Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church

By Haney, David P. | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church


Haney, David P., Christianity and Literature


Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church. By Luke Savin Herrick Wright. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. ISBN 0-268-04418-X. Pp. 295. $35.00.

Given the Western perception (challenged in other parts of the world) of politics as a secular endeavor, as well as the recent tendency in the humanities to view politics through the lens of the material, Wright provides a potentially valuable demonstration of the inextricability of politics and religion in the mature Coleridge, as well as the importance of the state's religious foundations to an understanding of English political history from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. In tracing Coleridge's development from his radical Pantisocracy days of the early and mid-1790s to his solidly Trinitarian, Anglican work of the 1820s, Wright shows that biblical authority was always at the core of Coleridge's thought.

As Charles Taylor shows at length in A Secular Age (2007), the very possibility of thinking about society in secular terms is a fairly recent and complexly evolved phenomenon. Wright usefully readjusts the modern tendency to read texts such as Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593/1594) through modern secular eyes, pointing out that "in Hooker's time the concept of the secular had not yet arisin" (119), although he may overstate the case by saying that as late as 1809 "the move away from viewing everything as sub ratione Dei was just beginning" (120) and that "The concept of secular politics did not exist" (8) in the eighteenth century.

One of Wright's major claims is that Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity provided Coleridge with a basis for asserting the organic unity of church and state, against Warburton's The Alliance Between Church and State (1736), which influenced the dominant Whig ideology by asserting a contractual relationship between the two separate entities of church and state. The influence of Hooker on Coleridge is indisputable; that Coleridge was explicitly attacking Warburton is less convincing, given the paucity of references to Warburton in Coleridge's work. Wright argues that Coleridge ultimately developed into a High Church Tory in a way that foreshadowed the Oxford Movement. Coleridge "was a Tory of the 'old school' who believed in divine right and a national church" in opposition to the "new 'Liberal Tories'" who "saw nothing wrong with using utilitarian philosophical foundations to argue a Tory position" (111-12).

In a discussion of Coleridge's Lectures on Revealed Religion (1795), which he claims is the "lost" book on Pantisocracy, Wright argues that both the radical eschewing of private property proposed in Coleridge's ill-fated plan to found a utopia in America and his early Unitarian denial of the divinity of Jesus are based primarily in scripture, and secondarily in reason, though of course Coleridge spent much of his life attempting to reconcile the two. The Friend (1809/1810) is seen as a turning point toward Anglicanism and Toryism. Wright finds in this work, with strong echoes of Hooker, a microcosm of Coleridge's mature thought on the relation between religions and politics, though the short-lived periodical's explicit concerns are political and individual rather than ecclesiastical. Wright devotes 19 pages to a virulent attack on Dierdre Coleman's Coleridge and "The Friend" (1809-1810) (1988), primarily because she sees Hooker as a source for Coleridge's contract theory, where Wright wants to preserve Hooker as the source of Coleridge's church-state synthesis against Warburton's contractual theory. The Lay Sermons (1816) provide evidence that "from 1816 forward Coleridge was essentially a High Church theologian" (134). Coleridge's emphasis on education foreshadows his later promotion of the "clerisy," and his support of the Anglican Dr. Bell's educational system over the Quaker Joseph Lancaster's nearly identical system is further evidence of his firm support of the established church. …

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