Written by Samuel Kerkham Ratcliffe.
Beginnings in Bishopsgate
The South Place Society holds a place by itself in London and England. The congregation out of which it grew was formed one hundred and sixty years ago, at a crucial stage of the French Revolution. There is no other association in the country devoted to free religious thought and ethical inquiry that can point to a record approaching this one in length of days, or with a similar consistency of aim carried on through the many variations of thought and expression natural to an age of unexampled change. Beginning in a small chapel on the eastern rim of the City of London, the Society made, after thirty years, a notable transfer to the building in Finsbury which was its home for a hundred and five years, and then, in 1929, was enabled to organise a new start on its present site in Red Lion Square, Bloomsbury.
The founder was Elhanan Winchester, an American from Massachusetts, of whom a summary account was recently given in the Monthly Record. He was born in 1751 near Boston, the son of an artisan. He had no more than the common-school education but managed somehow to teach himself Hebrew and Greek, Latin and French. He grew up amid the hard-shell Calvinism of New England and by his twentieth year was exhorting all and sundry in the repulsive “good news” of election, reprobation, and everlasting torment for the unbeliever. Much more than a personal awakening was brought about by a casual encounter in a stage-coach. Winchester was giving tongue to his crude beliefs when a young woman spoke up telling him he was all wrong. The God she worshipped was a being of wisdom and compassion, not of cruelty and vengeance. She believed that divine mercy was without limit and therefore that salvation was for all. The rebuke was not lost upon the young dogmatist. In due time he found himself preaching the faith of Universalism, the final restoration of all things, and naturally being denounced by the sects. He left his native region and travelled south. His gift of eloquence made him an acceptable preacher in many places, and before reaching thirty he was filling one of the largest churches in Philadelphia. The strange gospel of eternal hope, however, caused plenty of dissension. Not even the most liberal Christians thought it permissible to mitigate the fears of men and women concerning an afterlife, and in 1787 Winchester decided to try his fortune in England.
He was engaged in restarting a heretical belief, which in the early Church was associated with the name of Origen. It had disappeared from Christendom virtually without trace. No known religious leader had dared to adopt it. English Noncomformity had never heard of Universalism; and yet for Winchester there was no lack of opportunity. A good many Baptist pulpits were open to him, mostly in the London district; and in 1793 his adherents obtained their own building in Parliament Court, a short turning out of Artillery Row ‘which, running parallel to Middlesex Street (Petticoat Lane) leaves Bishopsgate opposite the east wall of Liverpool Street station. This passage, now given up to offices and warehouses, has survived in a neighbourhood, of course, transformed out of all recognition.
Winchester was now forty-two, a popular preacher and a prolific writer of sermons and tracts. His congregation was made up of seceders from various Calvinist bodies. Indeed, we shall not rightly estimate the value of his theological protest unless we keep in mind the weight of the Calvinist blight on the religious life of England a century and a half ago. True, the broad stream of the established Church was not under the dominion of Geneva. The famous divines of the seventeenth century belonged to a wholly different tradition and the intellectual theology of Butler and Berkeley was equally remote from John Calvin. If the parish clergy of the age could, in general, be charged with formalism and indifference, at least they –were free from the horrors of the black creed. George Whitefield had stamped a large section of Methodism with a modified Calvinism, but the Wesley brothers would have nothing to do with it. John Wesley was owner and editor of the Arminian Magazine, and his crusade was a sustained emotional defiance of the Westminster Confession. Election and reprobation, nevertheless, were strongly entrenched. The powerful Evangelical movement in the Church of England, with the Clapham Sect as its most influential agency, was very near in doctrine to the older nonconformist bodies. All alike were Calvinist in essentials. Religious liberals were, of necessity, struggling against this revolting superstition.
Elhanan Winchester, it is clear, had few actual allies in London, but his tracts were in circulation through the country and were not without influence. In Bishopsgate he was content to dwell upon his governing idea, the all compelling and everlasting mercy. This was his one major heresy. He did not challenge the doctrine of the Trinity, for his Goliath was simply hell. He had hoped for Unitarian co-operation but did not get farther than friendly relations with Joseph Priestley and several other leaders. The second-advent fantasy appealed to him, for he saw in the upheaval of the French Revolution a manifest prelude to the end of the world. Moncure Conway called him a rhapsodist with a boundless capacity of belief. In view of Conway’s distinction as the biographer and defender of Thomas Paine, there is a touch of irony in the circumstance that Winchester wrote a lengthy and courteous reply to The Age of Reason. He was a profuse hymn-writer. His collection contained more than 230 pieces.
His stay in England was no more than seven years and his Bishopsgate ministry barely eighteen months. The congregation would, have done anything to keep him, but a miserable domestic situation was his undoing. He was a much-married man, being convinced that no minister should be without a wife. His fifth partner was a widow whose behaviour drove him back to America in 1794. She followed and persuaded him to take her back. He died at Hartford, Connecticut, in 1797, aged forty-six. The name of the chapel led his American biographer into a quaint mistake. He assumed that Winchester was an appointed preacher before the Houses of Parliament.
It was fortunate for the Society, already in fair circumstances, that an adequate successor was at hand.
The second minister of the Bishopsgate congregation came, like his predecessor, of working-class stock, and his start could hardly have been less promising. He was born in 1758 at Battle, near Hastings. In his teens he worked under his father, a mason and bricklayer, but a poor physique made him unfit for manual labour. He was devoted to books, and the practice of reading aloud in the family helped him out of the local dialect and into clear speech. He joined a little company of Independents and at nineteen was learning to preach.
Dissent at that time was almost unknown in Sussex. These humble folk had to endure persecution, including the boycott of their business. Under the influence of the girl who became his wife Vidler was led to accept adult baptism and he held- to this tenet through all his later changes of faith. By his twenty-third year he was ministering to a small congregation and becoming known in the county. He moved about among the Sussex villages, preaching and baptizing in the open air. He never travelled without books and at one time paid a labourer twopence a day to carry them. His first stipend at Battle was £17 a year, rising feebly. When it reached £50 Vidler was accused of oppressing his flock and of being paid for baptisms. He replied that he had never taken a fee; if his people thought that £50 a year was too much for a household of six he was willing to make a sacrifice. He kept a small shop for books and stationery until his removal to London. Within ten years the little chapel, of course Calvinist in creed, was self-supporting.
Then began a rapid change of mind. Having made something of a name in the denomination Vidler went on a preaching journey to London and the Midlands. He met Nonconformists of a less rigid sort and learnt that not all Baptists shared his hell-fire doctrines. He came upon some of Winchester’s writings and found himself in agreement with them in principle. ln 1792 he delivered at Battle a three-hours address (audiences then were untirable) in defence of his new belief in the final redemption of all mankind. The majority were won over but a minister tainted with heresy was in for trouble from a community naturally hostile. He became acquainted with Winchester and was invited to preach at Parliament Court. In 1794 he was the obvious man for the vacant pulpit, keeping up for a few years his connection with Battle.
Vidler in London was recognised as leader of the scattered Universalists but soon found that he could not remain with them. Before the end of the century he was fairly prominent among religious Liberals and was moving steadily to the Unitarian position. Parliament Court had prospered in his care. The chapel was filled and the minister was supported in his work. The first sermons that indicated a change of view in respect of the Trinity were, however, heard with alarm. It was feared that an avowal of Unitarian opinions would alienate many of the wealthier members, and these fears were quickly justified. A considerable number withdrew. The minister’s stipend of £250 fell by more than three-fifths and he had to work hard to rebuild his congregation. This he was able to do. His second stage was successful. An eloquent preaching style was reinforced by clear and forcible reasoning and a sterling character. Vidler was an admirable citizen.
It was not until 1802, after eight years of ups and downs, that he made a complete break with the orthodox. Winchester had called his congregation Philadelphians; they now took the definite name. For some time Vidler felt himself a stranger in the Unitarian fold. It was exclusive and dominated by a group of scholarly and conservative ministers. He remarked that there was no little of the old Presbyterian stiffness to be overcome. Like many another dissenting minister earning little by his calling, he was much occupied with business. He combined book-selling in the Strand with an unsuccessful venture in magazine publishing. He was industrious enough but had little aptitude.
An improvement in his circumstances came in 1806 when he played a leading part in the creation of the Unitarian Fund, his services receiving a modest reward. He died ten years later, after long suffering. His funeral at Gravel Pit chapel was a considerable occasion in Hackney. The Monthly Repository printed a long obituary, together with a personal tribute in the form of a memorial poem in the carefully polished heroic couplets that educated men and women in the Georgian era could write with small effort.
William Vidler aroused admiration and affection to an exceptional degree. He had a kindly and liberal disposition and was evidently a born pastor. One of his associates expressed regret that in early life he “had not been introduced to those literary advantages which he could so well have improved”. Nevertheless his reading and interests were wide and there is general agreement as to the quality of the discourses, a few only of which were printed. Not long before his death in 1816 the chapel committee urged him to publish a volume of lectures including three that were particularly admired. These, the present-day reader may note with amusement, dealt with the existence of the Devil. The preacher’s health was too far-gone for him to comply.
His medical history was a puzzle. He was a lifelong sufferer from asthma. At the time of his settling in London he was lean and apparently in danger of tuberculosis. During his later forties his bulk became enormous. He needed two chairs, while his chronic malady was not abated. He had to carry the twofold burden of asthma and corpulence. Physical disability made preaching impossible some two years before his death at fifty-eight. He gained a reputation as a talker. His conversation, they said, was in the old style that went out before the days of George the Third. We may infer from this that a manner so old-fashioned would call for wit and good sense if it was to please the younger generation. Vidler’s friends all testified that he bore pain and extreme discomfort with marked serenity, enjoying the quiet of his last home in rural West Ham.
When Vidler died the Society was in its twenty-fourth year, and for the second time there was no difficulty about the successor. Within a few weeks the pulpit was occupied by a minister of remarkable gifts and unexcelled staying power.
W. J. Fox: Early Years
William Johnson Fox was, like so many eminent noncomformists, an East Anglian; born in 1786 on a small farm near Wrentham, Suffolk. His mother was a daughter of the village barber “her information”, he said, “less confined than might have been expected, her disposition liberal, her opinions sound, and her feelings right”. His father soon left the farm for Norwich, tried shopkeeping and then became a weaver. The boy was fairly well taught at a school attached to St. George’s Independent chapel. At twelve he was put to work at the loom. His mother read to him from the standard novelists and he had an early passion for the reading of plays. The family came gradually into more comfortable circumstances. The father was made master of the St. George’s school and Fox spent three years in a bank, being “employed and trusted far beyond what was usual” for a youth of his age.
In his spare time he worked at mathematics for which he had a decided bent. He joined the radical weavers of Norwich and organised among them a branch of the London Corresponding Society, active sympathisers with the French Revolution. Those were the days following Pitt’s repressive laws and the trial for sedition of Hardy, Home Tooke, and Thelwall. Fox found an eccentric friend who shared his studies. Together they learnt Latin and read-history and philosophy.
He was rather late in taking the step that determined the course of his life. Having become serious about religion, necessarily Calvinist in form, he was in his twenty-first year when he entered the Independent College, Homerton. During the eighteenth century the north-eastern suburbs of London had been amply provided with dissenting academies. Homerton was under a well-known theologian and controversialist, Dr. John Pye-Smith, author of an admired treatise on the Trinity. The newcomer from Norwich was undersized, miserably raw and shy. His first feelings were “apprehension, helplessness, and homesickness”. It would appear, however, that he was not long in settling down among the rough students in an atmosphere of nascent religious inquiry. Pye-Smith was afterwards to lament that many of his young men drifted into Unitarianism. Fox was disputatious but still orthodox when his college course ended. In 1809 he undertook his first charge, at Fareham. A demand for five sermons a week, doubtless of full length, seemed to him vexatious.
He had barely started work in the small Hampshire town when doubts came upon him. His views changed rapidly; by his twenty-fifth year he had moved to the general Unitarian position. It is rather curious that everlasting punishment should have been the last, instead of the first, orthodox doctrine to be discarded. A century and a half ago English Unitarians held closely to traditional views of the Bible. Plenary inspiration was seldom challenged. Influenced hardly at all by Continental Socinianism, they maintained that their beliefs were based w-holly upon the New Testament while, generally speaking, in philosophy they were disciples of Locke and especially of Priestley.
In 1812 Fox received a welcome from the Southern Unitarian Association. It was doubtless earned by his maturing eloquence. A few months later he was settled as minister of a unitarian (Presbyterian) chapel in Chichester. Before leaving Fareham he had the good fortune of coming to know the Taylor family, one member of which, Peter Alfred, long M.P. for Leicester and a partner in the famous Essex firm of Courtaulds, was in later years to show himself an invaluable friend and benefactor.
Chichester made an interval of five years, good as preparation though not too happy. A small cathedral city was no place for a vigorous young Radical. He was excluded from both Anglican society and the households of orthodox Dissent. The central incident of this lustrum was a somewhat distracted courtship which at times seemed unlikely to end in marriage. Eliza Florance was the daughter of a barrister, and therefore one among the few, accessible girls in the district of a social standing superior to the Noncomformist average. The relationship was not settled when Fox received a call from Parliament Court on the death of William Vidler. He was installed at the new year of 1817.
