Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Philosophy, Dissent, and Nonconformity, 1689-1920

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Philosophy, Dissent, and Nonconformity, 1689-1920

Article excerpt

Philosophy, Dissent, and Nonconformity, 1689-1920. By Alan P. F. Sell. Cambridge: James Clarke, 2004. 300 pp. £50.00/$ 100.00 (cloth).

The art critic John Berger noted that "average," even commonplace, works reveal the historical functions and social significance of art more than do the exceptional. Alan P. F. Sell's Philosophy, Dissent, and Nonconformity, 1689-1920 describes the career of philosophy as it was taught, written, and learned in those academies that provided higher and ministerial education for England's dissenting communities. Among the philosophers and theologians that Sell discusses, there are not many great and few unduly neglected. Even those better known, such as Richard Price and Joseph Priestly in the eighteenth century, or John Martineau in the nineteenth, are no longer much read. This history, though, is telling nonetheless. Sell shows us philosophy as Nonconformist ministers learned it and, to the extent they did so, took it into their pulpits. He sheds light, too, on the apologetic arguments that informed and reassured educated dissenting laity in a society in which, particularly during the nineteenth century, their cultural and economic contribution was massive. We learn here of the attacks upon Christianity that they, their ministers, and their ministers' teachers believed needed addressing and the strategies thought successful in vanquishing waves of modern enemies from Deists, through Hume, to atheists, pantheists, materialists, and Darwinists.

Between the Corporation Act of 1661 and the Toleration Act of 1689, Parliament established the legal conditions according to which religious dissent, initially persecuted, then tolerated, if disadvantaged, became an established feature of English society. Unable to attend either Oxford or Cambridge, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Baptists, and eventually Methodists, founded their own academies for higher and ministerial education. In many, philosophy was taught, whether in the service of doctrinal theology, or in the interests of natural theology, or for the purposes of apologetic. Given the financial pressures on many of the academies, the number of disciplines a teacher covered, the limitations of their libraries, and, frequently, pedagogies involving rote learning and "regurgitated answers," the commitment to philosophy and the number of publications that tutors produced is quite remarkable. …

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