Chapman Cohen was a leading English freethinker, secularist and atheist writer and lecturer.
Born in Leicester, he was the elder son of Enoch Cohen, a confectioner, and his wife, Deborah (née Barnett). He attended a local elementary school but was otherwise self-educated. He had read Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, and Plato by the time he was eighteen. He was a bibliophile and avidly collected books all his life.
Cohen moved to London in 1889, and soon became involved in the secularist movement. He soon became a popular lecturer for secularists, at his peak delivering over 200 lectures a year. He was elected a vice-president of the National Secular Society in 1895.
In 1897 Cohen began contributing weekly articles to G. W. Foote's Freethinker, having previously written accounts of his lecture tours. In 1898 he became assistant editor of The Freethinker, and after Foote's death in 1915 he was appointed editor and succeeded Foote as President of the National Secular Society.
Sidney Gimson in his Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society recalls that:
"Among the younger men who lectured for us in the late eighties or early nineties were Arthur Moss, John M. Robertson (I think he first lectured for us in 1886 or 87, and then began a friendship which has been invaluable to me and influenced all the rest of my life, I shall have more to say of this later), George Bernard Shaw (the first record I can find of a lecture by him is on Dec. 6. 1885), and Chapman Cohen (Dec. 31. 1893 is the first record I can find but I fancy he spoke in our Hall before then.) All are still living and active today, March, 1932."
"Whitsuntide 1897 found the National Secular Society holding its Annual Conference in our Hall. Mr. G. W. Foote was President and there was a large gathering, comfortably filling our Hall. I attended the meetings as a looker on, not then being a member of the N.S.S. The only thing I remember about the Conference is that there was then a strong movement against Mr. Foote’s presidency, originating I think from Glasgow, but a somewhat acrimonious discussion was brought to a close by a very able and convincing speech from Mr. Foote which securely settled him in his office to the obvious satisfaction of the overwhelming majority of the delegates."
"One of the days, Easter Monday I think it was, we arranged a trip to Longcliffe Woods when the delegates and our own members made up a big and jolly party, chartered a number of four-in-hand and three-in-hand horse breaks and drove out to see something of the beautiful Charnwood Forest scenery. We had an excellent and joyous meal together, a few speeches, and then home. Of course, we had our photographs taken, and I am looking at one copy now. Among the people I recognise are G. W. Foote, Charles Watts, J. M. Wheeler, Arthur B. Moss, W. Heaford, Greevz Fisher (I think), Miss Vance, J. W. Gott (that kind hearted, gentle but stubborn stormy Petrel, who suffered a martyrdom of imprisonment several times for some wrong-headed but well intended “Blasphemy”, and who, so Chapman Cohen told me, when in Rome on a Freethought Conference, wanted to give away Atheist pamphlets in St. Peters but was, with difficulty, restrained by his friends!), Robert Forder (then Hon. Secretary to the N.S.S.), Chapman Cohen, looking but a stripling but already making for himself a leading position in our movement. I remember I was not too attracted to him in those early days. I thought he marred his advocacy by a too constant use of jokes of the chestnut variety! Probably I was a bit pernickety. Anyhow, I am proud of his friendship today. I recognise his great ability and feel that there is no one who is so effective in Freethought advocacy today for the average man or woman. He has a wonderful power of clear thinking combined with the gift of putting his arguments in simple and convincing language. His lectures and writings are among the greatest assets possessed by the Freethought movement today. Of our visiting friends I can recognise a number more faces but cannot place names to them."
According to Edward Royle (2004), "as an organizer Cohen did much to build up the resources of secularism in the inter-war years, but by 1949, when he was persuaded to resign as president, many members felt he had stayed on too long."
On his death, The Times printed a short obituary of Cohen, which said:"He was the author of many books setting forth the freethought philosophy of life, which had a large sale, and he was outstanding as a forthright, witty and courteous debater and lecturer". He was cremated at Goulders Green crematorium.Wikipedia Entry
Sound recording by Chapman Cohen on Freethought
Page updated 13/8/2018.