Preaching at the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Secularism of George Jacob Holyoake

Wrapping up a series of essays I have been reading from The British Journal for the History of Science, I now come to two interrelated and complimentary essays by Ciaran Toal, “Preaching at the British Association for the Advancement of Science: Sermons, Secularization and the Rhetoric of Conflict in the 1870s” (2012), and Michael Rectenwald, “Secularism and the Cultures of Nineteenth-century Scientific Naturalism” (2013).

Toal argues that there was a “vast homiletic literature preached during the British Association meetings throughout the nineteenth century, ” despite Reverend Vernon Harcourt’s—one of the founders of the BAAS—dedication to neutrality and admonition against any discussion of religion and politics. As Toal writes in another context (see his “Science, Religion, and the Geography of Speech at the British Association: William Henry Dallinger (1839-1909) Under the Microscope” [2013]), “concerned that the BAAS would become embroiled in theological disputes, and distracted from its mission of bringing science to the provinces, [Harcourt], along with the rest of the leadership, founded the Association as a ‘neutral’ body.”

However, the Sunday of the BAAS meeting, and the sermons preached on that day, constitutes an indelible part of its history. Toal’s essay “focuses on the range of sermons preached in connection with the British Association meetings in the 1870s,” and particular “attention is given to the differing views on the relationship between science and religion in the homiletic record, and the rhetoric of ‘science-religion conflict’ following John Tyndall’s 1874 ‘Belfast Address.'”

In an age often described as the “golden age of preaching,” sermons played an important role in the social and religious life of the Victorian. “Thomas Henry Huxley,” for example, “recognized the cultural power of the sermon, naming his own collection of essays, addresses and reviews ‘Lay Sermons.'”

The religious geography of nineteenth-century Britain often dictated what was preached during the British Association meeting. Although multifarious in style, content, proclamation, and instruction, the most important function of any sermon was the imparting of religious truth. In other words, sermons were didactic, especially those preached at the BAAS.

Sermons preached at the BAAS were responsive to the expectations and sensibilities of its audience. They were not your normal Sunday service, as Toal points out, for the preachers who preached on a Sunday of the BAAS “were aware that their discourses would be widely published and digested.”

Thus lines were often blurred between official BAAS business and associated religious activity. Broadly, sermons were either preached in the week preceding, the week during, or the week immediately following the visit of the BAAS to a host town or city, and directly addressing the prominent scientific issues under discussion.

Turning to the content of sermons and the varying views on the relationship between science and religion in them, Toal reiterates John Hedley Brooke’s warning that discussing science and religion in essentialist terms often obfuscate understanding by importing anachronistic boundaries. But he also argues that “many of the preachers did discuss science and religion in discrete terms, before commenting on how they were or were not related.” For example, a 1870 sermon by Rev. Abraham Hume preached the Connexion between Science and Religion: A Sermon Preached at Christ Church Kensington, Liverpool, 18th Septemberduring the Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Hume quoted from Psalm 100.24, 25 “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches. So is the great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable.” He used the passage to argue that God’s works in nature and God’s word in Scripture both reveal him and our allies. Even more explicit, Anglican Charles Coombe, in 1879, preached a sermon entitled ‘Sirs, Ye are Brethren;’ or Science and Religion at One: Sermon Preached in St. Paul’s Church, Sheffield, on the Occasion of the Meeting of the British Association, August 24th, where he argued against antagonism between science religion, and that both should stop “maligning, fighting and devouring” each other.

In general, according to Toal, three positions in the relationship between science and religion dominate the sermons preached throughout the 1870s. First, the relationship between science religion was underpinned by the idea that they were essentially separate entities. This is usually the position taken by liberal Anglicans and the Unitarians, who were more open to “speculative science.” Other Unitarians, such as itinerant preacher Charles Wicksteed, wanted to separate science and religion into spheres of physical and spiritual knowledge, “as they were different modes of God’s voices, and [thus] should not be judged against each other.” But a number of preachers also maintained that science and religion were integrated as inextricably linked forms of knowledge. Those who took this position often preached that science and its conclusions had to be limited by religion: “relation is crucial, as it could provide a fuller interpretation of nature and, more importantly, offer salvation for nature could not.” Those who took up this position often expressed the views that physical and experimental science, and especially the theories of Darwin, sought to destroy religion. They were also the fiercest critics of Tyndall.

With these “positional readings” in mind, Toal turns specifically to the conflict rhetoric before and after Tyndall’s Belfast Address in 1874. According to Toal, before Tyndall’s attack, preachers explained any science-religion antagonism as a result of either human error, inept theology, over eagerness, a lack of full knowledge of both science and religion, or inattention to the “varieties of God’s voices.” After the Belfast Address, the tone of sermons changes, and, importantly, preachers began leveling “accusation for promoting science-religion conflict at a distinct group, or groups, particularly the scientific naturalists.”

But these accusations had little effect on the reputation of the BAAS. According to Toal, throughout the sermon record in the 1870s, in the context of hostility to religion, the BAAS was without exception received favorably; that is, little criticism is ever directed at the BAAS as a body. This demonstrates, according to Toal, that preachers deliberately differentiated between the BAAS and the antagonistic statements of some of its members. This shows that the responsibility for propagating antagonistic science-religion is rhetoric was identified with a particular group, often labeled as “dogmatic scientists,” “materialists,” “atheists,” or “unbelievers,”and not with the BAAS as a whole. In short, the BAAS was seen, broadly, as an institution favorable to religion and religious groups.

