In this post, Katherine Sissons takes us on a whistle stop tour of Victorian secularism through five objects. The objects are of valuable historical interest, but also to those interested in the material cultures of nonreligious and secular groups.
The London Underground; street lighting; the postal service: all institutions which have their roots in the Victorian period. Many contemporary nonreligious organisations – including the British Humanist Association, the National Secularist Society, and the Rationalist Association – can also trace their history to this era. This article explores the history of British atheism and secularism through five Victorian objects.
The Cheltenham Chronicle (1842)
In May 1842, George Jacob Holyoake walked from Birmingham to Bristol to visit a friend. On route to Bristol, he stayed one night in Cheltenham, where he gave a lecture. This lecture resulted in his arrest, and ultimately his conviction for blasphemy.
Holyoake’s lecture was not about religion, but about Owenism – the idea that the working classes would benefit from living cooperatively in small, self-sufficient, classless communities. According to his own account of the lecture, Holyoake did not speak about religion until near the end, when someone asked whether the Owenite communities would have chapels. Holyoake responded: “I, not being religious, cannot propose them. Morality I regard, but I do not believe there is such a thing as God” (Holyoake 1851).
Two days later, on 26th May 1942, the Cheltenham Chronicle reported a different version of events under the headline “Atheism and Blasphemy”:
On Tuesday evening last a person named Holyoake…delivered a lecture on Socialism (or, as it has been more appropriately termed, devilism) at the Mechanics’ Institution. After attacking the Church of England and religion generally for a considerable time, he said he was open to any question that might be put to him…[he] replied that he professed no religion at all…He did not believe there was such a being as God…With many similar blasphemous and awful remarks, which we cannot sully our columns by repeating, the poor misguided wretch continued to address the audience. To their lasting shame, be it spoke, a considerable portion of the company applauded the miscreant during the time he was giving utterance to these profane opinions (Holyoake 1851, p.6)
Upon reading this article, Holyoake arranged to give a second lecture in Cheltenham, to clarify his position. A row of policemen stood at the back of the room. At the end of his lecture, Holyoake was detained and charged with “delivering atheistical and blasphemous sentiments”. Whilst on bail, Holyoake traveled to London, where his impending trial attracted the attention of leading figures in the secularist movement.
In August, Holyoake was found guilty and sentenced to six months in Gloucester Gaol. His imprisonment earned him the admiration of many secularists, and propelled him to the fore as a leader in the secularist movement – a consequence that the editors of the Cheltenham Chronicle presumably did not intend (Budd 1977, p.32).
The National Chartist Hymn Book (1845)
The National Chartist Hymn Book offers an insight into how a political movement, which seemingly had little to do with religion, eventually swelled the ranks of secularist organisations.
Since 1838 Chartists had been calling for changes to the political system. They wanted vote for every man over the age of 21; a secret ballot; and a salary for Members of Parliament. In short, Chartists sought to increase the political participation of the working classes.
Many Chartists considered themselves Christian, as evidenced by the many appeals to God throughout their hymns. However, many were also very critical of the distribution of wealth within the Church of England. Whilst most hymns of the era focused on themes such as the crucifixion, heaven and family, Chartist hymns drew attention to social inequality. For example, one hymn finishes with the lyrics: “All men are equal in His sight/ the bond, the free, the black, the white!/He made them all, them freedom gave/ He made the man, man made the slave” (Sanders 2012).
Numerous Church of England sermons condemned the Chartist movement. One Reverend Jenkins declared that “The doctrines taught and urged by the Chartist leaders, are as diametrically opposed to the doctrines revealed in the eternal word of God, as the North is to the South”. Quoting 1 Samuel 2:7 (“The Lord maekth poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up”) Jenkins argued that social inequality was sanctioned by God, and that Chartists should not seek to meddle with His Divine Plan (Faulkner 1916, pp.60–61).
The Chartist movement lost momentum in the late 1840s, before it had achieved any of its goals. At this time, many Chartists turned first to Owenism, then to secularism (Budd 1977, p.22).
The Fruits of Philosophy (1876)
This was the book that threatened to undermine the Britain’s secularist movement in 1870s. First published in America in 1832, the book advocated birth control and described contraceptive methods in explicit detail. In 1876, Victorian police arrested a bookseller for selling this book, on the basis that it was “obscene”. George Jacob Holyoake supported family planning, but thought that The Fruits of Philosophy was too brash. However, Charles Bradlaugh – the founder of the National Secular Society – and his colleague Annie Besant published a second edition. After deliberately sending a copy to the police, the pair were arrested and prosecuted for selling obscene material (Budd 1977, p.56).