Seven Years in Bishopsgate
Fox was then thirty-one, He entered upon his London career within-two years of Waterloo. General disillusion had come swiftly after the peace. No signs were visible of the prosperity that had been awaited as the long war with France drew to an end. There was, to be sure, a marked release of the national mind. Social theorising was rife. Almost at the moment of Fox’s removal to the larger sphere Robert Owen had made the first announcement of his social gospel. Graham Wallas, writing of the public temper in this closing stage of the Regency, says that never before in England had men thought with greater freedom, and intensity. Most historians, however, have taken less notice of these stirrings of thought than of the shocking economic conditions then prevailing, the fears of the ruling class, and the panic measures of Lord Liverpool’s Ministry, the Six Acts and the tragic blunder of Peterloo.
Fox was a straightforward Radical in politics as in theology, and it was not long before he found himself at odds with the conservative element in his congregation. The first clash came in 1819, when he uttered from the pulpit an impassioned protest against the conviction of Richard Carlile for selling The Age of Reason. His specific theme was the duty of Christians towards Deists: “Do not abet or sanction their persecution!’ This was the first of many addresses on public occasions which had no little to do with the building up of his wider reputation. A second was delivered in 1821 on the death of Queen Caroline, the hapless consort of George the Fourth. On that question Fox shared the sentiment of the London multitude. His discourse was a striking popular success.
Fox’s varied abilities assured a position of leadership in the Unitarian body, then in need of practical reforms and a fresh stream of ideas. The politics of Dissent were again active after the long twilight of the French war. The Test Acts made a live issue for the whole noncomformist public, and the agitation has to be kept going through another decade. Popular education, again, was for Fox an unremitting concern. In Joseph Lancaster’s teaching methods and the cry of Schools-for-all he saw the first outside movement to which he could lend the aid of his voice. The plan of a Unitarian Association was then being prepared. Fox gave energetic help. He became the first foreign secretary of the Association, while his ripening civic and social sense found scope in the new Unitarian Domestic Mission. Parliament Court was his centre for seven years. His congregation included prominent City families, and as time went on he attracted many men who were becoming well known in national affairs. The chapel was always filled and was financially prosperous. In Fox’s second year his stipend was £300, a quite favourable figure for that time.
The growth of his fame was rapid. By the early eighteen-twenties he was an admired leader in social reform as well as in liberal religion, with few rivals on the London platform. Unfortunately his personal life was far from satisfying. When leaving Chichester he was plainly in a divided mind as ‘regards Eliza Florance, and there were times when she had reason for looking upon him as a reluctant suitor. The differences, however, were composed, and in 1820 they were married at St. George’s in the East, there being as yet no provision for the ceremony outside the Church of England. Their first home was in Hackney, one of several near-by ,villages where nonconformists were numerous. Fox’s letters to Eliza Florance during his early preaching tours were printed. They were, written with spirit, and were so happily phrased as to leave an impression that the two were well matched. This was not so; it was a case of serious incompatibility. Not many months after the marriage Fox was making in letters to his mother a frank confession of the mistake into which he had fallen. The domestic shadow had become only too manifest by the time of the Society’s decision to remove from Parliament Court was arrived at.
The New Finsbury Chapel
There was no conflict of opinion as to the need for a more adequate building, and in due course the enterprise proved to be highly fortunate. Yet the beginnings were cloudy. Just as the plans were taking shape the minister’s health broke down. It was not denied that the causes lay chiefly in home troubles, arising largely from household extravagance and debts. Fox was absent from his pulpit during the year 1822; and his condition was so alarming that the committee felt obliged to take preliminary steps towards the choice of a successor. Happily the turn came in time. Fox laid the foundation-stone in May 1823. Building in Georgian London was anything but slow. The opening followed within nine months.
For the South Place site no more than £600 was demanded. Its value in course of time was multiplied twelvefold. The building cost only £4,146. The interior was an example of good and plain design, marred only by the high-walled pews which had to be endured for fifty years. The opening day was February 1, 1824. Fox, who was never in need of oratorial reinforcement from outside, delivered the inaugural discourse after a devotional service had been conducted by the Rev. Russell Scott of Portsmouth, a kinsman of C. P. Scott, the famous editor of the Manchester, Guardian. The minister dedicated the chapel to the worship of virtue and freedom above any doctrines he then held, some of which, indeed, he was already leaving behind. He summoned as witnesses all those who had— “raised the standard of religious freedom, and fought its battles, and suffered in its cause, and promoted its manly and generous assertions, not only for those who were likeminded with themselves, but on behalf of all”
The trust deed, as was to be expected, provided in liberal terms for future changes in thought and expression. The chapel was established as “a place for the public religious worship of one God”, according to “such forms and under such regulations as are now accepted or shall from time to time be adopted by the said Society”. Such articles as these, we may assume, were unprecedented in England.
Although Fox was soon to be known as holding lightly to denominational bonds, South Place in its first decade was the scene of many Unitarian events. For instance, the sixth anniversary of the Association brought together a highly representative audience. Among the eminent men present were Dr. Kirkland, the president of Harvard College, Dr. Carpenter; and Sir John Bowring, editor of the Westminster Review. More striking than any one of these was a visitor from the East – Raja Ramohun Roy, the famous Bengali Brahmin who was called the first modern Hindu. Three years before coming to England he had founded the Brahmo Somaj, the reformed theistic church of Bengal, with which South Place was to maintain friendly relations, especially during the period when its leader was Keshub Chandra Sen, the first Indian orator to command the admiration of English audiences. The annual meeting of 1831 was remembered also for another personal reason. Harriet Martineau a young woman from Norwich, heard her name announced from the platform as that of the winning competitor for three essay prizes offered by the Association. This occasion was the opening of a notable career and of a fruitful literary partnership with W. J. Fox.
W. J. Fox In His Prime
The opening of South Place in 1824 -was a cardinal event in the annals of the Society and especially in the career of William Johnson Fox. The new chapel took its place at once as a vigorous centre of liberal religion and intellectual activity. Its situation was favourable. During the first part of the 19th century the City was still a residential area. Many old families held on to their houses in the shadow of St. Paul’s or the Bank of England. For
instance, George Grote, the historian of Greece, lived in Threadneedle Street and Elizabeth Fry was close at hand. The immediate neighbourhood of South Place was not without design. Its features were similar to those of Bloomsbury. Finsbury Square, Circus, and Pavement had been recently laid out making an attractive quarter for well-to-do City people. Fox himself settled in Hackney. He had many nonconformist neighbours who looked upon South Place and Gravel Pit chapels as twin centres of free religion. The villages lying between Limehouse and Stoke Newington were providing suburban retreats for householders who could afford to live at the distance of a stage or carriage drive from office or warehouse. In years to come Fox was to make a special reputation by his lectures to working men. But the South Place congregation was mostly in comfortable circumstances and, of necessity, a fair percentage was drawn from the eastern districts.
Both the Society and its minister benefited greatly by the removal from Bishopsgate. Instead of a pulpit in an obscure passage Fox now had the advantage of an adequate building on a site suited to many purposes besides the Sunday services which began to make a wide and unusual appeal. To begin with, of course, Fox was pre-eminently the preacher. Fame came to him in London from his sermons which, alike in substance and delivery, were far above the pulpit level of his time. The late-Georgian epoch is not remembered as a period of great preachers, and it is accurate to say that the more liberal churches were served by men who were not mainly valued on account of eloquence. When starting in the new chapel Fox had one rival, a Scotsman of singular genius who was a sharp contrast to him in everything—in creed and method, in physique and personality. A few months before the opening of South Place Edward Irving had entered upon the meteoric episode of Hatton Garden. His success was sensational. The street was blocked with carriages. Parliament and the West End joined in tribute. De Quincey wrote that he was by many degrees the greatest of living orators. Irving’s gifts were most remarkable, but he was a wild visionary. He was mentally unbalanced. Within a few years he was lost in the gloom of messianic prophecy and the idiocy of “unknown tongues”. He was grotesquely out of place in the London of Reform agitation and his end was a pitiful tragedy.
About Fox there was nothing meteoric or flashy. His talent for public discourse was unsurpassed. Before he reached forty his eloquence was of the first quality and it was matched by constructive force and finish. For some years he made a difference between sermon and lecture, but gradually his Sunday addresses were freed altogether from the sermonic note. He retained the formal text for some years.
So long as he kept the denominational tie he enjoyed theological controversy. As a young minister he crossed swords with his old college principal, Dr. Pye Smith, and he printed a number of polemical sermons. “The Apostle John, a Unitarian” is a good example in that mode. Perhaps his most notable characteristic as a master of pulpit method was his liking for series of discourses. This practice was maintained until the end of his ministry. He began with a re-examination of the life and teachings of Jesus, and went on to a rational reyiew of the historic Church doctrines. Subjects of this kind provided a major part of his material throughout the 1820s, together with “Christian Morality: Sermons on the Principles of Morality inculcated in the Holy Scriptures, and their Application to the Present Condition of Society”. A title of this cumbrous kind was in accord with English fashion for centuries; and noting the prominence of New Testament themes, we should remember that during the first half of his long service Fox was known as a Unitarian Christian.
We have a good many descriptions of Fox’s appearance in the pulpit and the style of his oratory. He was short and broad. No observer appears to have recorded his exact height; but we know that when speaking away from South Place he always took care to see that the rostrum was right. It is certain that the question of inches had some bearing upon decisions taken in respect of his public life. It would seem probable that he measured less than 5ft. 4in. He was dark, with black hair parted down the middle and worn long. He had fine eyes and thick eyebrows. His voice was of beautiful quality, and every one who recorded impressions of the chapel made mention of his perfect elocution. Hazlitt, writing in 1824, has this to say: “There is a Mr. Fox, a dissenting minister, as fluent a speaker, with a sweeter voice and a more animated and beneficent countenance than Mr. Irving, who is the darling of his congregation ; but he is no more, because he is diminutive in person. His head is not seen above the crowd the length of a street off. He is the Duke of Sussex in miniature; but the Duke of Sussex does not go to hear him preach, as he attends Mr. Irving, who rises up against him like a martello tower.”
There is a more detailed sketch in a book of 1841, Portraits of Public Characters by James Grant, afterwards editor of the Morning Advertiser: “His elocution is remarkable for its chasteness. He is one of the most correct speakers I have ever heard. The most fastidious literary taste could not detect a flaw in his style, nor the finest ear a defect in his delivery… His utterance equally avoids the opposite faults of rapidity and slowness. He never hesitates, never stammers, and very rarely has occasion to recall a word. To address his audience seems to him the easiest and most natural thing in the world.”
Grant, a hard Calvinist, had however one reservation. He said that Fox habitually made the mistake of treating his hearers as though they were rational creatures, making no sort of appeal to “their feelings, passions or prejudices”, and he has one positive criticism: “His matter is in perfect accord with the coldness of his manner. It is only by the movement of his lips and the sound of his voice that you perceive that he is speaking . . . Persons only of a highly trained mind can listen to him with any pleasure”. Grant was right enough in saying that Fox appealed to the intelligence, but he was clearly off the mark in finding him cold. There is no lack of glow in his printed discourses, and obviously no frigid preacher could gain and hold the loyalty of a congregation. As to Fox’s manner there is a pleasant memory in a remark of Carlyle’s to Moncure Conway. His eloquence, said he, was like, opening a window through London fog into the blue sky. But, he added, “I went away feeling that Fox has been summoning those people to sit in judgment on matters of which they were no judges at all.” Conway ventured a word of correction. He ‘pointed out that the orator was addressing an audience he had been educating for years, and further, that he was doing needed work in teaching the teachers.
The methods of a masterly speaker are always interesting. Until he reached middle life Fox wrote all his discourses although, it would appear, he was soon able to deliver them with relative freedom from the ‘manuscript. During the latter half of his career he never read. His lectures and Sunday addresses were prepared in full shorthand notes, and for publication were usually copied out by Eliza Flower, his devoted amanuensis. Long experience on the political platform was, of course, an invaluable aid in the development of his extempore gift We shall see later, in connection with the Free Trade agitation, how it revealed in full what his varied experiences had done for him in the way of handling and impressing great audiences.
His activities after the opening of the new chapel were those of a leader in many progressive causes. He was a vigorous ally of the societies working for popular education. He was no less outspoken for the civil rights of Roman Catholics and Jews than for the removal of the grievances which had become intolerable to Dissenters. When the Test Acts were repealed the year before Catholic emancipation the most notable celebrations in London were held under the auspices of South Place. A large dinner at one or other of the centres used for political festivity was a regular feature of such occasions; and it was noted with gratification, that women were for the first time admitted as guests instead of being restricted to the gallery. During these years Fox, as a founder of the Unitarian Association, occupied a prominent position in the movement and was writing on various subjects in the Monthly Repository, the denominational magazine which he was soon to transform.
The Flower Family
Meanwhile events of much consequence were happening in Fox’s personal life. They arose directly from his friendship with Benjamin Flower of Great Harlow. This modest citizen holds a place of honour in the long struggle for a free Press. In the 1790s he was editor of the Cambridge Intelligencer, one of the few independent papers in the provinces. On the literary side he was open-minded, for he printed six poems by Coleridge. He was steadily hostile to the war policy against revolutionary France, and for this reason was made the victim of an outrageous prosecution. Summoned by the House of Lords for attacking (as Wordsworth had done) the views of Bishop Watson of Llandaff, he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and a fine of £100. In Newgate he was visited by Eliza Gould, a young woman already known to him, head of a small private school in Devonshire. This post she was obliged to give up on account of her refusal to cease subscribing to the Intelligencer. On Flower’s release they were married, and when his editorship was lost they removed to Great Harlow, Essex, where Flower resumed his business as a printer. They had two daughters – Eliza, born in 1803, Sarah in 1805. The mother died in 1810.
