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MEMOIR OF THE LATE REV. ROBERT ASPLAND.
CHAPTER XII. The pressure on the intellectual powers of a young preacher during the early years of his ministry, especially if his congregation is numerous and intelligent, is great, and sometimes felt to be severe, leaving little energy for other pursuits. The mental activity of Mr. Aspland, however, was such, that within a very few months of his settlement at Hackney he voluntarily undertook literary and public duties of a very arduous nature. With that intuitive judgment which characterized all his public labours, he was enabled, notwithstanding the disadvantages of youth, inexperience, and a very slight acquaintance with the Unitarian public and their ministers, at once to chalk out for himself a line of duty and usefulness by which his whole after-life was directed.
He saw that the great want of the Unitarians of England was union and organization. A slight review of what had been previously done in London in the way of general organization and in promoting Unitarian literature, periodical and otherwise, may not be out of place or unacceptable. Several causes had conspired to increase the isolation both of individuals and congregations amongst Unitarians, which is in some degree the result of their habitual recognition of the rights of private judgment. During a large part of the 18th century, the old Presbyterian congregations of England were undergoing a gradual transition from a nominal "orthodoxy” to avowed “heterodoxy.” The progress of the different congregations was in the same direction, yet not always equal in degree. The theological differences amongst the hearers in many cases influenced the preachers to practise a cautious reserve, which they justified to themselves by considerations of respect for the consciences of their people. When Mr. Lindsey, at the call of conscience, nobly forsook his benefice and opened in London a place for Unitarian worship, and Dr. Priestley and others fearlessly attacked the orthodox system from the pulpit and through the press, a new spirit began to arise amongst the liberal Dissenters of England. Of this the most visible fruits were, 1st, a Society for promoting the Knowledge of the Scriptures,” established in 1783, which published two volumes of theological disquisitions of considerable value, under the title of " Commentaries and Essays ;" and, 2ndly, the “ Unitarian Society for promoting Christian Knowledge and the Practice of Virtue by the Distribution of Books," established in 1791. Each of these Societies rendered good service to liberal theology. The first made its appeal simply to the very limited circle of Biblical students, and confined its labours to the illustration of Scripture. It was virtually superseded by the “ Theological Repository," resumed by Dr. Priestley in the year 1784,* which was composed on a more comprehensive plan,
* The “Theological Repository” was begun in 1769 by Dr. Priestley, with the concurrence of Dr. Price and Rev. John Aikin, and with promises of support from Mr. Cappe, Mr. Samuel Clark, of Birmingham (who died, however, at the close of the year, before his promise had been fulfilled), Mr. Merivale, of Exeter, Mr. Scott, of Ipswich, and Mr. Turner, of Wakefield. Volumes were published in each of the two succeeding years, and in 1784, 1786 and 1788. In addition to the contributors named above, there were articles by Mr. Cardale, of Evesham; Mr. Mottershead, of Manchester; Thomas Amory, Esq., of Wakeand by seeking to promote religious knowledge in general, and courting rather than avoiding religious controversy, attracted a much larger share of public attention.
