This latest issue of Faith and Freedom has a special cover. Taken from the above photograph by Márkó László it shows a scene from a Thanksgiving celebration at the Unitarian congregation in Oklánd, Hargita county, in Transylvania. This is a first for Faith and Freedom and ties in with a number of reviews in the Autumn and Winter 2015 issue which deal with the faith and practice of the Hungarian-speaking Unitarian churches in Romania. Márkó László’s photographs very effectively capture something of the cultural identity of the Unitarian folk there as well as their deeply held faith. There are more of his pictures in the 2016 Calendar.
Once again Faith and Freedom itself contains illustrations this time with a portrait of founding editor Eric Shirvell Price found inside and a photograph of the Rev Percival Godding, whose account of his time as a prisoner of war during the First World War also features.
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In my previous post about Rev Porter Orr I mentioned St Thomas’ Unitarian Chapel in Ringwood, Hampshire. This particular meeting house (which closed in the mid-1970s) had the rare designation for a Unitarian chapel of being dedicated to (or at least named after) a saint. This is not unique – by far the most famous Unitarian church named after a saint is St Mark’s in Edinburgh – but it is worth giving some consideration to.
Victorian Unitarian church builders could often be quite keen on saints, of course. In the era of gothic rebuilding in the nineteenth century decorative windows featuring Burne Jones saints were often inserted, as the above view of the chancel of Ullet Road Church shows.
Most Unitarian churches get very dull names, they usually get called after the street they are situated on or the district they are in although sometimes more interesting terminology can be applied such as ‘Great Meeting’ or ‘New Meeting’ (or indeed ‘Old Chapel’). What they tend not to be is named after saints.
That is not to say that Unitarians couldn’t be creative – and also very orthodox – in their church names when they wanted to be. A quick trawl through the invaluable Vestiges of Protestant Dissent published by George Eyre Evans in 1897 (which contains a list of all the Unitarian congregations at that time) reveals no less than eight congregations called ‘Christ Church’ ( I think Bridgwater may be the only survivor of this group). Not mentioned in Vestiges are most of the three churches that I can think of called ‘All Souls’’. This designation probably comes from a slightly later period (All Souls’, Belfast had just been built in 1896) and although to outsiders this probably comes across as a very high Anglican name it is really a more typically Unitarian name in the twentieth century than Christ Church, although the use of this name in England, at least, has ceased I think.
Other popular nineteenth-century Unitarian names (none of them still in use so far as I know) were ‘Church of the Saviour’, which was used by three congregations, and the ‘Church of the Messiah’ and the ‘Church of our Father’ which each had a single use. More overtly Unitarian names were ‘Unity’, which had five takers in 1897 some of them still continuing today, and one ‘Church of the Divine Unity’.
What Unitarians have tended not to do is name churches after individuals –saints in the sense of the people of God – but there are three examples of this that I can think of – Matthew Henry, John Pounds and Edmund Kell, who all have their congregational memorials.
Methodist Unitarians were very keen on Biblical names for their churches – ‘Bethlehem’ and ‘Nazareth’ being the best-known examples of this. In Vestiges there is also one obscure ‘Salem’ founded as a break away from Calvinistic Baptists in King’s Lynn in 1811.
But naming a Unitarian church after a saint is something that does raise questions. How and why did the congregation select that saint? Which saint of that name did they actually mean? Was there ever any suggestion of the congregation being directly inspired by that saint?
It is often thought that St Mark’s Church is a unique example of the naming of a Unitarian church after a saint but clearly that is not so. What is curious about Ringwood is that the chapel (which is now an interpretative centre for local history) was built in 1727 but only started using the name of St Thomas some time in the first half of the nineteenth century. Why this was so is anybody’s guess. The name was certainly used for a long time, the Rev John Midgely has found instances of it being used in advertisements in the Inquirer in the 1930s, although it seems to have been dropped before it closed in 1975. What is different about St Mark’s in Edinburgh is that this was the name chosen at the time of its building in 1835 and in use ever since. The Rev Andrew Hill has suggested that no one knows why the name was chosen, but presumably the gospel writer was regarded with favour by the Edinburgh people.
But, according to the Vestiges, there was another chapel that took the name of a saint. This was St Michael’s Chapel in Selby. This congregation dated from 1672 and built a new chapel in 1699 which G.E. Evans suggests was called St Michael’s from the start. This seems unlikely in 1699 but the name was definitely in use for a long time and was transferred to the modest new building that was finally opened in 1903 (following some years in a temporary building from 1886). The congregation closed in 1968 according to The Unitarian Heritage and the building passed into other uses, although it still seems to stand.
