Nicholas Dixon is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at Pembroke College, Cambridge. His doctoral research concerns the political and social influence of the Church of England during the early nineteenth century, with a particular focus on Anglican activity in the contexts of Parliament, the National Society and the SPCK. In this post, based on a paper given at an EHS postgraduate colloquium last year, he discusses the writings of William Dixon (no relation!), which offer significant insights into the ways in which pre-Victorian Anglicanism was interpreted and implemented at a local level.
In Lincolnshire Archives there is an important but neglected source that sheds much light on early nineteenth-century Anglicanism and its significance in a rural context. The source in question is the journals and papers of a little-known Lincolnshire farmer named William Dixon. Born in 1756, Dixon was a prosperous landholder in the village of Holton le Moor outside the market town of Caistor. He recorded his reflections on a variety of subjects in roughly bound notebooks, some of them with pages recycled from letters or handbills for cattle sales. 54 of these survive, the earliest dating from around 1800 and the latest from shortly before Dixon’s death in 1824. Four aspects of Dixon’s writings are of particular interest to those studying the pre-Victorian Church of England: his view of Methodism, his veneration of the Anglican clergy, his political opinions and his thoughts concerning education.
Examples of William Dixon’s notebooks.
In about 1815, Dixon mused, ‘I do not know how or why I should have this propensity to serve Mankind in general every nation without reserve except it be that I am a regenerated Layman of and by ye Church of England’. Yet he was not closed to the possibility that ‘regeneration’ might come from other sources, principally Methodism. He also stated, ‘do not think I am [an] Enemy to Methodism but the reverse’. Dixon saw the divergence between Anglicanism and Methodism as one of practice rather than belief, defining a Methodist as ‘one who treats of Method or affects to be methodical’. Such an approach was praiseworthy in so far as it was ‘done & promoted on the best of motives … for the salvation of Mens Souls.’ But, in Dixon’s view, Methodists seldom lived up to their ideals. He placed them in two categories: ‘real’ and ‘hypocritical’ Methodists. ‘Real’ Methodists were ‘converted Laymen’, but it was the other category that Dixon considered predominant, writing in 1818 that some Methodists were ‘worse labourers’ because ‘they are tinctured w[i]th greater hyprocrisy & no greater Arts to cloak it & as such are greater enemies to ye Church & State of w[hi]ch they are Members, & by w[hi]ch their lives and property are protected.’
In addition to his ambivalence towards Methodism, Dixon’s preference for the Church of England was informed by his unusually elevated view of the Anglican clergy. Not for him the priesthood of all believers. To Dixon, clergymen were little lower than the angels. He termed them ‘Celestial Beings’ in contrast to the ‘Opaque Beings’ that made up the laity. This distinction he derived from an eccentric interpretation of Newtonian physics peppered with Latin: ‘As that admirable discovery of Mr. Newton shews that all of Opaque Bodies upon Terra gravitate to each w[i]th ye opperation [sic] or attraction or cohesion of Celestial bodies so in like manner may it be discovered that all Powers of Lux graduate to or from each other & have such unerring dependencies on each other, that humane [sic] powers on Terra cannot produce a proper & true good effect on Terra w[i]thout summoning ye aid of Celestial ones.’ Hence it was necessary for the ‘opaque’ laity to seek the guidance of the ‘celestial’ clergy in order to become ‘regenerated’. It is no surprise, therefore, that Dixon took a very dim view of anticlericalism and, by extension, alternative ecclesiastical structures. In his most unequivocal attack on dissent, he declared, ‘the Church of Christ established in the imperial Kingdom of England is the True Church established by the anointed of God & paid for out of ye Fruits of his Earth … all others are false vain & vexatious & Set up by man in opposition to the true Church of Christ’.
William Dixon in the SPCK subscribers list, 1811, and the Lincoln county poll book (casting a vote for Whig candidate Hon. Charles Anderson Pelham), 1818.
Coupled with Dixon’s claims for Anglican spiritual exceptionalism was a distinct political theology. The benefits of a clergy were not only spiritual. To Dixon, writing in 1809, they were ‘an order of Men appointed to institute a System of Conduct the most conducive to civil society of any ever yet disclos’d to mankind & ye only necessary or needful to make them peaceable & happy’. Furthermore, the office of monarch and ‘Head of the Church’ was just as much divinely ordained as that of the clergy, though it appears that Dixon stopped short of denominating George III a ‘celestial being’. He nevertheless called him ‘ye most noble sovereign upon Earth’. Dixon explained that ‘the King as supreme ye Bishops & Clergy’ were ‘gods anointed according to the established Laws of ye Imperial Kingdom.’ He further stated, ‘All power is from God the Creator … His power in the English Nation is w[i]th h[is] m[ajesty] the King & parliament & their deputies.’ The framework for the exercise of this power was the Protestant constitution. Dixon expressed admiration for ‘this enlightened Nation ye realm of England whose form of Government is established form’d fashioned & conducted on ye Basis of ye protestant religion’. England’s Protestant constitution could be divided into three departments, each possessing a vital function. The ‘State department consisting of King Lords & commons’ preserved life and property, the ‘Church or Ecclesiastical Department’ preserved men’s ‘immortal souls’ and a ‘Commonalty’ uniting ‘labour & employ’ provided sustenance for the population.
