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Leicester Secular Society


We collect here short biographies, in chronological order, of international, national and local figures who are significant in the history of rational, secular, humanist thought, and have had some connection with Leicester Secular Society, however remote, together with some indication of present-day assessments of their influence.
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Sections on this page: Thomas Paine, Robert Owen, G. J. Holyoake, William Morris, F. J. Gould, J. M. Robertson Others.

Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809)

Of a Norfolkshire Quaker family, he learned his father's trade of stay-making, but wandered into a wider world and spent some years as a teacher, and more as an exiseman. He went to America in 1774 and worked under Franklin. Two years later he wrote his Common Sense, an insurrectionary appeal that sold 120,000 copies in three months and fired the colonies. Congress and the State of New York later recognized his services by a grant, but he went back to London to sell his invention of an iron bridge, and his Rights of Man (1791-2), a defence of the French Revolution, against Burke, brought a sentence of outlawry, and he fled to Paris. He could not speak French, and, as he protested against the violence of the Terror, he was imprisoned. He completed his Deistic Age of Reason (1793-4) in jail. He was no scholar, but his vigorous intelligence and forcible style gave this criticism of the Bible and Christianity an immense value that is not yet exhausted. Returning to the United States in 1802, he found that his attack on Christianity had ruined him. The revolutionary leaders affected to have forgotten him, and his last years were unhappy. Dr M. D. Conway, in his thorough Life of Thomas Paine (2 vols 1892), entirely clears him of the charges against his character, and shows that the story of his death-bed ravings is false. Conway also published a complete edition of his works. His bones were brought to England by Cobbett, in 1819, but disappeared. [Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia 1950]

A bust of Thomas Paine is one of the five on the front of Leicester's Secular Hall.

Works by Thomas Paine:
Common Sense (1776)
The Rights of Man (1791-2)
The Age of Reason (1793-4)

Tom Paine and Agrarian Justice
Tom Paine Biography
Tom Paine Writings
J.B.Phillips on Tom Paine's Revolution
Thomas Paine Awards
Thomas Paine Society (UK)
Thomas Paine, Thetford
Thomas Paine NHA Archive (US)
Howard Fast on Early Life of Tom Paine
Robert L. Williams on Tom Paine today
George F. Smith: The Roots of Thomas Paine's Radicalism 2003

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Robert Owen (1771 - 1858)

Of a Welsh family of moderate means, he began to work in a shop and teach children at the age of nine, and by the age of forty he was a rich manufacturer and known all over Europe as a practical reformer. Taking over a large and, as was then usual, illiterate and foul-living community at New Lanark, he converted it, in less than twenty years, into a model community which drew pilgrims even from Russia. On the principle, which he developed in youth, that "man's character is made for him and not by him" — a principle which social psychology now regards as fundamental — and that "all the religions of the world are false," he spent large sums on fine schools and social services. When other manufacturers refused to follow, in spite of the immense profits he made, he appealed to the Government, and for a time had statesmen and members of the Royal family among his public supporters. Religious opponents ruined this by drawing from him a public declaration of Atheism. He then appealed to the people, and founded a movement which was known as Socialism (not State Socialism), and later an ethical movement which he called Rational Religion. The latter alone had 100,000 members, and in the trade unions he had influence over more than a million; though he had no skill either in speaking or writing. There was not a reform of the time (peace, trade unions, Feminism, prisons, education, marriage, etc.) that was not included in his ideal, and he spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on it, and impoverished himself. He occasionally used the word "God," but said: "When we use the term Lord, God, or Deity we use a term without annexing to it any definite idea" (ref ^ below, p.104). In his last feeble years he was duped by a Spiritualist medium. Podmore's Robert Owen (1906) lacks appreciation of the fact that Owen was the greatest reformer of his age. See McCabe's short biography (Robert Owen 1920). [Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia 1950]

A bust of Robert Owen is one of the five on the front of Leicester's Secular Hall.

