Archive of the Month
The Faith Journey of Joseph Blanco White
By Bryan Whelan
Joseph Blanco White, born José María Blanco y Crespo (11 July 1775 – 20 May 1841) was very much a product of the Enlightenment, albeit a somewhat atypical one. He has been described as a theologian, poet, novelist, critic, and political journalist. One of the central tenets of Blanco White’s life was his constant striving for ‘truth’, primarily the idea of absolute truth in religion. It led him on a fascinating journey, both in the physical sense – he migrated from his hometown of Seville, and lived in Oxford, Dublin, and Liverpool – and in the theological sense – born into Roman Catholicism, he became a priest, converted to Anglicanism, and eventually became a Unitarian.
The collection of manuscripts and books that the RCB Library holds concerning Blanco White encapsulates an overarching narrative of his life of a journey in faith. The Library holds two volumes of his Second Travels of an Irish Gentleman in Search of a Religion (Dublin; Richard Milliken and Son, 1833) written as a riposte to Thomas Moore, the Irish poet, singer, songwriter, and advocate for Catholic emancipation (indeed, the title page of both volumes states that it is ‘not by the editor of Captain Rock’s Memoirs’.) The RCB Library copies are handsomely rebound (probably later 19th century) books, with half tan calf, and spines panelled by raised bands with gilt–tooled panels, with marbled sides and endpapers. Given the intended riposte, it is perhaps unsurprising that the book is less a travel memoir (although it includes elements of this) and more a detailed theological argument, albeit in novelistic form. It has been suggested that the Most Revd Richard Whately (1 February 1787 – 8 October 1863), with whom Blanco White was residing with in 1833 (as tutor to his only son Edward) was instrumental in encouraging the completion and publication of the manuscript.
The RCB Library also contains a substantial body of primary source material relating to Blanco White, most of which has never been published before. These letters form a part of the RCB Library’s substantial collection of the papers of the Most Revd Richard Whately, containing correspondence and other materials relating to religious and political developments of his day, primarily during Whately’s time as archbishop (1831–1863). The material pertaining to Blanco White consists of letters between three eminent persons: Archbishop Whately, Mr Clemente de Zulueta (a Spanish merchant and intellect, based in Liverpool, and a member of the Socinian community), and Blanco White. This correspondence contains 25 items, primarily for the period between 12 January and 30 April, 1835, although there is one letter from Archbishop Whately dated 7 September 1835 and one undated letter. Blanco White’s letters are also interesting in that, despite coming from Seville and a family that embraced its Spanish connections – as well as its social and linguistic norms – there is a linguistic fluency that is impressive. Furthermore, they contain beautiful cursive handwriting, particularly in de Zulueta’s hand.
You can view a full catalogue listing of the Archbishop Whately collection in the RCB by clicking here: https://www.ireland.anglican.org/cmsfiles/pdf/AboutUs/library/records/Whately.pdf, while a previous online exhibit on the collection can be viewed here: https://www.ireland.anglican.org/news/6389/correspondence-and-papers-of-the
Blanco White arrived in England on 3 March 1810, and by 30 April of the same year, had begun to anglicise his name. This act was met with some level of consternation of public opinion in Cadiz, as it seemed to suggest that he was abandoning his Spanish nationality. However, his grandfather, William White – an Irish Catholic refugee from the penal laws who had settled in Andalusia in the early 18th century, had done much the same, except in reverse: he named his son Guillermo Blanco, embracing his new nationality. This would be a reason why Blanco White – with such strong Irish and English roots – was born with very much a Spanish Christian name and surname.
This part of Blanco White’s journey – from Spain to England – encapsulates his journey away from Roman Catholicism. Although he had spent years training to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed had quickly risen up through the ranks, he had already begun to have doubts even before his final ordination. In nearly every one of Blanco White’s major theological journeys, this will become to be seen as a recurring theme, whereby Blanco White’s theological journey has, in a way, overtaken his physical journey. Shortly after his arrival in England, Blanco White’s search for truth had led him to embrace Anglicanism.
Blanco White’s initial time in England was typically busy – and somewhat controversial, where he found himself employed as a journalist, primarily involved in covering political situations with particular relevance to Spain and Spain’s colonies. His outspoken views eventually made his situation tenuous – indeed, at one point there was concern that he might be deported – and so he made a conscious decision to look for some way of entering the employment of the Church of England in Oxford. He saw this as a logical progression and a ‘resumption’ of his previous role as clergyman (albeit in the Roman Catholic tradition). Within a couple of years, he was officiating in the Anglican Church of St Mary’s, Oxford, and had come to make contacts with many important figures in the Anglican tradition who resided in Oxford at the time, including a young John Henry Newman, an Anglican priest who was a member of the Oxford Movement, and would eventually convert to Roman Catholic Church, rising through the ranks to become a Cardinal.
Blanco White’s friendship with the future archbishop of Dublin was to develop during their time in Oxford, where the two could be found engaging in intellectual pursuits with the Noetics at the time, including Baden Powell, Edward Hawkins, R. D. Hampden, and Nassau Senior. Indeed, the Whately collection in the RCB Library contains Senior’s detailed response to the archbishop’s paper on matters of political economy, and in particular the ratio of population to land. This response amounts to 39 pages and, although undated, is presumed to originate from around the same time as the Blanco White correspondence. During this time, Blanco White’s relationship in a personal and theological sense had shifted dramatically with John Henry Newman, primarily due to Newman’s identification with the high–church tradition of Anglicanism and later the Oxford Movement.
