HALL, ROBERT (1764–1831), English Baptist divine, was born on the 2nd of May 1764, at Arnesby near Leicester, where his father, Robert Hall (1728–1791), a man whose cast of mind in some respects resembled closely that of the son, was pastor of a Baptist congregation. Robert was the youngest of a family of fourteen. While still at the dame’s school his passion for books absorbed the greater part of his time, and in the summer it was his custom after school hours to retire to the churchyard with a volume, which he continued to peruse there till nightfall, making out the meaning of the more difficult words with the help of a pocket dictionary. From his sixth to his eleventh year he attended the school of Mr Simmons at Wigston, a village four miles from Arnesby. There his precocity assumed the exceptional form of an intense interest in metaphysics, partly perhaps on account of the restricted character of his father’s library; and before he was nine years of age he had read and re-read Jonathan Edwards’s Treatise on the Will and Butler’s Analogy. This incessant study at such an early period of life seems, however, to have had an injurious influence on his health. After he left Mr Simmons’s school his appearance was so sickly as to awaken fears of the presence of phthisis. In order, therefore, to obtain the benefit of a change of air, he stayed for some time in the house of a gentleman near Kettering, who with an impropriety which Hall himself afterwards referred to as “egregious,” prevailed upon the boy of eleven to give occasional addresses at prayer meetings. As his health seemed rapidly to recover, he was sent to a school at Northampton conducted by the Rev. John Ryland, where he remained a year and a half, and “made great progress in Latin and Greek.” On leaving school he for some time studied divinity under the direction of his father, and in October 1778 he entered the Bristol academy for the preparation of students for the Baptist ministry. Here the self-possession which had enabled him in his twelfth year to address unfalteringly various audiences of grown-up people seems to have strangely forsaken him; for when, in accordance with the arrangements of the academy, his turn came to deliver an address in the vestry of Broadmead chapel, he broke down on two separate occasions and was unable to finish his discourse. On the 13th of August 1780 he was set apart to the ministry, but he still continued his studies at the academy; and in 1781, in accordance with the provisions of an exhibition which he held, he entered King’s College, Aberdeen, where he took the degree of master of arts in March 1785. At the university he was without a rival of his own standing in any of the classes, distinguishing himself alike in classics, philosophy and mathematics. He there formed the acquaintance of Mackintosh (afterwards Sir James), who, though a year his junior in age, was a year his senior as a student. While they remained at Aberdeen the two were inseparable, reading together the best Greek authors, especially Plato, and discussing, either during their walks by the sea-shore and the banks of the Don or in their rooms until early morning, the most perplexed questions in philosophy and religion.
During the vacation between his last two sessions at Aberdeen, Hall acted as assistant pastor to Dr Evans at Broadmead chapel, Bristol, and three months after leaving the university he was appointed classical tutor in the Bristol academy, an office which he held for more than five years. Even at this period his extraordinary eloquence had excited an interest beyond the bounds of the denomination to which he belonged, and when he preached the chapel was generally crowded to excess, the audience including many persons of intellectual tastes. Suspicions in regard to his orthodoxy having in 1789 led to a misunderstanding with his colleague and a part of the congregation, he in July 1790 accepted an invitation to make trial of a congregation at Cambridge, of which he became pastor in July of the following year. From a statement of his opinions contained in a letter to the congregation which he left, it would appear that, while a firm believer in the proper divinity of Christ, he had at this time disowned the cardinal principles of Calvinism—the federal headship of Adam, and the doctrine of absolute election and reprobation; and that he was so far a materialist as to “hold that man’s thinking powers and faculties are the result of a certain organization of matter, and that after death he ceases to be conscious till the resurrection.” It was during his Cambridge ministry, which extended over a period of fifteen years, that his oratory was most brilliant and most immediately powerful. At Cambridge the intellectual character of a large part of the audience supplied a stimulus which was wanting at Leicester and Bristol.
His first published compositions had a political origin. In 1791 appeared Christianity consistent with the Love of Freedom, in which he defended the political conduct of dissenters against the attacks of the Rev. John Clayton, minister of Weighhouse, and gave eloquent expression to his hopes of great political and social ameliorations as destined to result nearly or remotely from the subversion of old ideas and institutions in the maelstrom of the French Revolution. In 1793 he expounded his political sentiments in a powerful and more extended pamphlet entitled an Apology for the Freedom of the Press. On account, however, of certain asperities into which the warmth of his feelings had betrayed him, and his conviction that he had treated his subject in too superficial a manner, he refused to permit the publication of the pamphlet beyond the third edition, until the references of political opponents and the circulation of copies without his sanction induced him in 1821 to prepare a new edition, from which he omitted the attack on Bishop Horsley, and to which he prefixed an advertisement stating that his political opinions had undergone no substantial change. His other publications while at Cambridge were three sermons—On Modern Infidelity (1801), Reflections on War (1802), and Sentiments proper to the present Crisis (1803). He began, however, to suffer from mental derangement in November 1804. He recovered so speedily that he was able to resume his duties in April 1805, but a recurrence of the malady rendered it advisable for him on his second recovery to resign his pastoral office in March 1806.
On leaving Cambridge he paid a visit to his relatives in Leicestershire, and then for some time resided at Enderby, preaching occasionally in some of the neighbouring villages. Latterly he ministered to a small congregation in Harvey Lane, Leicester, from whom at the close of 1806 he accepted a call to be their stated pastor. In the autumn of 1807 he changed his residence from Enderby to Leicester, and in 1808 he married the servant of a brother minister. His proposal of marriage had been made after an almost momentary acquaintance, and, according to the traditionary account, in very abrupt and peculiar terms; but, judging from his subsequent domestic life, his choice did sufficient credit to his penetration and sagacity. His writings at Leicester embraced various tracts printed for private circulation; a number of contributions to the Eclectic Review, among which may be mentioned his articles on “Foster’s Essays” and on “Zeal without Innovation”; several sermons, including those On the Advantages of Knowledge to the Lower Classes (1810), On the Death of the Princess Charlotte (1817), and On the Death of Dr Ryland (1825); and his pamphlet on Terms of Communion, in which he advocated intercommunion with all those who acknowledged the “essentials” of Christianity. In 1819 he published an edition in one volume of his sermons formerly printed. On the death of Dr Ryland, Hall was invited to return to the pastorate of Broadmead chapel, Bristol, and as the peace of the congregation at Leicester had been to some degree disturbed by a controversy regarding several cases of discipline, he resolved to accept the invitation, and removed there in April 1826. The malady of renal calculus had for many years rendered his life an almost continual martyrdom, and henceforth increasing infirmities and sufferings afflicted him. Gradually the inability to take proper exercise, by inducing a plethoric habit of body and impeding the circulation, led to a diseased condition of the heart, which resulted in his death on the 21st of February 1831. He is remembered as a great pulpit orator, of a somewhat laboured, rhetorical style in his written works, but of undeniable vigour in his spoken sermons.
See Works of Robert Hall, A.M., with a Brief Memoir of his Life, by Olinthus Gregory, LL.D., and Observations on his Character as Preacher by John Foster, originally published in 6 vols. (London, 1832); Reminiscences of the Rev. Robert Hall, A.M., by John Greene, (London, 1832); Biographical Recollections of the Rev. Robert Hall, by J. W. Morris (1848); Fifty Sermons of Robert Hall from Notes taken at the time of their Delivery, by the Rev. Thomas Grinfield, M.A. (1843); Reminiscences of College Life in Bristol during the Ministry of the Rev. Robert Hall, A.M., by Frederick Trestrail (1879).