3248. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 16 February 1819

3248. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 16 February 1819 ⁠* 

My dear Sir

I thank you most warmly for your own book, [1]  & for Mr Venns Sermons, [2]  – which I have received in a parcel from Murray-le-magne. The former I perused carefully, & not I trust without permanent advantage, when it was first put into my hands, some five years ago by Lady Olivia Sparrow. [3]  The copy with which you have now favoured me I shall preserve as an heirloom, – but not as a mere one, & only to be looked at. – Venns Sermons are in the right strain; – in that manner I should have endeavoured to preach had I been in orders. –

I lost my way in early life, – & yet my ways have been so ordered that the paths into which I hav strayed have truly been paths of pleasantness & peace. What presumptuousness I had proceeded xxxxx <more> from ardour & enthusiasm than from pride, – & yet there was must have been a large portion of that leaven. I would not take orders at that time, tho no man ever felt a stronger inclination for a clerical life, because I honestly disbelieved many of the articles of our Church; – time, & some of those visitations which reach us in our heart of hearts have humbled me, – thoroughly, – if I know myself, – & I should now be as much incapacitated for subscription by humility, as I was once by presumption. – I should neither dare to affirm not to deny propositions which attempt to relate to the hypostatic union, [4]  & the procession of the Holy Spirit, [5]  & the Prescience of the Almighty. [6]  – I believe in my Creator my Redeemer & my Comforter. I love Him with all my heart & with all my soul & with all my strength. – There are difficulties in the scheme of Christianity, – but there are impossibilities in every other. Without it existence would be a mystery too dreadful to be endured; – but revelation makes every thing coherent & intelligible.

Yet I have latitudinarian notions, [7]  (relating to opinions – not to conduct) <some of> which you would not acknowledge, – & herein it is that the difference between you & me exists, not in matters of faith <doctrine>, – for in these there is no difference between us. I think you would agree with Wesley [8]  that the grace of God may reach those who have never heard of the Christian dispensation; – I think you will believe that the poor Jews who have given their bodies to be burnt by the accursed Inquisition, – <may be> are at this day in Abrahams bosom. [9]  & that the poor wretches who from a mistaken sense of duty have tormented themselves all their lives, like the Yoguees in India, or F. Joam de Almeida in Brazil, [10]  – have xxx xx suffered enough in this world for their mistake. – But there is a point of considerable magnitude in which you will think me greatly erroneous – I believe that the prophets & apostles were inspired, – but it does not appear to me that the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures [11]  can in sound reason be deduced from that belief, or that it can be maintained without many inconveniences.

You see how I am led on to lay my heart open upon a subject which interests it so nearly. – But you will see also that against such Clergy as you describe, I have no prepossessions. – Against those who preach high Calvinism, I have; – & some horror for those who push it its full length to Antinomianism. [12]  But intemperance <some degree of error> in these cases is not so injurious as indifference, – & the fever of zeal is better than that dead palsy. – These this are <is a> subjects which must be touched upon in the work which I have in the press; – a work which will probably displease all parties, & draw upon me a sufficient share of obloquy from more quarters than one: but if it be read I think it may do good, – & am sure that it is written with that intention. – I send you now the whole chapter of which I could only show you a part when you were at Keswick. It will show you the temper & general tendency of the book.

You asked me in a former letter concerning the later volumes of the Edinburgh Register. I do not know who wrote the 5 & 6th volumes: [13]  but the manner in which the 7 & 8th were advertised implied that Walter Scott had at least borne a part in them. [14]  – It is somewhat remarkable that in one of the earlier volumes I should have expressed a wish to have our prisons placed under the xx management of the Quakers. [15] 

I had the ophthalmia once & found great relief from a prescription of Beddoes’s, – an infusion of Cayenne-pepper, just strong enough to make the eyes smart severely. – For mere weakness I can testify to the good effects of bathing the eyelids (taking care that it does not enter the eye,) & the temples with camphorated spirits of wine.

I rejoice that you are about to assist in reforming the Criminal laws, – a good work which ought to be in good hands. There is undoubtedly a <prevailing> disposition to amend the evils of society at this time; – it is mingled with much error, & accompanied <managed> with great indiscretion, & accompanied with great danger; – but the disposition is good, & among the better signs of the age.

God bless you my dear Sir

Believe me

yours with the most sincere respect

Robert Southey.

Keswick. 16 Feby. 1819

I have transmitted Kosters Abridged History of the Abolition [16]  to London, & hope it will reach you safely.


* Endorsements: recd 1819 Pie Mr Southey opening his friend abt religion very pleasing; 16 Feb 1819
MS: Berg Collection, New York Public Library. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Probably a copy of Wilberforce’s Practical View of Christianity (1815), no. 3014 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[2] John Venn (1759–1813; DNB), Sermons (1814–1818). Venn was a friend of Wilberforce and an influential evangelical clergyman. BACK

[3] Lady Olivia Sparrow (c. 1778–1863), daughter of the Irish peer, Arthur Acheson, 1st Earl of Gosford (c. 1745–1807). She married Robert Sparrow (1773–1805) on 14 March 1797 – Sparrow had bullied Southey during their time at Westminster School. A religious woman, Lady Olivia was interested in welfare and education. She visited the Lake District and met Southey in October 1814. BACK

[4] The term in Christian theology used to refer to the union between Christ’s human and divine natures. It, and the following two terms, have been much-debated in the history of Christianity. BACK

[5] Another term from Christian theology, defining the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Father and the Son in the Trinity. BACK

[6] God’s foreknowledge of all events (and the relationship of this concept to ideas about free will and predestination). BACK

[7] The latitudinarian theologians of the Anglican Church in the seventeenth century were greatly admired by Southey. They insisted on the need to conform to the practices of the Church of England, but argued that many matters of doctrine, liturgy and church organisation were of little significance. BACK

[8] John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB), founder of Methodism, whose life Southey was writing in his The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). This letter, as Southey makes clear in a subsequent paragraph, enclosed a draft chapter of the Life. The enclosure appears not to have survived. BACK

[9] The place of comfort for the Jewish dead until Judgement Day. BACK

[10] John Almeida (1571–1653), English-born Jesuit missionary in Brazil. BACK

[11] The view in Christian theology that every word in the Bible was inspired by God. BACK

[12] The idea that salvation for Christians is only achieved through faith and God’s grace and that, therefore, Christians who have been elected for salvation are not bound to obey moral laws. BACK

[13] Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1812 (1814) and Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1813 (1815) were the two editions following Southey’s departure from the Register. The historical sections were written by James Russell (1790–1861; DNB), a Scottish barrister and writer. BACK

[14] Southey was correct: Walter Scott did write the historical sections of Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1814 (1816) and Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1815 (1817). BACK

[15] Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1809, 2.1 (1811), 359: ‘Place our prisons under the superintendence of the Quakers, and they will be made schools of reform and industry which will do honour, not only to our age and country, but even to our nature.’ At this time the Quaker Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845; DNB) was coming to increasing prominence in the campaign for prison reform. BACK

[16] Koster had argued the ‘Impolicy of the Slave Trade’ in his Travels in Brazil (London, 1816), pp. 445–456; and Southey had suggested that Koster should translate into Portuguese an abridgement of Clarkson’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave–Trade by the British Parliament (1808). BACK

People mentioned

Scott, Walter (1771–1832) (mentioned 1 time)
Beddoes, Thomas (1760–1808) (mentioned 1 time)
Koster, Henry (1793–1820) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)