Flower was a strict Unitarian who preached occasionally. He was known to the leaders and particularly to the families living round Hackney, where his young daughters were welcome visitors. He held original ideas of education and taught the girls himself, with the aid of such tutors as could be found at Harlow. They were eager readers of poetry and devoted to Shakespeare readings, in which Fox was prominent. In 1823, when recovering from his breakdown, he accepted an invitation to preach in Edinburgh and a group of friends seized the opportunity of arranging a holiday in the Highlands. The little company included Dr. Southwood Smith, afterwards eminent in the field of public health, with Flower and his daughters, aged twenty and eighteeen.
An affectionate intimacy began with this Scottish tour. Four years later Flower retired from business and removed to Dalston where Fox was then living. He died in 1829, leaving the girls to the guardianship of his friend. For a time they were inmates of his house, and their unusual talents, perfectly complementary the one to the other, became inestimable to South Place. Eliza was a musical genius, wholly spontaneous, who composed from childhood. Sarah, equally facile in prose and verse, was to reach a place of distinction among English hymn-writers. They were a pair of singing birds; beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, well-read. The Fox circle was at that time being enlarged by the addition of several young writers who were later to be famous, and one of these, then in his teens, played a part whose significance could not have been foreseen by any one of the associates.
Young Robert Browning found his way to Hackney where a delightful new experience awaited him. His father, an official of the Bank of England, had in the neighbourhood a colleague whom he visited not infrequently. They touched a more liberal religious atmosphere than they were accustomed to in Camberwell. Young Robert liked walking over, enjoying the sights of the City en route. The Flower sisters were delighted with him. He played the Piano with them and read poetry, including his own juvenile efforts. They were astonished by the ease and maturity of his talk, and the younger sister was gravely disturbed by the freedom of his religious opinions. This, we may note, was a year or more before the youth, after reading Shelley, had broken away from the parental fold (they were orthodox nonconformists), declaring himself an atheist and vegetarian.
In November 1827, Sarah Flower sent Fox an earnest letter which, in Moncure Conway’s opinion, had the effect of stimulating the minister’s inquiries and hastening the movement of his mind away from the formal Unitarianism with which thus far he had been content. Like everything that came from a Flower pen, this is a beautiful piece of writing. It begins with the avowal of a fear that Fox may be hurt by the confession of one whom he could “little suspect guilty of the heinous sin of unbelief”. Her mind had been wandering for a long time, and now it “seems to have lost sight of that only invulnerable hold against the assaults of this warring world, a firm belief in the genuineness of the Scriptures”. She goes on to say that she ‘ believes in an all-wise and Omnipotent Being, and since this involves “the conviction that everything is working for good”, It brings her a “comfort that she would not resign for the world”. The cloud, she explains, has come over her gradually, and she adds: “It was in answering Robert Browning that my mind refused to bring forward argument, turned recreant, and sided with the enemy”. She continues that at the Norwich Festival she learnt how this change, of mind had affected her enjoyment of Handel and (as was usual in that age) had brought to her “the bitterest sensation of sadness, almost remorse”.
The letter has an especially interesting conclusion. She says that she dare not apply to her father, for she knew how rigid, he was “in his ideas of all kinds of unbelief”. She looks back upon an ideal girlhood: “My life has been like a set of gems on a string of gold; a succession of bright and beautiful things without a dark thread to dim their lustre. But it will not be always thus. It is not thus now.” She feels that she has not examined as far as in her lay, and she asks Fox to direct her inquiries and recommend books that he deems advisable. He alone shares her confidence.
The writer of this letter, was an ardent young woman of twenty-two. The lad who had caused the distress she pours out was in his sixteenth year! We have no evidence that Sarah Flower suffered much or long from the upheaval, for the hymns by which she is remembered were all written in later years; but we may take Conway’s word for it that the confession from his young friend was not without effect upon Fox’s mind and action. He was in his early forties, a public teacher of great and growing influence. He was impatient of authority and moving fast. Moreover, the personal relation was developing. From this time onwards the Flowers were of central importance to him. It was not, however, the inquiring disciple who made the difference and altered the course of his life but her elder sister.
W. J. Fox As Editor And Publicist
The periods of South Place are clearly marked by events. The first stage after the opening in 1824 of the Finsbury chapel covered exactly ten years and ended with a crisis that affected both the Society and its Minister. This decade was one of unbroken success. Fox’s powers had reached maturity and his influence in London was rapidly expanding. The chapel was filled and was amply supported. The congregation included a number of prominent City families and Fox’s preaching attracted many men and women prominent in public life. South Place was visited at one time and another by almost every person of note, and Fox could always enlist the services of able helpers. Harriet Martineau was a valuable standby, and her aid was supplemented by that of John Stuart Mill, whose future wife, Harriet Taylor, was an active member of the congregation.
Fox’s outside interests were broad and various. He was always ready with a discourse on an important public occurrence, while it is fair to assume that his hold upon the regular congregation was largely maintained by the systematic method of his preaching. This was the flowering period of his pulpit eloquence. His addresses on special occasions were widely circulated. Several series of the kind that he continued to deliver until the end of his ministry formed the material of three volumes published by 1833. These were: Christ and Christianity, sermons on the character and doctrines of Jesus; and two volumes on Christian Morality, sermons on the ethical principles inculcated in the Bible “and their application to the present condition of society”.
Until middle life Fox had a liking for theological controversy, and so long as he retained his formal connection with the Unitarian body he enjoyed the discussion of traditional doctrines in the light of modern knowledge and rational views of religious and ethical principles. Before the opening of South Place, however, he had shaken off the phrases of conventional piety, and as he advanced to the status of a public teacher he moved away from the old associations of a Dissenting minister and was less and less concerned with biblical themes. Always a master of rhetoric, with a flow of masculine feeling, he never failed to provide intellectual quality in his discourses.
Meanwhile his literary influence was spreading. He wrote on many topics for the Monthly Repository, then the official organ of the Unitarian Association, of which he became editor in 1826. His journalistic talent had already become known beyond the confines of Nonconformity. When the Westminster Review was founded under the auspices of Jeremy Bentham, it was to Fox that the editor applied for the inaugural leading article. This was a general survey of ‘the state of the nation in 1823. Its merit was so unmistakable that we may well wonder why the writer did not become a regular contributor to the first organ of this group. Fox, however, was a Radical who declined to think of himself as a member of the philosophical school. His chosen medium was the Monthly Repository, through which he was to prove himself as an all-round publicist and a literary editor opening new paths in periodical criticism. Although still an official of the Unitarian body, with a special concern for the Domestic (or civic) Mission of which he was the originator, his aim was to liberate the magazine from its sectarian bonds and to make it an organ of general interest and free.
This purpose, naturally, could not be fulfilled while Fox was controlled by a committee, and in 1831 he took the bold step of purchasing the Monthly Repository. It is not known how much the title cost him. His financial resources were modest enough. From the beginning he relied almost entirely upon unpaid contributors, the best of whom were either members of his congregation or close generous friends like John Stuart Mill. He paid small fees only to necessitous writers.
Fox’s editorship was a notable interlude of five years. When he changed the character and broadened the appeal of the Repository he was entering a competitive field. The supremacy of the quarterlies had been challenged by several new monthlies Blackwood’s, Fraser’s and the New London, having an impressive roll of contributors. Shortly after Fox’s enterprise began Fraser’s was daring enough to take up Carlyle and try its readers with Sartor Resartus. Blackwood’s set the fashion of admitting satire, not seldom of the lightest sort. The Monthly Repository had no room for frivolity, and it possessed one new and conspicuous merit. The custom of the time in criticism was a brutal tone towards all political enemies and contempt for any fresh note in poetry or romance. Fox was a generous opponent, and he had a welcome for the new men. He accorded space and praise to the young Tennyson, and his treatment of Browning gave him an honoured place among the very few prescient reviewers.
The Monthly Repository was an octavo with clearly printed, if too close, double columns. Fox himself wrote on a variety of public questions with an admirable freedom from sectarianism. Catholic emancipation was won before he became owner of the magazine and the worst Nonconformist grievance was abolished by the repeal of the Test Acts in 1828. Fox fought for the removal of Jewish disabilities and he was one of the earliest advocates of women’s suffrage. John Stuart Mill, cordial but always overdriven, kept away from politics here. He wrote on the essentials of Poetry and the nature of Genius. It was Mrs. Taylor who brought him into the circle and into friendship with the Flower sisters, who led the austere young philosopher for a while towards the green pastures.
Apart from the Flowers, whose work for the Repository, may more appropriately be dealt with in the next chapter, there were two contributors who call for particular remark. The first is Henry Crabb Robinson the diarist. He had lived in Germany and known Weimar well during Goethe’s old age. The poet’s death in 1832 was allowed to pass with little notice from English men of letters. Scott and Coleridge, of course, were fully aware of him. Carlyle, as both translator and expositor, had been at work for some years. Fox saw the opportunity for a piece of definite service. He persuaded Robinson, who was a great admirer of South Place, to write his recollections of Goethe at home. They filled a useful if not very animated series, and were actually the first introduction of the poet and the man to the English reading public.
The other contributor who calls for a word of description is William Bridges Adams, a man of some note in a different line. He appears among Fox’s associates as an unusually aggressive pamphleteer, whose temper was plainly indicated by his choice of a pseudonym – Junius Redivivus. Some of his articles aroused indignant protest. He was accused of fomenting class hatred and seems to have done something to injure the magazine. Fox doubtless agreed with his line of attack upon certain social evils, for he gave him a free hand. In 1834 Adams wrote a number of articles on Marriage which had serious consequences. They had not a little to do with the agitation which in that year caused dissension in the Society and brought Fox Into collision with the conservative wing. The danger did not arise from theological differences but from the quite natural fears attendant, at that time and for long afterwards, upon any free discussion of the marriage state. Adams had been married to a daughter of Francis Place, the Radical tailor of Charing Cross and pioneer in political organisation. He was married three times, his second venture being altogether exceptional, for he became the husband of Sarah Flower. Of this union we know almost nothing, but it seems clear that the couple enjoyed an interval of happiness. This must have been brief, for the wife’s health gave way long before her death in 1846. Sarah Flower was too ethereal for marriage. Adams was not revolutionary in social doctrine. His proposed solution of the problem was a long way from moral laxity. He held the Miltonic view, namely, that marriage was not, or ought not to be, a lifelong bond, but should be terminable by consent in cases of grave incompatibility. Fox, as we have seen, blundered into domestic misfortune, and it happened that Adams’s articles were printed just as his affairs had reached a climax. Later developments showed that South Place was on Fox’s side in the affair. Misgivings and complaints were chiefly prudential in origin. There was a commonly assumed connection between religious heterodoxy and laxity in behaviour. The orthodox notion was (and still is) that there are no standards of conduct apart from the supernatural sanction, and that to question a basic institution like marriage was to begin the sapping and mining of the social fabric. Unitarians and other religious liberals were always firm in principle, and the more cautious of them were terrified lest their repudiation of the old doctrines should be identified with a loose attitude towards the moral law. Hence the revulsion of a good many readers from the ideas of Junius Redivivus.
We do not hear again of W. B. Adams as reformer or iconoclast after this episode. His governing interests lay in industry and mechanical invention. There he was ingenious and resourceful, although it is evident that, as in countless cases of the kind; the rewards were reaped by others. In the first stage of railway building he had a locomotive factory at Bow. Carlyle, always looking out for captains of industry, paid a visit to the concern, which was shortlived. Adams is remembered not as a model employer but as the inventor of a rail device which, being everywhere adopted, made possible the development of express travel. A grandson with the same names, made a reputation in the theatre world as director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon.
Fox had acquired control of the Monthly Repository in the most exciting year of the Reform agitation. It was in 1834 that the first Reform Bill was killed by the Lords and the way opened for the passage of Lord John Russell’s measure by the Grey Ministry. So ardent a reformer as Fox could not be other than a vigorous supporter of the movement. Francis Place, who knew everything about it in London, said “he was the bravest of us all”. Yet it is curious that this part of his work left hardly any trace in the records. Fox is not named alongside Cobbett and the other heroes of the conflict. The inference is that his efforts were limited by the dual claims of pulpit and magazine, while home difficulties could not be evaded. The artist W. J. Linton, who became the detached husband of the novelist E. Lynn Linton, and long afterwards sold his Coniston house to John Ruskin, looked upon Fox as a lost political captain. He ought, said Linton, “to have been the leader, as well as a great teacher, of the people”; but the most eloquent orator of the day suffered from a lack of boldness. The explanation, perhaps, was his small physique; if so, it was none the less regrettable. This was a mistaken judgment. Fox was a preacher and inspirer, a born expositor, a master of the written and spoken word. He had a right measurement of his own powers and knew well that he was not meant for the rough-and-tumble of the political arena. A seat in the reformed Parliament was another matter, as in due time he was to prove, but he was not willing to exhaust his energy in labours outside his proper range. A dozen years were to pass before the victorious assault upon the Corn Laws brought a full opportunity for the preacher and lecturer to display his command of great audiences in a national campaign. Fox at fifty stood with the few public men in London who counted as leaders in the progressive cause. The middle years of the eighteen-thirties were to provide a rigorous test alike for the minister, the publicist, and the private citizen. At no time was his position in serious peril, since his personal resources were reinforced by the loyalty of South Place and the entire devotion of one beloved companion.
