Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hall, Robert (1764-1831)

HALL, ROBERT (1764–1831), baptist divine, youngest of fourteen children of Robert Hall (1728–1791), was born at Arnesby, Leicestershire, on 2 May 1764. The father was a baptist minister, who in 1753 left Northumberland for Arnesby, and is known as the author of ‘Helps to Zion's Travellers;’ his works, with memoir, were published in 1828, 12mo. His son Robert was a precocious boy; taught himself the alphabet by help of gravestones; wrote hymns before he was nine years old; and at the age of eleven is said to have been put up to preach at a religious meeting in the house of a baptist minister, Beeby Wallis of Kettering, Northamptonshire. On his mother's death (December 1776) he was sent to the boarding-school of John Ryland, baptist minister, at Northampton. On 6 Sept. 1778 he received adult baptism, having confessed his faith on 23 Aug. Intended for the ministry, he entered (October 1778) the baptist academy at Bristol, under Caleb Evans, D.D. (divinity), and James Newton, M.A. (classics). His first sermon was delivered at an ordination in July 1779; on 13 Aug. 1780 he was set apart for the ministry by his father's church at Arnesby. In November 1781 he went as an exhibitioner to King's College, Old Aberdeen, graduating M.A. in 1784. With James (afterwards Sir James) Mackintosh, his fellow-student, he formed a strong intimacy; they read Greek together, and were nicknamed by their comrades Plato and Herodotus. He heard the divinity lectures of Alexander Gerard, D.D. [q. v.], a leader of the ‘moderates.’

As early as November 1783 Hall had been invited to begin his ministry in Bristol; he went there in the spring of 1785, assisting Evans at Broadmead Chapel, and taking Newton's place as tutor in the academy. In preaching he formed his early style on that of Robert Robinson of Cambridge; but his own powers rapidly developed, and his eloquence drew crowded audiences of all classes. His theological views were somewhat influenced by his admiration for the scientific genius and personal character of Priestley, to whose system of materialism he then inclined. From Calvinism he advanced to Arminianism, and was rather a dualist than a trinitarian, never losing faith in the divinity and atonement of our Lord. Uneasiness in his congregation was complicated by a difference with Evans, and on 11 Nov. 1790 he resigned. In January 1791 he removed to Cambridge, as the successor of Robinson, who had died in the previous June. A small section of the congregation, who thought him too orthodox, formed a secession for a short time under William Frend [q. v.] He did not shrink from pronouncing a eulogium on Priestley in reply to a sermon in July 1791 by John Clayton (1754–1843) [q. v.]; invited to his pulpit the Arian cyclopædist, Abraham Rees; formed an acquaintance with Habakkuk Crabb [q. v.], and preached his funeral sermon. At Cambridge his taste for the exact sciences was encouraged by association with Olinthus Gilbert Gregory [q. v.] He also studied Hebrew. In 1800 the delivery and publication of his discourse on ‘Modern Infidelity’ made a great sensation. Its substance had already been preached at the unitarian chapel, Lewin's Mead, Bristol, during the ministry of John Prior Estlin [q. v.]

His constitution was always delicate, and between 1802–3 he suffered severely from ill-health. By Mackintosh's advice he tried tobacco as a sedative; but in later years he added large quantities of laudanum, and even as much as 120 grains of solid opium. He had attacks of hypochondria, and his mind twice lost its balance (11 Nov. 1804–19 Feb. 1805, and 26 Nov. 1805–February 1806). His mother had been temporarily insane. Recovering under care, his restoration to health was coincident with a change in his religious views, and he dates his real ‘conversion’ from this period. Rest and removal being recommended by his physicians, he resigned his Cambridge charge on 4 March 1806. On 7 Oct. 1807 he became minister at Harvey Lane, Leicester. Here he had two congregations under his care, that in the morning being an open communion church. At Leicester he delivered (it is said at half-an-hour's notice, and without notes) his famous sermon on the death of Princess Charlotte (1817). In September 1817 the Marischal College, Aberdeen, sent him its diploma for the degree of D.D., but he never adopted the title. At the end of March 1826 he returned to Bristol, having accepted on 21 Dec. 1825 an invitation to succeed John Ryland, D.D., at Broadmead. He still read much, and now learned Italian in order to read Dante. Among English poets Milton was his idol. His early admiration for Priestley, as a philosopher, he seems to have transferred to Jeremy Bentham. Miss Edgeworth he regarded as the most irreligious writer he ever read. His ill-health increased, aggravated in 1830 by heart disease. He preached for the last time in January 1831; on 9 Feb. he attended a church meeting. He died on 21 Feb. 1831. He was married on 25 March 1808, and had five children; one son died in 1814, another son and three daughters survived him. His portrait, presenting a singular but not an intellectual visage, has often been engraved.

Hall's fame rests mainly on the tradition of his pulpit oratory, which fascinated many minds of a high order. His eloquence recommended evangelical religion to persons of taste. Dugald Stewart commends his writings as exhibiting ‘the English language in its perfection,’ which is certainly extravagant praise. His conversation, of which some fragments are preserved, was brilliant when his powers were roused by intellectual society. Except some anonymous contributions to a Bristol paper in 1786–7, his first publication was

  1. ‘Christianity consistent with a Love of Freedom,’ &c., 1791, 8vo (contains the reference to Priestley).

Of his other publications the chief are:

  1. ‘Apology for the Freedom of the Press,’ &c., 1793, 8vo.
  2. ‘Modern Infidelity considered with respect to its Influence on Society,’ &c., 1800, 8vo.
  3. ‘Reflections on War,’ &c., 1802.
  4. ‘The Advantage of Knowledge to the Lower Classes,’ &c.,1810, 8vo.
  5. ‘On Terms of Communion,’ &c., 1815, 8vo.
  6. ‘A Sermon occasioned by the Death of … Princess Charlotte,’ &c., 1817, 8vo.
  7. ‘Memoir of Thomas Toller,’ 1821, 8vo.

His ‘Works’ were collected in six volumes, 1832, 8vo, with memoir by Gregory, and essay on his character and preaching by John Foster (1770–1843) [q. v.]; the fifth volume contains many of his letters. A volume of ‘Reminiscences’ of his early sermons was published by John Greene, 1832, 8vo. ‘Selections’ from his writings, with notes by C. Badham, appeared in 1840, 8vo. A collection of ‘Fifty Sermons’ was issued in 1843, 8vo. His ‘Miscellaneous Works and Remains,’ with Gregory's memoir and Foster's essay, were included in Bohn's Standard Library, 1846, 8vo. He was one of the conductors of the ‘Eclectic Review’ (begun January 1805) and a frequent contributor.

[Ryland's Funeral Sermon for Robert Hall, 1791; Biographical Dictionary of Living Authors, 1816, pp. 142 sq.; Chandler's Authentic Account of the Last Illness &c. of Hall, 1831; Memoir by Gregory (in vol. vi. of ‘Works’), 1832 (the memoir was to have been written by Mackintosh, who died before beginning it); Morris's Biographical Recollections, 1833; 2nd edit. 1846; Bennett's Hist. of Dissenters, 1839, pp. 477 sq.; Knight's Biography (English Cyclopædia), iii. 262 sq.]

A. G.