So there we have the three Unitarian churches named after saints. There were quite a number of churches built on streets with saints’ names – St Nicholas’ Street etc – and there are a few examples of Unitarian chapels later being consecrated by the Church of England and being given a saint’s name. But these are the only three that are definitely named after saints. Can anyone shed any further light on them? It would be interesting to hear any accounts of either St Thomas’ or St Michael’s or indeed of any other saintly churches. In the meantime we have a Unitarian trinity – St Mark, St Thomas and St Michael.
With regard to St Michael’s Chapel, Selby the Rev Andrew Hill has sent the following interesting information:
“The congregation at Selby traces its origin to the visit of a puritan preacher, Noah Ward, from York, in the year 1660. As an itinerant minister he continued to make frequent visits to Selby down to the time of his death, which occurred in 1699. It is said that in honour of the memory of this preacher St. Michael’s Chapel was built in that same year by a gentleman of the name of Barstow. It seems to have owed its name to the fact that one of the Christian names of the said gentleman was Michael, whose good deed it was thought would be perpetuated by calling the place after Michael the archangel. After the death of Mr. Barstow the Chapel was given in trust by his widow, Alice Barstow. contemporary with the Barstow family there were two other families of similar social standing who were associated with the Chapel; these were the Bacons and the Morritts. Beatrix Bacon, wife of Christopher Bacon, bequeathed the land near the town, from which a portion of the minister’s stipend is still paid. A silver Communion Cup is still preserved, on which is engraved: “The Gift of Beatrix Bacon to the Selby Chapel.” The first minister was John Troviss; who was followed by a John Hodgson, and on the removal of the latter to Lincoln, a Mr. Foljamb took his place. From this date until nearly the end of 1886, when worship in the old Chapel ceased on account of its dilapidated state, there were eight ministers of whom Thomas Smith was the first and J. M. Pilkington the last. The new chapel, which is of red brick and on the old site, has been erected to an approximate cost of £400, including the interior fittings, and has accommodation for 125 It was opened on September 24th, 1903, the Rev. Ceredig Jones, M.A., of Bradford, preaching on the occasion. the present minister is the Rev. John Dale.” From: The Unitarian Chapels of Yorkshire.
Does anyone remember the chapel built in 1903? Dare one ask is the silver communion cup still preserved today?
In two recent articles [in the April 2015 issue of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society and the June 2015 issue of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine] I have written about the Rev John Orr (1829-1896) a scholarly and successful minister in nineteenth-century Ireland whose career took a strange and unexpected turn when he emigrated to the United States in 1879. Whatever the intention of his move to New England his career didn’t flourish on the other side of the Atlantic and by the time of his death he was little remembered in his homeland. This is a pity because he was an important figure in his own day whose two major published works won plaudits and whose ministry at Comber, co. Down helped to establish and grow a fairly new congregation. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he had been almost forgotten since leaving Comber for Cambridge, Massachusetts in June 1879, although the first step towards raising his profile probably came with the publication of the Thoemmes Dictionary of Irish Philosophers in 2004 in which I co-wrote the entry on him with Professor M.A. Stewart.
But following my article on John Orr in the 2015 Transactions the second article in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian is as much about his family background – as both the son and the brother of Non-Subscribing Presbyterian ministers he was part of a notable dynasty – and this also deserves to be noticed.
His father, Alexander, was born in about the year 1798 and grew up in the Moneyreagh congregation. Alexander’s friend the Rev S.C. Nelson of Downpatrick reported of his background that:
there he was brought up under the guidance and auspices of that foremost champion of Unitarian Christianity, that true and consistent representative of the earnest loving spirit of the pure and living faith of the Gospel – the buoyant, persevering, and self-sacrificing Fletcher Blakely.
This input, together, no doubt, with his education at Moses Neilson’s Rademon Academy, (supplemented by time at Glasgow University and the Belfast Academical Institution) led him to incline towards the non-subscribers by the time of the second subscription controversy. Alexander Orr was already minister of Second Anaghlone by this time but although his sympathies were with Henry Montgomery and his followers he and his congregation did not join the Remonstrant Synod in 1829 and he waited until 1838 before joining them when he became minister of Ballyhemlin. Here he kept a classical school and remained as minister until his death in 1869.
