Taunton: Coleridge and his Unitarian Persuasions

Above: The Unitarian Church in Mary Street, Taunton.

Bob and I are avid fans of the BBC television series, Doc Martin. Ever time we watched the show we wished that the opportunity to visit the UK and go down to Cornwall to see Port Isaac (“Portwenn” in the show Doc Martin) would fall our way. To our minds, “Portwenn” was a little corner of God’s own heaven. The opportunity to make a 14 day stop over in England on our way to the IABA European Chapter conference to be held in Madeira  came quite unexpectedly: and now, here we were, in Holford, at Wordsworth’s one time home, Alfoxden Hall, saying goodbye to Tomasz, and our next destination was Port Isaac–“Portwenn.”  But there was something I desperately needed to do on the way. The easiest road to Port Isaac was via Taunton. I simply had to make a stop in Taunton to take a photo of the Unitarian Chapel in Mary Street, Taunton, because that is where Coleridge had once preached.

Taunton is approximately 23 klms by road from Holford near Nether Stowey.  We were there almost before we knew. It seemed to me that Taunton was a town full of churches and chapels. Not knowing the area, and not knowing the exact location of the Unitarian Chapel where Colerdige had once preached–only that the building which had St james Tauntonbegun life as a Baptist Chapel and  had changed to become a Unitarian Chapel was in Mary Street, and which we couldn’t seem able to find. We drove around in circles.  Bob was impatient to get back on the road to Port Isaac. Finally we found the Unitarian Chapel which, on the whole, I found to be rather unimposing. In a way, I was disappointed. I suppose this feeling in me was because I’d had a preconceived idea that  the chapel in which Coleridge had once preached would necessarily be some sort of grand construction,  something along the lines  of St. James in Taunton, a very famous, medieval, and rather pretty, Anglican Church.

In the spring of 1798, while he was living at Nether Stowey, Coleridge temporarily took over for Rev. Joshua Toulmin at the Unitarian Chapel in Mary Street, Taunton, while Rev. Toulmin grieved over the drowning death of his daughter, Jane.

Poetically commenting on Toulmin’s strength, Coleridge wrote in a 1798 letter to John Prior Estlin, “I walked into Taunton (eleven miles) and back again, and performed the divine services for Dr Toulmin. I suppose you must have heard that his daughter, (Jane, on 15 April 1798) in a melancholy derangement, suffered herself to be swallowed up by the tide on the sea-coast between Sidmouth  and Bere [sic] (Beer).  These events cut cruelly into the hearts of old men: but the good Dr Toulmin bears it like the true practical Christian, – there is indeed a tear in his eye, but that eye is lifted up to the Heavenly Father.” (wikipedia, Samuel Taylor Coleridge) 

In 1798, while he was living at Nether Stowey, Coleridge wrote to his friend John Prior Estlin, a Unitarian minister who also befriended both Coleridge and the poet Barbauld. In his letters  to Estlin, Coleridge said he “thought of becoming a regular minister in the persuasion, although he felt some scruples, and feared that his political notoriety would be against him” (Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (DNB00) – Wikisource).

I took the following excerpt from an article on the net, written by Leslie Stephen:

Coleridge [….]  thought of becoming a regular minister in the persuasion, although he felt some scruples, and feared that his political notoriety would be against him (Estlin Letters, p. 61). In a letter to Cottle (p. 171) he says that a draft for 100l. has been sent to him by Josiah Wedgwood, ‘in order to prevent the necessity of his going into the ministry.’ John, Josiah, and Thomas Wedgwood had inherited the fortune of their father, the elder Josiah, who died on 3 Jan. 1795. [….] The brothers were munificent to many poor men of promise [….] Coleridge returned the 100l. after some hesitation. He had received an invitation to be minister at Shrewsbury, and he went thither to try the place in January 1798. William Hazlitt (b. 10 April 1778) was then with his father, a Unitarian minister at Wem, near Shrewsbury. He has left a graphic account of Coleridge as he then appeared. Hazlitt describes the extraordinary impression produced by the ‘half-inspired speaker,’ and his kindly notice of the minister’s son, who afterwards spent three weeks with him at Nether Stowey. At Hazlitt’s house Coleridge announced that he had received an offer of an annuity of 150l. from Josiah and Thomas Wedgwood, on condition of devoting himself entirely to philosophy and poetry. Coleridge, says Hazlitt, seemed to make up his mind to accept the proposal while ‘tying on one of his shoes’ (see Christian Reformer, 1834, p. 838, for his letter of resignation). In fact, he certainly hesitated longer (Estlin Letters, pp. 63-73). The acceptance of the annuity led to his separation from the Unitarian body. His later language implies a more rapid divergence of opinion than seems actually to have been the case. His letters to Estlin in 1802 show that up to that date he was still on the whole a Unitarian (ib. p. 86). (.wikisource.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_National_Biography)

