Having spent the early part of my life in London and Sussex I came to the Bath area, via a brief spell in Hampshire, forty years ago. One thing I soon noted about my new home region was the large number of nonconformist chapels and meeting houses that speckle its towns and villages. Even in the 1970s some had already been converted into private homes or secular community facilities. But the names 'Ebenezer', 'Wesleyan', 'Unitarian' and several others remain carved into the fabric of the buildings.
Many of these places of meeting and worship also display dates from the late seventeenth century to the nineteenth. Reformation, Civil War, Enlightenment and industrialisation all contributed to a ferment of thoughts, ideas and arguments about religion and belief, religious practice and the relationship of the church and the individual.
Our speaker this month is Isabel Rivers, Professor of Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture at Queen Mary University of London. Professor Rivers is also Director of the Dissenting Academies Project. Her research interests focus on intellectual and religious history and the history of the book from 1660 to 1830. Her current project is a book whose title will be Vanity Fair and the Celestial City and its subtitle that of this month's lecture: Dissenting, Methodist and Evangelical Literary Culture in England, 1720-1800. It will make reference to religious publishing, societies for distributing books, advice about reading, seventeenth-century nonconformist and episcopalian inheritances, Roman Catholic influences, North American connections, interpreting the Bible, practical works, lives, letters, the uses of poetry, hymn collections and magazines. Among the key personalities featured in Professor Rivers's book will be John Bunyan, Henry Scougal, Philip Doddridge, William Law, George Whitefield and John Wesley.
Isabel Rivers's most substantial publication to date has been Reason, Grace and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660-1780, published in two volumes in 1991 and 2000. More recently she has published Joseph Priestley, Scientist, Philosopher, and Theologian (2008) and Dissenting Praise: Religious Dissent and the Hymn in England and Wales (2011).
Another date for your diary
My diary entry for 27 January (below) referred to HA Bath Branch members' visits in May and June and our Christmas event. I now have another date that you may want to note: the afternoon of Thursday 12 October, when a party of members will be able to visit St John's Hospital, founded in Bath by Bishop Reginald Fitzjocelyn in 1174 beside the hot springs of the Cross Bath to provide healing and shelter for the poor infirm. Rebuilt in the eighteenth century by a young John Wood the Elder, St John's has continued to provide for the poor of Bath for more than 800 years. More information and booking forms will be issued in the coming weeks.