This provides the background for the ministry of his son, the Rev John Orr who was both minister at Comber and, from 1866, Professor of Church History, Pastoral Theology and Moral Philosophy for his denomination. If you want to read about him, his publications, his ideas, his importance, and his mysterious emigration to the USA at the age of 50 then the full story can be found in my article ‘Rev John Orr of Comber, county Down and Cambridge, Massachusetts’ in the April 2015 issue of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, but I will attempt now to place him in the context of his family.
Alexander married Nancy Porter and all three of their children (at least those that we know about) were born while he was minister at Anaghlone. Unfortunately no baptismal register survives for that congregation so we can’t check for additional siblings and we don’t have accurate dates of birth for two of the three brothers. The eldest son, however, was named Porter Orr and must have been born in about 1826 and he was the first to follow his father into the ministry.
Like his father, and his brother John, Porter Orr trained for the ministry at the Belfast Academical Institution. College records at the time are not complete, however, and although we know that his time as a student overlapped with John Orr we don’t know so much about his time there. At the end of his time as a Remonstrant student he became part of the export of ministers produced by the non-subscribers. Training ministers to a high standard there was a surplus of potential ministers over vacancies and a number of students took up pulpits at churches in England. After being licensed by the Presbytery of Bangor Porter Orr accepted a call to the Unitarian church at Ringwood in Hampshire in 1845. With its origins in the seventeenth century the meeting house, then known as St Thomas’ Chapel, was built in 1728. Porter Orr stayed here for five years before accepting a call to Strabane and returned to Ireland in 1850.
As a new congregation Strabane was part of the fruit of the quite committed and successful missionary effort of the Remonstrant Synod and one of the few congregations to be founded west of the Bann. Porter Orr was the third minister of the congregation and had succeeded his brother John who had been minister there from March 1848 to May 1850.
Recently a portrait has come to light of a minister painted in about 1850. Generously donated to the Comber Church by a direct descendant of John Orr this shows a youngish man in the clerical attire of the mid-nineteenth century. It is undated and has been reframed in modern times, when someone has written on the back the name Thomas Porter Orr. I think we can fairly confidently assume that this is a portrait of the Rev Porter Orr. It is only small in size, the books in the portrait cannot be identified, but its provenance in the Orr family and the fact that it is certainly a clergyman would suggest – to me at least – that Thomas Porter Orr and the Rev Porter Orr were one and the same person. The portrait could have been made in Ringwood or Strabane, we can’t know for sure, but it is a charming and touching memento of a life that was cut short. Porter Orr resigned his charge on 30th January 1855, he died less than two weeks later on 12th February.
The congregation of Strabane did not last much longer, Porter Orr was the last minister and the congregation effectively ceased in 1857. But it was important to the Orrs and the denomination. John Orr was there long enough to meet his wife – Sarah Jane Porter – the daughter of James Porter, one of the founders of the Strabane congregation, and they married in October 1851. Sarah Jane’s sister, Catherine, married the Rev David Maginnis, another prominent minister in the last half of the century, in 1845.
Of his brother John Orr we can say that he was one of the outstanding intellects of his generation of ministers within the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches, but despite his highly successful ministerial and academic careers, along with David Maginnis, his brother in law, he often found himself at the centre of the increasingly strident infighting that bedevilled the non-subscribers at the time, although he was held in high regard by his colleagues, especially those who shared his radical theological views.
What impelled Orr to leave for America? Was it a sense of bereavement following the death of his first wife at the age of 42 in 1865? Or was it some sense of unfulfilled ambition? Or a sense of dissatisfaction with his denomination? Or had some issue arisen in Comber that meant he should depart? Again we will never know exactly. But we know quite a lot about what he did in America, the introductions he had and the aims he carried with him across the Atlantic. We know also that he died on 19th August 1896 and was buried in Mount Auburn cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. His second son Alexander, who was a journalist, joined him in the Boston area but predeceased him in 1891 aged 35 and was buried in the same cemetery. His youngest daughter lived in Boston until 1960 when she died and was buried in the same plot as her father. What became of his second wife Agnes is not known. Most of the rest of the family are commemorated on the imposing memorial in the graveyard in Comber.
