On this day in history : 25th March 1811 – Percy Bysshe Shelley is expelled from Oxford University for publishing the pamphlet ‘The Necessity of Atheism”….

Portrait of Shelley, by Alfred Clint (1829) – Public domain

Shelley, one of the major English Romantic poets, held radical political and social views which were to be, inevitably, reflected in his poetry and writing….

He was born in Broadbridge Heath, near to Horsham, West Sussex on the 4th of August 1782 and was the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley, a Whig MP…. After attending the Syon House Academy, Brentford, Middlesex and Eton College, Shelley entered University College, Oxford on the 10th of April 1810….

His first novel was published anonymously in 1810…. ‘Zastrozzi’, a Gothic novel, which through its characters indicated its author’s atheist views…. Other publications followed, ‘St Irvine; or, The Rosicrucian: A Romance’, and ‘Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire’, which he wrote with his sister Elizabeth…. He also published a collection of verses ‘Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson’, with his close friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg…. Then in 1811 he anonymously published the pamphlet ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ – which saw him hauled in front of the College Dean, George Rowley…. His refusal to admit as to whether he had or had not penned the publication saw his expulsion from Oxford…. It is widely believed Hogg helped him to write the pamphlet….

1811, Title Page – Public domain

‘The Necessity of Atheism’ was first published around the 14th of February 1811…. Few original copies remain as most were destroyed shortly after publication…. At the time its content was deemed to be so shocking….

“As a love of truth is the only motive which actuated the Author of this little tract, he earnestly entreats that those of his readers who may discover any deficiency in his reasoning, or may be in possession of proofs which his mind could never obtain, would offer them, together with their objections to the Public, as briefly, as methodically, as plainly as he has taken the liberty of doing”….

At the end of the pamphlet Shelley writes…. “the mind cannot believe in the existence of a God”…. He signed it…. ‘Thro’ deficiency of proof, AN ATHEIST’….

A page from the 1811 Worthing Printing – Bodleian Library

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