitute of good manners and common sense! But they are all going to heaven, that is, they are going like old cats into the parlour to sit and purr6 about the fire! What else have they to say if they only granted that other mens creeds were true!
By this time, I am sure, my dear Miss Hayes will say, it is proper for you, why you rave! to depart. I think so too, and therefore with profound esteem for yourself and all your family, I take my leave, hoping I shall recover [from] this fit, and call some future day in a better temper.
Address: Miss Hayes
1 Misc. MS. 2160, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL; Brooks, Correspondence 258-61; Christian Reformer 11 (October 1844), 941-43.
2 Ann Robinson and her sister, Mary Robinson Brown, the latter now living permanently in London with her husband, Samuel Brown. See their letters to Hays in this collection.
3 Lines from Shakespeare's Henry V, Act 4, scene 1, l. 5.
4 The Particular Baptist Fund, established in 1717, raised monies from churches within the denomination for the support of small and economically-deprived congregations and their ministers. The managers of the Fund became increasingly aware of the inroads of various heterodoxies in many congregations within the denomination in the last quarter of the 18th century, and the Rules reflected that concern, mandating an adherence to the primary doctrines (such as the Trinity) expressed in the London Baptist Confession of 1689.
5 Isaac Watts, Hymn CXLIV ("The effusion of the spirit; or, The success of the gospel") from Hymns, Book II ("Composed on Divine Subjects"), in The Works of Isaac Watts, 9 vols (Leeds: Edward Baines, 1813 ), 9.191.
6 pur] MS