of the Unitarian Society, the birth was untimely. The absorbing interest of the French Revolution, then in its early glory, gave to the first public meeting of the Society, held in London, April, 1791, a very political tone.* The toasts and speeches were made the subject, more than once, of Parliamentary comment, and were fastened in the public mind, to the prejudice of the Society, by the angry eloquence and bitter sarcasms of Mr. Burke. The horrible outrages at Birmingham soon after occurred; and it was not unnatural that the conductors of the Unitarian Society should avoid attracting unnecessary publicity to their proceedings, and confine them to a quiet annual meeting, with an occasional sermon, and the publication of Unitarian books. There was another circumstance, not of an accidental kind, which perhaps diminished the usefulness, by narrowing the circle, of the Unitarian Society. This cannot be better stated than in the words of Mr. Belsham, who suggested the plan of the Society, and who was the author of the Preamble to the Rules:
“ As the object of the Society was by no means to collect a great number of subscribers, but chiefly to form an Association of those who thought it right to lay aside all ambiguity of language, and to make a solemn public profession of their belief in the proper Unity of God, and of the simple Humanity of Jesus Christ, in opposition both to the Trinitarian doctrine of Three Persons in the Deity, and to the Arian hypothesis of a created Maker, Preserver and Governor of the world, it was judged expedient to express this article in the preamble in the most explicit manner. This was objected to by some, as narrowing too much the ground of the Society, which, as they thought, ought to be made as extensive as possible. But the objection was easily overruled, it being the main intention and design of the Society to make a solemn, public and explicit avowal of what, in the estimation of its members, was Christian truth; to enter a protest against the errors of the day; to unite those who held the same principles, and who were scattered up and down in different parts of the country, in one common bond of union; and to encourage them to hold fast their profession, and to stand by and support one another.”— Belsham's Life of Lindsey, pp. 297, 298.
It is by no means certain that a more comprehensive policy on the part of the Unitarian leaders in 1791, and an attempt to combine in joint and friendly action all the worshipers of the Father of Jesus Christ, without regard to their opinions on the subject of Christ's pre-existence, would have been at once successful. But the course actually pursued tended to put the Arian and Unitarian bodies into a position of mutual hostility. Arianism at this time numbered some very earnest champions field; Mr. Brekell, of Liverpool; Mr. Waters, of Ashburton; Mr. Lindsey; Mr. Hazlitt, of Maidstone; Mr. Badcock, of Barnstable; Mr. Willetts, of Newcastle; Mr. Palmer, of Macclesfield ; Mr. Mackay, of Belfast; Dr. Toulmin; Dr. John Wright; Dr. Williams, of Sydenham; Mr. Gill, of Gainsborough; Rev. William Lillie, of Bingley; Dr. Calder; Mr. George Walker; Mr. Job David, of Frome; Mr. Marsom; Mr. Benjamin Carpenter; Mr. Wakefield; Mr. Wiche, of Maidstone; Mr. Bretland; Mr. Foljambe; Mr. T. F. Palmer; Mr. Garnham, of Cambridge: Mr. Evanson; and Mr. Henry Toulmin. See Mon. Rev., LIV. 134; Mon. Repos. XII. 526, 601, 602.
See Belsham's Life of Lindsey, Chap. x. † Even this was not attempted till 1806. YOL. IV.
amongst the Presbyterian ministers of England, and their opinions were shared by some individuals in most congregations, and in some instances by whole congregations. In the metropolis, in 1791, the Arian party was composed of Dr. Abraham Rees, the popular minister of the chapel in the old Jewry; Dr. James Lindsay, of Monkwell Street; Mr. Thos. Tayler and Mr. George Lewis, of Carter Lane; Mr. Butcher, of Leather Lane; Mr. (afterwards Dr.) John Evans, of Worship Street; and Mr. Hugh Worthington, of Salters' Hall. It is a singular fact that not one of the pulpits in these chapels is now occupied by an Arian minister, a result perhaps hastened by the decided stand taken by Mr. Lindsey, Dr. Priestley and Mr. Belsham.
The Unitarian Society expended in the first fourteen years of its existence (from Feb., 1791, to Dec., 1804), chiefly in printing and purchasing books, £2555. To it, within this period, we are indebted for the thirteen duodecimo volumes known by the general title of " Unitarian Tracts,"containing works by Price, Priestley, Lindsey, Belsham, Disney, Frend, the Toulmins, Lardner, Hopton Haynes, Dr. Hartley, Rogers and Mason. The result was satisfactory; and, considering the inability from age of Mr. Lindsey to take any great share in public meetings, and Mr. Belsham's almost constitutional distaste to popular movements, the success of the Society was surprising. Still it can hardly be alleged that a subscription list, not including quite 150 names, and raising less than £200 per annum, was all that the Unitarian body could effect in 1805. Little had been done to bring the Unitarians of different parts of the kingdom into personal communication, and the publications of the Society did not include any periodical work.
