Robert Aspland (January 13, 1782-December 30, 1845), father of organised Unitarianism in Great Britain, was the most widely known Unitarian minister of his day. He was amongst the most powerful and influential—some thought domineering—of Unitarian figures.
Robert was born at Wicken, Cambridgeshire, the eldest son of Robert and Hannah (née Brook) Aspland. His father kept the village shop. The family attended the local Baptist church; his mother was the strong dissenter.
A bright child, Robert was first sent to a school in Islington in 1793 and later to one in Hackney. Early in life he decided to be a minister, and his abilities were soon apparent. At age fourteen he was attending London Calvinistic chapels and taking notes of the contents of sermons for future reference. In 1797 Aspland went to Battersea in South London for ministerial training. The following year he proceeded to the Bristol Academy and then, in 1799, to the Marischal College in the University of Aberdeen. Here Aspland first began to doubt the Calvinistic doctrines of orthodox Baptists. In 1800 because of these doubts he left the University and abandoned his hopes of becoming a minister. In this, the bleakest period of his life, he worked with an artist paints manufacturer, although he himself was colour blind.
Churches belonging to the General Baptist Assembly were at this time becoming increasingly unitarian in theology. The Rev. John Evans of the General Baptist Chapel at Worship Street in London prompted the General Baptists of Newport, Isle of Wight to invite Aspland to preach. In April 1801 Aspland was elated when the congregation appointed him minister, at the age of nineteen. Within a month he married Sara Middleton (1772-1858), the daughter of his former employer.
In 1805 came the turning point of Aspland’s life. He became minister of one of the leading Unitarian pulpits in Britain, the New Gravel Pit (Presbyterian) Chapel Hackney, near London, formerly occupied by Richard Price, Joseph Priestley and Thomas Belsham. Immediately, he set out on what he conceived to be his duty, creation of Unitarian structures. Amongst his most significant achievements was the foundation of the Monthly Repository in 1806. Hitherto, Unitarian magazines had been transitory. Aspland’s journal attempted to unite all liberal congregations in a common cause, especially against the increasing attacks of orthodox Christians. Unitarians were stirred with a sense of the importance of their movement, and Aspland, in the words of Earle Morse Wilbur, “became recognised as leader of the denomination.” All this before he was thirty years old.
In 1810 Aspland published A Selection of Psalms and Hymns for Unitarian Worship. It was a startling and adventurous thing at that time to include the word ‘Unitarian’ in the title of a book. For to hold Unitarian doctrine was a penal offence until 1812.
The amount of work and administration Aspland got through was truly prodigious. He edited and was responsible for meeting the costs of the Monthly Repository, 1806-26. In 1815 he founded for less educated Unitarians a more popular monthly, The Christian Reformer, which he edited, 1815-44. He was a prime mover of the Unitarian Fund, organized to support the nation-wide missionary work of the Rev. Richard Wright. He was the Fund’s first secretary, 1806-18. In 1809 he helped create the Christian Tract Society and in 1819 the Association for Protecting the Civil Rights of Unitarians. In 1813 Aspland set up the Unitarian Academy at Hackney for the training of ministers. One of his less successful ventures, the school closed in 1818, partly due to his poor health.
Aspland played a significant role in achieving civil and religious liberty for Protestant Dissenters and Roman Catholics. In this cause, he was one of the last persons to have an appointment with Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister ever assassinated, in 1812. He served on major committees formed to press the government to legislate for religious tolerance. In 1830 Aspland delivered the loyal address to the new King, William IV, on behalf of the Protestant Dissenting Deputies. His address led to the formal rift between Unitarians and orthodox dissenters, who objected to presentation on their behalf by a Unitarian.
As early as his Isle of Wight ministry, Aspland attracted Jews into his congregations, and at Hackney numbered the economist David Ricardo amongst his supporters. He made no attempt to covert them; he realised he could learn from Jews as well as teach. Believing that freedom would only be enhanced if its benefits were spread to as many people and groups as possible, Aspland always remembered and cared for the rights of others.
