In 1823, while stationed in the Ionian Islands as a medical doctor serving the British Army, Dr. James Kennedy quite accidentally found himself in an extended religious conversation with the poet turned liberator, Lord George Gordon Byron. What began as the Doctor’s presentation to four British officers soon turned into the last chance for Lord Byron (who would die a only a few months later) to respond to the common assumption that he was a deist or an atheist. Some early biographers even argued that Byron enlisted in the Greek cause to save his sinking reputation. He found in James Kennedy an opportunity to clarify his religious beliefs and remove the stigma of infidelity from his name. Byron may well have known Kennedy was keeping a record of their conversations; certainly Kennedy made it known that he intended to publish immediately after Byron’s death.
James Kennedy was an orthodox Protestant Scotsman with a reputation for being associated with Methodists and evangelicals. He originally studied law but later in life turned his attention to medicine. He rose quickly in his second career and received a prestigious appointment with the British Army in the Mediterranean. In 1827 he died of disease while serving the army in the West Indies, his book left incomplete. The task of assembling it from manuscript notes was left to his wife Hannah Sarah who had been with him in Ionia. She also published his correspondence regarding the book, including appeals for information from those who had known Byron in Missolonghi.
Kennedy, like many of the reformed congregations of his time, rejected creeds, doctrine and dogma as the Christianity of “men” and based his religious belief solely on scripture and the evangelical principle of individual conversion as a result of an encounter with the Holy Spirit. He was not, however, a man that rejected the intellectual pursuit of God as having no substance. He draws on the biblical commentaries of his era in his attempt to provide Byron with an opportunity for conversion, but ultimately challenges Byron on spiritual grounds to what is seen as a failure by most critics. The significance of this book rests in its timing; at the time the conversations took place in 1823 Byron was widely condemned as a libertine and infidel; their publication in 1830 accelerated the revival of Byron’s reputation that began soon after his death.
The reviews of the Conversations on Religion are interesting: Byron and Kennedy are praised or censured from either end of the political spectrum on grounds that have more to do with theology than politics. Kennedy's book appeared after the publication of the first volume of Moore's biography of Byron but before the second, a time when Byron was being reappraised and interest in his life was as acute as ever.
Raymond R Higgins Jr