The rise and progress of religious periodical literature is a subject of some interest. How large a share the Presbyterians took in the period. ical literature of the 18th century, is not generally known. At the close of the previous century (1691-1696), Dunton led the way in his “ Athenian Gazette.” In 1704, Defoe began his “Review," which, it is admitted,“ pointed the way to the Tatlers, Spectators and Guardians.” In 1716, and two following years, appeared the “Occasional Papers,” by Drs. Grosvenor, Avery, Wright, Evans, Lardner, Lowman, Earle and Simon Browne. In 1739, was published weekly, the "Old Whig," conducted by Dr. Avery, which ranked amongst its contributors, Dr. Caleb Fleming, Dr. James Foster, Dr. George Benson and Mr. Towgood. In 1761, Dr. Joseph Jeffries published “The Library,” in which he was assisted by Lardner, Kippis, Radcliff and Alexander. In 1794, and five following years, appeared the “Protestant Dissenters' Magazine," amongst the numerous contributors to which were Dr. Toulmin and Mr. John Evans. Two years before this, in 1792, Mr. B. Kingsbury commenced “The Christian Miscellany, a Religious and Moral Magazine." He was assisted by Dr. and Henry Toulmin, Rev. J. Holland, Rev. W. Turner and others; but the Magazine expired on the completion of its eighth number. Of Dr. Priestley's
Of Dr. Priestley's “Theological Repository," in six vols., mention has been already made, and to the Magazine originated by Mr. Vidler, reference will be presently made.
In devising plans for combining in joint action all the elements of strength of which he found the Unitarian body in possession, Mr. Aspland was probably very much guided by the experience he had gianed in the " orthodox” camp. At Mr. Eyre's school, and under his
father's roof, he had learnt the charm to religious people of a monthly Magazine, detailing the progress of the plans in which they are interested, and sometimes assisted his master by writing out Missionary reports for the Evangelical Magazine, of which he was one of the originators and early editors. Amongst the Baptists, he had seen the beneficial effects of periodical assemblages of the members of different churches. This experience had been confirmed by his subsequent observation of the practice of his friends the General Baptists, in holding in London an annual assembly, for the transaction of business, for religious exercises and social union.
His first labour was to establish a periodical, in whose pages all the friends of liberal Nonconformity might record their thoughts and detail their plans of usefulness. In carrying out his purpose, his sense of justice and his regard for a very worthy man interposed a serious difficulty. The friend alluded to was Rev. William Vidler, minister to the Universalist congregation assembling at Parliament Court, Bishopsgate Street. Born of humble parents at Battle, in Sussex, and brought up to his father's trade of a stonemason, Mr. Vidler had, by the strength of his religious convictions and the clearness and power of his intellect, risen above the difficulties of his humble place in society and deficient education, and come to be the head of the Universalist body. He left the Established Church, and became first an Independent Calvinist, then a Particular Baptist. He early became a preacher, and continued his ministry, in spite of the remonstrances of his parents and the persecution of other members of the family. In 1792, he embraced the doctrine of universal restoration. This brought him to the knowledge of Mr. Winchester; and, on that gentleman's departure for America in 1794, he was invited to succeed Mr. W. as pastor of the congregation he had established at Parliament Court. In 1797, Mr. Vidler, in conjunction with Mr. Teulon, began to publish in monthly numbers, “The Universalists' Miscellany, or Philanthropists' Museum : intended chiefly as an Antidote against the Antichristian Doctrine of Endless Misery.” One of the early and most valued contributors to the Miscellany was the Rev. Richard Wright.* This led to personal intercourse and a warm friend
• Of Mr. Vidler, Mr. Wright left the following record in his unpublished MS. Autobiography, kindly lent to the writer by the Rev. John Wright, B. A., of Macclesfield :
