Coleridge and ‘the Truth in Christ’: Bristol, 1795

Stuart Andrews


(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.[1]


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 Bristol to edit.  What, I asked myself, had Christian truth to do with the violent invective the poet heaped on William Pitt’s two bills (forbidding large public meetings, and curtailing freedom of the press) in that November of 1795?

       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.[2]  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.’ [3]  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, Bristol from 1778 to 1816, began his first lecture to the pupils he taught, in his school




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.[4]  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.’ [5]

       Coleridge had identified the same need in the political lectures given in Bristol in 1795 and soon published as Conciones ad Populum.  Coleridge’s aim is that ‘the purifying alchemy of Education may transmute the fierceness of an ignorant man into virtuous energy.’ He admits that this is easier said than done: ‘That general illumination should precede Revolution is as obvious as that the Vessel should be cleansed before we fill it with a pure Liquor.’ His solution is to find a teacher who ‘uniting the zeal of the Methodist with the views of the Philosopher, should be personally among the Poor, and teach them their Duties in order that he may render them susceptible of their Rights[6]  For Coleridge in Bristol in 1795, duty to God came before the rights of man.

       Coleridge picks up the same theme in his Lectures on Revealed Religion delivered in Bristol in the summer of 1795, but not published in his lifetime:


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.[7]


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 Bristol in 1787 to preach abolition in the home of the slave trade, he had been introduced to half-a-dozen Quaker families.  But in January 1788, when a public meeting  at Bristol Guildhall set up a committee to prepare a petition against the trade, among the leading supporters were the Dean of Bristol and Gloucester, the Baptist minister Caleb Evans and the Unitarian minister of Lewin’s Mead, John Prior




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.’ [8] 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’.[9] 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.[10]  The lines Estlin selected begin:


For what is Freedom, but the unfetter’d use

Of all the powers which God for use has given.[11]


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 Bristol and its neighbourhood, so as to be returned in a fortnight.’[12]  In his Reflections on the Revolution in France Edmund Burke had likened Priestley, Price and the largely Unitarian membership of the London Revolution Society to ‘half a dozen grasshoppers’.  Yet in the 1792 House of Commons debate on Unitarian relief, Burke conjured up a more menacing image:


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 Africa would not procure anything so dreadful.[13]




That was Burke in May 1792, nine months before we went to war with France.  His Reflections had been published in November 1790, and by January 1791 Priestley’s Letters to Burke was already being reviewed in the Analytical.[14] Priestley’s riposte to Burke is usually regarded as a defence of the French Revolution, but almost two-thirds of its pages are addressed to the damaging effects of an oppressive church establishment.  Instructively, the same proportion is found in one of Priestley’s earliest political writings, First Principles of Civil Government, published in 1768, before the American War, when he was a Dissenting minister in Leeds.  What made the French Revolution attractive to Unitarians was that, like the American Bill of Rights, the new French constitution broke the stranglehold of an established church.  One wonders whether the increasingly strident Unitarian opposition to Pitt’s wartime government in the mid-1790s would have been muted, if not silenced, had the Unitarian Relief Bill been passed in 1792, instead of having to wait until 1813.

       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 Torbay.  What Priestley said in his published sermon of 5 November 1785 was:


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.[15]


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.’ [16]  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.’ [17]  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’.[18]

       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, Cambridge graduate and former Anglican priest, who had campaigned against compulsory subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles (the first of which proclaims belief in the Trinity).  When the campaign failed in the mid-1770s, Lindsey had resigned his Anglican livings and set up the Unitarian Chapel in Essex Street, London, where the congregation included the Duke of Grafton and a future President of the United States, John Adams.  Priestley’s dedicatory letter to Lindsey (written in 1782) announced:


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.[19]


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.[20]




Priestley continues:


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.[21]


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.[22]


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 Holy Roman Empire that Priestley attacked.  Coleridge, we know, would later repudiate Priestley’s materialist philosophy.  Nevertheless, the prospectus to Coleridge’s 1795 Bristol lectures advertised ‘Six Lectures on Revealed Religion: its Corruptions and Political Views’.[23] Coleridge had been introduced to Unitarian theology before he borrowed Priestley’s Corruptions from Bristol Library.  We know that at Cambridge his mentor had been William Frend, Fellow of Jesus, Coleridge’s college.  Frend had been Fellow and Tutor since 1781, adopting Unitarian views only in 1787, when he resigned his Cambridgeshire livings and published a pamphlet defending his antitrinitarian views.[24] As a result, Frend was removed from his tutorship but continued to reside in college – until the furore that greeted his Peace and Union (1793).




       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 Britain could be offered ‘the most perfect system that ingenuity can devise’ we should not necessarily be justified in ‘forcing acceptance of it on our fellow countrymen.’[25] The present generation was not to be sacrificed for the convenience of posterity.

