Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Elwall, Edward
ELWALL, EDWARD (1676–1744), Sabbatarian, born at Ettingshall, a hamlet in the parish of Sedgley, Staffordshire, was baptised on 9 Nov. 1676, his parents being Thomas and Elizabeth Elwall. According to his own account his ancestors had been settled in Wolverhampton 'above 1,100 years.' Marrying in his twenty-third year, he went into business in Wolverhampton as a mercer and grocer. Dr. Johnson calls him an ironmonger. He frequented the Bristol and Chester fairs, became popular as an honest tradesman, and made 'an easy fortune.' Out of his gains he built a block of eighteen houses, half a mile from Wolverhampton, in the Dudley Road, known as Elwall's Buildings, and taken down about 1846. Elwall and his wife were presbyterians; he gives a graphic description of the attack on the presbyterian meeting-house at Wolverhampton by a high church mob in 1715. He headed a party of seven or eight who defended the building from being pulled down. The rabble threatened his house, but his wife threw money from the window, and the marauders were content with drinking the health of James III on his doorstep. As he rode down Bilston Street he was fired at, from political rather than personal ill-will; at the coffee-house and town meetings he had been a prominent supporter of Hanoverian politics.
His visits to Bristol seem to have brought about his first religious change. A baptist minister immersed him and his wife in the Severn. He did not then cease attending the presbyterian congregation (of which his wife was always a member). One John Hays of Stafford 'put notions about the Trinity' into his head, and he became a unitarian. John Stubbs, the presbyterian minister at Wolverhampton, preached against him, and Elwall became, according to his wife's account, 'a churchman.' He wrote six letters to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Wake), and received four in reply, without being convinced on the subject of the Trinity. He was probably drawn towards the quakers through sympathy with Penn's views on this topic; he adopted some of their modes of thought and peculiar turns of expression. But his scripture studies led him to a close if unconscious reproduction of Ebionite views. Holding the perpetual obligation of the Jewish sabbath, he closed his shop on Saturday and opened it on Sunday. He discarded his wig, grew long hair and a flowing beard. This he followed up with some eccentricities of dress, wearing a blue mantle in the form of a Turkish habit, out of respect to the unitarian faith of the Mahometans; 'his daughter showed John Byrom [q.v.] 'a cap or turbant,' which he had 'got mode from Josephus, and intended to wear instead of a hat.' The dates of his successive stages of opinion are not very clear, but that of his last change is fixed by the following entry in the church book of the sabbatarian baptists at Mill Yard, Goodman's Fields, London: 'December the 6th, 1719...one Mr, Elwaar of Woolverhampton in Staffordshire, being newly come to the observation of the seventh day Sabbath, and having kept Sabbath with us two Sabbath days, and being desirous to commune with us at the Lords Supper next Sabbath day, Bro' Savage and Bro' Mallory are desired to inquire of Mr. Hollis and Mr. Dennis concerning him, and himselfe, and to report next Sabbath.' On 1 May 1720 'Mr. Ellwall' was admitted 'as a transient member.'
At length in 1724 he published his 'True Testimony,' which led to a local controversy, ridiculed by Dr. Johnson (who 'had the honour of dining' in Elwall's company), and eventually to a prosecution for blasphemy at the instance of some clergymen. We find him in London in 1726. In the 'postscript' to the third edition of his second Testimony' he describes a lively scene at Pinners' Hall, where, after a sermon by Dr. Samuel Wright, he wished to address the congregation in quaker fashion,
Of his trial in 1726, at the summer assize in Stafford, we have only his own narrative, which is not very clever, His wife told Byrom that before the trial she wrote to Baron Lechmere, who wrote to the judge (Alexander Benton). The case did not go to the jury, and was probably quashed on the ground that Elwall had not been served with a copy of the indictment, which he describes as 'near as big as half a door.' John Martin, who was present at the trial, told Priestley in 1788 that the figure of Elwall, 'a tall man, with white hair' (though he was only in his fiftieth year), 'struck everybody with respect.' Denton proposed to defer the case to the next assize if Elwall would give bail for his appearance. This he refused to do, and asked to be permitted to plead to the indictment in person. Denton allowed him to enter on a long and enthusiastic argument in defence of 'the unitarian doctrine,' at the close of which Rupert Humpatch, a justice who had been his next-door neighbour for three years, spoke to the judge on behalf of his honesty of character, The testimony was corroborated by another justice. Some sensation arose in court when Elwall stated, in reply to a suggestion of the judge, that already he had opened his mind to the head of the hierarchy. After consulting the prosecutors, and making a fruitless attempt to get Elwall to promise to write no more, Denton discharged him.
After the trial Elwall appears to have moved from Wolverhampton to Stafford, It was to Stafford that Byrom, who had met Elwall at Chester, went on 3 Feb. 1729 to find him. Elwall was then at Bristol fair, but Byrom visited his family, and breakfasted with them next day. They told him that a club of deists, who met at an inn, and called themselves Seekers, had endeavoured to get Elwall to join them. His business, Byrom learned, was declining.
