3626. Robert Southey to James Everett, 7 February 1821

3626. Robert Southey to James Everett, 7 February 1821⁠* 

Keswick. 7 Feby. 1821

Dear Sir

I was much gratified by receiving your letter of Dec. 9th. It has heightened the respect with which the liberal & Christian spirit of your controversial letter had made me regard its author. In wishing to withhold that paper from the press, & in declining to appear against me as the Champion of a Connection [1]  which thinks proper to treat me as an enemy rather than a friend, you have evinced a generous feeling such as few men would have displayed. [2] 

Among the many circumstances which have prevented me from expressing to you my sense of this generosity as soon as I wished & ought to have done, there is one in which you will take some interest. About the time that your letter reached me, I received from a most respectable quarter, a communication affecting Mr Wesleys moral & religious character more seriously than any direct charge which was ever brought against him by his enemies & calummiators. [3]  It is a fragment given by Mrs Wesley to one of her <a female> friends as part of one of those letters which she took from her husbands bureau when she finally left him. [4]  This fragment she produced as having been written by Miss Briggs, whose name appears among Mr Wesley’s correspondents. [5]  It is written in a most empassioned strain of personal affection, & spiritual reverence, remonstrating with him upon the liberties which he had taken with her, in language that at the same time confesses a boundless love, & expresses the alarm & indignation of a mind which still retained its virtuous principles. In a word, it is such a letter as such a woman would have written to James Wheatley. [6] 

This communication was accompanied with a reference to the gentleman from whom the copy originally came, & to whose mother Mrs Wesley herself had given it. Of its authenticity I was assured there could be no doubt, & I was left at full liberty to make such use of it as I might think proper & necessary, after satisfying myself concerning the source from which it came.

I wrote accordingly to the Gentleman in whose possession the original was said to be. [7]  He confirmed the statement in all its parts; tho it appears that what he possesses is not the original letter, but a copy of it given by Mrs Wesley to his mother. He is perfectly convinced that the letter is genuine, & he tells me that having once shown it to a person who had known Miss Briggs, that person pronounced it to be such a letter as she was very likely to have written.

And now my dear Sir, you will be anxious to know what my own thoughts upon this subject are, & how I am disposed to act. I cannot tell you whether I was more grieved or surprized at the communication. From the letter itself I concluded it genuine; it has the true stamp of passion: very few persons would be capable of writing it, unless under the influence of the feelings which it so strongly & naturally expresses. At the same time I felt the strongest reluctance to publish a fact which would fix so foul a stain upon the character of one to whose errors (as I conceive them to be) I am not blind, but for whose virtues I have as much veneration as can possibly be felt by the most devoted of his disciples. On the other hand, in the relation wherein I stand as Mr Wesleys biographer, the suppression of such a fact would expose me to charges, against which I know not what defence could be opposed. For that the letter will get abroad sooner or later there can be no doubt; & it is of main importance that the real character of such a man should be searched & understood.

Had the original letter been in existence I would have spared neither cost nor pains to ascertain whether it was the writing of Miss Briggs; & had that full evidence been obtained, I must have made the fact public. It happens however, that no such proof is possible: & on an inferior degree of proof I may reasonably demur where any character, & especially such a one as Mr Wesley’s is at stake. Another consideration also weighs with me. The Gentleman who vouches for the authenticity of the letter repeats on his mothers authority some things said by Mrs Wesley concerning her husband which very much weaken the opinion that otherwise I should certainly have entertained. She said that she considered her life in danger from him. Now I think a woman who could say this of Mr Wesley would not scruple at forging a letter for the purpose of blasting his reputation. These considerations incline me to let the matter rest till another edition of my work may be called for. By that time more circumstances may possibly come to light, & enable me to form an opinion with less hesitation than I now feel. At present I suspect the charge is false: but then I wish to find it so, & therefore must in some degree distrust my own judgement more than I should otherwise do.

I have not yet seen Mr Watsons book. [8]  There is an account of it in the last Evangelical Magazine written in a spirit every way worthy of that journal. [9]  To me it of no consequence in what temper an antagonist may chuse to treat me. I have long been used to ill-treatment, & no person can possibly regard it less. Contumely & misrepresentation will never provoke an answer from me, much less a return. But courtesy, & fair dealing & that generous spirit which renders justice to the motives of an opponent, & allows to others the freedom that it claims for itself, will always command my attention & respect. Therefore it is, dear Sir, that I subscribe myself

Yours with sincere esteem

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ The Revd Mr James Everett/ West Street/ Sheffield/ Paid
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Seal: red wax
Watermark: HAGAR & CO/ 1820
MS: Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester, Robert Southey Papers A.S727. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] i.e. Methodists, many of whom had been offended by Southey’s The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[2] In 1817 Southey had contributed a sketch of the life of John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB) to The Correspondent; Consisting of Letters, Moral, Political, and Literary, between Eminent Writers in France and England; and designed by presenting to each Nation a Faithful Picture of the Other, to Enlighten both to their True Interests, promote a Mutual Good Understanding between them, and render Peace the Source of a Common Prosperity, 1–2 (1817), 26–48, 157–176. This attracted some attention from Methodists. Everett replied to it in the Methodist Magazine, n.s. 15 (April–June 1818), 260–280, 340–353, 419–434 – the ‘controversial letter’, a pre-publication copy of which Everett sent Southey. In turn, Southey informed Everett of his plans for a full-scale life of Wesley. On learning this, Everett tried unsuccessfully to withdraw his article from the Methodist Magazine. In 1820 Southey sent a copy of his Life of Wesley to Everett, and the latter wrote to thank him, explaining that he had been asked, but refused, to write a refutation of Southey’s biography. See Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 11 December 1820, Letter 3581. BACK

[3] Southey had received his information from John Banks Jenkinson (1781–1840; DNB), Dean of Worcester, 1817–1825. BACK

[4] Mary Wesley (1709/10–1781). She was a widow at the time of her marriage to John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB) in 1751. The relationship was troubled, and on 23 January 1771 Mary left her husband, taking with her some of his correspondence. BACK

[5] Elizabeth Briggs (1751–1822), whose family were devout Methodists and close friends of John Wesley. BACK

[6] James Wheatley (d. 1775), a cobbler turned lay preacher. He was a Methodist itinerant from 1742 and served as John Wesley’s lay assistant 1745–1747. He was expelled from the movement by Wesley in 1751, following allegations of sexual misconduct; see The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism, 2 vols (London, 1820), II, pp. 312–314. BACK

[7] See Southey to [Glocester Wilson], 29 December 1820, Letter 3596. BACK

[8] Richard Watson (1781–1833; DNB), Observations on Southey’s ‘Life of Wesley’: Being a Defence of the Character, Labour, and Opinions, of Mr Wesley Against the Misrepresentations of that Publication (1820). BACK

[9] Watson and other publications in response to Southey’s controversial biography were noticed in the Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, 29 (February 1821), 65–68. This praised Watson for exposing Southey’s ignorance (67) and concluded: ‘Mr. Southey … writes like “a man of the world,” to please the world: and he will have his reward – “the world will love its own.” But the great question is – Will God be pleased? Will the writer receive the plaudit of the great Judge at the last day? Will he say to the author of this work – “Well done! good and faithful servant?” The conscience of the writer and the judgment of the reader will answer the question’ (68). BACK

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