I have sometimes been tempted to write a blog or a column entitled ‘The things I buy on eBay’. I have picked up lots of pieces of ephemera at very low cost on eBay which while certainly bearing very little intrinsic value and generally falling into the category of junk nevertheless have some historical interest.
The photograph above is a good example of this. It cost just 99p (which I suppose is actually quite a lot for a single, slightly blurry print) but it shows the very end of Hope Street Unitarian Church in Liverpool. Taken in 1962, probably by someone who habitually recorded views of buildings which he thought might one day be interesting, it catches the tower in the final stage of demolition. Somewhere under the rubble was a brass plate and a “hermetically sealed vase” containing a list of members, ground plans of the old and new chapels, a report of the congregation’s school, a plan of Liverpool, a print of the Dissenters’ Chapels Act, an engraved portrait of the minister and all the local papers from the week before the laying of the foundation stone on 9th May 1848. It was a sad end to a building that was opened for worship in 1849 and which occupied a prominent place in the city. Indeed it seems a shame that such a site, midway between the two cathedrals, could not have been saved for future use. It would be a great site today with enormous potential. But it is easy to be wise after the event, the world must have looked quite different to what was presumably a small and discouraged congregation by the early 1960s.
Hope Street had certainly known rather more glorious days. Built by James Martineau’s congregation to provide a place of worship that suited his style and popularity it was a thorough-going gothic construction that reflected his devotional approach. The classic image of it is this one:
Its relationship to the next-door Philharmonic Hall can be seen from this Edwardian postcard. The original Philharmonic burnt down in the 1930s and was replaced by the present building in 1939. In the picture the classical church opposite, the corner of which can just be seen on the right of the postcard, was the Church for the Blind, attached to the Liverpool School for the Blind which was situated on Hardman Street.
Nothing really remains of Hope Street Church today. Photographs of the interior are intriguing. This scan isn’t great but it shows the view looking towards the pulpit, the chancel and the font.
After James Martineau and before the First World War the congregation had some high profile ministers including Charles Wicksteed, Alexander Gordon and Richard Acland Armstrong. The 1920s saw a revival of fortunes under the radical ministry of Stanley A. Mellor who mixed an advanced theology with Socialist ideas. But the crowds that came out to hear him did not last and by the time of the eccentric ministry of the highly scholarly Sidney Spencer the numbers were starting to reduce.
In the Winter 2008/9 of the Merseyside District Unitarian Newsletter The Honourable Dr Frank Paterson, a former member of Hope Street and a very distinguished circuit judge who died in 2014, wrote his reminiscences of the Church. They are a fascinating and rare account of the congregation in the twentieth century. I place them here with due acknowledgment to the MDMA Newsletter:
I reflect with pleasure on my childhood and early manhood, when I frequently accompanied my father to the morning and evening services. He had a wide interest in almost every religious creed. In latter years he reminded me of a character in Shaw’s Major Barbara who declared that he had studied several religions and found that he would be perfectly at home in any one of them. Having been born into a Scots Presbyterian household, he was attracted by the preaching of Dr Charles Aked, the charismatic minister of the then Pembroke Baptist Chapel in Liverpool, where he met my mother, whom he married in 1911. After the departure of Dr Aked for the United States (to what was known as ‘The Millionaires’ Church’ on 5th Avenue), my parents transferred their allegiance to Hope Street Unitarian Church to enjoy the benefits of the preaching of the Reverend Stanley Mellor. Following his death, they continued to attend Hope Street church throughout the ministry of the Reverend Sidney Spencer, I do not think my mother took any interest in the details of religious faiths, but was content to fulfil what she regarded as a spiritual duty by attendance at a church on a Sunday. It is perhaps not surprising that the idea of a free religious faith always appealed to me. It gave me great pleasure to follow in my father’s footsteps as chairman of the Hope Street Committee, which awakened in me the desire to enter a calling where I could participate in the cut and thrust of debate, and to promote harmony where there has been discord.
It has therefore been a source of satisfaction to me to find that Hope Street had its origins on the site of what is now The Queen Elizabeth II Law Courts, where I have spent the greater part of my professional life. When the buildings were opened by Queen Elizabeth II, I happened to be one of the longest standing circuit judges of the court and had the honour of being presented to Her Majesty. Whilst waiting for the ceremony I was placed in a line of those about to be presented immediately between the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool on one side and the Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool on the other. I regret I didn’t have the courage or the time to remind these prelates that I felt like the wonderful white church that once stood half way between the Anglican and Catholic cathedrals in Hope Street.
