Mary Steele Dunscombe, [Broughton,] to Martha Steele, London, [Friday] 9 March .
My Dear Sister
The parcel is arrived safe & I am very much pleased with its Contents. The Callico is very pretty & just such a thing as I shall want if I live a month or live
longer hence. The Veil is beautiful & as it will be useful so much longer I do not think it more extravagant than the hat altogether the Bonnet is now the prettiest & most becoming I have had for years my only regret is my having given you needless trouble. I have felt ashamed & grieved about it ever since but the Bonnet really required something at the edge it was merely a dislike to expend anything unnecessarily on myself that made me write so in ye ^first^ instance. You will however I hope kindly excuse it & I shall be wiser I hope in future – And now accept my sincere thanks my Dr Martha & be assured I shall wear the Bonnet with a great deal more pleasure from its having been purchased by you.
I hope your excursion has on the whole been a pleasant one & that fresh air will soon remove the remains of your Cold – Did you see Miss Evans & how is she? – I have very little to send you from this region of Silence – We go on much in our usual way – the noise of the “great Babel” reaches us not & the springing of a flower or the decaying of a Tree excites more attention than the movements of the Volunteers or the intrigues of ye State – We have read Halls Sermon I scarcely know how to express my Sentiments on it. Its Eloquence is enchanting & there are many melancholy truths in it ^& some parts of it are admirable^ but surely he must be the most alter’d of men from that high overbearing Spirit that outraged everybodys feelings & seemed to set the World at defiance. He seems now perpetually to fear giving offence & almost servilely to cringe to
the Power that be Authority but it is to the “Powers that be” – He appears to me to be now completely of the School of Mr Wilberforce & Miss More, “the illustrious Miss More” whom he used so much to dislike. He has even in one place adopted her very phraseology as well as her Sentiments or my memory much deceives me. The passage I mean is where he is speaking of the peculiar doctrines of Revelation. He They are (he says) too often reluctantly conceded rather ^than^ warmly inculcated &c – I am sorry I confess that so able an advocate for Religion should cease to be an Advocate for Civil Liberty ^that freedom he once so well defended^ but should debase the former by calling in its aid to sanction the once exploded doctrines of passive Obedience & nonresistance. What a complete Contrast is he in respects to his predecessor – one delighted in simplifying Religion the other seems to wish to cloath ^his^ in awful & tho sublime mystery – but I am running on too fast.
We were prevented from sending for the parcel yesterday & now I fear the Rain will hinder our Good Old Postman from going today. However as you purposed staying a Week at the Tomkins I hope this may reach you before you
depart leave them – You will be so good as to present our Compts to Mr & Mrs T & should you see Mary again our Love to her & friendly remembrance to Mrs Biggs. Mr D & Lucy beg their Love to you.
Mr Baldwin is better. Mr Wakeford is in London – I had almost forgot to tell you Mr Croombe is to leave us at Midsummer – Farewell My Dear Sister. Wherever you are may a gracious Providence watch o’er & bless you is the constant wish of
Broughton March 9th
You will not mention my hasty comments on Halls Sermon except at home – Miss More ^perhaps^ it may be said is much alter’d too since the time I referred to
Text: STE 5/12/xi. Postmark: Stockbridge, 12 March 1804. Address: To / Miss Steele / Mr Tomkins Denmark Hill / Camberwell / London. For an annotated text of this letter, see Timothy Whelan, ed., Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, vol. 3, pp. 360-61. Steele has much to say in this letter about her old friend Robert Hall. Most likely Steele is drawing upon comments made by Hall in the late 1780s during his many visits to Broughton to visit the Steeles. Hannah More was a great admirer of Hall after the publication of Modern Infidelity (1800), writing to William Wilberforce on 2 November 1812, "Robert Hall has been preaching at Bristol in a way to astonish every body – 16 Clergymen of a night attended him, and he preached almost every night. His powers were so transcendent that Charles Hoare told me if I could conceive Jeremy Taylor’s rich eloquence added to Barrow’s deep thinking and close reasoning I might have some conception of Robert Hall’s preaching – I could weep to think such talents are to be confined to a paltry little meeting house, and audiences of poor old weavers in red cloaks." More’s cultural elitism (she was probably surprised to learn that Elizabeth Coltman and Mary Reid, both wealthy socialites and friends of Mary Steele, would become members of Hall’s congregation in Leicester c. 1807) was always painfully present in the mind of Joseph Cottle, who nevertheless took Hall with him late in Hall’s life to visit More at Barley Wood. Steele's concern in this letter is with Hall’s reversal in politics between 1791 and 1804. No one would have questioned his power as a preacher, or his Baptist orthodoxy at this time, but his political position was no longer the one he had advocated so powerfully in Christianity Consistent with a Love of Freedom (1791) and An Apology for the Freedom of the Press (1793). In both works he attacked the two doctrines Steele mentions in her letter: passive obedience and non-resistance to government. Steele was not alone in recognizing this change in Hall, nor in connecting his recent sermon with previous works by Burke and Wilberforce. Hall was stung by these criticisms and privately defended his later position as consistent with his earlier views. Several years later, in a letter to William Wilberforce, Hall, in a rare moment of political openness, described the Foxite Whig opinions he advocated during the early 1790s, opinions to which Mary Steele contended in the above letter that Hall had become an apostate:
I was educated in the sentiments of the late Charles Fox, & to his political creed as far as I am acquainted with it, I could more entirely subscribe than [that] of any other man. Though an enemy to revolution & anarchy in every form, I am equally so to the doctrine of passive obedience & nonresistance, which I detest from my heart. To all practical purposes, I consider the British constitution as consisting of three estates as near an approximation to perfection as any that can be derived; but a very considerable reform in the constitution of the House of Commons appears to me requisite to give it its full & proper operation ... And ye maladies of people reforming themselves, I conceive would be in vain to expect, [without] an exertion of the Public voice. I must beg you my dear Sir to pardon for the freedom with which I have expressed myself upon subjects with which you are inexpressibly better acquainted than myself. But the occasion seemed to lend me to it. My earnest prayer is that our excellent constitution equally preserved from violence & decay may be perpetuated to the latest generations & may I be permitted to express my humble hope that it will never be suffered to want in persons of your talent, character, & station, watchful guardians & protectors.
See William Wilberforce Papers, Duke University; Joseph Cottle, Early Recollections: Chiefly Relating to the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 2 vols (London, 1837), vol. 1, pp. 79, 93; Hall to Wilberforce, 27 February 1817, MSS. Wilberforce, d. 17, Bodleian Library, ff. 269-70.