Controversy And A Fresh Start
At the close of the first decade of South Place W. J. Fox had attained a position of remarkable influence in London. His Sunday discourses were heard by a congregation which included many prominent statesmen and men of letters. His services on the platform were constantly sought by the organisers of progressive causes. His direction of the Monthly Repository ensured for him a place in the small company of literary editors. Meanwhile it was evident that the ties which bound him to the Unitarian Association were wearing thin. Fox was never interested in denominationalism, and his religious ideas were far too radical for the general body of Unitarians and their leaders, whose liberalism was governed by theological beliefs still kept within the framework of biblical authority. That South Place should become an entirely untrammelled centre was inevitable. During the early eighteen thirties the important question was whether the Minister’s independence, personal no less than intellectual, was likely to endanger the unity of the congregation. And there was ironic significance in the events which caused the young woman who could rightly be described as the most beloved member of the Society to become the central figure of a crisis in 1834. For some five years before that date Fox’s personal life had been closely affected by Eliza and Sarah Flower, and the elder sister was now to be of controversial import.
Their father had died in 1829, entrusting his daughters to the care of his friend and neighbour in Upper Clanton. They were gifted, beautiful, and expressive; unfortunately also marked by the physical delicacy to which young ladyhood condemned so large a percentage of English women in that age. Eliza was a musical genius who composed spontaneously from childhood. Robert Browning, when urging her to make settings for the songs in Pippa Passes, said that he put her first among English women musicians. Sarah, two years younger, became the laureate of South Place. Her facility in verse was unfailing. She could write poems of occasion, a political song no less naturally than a hymn. Her series of Songs of the Months, with her sister’s tunes, were a successful feature of the Repository. The Editor had an equal welcome for her stories and articles, and we may be sure that when he printed “Nearer, my God, to thee“, he was well aware that this was something more than a passing contribution. The sisters in due time took charge of the music at South Place, making it celebrated and in 1841 Eliza, with Fox’s aid, completed the selection of Hymns and Anthems which long held its place in the chapel and was a pioneer influence towards the liberalising of “sacred song”.
For a short time after the death of Benjamin Flower the sisters were inmates of the Fox household, and it could not have been a matter of surprise that this experiment was short-lived. Sarah had a strong leaning towards the stage but could not go beyond a modest appearance as Lady Macbeth: her physical inadequacy was not denied. Eliza was twenty-six when she came under the Minister’s guardianship and she fitted without delay into the personal service by which her life was fulfilled. Fox found in her the perfect secretary. She was soon indispensable to him—taking his dictation, transcribing his shorthand, and in course of time proving invaluable for the preparation of his discourses and in editorial work. Richard Garnett, Fox’s biographer, was persuaded that hers was the more active intelligence; and he was rash enough to add that in all probability, but for the stimulus of Eliza Flower, the Minister of South Place might never have become known beyond the bounds of his congregation. That, manifestly, was an unwarranted speculation. The important facts are that the friendship made inevitable a separation between Fox and his wife, and that what followed in the family led to a critical situation at South Place.
The failure of the marriage was well known. As we have seen, Fox was ready to admit his mistake in the first year, and it is clear that the Highland holiday in 1823 was an emotional landmark. Nothing definite, however, occurred until the association with Eliza Flower had reached a conclusive stage. For him this meant full reliance upon her help and sympathy, and for her an absorbing devotion. To her, Fox said, he owed the preservation of his mind, if not his life. Mrs. Fox, naturally enough, was increasingly unhappy. She had never been able to share her husband’s major interests or to play her part in the widening circle of his friends. She could not be expected to welcome an Egeria of talent and acknowledged charm. In 1832 she wrote a formal letter of complaint to Fox. He replied kindly and frankly and thereafter was without fault. They made a friendly compact which provided for a semi-detached household in order that the children might not suffer. This lasted for two years, and then Fox decided that there was no alternative to “an entire and public separation”. There had been complaints from a few members of the congregation who, on being dealt with candidly by Fox, admitted that they had been misled; yet, as he explained to his mother, “they were so afraid of what the orthodox would say that they could not give up the idea” of his being in some way compromised with Miss Flower. He gave six months’ notice, and wrote a letter emphatically contesting the right of members of the congregation to interfere with his domestic affairs; but that defiance, surely, touched a question of expediency to which a church committee could not well be indifferent. There was, however, no charge of impropriety made or implied. The complainants rested the case upon Fox’s advocacy of divorce in cases of incompatibility and his practical application of that view to his own domestic problem. When the congregation met to debate the question a large majority exonerated Fox and requested him to withdraw his resignation. The dissenting minority moved to a trial of strength, as a result of which nearly fifty families withdrew. Their action involved the loss of about 120 seats and a serious reduction of the Minister’s stipend. Five other Unitarian Ministers censured him unheard, although their most eminent colleague, James Martineau, disagreed with them while expressing regret over Fox’s opinions concerning marriage. Once again, as in the affair of the articles in the Repository; the explanation is to be found in the fear that heterodoxy should be regarded as a dissolvent of the moral law. The incident left Fox in a position of unimpaired strength at South Place, although with the loss of some supporters whom he would have preferred to keep. It led to a change in his ministerial character—that is, to his freeing himself from routine duties towards households of his congregation, which in any case, as time went on, were less and less restricted to the Finsbury neighbourhood, and his discourses lost the sermonic tone. There modifications were hastened by a change of residence and by Fox’s becoming a more conspicuous figure among men of letters, in journalism and dramatic criticism.
Within a few months of the separation from his wife Fox and his friend made a decision which, while proclaiming his personal independence, involved for Eliza Flower an act of the greatest courage. She accepted the charge of his household and the care of his three children (the elder son was a deaf mute), without any diminution of her arduous secretarial duties. The long association with north-east London was ended and a cottage was taken in Craven Hill, adjoining the then rural district of Bayswater. Fields covered the area soon to be transformed by the building of Paddington Station. There was open Country from the northern edge of Hyde Park to Edgware and Harrow. Omnibuses had begun to ply along the Oxford road, but Craven Hill was at an inconvenient distance from South Place and from the editorial offices that became increasingly important to Fox when the Monthly Repository passed out of his hands. That happened in 1836. The magazine was taken over for a brief space by Leigh Hunt. He was no stranger to struggling periodicals and cannot have had any hope of saving this one. Under Fox as owner-editor it had fought a good fight and left its mark.
The Bayswater experiment lasted four years. In 1839 a removal was made to Queen’s Square, Westminster, mainly for two reasons—the ill-health of Eliza Flower and her sister, and the inconvenience for Fox of the daily journey to the City. He had become a regular leader-writer and, first through his friendship with W. C. Macready, the actor-manager, a leading critic of the theatre. Macready was bent upon restoring poetic drama. It was at Fox’s house that he met the young Robert Browning, then enjoying the success d’estime of Paracelsus, a meeting that led to the writing and production of Strafford, Browning’s first historical play. Fox at this time was remarkably productive. Eliza Flower’s letters contain descriptions of continuous activity, against a background of family life made possible by her wholehearted service to all alike.
She devoted herself especially to the afflicted son Florance, with so much success that he was enabled to obtain a place in government service and to hold it until retirement at the normal age. The daughter, afterwards Mrs. Bridell Fox, gave many pleasant pictures of Craven Hill in a journal that was never printed. It was available to Dr. Garnett when writing his biography, but unfortunately the manuscript has since disappeared. Eliza Flower was a most exceptional person, faultless as both foster mother and secretary while continuing to compose music. Many old friends—among them, rather surprisingly, Harriet Martineau—found themselves unable to overlook the peculiarity of the relationship, although it does not appear that any one among them accused the two friends of sexual intimacy. Miss Flower’s friends took for granted that if the basis had been changed she would undoubtedly have wished the fact to become known. The institution of the housekeeper and companion was, of course, established and accepted in England. Indeed, it was looked upon as virtually unavoidable for a widower with children, and the woman’s situation was deemed to be without reproach; although in cases, particularly concerning a public man, where a separated wife had to be taken into account, the parties involved could not be indifferent’ to public opinion. During the troubles of 1834 and afterwards Eliza Flower absented herself from the meetings and the choir. In due time, however, she took her accustomed place and was welcomed with unalloyed admiration and affection. The sisters resumed their leadership in the musical services and so continued to the end of their lives. Sarah Flower Adams died at forty; Eliza two years later at forty-five.
From Fox To Moncure Conway
The troubles of 1834, centering upon the crisis in the Minister’s home, worked out well on the whole for both Fox and the Society. The breaking of denominational bonds was certainly a relief. The attitude of half-a-dozen ministers was not of a kind to give the severance a friendly tone, and in any case, Fox was glad to be free of the formal Unitarian connection. As speaker and writer he was at the height of his powers, and there was in store for him a period of twelve years before his election to Parliament, crowded with opportunity and fulfilment. His first task at South Place was to, make good the defection of seat-holders and the consequent financial loss. This was not very difficult, for Fox’s fame was growing, and the increasing volume of his literary work gave him a wider appeal. His Sunday audiences became more representative. It was not to be expected that a Society such as South Place could be free from the danger of schism. A notable fact is this, that during the thirty years of Fox’s leadership there was no second disagreement that counted.
The Monthly Repository was kept on until 1836. The quality of the magazine was fully maintained. Its two most distinguished contributors were J. S. Mill and Robert Browning. The Flower sisters were indefatigable. Fox’s long review of Paracelsus in 1835 was an event in the young poet’s advance to recognition, arid it was at Fox’s house in Craven Hill that Browning met the actor-manager, W. C. Macready, and so entered, with the production of Strafford, upon a serious effort to establish himself in the theatre. Macready was a crusader with a two-fold aim. He was resolved to rescue Shakespeare from the absurd “improvers”, and he cherished a hope of making the poetic drama once again a force in England. The two men were soon the closest of friends. Macready had no supporter to compare with Fox. Meanwhile, the burden of the Repository could no longer be carried, and Fox became at a bound one of the most active journalists in London.
Residence in Bayswater and a cleverly organised domestic life made a favourable basis, which is vividly described in Elizabeth Flower’s letters. Fox wrote drama criticism and leading articles for a daily paper, the True Sun, and later was vigorously employed on the Morning Chronicle, then the leading Liberal and free-trade organ. He worked with extraordinary ease, and was no less serviceable in political writing than in the literary columns. One striking illustration. of this is found in the emergency created by Dickens’s starting of the Daily News. The novelist was a born editor, but not for a newspaper. He had to fall back upon his friend John Forster, and the leading article in the first number, January 1846, was written by Fox. The marvel is that an outside activity so arduous could be carried on without injury to South Place, which to the end of his ministry was Fox’s dominant concern. Pulpit and platform (of newspaper) were for him close together, yet he contrived to keep his diverse spheres of labour from overlapping to any serious extent. His Sunday discourses, always planned in orderly sequence, continued to treat of the deeper issues of ethics and rational religion, and under the direction of the Flower sisters the musical services were recognised as of a quality unequalled in London. Hymns and Anthems in 1841 were a joint production of Fox and Eliza Flower. The volume contained 150 pieces, to correspond with the number of the Psalms, the words being drawn “chiefly from holy scripture and the writings of the poets”. Sixty-three of the tunes were by Eliza Flower, many of the others being adapted from famous composers. Fox contributed eleven hymns. One of those written by Sarah was the universally admired “Nearer to Thee”. The selection was catholic, and one could have argued that a few of the pieces were not very suitable for congregational singing. The book had a gratifying if modest success, 1,000 copies being quickly sold.
Meanwhile the Minister had found it necessary to make changes in his home arrangements. Craven Hill in those days was remote from Finsbury and Fleet Street. In 1839 a move was made to Queen Square, Westminster, where Sarah and her husband, William Bridges Adams, were members of the household. The health of both sisters was a cause of constant anxiety. Sarah died in 1846, Eliza in 1848. For about ten years Fox lived at Charlotte Street, Bedford Square, his daughter being a devoted companion.
From the opening stage of his life in London popular education had taken a leading place in Fox’s interest. He was now to adopt another cause by virtue of which he made a new and resounding reputation. In 1840 he took service with the Anti-Corn-Law League. He kept office hours and wrote for its paper the “Letters from a Norwich Weaver Boy”, and in the last stage of the agitation was acclaimed as an orator rivaling John Bright himself. A series of mass meetings in Covent Garden Theatre gave him an opening for the display of a gift that many of his South Place hearers could not know that he possessed – the power to move multitudes. Recalling the moment forty years later, Bright wrote to Florance Fox: “Your father was the orator of the League. His speeches as compositions were far better than mine — but he did not, speak often.” This, we may note, was the testimony of one generally deemed to be the consummate Victorian master of popular eloquence. Fox, however, could never be merely the evangelist of any limited programme or theory, and it is not surprising that he should have had a strong feeling of liberation when Peel made an end of the old system. “The comfort is”, he wrote, “to be out of that eternal one idea, and not to see Corn Law here, there, and everywhere”. Fox, indeed, was an all-round reformer, of broad vision and with ideas of social reconstruction far in advance of mid-century England.
At sixty years of age he was mere widely known as a political speaker than as a preacher. It would, therefore, have been surprising if he had escaped membership of the reformed House Of Commons, although we may hold that he was not well advised in adding to a load of public work that was sufficiently heavy. In 1847 Oldham put him at the top of the poll in a confused election marked by outbursts of Violence that were exceeded in 1852 when Fox was defeated and again returned. Oldham 100 years ago went in for political rowdyism on a scale hardly equaled elsewhere. Fox was a man of the people, unwaveringly on the side of the working folk. Hence it was wildly ironic that he should be attacked by mill-hands and Tory employers, this unnatural alliance coming out of the passions aroused by the Factory Bill. Fox held the seat until 1862. His term was marked by a carefully drafted scheme of national education, which was recalled in 1870 when Foster’s Bill brought primary schools to the forefront. Fox’s speaking did not greatly impress the House, his eloquence being perfected before assemblies of a very different kind. Westminster was chiefly valuable as furnishing him with material for a regular article in the Weekly Dispatch signed “Publicola” He made it the vehicle not only of political discussion but also of personal studies. He was an early expert in parliamentary portraiture.