When I was a child services at Hope Street were almost as well attended as the Hope Hall Cinema (now the Everyman Theatre) down the road, and in order to secure two seats together my father was obliged to apply to the Church Secretary, Mr William Letcher. There was an interval of several weeks before a reply was received notifying my father that two places had been reserved for himself and my mother, and on the following Sunday they were met in the vestibule by Mr Letcher to be escorted past the queue waiting to be seated and down the aisle to a pew four rows from the front, on the back of which was a card bearing their names. This remained what we regarded as our family pew until the church was demolished several decades later. William Letcher remains in my memory as a formidable figure, well-suited to the task of controlling the crowds at Hope Street. He was, I believe, employed by one of Liverpool’s principle banks, in charge of the Stationary Department. As a small boy he appeared to me as a person of enormous power and influence. Whatever it meant for the Trinity to be present in one person, it seemed to me that person might as well be Mr William Letcher. He was highly thought of, and in due course enjoyed the distinction of becoming the subject of a light-hearted song, composed by my father and another member of the congregation, which recommended a variety of facetious changes to forms of worship, each one punctuated by the refrain: “But Will `e Letch `ya?” The authors sang it at a Christmas party.
Another innovation of my father’s as Chairman was the collection of “bun pennies`”. These were coins dating from the early days of the reign of Queen Victoria on which the monarch’s head appeared with hair drawn back in a bun, still current in the inter-war years but invariably worn very smooth. My father encouraged members of the congregation to deposit any they found in their possession in a wooden casket he had placed on the window-ledge of the church vestibule, similar to those designed for holding ashes with an incision made in the top and inscribed with the words: “The Hope Street Church Ancient Victorian Secret Society”. To what objects the fund accumulated therein was applied remains uncertain to this day.
The only photograph of the church I recall seeing was taken by a photographer from the Liverpool Daily Post and showed the spire wrapped in smoke. It dated from an evening on which my father had had to move a Committee Meeting from the Library to the Church Hall, and eventually – very reluctantly – to adjourn with business unfinished, because the premises had become unbearably hot. The neighbouring Philharmonic Hall was on fire. My father had a print framed and hung in the church to illustrate the perils to which the members of the Committee were prepared to subject themselves in pursuance of their duties.
Hope Street Church also survived the blitz a few years later. It may be that the enemy found the white spire of that Unitarian stronghold a useful pointer to the Liverpool docks and to the Cammell Laird shipyards and it took care to spare it. Be that as it may, incendiary bombs were such a menace that the government required all males over a certain age to register for fire-watching duties. The minister of Hope Street, the Reverend Sidney Spencer, an ardent pacifist, had no hesitation in fire-watching at his own church or anywhere else, but objected to doing so under compulsion of the State. He refused to register. The magistrates fined him £10 which he steadfastly refused to pay. In due course, he was sent to prison for a term of 14 days. The minister (an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi) was adamant that he did not wish the fine to be paid, but after a few days the Committee felt that he had made his point, and that somehow the fine should be paid anonymously. It was decided that, as a law student with access via the Magistrates’ Entrance to the courts on Dale Street, the Chairman’s son was best able to make the payment without drawing attention to himself. This I did. The first clerk I approached hesitated: “But Mr Spencer has said he doesn’t want this fine paid. I don’t think I can take it.” “If anyone offers us money – we take it!” declared his senior. A few hours later, the Reverend Sidney Spencer was a free man.
My father reimbursed me, from what source I do not know. Possibly he unlocked the coffer of the Hope Street Church Ancient Victorian Secret Society!
In September of 2014 we launched – in fine style, it must be said, in the impressive surroundings of the Liverpool Athenaeum, thanks to Philip Waldron – the book Liverpool Unitarians: Faith and Action. Essays exploring the lives and contributions to society of notable figures in Liverpool Unitarian history. Published by the Merseyside District Missionary Association it should also be added that the District took to the role of publisher with great aplomb – not necessarily the most usual role for any church administrative body. The book is available in many book shops and museums in Liverpool as well as online from the District and via Amazon.
Liverpool Unitarians was a long time in preparation but I think is a better book for the extra time spent on its production. All the contributors have some connection with Merseyside Unitarianism and all write about different aspects of the contribution made by members of this household of faith to wider society over the centuries.
