I probably first came across the Unitarian Van Mission in the late Professor R.K. Webb’s masterful survey of ‘The Unitarian Background’ in the 1986 volume Truth Liberty Religion. Essays celebrating Two Hundred Years of Manchester College (edited by Barbara Smith). However, the end of his chapter takes on a very negative tone where he describes “precipitous decline” being caused by the “attenuation and fragmentation of Unitarian doctrine”. In this context he mentions “the touching Van Mission that wended its slow way through the country in the years after 1906”.
This really is a slightly patronising view of the Van Mission and, of course, is not really fair. From the perspective of the late twentieth century anything that relied on horse drawn power could be regarded as touching and slow. But in 1906 people would not regard such a mission in any such way.
It is clear from the response to my previous post that there is a great deal of latent interest in the Unitarian Van Mission. It is also the case that there is the material for a serious research project on it. John Roberts’ useful investigation into the Van Mission in the 1978 Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society is just about the only thing that has been written on it since the First World War. I don’t have much else to hand that can shed light on the Van Mission but the one thing I do have is the special centenary edition of the Christian Life from 1913 – a single issue of that magazine that never fails to provide something of interest.
It was published to mark the centenary of the Trinity Act and includes a vast amount of material. One of the shorter sections – only about half a page – is that on the Unitarian Van Mission written by the Rev T.P. Spedding and accompanied by five fascinating, if frustratingly small, images. The article is, like almost everything in that issue, quite relentlessly positive and upbeat. In part this reflects the celebratory nature of that publication but it also reflects the underlying truth – they were positive, things were going well, they didn’t know the world stood on the brink of a brutal world war, and they had every reason to feel that in religious terms their ideas, if not all-conquering, were at least gaining a positive reception and winning ground.
T.P. Spedding writes how the number of vans had increased to four thanks to donations by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, Cuthbert C. and John R. Grundy, and John Harrison. (John Roberts suggests that in the end there were six vans on the road.) But if T.P. Spedding’s statistics are accurate it had been an extraordinarily active movement:
The mission has now held over three thousand meetings, gathered nine hundred and fifty thousand people, reached half as many more in one way or another, and indirectly had to do with the holding of hundreds of outdoor meetings, chiefly conducted by ministers who are familiar with Van methods. We have distributed a million and a-half of pamphlets and leaflets, sold hundreds of books, kept in touch with correspondents all over the land, maintained a free lending library, found out lonely Unitarians, added members to the churches, tested likely and unlikely seed-plots for district societies…
Three thousand outdoor meetings in about seven years! Even with modern media gathering 950,00 people online would be something that any church publicity movement would be very proud of.
Its clear that the Mission didn’t just go into uncharted territory but also went to places where it supplemented an already established witness. It also faced competition from many other churches that were doing something similar and opposition from some who, T.P. Spedding seems to suggest, may have had this purpose in their design.
Nothing I have yet seen explains the logistics of operating the Mission – presumably horses were hired or loaned wherever they were needed by the local people. There must have been a lot of careful organisation behind its running. But there are records in various places that will repay careful examination and a fuller picture can be built up of the Mission’s operation.
The pictures in Christian Life are small and are not terribly well reproduced. The best picture of the Mission in operation is still the one I reproduced on this blog a few weeks ago. A lot of people have looked at it but we are still not able to identify the location. Both Len Smith and Rachel Eckersley are working hard on finding the spot, the presence of a number of named shops should be a help. It appears not to be Chesterfield, Northwich or Burslem which all had a branch of Scales and Sons. The town of Malton, which seemed a good possibility, can now be discounted, Len has discovered. Wrexham may be a possibility. But we still need to find the place where this interesting photograph was taken. If you have any suggestions please do send them in.