Adrian Desmond

Published On


Page Range

pp. 117–156


  • English

Print Length

40 pages

4. From the Devil’s Chaplain to That Dirty Little Jacobin

  • Adrian Desmond (author)
Saull’s public debut was in court in 1828 on blasphemy charges. He was indicted as a backer of the infidel preacher, the Rev. Robert Taylor, in a show trial, that, as the spy said, was designed to threaten off such “men of property”. Here we discuss Taylor: his rise (and subsequent soubriquet, the “Devil’s Chaplain”, at the Rotunda in 1830); how his blasphemy, at the time of Reform Bill agitation, went hand-in-hand with radical sedition; Saull’s funding of a succession of venues and support for Taylor, in prison and out (on Saull’s bail); and the value of Taylor’s Bible-demystifying astro-theology to Saull’s anti-clerical campaigns. When Taylor was jailed in 1828, Saull (the spy revealed) set up a new blasphemy chapel in Grub Street for another deist, the Rev. Josiah Fitch, for his “burlesque of religious worship”. More importantly, Saull founded a discussion group behind the scenes in this chapel—the “Athenaeum”—where geology could be mined for its anti-Christian meaning. Materialism justified by science was now Saull’s major topic, as revealed in his talks at his friend Pierre Baume’s Optimist Chapel. Taylor’s further incarceration in 1831, his harsh treatment in Horsemonger-lane gaol, and the perennial threat of Saull’s own postponed case, meant that Saull now switched from frontal attacks on Christianity to more covert undermining in geology lectures. He also moved from Taylor’s astro-theology to the radical publisher (or to detractors, “filthy jacobinical dog”) Sir Richard Phillips’ astro-geology: planetary orbital explanations of the periodicity of the earth’s strata, to explain the alternating hot/cold and marine/terrestrial sediments. This promised a more mechanical explanation of life’s rise.


Adrian Desmond


Adrian Desmond was educated at University College London and Harvard University, where he was Stephen Jay Gould's first history of science PhD student. He has two MSc's, one in history of science, another in vertebrate palaeontology, and a PhD for his work on radical Victorian evolutionists. For twenty years he was an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London. He is the multi-award-winning author of nine books, which include: The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs, Archetypes and Ancestors: Palaeontology in Victorian London 1850-1875, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London, Darwin, Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest, Darwin’s Sacred Cause (with James Moore)