Coleridge the Unitarian


(A talk given at Mary Street Unitarian Church, Taunton, May 29, 1998)


Reggie Watters


(Coleridge Bulletin New Series 18, Winter 2001, pp.25-31)



We know that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge preached from this pulpit in 1798. We have no surviving text of what he preached. But I want to begin this evening by trying to suggest what a Coleridge sermon of the 1790s might have sounded like:


It was towards Morning, when the Brain begins to reassume its waking state and our dreams approach the regular trains of Reality, that I found myself in a vast Plain, which I immediately knew to be the Valley of Life. It possessed a great diversity of soils and here was a sunny spot and there a dark one, just such a mixture of sunshine and shade as we may have observed on the Hills in an April Day when the thin broken Clouds are scattered over the heaven. Almost in the very entrance of the Valley stood a large and gloomy pile into which I was constrained to enter—every part of the building was crowded with tawdry ornament and fantastic deformity—on every window was portrayed in inelegant and glaring colours some horrible tale or preternatural action—so that not a ray of light could enter untinged by the medium through which it passed. The Place was full of People some of them dancing about in strange ceremonies and antic merriment while others seemed convulsed with horror or pining in mad Melancholy—intermingled with all these I observed a great number of men in Black Robes who appeared now marshalling the various Groups & now collecting with scrupulous care the Tenths of every Thing that grew within their reach…


Perhaps the last reference to gathering Tithes makes it clear that what Coleridge is describing in his nightmare is a vision of the late eighteenth century Church of England!  This vivid Allegorical Dream had opened the first of his 1795 Bristol Lectures on Revealed Religion. It shows young Coleridge in the full flow of his public oratory. If we heard it today we would probably describe it as ‘charismatic’. Yet if we are not too carried away by the poetic language, we might be a little shocked by its message. For surely the building crowded with tawdry ornaments and ill-lit by stained-glass windows might well be the great Collegiate Church of St. Mary at Ottery? And those predatory Black Robed figures taking their Tithes from the People (rather like the priests in black gowns from Blake’s vision of the Garden of Love)—surely must have included his own beloved father and his brother George? And if we ourselves were eighteenth-century Unitarians, sitting in the pews of this beautifully




unadorned church, I suspect we might have been more than a little shocked by the sheer verbal richness and strength of young Coleridge’s Allegorical Vision. Listen for a moment to the still quiet voice of more usual Unitarian discourse:


Consult Common Sense. Could God live in the womb of a woman? could God expire on the Cross? could God be buried in the grave? shocking suppositions!… Search the Scriptures; point out one single passage, in which Jesus Christ declared himself to be God.


A calmer voice, rationally questioning, but quite down-to-earth, prosaic and sparing of metaphor. Certainly not the voice of young Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and yet the voice of a man who had begun the chain of circumstances which led to Coleridge’s preaching in this chapel. That man was William Frend, mathematician and Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. In Coleridge’s years as an undergraduate there, Frend became notorious in the university. “Frend of Jesus, Friend of the Devil” was the orthodox jibe. His radical questioning of Anglican church doctrine went side by side with his radical questioning of society itself. In the decade of the French Revolution both kinds of question were thought dangerous. So Frend came for trial before the University Vice-Chancellor and was deprived of his fellowship. Such an example must have been hugely exciting to a volatile young member of Frend’s college with a young man’s radical readiness to shock the Establishment.

The trial became a seven day wonder in Cambridge, with Frend defending his views trenchantly against reactionary judges. The story goes that Coleridge himself attended and applauded loudly from the public gallery. His enthusiasm was duly noted, and a university proctor set off to arrest him. Seeing the proctor coming, Coleridge changed places with the man behind him. When the proctor arrived, he charged his suspect with creating a nuisance by violently clapping his hands together. According to one contemporary, the suspect replied he only wished he could, and showed a withered arm so deformed that it was quite impossible to bring both his hands together.