Aspland is chiefly known for the part he played in the foundation of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association in 1825, which brought the various Unitarian societies together in the first national organisation. He was its first secretary, 1825-30, and again from 1835 to 1841.
Aspland liked his own way. Dr Thomas Sadler remembered his effect decades later. “Owing to his dignified and authoritative manner, some people were rather afraid of him; and one said to me ‘If I had been at your shoulder when you received the invitation [to become Aspland’s assistant minister at Hackney] I should have dissuaded you.’ I asked why, and the reply was, ‘Mr Aspland is Mr Aspland.'”
From the start of his ministry Aspland believed in the simple nature of Jesus and was strong defender of the Unitarian position. In an 1811 letter to an orthodox minister he wrote, “[L]et me ask of you, where in the Christian Scriptures you find the divine nature of Christ and, above all, his co-equality and co-eternity with the Father? You surely know that these terms are not scriptural, that they are merely of human invention, relics of popery.”
Aspland followed Joseph Priestley in his Biblical beliefs. But although he had read widely, he could not be led to comment on philosophy. He would say of Priestley’s necessarianism only that it was a matter of personal judgement. While he admired William Ellery Channing, he did not think Channing had dealt fairly with Priestley. He said, ‘Dr Priestley is not by all of us abandoned to be trodden under foot.’
A strong believer in the Lord’s Supper, Aspland observed the rite monthly. He affirmed the doctrine of universal final salvation. ‘The application of Christianity to the practical purposes of life formed the style of his pulpit addresses’, wrote his son, Robert Brook Aspland. “[H]e felt it to be a solemn duty to vindicate Christianity from competition and abuse, believing as he did that while error existed in the world, controversy was the only means left of preserving or reviving truth.’
He hated England’s vicious penal system, which existed for much of his ministry, and fought for its reform. ‘Our penal laws are written in blood’, he proclaimed. He was as strongly anti-war. He preached against war on several occasions, with noted opposition from his congregation. He could not rejoice over Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar nor celebrate the downfall of Napoleon. ‘Revenge becomes a national passion’, he reflected in a sermon of 1814. ‘We acquire insensibly a love of war; our homes are ornamented with its ensigns; venal writers accommodate themselves to the prevailing inclination, and the Gospel of Peace is forgotten.’
Though his last years were dogged by ill health, Aspland rarely lessened the intensity of his work. In 1845 he died of heart failure at Hackney and was buried at the side of the chapel he had long served.
The largest collection of Aspland materials is at Harris Manchester College Oxford. These almost wholly consist of sermons, prayers, and research notebooks on history and topography. There are one or two letters in Dr Williams’s Library (also see the records of the British & Foreign Unitarian Association held here) and at Hackney Archives Department (New Gravel Pit and Newington Green Church papers). Most of Robert Brook Aspland, Memoirs of the Life of Rev Robert Aspland (1851) consists of letters by and to Aspland, plus extracts from his diary, which is the key source of what we know about him. The original letters and diary stayed in the family and have never been heard of subsequently. They would be a remarkable source as he corresponded with nearly everyone of importance in the religious and political world; it is a great loss. Aspland’s publications chiefly consist of sermons and tracts and are listed in an appendix at the end of the Life.
There is an obituary by John Kentish in the Christian Reformer (1846), Volume 2 and a biogaphical entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. An entry for Aspland by R. K. Webb will appear in the New Dictionary of National Biography, due to appear in 2004. Aspland is discussed in Thomas Sadler, London Unitarians Fifty Years Ago (1900); Herbert McLachlan, The Unitarian Movement in the Religious Life of England (1934); Earl Morse Wilber, A History of Unitarianism in Transylvania, England and America (1952); Alan Ruston, “Radical Nonconformity in Hackney 1805-45,” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, (October 1967); and Alan Ruston, Unitarianism and Early Presbyterianism in Hackney (1980).
Article by Alan Ruston
Posted October 1, 2001