He had made the first effort towards resignation from South Place upon becoming an M.P. but the Society was not willing. There was for one thing the greatest difficulty in finding a successor. Fox tried more than one assistant. The most prominent was a young Unitarian minister, Philip Harwood. His lectures gave the Finsbury audience their first introduction to the rational theology of Germany, but his future lay in journalism. He became assistant editor of The Spectator and then, surprisingly, editor of the Saturday Review, Fox had no luck in his-search for a junior colleague. The Sunday duty was continued, intermittently, until 1852. The last important series were the “Religious Ideas” of 1849. They foreshadowed, says Moncure Conway, half the Hibbert Lectures of a later time.
Fox’s eyesight failed in age. He lived in Sussex Place, Regents Park. Conway visited him there, finding a serene old man, now reconciled to the wife who had been eclipsed by Eliza Flower. It is pleasant to know that since 1847, by the generosity of Samuel Courtauld, he had enjoyed a comfortable annuity of £400. Among his friends were Robert and Elizabeth Browning, affectionately admiring to the last. He died on June 3, 1864, aged 78, and was buried at Brompton. The memorial ‘service was conducted by Dr. Conway who, having entered upon his ministry with that year, was already at work in that revival of South Place which was to parallel the successes of William Johnson Fox.
Between the resignation of W. J. Fox in 1852 and the establishment of Dr. Moncure D. Conway there was a troubled interval of twelve years. In almost every kind of society the dropping out of a leader of genius makes a difficulty, and in the case of South Place 100 years ago, the problem was acute. The Society had a special character; the congregation had been moulded during thirty years by a brilliant minister who in pulpit eloquence had no equal in London. Moreover, the religious and ethical teaching in Finsbury had moved steadily forward and by the middle of the century was far advanced in the spirit of humanism. The Committee doubtless thought when Fox went into Parliament that a suitable assistant minister would not be hard to find, but as a matter of fact the search was most disappointing.
We should remember that after the barren strife provoked by the Newman – Oxford movement the cause of liberal religion was passing through a dull stage. But even so, the dearth of candidates for a pulpit that Fox had made famous is puzzling. Philip Harwood, the first to deal with German biblical scholarship, looked promising, but found his niche in editorship. A young Oxonian, Newenham Travers, who had given up Anglican Orders, did good service for two years. There followed two ventures that proved to be disastrous. The Rev. Henry Ierson, assistant for a few months, was chosen to succeed Fox. His theology was out of key, but he was able to carry on for four years. In 1858 his place was taken by the Rev. H. H. Barnett from Bristol, a singular misfit whose sermons were endured for five years. His letter of resignation (May, 1853) was a stinging attack on the South Place tradition, ending with, “you want a very different minister; I want a very different congregation”. That, to be sure, was plain enough. Barnett had almost emptied the chapel and the committee was losing hope. For a short time the experiment was tried of inviting Unitarian ministers, some of national standing. But the attendances did not improve and in 1863 the question of winding up the Society was seriously considered. Dr. Conway was in England that summer, and his advent altered the entire outlook.
Moncure Daniel Conway, born in 1832, was a Virginian. His parents were related to several of the leading families in the State, his first and second names being family surnames. He was fortunate in going to college in Pennsylvania, and there getting a sound education. Nothing in his student years could be more curious than the reason he records for entering the Methodist ministry. He was led to this decision by the reading of Emerson’s Essays! Beginning to preach at nineteen, he went through the hard drill of a circuit-rider in Maryland. Very soon he found himself thinking over the Methodist doctrines and made a complete break by means of the Harvard Divinity School, then the dominant Unitarian seminary. Doors were thus opened for him into new realms of the mind.
Conway had an extraordinary talent for making friends among the eminent. He called upon Emerson in Concord and began a lifelong discipleship. He was soon among the famous men of Boston – Longfellow, O. W. Holmes, J. R. Lowell, Theodore Parker and the rest. While still in his early twenties, he took charge of a Unitarian congregation in Washington. Slavery had become the crucial issue of the time. Conway’s outspoken advocacy of abolition (all the more startling because of his Virginian birth) brought a quick end to his work in the capital. He removed to Cincinnati and there enjoyed a notable success as preacher, educationist, and civic leader. The Civil War in 1861 made a decisive break in his career. He gave up his church in order to devote himself to the cause of Emancipation.
Conway was already a practiced writer. He edited an abolitionist paper in Boston, being concerned for one principle above all. The war was an immeasurable tragedy for the Republic, and there could be only one justification for it – a quick and final end to slavery. He disagreed with the Lincoln view that the Union must be preserved at any cost. He held the highly heretical opinion that the Union was not worth one man’s life. This meant that he was opposed to the large body of abolitionists who gave support to the war for the Union. None the less, he was firmly for the North against the South, and in England, so largely Southern in sympathy, he saw an opportunity that was denied to him in his own country. He came over intending no more than a short stay. A Sunday address at South Place introduced him to the remnant of Fox’s congregation, and the Committee decided that here was the minister they were hoping for. A welcome half-year’s engagement was the prelude to a notable ministry of twenty years. Surprisingly, Conway found himself able to accept a stipend of £150 and this very modest provision was continued for eight years. The chapel was then heavily in debt. As prospects improved under the new preaching, the account was cleared by a single gift.
South Place being essentially the product of two leaders who together served the Society for sixty years, it is worth our while to look briefly at the men and their characteristics. They were fully akin in at least three essentials. Both had started as adherents of a rigid creed—one in the hardest Calvinism, the other in Methodist revivalism. With their release they moved fast on parallel lines, impelled by the duty of free inquiry and the rights of religious liberty. Both were liberals to the marrow. Apart from these fundamentals they were markedly contrasted. Fox was an orator born, his remarkable gift of extempore speech being allied with perfect diction and a melodious voice.
His love of the drama was evident. Always active with the pen, he wrote as one for whom the public platform was a necessity. Roughly speaking, his friends fell into two groups: first, those who gathered round South Place and were associated with him in progressive causes; and secondly, a varied company made up of journalists and other men of letters.
Moncure Conway was a remarkable combination of industry, method, amplitude of knowledge, and capacity for friendship. He had not been long settled in London before becoming known, on cordial terms, to most of the men and women whom we think of as leaders of Victorian England: to Carlyle and Tennyson. Dickens and the Brownings, George Eliot, J. S. Mill, Huxley, Martineau, Froude, Rossetti. To these must be added Mazzini and every one of the prominent exiles who at that time found England a land of refuge with ever-open doors.
The second volume of the Autobiography contains an expansive account of these varied friendships, together with descriptions of travels, many vivid reports of conversations and visits to historic houses. When we remember also Conway’s flow of contributions to English and American magazines and the writing of his books (he usually had more than one on hand); we may well marvel that he should have found it possible to fulfill the duties of South Place which were by no means restricted to the Sunday services. Not less than in Fox’s time the chapel was a focus of social and educational activity and, to a larger extent than any hall in London, it came to be regarded as a place set aside both for protest meetings and for gatherings in memory of the distinguished dead.
Conway from the first was entirely at home with the people and their concerns, and he rejoiced in the mental atmosphere. The Society, he wrote, “gave me freedom — not grudgingly, but with enthusiasm. Literature as well as religion, science, art, philosophy, sociology, history – the boundless continent of human interests was mine. Here I could freely, fully pour out my soul”. This being so, we can understand why it was that, despite the very modest money reward, he should decide without hesitation in favour of the promising new sphere in this country when the Civil War came to an end in 1865.
Conway’s first London home was in Camden Town, and this made it convenient for him to adopt a suggestion made by Sir Sydney Waterlow, one of the prominent City supporters of South Place, that he should hold Sunday evening services at a small chapel in St. Pauls Road. The arrangement lasted for more than a dozen years, the meetings later being transferred to the nearby Athenaeum where they were continued until 1880, by which time the double duty had become a burden. South Place, Conway remarks, regarded the Camden Town society with maternal pride, as a worthwhile suburban offshoot.
As the above quotation indicates, the Sunday discourses were wide in range. Conway began in London by working over some of the subjects of sermons delivered in Cincinnati. He was quick to realise that in the interval his mind had moved far from the positions appropriate to a Unitarian preacher: although, at the same time he was a frequent and admiring listener to Dr. Martineau at Little Portland Street. Conway himself was a vigorous and deliberate speaker, often emphatic, always lucid and straightforward. He wrote out his discourses in a firm round hand, so that upon delivery they were ready for the printer, and a large number of them were circulated. Continually in the annual report the Committee gave expression to the congregation’s sense of their minister’s fine thought and scholarship, his intellectual courage and abundant resources. There was nothing in Conway’s record more remarkable than the rapidity with which he attained a representative standing in London. Public men and others did not appear to look upon him, even during the 1860s, as an American stranger. Rather he was accepted as a valuable colleague, while his understanding of Parliament and political questions generally made it seem natural that he should take part in progressive movements of various kinds and discuss national questions with the utmost freedom. This experience of his, all the more interesting because he was associated with a heretical meeting, leads one to wonder whether in such matters London was not more cosmopolitan in temper than it is today.
Conway’s Notable Twenty Years
Entering upon his ministry in 1864, Moncure Conway found himself confronting a difficult situation amid circumstances entirely strange. As a young American of thirty-two, he had decided to remain in England, although he had come with the intention of making only a short stay. No one could have thought that his motive was other than idealistic. For lack of a suitable leader the South Place congregation had dwindled, the chapel was heavily in debt, and there was some reason to fear that the members might not take to a stranger from the West. Conway, however, does not appear to have been troubled by any misgivings. His addresses on slavery and the Civil War had been well received in many cities, so that he was already at ease with English audiences. At South Place he was heartened by the warm welcome given by the Committee, most of whom had lively memories of W. J. Fox. His first task was to rally the old members who had been scattered during twelve years of disturbance and repellent sermons. His success was not delayed. Many of the City and other families were glad to return. The financial basis was quickly restored. Long before the close of the eighteen-sixties Conway had established himself in London and South Place had regained much of its former reputation as a centre advanced thought and progressive social activity.
The character of the Sunday discourses had undergone important changes during the two decades since the crisis of 1834 which had resulted in severance from the Unitarian body. Fox’s freedom of belief was unmistakable, but until the end of his ministry, a modern reader would say, his theology had remained essentially Unitarian. There was an enduring vein of pious sentiment in what was, perhaps, the most highly valued section of the membership. It found expression markedly in the hymns written by Sarah Flower Adams. Indeed, there were some attendants who asserted that until well on in the Conway period a few simple hearers might have been found who had not become aware that the morning service was in any way exceptional. In reply to a question Fox explained why he had given up the dialect that was customary among religious people in England, but he did not depart from the general nonconformist pattern, which included a prayer or meditation. Conway made the first noteworthy change by having an alternative to the Bible reading. In later years he carried this much farther by choosing passages from the sacred books of the world. Some five years after his start he notified the Committee that he found difficulty in composing the prayer and suggested the substitution of a meditative reading. They at once agreed.
Fox’s preference for courses of closely related subjects was a lifelong trait. It was strikingly exhibited in the series devoted to Religious Ideas delivered in 1849 after his election to Parliament and-amounting to a considered farewell. In these addresses it was rightly said, his ministry flowered and virtually ended. At the same time he was ever on the alert for challenging questions of the day, and in that respect Conway was a most appropriate successor. He was incapable of missing a good topic and was never afraid of a controversial problem. His range, which was remarkably wide, conformed to the principle of Voltaire’s advice to a younger writer: “It is the part of a man like you to have preferences, but no exclusions”. Comparative religion had a foremost place in Conway’s studies. It led him into all the regions of folklore and the natural history of ritual, superstition, and taboo. Through fully half a life-time he was concerned with the inquiries that resulted in his pioneer work, Demonology and Devil Worship. He was a foundation member of the Anthropological Society, associated with E. B. Tylor and his fellows in the nascent science of man. For him, as he said, theology was gradually replaced by anthropology.
It was a coincidence that a memorial service for W. J. Fox should have been called for within a few months of Conway’s settlement at Finsbury. This occasion was the first of a long series of such meetings. Conway’s interest in biography and especially in his contemporaries was inexhaustible. The death of an eminent man or woman furnished him with a theme that he could not resist. In his view, the nineteenth century was an age of greatness and of a variety in genius never surpassed. Hence it was that, from Abraham Lincoln onwards, the South Place commemorations comprised a gallery of Victorian character and achievement. If reformers and pioneer thinkers came first in Conway’s admiration, the meetings had a special interest by reason of the European names – Mazzini, Victor Hugo, and many others. The circumstance that made this catalogue of famous names unique was that Conway nearly always could speak from personal knowledge. One cannot run over his reminiscences without recognising that during his first two decades in London, he met almost every person of importance and that in all probability no Englishman of the time was on terms of friendship with a larger number of them.
