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.

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.

Meanwhile, James’s prowess as a lecturer had become well known. He was on the staff of the College, now returned to Manchester, which meant regular commuting between Manchester and Liverpool. He took his now nearly grownup family to Germany for a year’s tour while a new chapel was being built at Hope Street, Liverpool. It was opened on his return in October 1849, withhis old mentor Thomas Madge as preacher. James was now at the height of his powers and his life was inextricably involved with Unitarian affairs nationally – the Dissenters’ Chapels Act, the opening of the universities to dissenters without doctrinal tests, and the decision to remove Manchester College to London (associated with UCL) where in due course he became principal 1869-85, and president 1887.

James, though always calling himself a Unitarian, would never allow his congregation to be called so, insisting that they were individual thinkers agreeing only on the Universality of God. He hated controversy, above all about religion, regarding it as the antithesis of Christ’s teaching. What could be more absurd therefore, when proposed for the Chair of Philosophy at UCL in 1866, that he was defeated by those who felt it “inconsistent with the [college’s] principle of complete religious neutrality… to appoint …a candidate eminent as a minister and preacher of one among the various sects which divide the religious world”.

James was a devoted family man, and as soon as he could afford to do so, he took them all (including in due course two daughters-in-law and a son-in-law) on holiday in Scotland, where a house near Aviemore became an annual base. From here they would meet him on return from his prodigious walks; in the evenings the Spinnies (as the 3 spinster daughters called themselves) would copy out his writings, and observe as he reached his 90s ‘how much more he notices outside things…the flowers, trees etc.’ than when he had been immersed in his studies. No grandchildren were born, but his genius for friendship bore fruit in the love of the many friends, young and old, who visited and maintained detailed and affectionate correspondence with him until his death at the age of 95 in January 1900.