Charles Wellbeloved (1769-1858), a dissenting liberal minister and educator, greatly influenced British Unitarians. Noted for his wide scholarship and for his well-known defenses of liberal Christianity, he trained many celebrated Unitarian ministers at Manchester College, York.
Born in London, Charles was the only child of John and Elizabeth Plaw Wellbeloved. Owing to “domestic unhappiness,” he went to live at age four with his grandfather, Charles Wellbeloved (1713-1782), and never saw his parents again. He was baptized in the Church of England but was attracted, along with his grandfather, to Methodism. John Wesley was often a guest at their house.
Charles was apprenticed to a firm of drapers. He said he learned only there “how to tie up a parcel.” He studied at Homerton Academy under harsh conditions imposed by his teacher, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Davies, a strict Calvinist. The students warmed themselves in their small rooms by burying their feet in a basket of hay. Wellbeloved’s early life and Calvinist training gave him gloomy views of God and man. Always deeply religious and sensitive, he never lost a tinge of melancholy.
Liberal-minded fellow students introduced Charles to the writings of Joseph Priestley and Theophilus Lindsey. In 1787 he went to Hackney Academy in London, where Priestley and Thomas Belsham were tutors, to train for the dissenting ministry. Wellbeloved also was influenced by Richard Price, whose services he attended at Newington Green and Hackney.
Young Wellbeloved took an interest in politics. He spoke firmly against the many laws restricting dissenters’ civil liberties. He wrote to the Morning Chronicle denouncing the 1791 Birmingham rioters who set fire to Priestley’s home and church. Like many other Unitarians, Wellbeloved supported the French Revolution for its espousal of liberty. At his invitation Thomas Paine spoke at Hackney Academy.
In 1792, his studies completed, Wellbeloved accepted a call to serve as assistant to Newcome Cappe at St. Saviourgate Chapel in York. Upon Cappe’s death in 1800, he became pastor. Wellbeloved served the church as minister for 66 years, until his death.
In 1793 Wellbeloved married Ann Kinder. When she died in 1832, they had seven living children. Two sons, John and Robert Scott, studied for the ministry. In 1819 John, still a student, died of typhus during a trip to Germany. Robert briefly assisted his father at St. Saviourgate, but was more successful as a lawyer. Daughter Emma married Sir James Carter, a student at Manchester College and later Chief Justice of New Brunswick. Daughter Anne kept house for her father until her death from tuberculosis in 1846.
In need of money to support his family, Wellbeloved early began to supplement his income by running a school and boarding the students in his home. In 1803 Manchester Academy, founded in 1786 to train dissenting ministers, needed a new Principal. Because Wellbeloved would not move to Manchester, the college moved to York to have him as head. At first he taught all subjects. He hired additional tutors after a year. He always worked hard and several times his health broke. In 1840, when age forced him to retire, the college moved back to Manchester.
Wellbeloved did not allow the school to be called Unitarian because he wanted students to have an open mind and to discover the truth for themselves. In 1809 he wrote to George Wood, “I do not and will not teach Unitarianism or any ism but Christianism. I will endeavour to teach the students how to study the Scripture—nice if they find Unitarianism there—well if animism—well if Trinitarianism—well, only let them find something for themselves.”
Under Wellbeloved’s Principalship 235 students were educated at the college. Divinity students numbered 121 and laymen 114. Of the divinity students 30 did not enter the ministry and 5 entered the Anglican priesthood. Among the lay students were scholars, public servants, notable people in the arts and businessmen. The majority was Unitarian. Among the distinguished Unitarian students were James Martineau (later Principal), William Gaskell, Philip Pearsall Carpenter, John James Tayler (later Principal), Joseph Hunter, Joseph Hutton, William Raynor Wood, Daniel Jones, William Turner, Jr., James Yates, Robert Wallace (later Principal), Mark Philips (prominent Member of Parliament), and Edward Worthington.
Wellbeloved was fluent in French and Italian. His printed sermons were footnoted with Greek, Latin, and Hebrew references, and he read Arabic, Syriac, Chaldee, and German. In 1814 he began a translation of the Old Testament from original sources, intended for family worship and including copious scholarly and homiletic notes. The translation occupied much of his spare time the rest of his life. He completed the Pentateuch in 1825 and Psalms in 1838, but never finished the project. In 1801 he published Devotional Exercises for young people. He edited theological and metaphysical sections of the Annual Review, 1802-07, published by Longman & Rees.
An antiquarian and archaeologist, Wellbeloved wrote Eburacum; or, York under the Romans, 1842. He formed the Antiquarian Society, helped organize the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, served as Curator of Antiquities at the York Museum, and wrote a history of St. Mary’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery. In 1827 he undertook to save the Roman wall around the city of York and raised money for its restoration.