Whately, who had been elected as Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford in 1829, was appointed to the see of Dublin in 1831. As an Englishman, the appointment was considered with surprise not least by Whately himself, who made immediate plans to move himself and his family to Dublin. He was aware of the somewhat isolated position that this left Blanco White in back in Oxford and soon offered him employment to tutor his son, a position that was readily accepted. Blanco White spent four years tutoring Whately’s son, at the Archbishop’s residence at Redesdale, in Kilmacud, Co. Dublin, as well as engaging in translations of works for the Irish school curriculum.
During this time, Blanco White’s theological convictions were still developing, and he was beginning to stray from – and, indeed, criticise – the orthodoxy of Anglicanism at the time. It was this criticism that led to Blanco White’s initial interest in Socinianism (more commonly known as Unitarianism) and would eventually result in Blanco White leaving Dublin for the Socinian community in Liverpool, initially staying with Clemente de Zulueta at 56 Steele Street. At this time, the influential Unitarian James Martineau had recently become a minister at the Paradise Street congregation, and was already somebody who was seen to be a mentor to Blanco White and his new–found religious ideology. Interestingly, Martineau had been ordained as a junior minister of Eustace Street Presbyterian meeting–house in Dublin in 1828 but had left in order to take up the position of minister of the Paradise Street Chapel in June 1832.
Returning to the collection of correspondence in the RCB Library, it would be easy to imagine that it would focus on differing theological convictions and the finer points of Anglicanism and Unitarianism. However, what we find in these letters is a deep concern from both men regarding Blanco White’s fragile mental state. Indeed, at one point (14 January 1835), Mr de Zulueta admits that Blanco White is unaware of the correspondence that he has initiated. There was concern between the two men that the book that Blanco White was working on – primarily regarding his theological views on Unitarianism – would be harmful to reputations. An article in The Modern Churchman (Vol. xxxix, No. 2; June 1949), for example, suggests that ‘Whately seemed to think that, behind the change in the tutor’s religious opinions, readers of the memoirs might suspect a lapse from orthodoxy on the part of the employer’. Although Blanco White’s own theological journey had led him to embrace Unitarianism, and was in some way under the guidance of Mr de Zulueta, the merchant is broadly in agreement with the Archbishop concerning any forthcoming publication by Blanco White. As late as 20 April, however, Mr de Zulueta noted that Blanco White still ‘cannot find a publisher for the work’. Whately himself would have understood the position in which Blanco White was finding himself, as his own theological journey had led him to embrace causes that were considered quite radical for the 19th century. He had progressive views on the emancipation of the slaves, and there is evidence to suggest that his views on this were directly related to the influence of Blanco White’s ideas. Whately’s progressive views were of course misinterpreted as ‘Protestant liberalism’ and there is some suggestion that Whately was accused of such unorthodox views as Sabellianism. Given this background, it is perhaps understandable that Whately urged caution with regards to the publication of Blanco White’s forthcoming work.
Despite only recently arriving in Liverpool, we already see a reminder of Blanco White’s time in Oxford and his isolation from his peers. In the letter dated the 1 April 1835, Mr de Zulueta writes that ‘he [Blanco White] seemed to fear a squabble amongst the dissenters about his nomination’. While it may seem remarkable that Blanco White found himself in disagreement with some members of the Unitarian community within less than four months of arriving in Liverpool, similar situations had arisen during his time in Seville and in Oxford, and it could be argued, during his time in Redesdale with Whately. It was due to his inherent personality – his desire for absolute truth and a determination not to hide behind his theological convictions – that led time and again to a feeling of distance from his peers. In the years following these letters, Blanco White had begun to have serious disagreements with the leaders of Unitarianism in the Liverpool community and in particular with Martineau.
It is interesting to note that despite the correspondence between Archbishop Whately and Mr de Zulueta concerning the publication of Blanco White’s theological viewpoint, and the difficulty in finding a publisher, Blanco White did eventually publish Observations on Heresy and Orthodoxy (London, J. Mardon, 1835). This was a deeply controversial text, as Archbishop Whately feared, and cemented the rift between Blanco White and John Henry Newman. In reviewing the text, Newman somewhat inevitably attempted to link it as the inevitable expression of the dangers of liberal Protestantism. Behind the scenes, Newman was encouraging others to use Blanco White’s Unitarianism as a means to attack Whately. Despite all this, Whately still continued to support Whately for the remainder of his life with an annual subsidy of £100, as well as helping to secure for him a queen’s bounty of £300 in 1838. This should not be surprising given Whately ultimate concern with Blanco White’s well–being that we see in the correspondence in the letters.
Following the publication of Observations Blanco White’s years were spent in much the same vein as he had previously: he vigorously debated with many members of the Unitarian community regarding perceived heterodoxies and orthodoxies, and continued corresponding with a plethora of people overseas, as well as keeping in contact with members of his immediate family. He also embraced areas that he had neglected due to his primary concern over the past few decades with theology. Particular amongst these endeavours was a return to his love of poetry, as well as an attempt to write a novel. Blanco White also started to write in Spanish again. However, throughout this period was a continuing deterioration in his physical state and he died on 20 May 1841.
The volumes of Second Travels of an Irish Gentleman in Search of a Religion and the correspondence between Blanco White, Archbishop Whately, and Mr de Zulueta can be viewed in the RCB Library.