Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Unitarian: Was she or wasn't she?

A fortnight ago we looked at the ancestry of Mary Wollstonecraft, particularly the pesky and confusing repetition of Edwards, and I congratulated Daphne Johnson on giving amateurs, in the true sense of the word, a good name.  Today we feature the work of another thoughtful amateur, Joan Wilkinson, a.k.a. Yorkshiregirl. Now of course Mary was a Yorkshire girl too -- at least, she spent the longest settled period of her girlhood (of her life, offhand, I think -- counting on my fingers) in Beverley, where she met Ardent Jane and her family library. In later life, down in smoky London, Mary referred to herself as a Yorkshirewoman -- but everyone in London is from somewhere else, or claims their parents were.

Joan has written a tidy essay on Mary and Unitarianism, describing the development of our lady's theological views on the oneness of God. (Joan has also written of a dozen mainly C18 and C19 women, particularly from the British Unitarian tradition, including two who crossed pens with Mary, namely Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who has a big memorial tablet in Newington Green Unitarian Church, and Mary Hays, who supported MW in Godwin's house during the deathbed days.)  We've already looked at Mary's views of the Divine (A Good Thing) and her views on Dissenters (Not Wholly A Good Thing).

Joan starts by asking, quite reasonably:
by what criteria do we judge someone to be a Unitarian? Is it by their contribution to a Unitarian group or movement or by a particular way of thinking?
She shows how Mary, who had previously worshipped only in the Church of England, changed her theological views when she moved to Newington Green, a village that had grown up just north of London, centred around its Dissenting chapel on the green. (Still there, still radical.) Richard Price, its much-loved minister, preached in an atmosphere of "ethical rigour":
Instead of a deity breathing hellfire, here was a benign supreme being. The vision of mankind as essentially good and inherently perfectible sat well with rational morality and reform politics. Price preached that no earthly power has authority over our private judgement and that liberty and reason constitute the capacity of virtue. We love God because He deserves our love, not because he demands it. Universal benevolence, public spirit, with love being God's agent of human liberation is beyond that of country and monarch.
She points out the theistic framework of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, acknowledging that this is often overlooked in our day.
Wollstonecraft continually strove to define an authentic religious subjectivity. She asked what shape a woman's inner life took when forged in right relationship to her Maker? She wrote '…it is not philosophical to speak of sex when the soul is mentioned.' [...] The emphasis was on the democracy of God's grace rather than a hierarchical context and rational criticism considered essential when reading the Bible. 
As Mary travelled through Scandinavia, her soul was touched by her surroundings. Awe and wonder were appropriate responses to nature's majesty -- soaring mountains, tumbling waterfalls, endless fjords. (This, I think, is Mary's nearest approach to poetry, one of the few genres of writing she never turned her hand to.) On her return to London, her writings show that:
Her individualism and religious imagination had taken her beyond Unitarianism of that time. She considered their chapels to be too homely, their sectarianism too narrow and their reason too cold. Imaginative inspiration and adoration was crucial in the devotion given to God.
After her death, she continued to influence:
the rising generation of radical Unitarians and others teaching freedom, reason and tolerance. She also left a legacy of an individualist theological subjectivity that embraced imagination and lyrical pantheism that was influential in the next generation of Romantic poets.
Whether or not Mary Wollstonecraft would ever have considered herself, or been considered by her friends, a Unitarian, is a question that must remain unanswered. However, as Joan points out:
we can say that her writing was an expression of her own moral and religious journey, with her religious understanding fitting comfortably the spectrum of what many today consider Unitarianism to be. 
I can't wait to hear what biographer Lyndall Gordon will have to say this Sunday in Oxford, when she speaks "concerning the life and times and Unitarian connections of the 18th-century feminist".

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