1831 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Peter Cunningham

John Bowyer Nichols, in Illustrations of the Literary History of the XVIII Century (1817-58) 6:47-52.



The ensuing letters were addressed by the Rev. Peter Cunningham, Curate of Eyam near the Peak in Derbyshire, to the Rector of that place, the Rev. Thomas Seward, father of the Poetess.

I can add but few particulars of Mr. Cunningham to those which will be found in these letters. It will be perceived by them that he was the son of a naval officer, and, adopting the clerical profession rather from his own studious predilections than from his father's choice, had no University education; but, having been under the tuition of a respectable clergyman, was ordained in 1772 by Archbishop Drummond, and for the first two or three years after was Curate of Almondbury near Huddersfield, where he was honoured by the notice of the Earl of Dartmouth, who resided at Woodsome Hall in that populous parish.

In 1775 he became Mr. Seward's Curate at Eyam; and soon after addressed to him the letters now printed. How long he continued at Eyam I cannot say; but the eulogium pronounced on him from the pulpit by Mr. Seward, and printed hereafter, seems to have promised a long connexion. It is surely a very singular document.

Mr. Cunningham's name does not occur in any of the editions of "Living Authors," but a poem intituled "Britannia's Naval Triumph" was the offspring of his pen.

In the latter years of his life Mr. Cunningham was Curate of Chertsey in Surrey; and he died there at his apartments in that town in July 1805, having been a few minutes before suddenly attacked with illness while dining with the Chertsey Friendly Society, to which he had been in the habit of delivering an annual discourse.

I. Rev. P. CUNNINGHAM to the Rev. THOMAS SEWARD.

"Deal, Sept. 15, 1775.

REVEREND SIR,

It is with particular satisfaction that I am immediately able to answer your favour of the 10th instant in the most explicit, and as I would hope, in the most satisfactory manner. Your own sentiments on the queries, that I confess every circumstance rendered peculiarly proper to be resolved, so perfectly correspond with my own, that I might spare you the trouble of dwelling longer upon this subject; but as I am aspiring to your confidence, I am extremely anxious to convince you that it would not be placed in one that would deceive you by misrepresentations, or in any other manner forfeit a claim to your esteem.

"I was brought up from my earliest years in the strictest conformity to the established Church of England; nor have I since found, from pretty general reading, reflection, and greater maturity of years and experience, the least reason to deviate from my first ideas of her superior excellence, or depart from those doctrines by which she is particularly distinguished in opposition to all other Christian sects, whether of Calvinism, Methodism, or any other denomination, because I esteem the tenets I have imbibed in her Communion, to approach the nearest of all others to the pure religion of the Gospel, and her polity to be the best model of primitive Christianity. The intestine divisions, the ill-grounded separations that have long, and particularly within these thirty years, perplexed and afflicted our Church, I have frequently and seriously lamented. My conduct, since I had the happiness and honour to be admitted to the priesthood, has been governed by those charitable maxims and lenient principles, with respect to those dissensions, which I with great pleasure observe you mention as the distinguishing measure of your own. This I have on many occasions experienced to be attended with the happiest effects; but I have ever been of opinion, that the acrimonious oppositions which our Separatists, if I may be permitted the term, have not unfrequently met with from the ill-timed zeal of some of our own communion, and which the others never fail to dignify with the name of persecution, have more contributed to accelerate the progress of enthusiasm and strengthen the union of its members, than any other cause whatever. I would treat this religious evil as a physician would do an inveterate disorder that has risen to too great a height, and implanted itself too deeply in the constitution to be radically cured. Its progress might surely be prevented, and many ill-humours corrected, by opposing to both the true armour of the Gospel; that gentle and benevolent spirit, which, when judiciously accompanied with the honest arts of persuasion, never fails to disarm much rancour, and allay much of the ferment of that turbulent spirit which so much distinguishes the lower classes of our modern sectaries, who are led so much more by their passions than by their reason. To eradicate this disorder entirely, I dare say you will agree with me, is an event more to be wished than ever likely to be fulfilled; and that what our most excellent Hooker has observed in the beginning of his Ecclesiastical Polity will apply extremely well in this case, and the invariable truth of this maxim will remain a durable monument of his discernment and their propensities: "That those who go about to persuade a multitude they are not so well governed as they ought to be, will never want attentive and credulous hearers." How far I have acted up in reality to the principles I have mentioned, I can, with the greatest freedom and consolation, refer to the whole body of the people, among whom I have more or less resided as a minister, both here and in the North of England; if they have not flattered me, they have parted with me with a regret, the remembrance of which still affects me both with pleasure and with pain.

