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Dissenting Academics.

one of the most remarkable features in the history both of theological and general literature in England is found in the great number of academical institutions which have been established in connexion with almost every denomination if Dissenters, for the supply of their churches with learned and qualified ministers, and also for the liberal education of the youth of their more opulent families. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which only ought to be, what they are called, national seats of education, have been placed under the exclusive guardianship of the established Church. Its clergy have at all times possessed the entire and uncontrolled direction of these seminaries; and their whole constitution and the course of study pursued in them, has consequently been regulated with a reference to its interests. Dissent is not acknowledged or tolerated at either of them; and no youth can partake of the advantages professedly provided by the liberality of our ancestors for the benefit of the nation at large without at least an external and temporary conformity to the discipline and worship of the church. In one, a formal subscription to her articles of faith is exacted, on their first entrance, from boys, who cannot be supposed to have given even the most cursory and superficial attention to the variety of disputed points which [348] these articles involve; and in both this compliance is a necessary preliminary to all academical honours or distinctions.

In this respect the universities of England differ from those of every other country of Protestant Europe, which are open to persons of every class and religious profession, without distinction. The peculiarity is not one which we have any reason to be proud of; and, in fact, it has greatly tended to aggravate the bitter sectarian spirit in which it originated, and which interferes in this country, to such a lamentable extent, with the comfort of social intercourse, and with the just practical influence of religious principles and feelings among all parties. But one important consequence has been, that the Dissenters, finding themselves unjustly debarred from those opportunities of liberal education which were intended for all, and being, for the most part, unwilling to forego the services of a learned ministry, have made great exertions to supply the deficiency, as far as was practicable, in private institutions; and though these institutions have, doubtless, been of various and unequal merit, yet upon the whole, and when the disadvantages with which they have had to struggle in the unfair competition are taken into the account, there is no reason to think that in really valuable learning, or in any of the accomplishments which are desirable in a minister of religion, their alumni have been materially inferior to those of more favoured establishments. The unbiassed and unprejudiced historian of letters (if such a person should ever be found) will be ready to admit that a very fair proportion of the most distinguished scholars and divines of [349] whom our country can boast are the produce of dissenting academies. A comprehensive and impartial history of these institutions, independently of its value in other points of view, would possess a great general interest, from the light which it would throw on the state and progress in England, not only of theology, but of literature and intellectual cultivation in every department, during the period which has elapsed since the rise of the leading denominations of Protestant Dissenters.

This class of institutions originated at a very early period in the history of Nonconformity; even anterior to the Act of Toleration, when they were, of course, carried on under the pressure of difficulties and disadvantages much greater than they have now to encounter, and, in many cases, under circumstances of no slight personal danger. But the first race of Nonconformist Divines, who had been ejected from their benefices in the Church by the Act of Uniformity, sustained a high character for talent and learning; and they were earnestly desirous that their successors, though unjustly precluded from the opportunities which they had enjoyed, should, as far as possible, maintain the reputation of the dissenting body in these respects. In this connexion, the names of Frankland, Woodhouse, Warren, and many others, are deserving of honourable remembrance. But even after the period when they, at length, received the partial protection of the civil power, they were still exposed to annoyance and vexation, and harassing processes were occasionally commenced in the ecclesiastical courts against those who presided over theological seminaries. The last attempt of this kind occurred in 1732, in the [350] case of Dr. Doddridge, which was happily checked by the prompt and effectual personal interference of George II.

It were greatly to be wished, that the promoters of academical education among the Dissenters had been at all times solicitous to guard against the influence of that narrow-minded, exclusive spirit which first created the necessity for their exertions. But unhappily, in the great majority of cases, the same sectarian views have prevailed in them, on a smaller scale, which we observe with so much regret in our national establishments. The object, in almost all of them, seems to have been, not to diffuse sound learning, or to place in the hands of the pupils the torch by which they might explore the truth for themselves, in the exercise of free, enlightened, and, as far as possible, unbiassed inquiry, but to train up partizans of a particular sect; and they have generally adopted the same unfair means of securing this object which, when put into operation against themselves, had occasioned their own exclusion from Oxford and Cambridge; demanding both from tutors and students a declaration of their adherence to a certain system of doctrines, or subscription to a certain specified formula of human composition. In some instances they have even gone beyond the universities in the rigour of their restrictions. Thus Dr. Priestley tells us, that at the academy at Mile End, to which his friends were, at first, desirous to send him, every student was not only required to subscribe his assent to ten printed articles of the strictest Calvinism, but to repeat his subscription every six months.

