3608. Robert Southey to [Edward Erasmus Atkins], 16 January 1821

3608. Robert Southey to [Edward Erasmus Atkins], 16 January 1821⁠* 

Keswick. 16 Jany. 1821


I am sorry you have thought it proper to conceal your name from me, because it would have been a pleasure to me to know to whom I am indebted to for a letter so complimentary, & in other respects so judicious. Since my intention of writing the Life of George Fox [1]  & the Rise & Progress of Quakerism has gone forth, I have received many letters from members of the Society, the general tendency of which has been to express an apprehension that I should judge <speak> harshly <or unfavourably> of their founders, – & a wish that I should judge of these [2] temper <persons> rather by the principles & conduct of their descendents than by their own writings, – & some thing like a fear lest certain parts of their history should be brought into the light. But upon the only points where they have reason to fear the light none of these letters have touched, – that is, upon the question of the doctrines which they <primitive Quakers> originally advanced, & upon the suppression of certain passages in some of their printed works, which materially affected the pretensions of the writer.

With regard to the first of these questions <points> I believe that George Fox very often did not know what he meant, & that, as is often the case with mystic & enthusiastic writers, so with him & many of his early disciples their expressions are not to be taken in the sense which their <the> literal interpretation warrants, but in the no-sense from which they proceeded. They were blasphemers by chance-medley, & not by design. – This is my present impression. Of course it is impossible to say <tell> how far farther investigation may lead me to alter or modify it, for as yet, tho well acquainted with the history of the Society, I am only on the threshold of my work.

The second question <point> involves a charge against which I can see no such reasonable defence. What the suppressions are which have been made in the re-impressions of G Fox’s writings, I have not yet had the means of ascertaining. A very important one in those of Edward Burroughs has been pointed out by their old enemy Francis Bugg. [3] 

The truth seems to be that the Quakers are as much hampered by the infallibility of their Church <Teachers>, as the Romanists; & that <like> some of the Monastic Orders they would be very glad if the history of their Founder could be buried in oblivion. If the secrets of the heart were known perhaps any many of them would be found to respect him less than I do.

I thank you for the offer of your books. Bennetts name I was unacquainted with, – you have therefore rendered me a service by mentioning it. [4]  & I shall endeavour <no doubt easily be able> to obtain his book <work>. For the rest, I can only say that I may wish you may be as well satisfied with my history in other respects, as you will be with its perfect fairness. Upon this point I know myself, & I have a well-grounded hope that such a work written with xxxxtions intentions which cannot be mistaken, will produce some good.

I have replied to you with more frankness than an anonymous correspondent is entitled to expect. But your letter indicates more <a deeper> knowledge than <which> is often <seldom> possessed by a young man, as you describe yourself to be, – I am obliged to you for the intention which prompted it, & for the opinion of my writings which you are pleased to express. For tho I have long learnt to regard common praise as well as common censure with more indifference than the state of the weather, every man must be gratified at receiving that kind of approbation, which it has been the <one> main object of his life to deserve.

I am Sir

Yrs &c

Robert Southey


* Watermark: Crown/ BATH
MS: Morgan Library, Misc Ray, MA 4500. ALS; 3p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), II, pp. 222–223. BACK

[1] George Fox (1624–1691; DNB), founder of Quakerism. Southey did not write his biography. BACK

[2] Initially ‘their’. BACK

[3] Edward Burrough (1634–1663; DNB) was an early English Quaker and writer. Francis Bugg (1640–1727; DNB) was a Quaker from Mildenhall, Suffolk, who left the Society and became an anti-Quaker polemicist. Bugg’s Pilgrim’s Progress from Quakerism to Christianity (London, 1700), pp. 74–77, no. 393 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library, pointed out that Burrough’s A Trumpet of the Lord Sounded out of Sion (1656) had been substantially altered in its second edition of 1672, particularly by omitting Burrough’s ‘Prophecy to the Cavaliers’. BACK

[4] This may refer to Edward Burrough, Answers to Severall Queries put Forth to the Despised People called Quakers, by Phillip Bennett (1654), which led some commentators to believe Bennett (dates unknown) had written an anti-Quaker book, to which Burrough was replying. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)