He had brought with him to England an introduction from Emerson to Carlyle and was soon assured of a welcome at almost any time in Cheyne Row. In later years he was a frequent companion in Carlyle’s afternoon walk, and there is evidence of the place he had made for himself in the stricken man’s appeal after the death of his wife that Conway should call as often as he could. A visit to Tennyson in the Isle of Wight was an early incident. Friendship with Robert Browning, who had known South Place from boyhood, was a matter of course, while he could without difficulty maintain pleasant relations with Rossetti-and his circle. He was no stranger to the Sunday afternoons at The Priory, Regent’s Park, the home of George Eliot and G. H. Lewes. There was, again, hardly a single front-rank man of science he did not know well Huxley, Tyndall, and W. K. Clifford lectured for him. Sir Charles Lyell, most eminent of Victorian geologists, was an active friend of South Place and a not infrequent auditor. Lyell’s Abbey burial in 1877 was hailed as a heartening sign of the times, and when, seven years later, the coffin of Charles Darwin was followed by a hundred fellow-workers in science, Conway felt certain that no other country could produce so splendid a procession of intellectual leadership.
He was a born journalist. His services were sought by editors on both sides of the Atlantic. Before coming to England he wrote for American magazines and in 1870 was engaged by the New York World as one of its correspondents at the Franco-Prussian war. Shortly before this, he began writing leaders for the Daily News and, surprisingly, was offered by CasselIs the editorship of The Echo on its foundation as the first halfpenny evening paper. The magazine connection that Conway valued most highly was that with Fraser’s Magazine, edited by J. A. Froude, whom he knew well and greatly admired. In ten years he contributed more than two dozen articles, on many besides American subjects.
So diversified were Conway’s interests, so continuous his literary activities, that the unbroken success of his ministry may well be looked upon as a marvel. Yet nothing could be more certain than that his duties at South Place were never neglected and that his congregation were proud of the position their minister had made as an honoured foreign resident. He was as near to being accepted in the character of citizen as an alien could be.
Three London Homes
He was ideally happy in his private life. He had married in 1858, at Cincinnati, his wife being Ellen Dana, of the well-known New England family. She made an immediate conquest of South Place, was no less completely at home in England than her husband and proved to be in everything a perfect partner. The Conways began in the London fashion with several spells in lodgings and then settled in the St. Pancras district, conveniently for work and enabling Conway to learn a good deal about such tough neighbourhoods as Smithfield and Soho. In 1876, they acquired a lease of Hamlet House, Hammersmith. Its three acres made it almost a country residence and, as Conway was pleased to find, it provided South Place with a desirable social centre. Here they could offer hospitality to visitors from many countries. In 1879 a move was made to the new suburb of Bedford Park, Chiswick, where Conway built the house that enshrined their happiest memories of life in England — Inglewood. Their neighbours included writers, artists, and public men of many kinds, together with a group of distinguished refugees. The Conways could not have been more fortunately placed. They rejoiced in belonging to a community that abounded in talent and where nobody thought of Mammon. A select Sunday evening club at Inglewood gave Conway the kind of stimulus he enjoyed beyond anything.
South Place was generous in the matter of leave. The summer vacation afforded opportunities for travel. In 1869, for example, there came a rewarding tour in Russia and in 1875 a visit to the United States which included a trip to the West and afforded gratifying evidence that Conway’s success in England was reflected in the warm appreciation of American liberals. This brought one proposal which, while not seriously raising a doubt as to Conway’s plan of life, had the effect of raising for the first time a financial question at South Place. Theodore Parker, the famous Boston preacher, had recently died. His pulpit, altogether untrammelled, could not be filled save by a man of exceptional gifts and character, knowing no theological fetters. Moncure Conway appeared to be the one and only acceptable candidate, but the pull of England, the London work and friends, was too strong. He returned to South Place and Inglewood for a further term of nine years.
A Decade of Vigorous Life
In the annals of any society concerned with religion and ethics the eighteen seventies were years of remarkable activity and interest. The movements that we think of as being especially characteristic of Victorian England were developing rapidly. Science had become dominant in the intellectual sphere. The renown and influence of the scientific leaders made a conspicuous feature of the period. The democratic process had been hastened by the second Reform Act (1867) and the first national Education Act (1870). The trade unions were being freed from the shackles of the law. An awakened generation was emerging from the schools. The religious world was exhibiting signs of change. The Broad Churchman enjoyed a popularity that made a contrast with the repute of Newman and Pusey in the mid-century years. When men such as Charles Voysey and Stopford Brooke left the Church of England the religious Press was outraged. Bishop Colenso on the Pentateuch made exciting news. Bradlaugh‘s parliamentary candidature was a portent.
The appointment of Arthur Stanley to the deanery of Westminster had brought rejoicing to all religious liberals. His death in 1881 was announced by South Place as the loss of an eminent friend. Year by year the Committee commented with satisfaction upon the evidences of a welcome change among prominent men in the Orthodox world towards the spirit of inquiry and the societies that stood for religious freedom. It seemed that England was moving into a decidedly more tolerant stage. We are no longer alone, said Moncure Conway in a farewell address.
An Improved Chapel
The decade opened with the Minister of South Place enjoying a noteworthy position after six years of fruitful work. He had become a greatly esteemed Londoner, and by reason of his cordial co-operation in progressive causes of many kinds he was never, seemingly, looked upon as a foreigner. Public education was one of these causes. South Place was always active in the agitation for keeping State religion out of the schools. It is a fair guess that but for his American birth Conway would have sat in the first London School Board along with T. H. Huxley, Frederic Harrison, and other stalwarts. His congregation gave him not only support but enthusiastic approval. The Committee, recorded time and again in the annual report that the Society and its friends were unanimous in recognising the Minister’s wide knowledge, mature thought, and depth of feeling.
The Society, in a word, was prosperous. The finances were in a healthy condition, and the Sunday attendance was steadily maintained. On the few mornings of the year when Conway was not speaking the platform was open to distinguished visitors, sometimes from America. Two events of the early 1870s are worthy of special mention. The interior of the chapel was remodelled. First, the high pews that recalled the rigours of 1820 were replaced by movable seats. It had become a matter of ironic comment that the most advanced congregation in London should have endured through half a century those cramped seats of torture. The old system of pew-rents, by the way, was not abolished until a much later date. The second change was a new hymnal. Eliza Flower’s Hymns & Anthems had done duty for 30 years. A larger and more inclusive book had become a manifest need and a sub-committee was named. The result was an attractive volume published in 1873. The 150 pieces of the original anthology were retained and 400 added, making a volume considerably more expansive than the later Hymns of Modern Thought. The editor took a much wider range than that of Fox and Miss Flower, both as regards authors and themes. Not a few of the accepted hymn-writers are there, while the poets drawn upon make a numerous and varied company: Dante, Shakespeare and Milton, Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and a good many nineteenth-century writers of verse now almost forgotten. One feature of this collection may have seemed rather surprising 80 years ago and would be more so as time passed. By the time of his settlement in London Conway’s religious philosophy had moved on beyond the stage that he spoke of as dynamic theism, and the Sunday service had shed the remaining forms of liberal orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the sub-committee decided in favour of admitting certain hymns, sometimes associated with ceremonial dates, which would have received the cordial assent of, say, Dr. Martineau’s congregations or Stopford Brooke’s. Dr. Conway and two others went over the book for final revision and no objections were raised. As in the case of the pioneer Hymns & Anthems the sales were gratifying.
Choir And Organ
Two years after this, during Conway’s absence in America, a new organ was installed and discussions, never suspended for very long since the earliest days, were renewed in reference to the best Method of arranging the musical part of the service. The music at South Place was the main contribution of the Flower Sisters, Eliza being leader of the choir. In later years she introduced an arrangement that, we must assume, was altogether her own. Her idea was that the choir proper should be reinforced by means of another trained group in the congregation, and it is indicated that so long as she was there to direct and inspire the result was pleasing. Obviously, however, the combination could not be continued after her death. The standard was upheld under a succession of musical directors and in course of time the singing came to be led by a quartette more or less professional in character, the anthem being for many years an unvarying feature on Sunday mornings. This plan was adhered to as long as the old chapel remained in use. During the difficult years the expenses of the paid choir were necessarily a serious item in the annual accounts. The sum stood as a rule in the neighbourhood of £300.
In this connection it may be noted that until his first retirement in 1885 Dr. Conway’s stipend, when not augmented by a ‘special grant, was £500 a year. Even when taking into account the then value of the pound sterling, and the cost of an appropriate home in Bedford Park, this must be looked upon as no more than an honorarium for a Minister who was at The same time a public man and a recognised leader. But, as we know, it was accepted as fair and right by Dr. Conway, who at all times was able to make considerable additions to his income by writing. The magazines here and in America were open to him, and he had never any difficulty in finding a publisher for his books.
Exciting National Affairs
During the whole of this period South Place was a lively centre of political activity. Every important movement in Europe was reflected in the meetings. Moncure Conway was ready for any challenge to the principles of democratic Liberalism, and after 1874 the Disraeli Government afforded reasons in plenty for energetic protest, particularly in the foreign field. The news of Ottoman atrocities in Bulgaria made a sensational opening for the uprising of public feeling against “the unspeakable Turk”. Conway was able to count upon virtually unanimous approval when he threw himself into the crusade on behalf of the Balkan peoples and in denunciation of the Tory Government’s pro-Turkish altitude. Before this crisis, as afterwards, Conway had his doubts about Gladstone, whose oratory as a rule he did not admire, but his mind was entirely clear as to the Near East from 1876 onwards. He could, indeed, be described as a thoroughgoing adherent of the Midlothian creed, and he was able to print a cordial letter of gratitude from the Liberal leader.
There is a revealing glimpse of the South Place mind in the report for 1880, after the Gladstonian triumph at the polls. The Committee expressed in emphatic terms its view of the ethical significance of the event. The overthrow’ of the Beaconsfield Ministry was seen as an impressive finish to a “sinister alliance” between national authority and the forces of evil in the common life, and there was an endorsement of the prevailing illusion that England stood at the dawn of a new and brighter time. Naturally enough these high hopes were soon clouded over. The dismal situation in Ireland and the complex entanglement in Egypt made grim difficulties for the Liberal Government. First and last Conway was a man of peace, so that for him the war in Egypt was a horror. The House of Commons meanwhile became involved in the grotesque confusion of Bradlaugh and the oath by which the 1880 Parliament was bedevilled throughout its whole term. Here was a first-rate ethical and social issue for South Place. One opinion only was possible and the Chapel inevitably played its full part from the beginning of the uproar. At that time, too, and always, the Society bore witness against the cruelty and hypocrisy of prosecutions for blasphemy. George Jacob Holyoake, by far the best known among the later sufferers under an obsolete statute, was an old and valued friend. One enterprise was symptomatic of the period and its varied intellectual activity. This was a conference of liberal thinkers held at South Place in 1878. It aroused interest in England and on the Continent and attracted a large attendance. Conway worked energetically to make it a success and had reason to be gratified by the co-operation of men of science and leaders in social and other studies. He had hopes of a permanent association arising from this gathering, particularly when T. H. Huxley accepted the chairmanship. This, however, proved too much for the organisers. They were some years too early.
Moncure Conway was now at the height of his powers. His discourses, always marked by freshness and ingenuity, were at this time, if possible, even more vigorous and independent than during the earlier stage, and when printed they had a widening circle of readers. His theological interests had fallen away, but he was as ready as ever to seize upon events and controversies in the religious world, and it pleased him especially to discuss legends and Biblical topics in the light of his immense knowledge of folklore. He had unfailing resources of illustration and, in that age of cumbrous headlines, a happy knack of finding brief and telling titles.
The First Farewell
Having, in 1882, passed his 50th birthday (young enough for a public man in these later days), Conway turned his mind to the fulfillment of two purposes. The first was a journey round the world. It was to include especially the tour of India, to which, stimulated by his friendship with Max Müller, he had been looking forward since his early ventures into Eastern thought and mythology. His second intention was to prepare for the resignation of his charge. Twenty years of service in London, all things considered, seemed long enough. His sons were being educated in America and a home for the family there was manifestly the right thing. Also he had literary projects of a rather ambitious kind, and for these he needed both leisure and the resources of American libraries. Also, he remarked, when the signs were pointing towards retirement, it was much better to make the move when people would ask in friendly surprise, “Why should you leave us?” than to wait until the common query was, “Why doesn’t he go?”
Carlyle And Emerson
The notable friendship with Thomas Carlyle was kept up until the old man passed into the closing shadows in Cheyne Row. Dr. Conway attended Edinburgh University in 1866 in order to hear the wonderfully successful rectorial address. The Autobiography contains not only a vivid description of the scene but also a summary of Carlyle’s talk on two occasions following. Conway was a competent reporter; this account is undoubtedly the best we have of the conversational flow that was admired through half a century. On a bleak February day in 1881 Conway was present at the wordless funeral in the Ecclefechan graveyard, along with Froude, Tyndall, and a few others from London. He thought, naturally, that this was a dismal farewell to Scotland’s most famous son.
In the following year Conway had the opportunity for a signal service to the memory of one who was his friend as well as Carlyle’s. Soon after Emerson’s death an unknown woman appeared offering for sale some of his letters to Carlyle. She proved to be the widow of Joseph Neuberg, the German who served Carlyle devotedly during part of the long labour on Frederick the Great and accompanied him on his first visit to Germany. The letters were being edited by Professor C. E. Norton, of Harvard. About thirty of Emerson’s were missing; there was evidence of a ring of dealers being at work in this field. Conway saw that Mrs. Neuberg would need to be carefully handled. He succeeded in obtaining the loan of the letters, overnight only. With the aid of his wife he made a fair copy of the whole batch, thus ensuring the completion of Norton’s two volumes, an especially valuable portion of the Carlylean record. Matthew Arnold was not alone in looking upon this exchange of confidences as a revelation of Carlyle’s most attractive side.
