The Expulsion from New College, by Mike Brealey
There were four things in particular I looked at in this episode; the evidence from the Autobiography and the Early Life of MR, the belief(s) at issue, the chronology, and the role of the other two expelled - Robert Theobald and Fred White.
Although the Early Life, and most secondary studies, suggest that all three expelled transferred together from Cheshunt to New College I could find no evidence in the Cheshunt archives that Fred White or Theobald had ever been students there. Research in the New College records (at Dr Williams's Library) showed the transfer of Hale White from Cheshunt, but that Fred White had transferred from Homerton, one of the founding institutions of New College. By contrast, Theobald entered as a new student, having previously gained an MA at Glasgow University.
This makes Theobald's statement (in his 1913 Westminster Gazette reminiscences of White) that he 'knew him first when he [White] was a student at Cheshunt College' puzzling. Theobald had family links in both Essex and London however, and since Cheshunt students preached widely in surrounding chapels a meeting in such a context is quite possible to imagine.
Comparing the notes I made from the Cheshunt and New College archives with dates in the main critical studies on White caused some confusion. At first, bafflingly, I thought I must have noted many down incorrectly, but gradually a revised chronology emerged. The expulsion itself is easy to date in March 1852 from several contemporary sources. Some secondary studies are vague about the date White entered New College, but the consensus is October 1851. This is established from the date of Principal Harris's inaugural lectures 'delivered at the opening of the College' as their title declared, and clearly dated October 1851. In fact this was the delayed opening of the building, as the College was founded in 1850 and had been operating in temporary premises from the previous October. In the standard chronology White left Cheshunt in the summer of 1850 and entered New College in October 1851, so a year is unaccounted for. In fact he had been at New College from October 1850 (though a full academic programme was probably not in place), and so had been a student there for a year and a term before being expelled.
To me, this make the event itself more inexplicable. Not only does White choose to follow Harris from Cheshunt to New College, but studies there for more than a year before discovering his beliefs diverge so much from the Principal's that conscience forces him to speak out. It is possible that White really spoke up in aid of Theobald and Fred White rather than on his own account, but I am tending to the opinion that he already knew by this date that he could not happily serve as a minister, and was not sorry for a reason to leave. On this reading, his presentation (in Early Life) of the issue in terms of freedom of conscience is perhaps tendentious. The College and the three expelled both had much to lose in terms of reputation from the publicity over the crisis, yet both sides seemed determined not to back down. Perhaps there were background factors at work which cannot now be recovered? The only additional clue I can offer so far is that during the 1850-51 academic year White spent time with Caleb Morris which may in some way have affected him - though there is nothing to suggest that Morris would have tried to turn White from the ministry.
I am hoping to find more on the future careers of Theobald and Fred White which might throw light on their beliefs. One source lists Fred White as a Congregational minister in Wiltshire, but that is beginning to look like a case of mistaken identity. Theobald became interested in Francis Bacon, especially in promoting him as the real author of Shakespeare's works, and seems to have taken a mystical path, possibly becoming a Rosicrucian.
This material, with much more on White's College career, the theological issues, background information, references, and further interpretation, forms part of a proposed draft chapter for my thesis, but it needs quite a bit more work yet.
It interests me that most scholars have taken the Early Life as a reasonably accurate account for White's youth. On the basis of this episode I think it may be much less reliable. To present the issue in terms of freedom and conscience is understandable (even if possibly misleading) but it is not clear why White wanted to suggest that the other two expelled had been at Cheshunt. It is, I think, not credible that he had simply forgotten where they had originated - but perhaps it was simply a desire to hide their identities?
It some ways this is a very minor detail, but he evidently took the trouble to look back through his records, including contemporary press cuttings etc., to quote accurately much other information about the expulsion. Perhaps there really is something behind all this which he did not want to become public - but I know arguments from silence are dangerous, and bad history!
Michael Brealey, January 2002