London Libraries


Since my purpose in visiting London was to conduct research, it only seems reasonable that I offer a blog post about the city’s libraries. I spent time at only a fraction of them.

There’s probably well over a half dozen libraries that I could have made use of if I had had more time. But, because I was in the city for only two weeks of archival research, I focused my time on two places, the British Library and the National Archives.

I was supposed to also do some significant work at Dr. Williams’s Library, which is a historic library with a longstanding connection to British Unitarianism, but they are in a state of crisis and largely unable to accomodate researchers. I sincerely hope that they’ll be able to sort things out. They have one of the most significant collections on early Unitarianism and own many items, particularly manuscripts and pamphlets, that don’t exist elsewhere. They were only able to let me use their reading room for a single afternoon and to view two out of the more than twenty items I had hoped to consult.

My time at the British Library was more productive. It is an amazing place. It is open to everyone–though you do need to be sure that you register for a readers ticket in advance–and have over 14 million items. It is an excellent place for doing research–Karl Marx wrote most of Capital there.

My focus in London was on Robert Wedderburn and the British Library has a number of rare periodicals and other publications from his circle. Of particular interest is The Theological Inquirer; or Polemical Magazine. It appears to have existed only for about six months in 1815 and was edited by Erasmus Perkins, which is the pen name of Wedderburn’s most significant literary collaborator (and possibly his amanuensis). The thing that is most relevant about the publication for Unitarian Universalist scholars is that its later issues seem to essentially be that of a Unitarian publication. It never makes an explicit denominational commitment–which would have been impossible since the British Unitarians didn’t consolidate into a single organization until 1825–but it does repeatedly publish, with approving comments, sermons by Unitarian ministers.

This is significant because it ties a wing, albeit a small wing, of the early British Unitarian movement to the working class, revolutionary, and multi-racial community of which Perkins and Wedderburn were a part. Individuals in the community clearly attended well known Unitarian chapels, such as the one that became Essex Hall and Newington Green, and were familiar with the ministers there and their writings.

The favor doesn’t seem to have been returned. The editors of the Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature, the magazine that eventually became the voice of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, went out of their way to distance themselves from Wedderburn. Of course, when they did several of his associates were on trial for treason (and would subsequently be executed for it) so their actions are perhaps understandable. Unitarianism had only become legal in the United Kingdom a few years earlier and people, including Wedderburn, were still being be tried for, and convicted of, blasphemy when they blended theology with politics.

The persecution of Wedderburn for his political and theological beliefs led me to the National Archives. I spent a couple of days digging through early nineteenth century police reports looking for accounts of his sermons and the life of his congregation, the Hopkins Street Chapel. After many many hours of flipping through documents written in early nineteenth-century long hand I eventually found a set of materials that I am sure will prove very useful: the compilation of police spy accounts presented as evidence at his second trial for blasphemy. These include notes on several sermons that he gave and five issues of a periodical he published calling for the abolition of slavery.

I might head back to the National Archives at some point to conduct research on a larger project focused on Wedderburn. He’s certainly worthy of a book length biography. But for now, I have more than enough material on him for the section of my book on Unitarian Universalist theology in which he will appear.

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