Many of Wellbeloved’s contributions to his city went beyond scholarship and education for ministry. The York Lunatic Asylum was inhumanely and poorly managed until Wellbeloved became the chairman of the committee of governors, 1831-50. Taking an active role in the administration and replacing severity with kindness, he won the inmates’ trust. He assisted at the Wilberforce School for the Blind. He was a founder of the York Mechanics Institute, whose purpose was to provide education for ordinary people. The Institute had a library and reading room and sponsored public lectures on science, history and literature. Wellbeloved himself gave many evening lectures. He served as director of the York Dispensary, the Savings Bank, the School of Design, and the Art Gallery. After the famous York Minster burned in 1829, Wellbeloved successfully campaigned and raised money for its restoration to its original condition. The Archbishop of York wrote to thank him for his diligence. Wellbeloved’s student William Gaskell later commented, “There is scarcely an institution designed for [the benefit of the citizens of York] with which he was not in some way connected, or which he did not help to originate.”
Prominent Anglican churchmen attacked Unitarians. In 1799 Wellbeloved refuted Bishop Samuel Horsley’s charge that Unitarians were atheists. He wrote, “We acknowledge one God, who in Scripture is called the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Maker of all worlds, and the Governor and Judge of all men. We consider Jesus as his prophet, commissioned to teach mankind.”
In 1823 Wellbeloved defended Captain Thomas Thrush, a Unitarian naval officer who, after his conversion, publicized pacifist principles. The strategy of his opponent, Archdeacon Francis Wrangham, was to attack and destroy his adversaries’ reputations. Wellbeloved made no counterattack on Wrangham, but answered the charges reasonably with learning and modesty. It was generally agreed that Wellbeloved had the better of the dispute. He wrote to Wrangham, “If, in vindicating the doctrines you have so bitterly opposed, and the characters you have so wrongly aspersed, there has been any thing in my manner needlessly harsh and offensive; if I have been betrayed into any thing unbecoming a scholar and a Christian, here avow my sincere regret, and tender a willing apology. And if I have, in any instance, misapprehended your words, and attributed to them a meaning which they will not bear, or which you did not design them to express; or if I have fallen into errors of any other kind, I require only to be convinced, in order publicly to acknowledge and correct them.”
The public sided entirely with Wellbeloved. The Rev. Sydney Smith, a well-known Anglican vicar, remarked that if he had a cause to gain, he would fee Wellbeloved to plead for him and double-fee Wrangham to plead against him.
Lady Sarah Hewley, a 17th century Presbyterian dissenter and a builder of St. Saviourgate Chapel, had set up a trust in support of the non-conforming ministry, from which both Wellbeloved and Manchester College benefited. More orthodox dissenters of the 19th century initiated and won a suit against the Unitarian trustees of the funds in series of trials, 1833-39. The court interrogated Wellbeloved concerning his beliefs. In his testimony he called himself a Protestant Dissenter of Presbyterian polity, rather than a Unitarian. He offered only this statement of belief: “Whatever is taught in Christ’s Holy Gospel, concerning the existence, perfections, and government of God, the person and the office of Christ, the terms of pardon and acceptance with God, the duties of life, and a future state of righteous retribution, the defendant gratefully and cordially receives and professes as divine truth.”
The Chancellor, Lord Eldon, ruled against the Unitarians (and Wellbeloved), declaring Unitarianism “wicked and blasphemous,” a criminal offense under the common law, and Unitarians not entitled to any protection or benefit of the law. Unitarians would have lost every trust, deed, and chapel they owned had not Parliament in 1844 granted them protection under the Dissenters’ Chapels Bill.
Charles Wellbeloved was excessively modest. Several times when banquets were given to honor him, he became too sick to attend. Never recognized by the British Unitarian association, or even by the college until in 1998 a room was named for him, he greatly influenced Unitarians. Without his labors Manchester College, now a part of Oxford University, almost certainly would not have survived. The standards of scholarship, religious service and piety Wellbeloved established have informed the history of the College.
A collection of Wellbeloved’s books, articles, pamphlets, and manuscripts are at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. Out of modesty he destroyed all his sermon manuscripts, an accumulation spanning seven decades. We know of them only because reporters took down his words and printed them in magazines and newspapers. Among his printed sermons are The Principles of Roman Catholics and Unitarians Contrasted (1800); The Religious and Moral Improvement of Mankind (1815); A Sermon . . . in Aid of a Subscription for the Erection of a Unitarian Chapel in Calcutta (1825); and “The Mystery of Godliness,” in the Christian Reformer (1826). His controversy with Wrangham was published as Three Letters (1823) and Three Additional Letters (1824). He also wrote Memoir of T. Thrush (1845).
There are two biographies: A Biographical Memoir of the Late Rev. Charles Wellbeloved, by his son-in-law John Kenrick (1860), and A Fine Victorian Gentleman, The Life and Times of Charles Wellbeloved, by Frank Schulman (1999). An account of his Principalship is in V. D. Davis, A History of Manchester College (1932) and in David L. Wykes, “Dissenting Academy or Unitarian Seminary? Manchester College at York (1803-1840),” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (1988). An account of the conflict over the Lady Hewley Trust is in Frank Schulman, Blasphemous and Wicked, The Unitarian Struggle for Equality 1813-1844 (1997). There are numerous references to Wellbeloved in Truth, Liberty, Religion, ed. Barbara Smith (1986). The picture of Charles Wellbeloved is a detail from an oil painting by James Lonsdale. The original hangs in the Senior Common Room at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. A duplicate of the painting is at the York Museum. It is the only likeness ever made of him.
Article by Frank Schulman
Posted October 21, 2002