The Reverend Robert Taylor
The Reverend Robert Taylor (1784–1844) was a clergyman turned freethinker whose radical views – and the reaction of Church and state – may well have left Darwin with an abiding warning of the dangers of dissent.
Taylor openly challenged accepted Christian truths by staging provocative melodramas and preaching outrageous sermons, and, as his reputation grew, he acquired the title of ‘The Devil’s Chaplain’. Thousands of copies of his sermons were circulated in a seditious publication, The Devil’s Pulpit, and as a consequence, he was rejected by polite society and eventually imprisoned for blasphemy.
In 1829, the Reverend Taylor set out on an ‘infidel home missionary tour’ which visited Cambridge University. The students, including a second year scholar called Charles Darwin, were warned of the presence of radical outsiders, and it is suggested that Taylor’s eventual fate gave Darwin a well-founded and long-standing fear of revealing a theory that would similarly challenge religious orthodoxy.
As evidence for the supposed impression left on Darwin is a quote from 1857: “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of Nature!” In addition, as the reaction to his theory developed, in March 1860 Darwin described Thomas Huxley as his “good and kind agent for the propagation of the Gospel i.e. the devil’s gospel.” Both of these comments, it is argued, may have been references to Taylor’s nickname – although the term does originate with Chaucer.
Joining Taylor on his ‘Infidel Tour’ was Richard Carlile (1790-1843), an agitator for the establishment of universal suffrage and freedom of the press. Taylor was the son of a shoemaker from Ashburton, though his father abandoned the family leaving them in poverty. Taylor later recalled that, as a boy, he would take part in ceremonies where an effigy of Tom Paine was burnt at the stake, Ashburton’s vicar having preached that Paine was evil for suggesting the need for parliamentary reform.
In 1813 Richard married a local woman and the couple moved to London. When his work as a tinsmith proved unsuccessful, he began attending political meetings where he heard speakers complain about a parliamentary system that only allowed three men in every hundred to vote. He then decided to try to earn a living by selling the writings of parliamentary reformers and in 1817 he rented a shop in Fleet Street where he printed and sold political pamphlets.
The Peterloo Massacre of 1819
Carlile also began publishing a radical newspaper called The Republican which included extracts from books and poems by supporters of the reform movement such as Shelley and Byron. On 16th August 1819, he was one of the main speakers at a parliamentary reform meeting at St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester where the yeomanry charged the crowd and killed eleven people – an event later known as the Peterloo Massacre.
In October 1819, Carlile was found guilty of blasphemy and seditious libel and was sentenced to three years in Dorchester Gaol. He was also fined £1,500 and – when he refused to pay – his offices were raided and his stock was confiscated. Nevertheless, he continued to write for The Republican, which was, by then, outselling the pro-government Times.
In 1821 his wife Jane was sentenced to two years imprisonment for seditious libel. Jane was then replaced by Richard’s sister, Mary, but within six months she was also imprisoned. During the next few months, over 150 men and women were sent to prison for selling The Republican.
When he was released from prison in November 1825, Carlile returned to publishing newspapers. He also championed a range of causes – including ‘equality between the sexes’, votes for women, women MPs, birth control, and opposition to child labour. For campaigning against wage cuts and in support of agricultural workers, he was again imprisoned, this time for two and a half years.
Due to government fines, Richard Carlile lived the rest of his life in poverty and died in 1843. Though few people attended his funeral, Carlile deserves recognition as a man whose work and integrity advanced the cause of press and religious freedom in the nineteenth century.