"That I ever left any cure whatever on the least suspicion of being a favourer of methodism, I may with the strictest honour assure you, has by no means been the case. It has been a constant source of regret to me, that I ever relinquished the Curacy I served in his Grace of York's diocese. It was on no motion of mine, but in consequence of an overture made me to superintend the education of a young person, whose subsequent conduct was a great disappointment to his friends, and great vexation and trouble to me. It was with the sanction of his Grace of York's approbation that I accepted the charge and relinquished the cure; when I resigned the former I wished to return to my late employment. It is with the greatest truth that I can assure you, the desire of the numerous parishioners to see this effected, was not less than my own inclinations to reside again among them; whence, in all human probability, I should never after have been prevailed upon to remove during the incumbent's life. My Lord Dartmouth, as principal parishioner, most willingly concurred with the general wishes of my friends, and Mr. Smith, the Incumbent, who resides chiefly upon another living at Waddington, near Clitheroe, greatly lamented that he had it not in his power to oblige both parties; before whose application he had positively engaged with a relation to supply the Cure, whom he could not with honour and humanity disappoint. Your liberality of thinking, Sir, will easily and candidly conceive, that my Lord Dartmouth's kindness and condescension to me, might very well consist with a difference of opinion; and the instance may at the same time clearly convince you, whether the tenour of my conduct was sufficiently conciliating and uniform to wake contending parties my friends.

"I had a difficult sphere of duty to move in; and, perhaps, am indebted for many happy events that occurred in it to a more extensive and various knowledge of the world than generally falls to the lot of a young clergyman of eight-and-twenty. This was consequent to many vicissitudes to which I was exposed in the very early part of my life, which has been chequered with incidents that fall indeed to the lot of many, but which I might with great propriety call severe trials in my own, if the ingratitude of friends and the disappointment of brilliant prospects in some part of my life, may be felt as such by a sensible heart. Religious persecution, I should imagine what I have already had the satisfaction to communicate to you of my sentiments will have convinced you, hath been no part of my trials, nor is ever likely to become so while our excellent Church continues on its present firm and uncorrupted establishment.

"That my education should have been different from the common forms adopted usually for the candidates for Holy Orders, proceeded from circumstances it was not in my power to remedy. My father, who has served the King with great honour and credit in the naval service the major part of his life, was possessed, and as you may imagine, Sir, prejudiced, more in favour of military than clerical ideas; mine, however, had always a cast of the latter, but I was not indulged at the usual time of life with an opportunity to pursue and improve them. The genius of the mind, however, though it may be oppressed, can never be totally changed or extinguished; and my father was too sensible to oppose my inclinations when my happiness and these were placed in the scale against his authority and different sentiments. I enjoyed the private tuition of a very respectable clergyman, and was ordained in the manner I have acquainted you. The Archbishop of York, whom you certainly will not suspect of enthusiasm, nor Mr. Marsden, his examining Chaplain, if you should be acquainted with either, were fully satisfied with the answers I gave them on the very interesting subjects you have glanced upon, and which so peculiarly distinguish the orthodox member of the Established Church from those of our fellow Christians called Methodists. I cannot explain my own sentiments on the principal one better than in your own very proper and comprehensive terms, "interpreting the article of predestination by the doctrines of the Bible; not the Bible by the articles, for it certainly will bear the sense of conditional, as well as absolute, predestination." Dr. Rotherham's most elegant, and to me most satisfactory, Essay on Faith, leaves me nothing to add essential to this subject, when I acquaint you, that the sentiments and doctrines contained in that Essay, which so particularly relate to the principal points of dispute between us and the Methodists, entirely correspond with my own. I flatter myself much, this full and explicit account of myself will be sufficient proof to you, that I am incapable of any ungenerous reservations that might disappoint or deceive you. I could say more on the subject, but surely, good Sir, I need trouble you no further; yet there is one circumstance this observation reminds me to apprise you of at present, which I should have done before had I presumed you would have deemed it any material objection to my application. Perhaps the particular predilection I have ever had for my profession may have been increased by what to others may appear a personal misfortune, but which I have never yet felt the weight of myself; it is an infirmity of hardness of hearing, which, as I have executed every part. of the ministerial duty since the year 1772 without any inconvenience or impediment, and in that time have so long had the care of one of the most considerable and populous parishes in the diocese of York, after Wakefield and Halifax, I presume you Swill not think a circumstance operating to my prejudice, as it has never been hitherto felt or mentioned as such by any one else. This you must be sensible is better to be explained by actual experiment than favourably described on paper. I would not however have had you in the least disappointed in your ideas on the supposition of my having the fortune of being any ways connected with you. If, after this full representation, your sentiments should be decided in my favour, I can only repeat the assurance, that you will have no reason to repent of your partiality in my behalf; and if it should not be my happiness to acquire the confidence, attention, and good-will of your parishioners, I beg you, Sir, to be equally assured that I will not stay at Eyam to their prejudice and our mutual pain.

"A state of suspense you are very sensible is the most painful of all others; and I would be very glad to receive your earliest determinations, both on that and other accounts. My acquaintance is very general, and most of my friends know I am not actually in service. I receive frequent overtures of their readiness to inquire for, and establish me, agreeably in the Church, which is the only employment I truly relish and shall attend to; and I expect every day some particular applications to be made to me, which I would willingly preclude entirely, by devoting my best endeavours to serve and represent Mr. Seward. I shall in any case remain, with great truth and respect,

Reverend Sir,

Your most obedient humble servant, P. CUNNINGHAM."