The Dissenting Academies and the Literary Politics of the 1790s
Author: D.J. Schuldt
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2017
In this dissertation, I examine the far-reaching influence of the Dissenting academies on the political, religious, and literary debates of the 1790s. Following the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, the English Parliament passed a series of laws that denied a variety of civil and political rights, including holding civil office and attending Oxford and Cambridge, to anyone who was not a member of the Church of England. These Nonconformists included a doctrinally diverse group of Protestants known as Dissenters. In response to these laws, the Dissenters created their own institutions of higher learning, which became known as the Dissenting academies. Previous scholarship has regarded Dissenters as either a uniform group or as too denominationally distinct to consider collectively. I argue that a “Dissenting disposition” existed across the different kinds of Dissenters—from severe Calvinists to tolerant Unitarians— that not only represents a commonality among them, but also explains their doctrinal differences. The Dissenting academies were the sites at which the Dissenting disposition was formalized and disseminated.
My conception of the Dissenting disposition is drawn from Pierre Bourdieu’s (1990) broader notion of habitus, described in The Logic of Practice as a system of “durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures” (53). As a “structured structure,” a disposition can be formalized, taught, and reproduced. As a “structuring structure,” the same disposition can be a generative process. In the case of the Dissenting disposition, I find that a shared way of knowing was institutionalized through the Dissenting academies, one which argued that a process of free inquiry and debate would determine the truth. By examining multiple sides of an issue in debate, one is forced to confront the possibility of error and, having overcome that possibility through reason, one is left with the conviction that their position is either correct or not. Codified through tutors and works disseminated across the academies, this disposition was intended to equip Dissenters with the means to question—initially their own religious dogma and later the political and literary traditions prevailing in England.
I consider the significance of the Dissenting disposition at the levels of both institutions and individual writers. At the institutional level, I trace the formalization of this disposition in the mid-eighteenth-century Dissenting academies—specifically through the circulation of Philip Doddridge’s writings and the teachings of his students who themselves became tutors at other academies. I show how, by the closing decades of the eighteenth century, the Dissenting disposition manifested in Dissenters’ attempts to repeal the repressive Test and Corporation Acts. This doctrinally diverse committee of Dissenters, many of whom had attended Dissenting academies, shared a faith in the power of debate that shaped their ultimately failed campaigns. At the individual level, I examine William Godwin and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both of whom considered themselves Dissenters, at least for a period of time, and provide powerful case studies for exploring different experiences of the Dissenting disposition. Each underwent multiple religious and political conversions that can be traced through their writings, in particular Godwin’s multiple editions of Political Justice and The Enquirer and Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp” and early sonnets.