Belsham, Thomas (DNB00)

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BELSHAM, THOMAS (1750–1829), unitarian divine, was born at Bedford, 26 April 1750, being a son of the Rev. James Belsham, dissenting minister there, and of Anne, his wife, a daughter of Sir Francis Wingate, and granddaughter of the first Earl of Anglesey (Williams, Memoirs of Thomas Belsham, p. 1). Belsham received his education first under Dr. Aikin (a relative on the mother's side) at Kibworth; next under a Mr. French, at Wellingborough, and at Ware when the school moved there; and finally at the Daventry academy, which he entered in August 1766. In 1768 he was received as a member of the independent church there; in 1770 he became assistant-master of Greek, and in 1771 tutor in mathematics, logic, and metaphysics. In 1778 he was appointed minister of the congregation at the independent chapel, Angel Street, Worcester (Williams, p. 159); but in 1781 he returned to Daventry to be resident tutor, and to fill the divinity chair, together with the pulpit of the town chapel (independent); he began his duties with forty students. In the course of the next eight years Belsham's biblical studies led him to doubt whether the trinitarian position could be held; and having satisfied himself that he could no longer teach trinitarianism he resigned his post in 1789, and was appointed professor of divinity and resident tutor at the Hackney College, where his unitarianism was acceptable, and where Priestley was lecturer on history and philosophy (Williams, p. 444). In March 1794 Priestley resigned the pulpit of the Gravel Pit Unitarian Chapel at Hackney on his departure for America, and it was offered to Belsham (Gent. Mag. vol. lxiv. part i. p. 486), who preached his first sermon as minister on April 6. In 1796 his college ceased to exist, and he took a house in Grove Place for the reception of private pupils. In 1802, Priestley's chapel at Birmingham having been rebuilt, Belsham preached the opening sermon there (Williams, p. 508). In this year, also, he was appointed one of the trustees of Dr. Williams's charities (ibid. 513). In 1805 the pulpit of Essex Street chapel, London, which had been occupied by the Rev. Theophilus Lindsey and Dr. Disney, was accepted by Belsham, though he continued to reside at Hackney, and Lindsey still occupied the parsonage known as Essex House. In 1811, Belsham injured his leg by falling on the step of a coach. This first impaired his health, which suffered more on his removal to Essex House, in 1812, on the death of Mrs. Lindsey. In 1820, an attack of paralysis forced Belsham to spend much time at Brighton; and in 1823, a second accident to his leg, attended to by Lawrence and Sir Astley Cooper, and which resulted in his being on crutches for nearly three years, made him move from the Strand to Hampstead. Apoplectic seizures were frequent with him from this period; the Rev. Thomas Madge was appointed his assistant in 1825; and dying at Hampstead 11 Nov. 1829, aged 80, he was buried in the Bunhill Fields Cemetery, in the same grave with the Rev. Theophilus Lindsey.

Belsham never married. One of his sisters married John King, archdeacon of Killala, and this took him frequently to Ireland. His controversial publications, his sermons, and other theological works, were very numerous. His first sermon was published in 1775, two volumes of discourses were published half a century after, in 1826 and 1827, and between these two issues fifty other works were printed by him, a complete list of which is appended to the reprint of his ‘Character and Writings,’ 1830, extracted from the ‘Monthly Repository’ for February, &c., 1830. Belsham's ‘Memoirs of Theophilus Lindsey,’ first published in 1812, went through several editions, the last being as late as 1873, when the Unitarian Association printed the centenary edition, with preface by Rev. R. Spears. Others of Belsham's more important works are ‘Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind,’ 1801; the ‘Improved Version of the New Testament’ (Belsham being principal editor), 1808, which was severely attacked in the ‘Quarterly Review’ (Williams, p. 590); ‘Letters to the Bishop of London in Vindication of Unitarianism,’ 1815; and the ‘Epistles of St. Paul translated,’ 4 vols, 1822, which also received bitter treatment in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ No. lix. (Williams, p. 752). But, besides these, the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ from vol. lxi. abounds with sharp letters from correspondents attacking Belsham and unitarianism (the Bishop of St. David's being prominent amongst them), and with Belsham's sharp answers in defence of himself and of the principle of religious liberty, till in vol. lxxxvi. Mr. Sylvanus Urban declined to give any more space to the subject. In the ‘Monthly Magazine’ for February 1807, Belsham published some objections to Lysons's account of Bedford in the ‘Magna Britannia,’ and Lysons replied in ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ vol. lxxxvii. pt. ii. p. 405. abounds with sharp letters from correspondents attacking Belsham and unitarianism (the Bishop of St. David's being prominent amongst them), and with Belsham's sharp answers in defense of himself and of the principle of religious liberty, till in vol. lxxxvi. Mr. Sylvanus Urban declined to give any more space to the subject. In the 'Month;y Magazine' for February 1807, Belsham published some objections to Lyson's account of Bedford in the 'Magna Britannia,' and Lysons repield in 'Gentleman's Magazine,' vol. lxxxvii. pt. ii. p. 405.

[Williams's Memoirs of the late Rev. Thomas Belsham, 1833; Monthly Repository, Feb. et seq. 1830; Reprint of this, published by the Unitarian Association, 1830; Boswell's Johnson, i. 329, Malone's ed. 1823; Freethinking Christian's Mag. ii. 278 et seq., 360 et seq.]

J. H.