2052. Robert Southey to Neville White, 28 February 1812

2052. Robert Southey to Neville White, 28 February 1812 ⁠* 

Keswick, Feb. 28. 1812.

My Dear Neville,

It will not be long before I hope to send you my “Origin, &c., of the New System of Education,” [1]  which I think will convince you that Lancaster is a vulgar-minded plagiarist, and a liar of the foulest kind. The good which he has done is very great, but it is pretty much in the way that the devil has been the cause of Redemption. [2]  His cause was taken up by the insidious enemies of the Church; the beauty of the principle which he had stolen was so manifest, and its power so great, in spite of all that he has done to adulterate and disguise it, that it enables them to attach a very general interest to the subject; and the manner in which this was made an engine against the Church has at last frightened the clergy into doing their duty, which I verily believe no other means would have effected. The Bishop of Durham [3]  is a noble exception to the abominable indifference which they displayed for more than ten years. As for Dr. Bell, he has been, and is, as much an enthusiast in this pursuit, as Clarkson has been respecting the slave trade, and is to me, who know both the men, not less an object of respect and reverence. Herbert Marsh’s sermon very ably and clearly shows in what manner the new system upon the Lancastrian scheme must needs operate to undermine the Church Establishment. [4]  It is, in reality, a self-evident absurdity to affirm that it is not the duty of the State to see that national education be conducted upon the principle of the national religion. Do not misunderstand me; my meaning is, that in parochial schools, which I want to see established at the public expense over all England, the Church Catechism ought to be taught, and no substitute for it; because this is known and approved, and what may be substituted we know not, and we do know that nothing can be devised more conformable to the doctrines of the Church of England. This would exclude none of the orthodox dissenters, except the Baptists; and those whom it would exclude may have schools of their own. The dissenters who are not orthodox (Quakers, Arians, and Socinians) have no poor to stand in need of gratuitous education. Neither have the Baptists many. But if for these few it be thought right and liberal to abstain from making any portion of the established creed a part of primary education, it must of necessity be much more so to exclude Christianity altogether. It then makes room for the Jews, who have many poor. To say that religious instruction may be left to the parents is absurd; the poor have not the leisure for this, even if they had the requisite knowledge and ability. Neither ought it to be left to the clergyman: he has duties enough without it. But if it be made a part of education, it is impossible not to draw the line of exclusion somewhere. [5] 

I wish Herbert Marsh had let the Bible Society alone. [6]  He is right in his feeling; but the way to have done what he proposes should have been to have set on foot a Prayer Book Society also. [7]  Clarke’s reply to him is below contempt; but even the scurrility of such an opponent as this will not prevent the controversy from doing mischief. God bless you.



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 254–256. BACK

[1] The Origin, Nature and Object, of the New System of Education (1812). BACK

[2] i.e. by provoking the Church of England into setting up the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in 1811. BACK

[3] Shute Barrington (1734–1826; DNB), Bishop of Durham since 1791. He was a vigorous supporter of practical philanthropy and had promoted both the inter-demoninational Religious Tract Society (founded 1799) and the British and Foreign Bible Society (founded 1804). BACK

[4] Herbert Marsh (1757–1839; DNB), cleric and biblical critic. He had preached a sermon at St Paul’s on 13 June 1811 that was critical of the interdenominational British and Foreign Bible Society (founded 1804) and urged that Anglicans should found their own Bible society. Southey had read the pamphlet form of the sermon, The National Religion the Foundation of National Education: A Sermon Preached in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, London (1811). BACK

[5] The final section of this paragraph paraphrases arguments in The Origin, Nature and Object, of the New System of Education (London, 1812), which advocated that the ‘school and church establishments ought … to be intimately connected’ (p. 197) and that the pupils at these new national schools ‘should be allowed to accompany the master to church’ (p. 118). Even Bell felt that Southey had gone too far and in a letter of 10 March 1812 cautioned against compulsion in this matter (‘we should draw the children to church by cords of love, and not drag them by chains of iron’), see Southey, Caroline Southey and Charles Cuthbert Southey, The Life of the Rev. Andrew Bell, 3 vols (London, 1844), II, pp. 656. BACK

[6] Marsh’s arguments were rebutted by Edward Daniel Clarke (1769–1822; DNB), A Letter to Herbert Marsh, D.D., F.R.S. … in Reply to Certain Observations Contained in His Pamphlet Relative to the British and Foreign Bible Society (1812). BACK

[7] A group of evangelical Anglicans went on to found the Prayer Book and Homily Society in 1812 to distribute specifically Anglican material. BACK

People mentioned

Clarkson, Thomas (1760–1846) (mentioned 1 time)
Lancaster, Joseph (1778–1838) (mentioned 1 time)
Bell, Andrew (1753–1832) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)