William Sewell

photo neededIn existographies, William Sewell (1804-1874) was an English moral philosophy professor, semi-rector, and reverend noted for his public burning of James Froude’s 1849 Nemesis of Faith—a novel about a divinity student who gives up his ministry because he cannot reconcile himself to various tenets held by the Church of England, including incarnation and atonement, in light of growing scientific knowledge. [1]

Education
Sewell attended Winchester College from 1819 to 1822, and then matriculated at Merton College, Oxford, where he held a postmastership until 1827, during which time he took first-class honours in literae humaniores (Ѻ), i.e. the classics, after which he was elected Petrean Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, winning the Chancellor's Prize for the English essay in 1828 and for the Latin essay in 1829. He was ordained as a minister in 1831 and served various curacies. [7] Sewell completed an MA in something, and in the 1840s was listed himself as a fellow and tutor of Exeter College, and Oxford professor of moral philosophy, and by 1849 was a semi-rector. Sewell wrote many books, among which his Christian Morals (1840), An Introduction to the Dialogues of Plato (1841), and Christian Politics (1840/44) were chief, as Exeter College historian Charles Boase notes. [4] The following is a semi-discussed (Ѻ) exert from the former: [5]

“I believe that a geologist deeply impressed with the mystery of baptism—that mystery by which a new creature is formed by means of water and fire—would never have fallen into the absurdities of accounting for the formation of the globe solely by water or solely by fire. He would not have maintained a Vulcanian or a Neptunian theory. He would have suspected that the truth lay in the union of both.”

His writings have been described as paradoxical and laced with semi-scientific discussion, e.g. he employs the term "fire" 25+ times in his Christian Morality, one time giving the paradoxical example of a metal, such as sodium, catching fire under water, and how this is at odds with the intuitive model that fire typically puts out fire.

Sewell book burning
In 1841, William Sewell published Christian Morals, wherein he argued that modern sciences, e.g. chemical findings, such as certain metals burn under water, sided with Christianity; in 1849, Sewell burned James Froude’s Nemesis of Faith, a treatise on how modern science causes one to lose one’s Christian faith; in 1854, Froude did the first English translation of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, wherein it is shown how chemical findings allows one to create a new system of morality, based on physical chemistry, via interpretation of the “moral symbols” describing the heat and work aspects of chemical reactions, people explicitly conceived as being large “metamorphized”, i.e. evolved, types of animate chemicals.
Book burning
See main: Book burning
In 1849, English clergyman-abnegator and writer James Froude published his semi-autobiographical novel Nemesis of Faith, about a young priest whose faith comes into question in light of early 19th-century developments in science and history; the following is a representative statement from the novel: [2]

“What is man the wiser or the happier for knowing how the air-plants feed, or how my centuries the flint-stone was in forming, unless the knowledge of them can be linked on to humanity, and elucidate for us some of our hard moral mysteries?”

While great thinkers, such as George Eliot, professed profound admiration for the novel, others, specifically English religious figures, condemned the novel. [3]

On 27 Feb 1849, Froude’s book was burned in a Tuesday moral philosopher class at Oxford by Sewell—an incident summarized by Exeter College historian Charles Boase (1894), via citation to an 1892 letter published by the owner of the book Arthur Blomfield, as follows: [6]

Charles Boase (1894): “It was at one of these lectures that Sewell burnt a book which he thought obnoxious, in 1849, the last time a book has been publicly burnt in a College hall. The scene is thus described by the owner of the book, Arthur Blomfield, now R. of Beverston and RD. of Dursley, Glouc. [Rev. A. Blomfield of Beverston Rectory, Tetbury, Gloucestershire]:

Arthur Blomfield (1892): ‘I had just bought the Nemesis of Faith, or as it was called, ‘Faith with a Vengeance’, when on Tuesday morning, Feb. 27, 1849, I, an undergraduate of Exeter College, attended a lecture in hall. The Rev. William Sewell, Sub-Rector of Exeter College (not ‘Dean of the Chapel’) was lecturer. He declaimed loudly against Froude’s Nemesis of Faith. Hearing, on my own confession, that I possessed it, he requested me to bring ‘that book’ to him. No sooner had I complied with his request (Sewell was my college tutor) than he snatched the book from my hands and thrust it into the blazing fire of the college hall (not ‘quadrangle’). I see him now, with hall poker in hand, in delightful indignation, poking at this, to him, obnoxious book. In a few hours this ‘burning of the book’ was known all over Oxford. As your article justly remarks, ‘the burning only served as an advertisement’. ’

Sewell, supposedly, decried Froude’s work as a “wicked book” and the incident gave rise to apocryphal story that the book was burned publicly (Ѻ) at Oxford, i.e. not just in a classroom setting, but at some kind of out-door public gala or event.

