Leicester Secular Society

THE OLDEST SECULAR SOCIETY IN THE WORLD - FOUNDED 1851

G. W. Foote (1850 - 1915)

George William Foote was born in Plymouth in 1850, where his father was a customs officer, who however died when the boy was only four. In 1882 he founded The Freethinker which is still in publication. In 1883 he was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment for publishing cartoons judged blasphemous. He succeeded Bradlaugh as president of the National Secular Society in 1891 and retained the post until his death.

Foote was a frequent speaker at Leicester's Secular Hall. Sydney Gimson writes of him: "G. W. Foote, for whose early magazines my father had provided a good deal of capital, delivered fine fighting lectures which always had a dignified literary form. He had a deep musical voice and delighted in reciting bits of Shakespeare or reading treasured passages from the Poets."

The Freethinker

We give here two quotes from the beginning (page 1) and end (page 124) of Vision and Realism: a hundred years of The Freethinker by Jim Herrick (1982). These passages were quoted by Mr Herrick when he spoke to us on 6th March 2006 on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the opening of Secular Hall, and also the 125th year of publication of The Freethinker, of which he was editor (1977-81).

The founder of the Freethinker was George William Foote. He wrote an essay 'Christianity and Common Sense' [in Flowers of Freethought (R. Forder 1893)] which began:

There are two things in the world that can never get on together — religion and common sense. Religion deals with the next life, common sense with this; religion points to the sky, common sense to the earth; religion is all imagination, common sense all reason; religion deals with what nobody can understand, common sense with what everybody can understand; religion gives us no return for our investments but flash notes on the bank of expectation, common sense gives us good interest and full security for our capital. They are as opposite as two things can possibly be, and they are always at strife. Religion is always trying to fill the world with delusions, and common sense is always trying to drive them away. Religion says Live for the next world, and common sense says Live for this.

This paragraph displays the qualities of vigour and forthrightness which enabled Foote to sustain his brain-child as editor for 35 years. The sharp contrast between religion and common sense has been the central theme of the Freethinker for its hundred years of continuous publication. The debate has not been between academics, but a plain man's debate with common sense as the prevailing temper.

The final word must go to G. W. Foote, whose courage, breadth and literary power are all visible in his essay 'The Gospel of Freethought' (First published in the Freethinker, 20 August 1882.)

He opened:
Christians are perpetually crying that we destroy and never build up. Nothing could be more false for all negation has a positive side, and we cannot deny error without affirming truth. But even if it were true, it would not lessen the value of our work. You must clear the ground before you can build, and plough before you can sow. Splendour gives no strength to an edifice whose foundations are treacherous, nor can a harvest be reaped from fields unprepared for the seeds.

He concluded:
The only noble things in this world are great hearts and great brains. There is no virtue in a starveling piety which turns all beauty into ugliness and shrivels up every natural affection. Let the heart beat high with courage and enterprise, and throb with warm passion. Let the brain be an active engine of thought, imagination and will. The gospel of sorrow has had its day: the time has come for the gospel of gladness. Let us live out our lives to the full, radiating joy on all in our circle, and diffusing happiness through the grander circle of humanity, until at last we retire from the banquet of life, as others have done before us, and sink in eternal repose.

History