Thursday 31 December 2009

The paradoxes of Rational Dissent

I listened to a particularly good edition of Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time on Radio 4 today. The subject was Mary Wollstonecraft and one of the contributors was Barbara Taylor, author of one of my favourite books of 19th century social history (see this post). Taylor and the other participants made much of Wollstonecraft's debt to the tradition of Rational Dissent, and the importance of her time living and working in Newington Green, then a hub of religious and political freethinking.

It's a milieu that continues to fascinate me on a number of levels. I suppose my interest in the period and its politics was first sparked by the writings of E.P.Thompson (see this post), but then in the 1980s I found myself working on a community project in Stoke Newington, and I spent many lunchtimes wandering around the area, trying to detect traces of its radical past among the Turkish cafes and Caribbean grocery shops.

My interest has been intensified by recent researches into my family history. One of my great grandfathers on my mother's side was named after a noted leader of Rational Dissent (I won't say which one, or it might compromise my already fragile anonymity) - by his Baptist shoemaker father, who lived for a while very close to the Dissenting Academy and chapel in Hackney (though I've yet to find any firm evidence of involvement in either radical religion or radical politics). On my father's side of the family, by contrast, I've discovered an ancestor who was a Scottish clergyman and minor poet who wrote verses warning against the evils of Jacobinism.

My university English studies were heavily constrained by the dual influences of Leavis and modernism, and carefully avoided any protracted engagement with Romanticism: we skipped straight from the Metaphysicals and early 18th century to the late Victorians. H, my partner, studied at a different university and under different critical influences, and was a persuasive partisan for the Romantics when I met her. I think she's converted me, though it's the political and social ferment of the period (especially the 1790s) that fire my imagination as much as its literature.

One of my Christmas presents this year was a new biography of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, an almost forgotten figure of Rational Dissent, but one who is at last being rediscovered. My other reading at the moment is around American revolutionary history (over the holiday I've been enjoying David McCullough's gripping biography of John Adams, and I've another volume about Jefferson lined up to follow it), a context where the influence of Rational Dissent - 'reasonable religion' - was of course profound.

But Rational Dissent arouses contradictory feelings in me. In political terms, it was obviously a 'good thing'. Without it, we probably wouldn't have had the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, and political reform (eventually) in Britain. But spiritually, it seems to represent a dead end. Unitarian services were noted for their high-mindedness, but they singularly failed to attract a following outside the educated and prosperous middle classes (which is one reason I remain sceptical about my impoverished shoemaking ancestor's involvement in the movement). The forms of Christianity that packed in the urban masses in Victorian England were Methodist revivalism on the one hand (another ancestor of mine worked for the Wesleyan East End Mission) and ritualistic Anglo-Catholicism on the other.

I've only ever been to one Unitarian service - a wedding. Lovely people - but I hated the service, with its utter lack of mystery and ritual, in which the participants seemed to make up the order of service as they went along. Unitarianism seems to make the common error of middle-class liberals in mistaking an emphasis on individualism and informality for real radicalism.

Inevitably, for many 18th and 19th century radicals, Unitarianism or Rational Dissent represented a halfway house on the road to scepticism and atheism. But would they have been such a powerful influence for progress without their belief in a Supreme Being guiding the world towards enlightenment?


Unknown said...

The Newington Green Unitarian congregation is not only the historical place where rational dissent was nurtured, it is toay a vibrant, lively and very rapidly growing, youthful, spiritual community.

We are not too high-minded nor are we making it all up as we go along. We have managed to be relevant to well-educated and poorly educated people alike.

Yes - some Unitarianism may have been a dead end, but part of this movement's great strength is its diversity. Congregations like the one in Newington Green and Islington have found their place in the modern world offering spirituality and community without the rigidity and enforced conformity of traditional religion.

Rev. Andy Pakula
Minister, Newington Green and Islington Unitarians

Martin Meenagh said...