In more detail, in a 1892 book section on the history of “book burning”, made amid a discussion of James Farrer’s 1892 Books Condemned to be Burnt, we find the following retelling of the Sewell book-burning incident as follows: [8]

“Mr. Farrer's delightful book teems with facts, and he practically covers the whole range of the subject, so far as book-burning in England is concerned. But it seems more than passing strange that the institution existed, to a certain extent, just over forty years ago, for the Rev. A. Blomfield writes from Beverston Rectory, Tetbury, Gloucestershire: "My private journal records—' Sewell burnt Froude's book.' The history is this: The burnt book was mine. I had just bought the 'Nemesis of Faith,' or as it was called, ' Faith with a Vengeance,' when on Tuesday morning, Feb. 27, 1849,1, an undergraduate of Exeter College, attended a lecture in hall. The Rev. William Sewell, Sub-Rector of Exeter College (not 'Dean of the Chapel') was lecturer. He declaimed loudly against Froude's 'Nemesis of Faith.' Hearing, on my own confession, that I possessed it, he requested me to bring 'that book to him.' No sooner had I complied with his request (Sewell was my college tutor) than he snatched the book from my hands and thrust it into the blazing fire of the college hall. I see him now, with hall poker in hand, in delightful indignation, poking at this, to him, obnoxious book. In a few hours this ' burning of the book' was known all over Oxford. The book became famous—editions multiplied. I lost my 'Nemesis of Faith;' I think I lost 'Faith' in my college tutor, for at least he should have recouped costs (3s. 6d., I believe, was the book's price), or presented me with an antidote in the form of one of his books—e.g.,'Sewell's Christian Morals.' Not he. O temporal O mores!'”

(add discussion)

Nightingale
Ironically, Froude, not only would go onto to promote Goethe's human chemistry to the English speaking world, via being the first "anonymous" (1859) English translator of his Elective Affinities, but would go on to become an associate and promoter of the works of Florence Nightingale, who in turn, from 1874-1891 would lobby and petition to get a chair of social physics established at Oxford (see: Nightingale Chair of Social Physics).

References
1. Nightingale, Florence. (1994). Suggestions for Thought by Florence Nightingale: Selections and Commentaries (editors: Michael Calabria and Janet Macrae) (pg. xxx). University of Pennsylvania Press.
2. Froude, James. (1849). The Nemesis of Faith (moral mysteries, pg. 86). London: John Chapman.
3. The Nemesis of Faith – Wikipedia.
4. Boase, Charles W. (1894). Registrum Collegii Exoniensis: Register of the Rectors, Fellows, and Other Members on the Foundation of Exeter College, Oxford. With a History of the College and Illustrative Documents (§:History of Exeter College, pgs. i-clxxviii; esp. pg. cxlviii). Oxford Historical Society at the Clarendon Press.
5. Sewell, William. (1841). Christian Morals (water and fire, pg. 323; fire, 25+ pgs). James Burns.
6. (a) Blomfield, Arthur. (1892). “Letter”, Daily News, May 2.
(b) Boase, Charles W. (1894). Registrum Collegii Exoniensis: Register of the Rectors, Fellows, and Other Members on the Foundation of Exeter College, Oxford. With a History of the College and Illustrative Documents (§:History of Exeter College, pgs. i-clxxviii; esp. pg. cxlviii). Oxford Historical Society at the Clarendon Press.
7. William Sewell (1804-1874) – VictorianWeb.org.
8. (a) Farrer, James A. (1892). Books Condemned to be Burnt. London: Elliot Stock.
(b) Anon. (1892). The Bookworm: an Illustrated Treasury of Old-time Literature (§Book Burning, 255-57; esp. pg. 257). London: Elliot Stock.

External links
William Sewell (author) – Wikipedia.

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