Coleridge and ‘the Truth in Christ’:
(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 19, Spring 2002, pp58-70)
Bristol in 1795 was the scene of Coleridge’s political and religious lectures, of his first meeting with Wordsworth, of his attack both on the slave trade and on the Pitt ministry’s ‘Gagging Bills’, and of his marriage. I remember my reaction when I first read those familiar lines in ‘Reflections on having left a Place of Retirement’, written in 1795:
I therefore go, and join head, heart and hand,
Active and firm, to fight the bloodless fight
Of Science, Freedom and the Truth in Christ.
I read them against the background of Coleridge’s 1795
political lectures, rather than linking them with The Watchman that he
would soon return to
Some of the imagery in Coleridge’s November lecture (published shortly afterwards as The Plot Discover’d) admittedly had a Biblical flavour. Thus the gagging bills had been ‘laid in the dunghill of despotism among the other unhatched eggs of the old serpent’ while the ‘rulers of the earth’ are warned that ‘it was ordained at the foundation of the world by the King of kings, that all corruption shall conceal within its bosom that which will purify; and THEY WHO SOW PESTILENCE MUST REAP WIRLWINDS.’  But Coleridge also drew imagery from contemporary understanding of electricity. Pitt’s bills threatened the propagation of truth, since the press will cease to provide communication within the realm. As a result of press censorship: ‘Every town is insulated: the vast conductors are destroyed by which the electric fluid of truth was conveyed from man to man, and nation to nation.’  I want to suggest that the truth Coleridge was championing in 1795 was Unitarian truth, coupled with demands for freedom from the constraints placed on Unitarians by the established church, and the insistence Unitarians placed on the unfettered spread of science which in the 1790s still meant simply knowledge.
The pursuit of
knowledge – ‘dare to know’ – was the rallying cry of the European
Enlightenment. But education was not an exclusively secular preoccupation.
John Prior Estlin, Unitarian minister at Lewin’s Mead,
on St Michael’s Hill, with the words: ‘Knowledge next to Goodness is the most valuable of all acquisitions.’ Although the public would not read Estlin’s published lectures until 1818, these addresses to schoolboys reflect his social and political concerns of earlier years. Ten years before, in 1808, Coleridge wrote to Humphry Davy (now no longer Dr Beddoes’s assistant at Dowry Place, Bristol, but Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution) explaining the nature of the new journal he proposed to edit, The Friend: ‘I do not write in this Work for the Multitude; but for those, who by Rank or Fortune, or official Situation or Talents and Habits of Reflection, are to influence the Multitude.’ 
identified the same need in the political lectures given in
Coleridge picks up the
same theme in his Lectures on Revealed Religion delivered in
Universal Equality is the object of the Messiah’s mission not to be procured by the tumultuous rising of an indignant multitude but this final result of an unresisting yet deeply principled Minority, which gradually absorbing kindred minds shall at last become the whole.
Despite Edmund Burke’s hostile rhetoric, the Unitarians were indeed ‘an unresisting yet deeply principled minority’ dedicated to acting as the leaven that was to Christianize society. In their political programme, as in Coleridge’s, Christian morality was the motivating force. And it was the same impetus that propelled him into giving a further lecture that summer, attacking the slave trade in the very city that had built its wealth on the traffic.
When a pessimistic
Thomas Clarkson arrived in
Estlin. According to Mrs Barbauld (‘the first Unitarian poet’ and Estlin’s biographer), ‘the goodness of God and the great practical duties of Christianity were his favourite themes.’  Estlin’s Evidences of revealed religion, the published version of a discourse delivered at Lewin’s Mead Chapel on 25 December 1795, was a robust reply to Paine’s Age of Reason. And it was Estlin whom Coleridge had asked that October to correct a draft of Religious Musings, explaining to Joseph Cottle that it was because of his own ‘implicit confidence in the soundness of [Estlin’s] Taste in compositions of the higher cast’. Two years later, when Estlin published his sermons on the causes of atheism, he quoted 15 lines from Coleridge’s Destiny of Nations as an epigraph. The lines Estlin selected begin:
And the chief freedom claimed is the freedom to worship God.
