William Johnson Fox

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Graham Wallas
Prof. Graham Wallas (1858 – 1932)
William Archer
William Archer (1856 – 1924)
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at South Place Institute 20 March 1924. Chaired by William Archer and presented by Professor Graham Wallis.

Fox was South Place Chapel’s first minister, from 1824-52. He helped give South Place its distinctive character, as preserved by his great successors, most notably Moncure Conway.

Fox was born in 1786, the son of a Suffolk artisan. As a youth, he read widely in nonconformist literature, then trained and qualified as a dissenting minister. By 1812, he had become a Unitarian. Also at this time, he discovered he possessed extraordinary powers of oratory, which he was later to deploy in attacking the Corn Laws and in advocating free public education. After a period at Chichester, he came to London in 1817 and succeeded Vidler as minster of the Unitarian Chapel in Bishopgate. In 1824, he moved to the new Unitarian Chapel at South Place in Finsbury, and became one of the country’s most prominent Unitarians. In 1831-2, he championed the Parliamentary Reform Bill. By this time, he had formed friendships with J.S Mill and Carlyle.

Gradually, Fox split from Unitarianism, partly because of his commitment to freethought, and partly because of his advocacy of divorce (he himself had separated from his wife). He became a lay teacher, and also wrote journalism for the secular press, championing the causes of Chartism and female emancipation/suffrage. In 1845, he was elected liberal M.P. for Oldham, and retained his seat until his retirement in 1862. As an M.P., he focussed on educational issues, and introduced an education bill in 1852. In this same year, he terminated his duties at South Place, owing to the pressure of his parliamentary work. When he died in 1864, his memorial service was conducted by Moncure Conway.

While Fox’s life and activities were extremely varied, his work at South Place was a major achievement. He showed that a congregational organisation could be maintained and developed without the backing of the supernaturalistic claims of Christianity. Also, the congregational setting was one that allowed people to come together, to share thoughts and feelings in an environment especially designed for such communication. In the modern world, there is still a need for this kind of environment. Though access to the sphere of ideas has widened enormously since Fox’s day, this access is largely impersonal: the book, the journal, the play, the film, the radio programme. It is not the kind of access which allows dialogue between producer and audience this dialogue is precisely the thing that can be engaged in at organisations such as South Place.

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