The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 11. The Nonconformist Academy System
Finally, outside and apart from the field of pure thought, eighteenth century England owes a heavy debt to dissent for its educational system, to which reference has already been made in an earlier volume, but which seems to deserve further notice here in its connection with the influence of nonconformity upon literature. Although the presbyterians had but one or two free schools (public charity schools) in London before 1714, and, although the baptists and independents joined forces in that and the succeeding year to establish a similar free school at Horsleydown (subsequently the Maze Pond school), the academy system of the dissenters, in the main, had reference only to the private and domestic problem of the supply of educated ministers for their respective denominations. Accordingly, each one of the more widely recognised academies, during some period of its generally chequered and brief career, takes on a denominational colour. As a system, these academies date entirely from the era of the Toleration act. Prior to that date, dissenting ministers engaged in education acted as private tutors in families or contented themselves with opening small private schools in their own houses. After the Toleration act, however, individual ministers started private schools of their own of which it is now impossible to ascertain the number or, in many instances, the circumstances of origin and growth. Where the minister was a man of learning and power, these schools endured for a generation and sometimes longer, and linked their names with the history of dissent through the personality alike of pupils and of tutors. And it is herein that they claim special recognition; for, in their totality, they present a brilliant galaxy of talent in fields of learning far removed from mere theological studies. Such a result could not have been achieved, had it not been for the powerful solvent of intellectual freedom which the unitarian movement brought in its train. Few of the academies, whatever their denominational colour at the outset, escaped contact with it, and those of them which assimilated the influence most freely produced great tutors and scholars. In this matter, the academies trod the same historical path as that followed by the individual dissenting churches. Their intellectual activity blazed so fiercely that it tended to burn up the spiritual life; and herein lies the secret at once of their first success, their chequered and bickering career and, in most cases, their ultimate atrophy.
The attitude of the church of England towards these academies has already been detailed. But the fear which the establishment entertained that these academies would starve the universities proved baseless. In their early days, indeed, they attracted a lay clientela as well as candidates for the ministry. But the bent towards unitarianism which provided the intellectual stimulus to tutors and ministerial candidates frightened off the layman, and effectually prevented the dissenting academies from leaving the deep mark on the English race and on the English educational system that might have been expected from the individual talent and prestige of their tutors.