Hennell, Charles Christian (DNB00)
|←Hennedy, Roger||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 25
Hennell, Charles Christian
HENNELL, CHARLES CHRISTIAN (1809–1850), author of ‘An Inquiry concerning the Origin of Christianity,’ was born in Manchester on 30 March 1809, the fifth of a family of eight children. His father, first a foreign agent, and afterwards a partner in a mercantile house, died in 1816. By this time the family had removed to Hackney, where Charles attended a day school; from this he went to a school at Derby, kept by an uncle, Edward Higginson, a unitarian minister. Here he remained fourteen months, leaving with a fair knowledge of Latin and French, and some acquaintance with Greek. When he was barely fifteen he obtained a junior clerkship with a firm of foreign merchants in London. His leisure was devoted to his studies, which embraced German, Italian, music, and physical science. In 1836, after twelve years' service in his situation, he began business on his own account in Threadneedle Street as a silk and drug merchant, and in 1843, on the recommendation of his former employers, he was appointed manager of an iron company.
In 1836 Charles Bray [q. v.], author of ‘The Philosophy of Necessity,’ married Hennell's sister Caroline. When subsequently the extent of Bray's rationalism became fully known to the Hennells, who had been brought up in the unitarianism of Priestley and Belsham, Hennell, for his own and his sister's satisfaction, undertook an examination of the New Testament narratives, not doubting that the conclusions in which he had hitherto rested would be confirmed. This anticipation was not realised. His studies resulted in the ‘Inquiry concerning the Origin of Christianity,’ the first edition of which appeared in 1838. The main conclusion of the work is that Christianity is to be accepted as forming simply a portion of natural human history. While unflinching in its conclusions the work is moderate and reverent in tone; in this respect, as well as the scientific temper in which the investigation is conducted, it marked in the history of English rationalism the first considerable departure from the acrimonious deism of the eighteenth century. Among those who sought the acquaintance of the author was Dr. Brabant, a retired physician of Devizes, and an indefatigable German scholar. Brabant introduced the book to Strauss, with whose ‘Leben Jesu’ or the works of other recent German critics Hennell was when he wrote unacquainted. The ‘Inquiry’ was translated into German at the instigation of Strauss, who wrote for it a preface (November 1839), in which he said: ‘Those excellent views which the learned German of our time appropriates to himself as the fruit of the religious development of his nation, this Englishman, to whom the greater part of our means was wanting, has been able to evolve by his own efforts.’ An Italian edition published afterwards was placed on the Index Expurgatorius. Hennell's acquaintance with Dr. Brabant was followed (1843) by a marriage with his daughter, whom he had previously induced to begin the translation of the ‘Leben Jesu;’ this undertaking was now transferred to Miss Evans, afterwards known as George Eliot [see Cross, Mary Ann]. Miss Evans, at the time an intimate friend of the Brays, was greatly interested and influenced by the ‘Inquiry,’ and in 1852 she wrote an account of it for the ‘Analytical Catalogue’ of Chapman's publications. Hennell published in 1839 ‘Christian Theism;’ an essay, constructive in its character, which discusses the direction that religious sentiment may be expected to take after the relinquishment of belief in miraculous revelation. He was associated with ‘Barber Beaumont’ [see Beaumont, John Thomas Barber] in the establishment of the New Philosophical Institution, Beaumont Square, Mile End, and was one of the trustees who endeavoured to carry out his plans after his death. In 1847 Hennell withdrew from business, and with his wife and child settled at Woodford, Epping. Differences with Barber Beaumont's son, John Augustus Beaumont, culminating in a chancery suit, and the loss of nearly all his moderate savings owing to railway panics, added to the anxieties of his later years. After a long and painful illness, borne with cheerful fortitude, he died on 2 Sept. 1850.
A second edition of the ‘Inquiry’ appeared in 1841; it was republished together with ‘Christian Theism’ in one volume, 1870.
[Hennell's Works; Cross's Life of George Eliot, 1885, i. 93–102, 118; private information.]