The full list of contributors and subjects is as follows:
Introduction, David Steers; Memorials of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth Park, Bernard Cliffe; Jeremiah Horrocks 1618 – 1641, Bernard Cliffe; William Roscoe 1753 – 1831, David Steers; A Short History of the Rathbone Family, Annette Butler; The Unitarian Family of George Holt, Bernard Cliffe; Noah Jones 1801 – 1861, Philip Waldron; James Martineau 1805 – 1900, Len W. Mooney; Joseph Blanco White 1775 – 1841, David Steers; Kitty Wilkinson 1786 – 1860, Daphne Roberts; John Johns 1801 – 1847, David Steers; William Henry Channing 1810 – 1884, Richard Merritt; Charles Pierre Melly 1829 – 1888, John Keggen; Sir Henry Tate 1819 – 1899, Richard Merritt; Sir John Brunner 1842 – 1919, Len W. Mooney; Lawrence Redfern 1888 – 1967, Elizabeth Alley; Sir Adrian Boult 1889 – 1983, Richard Merritt; The Visitors’ Book of the Ancient Chapel, Bernard Cliffe
It was particularly pleasing to see Len Mooney’s contributions published in the book in light of Len’s sad death just a few months later. Someone who had been a devoted member of Ullet Road Church for many decades Len was a thoughtful and wise person whose gifts shine through in his chapters published here.
The book has a full colour cover designed by Alison Steers which incorporates ‘The Triumph of Truth’, the central detail from the library ceiling of Ullet Road Church, painted by Gerald Moira; the Good Samaritan Window at Gateacre Chapel, which was erected in memory of Sir Henry Tate; a bronze representation of the James, (the ship on which Richard Mather and the local puritans sailed to Massachusetts in 1635) made in 1934 for the hall door at the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth; the front elevation of Ullet Road Church built in 1899; and detail of the Liverpool Town Plan of 1725 by J. Chadwick.
The book also contains more than fifty illustrations, many of them never before published, and all of them helping to tell the story of Liverpool Unitarianism. Some of the stories told in the book are well known, others are not so familiar to the general reader, yet others break entirely new ground – Bernard Cliffe’s analysis of the memorials and graves in the Ancient Chapel is a first, as is his examination of the chapel’s visitors’ book.
In the Introduction I say:
This book is not intended to be hagiography but it does try to outline how one group of people – members of a particular faith community with deep historical roots but with an aversion to fixed creeds – were inspired to serve their fellows in different ways. Their legacy can be seen all over the city – in its parks, in its monuments, in the university, in hospitals, in education, in art galleries and museums – and it exists in the long and continuing struggle to create a society that gives equality and opportunity to all its citizens. It is not meant to be an exhaustive account of all the eminent members of the churches and chapels in the region. Readers will notice that the names mentioned are part of wider connections of family and business which includes many others who could be included. There are other figures who could be the subject of such biographical accounts. But this is a selection of some of those who have followed the call of faith to be of service to wider society.
It is pleasing also to report positive reviews in various publications.
In Faith and Freedom Peter Godfrey says: a splendid book… chapters that are full of interest and fill the reader with admiration and often wonder at the scope of the achievements of these Liverpool Unitarians
and in The Inquirer Alan Ruston says:
readers of this book will come to the conclusion that Unitarianism has not been just a faith of the mind but one of action as well.
The title and full publication and order details are as follows:
Liverpool Unitarians Faith and ActionEssays exploring the lives and contributions to society of notable figures in Liverpool Unitarian history
Edited by Daphne Roberts and David Steers
Published by the Merseyside and District Missionary Association 2014 ISBN 978-0-9929031-0-7 Price £12.99 plus £2.50 post and packing 128 pages, 52 illustrations, full colour cover
Available from: Philip Waldron, Ullet Road Church, 57 Ullet Road, Sefton Park, Liverpool L17 2AA or email@example.com also available for purchase on Amazon
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:
When I was editor of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian I wrote a column entitled ‘Ponder Anew’ (and might still do from time to time – indeed my initial intention was to give this blog the same name but this proved not to be possible). Anyway I thought I would review some of those pieces and came across the following which was published in March 2011 and concerned the number of members of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland counted in the 2001 Census in Northern Ireland. The Census showed what is certainly an underestimate of the total numbers of Non-Subscribers by a large degree. Having looked at this piece I suddenly realised that I had not noticed what the 2011 Census itself actually recorded – happily the information is easily found. I will add a short appendix to the original article to make a comparison with 2001. But here is the slightly amended article from the March 2011 Non-Subscribing Presbyterian:
This year sees another Census. Every ten years the citizens of the United Kingdom are asked to provide a vast amount of information for the government’s use. At the last Census, for the first time, residents of England, Scotland and Wales were invited to disclose their religious affiliation. This revealed a large number of people (390,127 no less) who declared their religion as being Jedi…..However, a very curious result was thrown up in Northern Ireland in the most recent, 2001 Census, concerning this denomination which I have never seen referred to by anyone in our churches.