Toal concludes his essay with a note on how “the explanatory power of a ‘secularization thesis’ is diminished in the context of the vast number of Sunday sermons preached at the [BAAS].” “Victorian culture,” he adds, “was arguably no less religious in 1870s than it had been before…[and], similarly, many Victorian scientists were no less religious.”

George Jacob HolyoakeRectenwald’s essay nicely compliments Toal’s, in which he argues that in the mid-1840s, a philosophical, social and political movement named Secularism evolved from the radical tradition of Thomas Paine, Richard Carlile, Robert Owen and the radical periodical press. George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) founded and named Secularism at mid-century, and it was this Secularism that acted as a “significant source for the emerging new creed of scientific naturalism in the mid-nineteenth century.”

Rectenwald writes, “Secularism drew from the social base of artisan intellectuals who came of age in the era of self-improvement; the diffusion of knowledge; and agitation for social, political and economic reform—but it also enrolled the support of middle-class radicals.” Holyoake developed secularism as a creed with a naturalistic epistemology, morality, and politics; its principle as an ontological demarcation stratagem, “dividing the metaphysical, spiritual or eternal from ‘this life’—the material, the worldly or the temporal.” But Holyoake’s secularism did not require atheism as a prerequisite; “secularism represented ‘unknowingness without denial.” As Rectenwald puts it, “one’s beliefs in the supernatural were a matter of speculation or opinion to which one was entitled, unless such beliefs precluded positive knowledge or action.” And unlike Charles Bradlaugh’s (1833-1891) politically active atheism, Holyoake’s secularism was not aimed at “abolishing religious ideology from law, education and government.” In short, “secularism represented the necessary conciliation with respectable middle-class unbelief and liberal theology that would allow for an association with the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall and Spencer,” and as such it was “constitutive of the cultural and intellectual environment necessary for the promotion and relative success of scientific naturalism beginning in the 1850s.”

There was indeed a “circuit of exchanges” between Holyoake and the scientific naturalists, suggesting that secularism was important to scientific naturalism from the outset. Rectenwald gives us fascinating overview of secularism in the periodicals, pamphlets, and other publications with which Holyoake was associated with in the mid-century. Freethought periodicals such as Oracle of Reason—with its epigraph on the front of every issue, “Faith’s empire is the World, its monarch God, its minister the priests, its slaves the people”—Movement and Anti-persecution Gazette, The Investigator, and the Free Thinkers’ Information for the People were founded in the 1840s and “began as working-class productions aimed at working-class readers.” The Oracle of Reason proudly boasted that it was “the only exclusively atheistical print that has appeared in any age or country.”

When Holyoake took over many of these radical publications, he opened the pages to “respectable” radicals, such as Herbert Spencer and Auguste Comte, forming an alliance between radical artisans and middle-class unbelievers. As many historians have shown, Lamarck’s theory of evolution was taken up by various radical political thinkers, which seemed to provide scientific underpinning for their reformist political views. Rectenwald recounts how “evolutionary ideas were marshaled to counter a static, hierarchical, theocratic social order with a vision of a transformative, ‘uprising’ nature” in the pages of the radical press, particularly under Holyoake’s editorship.

In late 1849 Holyoake joined the radical journalist Thornton Hunt’s (1810-1873) group, Confidential Combination, with the vision of enlisting “wary middle-class freethinkers into an anonymous groups where they might voice advanced opinion on ‘politics, sociology, or religion’ without fear of reprisal.” According to Rectenwald, this group “no doubt included…Herbert Spencer, W. Savage Landor, W.J. Linton, W.E. Forster, T. Ballatine and George Hooper,” all of whom contributed to the radical press. In their meetings, Holyoake regularly met with Spencer, becoming “lifelong friends, with regular correspondence continuing to 1894.”

This same circle of London writers often met at the publishing of John Chapman, the publisher of the Westminster Review, “the organ of philosophical radicalism.” The gatherings consisted of contributors George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), Spencer, Harriet Martineau, Charles Bray, George Combe and Thomas Henry Huxley. It was through Martineau and Eliot that Holyoake “came to know Comte’s ideas” in the Positive Philosophy. It was also here where Holyoake began a friendship with Huxley.

In the early 1860s, Holyoake “regularly corresponded with Spencer, Huxley and Tyndall.” According to Rectenwald, “the letters covered numerous issues, including polemics against religious interlocutors, the mutual promotion of literature, the naturalists’ financial and written support for Secularism and Secularists and health, amongst other topics.” And when Huxley sought to dissociate himself from materialism and coarse atheism, his association with Holyoake’s secularism offered  a “respectable” alternative. Tyndall also once extolled Holyoake as an exemplar of secular morality. This correspondence was not merely professional, but, as Rectenwald points out, quite personal, as when each man supported, morally and financially, the other during certain illnesses.

Rectenwald demonstrates, by careful readings of a vast array of radical publications and personal correspondence, “the importance of freethought radicalism to the emergence of the powerful discourse of scientific naturalism” in the second half of the nineteenth century. Holyoake in particular “modified freethought by pruning its atheistic rhetoric, allowing freethinkers to discount the supernatural and to disavow the clergy in matter relating to knowledge and morals, without the expected bombast and negation.” Popular among an audience of sophisticated working-class and lower-middle-class readers, Holyoake’s secularism “did much to advance the world view developed and promulgated by Huxley and Tyndall.”


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