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Mark Burden, A Biographical Dictionary of Tutors at the Dissenters’ Private Academies, 1660–1729 (Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies, 2013)

Mark Burden, A Biographical Dictionary of Tutors at the Dissenters’ Private Academies, 1660–1729 (Queen Mary University of London: Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies, 2013):


Reviewed by Marilyn A. Lewis


[1] Mark Burden’s Biographical Dictionary of Tutors at the Dissenters’ Private Academies, 1660-1729 is an important and valuable new resource for the study of early Protestant dissent in England and Wales. It sheds new light on late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century university-level pedagogical methods; on the reception of new trends in philosophy and theology; and on attitudes towards preparation for ministry among Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists. It rigorously critiques the older historiography on ‘dissenting academies’ and utilises primary sources which have previously been ignored or misinterpreted.

[2] Burden decisively challenges a historiographical tradition stretching back to at least the late eighteenth century. Denominational apologists, who assumed that the early academies were essentially the same as those of a later period, were accepted uncritically in Irene Parker’s Dissenting Academies in England (1914); Herbert McLachlan’s English Education under the Test Acts (1931); and J. W. Ashley Smith’s The Birth of Modern Education (1954). These authors all described a well organised network of dissenting academies, resulting immediately from the wholesale ejection of non-conformist tutors from Oxbridge in 1662 and rapidly developing into stable educational institutions which far surpassed eighteenth-century Oxbridge in their progressive pedagogy and atmosphere of free enquiry. Burden carefully distinguishes between private tutors in families, schoolmasters who might have been dissenters but provided only grammar education, and the quite small number of dissenters (who were not necessarily ejected non-conformists) who taught university-level philosophy courses to a group of students in the period between the Restoration and the Act of Toleration. Preferring the term ‘private academies’, Burden emphasises the tenuous nature of the early institutions. Only a small number of ejected Oxbridge tutors were involved, and the ‘academy’ was often little more than the private tuition of a few pupils in a tutor’s home, an arrangement which could be easily disrupted by the tutor’s prosecution or death, with academies moving location or small groups of students transferring to another tutor.

[3] Nor were these private academies necessarily ‘dissenting’ during the period when Presbyterians still hoped for comprehension within a more inclusive Church of England. The retraction of the Declaration of Indulgence in 1673 and increased persecution of dissenting ministers and congregations during the early 1680s made it clear that a new generation of ministers was needed to replace the original non-conformists of 1662. During these years, the private academies began to add theological and ministerial training to prepare their students for ordination. While the Act of Toleration of 1689 made no mention of dissenters’ private academies, it was under the relative protection of the Act that the academies attained a somewhat firmer footing, receiving funding from the short-lived Common Fund, the Presbyterian Fund and the Congregational Fund. As these funds required verification that their financial support was used well, so a more formal process of examining candidates for ministry and recommending them to dissenting congregations was superimposed on the older, less formal, structures of the private academies. While there was some questioning of Christian orthodoxy, resulting from the serious challenges of Arianism, Socinianism and Deism, the need to supply ministers who would be acceptable to dissenting congregations ensured that the theological curriculum in academies remained relatively conservative.

[4] Given the personal rather than the institutional nature of the early private academies, Burden believes that a biographical approach is more accurate and useful than an institutional one which might suggest a level of organisation which simply did not exist. He acknowledges that his approach makes it more difficult to see ‘the connections between tutors, the political context of the academies, and general intellectual trends among dissenters’ (13) and consequently provides a substantial introduction to illuminate the context of individual tutors’ pedagogy and writings. Going beyond the printed sources which have often been misinterpreted, Burden has used a large number of manuscript notebooks of tutors and students, gaining insight into curriculum, pedagogical methods, the daily life of academy students and the considerable variety in both curriculum and quality of instruction among the early academies. He has also made unprecedented use of correspondence among tutors, students and their parents. As the Dictionary’s introductory summary informs the reader, the 91 biographical entries focus on each tutor’s ‘life and writings, with particular emphasis upon his education, teaching and literary output. Extensive information is also provided on each tutor’s ministerial career, attempts to prosecute him, his posthumous legacy and the careers of his students. Every entry is accompanied by a bibliography of manuscript and printed sources, and (wherever possible) a list of the tutor’s works.’ The impressive extent of Burden’s scholarship emerges from his discussion of tutors’ works, which is very largely based on his own reading of these primary sources, rather than being constructed from secondary sources (54).

[5] The Biographical Dictionary has grown out of Burden’s doctoral research at the Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies (PhD, Lond., 2012). It is the latest addition to the Dissenting Academies Project website. Based at the Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies, the Project was begun in 2006 and was principally funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It has already produced the Dissenting Academies Online website and will eventually result in a multi-authored History of the Dissenting Academies in the British Isles, 1660-1860, edited by Isabel Rivers and David Wykes, to be published by Cambridge University Press. The Biographical Dictionary has been uploaded to the website as a single PDF, which can be downloaded free. Clicking on the name of a tutor will take the user immediately to the corresponding entry. One can also search on a single word or phrase, but it is not possible to build a more complicated simultaneous search of several fields. It is to be hoped that a more sophisticated search facility – such as is available, for instance, on the electronic database of Cambridge academics, Alumni Cantabrigienses – will eventually be enabled.

March 2014