‘Nobody’ Was Somebody

John P. Workman Jr./Wikimedia Commons • bit.ly/2wkGynB

Lay Activism and the High Church Movement
of the Late Eighteenth Century
The Life and Thought of William Stevens, 1732-1807
By Robert M. Andrews
Brill. Pp. xiii + 312. $166

Since at least 1800, William Stevens (1732-1807) has been known as “Nobody,” a self-effacing and self-created alias. A group called Nobody’s Friends meets three times a year in honor of Stevens’s widespread legacy as a treasurer of Queen Anne’s Bounty, a donor to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and an encourager of the disestablished Scottish Episcopal Church. (Queen Anne’s Bounty was officially “the Bounty of Queen Anne for the Augmentation of the Maintenance of the Poor Clergy,” and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel is a missionary agency founded in 1701.)

Stevens was a hosier who directed substantial private wealth toward organizations situated in the pre-Oxford Movement school of High Church Anglicanism, and his self-caricature as Nobody was an intentional act of humility designed to cloak his generosity. Robert Andrews of Australia’s Murdoch University has reached behind Nobody to find a somebody whose activities and networks provide an important parallel narrative to the work of William Wilberforce among evangelical Anglicans.

William Stevens was born in Southwark and did not take a university degree. As a follower of the major pre-Tractarian High Churchman William Jones of Nayland (1726-1800), Stevens taught himself French, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and published an early major biography of Jones as well as a 12-volume edition of Jones’s works. He never published in his own name, but had established a profile for serious agitation on church matters as early as 1773 in his opposition to a proposal for removing subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles in connection with ordination and university preferment. He also assisted in the organization of a Society for the Reformation of Principles to oppose intellectual currents in English print related to the French Revolution, and participated in founding the quarterly British Critic. In a period when Patristic study was uncommon for laypersons, he immersed himself in the writings of the first three centuries of Christianity, and worked to integrate similar principles in the church of his time. He is buried in his maternal parish of St. Nicholas Church, Otham, in Kent. A contemporary bishop and friend said of him, “Here is a man, who, though not a bishop, yet would have been thought worthy of that character in the first and purest ages of the Christian church.”

Two aspects of this book make it stand out in a field of new material assessing the Oxford Movement and its predecessors or successors. The most important is the rejection of a notion that pre-Tractarian High Churchmanship was simply a weak or timid preparation for another movement, and lacked internal coherence and significance. Andrews elucidates a tradition vital in its own right, focused on the health of the church in Great Britain and its orderly expansion within the British Empire and elsewhere.

He also opens tantalizing directions for further research in his work on High Church women, including Susanna Hopton (1627-1709), Frances Norton (1644-1731), Mary Astell (1666-1731), Anne Coventry (1673-1763), Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806), and Sarah Trimmer (1741-1810). This is a dimension of Anglican piety almost entirely unexplored for its period. This book will be interesting mostly to specialists in its field, but it builds in happy ways on efforts by Geoffrey Rowell (of blessed memory), Peter Nockles, and Elizabeth Varley to push out the seams of inquiry in which scholars examine schools of affiliation, mutual support, and churchly encouragement.

Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation.


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