During the lengthy trial, many within the secularist movement became hostile towards Bradlaugh and Besant for embroiling the National Secular Society in such a scandalous issue. Some members feared that the reputational damage to the secularist movement would be irreparable (Budd 1977, p.57).
Though Bradlaugh retained his leadership of the National Secular Society, he lost the support of many prominent secularists. Bradlaugh and Holyoake had clashed in the past: Bradlaugh criticised Holyoake’s concern with respectability; Holyoake felt that Bradlaugh was too “militant”. The Fruits of Philosophy exacerbated these tensions, resulting in a schism: Holyoake formed the British Secular Union as a more respectable alternative to Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society (Budd 1977, pp.58–59).
The cell in the clock tower
In the summer of 1880 Charles Bradlaugh, still the leader of the National Secular Society, found himself in a small prison cell underneath the clock tower that houses Big Ben.
By 1880, the controversy surrounding The Fruits of Philosophy had died down and Bradlaugh regained his popularity. He was elected as Liberal MP for Northampton largely on the votes of secularists and other non-conformists. However, he refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance – an oath sworn to God, which was required of all MPs.
Since people were allowed to make a “solemn affirmation” in court, instead of swearing on the Bible, Bradlaugh argued that he should be allowed to make a similar affirmation in the House of Commons. In June 1880, a committee voted that Bradlaugh could not affirm as an alternative to swearing the Oath of Allegiance. The Speaker ordered Bradlaugh to withdraw from the House of Commons. Bradlaugh refused, but refusing to obey an order of the house was against the law. Consequently, Bradlaugh was taken into custody and detained in the prison cell under the clock tower.
Bradlaugh was re-elected four times before finally being allowed to take his seat in 1886. The publicity around the case attracted many new recruits to the National Secular Society. Branches that had been dormant were reactivated. Arguably, British secularists were more unified during these six years than at any other time in the Victorian era (Budd 1977, pp.61–62).
The Watts’ family printing press
For more than half of Victoria’s reign, the Watts family had published materials written and edited by all the famous secularists of the time – including The Fruits of Philosophy (see above).
By 1883 the family business was in the hands of Charles Albert Watts. In 1885, he began publishing Watts’ Literary Review, a magazine containing “literary gossip” of interest to freethinkers. In its pages, readers wound find summaries of the latest scientific ideas, items of secularist news, and criticisms of Christianity.
In 1899, Watts founded the Rationalist Press Association, which reprinted books on science and rationalism and distributed them to subscribers. The books were cheap and made work of Darwin, Huxley and J.S. Mill available to a mass audience. In fact, the books were cheap enough that they were disposable – at least to some: historian Susan Budd writes that some subscribers left their books on trains in the hope of recruiting new members (Budd 1977, p.133)
The Rationalist Press Association enjoyed success until the late 1950s, when it ceased publishing books. Now known simply as the Rationalist Association, it publishes New Humanist – a magazine that has descended directly from Watts’ Literary Guide.
The Victorian period saw secularism and atheism transformed from individual eccentricities to social movements. Two long-standing secularist institutions formed during this period: the National Secular Society, and the Rationalist Press Association. The Victorians also witnessed the gradual transformation of a liberal Christian congregation, meeting at South Place Chapel, into the Ethical Union. The stories of the Rationalist Association, the National Secular Society, and the Ethical Union (which eventually became the British Humanist Association) continue to intertwine, and the organisations continue to make history.
Budd, S., 1977. Varieties of unbelief: atheists and agnostics in English society 1850-1960, London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.
Faulkner, H.U., 1916. Chartism and the churches: a study in democracy, New York: The Columbia University Press. Available at: https://archive.org/details/chartismchurches00fauliala.
Holyoake, G.J., 1851. The history of the last trial by jury for atheism in England: a fragment of autobiography submitted for the perusal of Her Majesty’s Attorney-Gener and the British clergy, London: James Watson.
Sanders, M., 2012. The National Chartist Hymn Book and Victorian Hymnody. Victorian Studies, 54(4), pp.679–705.
Katherine is a doctoral student in the department of anthropology at the University of Oxford. She is interested in the variety of lived experiences of nonreligion in the UK. Before starting her doctorate she lived for a while in Vanuatu and is still interested in religion and religious change in Melanesia. Katherine is also Assistant Editor for NSRN Online, with responsibility for the commissioning and publication of book review and media related blog posts for the NSRN blog.