His brilliance and industry as a student enabled him to obtain funding from the College to complete his course. Just in time, Dr. Carpenter at Bristol needed a successor to head his school, and James was offered the job and eagerly accepted. He and Helen Higginson could now begin at least to discuss a ministry which would enable them to marry, and just in time again he was invited to Dublin, where Rev Philip Taylor needed an assistant. In September 1828, still only 23, he sailed for Dublin, found a house in which he could take six pupils, started his ministry and in December went to Derby to be married and bring his bride back to their first home. A year later a daughter was born who however died in infancy. Apart from this it was a happy time, but the congregation was small and James’s powers were underused. During this period he produced his first book, Hymns for Christian Worship.
After three years in this position, Dr. Taylor died and James was designated to succeed him. But this meant taking as part of his stipend the Regium Donum or Royal Bounty, an ancient form of state benefit which recognised the position of the Protestant church in a Catholic nation. This James felt unable to do. Moreover, since the money came to the congregation and not the minister, he gave them the congregation the choice of forgoing the money and retaining him, or keeping the money and finding another minister. The letter he wrote them is considered a masterpiece, but the congregation took it as a resignation.
Principles apart, leaving Ireland involved the loss not only of the stipend but of the income from the school and the capital James and Helen had invested in the house. It was imperative that he find another pulpit immediately. But some months passed, during which he attended his chapel as a member of the congregation, before he was invited to be a candidate in Liverpool, and in the summer of 1832 the family (wife, son and daughter) took up residence. He was a great success there, but he had to work very hard, e.g. 7am young men’s class twice a week; seven other classes 3 days a week 11-4.30 (three quarters of an hour for dinner); two Sunday classes; writing Priestley papers and chemical lectures for the Mechanics’ Institute; evening visits two or three times a week; Friday evenings preparation for Sunday: 10am lecture and 11 o’clock service, class for children; 4 o’clock class for senior girls, then boys; tea in the committee-room; evening service at 6.30.
After four years he started Tuesday evening discussion meetings, and once a month organized a Thursday evening open house for young people. He also accepted the presidency of the Philosophical Society and took a full part in Liverpool’s social life. In his spare time he taught his own children languages, science and music. He did however have good holidays in Britain and abroad. It was a prosperous period for the family – there were now four children, and three more arrived in Liverpool.
Two clouds were looming, however: one was the declining health, and in 1846 the death, of a 10 year-old son. The other was James’ worsening relationship with Harriet, who had been pursuing her own literary career and had achieved fame in political circles. Setting out for Europe, she was taken ill and James had to arrange to bring her home.
During four years of self- imposed seclusion, unceasing pain and constant writing at Tynemouth, near their eldest sister and her doctor husband in Newcastle (who had pronounced Harriet’s illness incurable) a coolness sprang up. The first reason was Harriet’s attitude to correspondence; she asked that all personal letters should be destroyed as soon as they were received and regarded their preservation as a breach of confidence. James could not agree, regarding letters as keepsakes to be treasured.
As a result, subsequent letters from Harriet became ‘short, summary and dictatorial…and betrayed a sharp impatience which gave notice that any exchange of ideas was useless and that the condition of happy intercourse must be the suppression of all serious dissent from her judgments.’
Then, in 1844 Harriet was persuaded to try Mesmerism as a cure, and to everyone’s surprise found it successful. She was soon able to travel again, set about building a house in Ambleside, and wrote consistently on a range of topics.
She eventually published, in the form of Letters on the Law of Man’s Nature and Development the account of her cure and her atheistic opinions, and of her collaborator, James Atkinson, on Man, Nature and God. Several members of the family were horrified, James among them. He felt obliged to write a scathing criticism of the book; and Harriet never spoke to him again. In later life James regretted his uncharacteristic hastiness, declaring his love for his sister unchanged, and tried to rationalise his reactions. One suspects that he was outraged less by Harriet’s desertion of the simple Christian piety which was their joint heritage than by the suspicion (which others also assumed) that Harriet was in love with Atkinson who had supplanted James as hero in Harriet’s eyes.