Works by Robert Owen:
Debate on the Evidences of Christianity (1829)^

Robert Owen and cooperative movement

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George Jacob Holyoake (1817 - 1906)

Son of a Birmingham mechanic and, except for a few evening classes, a self-educated man, he attained high distinction, both social and literary. He joined the Owenites as a lecturer in 1838, and in 1842 he was imprisoned for blasphemy. He had said that in view of the state of the world it was ‘time to put the deity on half-pay’. For this he suffered six months in jail under conditions that drove many to suicide. He then settled in London and won a remarkable circle of friends, including Gladstone and many of the most distinguished men of the time. Developing the broad ideal of Owen, he was the virtual founder (or Father) of the Co-operative Movement, the originator of Secularism, and one of the most esteemed and most valuable workers in the struggle for a free Press, the education of the workers, the rights of woman, the liberation of oppressed nationalities, arbitration and peace, and other reforms. He was an attractive though not a robust speaker, and he had (very unlike Owen) a sparkle and geniality of style, reflecting his fine personality, which won a wide circulation for his works. He wrote 160 books and pamphlets, and in many of these and through lectures and debates for the early Secular Societies, which he organised, he contributed materially to the rapid progress of advanced thought in Great Britain, his high character and wide range of reform-interests doing much to remove the violent prejudice against Free-thinkers. When the plan of founding the RPA [Rationalist Press Association] was mooted he co-operated cordially and was its first Chairman. See McCabe's Life and Letters of G.J.Holyoake (2 vols. 1908). [Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia 1950]

G. J. Holyoake biography
G. J. Holyoake and cooperative movement
G. J. Holyoake biography (American Atheists' view)
The Logic of Death article by Holyoake 1876
G. J. Holyoake tribute by Robert Ingersoll

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William Morris (1834 - 1896)

Poet and Artist. At Oxford he was a zealous student of theology, and was expected to join the Roman Church. He founded a 'brotherhood' for the production of religious art, but they later turned to house-decoration and the production of beautiful books. In 1883 he joined the Socialists and finally abandoned the faith. ‘It's so unimportant, it seems to me,’ he said to the poet Allingham (Diary 1907, p.316). He published News from Nowhere (1891) and other Socialist works and became an aggressive Atheist. Belfort Bax, who knew him well, told [McCabe] that Morris used to recite aloud, with great pleasure, an unpublished scurrilous couplet of Swinburne's on the Trinity. See J.W.Mackail Life of William Morris 1899. [Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia 1950]

William Morris Society
William Morris Archive

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Frederick James Gould (1855 - 1938)

He was a London teacher who in 1896 resigned rather than give religious lessons and became a prominent worker in the Rationalist and Ethical movements. Gould was particularly interested in moral lessons without theology for children, and he was invited to give a series of model lessons in America in 1911 and 1913-14 and in India, under Government auspices, in 1913. He had joined the Positivist Church, which had a very small branch in London, and the policy of that body to co-operate with the other Churches, and regard the Roman Church as a model, weakened the critical element in his works (chiefly A Concise History of Religions, 3 vols, 1893-7) and disposed him to put too much faith in religious literature and assertions. [Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia 1950]

Works by F. J. Gould:
A Concise History of Religions, (3 vols, 1893-7)
The Life-Story of a Humanist, (Watts & Co, 1923).
Here are some extracts from his Life Story: F. J. Gould

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John Mackinnon Robertson (1856 - 1933)

Of a peasant family of the Isle of Arran, and receiving an elementary education, he 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 represented Tyneside from 1906 to 1918, and was Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, 1911 - 15, and Privy Councillor. His writings cover a wide field — politics, economics, history, and comparative religion — and of particular Rationalist interest are his [titles marked * below]. In a series of works [titles marked ^ below] he contends that Jesus was not historical. [Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia 1950]

Works by J. M. Robertson:
History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century, (1899)*
Christianity and Mythology (1900)^
Short History of Christianity (1902)*
Pagan Christs (1903)^
History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern (2 vols, 1915)*
The Historical Jesus (1916)^
The Jesus Problem (1917)^
Short History of Morals (1920)*
Jesus and Judas (1927)^

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H. M. Hyndman biography

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