The title, hopefully, of an article that may exist soon. It may not, depending on how much time I can spend on it over the next few months, but all things being equal it should. Over the past few months I’ve become interested in Unitarianism in Newcastle, and especially the role that it did (or didn’t) play in the various radical, philanthropic, and reform movements that gestated in the town in the first half of the nineteenth century. Unitarianism is a denomination of Christianity with a complicated heritage – it is defined primarily by its denial of the Holy Trinity, which is a mainstay in other Christian denominations. They reject the belief that God is one being spread across three persons: the Father, the Son (or Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. They believe that Jesus was a human not a manifestation of God – an exceptional, amazing human by all standards – but a human nonetheless. Unitarians are also prominently associated with the ‘Rational Dissent’ of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and incorporated scientific developments into their theologies to condemn some practices (such as the Trinity) as irrational and with no solid foundation in Scripture. There’s more to them than that, but they emerged in the late eighteenth century as a distinct grouping with a distinct theology, and subsequently established distinct places of worship in the UK – firstly in London in 1774, and then later in other provincial towns (such as Newcastle). In Newcastle, a new meeting house for dissenters was established in 1726, and under the extraordinary Revd. William Turner made the transition from general dissent towards a concrete and definite Unitarian congregation around the turn of the nineteenth century.
My interest in this particular group’s relationship with radical politics comes from their seeming non-involvement in the Newcastle Peace Society, which was formed in 1817 as an Auxiliary to the London Peace Society, and which ceased to be just before the Franco-Prussian War in 1869. From what we know – and the archival record is patchy to say the least – there were no Unitarians among the founder members of the Society: they were all Quakers such as Anthony Clapham and George Richardson. And although I’ve not been into this as thoroughly as I need to yet, it seems they were also very underrepresented in the ranks of the society after it expanded and became more active in the 1830s and 1840s. In their inaugural report to the London Society, which was in 1832, William Turner is listed among the subscribers, and yet there seems to be little evidence that he ever actively took part in the society’s endeavours. The only thing I can find thus far is that he seconded a motion at their 1831 annual meeting, but aside from that there are no tracts, sermons, or mentions of him in the subsequent newspaper reports of the society’s proceedings. Instead, we see references to other denominations: the Congregationalist minister Revd. John Orange, who for a time was secretary of the society; the Revd. Valentine Ward, a Methodist; and a Scotch Presbyterian called Dr. Lockhart whose first name is unknown. As David Saunders writes, “local Nonconformists — especially Quakers, but also Baptists, Primitive Methodists, Congregationalists and Scotch Presbyterians — maintained a local branch of the national Peace Society between October 1817 and April 1869.” But conspicuous by its absence in Saunders’ comment is Unitarians. It begs the question: where were they, and why was Turner seemingly so passive in his involvement in the Society?
This is surprising, and warrants further investigation, for two reasons. Firstly, we know that Unitarians such as Turner were prominent in other radical movements in Newcastle between around 1790 and 1850. Turner, as well as the solicitor James Losh and a handful of others, spurred the anti-slavery meetings in Newcastle in the last decade of the eighteenth century. This work was continued, among others, by the Revd. George Harris, who eventually took over Turner’s ministry in 1845. This is similar to other members of the Newcastle Peace Society: George Richardson, John Finlay, John Fenwick, Valentine Ward, and plenty of other members were prominent in the anti-slavery movement in the 1830s and 1840s; the Richardson family, spurred by Anna and Ellen Richardson, did an abundant amount of good for the cause, as many historians have noted. The causes of anti-slavery and peace were inexorably entwined in Newcastle. It is therefore a surprise that there isn’t more evidence of Unitarian involvement in the peace movement in Newcastle.
Secondly, we also know through the pathbreaking work of Martin Ceadel that Unitarians caused mischief way out of proportion to their numbers in the British peace movement. As he writes,
“the Unitarians, who had been the mainstay of the opposition to the French wars, played a more modest role in the society than their overall numerical decline can explain. Admittedly, they were important in the west country; the Revd Theophilus Browne was treasurer and secretary of the Gloucester auxiliary and so indispensable that it began ‘drooping’ (as John Bevans put it to a local member) when he left the city, and collapsed altogether soon afterwards; and the Revd Lant Carpenter was probably a member of the Bristol auxiliary, like Mary Hughes. But, in Conway’s words, ‘they were certainly not dominant’.”
And yet, those Unitarians who were involved in the peace movement were far from inactive; Ceadel gives a number of examples of prominent Unitarians who interfered in the ‘peace or war’ debate throughout his work. Furthermore, J.E. Cookson, in his study of ‘anti-war liberalism’ in the Napoleonic Wars, shows how the so-called Rational Dissenters, many of whom were Unitarian, were at the forefront of opposing Britain’s and Europe’s more general decent into conflict. Finally, Ceadel has revealed how before the London Peace Society properly established itself it first had to see off a rival organisation, which was the brainchild of one Richard Phillips, a Unitarian. Yet in Newcastle we see plenty mention of the likes of Turner and Losh in the anti-slavery movement during the Napoleonic Wars, but little on whether or not they were involved in peace activism. Furthermore, we see little evidence that Turner or other Unitarians were prominent in the Newcastle society across its lifespan. Other notable Newcastle Unitarians – William Batson, Edward Prowitt, the Doubledays, Thomas Gibson, et al – were not, apparently, involved, although I need to check a couple of others, such as John Bruce and the Hodgson family, properly.
