The Evangelical Party and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Return to the Church of England

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Christopher W. Corbin
Routledge Studies in Romanticism
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , December
     2018.
     224 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780367141431.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is always a delight because of the joy and energy with which he writes. It was just as much a delight to read Christopher W. Corbin’s The Evangelical Party and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Return to the Church of England because Corbin is so attuned to Coleridge that he channels some of this same joy.

While the title of the book could have been snappier, the writing throughout is clear without sacrificing erudition. Further, while one may have some qualms with the densely compacted text in this volume, Corbin’s prose is a pleasure to read. That said, there are some minor issues such as typos (“Anglian” on page 83) and inconsistent capitalization of terms like “Anglican evangelicals” and “Anglican evangelicalism” (3-5).

The book’s main thesis is that Coleridge developed his theological and philosophical views “implicitly and explicitly in conversation with Anglican evangelicalism” (3). By making this argument, Corbin is filling a gap in recent scholarship. He notes that while there have been several studies on romanticism and religion, as well as monographs covering Coleridge’s religious views, none have taken seriously his relationship to evangelicalism.

Corbin sets the stage for his argument by examining 18th-century religion in Britain. First, the author discusses movements which are non-evangelical, before narrowing in on British evangelicalism, as well as its related but irregular sister movement, Methodism. From here, Corbin notes the theological emphases of Anglican evangelicalism, showing that Coleridge held similar views.

Moreover, Corbin notes that Coleridge, while he still had his qualms with the Church of England, re-entered it through the door of evangelical theology. However, it is not only ideas which influenced Coleridge, as Corbin notes, but also evangelicals with whom he came into contact over the years, such as Hannah More and Edward Irving (195-197). Finally, Corbin suggests in his conclusion that Coleridge was, as the title to the chapter suggests, “almost and more than evangelical.” By this he means that Coleridge never explicitly self-identified as an Anglican evangelical, and was, therefore, “almost” evangelical; he also means that Coleridge criticized evangelicals for their “deficiency in learning,” though this was a criticism which no person would have levelled against him (208). In this latter sense, because of his wide learning, Coleridge was “more than” an evangelical. 

Corbin successfully plumbs the theological views of Coleridge, and he does so to a different tune than other scholarship on Coleridge’s religion. Corbin does this by paying close attention to Coleridge’s writing, which he masterfully grasps, as well as the personal influences in his life from childhood to his return to the Church of England. This is not to say that Corbin’s claims will not be controversial, but he makes his case well, providing evidence from Coleridge’s writing, general history, and correspondence, and through comparison to those with similar views.

One area which would have added further nuance to Corbin’s argument is a more detailed discussion of Coleridge’s life of addiction. While Corbin did refer to Coleridge’s opium addiction (187), it would have been interesting to explore the way his battle with addiction influenced his developmental convergence with evangelicalism.  

Though the main thrust of Corbin’s work is to provide evidence to show how similar Coleridge was to Anglican evangelicals, there are some other themes running like undercurrents through the text, as well. These undercurrents transcend the text’s primary aim as a religious profile of an 18th-century thinker.

The first of these themes is a rehabilitation of historical evangelicalism. Corbin is sensitive to the bad name which evangelicals have garnered for themselves through their involvement in political crusades which are at best polarizing and at worst anti-Christian. Corbin sketches an evangelicalism (in both its Anglican and Methodist forms) that is theologically robust and socially progressive. His work is useful for correcting the false notions of evangelicalism which have come to dominate popular discourse.

A second undercurrent of this text is simply a theological appreciation for Coleridge and his thought. His religious views are important, and his struggles to unite “warmth,” the enthusiasm of Methodism, and “light,” the consistent but ultimately sterile thought of Unitarianism, remain relevant in a world where reason and faith can easily be separated (94).

It really is a shame that Corbin’s book is so expensive. His work would appeal to a wide range of readers who are interested in romanticism, the Church of England, the history of evangelicalism, and of course, Coleridge himself. He treats all of these subjects with a fluidity and clarity which is not always present in academic texts. If anything will keep readers away, it is the price of the hardback.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cole Hartin is an Assistant Curate at St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Saint John, NB, and an Adjunct Lecturer at Threshold School of Ministry.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher W. Corbin is Missioner for Transition and Leadership Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota and oversees Niobrara School for Ministry, the Diocese’s program for continuing education and local ministerial formation.

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