We may fairly claim it as a distinction (an [351] honourable distinction we deem it) on the part of Unitarian Dissenters, that their academies, at the same time that they have commonly aimed at as high a literary character as circumstances enabled them to obtain, have uniformly rejected these unworthy fetters, and have not sought to throw any additional artificial temptations in the way of the honest, enlightened inquirer after truth. Such is the unavoidable influence of personal connexions, of early prepossessions, of the example of those by whose advice and instruction we are necessarily guided before we are able to form a conclusion or opinion which can be called really our own, that it is rarely possible for any one to come to the examination of the most important of all questions perfectly free from all bias or prejudice; and therefore it is not to be wondered at, that the majority of the young men who resort to these institutions are found to espouse the prevailing sentiments of the place; but it has commonly been our object, so to frame their constitution, and so to regulate the plan of study and instruction pursued in them, as to counteract, and not to give increased and unnecessary strength to these misleading influences. And there is good reason to believe, that in these endeavours the excellent persons to whom the education of our young divines has been committed, have not been altogether unsuccessful. They have not only refrained from attempting to exercise any undue influence over their pupils, but have endeavoured, while communicating instruction, to preserve their own minds in the desirable attitude of seekers after truth; not bound by the trammels of any sect or system, but ready to follow her [352] footsteps in whatever direction they appeared to lead.

This refusal to submit to shackles on inquiry, or to impose them on others, is so obviously suggested by a rational and well-founded confidence in the grounds and evidence of our opinions, that we are at a loss to understand how a different procedure can be ascribed to any thing else than a secret misgiving that all is not right. Truth, when fairly and impartially examined, must always have the advantage over error; and those who cannot trust their pupils to think and inquire for themselves, without first demanding pledges, calling for a confession of faith, and subjecting the youthful mind to all the trammels of human authority, can hardly wonder that, notwithstanding the stress they lay on their favourite doctrines, as fundamental principles of religion, and even essential to salvation, we should suspect them of not being so fully assured as they profess to be of the foundation on which they stand. Their conduct seems to indicate a doubt in their own minds as to the conclusion which an enlightened inquirer will be likely to adopt, who has no other motive or principle to guide him but an attachment to the truth, wherever it may be found.

The academical institutions connected with Dissenters of the Presbyterian and General Baptist denominations being chiefly supported by those individuals who are known to be zealously attached to Unitarian sentiments, naturally receive this name from the public, though they have rarely assumed it themselves. Their most judicious friends do not wish to see them avowedly identified with any sect or party; and would [353] rather not give them a title which might seem to imply a disposition in their conductors to promote the interests of unitarianism in preference to those of truth. We value and pursue the former, only because we believe it to be an important portion of the latter, which we seek for and embrace, whatever form it may appear to assume; satisfied that those who inquire after it with diligence, candour, and impartiality, have the best prospect of being protected from pernicious error, and that nothing which is really erroneous can be permanently beneficial to the best interests of mankind. The Unitarians claim the merit of being the only party who have acted uniformly and consistently on this just and enlightened principle. Some few of the academies established, partially at least, under the auspices of other sects, have, it is true, for awhile, and to a certain extent, followed the same plan. Among these honourable exceptions was that of Doddridge, at Northampton, and its successor at Daventry, under the conduct of Ashworth, Robins, and Belsham. But it is certainly not a little remarkable, that there is scarcely an instance of this kind which has not occasioned a considerable falling away from the rigour of genuine Calvinism, even among those who have remained nominally in the ranks of orthodoxy; while no small portion of the ingenuous youth, encouraged, or at least permitted, to examine both sides, and judge for themselves, have embraced some form of unitarianism. This being the case, we cannot much wonder that the present patrons of such institutions should have deserted the liberal plan of their predecessors, by drawing much closer and [354] tighter than formerly the bonds of sectarian distinction.

It is partly in consequence of this candid and liberal method, that we find among those who have, from time to time, undertaken the conduct of theological education in our academies, a large proportion of the most eminent and distinguished men, to whose names we point as the brightest ornaments of the body to which they belonged, Being equally free with their pupils from all obligation to maintain, at any rate, the peculiar tenets of a sect, except when recommended by evidence which approved itself to their own minds, they have never given way to the persuasion that their opinions were made up and incapable of further change. While teaching others, they have not abandoned the character of learners; keeping their minds at all times open to conviction, prepared, and at perfect liberty, to alter and modify their views on every subject as God should give light. Some of these worthies are well known to the public by their valuable writings; while others, who are less distinguished in this way, are still deserving of honourable mention, not merely from the credit they have reflected on the opinions they espoused, but from the influence, by no means inconsiderable, which they exercised on the progress of knowledge, as well as on the development and general diffusion of those more just and rational modes of investigation which are most likely to conduct the professed inquirer after truth to what ought to be the only object of his search. The name of Hallet has already been mentioned, as mainly instrumental to the progress of free inquiry and of liberal opinions, [355] by the just and impartial plan which he adopted in an academical institution at Exeter; and we now propose to introduce under the present title a few particulars of several other excellent men who have laboured, and not altogether without success, in the same good cause.