Then I found an article about Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the web in the Dictionary of Unitarianism (http://uudb.org/articles/samueltaylorcoleridge.html)–here is an excerpt:

Coleridge’s career as an active Unitarian culminated in 1798, when he decided to enter the ministry. This was a fairly informal procedure in that time and place, and he was soon invited to become the candidate for the vacant pulpit at Shrewsbury. His first Sunday there made a very positive impression, particularly upon the youthful William Hazlitt, whose father was minister of a neighbouring Unitarian congregation. “I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres”, he wrote. But days later Coleridge received a letter from another Unitarian, Josiah Wedgwood, who was impressed not only by his promise but also by the support he had given to his unstable brother Tom. The brothers, whose flourishing pottery business had made them wealthy, offered Coleridge an annuity for an amount equivalent to the salary and benefits he would have received as minister at Shrewsbury, with no strings attached. Coleridge lost little time in accepting this magnanimous offer [….]

Disillusioned by the failure of democracy in France and the rise of Napoleon, Coleridge had already abandoned his political radicalism. He was beginning to reconsider his Unitarianism. Priestley’s determinism he had already left behind; now he began to think afresh about the whole theological framework [….]

[Coleridge’s] time in Malta also marked the definitive end of his Unitarianism. Conscious of his own weakness and his need for support upon which he could depend, he turned not only to the solaces of opium, but to what he understood to be orthodox Christianity—though greatly modified from the religion of his childhood by the influence of the German thinkers. He was now prepared to accept the doctrine of Original Sin, not on the basis of the Genesis story, but on his own personal corroboration of the words of Paul: “the evil that I would not, that I do.” He needed a Saviour. The answer came in a flash of revelation in February 1805: first “No Christ, no God!”; then “No Trinity, no God!”; and at length, “Unitarianism in all its forms is idolatry.” [….]

In due course his rejection of Unitarianism turned into violent antagonism. The claim, almost universal among Unitarians of that day, that their religion was Christian—indeed, the purest form of Christianity—he mercilessly denounced. “What all the Christian churches of East and West—what Roman Catholics and Protestants believe in common—I call Christianity. The Unitarians and Socinians are not Christians in any proper sense of the word.”

But Coleridge confined his attack to the theological position, and did not condemn its adherents. “I make the greatest difference between ans and isms. I should deal insincerely with you if I said I thought Unitarianism was Christianity”, he wrote, “but God forbid that I should doubt that . . . many . . . Unitarians . . . are very good Christians.” Certainly that was the way he thought of William Ellery Channing, who visited him in 1823. In a letter to Washington Allston, Coleridge said he believed Channing’s character to be “the very rarest in earth” and said, “He has the love of wisdom and the wisdom of love.”

Nor did his rejection of Unitarianism lose Coleridge his Unitarian friends and admirers. Henry Crabb Robinson, Samuel Rogers, and Sarah Flower Adams were among his visitors. Charles Lamb remained a close friend, despite frequent exasperation. Ten years after Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson made a pilgrimage to see him. If his recollections of what he had heard during the course of an hour-long non-stop monologue are correct, Coleridge made a point of telling him that he “knew all about Unitarianism perfectly well, because he had once been a Unitarian and knew what quackery it was.” He had already told others that “Unitarianism is the worst of Atheism joined to the worst of Calvinism, like two asses tied tail to tail.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dictionary of Unitarianism)

There is a great deal of history in Taunton; and there are a great many interesting historical sites of great importance. But much as we would have liked to, we didn’t have the time to visit everything. We had to prioritise, we were on the literary trail and we had limited time.  So, in Taunton, once we had found Mary Street and taken a photo of the Unitarian Chapel in which Coleridge had once preached, Bob turned the car around, and we headed towards Port Isaac.

Works cited

Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S.T._Coleridge >

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (DNB00) – Wikisource, the free … http://en.wikisource.org/wiki.Coleridge_Samuel_Taylor (DNBoo) 2/05/2012

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 11 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor by Leslie Stephen  https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_National_Biography,_1885-1900

Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Dictionary of Unitarianism … <uudb.org/articles/samueltaylorcoleridge.htm l> 



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