The Life & Work of Joseph Blanco White

Part 1

 J. B. White by Joseph Slater, 1812. Age 37

This morning’s service is about Joseph Blanco White, a very interesting man from the 18/19th Century. The reason he is interesting will become very apparent as I go on. He was born in Seville, Spain, the largest city in the southern portion of Spain, in the year 1775; the same year the American Revolutionary War was kicking off. His family’s roots were Irish Catholic. His grandfather was a trader and had moved to Seville to set up shop. The establishment was then later inherited by Joseph’s father. They were a wealthy family that moved in the upper strata of society. Despite Joseph’s ancestry, his mother tongue was Spanish, and he learned to speak English through the employees of the family business. His mother was a devoutly Catholic woman who encouraged Joseph towards the Church, and indeed by the age of eight he felt called to be a Catholic priest. So, he entered into a Dominican college. He was a studious person his whole life; he had a great love of learning. So as the years went on, he studied Latin and French, philosophy and theology, poetry, rhetoric, the violin… The whole religious sphere of his life however began to grate on him, the arbitrary rules and requirements of the priests were a constant source of suffering for him. ‘Read this dull book, sit in silence for an hour, come up with another list of your sins to bring into the confessional’. He began to fantasise about abandoning the church, perhaps becoming a midshipman with the Navy would suit him more, but at the same time he knew he could not disappoint his mother. And so at the age of 24, in 1799, he was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. He was very torn about the whole thing, feeling guilty, feeling like a fraud, and then settling into it for a time. He records in his diary the dull and monotonous task of hearing nuns’ confessions. He says they ‘stated every thought, word, and deed, however innocent, which had occurred in their dull lives.’ He pitied them, trapped in a system of inflexible cruelty, trapped by their vows, trapped by superstition.

For about a decade Joseph dedicated himself to academia, poetry, and lecturing. In this time he rose quickly within the Catholic Church, his great intelligence was recognised. It was also an unstable time in Spain. There had been an outbreak of yellow-fever, which had killed thousands of people, and very nearly killed Joseph himself, and then there had been the Napoleonic wars. Joseph’s professional exterior was that of a Catholic priest, but his interior life was entirely different; he pitied superstitious people, he valued free thought, liberty, and the ideals of the enlightenment. That made Napoleon’s invasion of Spain a very complex matter for him. On the one hand he loved his country, but on the other this invading French force represented the enlightenment, a vision of a world free of the oppressive rule of monarchs, free from the arbitrary rules of institutions like the Church. But despite these deep reservations, he did write in support of his own monarch. However, this was to be short-lived. As the invading French forces moved their way down Spain, Joseph concluded it was time to leave Spain for good.

And so it was that in 1810 he, and many other Spanish refugees fleeing the conflict, arrived in cold, rainy England.

Part 2

And so, Joseph Blanco White arrived in England. The year is 1810, and Joseph is 35 years old. He notes in his diary how ill-equipped he was for the English climate. Full of painful emotions, having been torn from the country he loved, he asked himself, ‘so what now?’ There was no need to be bound to this whole Catholic priest pretense any longer, he was, in more ways than one, now a free man. He thought to himself that it would be nice to go back to his violin, become a musician of the theatre perhaps.

But as he met up with various acquaintances he abandoned that romantic notion, and began doing some writing, mostly on the situation in Spain he had fled. And then to get back into the world of academia he went to Oxford to study English and the Classics, became a member of the Church of England, and before long was studying theology once again. He became a tutor at Holland House, and taught Lord Holland’s son. He did this for a couple of years, but did not like it at all, as it hampered his freedom so much. So, he moved to London, where he publisheda book called ‘Letters from Spain’, a fanciful account of that decade of his life in Spain as a priest. And he began working on his second book, which would lay bare all the ills of the Roman Catholic church as he had experienced them first hand. At this time his friends in London mainly consisted of the Spanish Catholic refugees who had fled Spain alongside him; they did not take kindly to his increasingly hostile attitude towards the Catholic Church, and so Joseph decided once again to return to Oxford, and to live at Oriel College. His passion for Anglicanism was growing increasingly – he believed Anglicanism to be a far truer expression of Christianity than the Roman Catholic Church was. During this time he knew many prominent Anglicans, most notably John Henry Newman. He began thinking about how he might employ his energies to best serve the church, and settled for a time on the idea of moving to Trinidad to be a missionary. While his love for Anglicanism, common worship and the like were unwavering, he did begin to entertain theological ideas which lay outside of Anglican orthodoxy. Strictly speaking, to be an Anglican in good standing one must in theory subscribe to the 39 articles, and read the Bible through the lens of the catholic creeds, namely the Nicene Creed, the Apostolic Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

Here is a portion of the Athanasian Creed:  “The catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal.”

To paraphrase Joseph slightly, he writes of this Creed in his diary, ‘I have no trouble saying that Christ is the Son of God in some peculiar way far beyond human comprehension. That the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; but I will not declare any knowledge of the nature of God; the Word is God, the Holy Ghost is God, but they are God in the same sense as the Father is God. Who am I to make such a pronouncement, for not only does three in one make no logical sense, it is not even a Biblical claim’.

These esoteric matters concerning the nature of God are of course the roots of this movement. These are concerns which seem far less significant today, arguing the supremacy of one truth over and above another, but for Joseph at the time it was everything, significant in a way almost unimaginable within our current contemporary mindset.

Part 3

  The Cloisters, Ullet Road Unitarian church. 

The Cloisters, Ullet Road Unitarian church. 

The middle years of Joseph’s life consist of endless diary entries from his tortured mind. He would pray, and ask God to not allow him to fall into error.  And it was at this time that in the privacy of his diaries he affirmed Unitarianism. But on the surface his involvement within Anglicanism was just as constant as ever; he had begun presiding at the altar, and working as an Anglican clergyman. In his late 50s his best friend, Richard Whately, became the Archbishop of Dublin, and so Joseph moved to live with him. He lived there most happily for several years, tutoring the Archbishop’s son, working on his latest book on the Spanish Inquisition, and ever studying theology. But the call within him to find his true home within Unitarianism was becoming more and more apparent to him. And so finally, in 1835, aged 60, he left Dublin, moved to Liverpool, and attended a service at the Unitarian Church.The preacher that morning was Dr. James Martineau. It was his long-awaited homecoming. He felt relieved, and at peace. From reading Joseph’s letter you get the sense of the very kind and warm man that he was. He had many friendships which endured despite widening theological gulfs. It was through the gifts and charity of these friends that he was able to maintain his whole life as a man of letters, poetry, essays, and theological musing. Joseph Blanco White died in 1841. His memorial is now at the Ullet Road Unitarian Church in Liverpool.

In closing I will read perhaps his most notable work – a poem entitled ‘Night and Death’.

 

Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew
  Thee, from report divine, and heard thy name,
  Did he not tremble for this lovely Frame,
  This glorious canopy of Light and Blue?
Yet 'neath a curtain of translucent dew,
  Bathed in the rays of the great setting Flame,
  Hesperus with the host of heaven came,
  And lo! Creation widened in man's view.
Who could have thought such Darkness lay concealed
  Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find,
  Whilst fly, and leaf, and insect stood revealed,
  That to such countless Orbs thou mad'st us blind!
Why do we then shun death with anxious strife?
  If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?