Dixon tempered his high view of monarchical and clerical authority with a vague belief in constitutional rights and liberties. Citing George Custance’s Concise View of the Constitution of England, he noted ‘the right w[hi]ch every Subject of ye British Empire enjoys, not only to petition ye King & both houses of Parliament: but also to lay his opinions & complaints before his fellow subjects’. In 1821, he sought to define ‘[t]he true notion of Liberty’ in an address intended for ‘Boys & young men in the Kings Merchant Sea Service’. Observing that ‘[o]ne of the first things we Britons talk of almost as soon as we can speak is Liberty’, he asserted that there were ‘some who do & some who do not understand what it realy [sic] means.’ For Dixon, liberty could be ‘one of the most glorious objects in the World’, but it could never be separated from ‘Virtue’. There was ‘but one way of treating [Liberty] well, & that is by being honest & just in all our dealings, treating the laws of England w[i]th reverence, & those in authority w[i]th all due respect.’ Characteristically, Dixon had turned a discourse on liberty into a discourse on obedience and authority. More important to Dixon than rights or liberties were duties. He much admired Lord Nelson’s famous command at Trafalgar, ‘England will expect every Man to do his duty’. If all were to ‘emulate ye deeds & commands & actions of this brave & most excellent subject’, he wrote in 1806, ‘we should be a most happy people in comparrison [sic] to what we are’.
That the masses seemed to Dixon to be in almost complete ignorance of their religious and political duties was a constant source of irritation. He argued that such a deficiency was ‘in ourselves & it must be amended among ourselves’. ‘[H]ow’, he asked, ‘can a Man perform according to ye Laws of God & Man if he does not know them’. Dixon’s remedy was twofold: a house of industry and Sunday schools. In 1800, he took the lead in establishing a house of industry in Caistor, the purpose of which was ‘restoring, to the unclean Poor, Cleanliness; to the drunken Poor, Sobriety; to the idle Poor, Industry; to the wicked Poor, Piety; and for giving to the ignorant Poor, Instructions’. Some of these instructions were evidently given by Dixon himself, for one of his notebooks is full of stern remarks on moral and religious subjects addressed to the inmates. Dixon considered his house of industry ‘as much incorporated w[i]th ye constitution of England as the Church & State it ministering comforts & conveniences to ye Estate of ye Commonalty in a similar way by ye productive powers of Labour as the Church does by ye Gospel dispensation & the State by ye Legal dispensation’.
Inscription of 1913 to William Dixon on Holton le Moor School.
Out of the House of Industry grew a movement to establish Sunday schools in the vicinity of Caistor, promoted from 1809 by an association of female patrons organised by Dixon named the Matron Society. Dixon was unimpressed by objections to educating the poor, writing that ignorance ‘creates … an impatience of control, highly injurious to government … but pure religion has a powerful tendency to civilize ye mind & in proportion as it makes its progress in ye hearts of men, it softens their natural roughness & transforms them into new creatures’. Examination in the Bible and Prayer Book were the essential components of religious instruction for Dixon. A doctrinally exclusive Anglicanism was his ideal: ‘we had better have no opinion on Religion as to have a wrong opinion of the true Religion. What is ye true religion the Christian religion [?] see publications from ye S[ociety] f[or] p[romoting] C[hristian] k[nowledge] Bartletts Buildings’. Accordingly, books used in the Sunday schools of the Caistor Matron Society were from the SPCK catalogue, then a yardstick for Anglican orthodoxy.
It is undeniable that Dixon’s thoughts were, in many ways, unusual. For instance, his notion of the clergy as ‘celestial beings’ was heterodox by any normative Anglican standard. However, the leading features of Dixon’s worldview were congruent with the mainstream of the Church of England of his time. In his ambivalence towards Methodism, Dixon reflected an orthodox Anglican suspicion of Evangelicals in general. His exaggerated reverence for the clergy as a distinct order manifested a common concern to maintain clerical authority against itinerant preachers and radical agitators. But Dixon’s worldview was not simply a matter of reaction to external threats; it also involved positive affirmation of an assertive kind. In the political sphere, this meant upholding the Protestant constitution and the monarchy as integral to it as well as a scepticism not about liberty per se, but about the uses of liberty. For Dixon, as for many of his co-religionists, true liberty consisted in the service of God and the King, and thus was contiguous with duty. A primary outlet for such beliefs was the active championing of efforts to educate the poor in the principles of the established church. Houses of industry and Sunday schools stocked with orthodox SPCK tracts like the institutions Dixon established in Caistor were the means whereby the masses could be brought towards a comprehension of their obligations to the religious and political order.
That Dixon imbibed and practiced such ideas suggests that, even in his rural isolation, he was in touch with broader developments in Anglican thought. If an obscure farmer like Dixon could so readily take in what the clergy taught, could this point towards to a broader allegiance to Anglicanism among his peers? Further research is needed to address this question adequately. In any case, Dixon’s journals are a compelling vantage point from which to assess the Church of England’s influence over society at large. In recovering his worldview, we go some way towards recovering a strand of Anglican lay piety which has for too long been overlooked.
Pembroke College, Cambridge
This research has been supported by an AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership Studentship. I am grateful to Lincolnshire Archives for permission to cite and use images of William Dixon’s journals.