More importantly, when Frend was expelled from the University Coleridge probably decided that he himself had no wish to build his future life where his family had surely expected him to build it, within the established order of the Church of England.

Probably it was human friendships which led Coleridge into Unitarianism. A whole sequence of Unitarian friends helped sustain the young poet once he cut loose from university and began the struggle to find his true identity. There were Cambridge friends like the brilliant and short-lived John Tweddell, and that older, gentler friend, George Dyer, with whom he shared a certain scholarly unworldliness and a Christ’s Hospital upbringing, as well as a passionately innocent political idealism. There was that loyalest friend of all, Charles Lamb, and a sequence of kind Unitarian ministers from John Prior Estlin of Bristol to Joshua Toulmin of Taunton who guided him where they




could. Behind them all towered a figure he never met but whom he celebrated in his poetry as “patriot, saint and sage”, the intellectual father of English Unitarianism, Dr. Joseph Priestley.

Priestley was a man of science for whom all truth had religious value. As Minister of the Birmingham New Meeting he had established one of the strongest Unitarian congregations in the country at the heart of the new industrialism. It was a congregation his friend Joshua Toulmin came to inherit when he moved on from Taunton in 1804. But in the early 1790s Priestley was the brightest star in the Unitarian firmament, a member of the famous Birmingham Lunar Society, which met each month to discuss scientific ideas and included such important men as the inventor James Watt and the medical man and poet, Erasmus Darwin. As the discoverer of oxygen, Priestley was their intellectual equal, and although not all the Lunar Brethren shared his Unitarian faith, all shared a belief in the power of human reason to improve human life. It was this very rational form of Christian radicalism which appealed particularly to the young Coleridge of the 1790s.

Preaching in Bristol against the Slave Trade and the Church of England, and in Shrewsbury against War and the Church of England, Coleridge was following Priestley’s maxim:


The great instrument in the hand of divine providence… is society.”


It is a maxim of which we still have need today, although even in Coleridge’s time his particular interpretation of it led him to preach sermons which his down-to-earth Unitarian congregations must sometimes have found uncomfortable. His publisher Joseph Cottle, writing much later and, it has to be said, out of a nagging sense of grievance, gave a celebrated, if rather patronising, account of the twenty three year old Coleridge preaching in Bath in 1796:


The moment for announcing the text arrived. Our curiosity was excited. With little less than famine in the land, our hearts were appalled at hearing the words: ‘When they shall be hungry, they shall fret themselves, and curse their king, and their God, and look upward’ (Isaiah viii. 21).  Mr. Winterbotham, a little before, had been thrown into prison for the freedom of his political remarks in a sermon at Plymouth, and we were half fearful whether in his impetuous current of feeling, some stray expressions might not subject our friend to a like visitation. Our fears were groundless.  Strange as it may appear in Mr.Coleridge’s vigorous mind, the whole discourse consisted of little more than a Lecture on the Corn Laws! which some time before he had delivered in Bristol, at the Assembly Room.

       Returning from our edifying discourse to a tavern dinner, we were privileged with more luminous remarks on this inexhaustible subject: but something better (or worse, as the reader’s taste may be) is still in reserve. After dinner Mr.Coleridge remarked he should have no




objection to preach another sermon that afternoon…

       He rang the bell, and on the waiter appearing, he was sent, with Mr. Coleridge’s compliments, to the Rev. Mr. Jardine to say, ‘if agreeable, Mr. C. would give his congregation another sermon, this afternoon, on the Hair Powder Tax!’ On the departure of the waiter, I was fully assured that Mr. Jardine would smile, and send a civil excuse, satisfied that he had had quite enough of political economy… in the morning; but to my great surprise, the waiter returned with Mr. Jardine’s compliments, saying, ‘he should be happy to hear Mr Coleridge!’

       Now all was hurry lest the concourse should be kept waiting. What surprise will the reader feel, on understanding that, independently of ourselves and Mr. Jardine, there were but seventeen persons present, including men, women, and children. We had, as expected, a recapitulation of the old lecture, with the exception of its humorous appendages, in reprobation of the Hair Powder Tax; and the twice-told tale, even to the ear of friendship, in truth sounded rather dull!