When engaged upon this characteristic piece of literary work Conway was preparing for his journey round the world. Its main objective was what he called his pilgrimage to the wise men of the East. He returned in 1884. His affectionate letter of resignation to South Place was followed by seven farewell discourses. Inglewood was sold, and he sailed for New York in May 1885.
Interval And Welcome Return
In the middle 1880s, consequent upon the retirement of Moncure Conway, South Place, for the second time in thirty years, was confronted by a problem that in the nineteenth century was inseparable from a society of this kind. For all people of good standing in England, tradition and habit made Sunday attendance a part of the family routine. Finsbury Chapel in Fox’s time afforded abundant evidence of this rule, and throughout the twenty years of Conway’s first period the congregation was maintained upon a basis of regularity. There is a curious illustration of this fact in the continuance down to the late 1890s of the old system of pew-rents, without which it was assumed everywhere in Noncomformity the preacher’s stipend could not be provided. A Sunday meeting with a free pulpit was no exception to the rule; and a minister, or recognised leader, was deemed to be indispensable.
South Place, it is hardly necessary to recall, had been fortunate in this respect. W. J. Fox’s appointment was indicated by the plainest signs and, as we have seen, his services, continued for thirty years, made the Society what it was. The first difficulties concerning the platform emerged when Parliament made exacting demands upon the minister. The ensuing troubles were serious and long-continued. They had lasted for a dozen years when the providential arrival of Moncure Conway transformed the situation. When, at fifty-two, he found it necessary to relinquish the charge to which, as he said, he had given the flower of his life, there was no successor in sight; nor does it appear that he had entered upon a serious search. The resulting difficulty was at least as perplexing as that of 1850.
If Conway, looking ahead on behalf of the Society, thought that the outlook was not unpromising, there were good reasons for his view. South Place was prosperous. It had attained an important status in London as a centre of advanced thought and progressive activity. The atmosphere of the time was anything but stagnant. When Darwin passed from the scene in 1882 the educated public was moving amid general ideas that were vastly different from those that prevailed when his revolutionary book was published. A glance over the leading reviews of the 1880s would suffice to remind the present-day reader that the great issues of faith and reason were being debated by the most vigorous minds of the age. In the religious world there were evidences of increasing tolerance, and independent action by certain churchmen seemed to imply that good candidates for a free ethical pulpit might be available. Conway, who knew almost everybody, may well have thought so, but the Committee were soon to discover that no, field of choice lay before them. Speakers in plenty there were, to be invited on occasion; but South Place was in need of a leader, capable of directing the activities of the Society in addition to fulfilling the Sunday morning duty in succession to the ablest and most broadly cultivated of ethical and philosophic lecturers. It was doubtless a surprise for the Committee when they were made to realise that an epoch marked by theological liberalism and free discussion did not necessarily produce the type of minister-leader for which they were looking.
Scarcity Of Candidates
Conway’s mind had been turning towards retirement for several reasons. His Eastern tour made a long gap, and he was asking for arrangements to be made for the Sunday duty to be reduced. During the preceding decade the fact of his delivering a weekly discourse with only a few exceptions throughout the year was remarkable, and all the more so when we consider the range of his topics and the keenness with which he followed public affairs. At no time can he have failed to realise that his departure would be a severe blow to the Society, not only because of the platform, but also on account of the attendance and financial resources. The success of South Place throughout the 1870s had been witnessed in all directions, and there were several years when the recurrent anxiety as to income was not reflected in’ the annual report. But times were changing. The expansion of London was causing a steady outflow of families from the central districts. Finsbury, with its streets and squares of comfortable houses had lost its residential character and, except on the eastern side, there was no modern transport that could be regarded as an advantage for the old Chapel. It was manifest, therefore, that the situation demanded first an adequate successor to Dr. Conway; and where was he to be found?
True, there were a few men who had been heard of when they gave up posts in the orthodox churches, and we may assume that the Committee considered more than one minister whose ties with orthodoxy were not binding. Several of these were listened to with respect but they were not approached, and when Dr. Conway left for America only one definite offer was made. That was to Dr. Andrew Wilson, an energetic writer and speaker mainly on health subjects. Indeed, he had become widely known as an apostle of the new hygiene. He was acceptable as a Sunday speaker, and would have been supported if he had accepted the position of leader. He preferred to remain in Edinburgh and was doubtless wise in deciding not to forsake his proper field.
In its search for speakers it was natural for the Committee to turn first towards the Unitarians, and several of their ministers (Philip Wicksteed being the most acceptable) were heard. In this interval, however, the invitations seem to have gone first to men of science and humanist writers. Leslie Stephen, for instance, made several appearances, as did R. A. Proctor the astronomer. G. J. Romanes, Karl Pearson and Edward Clodd were in the list, and in 1886 the name of J. M. Robertson is given his first date. At that time, also. we may note the appearance of a speaker who may well have been looked upon by some members as a candidate for the permanent post.
James Allanson Picton was for many years a Congregational minister. He was of the same age as Conway and in Manchester had been a pioneer in arranging Sunday lectures for working men. After an interval in Leicester, where his radical theology made him suspect, he was for ten years in Hackney. His Sunday afternoon lectures made him known, and he was elected to the first London School Board. He abandoned the ministry, became M.P. for Leicester (in succession to Conway’s friend, Peter Alfred Taylor). And held the seat securely. In Parliament he was prominent in the Radical group but never caught the ear of the House. His pulpit tone was against him, and he was further handicapped by a diminutive physique. Picton was an untiring writer, publishing lectures, articles, and books. During a long period he was at the call of South Place for Sunday addresses, weekday lectures and many other services. His later views, it was said, were pantheistic.
Dr. Stanton Coit
During an interval of some three years, when the Society was doing what it could against many obstacles, Dr. Conway in New York was ever ready with counsel, and in 1887 he made a recommendation upon which the Committee acted. There was a vigorous new Ethical movement in America founded by Dr. Felix Adler, who was giving particular attention to the training of young leaders. In after years, it was noted, he found his most promising recruits in England, but to begin with he kept his eyes open near at hand. Dr. Conway agreed with Adler as to the ability and Character of Stanton Coit, a young graduate in philosophy who, after studies in Germany, had done a remarkable piece of social service in the immigrant quarters of New York City, especially through what he called the neighbourhood guild. Conway backed him warmly for South Place and in 1888 he accepted the invitation. He received a cordial welcome; South Place had good reason for feeling kindly towards Americans, and Stanton Coit’s gifts, especially for lecturing, were immediately recognised. He had an unusually fine speaking voice and had no difficulty in so modifying his utterance as to become thoroughly acceptable to English audiences. His discourses made their mark and the morning attendance improved. Coit was able to occupy the platform on as many Sundays as Conway had done, and a glance over the titles will show that his subjects were almost as varied as those of his predecessor.
A Friendly Departure
Stanton Coit, nevertheless, was not the right man for South Place sixty years ago. It was soon apparent that he had entered upon his, duties with certain preconceptions not harmonious, with the sentiments and practices that had been woven into the fabric of a London society which, of necessity, had, been moulded into its own shape. Differences made their appearance; for some months there was an energetic exchange of opinions, and then a resignation that was seen to, be unavoidable. Coit was a man of masterful temperament and he held positive views as to the limits of committee authority. He demanded the ex-officio right to sit on all committees, a claim which, for sound practical reasons, had always been opposed. There were several other points of sufficient interest to recall at this late date. Coit was in favour of affiliation with the American Ethical Movement, and of an extended summer closing of the chapel, so that the burden of the Sunday discourse could be diminished. He wished the leader to be so called, instead of minister, and he secured one change of nomenclature that was not insignificant. In Conway’s time the Finsbury Chapel had become the South Place Religious Society. Coit persuaded the Committee to adopt the word Ethical. His connection ended in 1891. That the severance was on the whole friendly is evidenced by the number of Sunday discourses delivered by him in the following year. Stanton Coit was a man of strong individuality who followed his own path. He founded the West London Ethical Society, and later established the Ethical Church in Bayswater, with a ritual service. There he ministered until old age, having made for himself a distinctive place in heterodox London. At the close of this incident South Place enjoyed one notable success—a series of Sunday afternoon lectures on the Great Religions. The speakers were fully representative, and on publication in volume form the sale was most satisfactory.
Conway’s Second Term
Meanwhile Conway had re-established his home in New York and was occupied in writing and historical research. His most important enterprise was the biography of Thomas Paine, which proved to be the major work of his later life. He kept in close contact with South Place and after the resignation of Stanton Coit his mind turned again towards London. He confessed that anxiety concerning his old congregation made it impossible for him to pursue his literary work without interference, and therefore when, amid the trouble of 1891, the question of a second term was raised, he consented to return. The decision was a notable example of his generosity and affection. He was 60 years of age and had made a second success in his own land. The move entailed a serious financial sacrifice and he was well aware that a difficult situation had developed at South Place during the interval. The nature of his sacrifice was well understood.
The welcome to Dr. Conway, naturally, was enthusiastic. His auditors were rejoiced to find that his vigour was unimpaired, while they were ready to acknowledge that renewed contact with America and successful authorship had still further extended his outlook. He was ready to take at least half the Sundays of the year, and the approaching Centenary of the Society provided him with the best of opportunities. The occasion, in 1893, was celebrated first by a series of Sunday addresses, which made the substance of the Centenary History, one of Conway’s most attractive books. He had returned to a difficult charge. The seven years’ interval had been a continual struggle. Despite the high standard of the discourses the lack of settled leadership could not be other than injurious to the attendance, and financial difficulties were increasing. In these circumstances Conway, of necessity, tended to withdraw from the general activities of the Chapel and confine himself to the Sunday duty. In the public life of London he was again a welcome figure, but there could not be any resumption of the social connections which, especially in the Bedford Park period, had given the Conways so special a place amid the most agreeable circles. Their private concerns, moreover, were affected by the passage of time. Soon after the return to England Mrs. Conway’s health began to fail, and it was this factor more than any other which, to the grief of all South Place, made a final retirement unavoidable in 1897. The farewell took place a few weeks after Queen Victoria’s golden [Ed. ‘diamond’] jubilee, an event that by common assent marked the end of an age.
The Turn of the Century
It is a commonplace for the historians of the past half-century that the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria marked the apex of British power and prestige. The presence in London of the Dominion prime ministers made known the reality of a self-governing Commonwealth. While in South Africa the Jameson Raid sounded a first alarm of troubles to come, the successes of Cecil Rhodes showed the Empire to be still expanding. In India the Curzon epoch was about to begin. That confident Viceroy spoke and acted as though the British Raj had nothing to fear; and indeed, it was not until his term of office was over that the signs of a militant nationalism became unmistakable. In Dr. Conway’s farewell address there was a passage referring to the inestimable value of peace for Greater Britain, and he glanced at the benefits conferred upon the world at large by our command of the seas. Europe had for long accepted the fact of British authority. The British Empire had attained its maximum strength with relatively little evidence of enmity on the part of rival nations. It was the Boer War that revealed the jealousy of the Powers. In 1900 we were without a friend in Europe.
The unexpected warning in Recessional on the morrow of the jubilee proved to be curiously prophetic, although Kipling’s eyes were not then upon the national scene. Home politics seemed to be at a dead-end. Gladstonian Liberalism had suffered eclipse in 1895, and the Conservative Government under Lord Salisbury was confronted by the first ominous outbreak of working-class revolt since the collapse of Chartism forty years earlier. Black Sunday and Trafalgar Square were a grim announcement that the under-side of a resplendent Empire was the condition-of-England question.
This state of affairs reflected a public temper, a general atmosphere that was anything but sympathetic to progressivism, and there could be nothing unexpected in the realisation that a free religious society was made to feel the force of the reaction. lf, as the 19th century drew to a close, South Place had been so fortunate as to enjoy the services of a popular leader, the situation would have been difficult enough. As matters stood it was baffling. Once again, as a decade earlier, the Committee had to recognize that no successor to Moncure Conway was available and that the carrying on of the Society could not be other than a heavy burden. Moreover, in connection with the general outlook there was one feature that needs to be particularly mentioned. The South African War which broke out in the autumn of 1899, brought anxieties of peculiar gravity, The public temper was inflamed. There was a sharp revival of intolerance. The freedom of the platform was threatened, and South Place was in some danger by reason of its fidelity to the principle of free speech. Not for the first time the chapel was open for speakers who were refused the use of other buildings. The most conspicuous instance was that of Cronwright-Schreiner, the husband of Olive Schreiner, whose meetings were being broken up. It so happened that the best-known speakers associated with the Society were prominent opponents of the South African war policy, and this fact naturally made South Place a suspect centre for the jingoes.
The Sunday Team
During the interval following Conway’s first retirement the Committee had cast the net widely for the Sunday meeting, and this plan was followed again from 1897. The names appearing on the list are an interesting reminder of the intellectual reserves in England fifty years ago. Among them were Prince Kropotkin, Patrick Geddes, Graham Wallas, Bernard Bosanquet, Leslie Stephen, Karl Pearson, Edward Carpenter, William Archer. Bernard Shaw, already well known to the weeknight audiences, discoursed on “Twentieth-Century Freethinking”, and two years later G. K. Chesterton (obviously, it was remarked, uncomfortable in his surroundings) made his only visit.
