Mary Wollstonecraft 1759-1797

The question being asked, in this article, when considering the Unitarian credentials of Mary Wollstonecraft: 'by what criteria do we judge someone to be a Unitarian'? Is it by their contribution to a Unitarian group or movement or by a particular way of thinking?

Unlike Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft was a church going Anglican until the age of 28. Their lives could not have been more different. Mary's childhood did not have the stability of Barbauld. Her father frittered away his inheritance, moving around the country to follow his dream of being a gentleman farmer and failing dismally. He was a bully and her mother spoilt Mary's older brother. Yet it fell to Mary, in her young life, to take the family's finances in hand. By the time she was 29, the age at which Barbauld, from the comfort of her family home, published her first edition of poetry, Mary had been a lady's companion, opened a school in Newington Green with her two sisters, closed it in 1786 due to financial troubles and written Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which Joseph Johnson, a crucial link in the Dissenting network, agreed to publish. In need of money she became a governess but was dismissed, taken in for a short while by Joseph Johnson and wrote a novel at the same time learned languages in order to work on translations, particularly theological works. By this time she had already been drawn to the preaching of Richard Price, the Unitarian minister from Newington Green.

In the next ten years she worked for Johnson on the Analytical Review as well as writing her major works, including A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (VRW) for which she is probably most well remembered. She travelled to France during the French Revolution, met Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer, to whom she had a daughter Fanny, was deserted, followed him to London to find he had a mistress, made a first suicide attempt, travelled to Scandinavia to sort out a business problem for Imlay, returned, found him once more with another woman, made a second suicide attempt, was finally disillusioned with Imlay, became William Godwin's lover and was quickly pregnant, married, gave birth to Mary (who later became Mary Shelley) and died eleven days later. During this time she continually wrote for publication and died before completing her second novel Maria. This was an amazingly frenetic life whilst maintaining a prolific output of published work.

All too often it is the feminist aspect of the VRW that is remembered but on further examination it can be seen that this, as well as her other writing, has a theistic framework. From being a firm Anglican and dismissing the rational dissenters of the day she completely reversed her beliefs, denying the divinity of Jesus and the utility of the Christian system. In 1784 when opening a school for girls in Newington Green she met Richard Price, philosopher and minister at the Newington Green Unitarian Chapel. He impressed her, so much that she began to go to his chapel to hear him preach. Instead of a deity breathing hellfire, here was a benign supreme being. The vision of mankind as essentially good and inherently perfectible sat well with rational morality and reform politics. Price preached that no earthly power has authority over our private judgement and that liberty and reason constitute the capacity of virtue. We love God because He deserves our love, not because he demands it. Universal benevolence, public spirit, with love being God's agent of human liberation is beyond that of country and monarch. Here was an ethical vigour that underpinned what was considered to be a revolutionary Unitarian programme at a time when France was on the brink of revolution. In response to Edmund Burke's attack on Richard Price in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) Wollstonecraft quickly responded in print, writing A Vindication of the Rights of Men (VRM) (1790), a public letter addressed to Burke in support of Price's views that there was a greater authority than monarchy and country to which the free and rational individual should bow in matters of morality. In VRW she would write that 'Price was one of the best of men'.

Whilst continuing to translate articles for the Analytical Review she managed to write VRW in just a few weeks. As she wrote each page the printer was waiting for it, hence it could not be considered to be a well written book, containing several contradictions. However, from the theological standpoint it is telling. Wollstonecraft continually strove to define an authentic religious subjectivity. She asked what shape a woman's inner life took when forged in right relationship to her Maker? She wrote '…it is not philosophical to speak of sex when the soul is mentioned.' (VRW) She considered Genesis to be a poetical story justifying man's subjugation of woman but was also critical of women, particularly the aristocratic class, where values were superficial with little thought for those considered beneath them. The emphasis was on the democracy of God's grace rather than a hierarchical context and rational criticism considered essential when reading the Bible. An overhaul of the educational system was necessary. However, she had belittled the strength of women's sexual attraction and passion for the opposite sex, which reflected her own development at that stage.

Nevertheless, she was to learn all too soon the strength and folly of understanding it so little when she was to travel to France later in 1792. Meeting Gilbert Imlay, an American looking to make money from the French situation, she fell passionately in love, moved in with him for a short while, and for her safety as an English woman, took his name. He moved on soon after Mary became pregnant and from that time she trailed after him, hoping to demonstrate her high ideal of what a true partnership should be. Even after a suicide attempt and before daughter Fanny was a year old, she agreed to go to Scandinavia to sort out a failed business transaction for him. Trailing the young Fanny with her she experienced a different country and culture writing Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. (1796) Here she experienced what we would call a lyrical pantheism as she opened herself to nature writing, '…she gazed again, losing my breath through my eyes – my very soul diffused itself in the scene' then 'turning my humid eyes from the expanse below to the vault above, my sight pierced the fleecy clouds that softened the azure brightness, and … I bowed before the awful throne of my Creator, whilst I rested on its footstool'. (Quoted in Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination by Barbara Taylor, Cambridge University Press 2003, P.126) Her individualism and religious imagination had taken her beyond Unitarianism of that time. She considered their chapels to be too homely, their sectarianism too narrow and their reason too cold. Imaginative inspiration and adoration was crucial in the devotion given to God.

Sadly she found happiness with William Godwin but it was all too short. Religious observance each Sunday was now a thing of the past but whilst writing her unfinished novel she also wrote the article 'On Poetry' for The Monthly Magazine: '…grand sublime images strike the imagination- God is seen in every floating cloud, and comes from the misty mountain to receive the noblest homage of an intelligent creature …How solemn is the moment, when all affections and remembrances fade before the sublime admiration which the wisdom and goodness of God inspires…and the world seems to contain only the mind that formed, and the mind that contemplates it'. (Quoted in: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination by Barbara Taylor, P.140)

Following her death Godwin published the unfinished novel and his memoir revealed her 'warts and all'. She was condemned by many as an immoral wanton woman and her work went unread for a long time. However, she had influenced the rising generation of radical Unitarians and others teaching freedom, reason and tolerance. She also left a legacy of an individualist theological subjectivity that embraced imagination and lyrical pantheism that was influential in the next generation of Romantic poets.

So was Mary Wollstonecraft a Unitarian? This surely remains with us as individuals to learn from the material she has left and how we ourselves decide what it means to be a Unitarian. However, we can say that her writing was an expression of her own moral and religious journey, with her religious understanding fitting comfortably the spectrum of what many today consider Unitarianism to be.

Joan Wilkinson January 2010