James Martineau (1805 – 1900)

In Brief

James Martineau, philosopher and theologian, is best remembered for his views on religion based on reason and conscience. He wrote many books, perhaps the best well known is The Seat of Authority in Religion. He was first apprenticed as an engineer but very soon decided to train for the Unitarian ministry and entered Manchester College which was then at York. As a qualified Unitarian minister he started his ministry in Dublin, 1828, and married Helen Higginson in December, 1828. In the summer of 1832 he moved from Dublin to Liverpool where he was a great success. He was at one time President of the Philosophical Society and took a full part in Liverpool’s social life. He joined the staff of Manchester College in 1840, at the time of its return to Manchester. James was involved with Unitarian affairs nationally, e.g. the passage of the Dissenters’ Chapels Act, the opening of the universities to dissenters without doctrinal tests, and the decision to move Manchester College to London (associated with University College London) where in due course he became principal (1869-85) and president in 1887. James Martineau was a devoted family man, but no grandchildren were born. He died at the age of 95 in January 1900.

 In more detail

James was the seventh child and youngest son of Thomas, a textile merchant of Norwich Huguenot descent, and his wife Elizabeth Rankin, who came from Newcastle. He was thus kin of the Taylors, and through his mother, the Turners and Gaskells and other northern Unitarian families.

Harriet, three years older than James, made him her special care and together they read the Classics and anything else they could lay hands on, and sang a lot (mainly hymns). By the time James was seven, Rev Thomas Madge was minister at the Norwich Octagon. Rev Madge ‘had been brought up C of E, but having become convinced of the truth of Unitarianism, and believing this alone to be the genuine gospel of Christ, he thought it his duty to proclaim it with greater distinctness than had hitherto been the practice at Norwich, thereby causing some secessions, and imparting to the congregation greater uniformity of theological colour’.

James himself recollected ‘some of my first awakenings of conscience and of spiritual faith came to me in the tones of that sweet voice’ – an influence which was confirmed when Rev Madge came to supper at the Martineaus every Sunday after evening service.

Young James was therefore in at the beginning of Norwich Unitarianism. At Harriet’s suggestion he was sent to Dr Carpenter’s famous school in Bristol and, like her, was very happy there. Both became lifelong friends of the Carpenters. James, already well grounded in the Classics, showed aptitude also for mathematics and physics as well as languages, and decided to become an engineer.

He went to Derby as an apprentice and naturally lodged with the Unitarian minister, Rev E Higginson. But the engineering was limited and instruction poor; James did not much like the Higginsons but soon fell in love with the eldest daughter; and to get away from this difficult environment he spent as much time as possible with his Newcastle cousin Catherine Rankin and her husband, Henry Turner, now a young minister at Nottingham, who became his hero. Henry soon became ill and died, and it was during his funeral sermon, by Rev Charles Wellbeloved, that ‘the scales fell from [James’s] eyes…the religious part of his life first commenced’ and he decided to train for the Unitarian ministry. His father agreed to forfeit the premium paid for his apprenticeship, and also to supply the limited funds needed for his theological training.

Though unofficially engaged to Helen Higginson, there could be no question of marriage as her father forbade any contact between them. Manchester College was then at York, and here James threw himself into his training and student activities (including athletics). His tutors included Wellbeloved, Turner and Kenrick, and his fellow-students were Tagart, Higginson, Gaskell, Bache (all of whom James was then or later connected by marriage) and Harriet’s fiancé, John Worthington, and many other congenial spirits.

During vacations at home he was Harriet’s close confidant; he encouraged her first literary efforts and they went on a long tour of Scotland together in 1824 which was however clouded by the death of their beloved eldest brother Thomas. Within the next five years their father’s textile business failed, their father died and the family home was sold. From now on James needed to supplement his earnings as a preacher by teaching, both formally and with private pupils – luckily he was a born teacher.