The 2001 Census reported that the total membership of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland was 1,233. That figure includes adults and children but obviously excludes those resident in the Republic. That means that only 1,233 people identified themselves as Non-Subscribers. This is a very small number and without doubt is a significant underestimate.First of all, we might ask, does it matter? Well, the Census figures are used, not unreasonably, by authors producing surveys of religious affiliation. Indeed, in a paper produced for the Irish Council of Churches Norman Richardson has said that the apparent drop in our numbers “indicates one of the most notable proportionate declines in comparison with the 1991 figures.”But secondly, is this true? Without doubt we can answer that question with a resounding ‘No’. Our own statistics for 2001 reveal 3,529 adult members and 511 Sunday School members making a total of 4,040, that is a full 228% higher than the official government figure. The Synod’s figure, with members in the Republic excluded, is largely made up of those who make a financial contribution to a church. Yet every minister knows that beyond the official list of members there is generally a large mass of individuals who at times will claim membership, famously described by the late Rev Robin Williamson as “those who neither pay nor pray”. Indeed in Northern Ireland it is said that of those who don’t go to church everyone knows which church they stay away from. This is reflected in much of the Census statistics where most denominations (unlike us) actually record higher figures in the government numbers than in their own records.But how then do we explain this enormous reverse discrepancy in our figures? Well part of it is explained by the 342 people who recorded themselves as Unitarians. If we add this figure to the 1,233 we get a total of 1,575. But this is still far less than half of our official and hardly exaggerated total. If my memory serves me right the Non-Subscribers/Unitarians appeared as a single category in 1991, although generally they had been separated out in previous years, this in itself being an interesting area of analysis. Another difference between 1991 and 2001 was the complete disappearance of the 152 people who declared themselves as Old Presbyterians in 1991 (certainly part of our group as well) by 2001.It may be that some of our members simply wrote Presbyterian (another separate category totalling 985) but it must be also true that a very large number of those who belong to our denomination chose not to answer the religious question. There is some evidence that this has been a long term practice. However, one person has suggested to me that the sudden drop in those declaring themselves as Non-Subscribing Presbyterians was caused simply by the lack of space on the form for the answer to the religious question. There may be something in this. The ‘big four’ denominations all had a tick box, while all others had to be written in, in a space with less characters than we have in the first two words of our name!However, whatever the reason, with the next Census due at the end of this month we all have the chance to declare our allegiance. If we all do that then on paper our numbers will enjoy a massive jump and we can produce a notable proportional increase this time. It will at least give the statisticians something to talk about.
So what was the result of the 2011 Census for Non-Subscribers? Well, it does not look good. Non-Subscribing Presbyterians numbered only 646 (down from 1,233). Unitarians numbered 265 (down from 342). Once again there were no Old Presbyterians at all and those who could be no more specific than stating ‘Presbyterian’ were up from 985 to 1,494. So adding the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians to the Unitarians this makes a total of 911. How does this compare with the denomination’s own statistics? With the numbers for those resident in the Republic of Ireland again removed the total number of adult members recorded in 2012 (which effectively means those counted in the same year as the Census) was 2,900 plus 373 children – a total of 3,273. Again, as in 2001, there is no reason for this figure to be inflated. Admittedly there may be some people who are members of more than one church and so are counted twice but they will be more than outweighed by those whose allegiance is only important when a rite of passage is suddenly required. It is a big drop from the 4,040 of 2001 but still a far greater total than the government statistic. The most recent numbers issued by the denomination in 2014 show numbers for adults and children (again excluding the numbers for the Republic) of 3,133 and 368 respectively, a total of 3,501. So numbers are actually going up. It is certainly my experience that some churches are growing. But what a curious statistical anomaly the Census provides.