Uniquely among Protestant Dissenters, Unitarians were denied protection under
the so-called Toleration Act of 1689, which had formed part of the Revolution
Settlement. This exclusion from even the limited civic freedoms enjoyed
by other Dissenters was made even more explicit by the 1698 Blasphemy Act
directed against those who denied the Trinity. When Joseph
Priestley enlisted Estlin in a political campaign, it was to obtain signatures
on a petition in favour of an Unitarian Relief Bill
introduced into Parliament early in 1792. Priestley had written: ‘I
depend upon your activity to get it signed by as many as you can in
These insect reptiles, whilst they go on only caballing
and toasting, only fill us with disgust; if they go above their natural size,
and increase the quantity, whilst they keep the quality
of their venom, they become objects of the greatest terror. A
spider in his natural size is only a spider, ugly and loathsome; and his flimsy
net is only fit for catching flies. But, good God! Suppose a spider as
large as an ox, and that he spread cables about us; all the wilds of
That was Burke in May 1792, nine months before we went to
Meanwhile the Unitarian
opposition was deliberately and maliciously misrepresented. It was
perhaps unwise of Priestley to use the image of gunpowder in a sermon, thus
earning himself the nickname of ‘Gunpowder Joe’. But he spoke as a
chemist, discoverer of oxygen and an expert on combustion, and the sermon was
delivered on 5 November – a date commemorating
not only the failure of Guy Fawkes, but also the landing of the Protestant hero
William of Orange in
The present silent propagation of truth may be likened to those causes in nature, which lie dormant for a time, but which, in proper circumstances, act with the greatest violence. We are, as it were, laying gunpowder, grain by grain, under the old building of error and superstition which a single spark may inflame, so as to produce an instantaneous explosion.
These words were re-echoed in another Parliamentary debate – in the 1787 debate on a motion to repeal those statutes which excluded all Dissenters from public office, namely the Test and Corporation Acts. When the debate was published, it appeared that either Priestley had been misquoted or the speaker had been misreported. For the published account of the debate records that Sir William Dolben, quoting from Priestley’s gunpowder sermon, ‘stated that their silent propagation of the truth would in the end prove efficacious; for they were wisely placing, as it were, a train of gunpowder to which the match would, one day, be laid to blow up the fabric of error.’  Somehow, a train of
gunpowder suggests a more threatening operation than Priestley’s individual grains.
Priestley was no Guy Fawkes, and had later to explain to his critics that the method he and his fellow-Unitarians proposed to employ was ‘not force, but persuasion’. He continued: ‘The gunpowder which we are so assiduously laying grain by grain under the old building of error and superstition… is not composed of saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur, but consists of arguments.’  But the original revolutionary resonances – so eagerly amplified by government propagandists and caricaturists – could not be easily stifled. Writing after the destruction of his Birmingham laboratory and meetinghouse in the 1791 ‘Church and King’ riots, Priestley complained that ‘it was even asserted that I had conveyed gunpowder into one of the churches, and had contrived that it should explode during divine service, and some pious ladies, I am well informed, actually forbore going to church under apprehension of it’.
Among the books that
Coleridge borrowed from Bristol Library in 1795 was Part I of Priestley’s Corruptions
of Christianity, which was signed out to him from 27 March to 14
April. Priestley had dedicated the volume to Theophilus Lindsey,
The gross darkness of that night which has for many centuries obscured our holy religion, we may clearly see is past; the morning is opening upon us; and we cannot doubt that the light will increase and extend itself more and more unto the perfect day. Happy are they who contribute to diffuse the pure light of the everlasting gospel.
In his introduction to the volume borrowed by Coleridge in 1795, Priestley asserts his Unitarian beliefs:
The unity of God is a doctrine on which the greatest stress is laid in the whole system of revelation. To guard this most important article was the principal object of the Jewish religion; and, notwithstanding the proneness of the Jews to idolatry, at length it fully answered its purpose in reclaiming them, and in improving the minds of many persons of other nations in favour of the same fundamental truth.
Jesus Christ, whose history answers to the description given of the Messiah by the prophets, made no other pretensions, referring all his extraordinary powers to God, his Father, who, he expressly says, spake and acted by him, and who raised him from the dead.
According to Priestley, the claim that Jesus was God as well as man was introduced ‘by those who had a philosophical education’ – in other words, the Greeks – whereas in the Apostles’ eyes he had remained ‘a man approved by God’. This had implications for the doctrine of the Atonement (which Unitarians rejected), since, if God did not suffer on the cross in the person of Jesus, the sacrifice became the appeasing of a vengeful God.
Priestley’s exposition of Unitarian Christology in Corruptions of Christianity concludes with a ringing endorsement of the primacy of truth:
The most fearless integrity, and the truest simplicity of language, become Christians, who wish to know and propagate truth. Certainly if men be deceived, they are not instructed. All that we can gain by ambiguous language is to make our readers or hearers imagine that we think as they do. But this is so far from disposing them to change their opinions, or to lay aside their prejudices, that it can only tend to confirm them.
I have focused on Priestley’s exposition of Unitarian
beliefs in order to emphasize that, for all its occasional air of Voltairean
rationalism, his theology was solidly based in Scripture. It was the
doctrinal accretions of the Christianity of the Roman Empire and the
What strikes the modern
reader of Frend’s more notorious pamphlet is the moderate tone both of his
observations on the need for parliamentary reform, and of his objections to
royal proclamations against supposedly seditious activities. Written
before Britain went to war with France, Frend recognizes on the very first page
that ‘the assassinations, murders, massacres, burning of houses, plundering of
property, open violations of justice, which have marked the progress of the
French revolution, must stagger the boldest republican in his wishes to
overthrow any constitution’. And even if
Frend did add two much
more robustly worded appendices to his pamphlet, at the last minute, to take
account of the outbreak of war. In these he argued that the execution of
Louis XVI did not justify
Coleridge would be
echoing Frend when he spoke in his November 1795 lecture of ‘whole flights of
Priests and Bishops, black men, and black men with white arms, like magpies and
crows that pick out the eyes of sheep!’ 
Frend was bluntly dismissive not only of Anglican clergy, but of Anglican
sacraments. His references to ‘the priest in every age, whether he
celebrates the orgies of Bacchus, or solemnizes the rites of the Eucharist’,
and his contemptuous description of the sacraments of marriage, baptism and
burial as ‘superstitious prejudices’, explain the speed with which the Master
and Fellows of Jesus College condemned him for ‘prejudicing the clergy in the
eyes of the laity, or degrading in public esteem the doctrines and rites of the
established church, and of disturbing the harmony of society’.
Even the Monthly Review, sympathetic to Dissenters, and already
critical of the war with
not have been so ready ‘to insinuate that the great body of Christians are guilty of idolatry, and to accuse the laity of being like brute beasts, because they allow the clergy to baptize, marry and bury them’.
Not all Cambridge
Unitarians were quite so unrestrained as
Frend. Robert Garnham, Fellow of Trinity (of all colleges!), who
had attacked a trinitarian sermon preached at St Paul’s before the Lord Mayor
of London, was nevertheless appointed College Preacher in 1793. A year
later, he published his Commentary on Revelation XI. 1-14. His exposition equates verse 7 (describing the beast
ascending from the bottomless pit) with the Declaration of the Austrian Emperor
and the Prussian king at Pillnitz. The Declaration pledged the two
despotic monarchs to suppress the French Revolution, if other European powers
would join them. Garnham wrote: ‘The Confederates of Pillnitz have
combined "to put a stop to attacks made on the throne and the altar";
that is to restore despotism and superstition; and consequently extirpate every
trace of liberty.’ Priestley
thought Garnham sometimes stretched Biblical prophecy too far, writing to
Lindsey about an earlier piece by Garnham: ‘I was pleased with the mention of
the opening of
Coleridge addressed his sixth lecture on Revealed Religion to ‘those who acknowledge the Scriptures as their rule of Life, and depend for their eternal happiness on their obedience to them’. Priestley’s own reliance on Scripture – despite his criticism of Garnham – led him to trace some surprising links between biblical prophecies and contemporary political events. While maintaining that the doctrine of the Trinity was unscriptural, Priestley accepted scriptural authority for the Christian Millennium, Christ’s Second Coming, the bodily resurrection and the Last Judgment. Shortly before leaving to seek asylum in America, Priestley spoke to Thomas Belsham, a fellow Unitarian minister, about the imminence of the Second Coming: ‘You may probably live to see it. I shall not. It cannot, I think, be more than twenty years. 