       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 Britain’s declaration of war, and that the consequences of the conflict would be disastrous for the poor.  (Peace and Union was published in 1793, the year that Coleridge’s Unitarian friend George Dyer published his Complaints of the Poor People of England.) What brought Frend before the Vice-Chancellor’s court, and gave colour to the charge of blasphemy, was the vituperative tone in which Peace and Union attacked the Established Church.  Frend insists that the Church of England ‘can be considered as only a political institution’, and with the monarch as titular head, may become a threat to the two houses of Parliament: ‘For ten thousand men in black under the direction of an individual are a far more formidable body than ten thousand that number in arms, and are more likely to produce the greatest injury to civil society.’ [26]

       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!’ [27] 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’.[28] Even the Monthly Review, sympathetic to Dissenters, and already critical of the war with France, thought Frend’s tone ‘must serve rather to disgust than to convince’.  And the reviewer considered that, if the author wished to promote peace and union, he should




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’.[29]

       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.’[30] 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 Essex Street; but whether referred to in Revelation I doubt.’[31]

       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’.[32]  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. [33]

       In his Fast Day sermon of 1794, preached shortly before going into exile, and published as The Present State of Europe compared with Antient Prophecies, Priestley insists that Christ’s kingdom will be a real kingdom, as promised in Daniel vii.  18: ‘The saints of the Most High shall take the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.’  But he adds that Christ’s kingdom, though a kingdom of truth and righteousness ‘will not be established without the greatest convulsions and the violent overthrow of other kingdoms’.[34] Citing Jahweh’s promise ‘that I will shake all nations...  and in this place will I give peace’ (Haggai ii 6-9), Priestley comments:




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 republican France ‘has destroyed more men than all the eight years of the American war, and probably more than the long war before it’.[35]

       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.’[36] 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’.[37]  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 [38].  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.’[39]

       Poetic imagery is not to be taken too literally, but in Religious Musings, published two years earlier the Unitarian Coleridge had written:


                                                     Rest awhile

Children of wretchedness! More groans must rise,

More blood must steam, or ere your wrongs be full.

Yet is the day of Retribution nigh:

The Lamb of God has open’d the fifth seal:

And upward rush on swiftest wings of fire

Th’innumerable multitude of Wrongs

By man on man inflicted! Rest awhile

Children of Wretchedness! The hour is nigh:

And lo! the Great, the Rich, the Mighty Men,

The Kings and the Chief Captains of the World,

With all that fix’d on high like stars of Heaven

Shot baleful influence, shall be cast to earth,

Vile and down-trodden, as the untimely fruit

Shook from the fig-tree by a sudden storm.

Ev’n now the storm begins… [40]


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 Bristol for most of the year.  But, like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that didn’t bark in the night, I regard that as evidence of the importance of their friendship.  (It was the year in which Coleridge gave Estlin a draft of Religious Musings to correct, as we have seen.) Estlin joined the Unitarian Morgans (the Bristol family of wine-shippers) and the Cottle brothers in helping to finance the Watchman; and Coleridge’s tour of Midland and Northern cities to enlist subscribers, early in 1796, was in effect a tour of Unitarian societies.  The Watchman was aimed at a Dissenting readership, and Coleridge’s principal promotional method was to preach from Unitarian pulpits.  In Birmingham, for instance, where he was welcomed by the Lloyd family, Coleridge famously




preached two sermons ‘preciously peppered with politics’. [41]  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 Taunton, and seriously thought of emigrating to America with his entire congregation.[42] The Cottles were Baptists1 but seemingly did not share Coleridge’s theology – contrary to what is usually  claimed.  At all events Joseph Cottle evidently worshipped with the Broadmead Particular Baptists rather than at Estlin’s Lewin’s Mead, and Cottle would later record his ‘unspeakable pleasure’ at Coleridge’s professed return  to Trinitarian belief.  Of some 50 separate titles published by Cottle between 1790 and 1800, there were only two Unitarian authors apart from Estlin and Coleridge.[43]   And when, after the failure of the Watchman, the editor of the Morning Chronicle offered to employ Coleridge as a columnist on the paper, it was Estlin whom Coleridge most wanted to consult, writing from Bristol to a temporary address in Glamorgan:


My feet began mechanically to move towards your house – I was most uncomfortably situated.  You & Mrs Estlin out of Bristol – and Charles Danvers [another Unitarian] out of Bristol – and even Mr Wade [a Unitarian businessman] was absent.  So I had nobody to speak to except Mr Cottle – which I did...


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 Bristol and I do not love London…  But there are two Giants leagued together whose most imperious commands I must obey, however reluctant – their names are BREAD & CHEESE...’ [44]

       From Birmingham in August 1796, writing to Estlin about his own tentative plan to run a day-school in Derby, Coleridge adds:


I preached yesterday morning from Hebrews C.  IV.  v1 & 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 Bristol.[45]


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.[46]

       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.[47]

       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 Shrewsbury, why he had decided to accept the certainty of £150 for life from the Wedgwoods, rather than the uncertainty of a ‘precarious’ equivalent stipend from the Shrewsbury congregation.  He nevertheless made clear that he did not intend to abandon Unitarian preaching:


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 Taunton, and Howell at Bridgwater ‘on one part of every Sunday, while I stay at Stowey’.[48]

       Before returning from Nether Stowey to Bristol in the summer of 1798, Coleridge wrote to Estlin from Bridgwater: ‘I walked to Taunton & back again; and performed the divine service for Dr Toulmin.’ But he continued with almost Evangelical fervour:


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.[49]


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.[50]  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’.[51]

[1] Coleridge, Poems  ed. John Beer (Dent Everyman 1993) 97

[2] Coleridge, The Plot Discover’d; or An Address to the People against Ministerial Treason (Bristol, 1795) 7, 9.