       Two or three times Mr. C. looked significantly toward our seat, when fearful of being thrown off my guard into a smile, I held down my head, from which position I was aroused when the sermon was about half over, by some gentleman throwing back the door of his pew, and walking out of the chapel. In a few minutes after, a second individual did the same; and soon after a third door flew open, and the listener escaped! At this moment affairs looked so very ominous, that we were almost afraid Mr. Jardine himself would fly, and that none but ourselves would fairly sit it out…

       We all returned to Bristol with the feeling of disappointment; Mr. C. from the little personal attention paid to him by Mr. Jardine; and we, from a dissatisfying sense of a Sunday desecrated.


You are left feeling there must be some substance in that, however much may have been misremembered, or put down in malice.

On the other hand, another of Coleridge’s political sermons at Shrewsbury early in 1798 inspired one of his young hearers to a selfless and lifelong pursuit of radicalism.  William Hazlitt is an essential counterblast to the satiric underminings of Cottle. The right measure of political radicalism would certainly have found a sympathetic hearing among the sturdy, no nonsense congregations of independent-minded people who came to Unitarian services in the 1790s. The Unitarians regarded themselves, after all, as the honourable descendants both of the earlier English Dissenters and of what they saw as that Glorious English Revolution of 1688 when, in the sad aftermath of the Monmouth Rising, the English people had saved themselves from popery and set up a viable form of democratic government.  Here is William Hazlitt looking back over some years, though not as many as Cottle, and recalling a twenty mile round trip to hear Coleridge preach:




It was in January 1798, that I rose one morning before daylight, to walk ten miles in the mud, to hear this celebrated person preach. Never, the longest day I have to live, shall I have such another walk as this cold, raw, comfortless one, in the winter of the year 1798…When I got there, the organ was playing the 100th Psalm, and when it was done, Mr. Coleridge rose and gave out his text, ‘And he went up into the mountain to pray, HIMSELF ALONE.’ As he gave out this text, his voice, ‘rose like a stream of rich distilled perfumes,’ and when he came to the two last words, which he pronounced loud, deep, and distinct, it seemed to me, who was then young, as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe. The idea of St. John came into my mind, ‘of one crying in the wilderness, who had his loins girt about, and whose food was locusts and wild honey.’  The preacher then launched into his subject, like an eagle dallying with the wind.  The sermon was upon peace and war; upon church and state—not their alliance but their separation—on the spirit of the world and the sprint of Christianity, not as the same, but as opposed to one another.  He talked of those who had ‘inscribed the cross of Christ on banners dripping with human gore.’  He made a poetical and pastoral excursion—and to show the fatal effects of war, drew a striking contrast between the simple shepherd-boy, driving his team afield, or sitting under the hawthorn, piping to his flock, ‘as though he should never be old,’ and the same poor country lad, crimped, kidnapped, brought into town, made drunk at an alehouse, turned into a wretched drummer-boy, with his hair sticking on end with powder and pomatum, a long cue at his back, and tricked out in the loathsome finery of the profession of blood:


‘Such were the notes our once-loved poet sung.’


As for myself, I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres. Poetry and Philosophy had met together. Truth and Genius had embraced, under the eye and with the sanction of Religion. This was even beyond my hopes.  I returned home well satisfied.  The sun that was still labouring pale and wan through the sky, obscured by thick mists, seemed an emblem of the good cause; and the cold dank drops of dew, that hung half melted on the beard of the thistle, had something genial and refreshing in them; for there was a spirit of hope and youth in all nature, that turned everything into good.


The particular appeal of all this to the Dissenting congregations of Taunton in the 1790s was strong, as even a glance at the relevant sections of Joshua Toulmin’s History of Taunton will show. And its appeal to Coleridge throughout his Somerset years helps to explain his preaching in this chapel. In his own words it was the appeal of ‘Science, Freedom, and the Truth in Christ’. And whether the quiet, rational Unitarians would have wished this or not, it was an appeal to the emotions as well as to the reason, an appeal which




certainly found an echo in the nineteen year old Hazlitt.

