Leicester Secular Society
for an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination.
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J. M. Robertson (1856 - 1933)

Robertson

John Mackinnon Robertson, born in the Isle of Arran, took to journalism in Edinburgh. He settled in London, and worked in the Secularist Movement, editing the National Reformer after the death of Bradlaugh.

He was MP for Tyneside from 1906 to 1918, and was Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, 1911-15, and Privy Councillor.

Later in life he was involved with Leicester Secular Society, being for instance principal trustee of the Leicester Rationalist Trust.

His writings cover a wide field: politics, economics, history, and comparative religion. Of particular Rationalist interest are his works on history of Freethought and on the mythical nature of Jesus.

Works


Modern Humanists (1891, 1968)
The Fallacy of Saving (1892)
Buckle and His Critics (1895)
The Saxon and the Celt (1897)
Patriotism and Empire (1899, 1990)
A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century, (1899, 2 vols 1929, 1969)
Christianity and Mythology (1900, 1910)
A Short History of Christianity (1902, 1931)
Pagan Christs (1903, 1911)
Essays in Sociology (1904) — 2 volumes.
Pioneer Humanists (1907)
Montaigne and Shakespeare (1909)
The Evolution of States (1912)
The Baconian Heresy (1913)
Elizabethan Literature (1914)
A History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern, to the Period of the French Revolution — (1915, 2 vols 1936, 1969)
The Historical Jesus (1916)
The Jesus Problem (1917)
The Economics of Progress (1918)
A Short History of Morals (1920)
The Meaning of Liberalism (1925)
The Dynamics of Religion (1926)
Modern Humanists Reconsidered (1927, USA 1982)
Jesus and Judas (1927)
The Decadence (1929) — under the pen-name "L. Macaulay".
Electoral Justice (1931)
Fiscal Fraud and Folly (1931)
Courses of Study (1932)

Biography

There is no complete biography. Martin Page Britain's Unknown Genius, An Introduction to the Life-Work of John Mackinnon Robertson (SPES London 1984) is in the LSS Library, from which most of the titles in the above list of works is cited.

Other sites

J. M. Robertson in wikipedia.
The Critical Liberalism of J. M. Robertson by Chris R. Tame.
from The Baconian Heresy by J. M. Robertson.
Online Books by J. M. Robertson (US access only).
Rationalist Peace Society 1910.

Robertson on Secularism

The following passage, attributed to J. M. Robertson, is quoted in Fred Lee's thesis "Secularism from the Victorian age to the Twenty-first century: The History of the Leicester Secular Society". It was used by the Society in 1902 as one of three statements of its aims (the others were by Holyoake and Gould). The statements by Robertson and Gould were framed and hung in the hall in November 1943, and were still there in 2000.

Secularism is the practical expression of the conviction that the theological or supernaturalist account of the world and the process of life is untrue and misleading. Holding that this has been proved by the study of nature, by reason, and by historical research, the Secularist rejects all supernaturalist accounts of life alike on the scientific and on the moral side. He does not profess to explain the universe as a whole; on the contrary, he seeks to expose the failure of all such explanations. Rejecting the pretence that an infinite universe can be comprehended by the human intelligence, he regards human happiness as the end of human life, and seeks guidance in reason and experience on all human problems. Regarding all character as the result of organization, training and environment, he disclaims the idea of retribution, human or divine, and substitutes for that principle those of reclamation and mutual protection. Secularism is thus capable of co-operation with all non-theological institutions and undertakings aiming sincerely at human betterment. Beyond insisting on the supremacy of reason, and rejecting all theological dogmas and sanctions, it does not prescribe any political theory, save on the score of its expressing the principle of the greatest good of the greatest number. But, as an organised movement, Secularism proceeds upon common consent of Secularist thinkers that (1) the government of the people, by consent of the people, and for the people, is the only political system that can promote their well-being; that (2) all expression of opinion as such ought to have free course; that (3) the interests of the human race being clearly solidary, international peace and co-operation should be among the first objectives of statesmanship; and that (4) it is the duty of all men to seek the happiness of all. In seeking these ends, Secularists may differ as to means; they are united by their philosophy of life, and by their philanthropic ideal.

Recollections of J. M. Robertson

by Sydney Gimson,
from Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society, March 1932

Now that I have reached my old friend Robertson I may as well begin by giving the speech which I made in support of the toast of his health at the Dinner at the Trocadero, London, on November 14th 1926, to celebrate his 70th birthday.


"My memories of Robertson go back to the late eighties, when he used to come to Leicester to lecture to our Secular Society and stay for the week-ends with me. In those days not the least of his attractions — specially in the eyes of the ladies of our Society — were his very good looks and a lovely velvet coat that he wore when on the platform. Even in those early times we were proud of his learning, though sometimes it was a bit beyond the depth of us simple business men. The fineness of his spirit, as well as the brilliance of his lectures, was an inspiration to us.