Reliance upon the open field, however, was not good for the Society’s work or membership, despite the high standing of the speakers. The Committee accordingly made a new venture by appointing three regulars who together, it was understood, would be responsible for nearly all the Sunday mornings of the year: J. M. Robertson, J. A. Hobson, and Herbert Burrows. This trio comprised a variety of gifts; and it could have been said that, given a general agreement in ethical philosophy, they offered contrasts of method and personality that were always interesting. Shortly afterwards a fourth was added, Joseph McCabe, and until the First World War these four stood for the major expression and influence of the platform. Mr. McCabe has survived his contemporaries, and at eighty-five continues in almost undiminished vigour.
J. M. Robertson was a man of remarkable powers. He was given to describing himself as a son of the Picts. After a short spell, with William Archer, in Edinburgh journalism, he joined Bradlaugh, becoming his righthand on the National Reformer and a hard worker in the Secularist movement. His range of knowledge was extraordinary. His reading can hardly have been surpassed among the late-Victorians in history and philosophy, religion and the social sciences, while he was at home in wide regions of imaginative literature. His industry was unremitting. His most important work was in history and political theory. After writing largely in general criticism, he made in later life a special study of the text of Shakespeare, his conclusions here being highly controversial. Robertson was elected for Tyneside in the Liberal triumph of 1906 and in 1910 Asquith made him Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade. For some ten years he was one of the Liberal Party’s most valuable speakers and in the front rank as a debater. His duties at Westminster and political activities outside necessarily reduced his services to South Place and for some years before his death his Sunday addresses were infrequent. Trained in the uncompromising school of nineteenth-century Rationalism, he was always a hard hitter, rejoicing in combat. His resources were all at command, his weapons never hidden. In historico-religious controversy he moved with especial freedom among the traditions of the early-Christian centuries. He was a constant assailant of the schools which, upheld the historical Jesus.
John A. Hobson was a greatly admired Sunday speaker from the early 1890s, at which time he was chiefly known as a university-extension lecturer. Being a native of Derby, he described himself as coming from the middle of the middle class and a town of the middle size in the middle of the English Midlands. At Oxford he was a contemporary of H. W. Nevinson, Graham Wallas, and Sydney Olivier. It might have been thought that Hobson started with only a meagre physical equipment for the platform, but when South Place heard him first he was one of the most attractive lecturers— structurally excellent, suggestive and witty. His special field was social economics, to which at the time of the Boer War he added the ethics and economics of Imperialism. He was essentially a constructive analyst; and when in his later years he delivered at South Place a series of reminiscent addresses, published as the Confessions of an Economic Heretic, he was able to claim that some of his ideas, particularly as to the value of spending, had been accepted and woven into the fabric of economic thought.
No lecturer of the time had a broader range of subjects than J. A. Hobson. He was ready for any topic touching the ethics of the common life, national or international policy, industry and the class structure, with war and peace ever present to his mind.
Herbert Burrows was not a man of letters but a political agitator of the quietest kind and a natural public teacher. An East Anglican who spent his earning life in the Civil Service, he made a distinctive place for himself in the London of the 1880s and 1890s. An early member of the Social Democratic Federation, he was at the same time an ardent theosophist and colleague of Annie Besant. It would not be inaccurate to say that Herbert Burrows was able, with his inclusive sympathies, to join groups of many kinds, a few of which might seem to cancel each other out. He was as convinced an anti-imperialist as Hobson. He had an easy platform style and was a universal favourite -being a man of clear goodness wholly without guile.
The ten years preceding the first War were notable, first, on account of the upset caused in national politics by Joseph Chamberlain’s advocacy of a return to Protection, and secondly, by the Liberal victory of 1906 and the Campbell-Bannerman Government, followed by Asquith, the Lloyd George budget of 1909 and the launching of the first social-security schemes. Ireland was increasingly stormy, and the militant suffragists brought in a method of agitation hitherto unknown, befitting a spirit of martyrdom such as even the most extreme of male radicals had never approached.
The prevalent atmosphere, especially during the later stage of militancy, might be described as less favourable than that of the previous decade for the work of an ethical society, with its appeal to reason and intelligence. But these difficulties were offset by other influences, such as the movement started by F. J. Gould for regular moral instruction in the schools, and the remarkable assembly in 1911 of the First Universal Races Congress. Meanwhile, the regulars of South Place and their associates—Hobson and McCabe, J. M. Robertson, H. W. Nevinson. Norman Angell and many another, maintained both the quality of the discourses and their nearness to the vital issues of the day.
The transfer from Finsbury to Red Lion Square was effected midway between the wars, a few months after Ramsay MacDonald had formed the second Labour Government. The change westward was both timely and fortunate in results. For many years the defects of the old chapel had made increasing difficulties; the financial struggle was unremitting, and the growing isolation of South Place, in a rapidly changing district of the City, had become an anomaly. The increased value of the site provided a sound basis for the Society’s fresh start, and there was never a doubt concerning the wisdom of the decision that led to the building of Conway Hall. Red Lion Square is an oasis of West-Central London—historically interesting, convenient in situation, and as quiet as the Temple.
Apart from its special character as a Sunday meeting, the Finsbury chapel had held for 100 years a place of its own in the field of London progressivism. Its open platform was a civic asset, not seldom responding to an urgent demand. In times of recurrent intolerance the advocates of minority causes might find it almost impossible to hire a hall. South Place was an established refuge. No reputable group was ever turned away, and throughout the Victorian period there was hardly a reformer whose voice had not been heard within its walls. The new hall was admirably suited to the continuance of this tradition. For some years past Bloomsbury had been undergoing change, especially in connection with the Museum and the new University building. The quarter was in need of an independent centre for meetings, music and discussion, and the public response to the venture was not delayed.
Preparing For The Move
The decade between the end of the First War and the opening of Conway Hall brought many difficulties for the Society. The demands of the Fighting Services had, of course, made inroads upon the younger ranks and the membership inevitably declined. With the return of peace it was realised that the deterioration of the old building made an urgent problem; it would be foolish to spend large sums on reconditioning. In 1920 the chapel and freehold were sold to the School of Oriental Studies, and two years later the Red Lion Square site was secured after efforts that had lasted rather a long time. The Society had its own architect, H. Wallis Mansford [Ed. actually F. Herbert Mansford], belonging to a family long associated with South Place and himself a devoted member and worker through life. His services in every department were unremitting. Building costs in wartime had, of course, risen to new heights, and notwithstanding the high value of the Finsbury site, the raising of a large fund was necessary. The labour, spread over several years, meant a heavy responsibility for the Committee and continuous effort on the part of members and friends. In March 1926, the last Sunday in the old chapel came round, 102 years after the opening by W. J. Fox.
A Trying Interval
There followed a difficult interval of three years, when the Sunday meetings were held in the lecture theatre of the School of Oriental Studies (formerly of the London Institution), a serviceable if not too cheerful auditorium, while other quarters had to be found for discussions, music and the various, sidelines of activity. It was noted with satisfaction in the annual reports that there were few unfavourable results, or none, of these awkward circumstances. The committees carried on and the Sunday attendances were maintained, aided no doubt by the interest of a new public in post-war problems.
Meanwhile one of the four regular lecturers had died—Herbert Burrows, in 1922 at the age of 77. He had served the Society during 40 years and was gratefully remembered by many friends. This period of waiting for the removal was noteworthy for several reasons, and not least for the character of the Sunday addresses. It was more than once remarked in the annual report that they were in general of a quality that should have gained for them a wider recognition in the intellectual life of London. Hobson and McCabe were at the height of their powers and, after his six years of responsibility as a member of the Asquith Ministry, J. M. Robertson was again taking his full share. Also, from the early twenties, Dr. Cecil Delisle Burns was accorded a special place in the panel. It was decided that he should deliver not less than twenty discourses in the twelve-month. For a few years he was able to approach this number, and during the first stage at Conway Hall he was the most prominent figure on the platform. There was an unusual variety in his themes. In his philosophic attitude and temper he was close to J. A.Hobson. After the coming of the Dictators he did valuable service with a series on what he had seen and heard in the several countries. Unhappily, Delisle Burns’s health broke down completely in the thirties. For a time he and Hobson contributed alternatively a short leading article to the Monthly Record.
The Removal Achieved
Conway Hall was opened in October 1929. This was the month of the financial crash in New York which preluded the great Depression. Within a year or so the worldwide significance of the calamity was manifest, and yet there was no evidence that its effects were serious for South Place. During the months before removal the active, members were upheld by hopes of renewal in Bloomsbury. There was a firm belief that the Society was to enjoy a new epoch of prosperity, and all the early signs indicated that this conviction was well founded. The membership list showed a marked increase; there was a fresh vigour in the discussions and groups; the amenities of the hall were warmly welcomed. Further, the new arrangements for Sunday morning music met with enthusiastic approval.
During the whole of the period between the wars the subjects treated in the discourses were weighted on the side of political and international affairs. This was unavoidable. The overthrow of the European system, the early results of the treaties, the hopes and anxieties connected with the League of Nations and many other developments were forcing the average citizen to think about a world in revolution. At the same time he and she could not be unaware that Britain was in process of organic change. The fabric of political democracy was completed, and by a Conservative Government. Two Labour Cabinets within five years announced the end of the old Party alignment and the coming of an altered balance in the national community. The platform of an ethical society was bound to reflect such movements as these. No avoidance of current issues was possible. Sunday morning was largely devoted to international and Labour problems with, as time went on, an allotment for psychology. A member with a statistical turn made an analysis of two years. He found that politics, economics and sociology comprised 45 per cent and international questions 23 per cent, 11 per cent only being given to philosophy: morals and religion. Older readers, undoubtedly would notice in particular the absence of addresses concerned with topics related to the Bible.
South Place Publications
The question of extending the influence of the Society by means of regular publications was a serious concern from the beginning. Fox’s discourses were printed as a matter of course. Conway’s practice was to write everything, and from his first year in London he took care to give actual form to the printed word. He tried the method of separate publication or in a magazine, and then began to collect in volumes, as in Lessons for the Day, while a great deal of the Sunday material was worked into his more important books such as Demonology and The Wandering Jew. In Conway’s time and later several ventures in publishing were made. They were usually shortlived, and going over the record one is led to infer that an opportunity covering a long period was missed for lack of a considered policy, the establishment of a permanent publication fund, and the discovery of skilled editors.
In 1895 the South Place Magazine was started, and it lasted until 1909. It was an orange-covered monthly priced at twopence only. That was probably an initial mistake. Even in that time of low costs and prices sixpence could be regarded as the minimum for a monthly. Contributions, of course, were voluntary and the sale was small. Even so, however, the trifling annual deficit was a surprise. Summaries of the Sunday lectures were a main feature, and there were series of articles by a few stalwarts of the Society. The Editor for several years was F. W. Read, the Society’s respected treasurer. His hobby was Egyptology upon which he was remarkably informed. He made use of the magazine now and again to air his particular detestation of Summer Time. His language was fierce. His disbelief in its practicability was in nowise affected by the wartime Act. When the magazine was discontinued C. J. Pollard expanded the Monthly List and gave attention to the summaries. In due time the list became the Monthly Record, which was edited and improved by F. G. Gould, a nephew of the indefatigable F. J. Gould, the evangelist of moral education in the schools. Upon his death in 1947 the Record passed to the care of G. C. Dowman, the present Editor.
A Long-Service Tradition
There was an interval of ten years between the opening of Conway Hall and the outbreak of the Second World War. The challenge offered by a new centre made manifest the need for younger leaders and the enlargement of the field from which the Sunday lecturers were drawn. The Committee realised that, notwithstanding the immense activity of the time in philosophic and ethical theory, and in social experiment, the choice of acceptable speakers for an Ethical Society’s platform remained difficult; and in the nineteen thirties the older generation of South Place was nearing its end. Robertson died in 1933. Several years before his death in 1940 (at eighty-two). J. A. Hobson was obliged to give up public speaking, and Delisle Burns was laid aside. Mr. McCabe, though still at call, was gradually drawing out. There were two younger lecturers of the pre-war decade who call for mention— Gerald Heard and C. E. M. Joad, both of whom had the advantage of a large outside audience through their books, and therefore attracted an addition to the regular Sunday audience. The curve of Dr. Joad’s later development is now well known. Mr. Heard belonged to the group of English writers who, before the war, migrated to America. In California, along with Aldous Huxley, he has been following the paths of European and Asiatic mysticism. Such defections as these, rare at any time, left the platform open for lecturers in the straight South Place tradition—for Mr. Archibald Robertson and Professors Keeton and Flugel.
It remains to note, at the end of these chapters, one remarkable feature of South Place, its platform and membership—namely, long service and continuity of aim. Fox’s ministry covered thirty-five years; Conway’s two periods made twenty-five. Burrows, J. M. Robertson, and Hobson, either attained or approached the forty-years mark. S. K. Ratcliffe has passed it, while Joseph McCabe has gone beyond the half-century.
And as with the lecturers, so with the active members. The annual reports bear testimony to the constancy of the Society’s voluntary officers and their associates. Over the whole lengthy period the names recur, with frequent acknowledgments of special tasks undertaken and carried through. The road traversed by the Society has never been other than onwards. At almost every stage it was beset by difficulties, the most obstinate of these, as we should expect, being financial. There was one stage of danger, and only one, on the eve of Moncure Conway’s arrival in England ninety years ago, when a plan for closing the Chapel had to be faced and overcome. With that very brief exception, the course has been steadily pursued through 160 years of co-operative effort, in full assurance of the need for a free Society affirming the South Place principle and of its enduring social value.