In celebrating Coleridge’s Unitarianism tonight perhaps we need focus only on one particular strand.  By the time he came to preach at this chapel, his early enthusiasm for the ideals of the French Revolution had already waned. In February, 1798, the French invasion of Switzerland, traditional home of Protestant Liberty, finally disillusioned him. He wrote a poem for The Morning Post which he called Recantation, an Ode and its message was clear:


     Forgive me, Freedom! O forgive those dreams!

I hear thy voice, I hear thy loud lament,

     From bleak Helvetia’s icy caverns sent—

I hear thy groans upon her blood-stained streams!


Coleridge saw that ‘Liberty’ was no longer a matter of politics. He identified it now, like many Unitarians, with the inner spirit of life which ran through the whole of Nature, the force which the scientist Priestley and his fellow members of the Lunar Society were looking for. Coleridge was not himself a scientist, but he was prepared to be interested in and excited by the scientific advances of his day. And in the 1790s he, like Priestley, almost certainly felt that mankind might be on the verge of a great new age, in which, above all, the central, possibly electrical, Force which drove and sustained the Universe might be discovered. Coleridge himself in another Somerset poem had expressed his belief in ‘the One Life within us and abroad’. His Recantation Ode evokes this faith memorably on the seacoast of West Somerset:


And there I felt thee!—on that sea-cliff’s verge,

     Whose pines, scarce travelled by the breeze above,

     Had made one murmur with the distant surge!

Yes, while I stood and gazed, my temples bare,

And shot my being through earth, sea, and air,

     Possessing all things with intensest love,

     O Liberty! my spirit felt thee there.


They are moving words in their optimism, an optimistic faith we need as much in our environmentally-threatened 1990s as he needed it in his politically-threatened 1790s.

In later life Coleridge was to return to and draw sustenance from the great Mysteries of the orthodox Christian faith of his boyhood. As he came to a deeper personal awareness of the depravity of Man, an awareness which beat upon his own opium-ravaged pulses, his need for a Faith in Christ’s Redemption and the whole theology of Original Sin and the Trinity which that seemed to entail became irresistible. He moved away from his youthful Unitarianism and back to the Church of England. And I think we can already sense the inner need to move away in that profoundly disturbing and prophetic poem of these Somerset years, The Ancient Mariner. We shall think of that again,




I am sure, at Watchet. But this evening, in this building, we can remind ourselves it was the clear West country light streaming through plain unadorned windows such as these that helped Coleridge achieve some of the finest of his Somerset insights. Insights we find in poems of quiet beauty like This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison or Frost at Midnight, poems full of creative faith and creative optimism. And through such poems a philosophy of Nature passed from Coleridge to Wordsworth and into the mainstream of English poetry. In the forming of that tradition, I believe, Unitarianism played an essential and honourable part.

The Allegorical Dream with which I opened contains two characteristic Coleridge images of Religion as Women. First, the Goddess Religion, in the Temple of Superstition, whose features blended with darkness terrify the poet much as the vision of the Nightmare Life-in-Death does in The Ancient Mariner. Fleeing from the Temple in the open Valley of Nature he meets ‘a Woman clad in white garments of simplest Texture—Her Air was mild yet majestic, and her Countenance displayed deep Reflection animated by ardent Feelings.’  That, for Coleridge, in the mid 1790s, was Unitarianism.

It may fit ill with the fashions of our own day perhaps, but in thinking about the young poet Coleridge it is refreshing to concentrate rather more on that optimistic image of Unitarianism as ‘a Woman clad in white garments of the simplest texture’ and rather less on that darker image of the Nightmare Life-In-Death, dicing for men’s lives aboard her Skeleton Ship, and bringing with her a soul-destroying Leprosy of drink and drugs.