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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XVI. The Literature of Dissent

§ 9. The Salters’ Hall Synod and the question of Subscription: John Taylor and Samuel Bourn

It is claimed by presbyterian writers that there was no avowed heterodoxy among the London ministers for half a generation after Salters’ hall. This means little more than that the great luminaries of dissent of the era following on the Toleration act had passed away, and that, between 1720 and 1740, no successors had arisen worthy of the memory of those giants—outside, that is to say, of the world of academic teaching. But, underneath the surface deadness and mental lethargy of this later period, the leaven of anti-Trinitarian thought continued incessantly at work, and, when the interim of quiescence had ended, it was found to have been merely a phase of growth, an intermediate stage between the Arianism of 1720 and the later unitarianism. In matter of literature, the intermediate phase was distinguished by the writings of John Taylor of Norwich, a professed presbyterian (Defence of the Common rights of Christians, 1737; The Scripture doctrine of Original Sin, 1740), and of Samuel Bourn (Address to Protestant Dissenters, 1737).

In itself, the literary importance of this period of nonconformist history is not great, save and in so far as it marks the stepping-stone to the latest phase of the development of unitarian thought—that phase, namely, which is distinguished by the names of Nathaniel Lardner, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley and Theophilus Lindsey—a movement which lies outside the scope of the present chapter.

It is not to be supposed that the evolution of a distinctively unitarian church was the sole outcome of the train of development which has been briefly sketched above. The sections of dissent—in all its three denominations—which stood aloof from the distinctively unitarian development, yet remained profoundly affected by the spirit of it. The presbyterian, independent and baptist churches alike showed, in their loose internal organisations, the disintegrating force of the unitarian movement. Both in individual congregations and in the loose and feeble associations, the spirituality of dissent, which had been its glory and motive force in the seventeenth century, had sunk into atrophy; and, had it not been for the reviving influence of methodism, all three denominations would probably, at the close of the eighteenth century, have offered a melancholy spectacle. The intellectual gain to English thought generally, quite apart from dissenting theology in particular, was incalculable: but the spiritual loss was none the less to be deplored.