In his Fast Day sermon
of 1794, preached shortly before going into exile, and published as The
What can be this peace, but the future peaceful and happy state of the world, under the Messiah? And what can be this shaking of the nations, that is to precede it, but great convulsions, and sudden revolutions, such as we see now beginning to take place?
And turning to the Apocalypse, he is convinced that:
The account that is given, in the Book of Revelation (xi 15) of the commencement of the last great period, signified by the blowing of the seventh trumpet, when the kingdoms of this world are to become the kingdoms of our Lord Jesus Christ, is immediately preceded by the third, and probably the greatest of the three woes, the first of which was occasioned by the conquests of the Saracens, and the second by those of the Turks, as the order of events under the preceding trumpet evidently implies.
When (Priestley asks) have we seen ‘such anger and rage in
nations, such violence in carrying on war, and such destruction of men, as at
this very time?’ He calculates that the allies’ most recent campaign against
Priestley applauds the fact that the papacy, the pre-eminent church establishment, is ‘already and completely destroyed’. This has occurred in spite of attempts by the Empires of Europe to prop up Catholicism – as foretold in Revelation: ‘And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered together, to make war against him that sat on the horse and against his army.’ That 1794 Fast Sermon was one among many millennialist pamphlets published in the 1790s – not all of them by Unitarians. Johnson’s Analytical reviewed:
The French Revolution foreseen in 1639
Some Prophetical Periods, or a View of the different Prophetical Periods mentioned by Daniel and St John
A Prophecy of the French Revolution and the Downfall of Antichrist
Antichrist in the French Convention
The French Revolution exhibited in the Light of the Sacred Oracles
The last two titles were both published in 1795. And in May 1795 the Analytical accords a five-page review to a defence of Richard Brothers, self-styled King of the Hebrews, despite noting that the author ‘first undertakes to prove that the millennium will commence on the 19th November next’. Even the Tory Gentleman’s Magazine for March 1795 reviewed no less than seven
millennialist publications in a single issue, and in July 1798 the same journal would devote three double-column pages to Edward King’s Remarks on the Signs of the Times . The year of King’s pamphlet saw William Blake annotating his copy of Richard Watson’s Apology for the Bible with the words: ‘To defend the Bible in the year 1798 would cost a man his life. The Beast and the Whore rule without control.’
Poetic imagery is not to be taken too literally, but in Religious Musings, published two years earlier the Unitarian Coleridge had written:
Religious Musings, though not published until 1796, was written on Christmas Eve 1794, ten months after Priestley’s Farewell Fast-day Sermon.
With Religious Musings,
we are back with John Prior Estlin and the Lewin’s Mead Unitarian
congregation. I have not succeeded in finding any letters exchanged
between Coleridge and Estlin in 1795, when Coleridge was in
preached two sermons ‘preciously
peppered with politics’.  In the
1790s, Unitarianism was not yet a separate denomination, as it would become in
the next century: it was still only a theological tendency that cut across
denominational boundaries. Joshua Toulmin was the Unitarian minister of a
General Baptist chapel in
My feet began mechanically to move towards your house – I
was most uncomfortably situated. You & Mrs Estlin out of
Cottle advised him to accept the Morning Chronicle’s
offer, but Coleridge’s letter to Estlin admitted: ‘My
heart is very heavy: for I love
I preached yesterday morning from Hebrews C. IV. v. 1 & 2nd.