Alongside my memories of his lectures I can still see Robertson giving a realistic representation of a growling bear, in a cave under my dining table, being violently attacked from the outside by my two yelling and delighted small sons.

Those were the days, Mr. Chairman (Graham Wallas), when Bernard Shaw frequently came to our Hall to instruct and chastise us, and you charmed us with one of the "Fabian Essays in Socialism" before they were published. Great days! when we were young and full of enthusiasm. Robertson had the reputation then of being a Bonny Fighter, in which respect I am not aware that the years have brought any serious deterioration, though there may be a wee bit of mellowing with age.

Another vivid recollection is of a fine address which he delivered at the graveside of a friend (William Slater), a Manager of our Secular Hall & Club. It was a beautiful address and showed a tenderness which is not always recognised, even by his friends, but which is as much a part of the real John Robertson as is his intellectual briliance.

I recall happy visits in his bachelor days to Broadhurst Gardens, with books everywhere, along the stairs, on the landings and all over the floors and walls of the rooms. There I have eaten delicious dinners cooked entirely by himself. Another of his many accomplishments.

A few years later, when Robertson was happily married, memory tells of visits to Chelsea, or to Lansdown Gardens, or to Baker Street, always with books all over the place. Robertson then worked 12 hours a day and seven days a week, no 42 hours a week for him, and I used to consider it something of an achievement when I could get him out to dinner and a band, to one or other of the Earl's Court shows. In doing this I may say I was always aided and abetted by Mrs. Robertson! My aim was to get into him that bit of imperfection without which no man is perfect.

It has been one of the great happinesses of my life to have the friendship of John Robertson. He is a real friend and has always helped me, not to be intellectually brilliant — that is quite beyond me — but at least to be intellectually honest. That I can be and have tried to be. I believe that Robertson has had that influence on many Freethinkers.

In drinking this Toast tonight we are trying to show how we honour a fine scholar, a great friend, and an inspiring leader of Freethought."


As showing the difference between the habits of the Eighteen nineties and now I may recall a visit to Earls Court Exhibition with Mr. & Mrs. Robertson somewhere about 1895. After dinner we were sitting having coffee in the open air near to the Grenadier Guards Band (with, I think, Dan Godfrey conducting) when Mrs. Robertson took out a cigarette and started to smoke it. There were many people round the band and all eyes were turned upon her! I must confess that I, with all my belief in freedom and unconventionality, felt a bit embarrassed! The silly feeling soon passed off and was replaced by a mild amusement at the small sensation caused by a Lady's smoking in public. Today the surprise would be if there were not more women smoking than men! Mrs. Robertson was (and still is) a charming American girl who had lived for some time in Paris, where Robertson met her and where they lived for a short time after their marriage, Robertson doing, I think, journalistic work.

In the summer of 1908 I spent a very jolly little holiday with him in Paris, ten days I think it was. We stayed in a flat in the Rue du Fauburg St. Honore, close to the Place des Ternes (not far from the Arc de Triomphe) which Mrs. Robertson's mother (Mrs. Mosher) had lent to us. /// In the daytime it was a hard job to get Robertson away from the secondhand bookstalls on the Quais (he took quite a big packing case filled with books home with him) so I did a considerable amount of exploring myself, and enjoyed it. /// Robertson did not come with us. He preferred the old Bookstalls!

Robertson's friendship, which has never faltered from the eighties until now, has meant a great deal to me. Not only have I had good times with him but I have had near to me an example of what intellectual responsibility and honesty mean, which I hope has had a little effect upon me.

I have nearly, but not quite, all the books he has written, most of them his gifts to me with friendly inscriptions. I was a proud man when he dedicated his Short History of Freethought to me. His books make a goodly show on my shelves and I am amazed when I think of the learning and sheer hard work that have gone to their making. Had they been of the "best seller" type I should think Robertson would have been a millionaire. There's something radically wrong with our economics — or wth our brains — when the payment for work of such immense importance to the world is notoriously minute compared with that given to the producers of "thrillers" and suchlike.

Robertson's quick, analytical brain, and his insight into the other man's point of view, make him very effective in discussion. Often, after a lecture, an understanding question or criticism from a member of the audience will draw from him a further exposition which admirably clears up some rather abstruse point. On the other hand, he does not "suffer fools gladly" and anything in the nature of ill-mannered impertinence rouses him to a cold fury. I have sometimes felt that the flaying castigations he gives such offenders has the opposite effect to that intended.

Robertson tells me that his investigations into the writings of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, and the books he has written on them, are a Recreation to him. Very like hard Work to most people!

[The marks /// denote passages omitted. These are really nothing to do with Robertson, but Gimson's own experiences in Paris. (GPJ)]

History

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