The Rev Alexander Gordon was one of the leading Unitarian scholars of the late nineteenth century. He had an international reputation and connections that spanned continents, languages and areas of research. He also combined his academic work with committed pastoral ministry much of which he exercised in Ireland.
The brief notes that follow illuminate something of his life and work but were prompted by the discovery of this delightful photograph:
I am indebted to Alan Ruston for discovering it. He found it, printed up as a post card, inside a copy of Herbert McLachlan’s biography of Gordon published in 1932. The card itself is dated 18th January 1931 and it must represent the last photograph taken of this distinguished minister since he died just over a month later. It is a remarkably sharp and clear picture, presumably taken on something like a Box Brownie, with, we must suspect no prior warning and no attempt to pose the main subject.
Alexander Gordon is shown walking up to the meeting house at Dunmurry, county Antrim, indeed the section of wall (at the rear going towards the entrance to the vestry) is still clearly recognisable today, although greatly restored. The significance of the day the photograph was taken is underlined by a quotation from page 123 of Herbert McLachlan’s biography part of which is written on the back of the card:
On Sunday, 18 January 1931, Alexander Gordon drove in a jaunting-car from Belfast to Dunmurry to take service for an old friend laid aside by illness. It was to be his fare-well office of faith and affection. His last public appearance was on the 11th of February, when he took the chair at a Meeting of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland. Ten days later, after a week’s illness and a day in bed, he passed into the world of light. In the grave-yard attached to the ancient Meeting-House at Dunmurry his body was interred on Monday, 23 February, when amongst those who took part in the service was the Very Rev Dr John McMillan of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Together with old pupils and friends who gathered to pay him a last tribute of respect and love was the old driver with the car which had carried him to and fro in the north of Ireland for fifty years save one, with whom, I doubt not, he had oft exchanged a merry jest.
Describing himself as “an Englishman by birth, a Scotsman by education and an Irishman by inclination”, Alexander Gordon was the leading historian of religious dissent in Britain and Ireland at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries. I contributed the short biography of him which can be read online at the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography – .http://uudb.org/articles/alexandergordon.html. Alan Ruston wrote the entry on him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography which can also be read online although this requires a subscription. Gordon himself is particualrly remembered as one of the most prolific contributors to the original nineteenth-century Dictionary of National Biography. Amongst many other publications he contributed 778 biographies to that landmark publication. His scholarly commitment and devotion to detail was unsurpassed. Alongside this he was both a minister and educator, combining his ministry at Rosemary Street in Belfast, between 1877 and 1889, with the role of divinity tutor to students for the Non-Subscribing ministry. In 1890 he became principal of the Unitarian Home Missionary College, Manchester and the first lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at the University of Manchester in what is always described as the first ‘free’ faculty of theology in the UK, in other words one that taught theology without any denominational affiliation or confessional standpoint. Throughout his time in Manchester he maintained his contact with Belfast, serving as a governor of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution for around fifty years and regularly travelling back to Dunmurry to attend communion there under the ministry of his friend the Rev. J.A. Kelly who regarded him as an ‘unpaid assistant’. He was closely involved with the consolidation of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian denomination in 1910 and for the rest of his life was a regular traveller across the Irish Sea, continuing throughout the First World War and at one point losing some proofs of his Cheshire Classis Minutes with the sinking of the Leinster in 1918.
This is an intriguing photograph of a venerable old clergyman, then in his 90th year, making his way to preach what was to be his last sermon. Who was there waiting with a camera? Who is the member of the congregation in bowler hat, carnation, white gloves and spats? Who had it printed and distributed? And which person – possibly a former student – had this copy which, judging by marks left by drawing pins, seems to have pinned it up in a place of honour?
We probably won’t ever know the answer to these particular questions but it is nice to have such a photograph, a link with our history.
And here is a picture of a more youthful (and hatless) Alexander Gordon, also carrying his distinctive signature: