Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 11. Dissenting Academies: Secker’s Experience

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XV. Education

§ 11. Dissenting Academies: Secker’s Experience

The instruction given by the academies was of different types and standards; but, when they became established institutions, their first care was the education of ministers; dissenting academies supplied their earliest training beyond school age to Samuel Wesley, the elder, to bishop Butler (of The Analogy) and to archbishop Secker. But not all the pupils were being educated for the ministry, and this fact was made the ground of a charge, in the circumstances very discreditable to those who preferred it, that the academies diverted men from the universities.

Secker complained that the Latin and Greek which he carried from the Chesterfield free school to Jolly’s academy at Attercliffe was lost at the latter place, “for only the old philosophy of the schools was taught there, and that neither ably nor diligently”; like Wesley some years earlier, he thought but poorly of the morals of his fellow-students. In 1710, Secker, then seventeen years old, removed to Bowes’s academy in Bishopsgate street, where he learned algebra, geometry, conic sections, read Locke’s Essay and studied French; Isaac Watts was an inmate of the same house. About 1711, Secker again migrated, this time to an academy kept at Gloucester by a dissenting layman, Samuel Jones.

  • There I recovered my almost lost knowledge of Greek and Latin, and added to it that of Hebrew, Chaldee and Syriack. We had also lectures on Dionysius’s Geography, a course of lectures preparatory to the critical study of the Bible, and a course of Jewish antiquities, besides logick and mathematics. Here I … began a strict correspondence [i.e. intimacy] with Mr. Joseph Butler, afterwards Bishop of Durham.
  • The academy was removed to Tewkesbury, where, says Secker, Jones

  • began to relax of his industry, to drink too much ale and small beer and to lose his temper, … and most of us fell off from our application and regularity.
  • Yet, here, Butler wrote his letters to Samuel Clarke, Secker carrying them to a distant post office for concealment’s sake, lest his correspondent’s youth and real situation should shock the London rector.

    Dissenting educators were singled out for especial attack by the framers of that legislation under Anne which culminated in the Schism act of 1714. It would seem that concerted action against the academies was determined upon in the first years of the queen’s reign. The earliest sign was given by the publication of Samuel Wesley’s Letter from a country divine, 1702, in which he asserted that the academies fostered “the good old Cause,” were actively hostile to the church and disloyal to the crown. In the following year, the dedication to the queen of the second part of Clarendon’s History contained the rhetorical question, repeated more emphatically in the third part, 1704:

  • What can be the meaning of the several seminaries, and as it were universities, set up in divers parts of the kingdom, by more than ordinary industry, contrary to law, supported by large contributions, where the youth is bred up in principles directly contrary to monarchical and episcopal government?
  • In 1704, also, Sharp, archbishop of York, moved for an inquiry into the conduct of the academies; in the same year, Defoe, who, like Samuel Wesley, had been educated at Morton’s academy, joined in the fray, and Sacheverell at Oxford, in a diatribe against comprehension, raged against illegal “schismatical universities.” In 1705, they were denounced in convocation by the Irish clergy.

    The struggle had lasting and disastrous effects upon the history of English education; the feeling aroused by it has never since entirely subsided. In the eighteenth century, it sterilised the first promising experiment in popular education, and the triumph of the church was a contributory cause to the apathy which fell upon the universities in the same century. It injured the nation by diverting a large portion of its youth from the main stream of national education into backwaters or into alien rivers. The action of the majority was determined by mixed motives, more political than theological; but, whatever their intentions and whatever their provocation, the churchmen of Anne’s day gave birth to a long-lived spirit of faction and contention.

    It is true that nothing was taught at the dissenting academies which could not be better learned within the university precincts; but such newer studies as mathematics, French and modern history formed part of the ordinary scheme of work for all their students, and experimental study carried on within the narrow limits of a single building must have entered more intimately into the daily life of the majority of the pupils than was the case at Oxford and Cambridge, where, in fact, study of this kind was not deemed suitable for undergraduates. The academies, therefore, are to be reckoned among the forces which gathered during the eighteenth century to destroy the monopoly held by the ancient curriculum.

    Discontent with the customary course of studies in school and university had long been exhibited among the classes from which men of affairs were most frequently drawn. Neither school nor university took special note of the changed conditions under which the administrator, courtier, soldier and provincial magnate lived, or adopted any special measures for their benefit. The private tutor was called in to redress the balance, or to take the place of the school. While the ordinary course of those “bred to learning” was from the school to the university, there was an increasing tendency amongst the nobility and the wealthy throughout the seventeenth century to ignore the school in favour of the tutor, who taught his pupil from childhood, accompanied him to the university and acted as guardian on his travels in Europe. The tutor’s work, in many cases, ceased when his pupil, either on the conclusion of his university course, or in place of it, entered one of the inns of court. Clement Ellis ascribed the popularity of the inns to the fact that students were there free from the troublesome presence of tutors. They might, or might not, follow the study of law in earnest; to be a member of an inn was deemed a fitting conclusion to an education and a direct introduction into life.