“My acquaintance with Mr. Vidler commenced at a time when we were both in peculiar circumstances, having lost almost all our former religious connections and acquaintances through the change which had taken place in our opinions, and having formed scarcely any new ones. Each of us was glad to find a new friend, and to have a person with whom we could freely communicate on all theological subjects. We met each other at first with caution, and attempted, in as delicate a way as possible, to feel out each other's views. At that time he had not departed so far from the reputed orthodox' system as I had done, and had evidently some fears of Arianism, and much more of what he called • Socinianism. Our acquaintance soon became intimate, our correspondence frequent, our minds quite open to each other, and our friendship firm, and it continued to the time of his death, when, I hope, it was only interrupted to be renewed beyond the grave. When together, at different times, we discussed many points in theology with entire freedom, and I believe mutually assisted each other in the understanding of the Scriptures, and in attaining to a clear knowledge of divine truth,
“Mr. Vidler was a man of an open and generous heart. He possessed a great deal of firmness and decision of character. He was a champion for religious ship between the two. Mr. Wright was further advanced than his friend in “ heterodoxy," and exercised for several years a very beneficial influence over him. In 1802, Mr. Vidler became, like his friend, an Unitarian. In that year, his Magazine changed its title to “ The Universal Theological Magazine: intended for the Free Discussion of Religious Subjects, to which Persons of every Denomination are invited." In 1804, the title underwent another change, “ The Universal Theological Magazine and Impartial Review.” The work was continued until the close of the year 1805. Mr. Vidler's change of opinions had diminished year by year the number of its original supporters. His own want of literature prevented his Magazine from obtaining, in the latter years of its existence, any considerable circulation amongst Unitarians, and his very limited acquaintance with Unitarians had not enabled him to enlist a sufficient number of new and competent contributors. When Mr. Aspland removed to the neighbourhood of London, he found Mr. Vidler under considerable anxiety respecting the Magazine, which was struggling for existence, and burthened with a growing weight of debt. He immediately gave literary help to a considerable extent. To the list of papers contributed by Mr. Aspland to the Theological Magazine, mentioned in Chap. IX., must be added, the series of articles on Archdeacon Blackburne's Life and Works, those on Foster's Essays, a brief Life of Paley, and several smaller articles of Review.
Having tried his wings in these lesser flights, before the close of the year Mr. Aspland undertook to relieve Mr. Vidler of his responsibility as an editor, and also made a pecuniary arrangement with him, in consequence of which the whole property was transferred, with its liabilities, to the new editor.
It was a matter of prudence to give to the new series of the Magazine, which aspired to a different and wider circulation than the old, a new and general title. The title first thought of was one now so familiar to the Unitarian public, THE INQUIRER ; but that ultimately chosen was doubtless in great measure suggested by Dr. Priestley's excellent periodical, The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature. A prospectus of the intended work was widely distributed, which
liberty and free inquiry. His piety was rational and highly-toned ; it supported him through many great troubles, and produced calm resignation to the will of God. In conversation he was ready, deliberate, free, and sometimes jocular; but always preserved a becoming degree of gravity. He was one of the best extempore preachers I ever knew; but whether it was that he had not the same confidence in his powers in London as in the country, I know not, he always appeared to me to preach much better in the latter than in the former. Wherever he went in the country, he had generally large audiences, and almost always commanded deep attention. He did not publish much; indeed, writing was to him a laborious work, especially in the latter part of his life, owing to his hand shaking very much. In controversy he displayed considerable talent when it occurred in conversation or at conferences. He had read much, and formed a strong inclination for reading and study. Considering the disadvantages under which he laboured in early life, the difficulties through which he had to make his way, and the unfavourable circumstances which attended him, he did much for the improvement of himself, the cultivation of his talents, and the promotion of the cause of pure and genuine Christianity. I owed much to him for the encouragement he gave me to undertake and proceed in various labours, and for introducing me to many of my new connections. Probably our acquaintance was a link in the chain of both our lives on which much depended.”