The end of March saw the launch of this year’s Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society at the General Assembly held in the Birmingham Hilton Metropole Hotel. There was a good attendance at the meeting to see the first appearance of the issue hot off the press – a Festschrift published in honour of Alan Ruston who edited the journal for 25 years and has contributed a massive amount to the study of Unitarian History over the past fifty years. Alan has been the first port of call for a great many people across the decades – amateur historians, genealogists, writers of congregational histories and professional researchers and it was so fitting to present this special enlarged edition to him. At almost 190 pages it is probably the largest edition of the Transactions ever published; a bargain at £10 for all who join the Society.
The articles cover a wide variety of themes, places and personalities. This is a fitting tribute to Alan Ruston who has researched in so many historical areas over the years. Indeed the book contains a full list of all of Alan’s publications in a vast number of journals and magazines dating back to 1967 right up to the present day. Leonard Smith writes about five Unitarians who served in senior positions in the Navy around the time of the Battle of Trafalgar. Technically members of dissenting churches were not allowed to take commissions in the Royal Navy before 1828. Yet ways around this were found and Dr Smith outlines the careers of five distinguished Unitarians who served in ‘Nelson’s Navy’. To give just two examples these included Captain Edward Rotheram, who led a squadron at the Battle of Trafalgar and paced up and down the deck of his ship Royal Sovereign wearing a large cocked hat which he refused to remove even though it made him a target for French snipers. Following the death of Admiral Nelson he headed the procession of captains at the front of the funeral carriage to St Paul’s in London. In his career he not only faced dangers at sea but also a troubled relationship with some other officers – at one stage being accused of threatening his Anglican chaplain! Yet throughout all of this he would appear to have been a thoughtful and devout Unitarian, keeping a Commonplace Book that displays very clearly his theological sentiments. Another Unitarian naval officer was Captain Thomas Thrush, whose ship Pickle carried the news of Nelson’s victory to Falmouth. Unlike Captain Rotheram, however, Captain Thrush converted to Unitarianism after his naval service and then engaged in vigorous pamphleteering against prominent Anglicans. He also became a pacifist and resigned his commission, literally at great cost to himself.
Other articles include Professor G.M. Ditchfield writing on William Tayleur of Shrewsbury. Born into a wealthy Anglican family he converted himself to Unitarianism through his own reading and became a friend of Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley and a major supporter of all Unitarian endeavours towards the end of the eighteenth century. Professor Timothy Whelan discusses the ‘rational’ faith of Crabb Robinson, the famous diarist and writer, and the effect on his thinking of his friend Wilhelm Benecke a German manufacturer who came to live in London in 1813. Some of the articles are about institutions – David Wykes investigates the challenges at the start of the nineteenth century in maintaining suitable institutions to train students for the ministry after the closure of Hackney Academy and Horsey’s Academy in Northampton, particularly with regard to the position of poor students. Daniel Costley, recounts the fascinating and somewhat tragic life of the Rev Edward Hammond, the General Baptist minister of Bessels Green in Kent. Ann Peart examines the life of William Gaskell, minister of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester and a figure often overlooked and frequently in the shadow of his much more famous wife Elizabeth, the famous novelist. Andrew Hill tells the story of a controversial legal case that engulfed St Saviourgate Chapel in York in the 1890s which had important implications for the development of Unitarian thought and worship. I contribute an article on the Rev John Orr, the highly effective minister of the Comber NSP Church from 1850 to 1879, a member of a dynasty of ministers, a scholar of some repute who published at least two well regarded books in the 1850s and 1860s but who frequently found himself caught up in theological controversy. His career in county Down came to a sudden end in 1879 when he upped sticks and moved across the Atlantic for a new life in Massachusetts.
The meeting itself heard short papers by Daniel Costley, David Wykes and Ann Peart based on their articles in the Transactions as well as a paper by Ralph Waller on the early career of James Martineau. All four papers were very well received. Anyway it is good to see the issue published – a tribute to Alan Ruston.
These words of the Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu seem appropriate for the beginning of any new enterprise, they also tie in, for me personally, with the picture of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, a place which was very much a starting point for me. But the purpose of this blog will be to flag up things that interest me particularly in relation to the journals Faith and Freedom and the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, both of which I edit. Not that I intend to confine myself to either of those publications – anything that catches my eye will go in here – the blog will have a special remit towards faith, religious history and associated matters but it will by no means confine itself to matters of religion.