[3] Ibid 45

[4] J.P.Estlin, Familiar Lectures on Moral Philosophy 2 vols (Longman, 1818) 1.1

[5] 14 December [1808] C.  to Humphry Davy in Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed.  E.L.Griggs 6 vols (Oxford, 1956) 3.143

[6] Coleridge, Conciones ad Populum (Bristol, 1795) in Coleridge’s Writings on Politics and Society edJ.Morrow (Princeton, 1991) 30-2.

[7] Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge  ed.  K.Coburn et al.16 vols (Princeton, 1969- ) 1.218

[8] A.L.Barbauld, Memoir of the Late J.P.Estlin, LL.D., prefixed to Estlin’s Familiar Letters xxx.

[9] [October 1795] C.  to Cottle in CL 1.162-3.

[10] Estlin, The Nature and Causes of Atheism pointed out in a Discourse delivered at the Chapel in Lewin’s Mead (London,Johnson; Bristol, Cottle; both 1797)

[11] 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.’

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] 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.

[15] Priestley, The Importance and Extent of Free Enguiry in Matters of Religion...  (London and Birmingham, 1785) 40

[16] Debate on the repeal of the test and corporation acts, in the House of Commons, March 28, 1787 (Stockdale, 1787) 58.

[17] Priestley, Letter to the Right Hon.  William Pitt...on the Subjects of Toleration and Church Establishments (1787) in Rutt 19.113.

[18] Priestley, Appeal to the Public, on the Subject of the Riots in Birmingham (Birmingham, 1791) in Rutt 19.357.

[19] Priestley, History of the Corruptions of Christianity 2 vols (1782) in Rutt 3.4.

[20] Ibid 13

[21] Ibid 14.

[22] Ibid 40, 87, 90.

[23] 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’.

[24] W.Frend, Address to the Inhabitants of Cambridge, soon republished as Address to the Members of the Church of England (Johnson, 1788).

[25] Frend, Peace and Union recommended to the Associated Bodies of Republicans and Anti-republicans (St Ives, Cambs., 1793) 1-5.

[26] Ibid 26-7

[27] Coleridge, The Plot Discover’d 16-17

[28] See Frend, Account of the Proceedings in the University of Cambridge against William Frend, MA (Cambridge 1793).

[29] Monthly Review n.s.  12 (Nov.  1793) 353-4.

[30] R.Garnham, Outline of a Commentary on Revelations XI.1-14 (Johnson, 1794) 11.

[31] 11 June 1790 Lindsey in Rutt 1 pt 1.  68-9.

[32] Coleridge, Six Lectures on Revealed Religion; its Corruptions and Political Views in CW 1.  225.

[33] T.Belsham, Memoirs of Theophilus Lindsey (Williams & Norgate, 1873) 248n.

[34] Priestley, The Present State of Europe compared with antient Prophecies...  (Johnson, 1794) in Rutt 15.  534-5.

[35] Ibid 536-8.

[36] Ibid 539-40.

[37] Analytical Review 21 (May 1795) 483.

[38] Gentleman’s Magazine 65 (Mar. 1795) 223-9 and 68 (July 1798) 541-3

[39] E.P.Thomson,  Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law  (Cambridge, 1993) 60

[40] Coleridge, Poems (1993) 88-9

[41] [18] January 1796  C. to Wade in CL I 176

[42] 18 February 1793, Brand Hollis to Adams, in J.Graham, The Nation, the Law and the King: Reform Politics in England, 1789-99  2 vols. (New York and Oxford 2000) 2.503

[43] Cottle, Recollections; chiefly relating to the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge during his long residence in Bristol  (Bristol: Cottle, 1837) 309; the two other Unitarian authors were David Jardine and John Rowe.

[44] 4 July [1796]  C. to Estlin in CL I 222

[45] [22 August 1796]  C. to Estlin in CL I 233

[46] [9 June 1797 and 10 June 1797]  C. to Estlin in CL I 326-7

[47] [9 June 1797]  C. to Estlin in CL I 326

[48] [16 January 1798]  C. to Estlin in CL I 371-2

[49] 14 May 1798  C. to Estlin in CL I 407

[50] J.P.  Continuation of a Letter to the Philosopher and Politicians of France on the Subject of Religion… (Northumberland, U.S.A, 1794);  Estlin, Evidences of Revealed Religion and particularly Christianity stated with reference to a Pamphlet entitled the Age of Reason… (London and Bristol, 1796)

[51] Coleridge, Poems, (1993) 90