Gilbert Wakefield

(1756—1801) biblical scholar and religious controversialist

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dissenting academies

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Gilbert Wakefield was born in Nottingham on 22 February 1756 and died at Hackney, London, on 9 September 1801. The third son of George Wakefield, rector of St Nicholas' Church, he was educated at schools in Nottingham and Kingston-upon-Thames, and at Jesus College, Cambridge (1772–6), where he then became a Fellow (1776–9). At Cambridge he was influenced by liberal views on theology and politics. He was ordained deacon in 1778 but, already questioning orthodox doctrine on the Trinity, soon regretted his subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles, describing it as ‘the most disingenuous action of my whole life’. His subsequent curacies, first at Stockport and then at Liverpool, were brief but influential. He married, improved his knowledge of theology and the classics, and gained a lifelong compassion for the poor and disadvantaged. Confirmed in his Unitarianism, he declined to take his MA and resigned his Liverpool curacy in 1779. He was then appointed classical tutor at the Warrington dissenting academy but its closure in 1783 forced him to leave. He subsequently sought to earn a living primarily from private tutorships and publications, but the remainder of his life was characterized by financial insecurity. In 1786 he suffered a debilitating pain in his left shoulder, and although it disappeared in 1788 he always lived in fear of its recurrence. He accepted a teaching post at the Hackney Academy in 1790, but, despite rejecting the Established Church, he never accepted contemporary dissent, and he resigned in 1791. A warm and generous man to family and friends, and possessing firm convictions and considerable intellectual energy, he was nevertheless academically disputatious, lacked self-criticism, and was capable of a vituperative turn of phrase. His negative traits tended to detract from the value of his published work, and in 1798 they served to bring him into conflict with Pitt's government. The Bishop of Llandaff, Richard Watson, had recently published his Address to the People of Great Britain, a straight-forward defence of the current war against France. This provoked Wakefield, who opposed all war, into hastily publishing a virulent Reply, attacking primarily not the Bishop but the continuation of the war and Pitt's administration. He was subsequently prosecuted for seditious libel, and despite the support of a group of influential friends, including Charles James Fox and the Duke of Bedford, was convicted and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Dorchester gaol. He was released in May 1801, but died of typhus the following September. He was survived by his widow and six children.


From The Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Philosophy.

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