Happy new year to you Martin. I love visiting this blog, in part for the reading suggestions. I remember first reading the Romantics on the prompting of a kind and deeply learned Sikh teacher who knew me from my (Catholic) infant school. They seem to stir personal memories in anyone akin to memories of a first kiss.

Anyway, I hope that American revolution reading includes Gary Nash's 'Other American Revolution'; I'd really like to know what you think of it.

All the best

Martin said...

Thanks for the comments - much appreciated.

Andruu: sorry if I was unfair to Unitarianism - it seems from your website that you are doing great work in Newington Green. I was only expressing a personal spiritual preference, and raising some doubts about the wider appeal of a faith that downplays mystery, ritual and external authority.

Martin: Thanks for sharing your love of the Romantics. Keats remains my favourite - as much for his letters and his life story as his exquisite verse. I'll take a look at the Nash book - from what I can gather, it's an attempt to undermine the accepted narrative of the American Revolution....Strange reversal for you to be recommending the work of a radical historian to me..? Happy New Year to you too, by the way.

Martin Meenagh said...

hee hee. Gary Nash is a great writer, but I've always thought that the Declaration of Independence--there were over a hundred, I think--is strategically remembered by Americans only when useful. Understanding that it was a treaty for a rebel alliance and an example of reified conspiracy fantasy that was convenient helps you understand American lawyers, who all get told that it was a founding document that informed the constitution. Except for the bunch I encountered in Chapel Hill, when I hijacked a lecture on it.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had the other American republics--Vermont, Texas, California, West Florida, or even the CSA--survived. Would people have had to confront badness and racism and limitations quicker or would they have been even more energetic? And I often wonder about the Amerindians, who appeal to my gaelic sensibilities in a narcissitic way--who remembers them, let alone the slaves or women, and what happened to them in the American revolution? Ultimately, I don't like the coca-cola inspired patriotism that creates memory holes in America's mind over which some quite destructive politicians sometimes glide, though I do love the best of what the USA embodies. I look at Liberty island and think of coffin ships, though-- is that some sort of mental problem?

Martin said...

Martin - A little bit of historical revisionism keeps you on your toes, but don't you think the habit of dissing every historical advance risks encouraging the cheap dystopian anti-Enlightenment pessimism - a la John Gray et al - that is so fashionable these days? Of course the Founders weren't perfect (who is?) and there was a dark side to early American history (isn't there always?), but - taking the broad view - this was still the revolution that didn't go wrong, and still holds out a beacon of hope for humanity - in my humble opinion, that is.

paul said...

this is a great site about the new mystery religion!

peter said...

Martin -- Have you read EP Thompson's book about William Blake, "Witness Against the Beast"? Reading about the Muggletonians might combine your interests in religion, spirituality, political dissent, literature, and the romantic imagination.

Martin Meenagh said...

Hi Martin--rather frustratingly, my computer keeps blocking my comments at home, I hope that you don't take my silence for umbrage. I agree with you about revisionism, which is a fetish and a career move for professional historians and journalists. However, I think that too many people (inside and outside the United States) don't really understand that it is a kind of Empire, with baronies and feudal tires and families and divisions that go beyond the simple liberal or enlightenment rhetoric. In some ways, its politics are a sort of medieval dispensation. Anything (short of them all talking Spanish or German) that makes it clear that the American Revolution was a messy, unfinished process and that they have been through at least five changes of regime is no bad thing. America trumpets its secularism--that should apply to its civic religion and mythology too, not least because it undermines exceptionalism.

That said, I wish we had a clear, non-ethnic and widespread rule of law and a general principle of popular sovereignty, no matter how mediated or sickened by lawyers. It beats multiple networks of nepotism, race and class more often than not. I wonder if Europe can--not because there is some greater weight of history here (immigrants and amerinidians and religions have histories, and Virginia was ageing when the UK was proclaimed in 1707)--but because class and race are so much more subtle here as markers.