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Sewell (1820 – 1878)

An extremely rare four-page autograph letter signed, ‘Anna Sewell’, to her brother Philip. Dated 13th January 1844, Brighton.

The author sends her brother birthday wishes but shares disturbing news that has deeply upset their mother about scandalous claims made by Mr [Henry James] Prince, a charismatic and heterodox local preacher (‘he says that he is a manifestation of the Holy Ghost’), the followers he has gathered around him (‘one girl said she would follow him to Hell if he went there’), and her family’s confrontation with him (‘he even threatened an action if we persisted in speaking to the people, but we cannot let them go blindfold to ruin’), with a brief postscript added by their father sending love and best wishes. The final page incorporates an address panel with penny red stamp and postal markings. Neat folds, otherwise in very fine condition.

This letter by Anna Sewell to her younger brother Philip is of particular importance as Sewell discusses the notorious preacher Henry James Prince (1811-99). Sewell had been brought up a Quaker but left the community at the age of 18, and thereafter she and her mother attended services held by a range of Protestant denominations, including during the years when the Sewell family lived in Brighton (1837 to 1845). Henry Prince had been ordained in 1839 but his unorthodox beliefs and behaviour led to his licence to preach in the established church being revoked in 1842. He came to Brighton in 1843 and preached at the Adullam Chapel. Sewell attests in this letter to Prince’s use of increasingly messianic language, and he was soon presiding over a sect that came to be called the Agapemonites. Prince urged his followers – especially the wealthy ones – to donate their possessions to the community, and eventually announced himself to be the chosen means of reconciling God’s spirit with the sinful flesh of humanity through his “spiritual marriage” to a young member of the community (who subsequently bore him a child).

Letters by the author of Black Beauty are exceptionally rare.