There are therefore questions to be answered about the extent to which Newcastle’s Unitarians were involved in the peace movement in Newcastle, and if they weren’t, a question to be asked as to why. The only hint we have so far is the relationship between the Newcastle Peace Society and the maverick Revd. Joseph Barker in the early 1840s. Barker, an extraordinary individual, moved to Gateshead in 1839 and immediately became an important member of the society: a committee member no less, and a salaried lecturer spreading the principles of peace around the region. We know that the Richardson family, among others, supported him and his family until at least 1842. But in the early 1840s Barker, in one way or another, began to change his views: he not only transitioned slowly to Unitarianism from Methodism, but he also became a disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, and thus began to oppose not only all war and militarism but also the institution of the state itself. In doing so, he became what we would now describe as a Christian anarchist, and a vehement one at that. However, he was to leave the Newcastle society in 1842, and when he moved to Leeds later in the decade, it was the Revd. George Harris who presided over a Unitarian party bidding him farewell, and not the Quakers or other members of the Newcastle society. The reasons for this seem to be because of his increasingly eccentric views on theological matters such as the atonement, and not, interestingly, his anarchism – it seems he published a couple of anti-government tracts before 1842, meaning that the Richardsons must have continued to support him, at least for a time, in full knowledge of his ideas about the state.
Whichever it is, the way the Richardsons removed their support for Barker in light of his increasingly heterodox Unitarianism opens questions as to the relationship between Quakers, Unitarians, and radical politics in Newcastle more generally. Unitarians, as Douglas Stange makes clear in his study of British Unitarians’ involvement in anti-slavery activism, tended to view themselves as marginalised within British Christianity, and constructed a strange but distinct self-identity as what we might now call ‘the underdog’. In Newcastle, however, we don’t know much about this. To put it bluntly: did the Newcastle Peace Society’s core membership of Quakers actively marginalise, or ignore, the efforts of Unitarians towards peace, and did the Unitarians, aware of their status, turn away from the cause towards other avenues of dissent and reform as a result? If Turner was prominent in anti-slavery networks in the 1790s and after, and later joined the Newcastle Peace Society, why is it he was not a founder member? There are all sorts of interesting questions that arise when we consider Unitarianism like this.
What I consequently want to do is reassess the role of Unitarianism and Unitarians in radical politics in Newcastle between 1790 or so, and 1850. I want to re-examine the ways in which they were involved in the peace, anti-slavery, and other reformist movements in Newcastle, and place this within the wider religious and theological context of Newcastle at the time. Simultaneously, I want to ask how and why, not just to what extent: in other words, I want to try and find out why Unitarians were, or weren’t, involved in these movements, and how and why their involvement changed across time. The way I want to do this is by focusing on Turner, Losh, Barker, and Harris (these four at minimum, possibly more if it becomes possible) in what I think of as a structural biographical approach: an approach which uses individual lives as “windows onto the complicated trends, events, [and] crises of their time, providing an entry point for a deeper understanding of a particular historical era” , as Marion Kent puts it in her study of Queen Victoria. The reason for focusing on these four individuals is simply out of necessity: the archival record is patchy on these questions, but all four were prolific speakers and writers, and as such leave behind a diverse range of sermons, pamphlets, speeches, letters, and motions to explore. I will compliment this with a broader investigation into the history of the Unitarian congregation in Newcastle, drawing on the papers stored at the Tyne and Wear Archives, the fabulous British Newspaper Archive, and secondary literatures wherever I can. The nature of archival research is similar to the old dictum ‘one step forwards, two steps back’, in that one particular archive source tends to lead you to at least two more, which both lead you to two more, and so on, in a tree-branch like fashion. I’ve already done a decent scan of the secondary literature and tracked down the majority of the stuff on/by the four individuals I want to focus on, but there’s plenty more work to do.
So, I guess the question now is: can you help? Do you know anything about this, or are able to point me towards some literature or archival sources that might be useful in revealing things about the relationship between Unitarian(i)s(m) and radical politics in Newcastle between c. 1790 and 1850? If so, do get in touch. And if you’ve got anything broader to say – including, I stress, if you think this is all rubbish – do get in touch also. Any information that helps will be rewarded by a batch of homemade cookies, of a flavour and kind of your choice.
[Also, I can’t be bothered to do a bibliography, but if you’d like reference/bibliographic details on anything above do shout, and I’ll be happy to provide].