I think of writing it down, and publishing it with two other sermons – one on
the character of Christ, and another on his universal reign, from Isaiah
XLV. 22 & 23. I should like you to
hear me preach them & lament that my political notoriety prevents my [reli]eving you occasionally at
The following summer he reported to Estlin from Crewkerne that he had
preached for the Unitarian minister at Bridgwater: ‘I endeavoured to awaken a Zeal for Christianity, by shewing the contemptibleness of lukewarmness.’ (He sounds almost like John Wesley.) The next day Coleridge wrote again to Estlin: ‘This is a lovely country – & Wordsworth is a great man...’ Coleridge had just heard Wordsworth read his ‘Ruined Cottage’ at Racedown, and asked Dorothy to copy out the closing lines of the poem for him to send to Estlin.
More prosaically, Estlin acted as treasurer for the fund established by Tom Poole’s ‘seven or eight friends’ who pledged themselves to support Coleridge with an annuity. By midsummer 1797 the fund had collected 20 guineas. And in June 1798, after preaching for Joshua Toulmin at Taunton, and walking with Hazlitt to Bristol, Coleridge called on Estlin before setting off to see the Wedgwoods, whose recently proffered annuity of £150 per annum would remove the ‘bread and cheese’ reason for Coleridge to enter the Unitarian ministry as Estlin had planned he should do.
But ‘bread and cheese’
was not the only reason why Coleridge considered entering the Unitarian
ministry. He had already explained to Estlin, in a letter written from
I should be very unwilling to think that my efforts as a Christian Minister depended on my preaching regularly from one pulpit – God forbid! – To the cause of Religion I solemnly devote all my best faculties – and if I wish to acquire knowledge as a philosopher and fame as a poet, I pray for grace that I may continue to feel what I now feel, that my greatest reason for wishing the one & the other, is that I may be enabled by my knowledge to defend Religion ably, and by my reputation to draw attention to the defence of it. – I regard every experiment that Priestley made in Chemistry, as giving wings to his more sublime theological work.
Coleridge promised Estlin: ‘I most assuredly shall preach often’,
adding that he planned to assist alternately Toulmin at
Before returning from
Nether Stowey to
I have been too neglectful of practical religion – I mean actual, and stated prayer, & a regular perusal of scripture as a morning and
evening duty! May God grant me grace to amend this error; for it is a grievous one!… Thanksgiving is pleasant in the performance; but prayer and distinct confession I find most serviceable to my spiritual health when I can do it. But tho’ all my doubts are done away, tho’ Christianity is my Passion, it is too much my intellectual Passion; and therefore will do me but little good in the hour of temptation and calamity.
Perhaps in this strikingly shrewd piece of self-analysis we see not only an unconscious critique of the intellectualism of the Unitarian faith, but also a hint of Coleridge’s ultimate return to Trinitarian Christianity. Yet, as far as the Bristol years are concerned, it seems undeniable that the young Coleridge was concerned not only with opposing Pitt’s ‘just and necessary war’ as both unnecessary and unjust; nor with defending freedom of speech and assembly against the ‘Gagging Bills’; but that his main motivation was to defend Christian truth in its Unitarian but scriptural form against what he regarded as the hierarchical corruptions of Anglicanism and against the deism and near-atheism of Tom Paine. Estlin was only slightly slower than Priestley himself in publishing a riposte to Paine’s Age of Reason. So we need not wonder that Coleridge so often confided in Estlin, or that he described Priestley in Religious Musings as ‘Patriot, and Saint, and Sage’ , or that as he himself emerged from newly wedded bliss to return to the city of Bristol, Coleridge claimed to be fighting for ‘Science, Freedom and the Truth in Christ’.