Soon afterwards he removed to London, where two of his daughters were married. In 1734 he was living in Ely Court, Holborn. Byrom met him (23 May 1736) in King Street, wearing 'his blue mantle.' In 1738-43 he was living 'against the Bell Inn, Wood Street,' He published several tracts in favour of his views, and in defence of liberty of conscience. With Chubb, whom he treated as a brother unitarian, he had a controversy on the Sabbath question. Fletcher of Madeley speaks of him as a 'Socinian quaker,' but he never joined the Society of Friends, and usually worshipped at Mill Yard. He died in London in 1744, and was buried on 29 Nov. in the graveyard at Mill Yard. His son, Sion, who appears to have been his agent in the importation of Russia cloth, married (between 1729 and 1736) the widow of an admiral 'in Muscovy.' Of his daughters, Anne, the eldest, married (1729) Street, of the Temple, a deist; another, Lydia, is described by Byrom (1729) as 'an intolerable talking girl;' a third, Catherine, married (before 1726) Clark, a shopman at the Golden Key on London Bridge.
Elwall's tracts, which are now very scarce, found admirers in America, His name was resuscitated by Priestley, who reprinted the trial from a copy lent him by a quaker at Leeds, and it became a stock tract with the unitarians. Fletcher of Madeley intended to answer it.
He published: 1. 'A True Testimony for God...against all the Trinitarians under Heaven,' &c., Wolverhampton and London, 12mo, n.d. (dedication dated 'Wolverbampton, 8 day 2d month [i.e. April], 1724'). 2. 'A True Testimony for God...Defence of the Fourth Commandment of God in Answer to a Treatise entitled The Religious Observation of the Lord's Day,’ &c., 1724, 12mo (not seen; see Notes and Queries, 6th ser. iv. 51; the treatise (by Dr. S. Wright) to which Elwall replies was first published in 1724, according to Cox); 3rd edition 1627 [i.e. 1726], 12mo, was printed in London and not published, but sold by his daughters. 3. ‘A Reply to James Barter's Reflections,’ &c., Wolverhampton, 8vo, n. d.  (Barter was a miller and ex-baptist preacher). 4. ‘Dagon fallen before the Ark … Answer to James Barter's last book,’ &c., Wolverhampton, 12mo, n. d. . 5. ‘Dagon fallen upon his Stumps,’ &c., Wolverhampton, 12mo, 1726. 6. ‘A Declaration against all the Kings and Temporal Powers under Heaven,’ &c., 12mo, 1732; 3rd edition, 12mo, 1734; 4th edition, 12mo, 1741 (a plea for freedom of conscience; from this Johnson quoted, altering ‘blackcoats’ into ‘blackguards;’ Elwall's challenge to George II to meet him in ‘James's Park’ for a discussion; the 3rd edition has appended ‘The Case of the Seventh-Day Sabbath-Keepers … to be laid before the Parliament,’ a reprint of part of No. 3, and ‘The Vanity … of expecting … Jews should ever be brought over to the pretended Christian Religion,’ &c.; the 4th edition has the account of his trial). 7. ‘A Declaration for all the Kings and Temporal Powers under Heaven,’ &c., 12mo, 1734 (against rebellion; has appended ‘The Vanity,’ &c.). 8. ‘The Grand Question in Religion … With an Account of the Author's Tryal,’ &c., 12mo, n. d. (dated 1736 in Elwall's own corrected copy, in Dr. Williams's library; at end is a ‘Hymn for the Sabbath-Day’). The narrative of the trial (pp. 51–61) was reprinted separately as ‘The Triumph of Truth,’ 1738, and subsequently; Priestley re-edited it in 1772, and again in 1788; it has been frequently reprinted in England and America. An argumentative addendum has been attributed to Priestley, but it is Elwall's own, though it does not appear in his earliest or latest issues. 9. ‘The True and Sure Way to remove Hirelings … With an Answer to … Chubb's Dissertation, concerning the … Sabbath … And a Short Remark on Daniel Dobel's late book,’ &c., 12mo, 1738. 10. ‘The Supernatural Incarnation of Jesus Christ proved to be false,’ &c., 12mo, 1742; 2nd edition, 12mo, 1743. 11. ‘Idolatry Discovered and Detected,’ 12mo, 1744 (has appended account of the trial).
Aspland wrongly ascribes to Elwall ‘Sermon préché dans la grande assemblée des Quakers de Londres, par le fameux E. Elwall, dit l'Inspiré. Traduit de l'Anglois,’ 12mo, Lond. 1737. The British Museum Catalogue assigns it to Alberto Radicati, count di Passerano.[Elwall's Works; Priestley's edition of Triumph of Truth, 1788 (pref. and appendix), Horncastle edition, 1813 (pref.); Memoir by J. T. [Joshua Toulmin] in Universal Theol. Mag. June 1804, p. 283 sq. (manuscript additions by Theophilus Lindsey Peak); reprint of Memoir, Bilston, 1808; Rutt's Mem. of Priestley, 1831, i. 163; Byrom's Private Journal (Chetham Soc.), 1855, vol. i. pt. ii. pp. 321 sq. 1856, vol. ii. pt. i. pp. 49 sq.; Some Account (by R. B. Aspland) in Christian Reformer, June 1855, pp. 329 sq.; Cox's Literature of the Sabb. Question, 1865; Tyerman's Life of Fletcher, 1882, pp. 218 sq.; Boswell's Johnson (Hill), ii. 164, 251; extract from baptismal register at Sedgley, per the Rev. T. G. Swindell; information from Mr. Elliott, Free Library, Wolverhampton; extracts from church book and burial register of the seventh-day baptists, formerly meeting at Mill Yard, per the Rev. Dr. W. Mead Jones.]