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Dell was born at Bedfordshire, England, and was an undergraduate at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, taking an M.A. in 1631. He became a chaplain in the New Model Army, which brought radical ministry with it.
Relationship to Parliament
Dell's 1646 sermon to the lower house in Parliament, following a controversial one to the House of Lords, was too extreme, and the House of Commons reprimanded him; it attacked the Westminster Assembly, spoke up for the poor, and told the politicians to keep out of religious reform. Nonetheless, his appointment at Caius was at the behest of the Rump Parliament. Thomas Harrison's proposal to have him preach again, in 1653, was defeated.
As the change of institutions failed to bring about the hoped-for transformation, Winstanley, Dell, Erbery, Vavasor Powell and others warned the Army leaders against avarice ambition, luxury.
He backed the Quaker John Crook as MP in 1653/4, and the regicide John Okey. He was a supporter of Oliver Cromwell. In 1657, however, he with Okey campaigned against the proposal to make Cromwell king.
He was a friend and supporter of John Bunyan, whom he invited to preach in his parish church. He was an opponent of the Ranters; but also of enforced uniformity of worship, citing Martin Luther against it He was attacked as a libertine, and thought to tend to antinomianism. According to Christopher Hill
He argued for major institutional change. He attacked academic education frontally. He proposed a secular and decentralized university system; with local village schools, and grammar schools in larger places. He was strongly against the Aristotelian tradition persisting in the universities, and discounted all classical learning; and expressed broad anti-intellectual attitudes. He believed in more practical studies; more particularly, he was concerned that training for the ministry should be much more widely spread, geographically and socially, and less dependent on traditional academic studies.
He was a severe critic of the Church of England. He doubted the basis in scripture for a national Church, and eventually was buried outside it. He had egalitarian views on the suitable social composition of the bishops, and clergy in general. He connected this to religious control and change. Christopher Hill writes
Men like Winstanley, Erbery and Dell opened wide the door to the Quaker assertion that it was antichristian for 'such as a men of learning and have been at the university and have tongues' to 'be masters and bear rule in every parish, and none shall reprove or contradict what they say in public'.
After the Restoration
He was deprived of his living of Yelden in 1662; he had held it from 1642. A 1667 pamphlet of his, The Increase of Popery in England, was suppressed and appeared only in 1681; Hill calls this anti-Catholic attack 'partly a political gambit'
- Concise Dictionary of National Biography
- "Dell, William (DL623W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Army chaplains of the period include many radicals who figure in our story, like Hugh Peter, John Saltmarsh, William Erbery, John Webster, Henry Pinnell, John Collier and William Dell. Hill, World Upside Down, p. 58-9; also pp. 70-1.
- Hill, Change and Continuity in 17th-Century England, p. 30, quotes Dell on this.
- Hugh Trevor-Roper, Religion, Reformation and Social Change, p. 325.
- Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, p. 83.
- Hill, Continuity and Change, p. 136.
- Hill, World Upside Down, p. 100.
- Trevor-Roper, p. 343; Hill, English Bible p. 83.
- Hill, Milton, pp.195-6.
- World Upside Down, p. 344.
- Hill, A Turbulent, Seditious, and Factious People: John Bunyan and His Church (1988), p. 80.
- Hill, Bunyan, p. 93.
- In 1659; Hill, Bunyan, p. 138, 166.
- Hill, Bunyan, p. 59. Hill, A Nation of Change and Novelty (1990), p. 195, has: Tithes would also explain the existence of much hostile comment on Ranters from clergy of the state church who were neither yellow-press journalists nor Quakers — John Osborne, Richard Baxter, John Tickell, Edward Hide, Francis Higginson, Robert Gell, William Dell, Thomas Fuller, Edward Garland, Claudius Gilbert. But Dell was against tithes.
- Hill, Bunyan, p. 180.
- Hill, English Bible p. 182: Samuel Rutherford spoke of both Hendrik Niclaes and William Dell as libertines. Also Hill, Milton and the English Revolution, p. 109.
- Hill, Bunyan, p. 160.
- Bunyan, p. 192.
- Hill, World Upside Down, p. 190.
- Hill, World Upside Down, p. 368.
- Hill, The Experience of Defeat (1984). p. 295.
- Antichrist chose his ministers only out of the universities. Quoted in Hill, English Bible, p. 199; also pp. 320, 380.
- Barbara K. Lewalski, The Life of John Milton (2000), p. 366; Hill, Milton, p. 149.
- Hill, World Upside Down, p. 301.
- Hill, Bunyan, p. 140: A chorus of radical voices — Cobbler How, Walwyn, Winstanley, Dell, John Webster, Thomas Tany, John Reeve, Edward Burrough, George Fox — had joined in denouncing the universities' presumption that classical learning was a necessary part of the training of a preacher.
- Rejection of human learning was to be found in the Familist tradition and Boehme; it was shared by William Dell, Anna Trapnell, John Reeve, Andrew Marvell, Henry Stubbe, John and Samuel Pordage among many others. Hill, Milton, pp. 423-4.
- Hill, World Upside Down, pp. 184-5, for Dell's view that learning didn't help with scriptural understanding; Hill, Continuity and Change, p. 142: 'When God shall undertake to reform his church', Dell warned, 'all this sort of learning shall be cast out as dirt and dung, and the plain word of the gospel only shall prevail'.
- Hill, World Upside Down, p. 303, comparing him on this to John Hall and Noah Biggs; and adding to critics of the universities Lord Brooke, Roger Williams, Richard Overton, Edmund Chillenden, Milton, Roger Crab, Richard Coppin, John Canne, Henry Stubbe, Richard Farnsworth, Samuel Fisher.
- Hill, Continuity and Change, p. 43, 138, 141.
- Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Penguin edition p. 37.
- Hill, English Bible p. 41.
- Hill, Continuity and Change p. 143.
- Hill, Bunyan, p. 119.
- World Upside Down, p. 104.
- Hill, Bunyan, p. 167.
- Hill, Continuity and Change, p. 136.
- Hill, Bunyan, p. 166.
- Hill, Milton, p. 219.
- Hill, Milton, p. 220.
- H. R. Trevor-Roper, "William Dell", The English Historical Review, Vol. 62, No. 244 (July 1947), pp. 377–379; distinguishes Dell from the William Dell who was Secretary to Archbishop Laud.