 Coleridge, Poems ed. John Beer (Dent Everyman 1993) 97
 Coleridge, The
Plot Discover’d; or An Address to the People against
Ministerial Treason (
 Ibid 45
 J.P.Estlin, Familiar Lectures on Moral Philosophy 2 vols (Longman, 1818) 1.1
December  C. to Humphry Davy in Collected
Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E.L.Griggs 6 vols (
 Coleridge, Conciones
ad Populum (
 Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge ed. K.Coburn et al.16 vols (Princeton, 1969- ) 1.218
 A.L.Barbauld, Memoir of the Late J.P.Estlin, LL.D., prefixed to Estlin’s Familiar Letters xxx.
 [October 1795] C. to Cottle in CL 1.162-3.
 Estlin, The
Nature and Causes of Atheism pointed out in a Discourse delivered at the Chapel
in Lewin’s Mead (
 Estlin’s epigraph differs from the 1828 text of Beer’s Everyman edition. After ‘this’ in line 15, is inserted ‘with holiest habitude/Of constant faith; lines 18-26 are omitted, and line 35 reads: ‘Creation dispossessing of its God.’
 18 February 1792 J.P. to Estlin in Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley, ed. J.T.Rutt 25 vols (1817-31) 1 pt 2.181-2.
 E. Burke, ‘Speech on a Motion for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal and alter certain Acts respecting Religious Opinions; May 11, 1792’ in Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke 12 vols (Rivington, 1803-13) 10. 54-5.
 Priestley, Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, occasioned by his Reflections on the Revolution in France (Birmingham, 1791) in Analytical Review 9 (Jan. 1791) 73-6.
 Priestley, The Importance and Extent of Free Enguiry in
Matters of Religion... (
 Debate on the repeal of the test and corporation acts, in the House of Commons, March 28, 1787 (Stockdale, 1787) 58.
 Priestley, Letter to the Right Hon. William Pitt...on the Subjects of Toleration and Church Establishments (1787) in Rutt 19.113.
 Priestley, Appeal
to the Public, on the Subject of the Riots in
 Priestley, History of the Corruptions of Christianity 2 vols (1782) in Rutt 3.4.
 Ibid 13
 Ibid 14.
 Ibid 40, 87, 90.
 The prospectus declares that ‘these lectures are intended for two classes of men – Christians and Infidels – to the former that they may be able to give a reason for the hope that is in them – to the latter that they may not determine against Christianity from arguments applicable to its corruptions only’.
 W.Frend, Address to the Inhabitants of Cambridge, soon republished as Address to the Members of the Church of England (Johnson, 1788).
 Frend, Peace
 Ibid 26-7
 Coleridge, The Plot Discover’d 16-17
 See Frend, Account
of the Proceedings in the
 Monthly Review n.s. 12 (Nov. 1793) 353-4.
 R.Garnham, Outline of a Commentary on Revelations XI.1-14 (Johnson, 1794) 11.
 11 June 1790 J.P.to Lindsey in Rutt 1 pt 1. 68-9.
 Coleridge, Six Lectures on Revealed Religion; its Corruptions and Political Views in CW 1. 225.
 T.Belsham, Memoirs of Theophilus Lindsey (Williams & Norgate, 1873) 248n.
 Priestley, The
 Ibid 536-8.
 Ibid 539-40.
 Analytical Review 21 (May 1795) 483.
 Gentleman’s Magazine 65 (Mar. 1795) 223-9 and 68 (July 1798) 541-3
 E.P.Thomson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake
and the Moral Law (
 Coleridge, Poems (1993) 88-9
  January 1796 C. to Wade in CL I 176
 18 February 1793,
Brand Hollis to Adams, in J.Graham, The Nation, the Law and the King: Reform
 Cottle, Recollections;
chiefly relating to the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge during his long residence
 4 July  C. to Estlin in CL I 222
 [22 August 1796] C. to Estlin in CL I 233
 [9 June 1797 and 10 June 1797] C. to Estlin in CL I 326-7
 [9 June 1797] C. to Estlin in CL I 326
 [16 January 1798] C. to Estlin in CL I 371-2
 14 May 1798 C. to Estlin in CL I 407
Continuation of a Letter to the Philosopher and Politicians of
 Coleridge, Poems, (1993) 90