Aspiring to the Truth: Two Hundred Years of the South Place Ethical Society

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By: Jim Herrick (Conway Hall Ethical Society (May 2016), 248 pages, £12)

Review by: Norman Bacrac

Freethought author and member of the Society, Jim Herrick, was commissioned to write an account of the history of this Society from its inception in 1793 to date. The first history was written by Moncure D. Conway, the Minister of the South Place Ethical Society, entitled a Centenary History of the South Place Society (1894). The second was written by one of the Society’s then Appointed Lecturers, S.K.Ratcliffe, called the Story of South Place (1955). After more than another half-century, an updated history was needed.

Jim Herrick traces the changes in doctrine, its step-by-cautious-step evolution from a dissident Universalism (all will be saved from Hell), through Unitarianism (Jesus was human – not part of a supposed Trinity) to a vague Theism – until at around the 1870s, God and prayers were finally dispensed with. The change of name from being a ‘Religious’ to an ‘Ethical’ Society in1888 marked the Society’s
belief that the basis and practice of ethics was autonomous – i.e. not dependent on the existence of anything beyond the natural world. The supernatural was no longer required.

However, it wasn’t till 1980 that Judge Dillon determined in a costly Court case that SPES was not a Religious but an Educational Charity – to the great relief of virtually every member, except its General Secretary, Peter Cadogan, who advocated ‘religious’ humanism. As the late Nicolas Walter (grandson of S.K.Ratcliffe) said in 1993, “Conway Hall … is now established as the physical centre of the Humanist movement.” (p.26)

Nevertheless, it took till 2014, when the Society became a Charitable Incorporated Organisation, for the chance to re-phrase the Object officially as the “advancement of education in humanist ethical principles”.

The book is attractively illustrated with all the old black and white prints and modern colour photos of people associated with Conway Hall. Inevitably, there has to be a selection from the many hundreds of people involved with the Society over the years, ranging from those who made a significant contribution to its work and ethos to those with a merely peripheral connection. When I first joined the then General Committee around 1982, I was impressed by the efforts of Ray Lovecy and the late Louise Booker, both deeply concerned with up-dating SPES’s Constitution; the Programme Co-ordinator (Jennifer Jeynes) put on two Sunday events, specials including an Annual Reunion of the kindred societies, Holocaust Memorial and Human Rights’ days, a contribution to BA’s Science week, Art soirees and memorial lectures. As the decades pass there is bound to be a fluctuation in the variety of activity, depending on the interest
and enthusiasm of the staff and Trustees at the time. Today, there appears to be no lack of hirers for the very technically advanced Conway Hall.

Finally, that Conway Hall is properly judged a home for free speech might be illustrated by its staging for five nights in1987 of Jim Allen’s controversial play Perdition, after the Royal Court theatre bowed to pressure and cancelled the play. Barbara Smoker (as Hon. Rep) and I (as GC Chair) gambled that the performances would pass without untoward incident – which luckily they did.

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Atheism & Secularism, History

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