Of several of the theological tutors in our earlier academies it is not, indeed, easy at this distance of time to ascertain the precise opinions on controverted points, especially when (as is the case in many instances) they did not receive a permanent form, through the intervention of the press, but were confined, for the most part, to the lecture-room or the pulpit. This uncertainty is to be regretted for various reasons; but it is, perhaps, a natural consequence of that liberality in their conduct as teachers which has already been noticed with commendation. Even where their own opinions were most decided, they were naturally averse to assume before their pupils the character of a partizan; and hence they may sometimes have been led even into the opposite extreme, by studiously concealing their own private opinions, while endeavouring to present fairly and impartially the arguments on both sides as advanced by others When, however, it appears that a large portion of the students educated in any institution, and those the most distinguished for talents and character, agreed in adopting religious opinions of a certain class, it seems reasonable to conclude that this was the prevailing tendency of the instructions they received, influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by the private opinions of the instructor. [356]

Thus we find that Dr. Thomas Dixon, who in the year 1710, and for several years afterwards conducted an academy at Whitehaven, was the preceptor of Taylor of Norwich, Benson, Rotheram, Winder of Liverpool, and several others well known in the succeeding age as decided Arians, we seem authorized to infer that he had himself a leaning towards the same principles. Little is known (at least we have not been able to meet with any record) of his early history. In 1719 he quitted Whitehaven to settle at Bolton in Lancashire, where he remained till his death, in 1733. It is not known that any production of his found its way before the public. His son, Mr. Thomas Dixon, was educated under the care of Dr. Rotheram, at Kendal, and in 1751 settled at Bolton, on the decease of his father's successor, Mr. Buck. Here he died in 1754, at the early age of thirty-three; non annis, sed laude plenus, according to the inscription on his monument in Bolton Chapel. Some years after his death an excellent piece of Scripture criticism was published from his papers, entitled ‘The Sovereignty of the Divine Administrations vindicated; or a rational Account (without the intervention of the Devil or of Demons) of our blessed Saviour's Temptation, of the possessed at Capernaum, and of the demoniac at Gadara.’ His view of the temptation nearly coincides with that since proposed by Mr. Cappe, representing it as a figurative account of the train of reflections which naturally suggested themselves to our Saviour's own mind, arising from his peculiar situation. [357]

Another excellent person, whose name we are unwilling to pass over entirely in this connexion, though little can now be recovered of his history, is Dr. Ebenezer Latham. He was born in 1688; his father, from whom he received a religious, virtuous, and liberal education, was a worthy dissenting minister, settled at Wem, in Shropshire. He was early destined, both by his parents and his own inclination, to the work of the ministry; but being for some time apprehensive lest a weakness of voice, brought on by the small-pox, might disqualify him for it, he applied himself also to the study of medicine, and graduated as M. D. at the university of Glasgow. He lived, however, to be very useful and acceptable in both capacities; and added to them that by which his name is now chiefly remembered, the tutorship of a private academy, from which proceeded several of the most valuable and distinguished ministers among the Presbyterian dissenters of the last century. He settled at Findern, near Derby, where the academy had previously been conducted by Mr. Hill. Here he exercised his function as physician both to the souls and bodies of his neighbours, and appears to have been one of the few examples of the successful union of two professions, which might seem well fitted to go together, if the failure of most of the attempts to combine them did not shew that there were considerable practical difficulties in the way. But when we learn, that, not content with this double character of physician and pastor, Dr. Latham was also for a long series of years an active and successful labourer in another important [358] and not less arduous field of usefulness, the training up of young men for the Christian ministry, we are naturally curious to know by what unwearied exertion and judicious distribution of his time he was enabled to discharge so many various, and it might be supposed often conflicting, duties. Unfortunately, we have not the means of gratifying this curiosity; for the only memorial we have left of him is a very slight sketch of his character, prefixed to a posthumous volume of sermons, by his pupil and brotherin-law, Mr. Willets, of Newcastle-under-line. It is much to be regretted, that one so competent to perform the office of biographer, and who, of course, enjoyed every opportunity of collecting all the information we should now wish to possess, was induced to be so sparing in his communications respecting one who appears to have been deservedly held in high estimation by his contemporaries for the learning, talents, and active energy which he displayed in the various important and laborious duties he undertook.

With the exception of an occasional sermon or two, we know not that Dr. Latham appeared before the public as an author in his lifetime. If he did not, it can excite little surprise, when we consider the importance and multiplicity of his other occupations. About twenty years after his death, (which occurred in 1754,) the volume of sermons already mentioned was published under the superintendence of Mr. Willets, from whose very brief prefatory notice of the author the preceding particulars have been derived. The sermons shew him to have been an Arian of [359] the same school with Peirce, Chandler, and other liberal divines among the Presbyterians of the earlier part of the last century; and they are productions not unworthy to be ascribed to one ‘whose chief study was that of the Holy Scripts tures of the Old and New Testament; for which he was eminently qualified by a penetrating understanding, critical skill in the learned languages, and a good acquaintance with history and antiquity.’ Besides Mr. Willets, Messrs. Hawkes and Blyth, of Birmingham, Fownes of Shrews. bury, Turner of Wakefield, Bond of Stand, White of Derby, Harrrison of Lancaster, Moore of Abingdon, and Ward of Yeovil, are known to have been pupils of Dr. Latham. All these, and doubtless many others, adopted antitrinita-rian opinions as the result of the liberal and unfettered system on which their education had been conducted.

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