Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 3. The influence of Coleridge

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XIII. The Growth of Liberal Theology

§ 3. The influence of Coleridge

Among the evangelicals there was not enough of speculative interest to revive and liberate theology. Emancipation would not come from them. It came in part from an unexpected quarter, from the poet-philosopher and amateur theologian, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. From early days, he was in revolt against the utilitarian fashion in philosophy and in theology, and it became his aim, as Julius Hare said, to spiritualise both the one and the other. It was high time that philosophy should again have a hearing in English religion, as it had already had in Germany. English theology had been suffering, for at least a generation, from the poverty of its intellectual interest; it was Coleridge’s province to stimulate that interest, as a long succession of religious thinkers have amply testified.

Coleridge would himself have recognised the truth and the pathos of Charles Lamb’s description of him as “an archangel a little damaged.” The contrast between his spiritual ideals and his sordid failures was as painful to him as it could be to his friends. He laboured under a deep conviction of sin which gave a personal intensity to his Confessions, as, for instance, when he says that, in the Bible, he has “found words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs, and pleadings for my shame and my feebleness.” The theological reading of this “literary cormorant,” as he called himself, was discursive. He leapt contemptuously back over the aevum rationalisticum into the seventeenth century, where he found poets and divines to his mind. Archbishop Leighton, Jeremy Taylor and other writers of that age furnished him with matter for comment in his Aids to Reflection (1825). Some readers might feel themselves being led into “a holy jungle” by Coleridge’s musings on the persons of the Trinity as representing ipseity, altereity and communeity; but, at least, he gave them more to think about than did the orthodox defenders of the faith in their eminently lucid writings. It was time that someone called a halt to the prevailing mode in theological literature.

  • Evidences of Christianity! I am weary of the word. Make a man feel the want of it; rouse him, if you can, to the self-knowledge of his need of it; and you may safely trust it to its own evidence.
  • Confessions of an Enquiring Spirit was published by his nephew, posthumously, in 1840. These seven letters on inspiration, simpler in style and thought than most of Coleridge’s writings, are a remarkable anticipation of the attitude of modern Christians towards the Bible. Coleridge exhibits a happy union of complete freedom and of deep gratitude for the Scriptures. He combats the contemporary view that the Bible was not to be “reasoned about in the way that other good books are.” He maintains that “the Bible and Christianity are their own sufficient evidence.”

  • In the Bible there is more that finds me than I have experienced in all other books put together;… the words of the Bible find me at greater depths of my being; and … whatever finds me brings with it an irresistible evidence of its having proceeded from the Holy Spirit.
  • He rests secure on his “own dear experience” and, regardless of discrepancies and moral imperfections in the Scriptures, pursues his study “with free and unboding spirit.”