Sunday, 21 March 2010

Mechanics and Humanists have Unitarian roots

From the Mechanics Worldwide 2009 Conference diary:
Jana Sims of the Institute of Education in London spoke on Mechanics' Institutes in Sussex and Hampshire. The leafy counties of southern England aren't normally associated with Mechanics Institutes, but as Jana revealed there were plenty of them, in places like Brighton, Lewes and Winchester, many founded by members of the Unitarian church. The coastal ones ran classes in navigation, and any ideas of southern softness were dispelled by 5.30am classes in science and philosophy. Music played an important part in most Institutes, dispelling the myth of Engand as a non-musical nation, and although the early 19th century saw resistance to womens' attendance, that was largely resolved by the 1840s.
It is fairly well-known that Unitarians founded many educational establishments and projects, but I hadn't come across this one before!

When I last visited Conway Hall in London, however, I did notice that it was built by a group of Humanists who had originally been a Unitarian and Universalist chapel. The group still exists as the South Place Ethical Society, which owns Conway Hall. Their history is fascinating:
William Johnson Fox became minister of the congregation in 1817 which in 1824 it built a new chapel in South Place. This the Society occupied for 102 years and the name is still commemorated in the title of the Society, although it moved from South Place in 1926 to build its present home in Red Lion Square which was opened in 1929.

In 1831, Fox bought the journal of the Unitarian Association, The Monthly Repository, of which he was already editor; for five years this was virtually the first ancestor of the Ethical Record. Verse was contributed to it by both Tennyson and Browning -- the latter always spoke of Fox as his"literary father" ; the contributors of articles included John Stuart Mill, Leigh Hunt, Harriet Martineau, Henry Crabb Robinson and a fearless iconoclast, William Bridges Adams, whose outspoken series of articles on marriage, divorce, and other social questions split the South Place congregation again. So came about another evolutionary step that included severance from the Unitarian movement and established South Place as the centre of advanced thought and progressive activity. Among the causes with which Fox identified himself and the Society were the spread of popular education and the repeal of the Corn Laws. In 1847 he entered Parliament whilst remaining minister at South Place for several more years.

The most outstanding of Fox's successors in that position was an American, Moncure Conway, after whom the society's present home is named. He had adopted an uncompromising anti-slavery position at home and came to England in 1863 on a speaking tour. He settled at the South Place Chapel from 1864 until 1897, except for a break of seven years (from 1885 to 1892) during which he returned to America and wrote his famous biography of Thomas Paine. During that interval, in 1888, under the leadership of Stanton Coit, the name South Place Religious Society was changed to the South Place Ethical Society.
Perhaps those 19th century humanists and progressives would have been surprised at the modern evolution of Unitarianism, which now includes humanists, non-theists, theists, Pagans and Buddhists, among others.

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