James Martineau

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10 Jul 2016 Guest Preacher Alan Ruston. The most well known British Unitarian thinker James Martineau. How relevant is he today?

Those who attended the Anniversary service in June, will know that James Martineau was the preacher at the opening of the new Rosslyn Hill chapel in 1862. There is a large memorial to him in the building, but who was he and what made him so influential?



Address given by Alan Ruston at Rosslyn Hill Chapel Hamptead 10 July 2016


Those who attended the Anniversary Service held here on 5 June to commemorate the opening of this building in June 1862, with three fine choirs, will have heard that the address at the opening was given by Rev Dr James Martineau, a professor of Manchester College then located in London.. We heard some of his prayers and also an extract from his writings given with verve and enthusiasm from the pulpit by Feargus O’Connor. After the service in 1862 there was a dinner, with what was called then, a ‘collation’ in a marquee outside the chapel – it rained a great deal. Lots of speeches of course including one by Dr Martineau who said that for decades he had felt naturally connected with the congregation at Hampstead, adding that ‘his conception of what Christian worship ought to be was more nearly realised in the Hampstead Chapel than in any other place which it had been his happiness to attend.’


Have you heard of James Martineau? He was a 19th century theologian and philosopher and many claim he was the most well known Unitarian of his time. Zoe Gerrard tells that his portrait is to be found in the National Portrait Gallery.The Prime minister Gladstone considered him among the great religious thinkers of his day. Martineau’s output of writings and addresses was enormous, he dominated Unitarian and liberal christian religious thought at least up until the time of the First World War. Most now in congregations may never have heard of James Martineau, who had a famous sister Harriet, let alone know what he taught.


He was such a noted figure that the congregation here erected a large memorial to him in the chapel after his death in 1900 aged 95. Have you ever looked at it? – animage of it is on the front of the order of service. Take an opportunity to look at it again, it’s so high up that the wording is difficult to read. Why did they like him so much? Well, they did not call this Hampstead Unitarian Chapel as you do today – see Notice Board. In the account which appears in the Inquirer this congregation is described as ‘The presbyterian congregation assembling in the Rosslyn Chapel, Hampstead traces back its history through the period of 200 years.’ Why the chapel was still called Presbyterian I’ll come to.


Calling this chapel Unitarian is a 20th century practice even if the majority of its members claimed they were Unitarian in belief. Martineau was a Unitarian in thought as he often said, quite radical for his time in certain respects. Whether he would have called himself a Unitarian minister is doubtful as he had great problem with the term Unitarian in applying it to anything but an individual holding certain views. He denied that there was such a thing as a Unitarian church seeing that term as limiting that church’s development over time. The issues he raised remain with us to this day which is why I thought I’d discuss them with you when we’re being asked to support the central organisation to which we belong – the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.


We must have a little bit of history of how we got to that situation. In the first part of the 19th century, Unitarian theology was expressed almost entirely in terms of the Bible. It’s difficult to realise this today for we’d call them today text swappers. They cited a string of texts for example to demonstrate that references to the trinity do nor appear in the New Testament. If it’s in the Bible we receive it, was a popular phrase which went so far as to accept a belief that Biblical miracles were actual events. Yes believe it or not many Unitarians before 1840 believed literally in the NT miracles.

Martineau, although a profound believer in the Christian message, proclaimed that

we ‘re essentally motivated by the enlightened conscience contained within each of us. The impact of Martineau’s arguments by the 1860s was to move Unitarians away from citing Biblical texts and to see Christian meanings in wider terms. Martineau saw the broader Christian message as living and vital, fostered and centred by the light of conscience within each of us. This ideal was expressed in his oft quoted comment about the incarnation, which he said ‘is true not of Christ exclusively, but of man universally and God everlastingly’


Thus the Christian message was always capable of development which could not be forecast or restricted. Martineau affirmed that it’s through reason that we comprehend a living and growing Christian belief. He said that ‘A divine right, therefore, to dictate a perfectly unreasonable faith, cannot exist.’ Thus the impact of Darwin did not shake his belief, nor the science revolutions of his day, or the developing higher criticism of the Bible. We can still see the significance in Martineau’s thought except perhaps his inability to see the significance of religions other than Christianity, nor seeing any worth in aguments behind denial of a God.


What he fought against is what can be called Christian denominationalism, in other words, the structures and associated affirmations of the Church of England, the Methodists, the United Reformed and in particular what came to be termed the Unitarian Church. Because he argued these organisations limited the development of Christian thought and action, these structures were counter productive. By 1869 he had become widely known through his printed prayers and collections of hymns, so he tried to form a grouping of individual churches free in structure and avoiding denominationl titles. The problem was that nobody wanted to join his Free Christian Union, including Unitarians; it was after all the age of sectarianism, and it failed in about a year. It was swimming against the tide .While he was widely admired for his writings, his proposals were politely ignored.


Martineau was left with those people who were Unitarian in belief with whom he had grown up. He denied that there could be a Unitarian Church, it was a false construct, and limited development. Martineau looked back to the English Presbyterians, the term describing those congregations many of whom came together in the British & Foreign Unitarian Association formed in 1825. The term English Presbyterian, or free or non-subscribing Christian or liberal Christian were not defined theological statements. This grouping he believed could march under one open banner name that would enable them to find new light in, and understanding of, the Christian message. Thus this congregation continued to call itself Presbterian to Martineau’s deep pleasure. They also consistently used the hymns books he created.


Martineau’s view of the term ‘a Unitarian Church’ he put clearly in 1888, ‘If anyone being a Unitarian, shrinks, on fitting occasion, from plainly calling himself so, he is a sneak and a coward. If being of our catholic communion, he calls his chapel or its congregation Unitarian, he is a traitor to his spiritual ancestry, and a deserter to the camp of its persecutors’ This was spoken in a 2.5 hour speech, at the age of 83, in which was put forward for the first time by anyone the idea to create a General Assembly, to be called the English Presbyterian General Assembly with of course no mention of Unitarian.


It was all set out in a booklet widely distributed and discussed in and amongst the churches; it was, except in one area, rejected. Very disappointed Martineau then gave up and left it to others to develop as they thought fit. There were factions of course, in the 1890s many thought the term Unitarian was the way ahead, a grouping who having left behind the text swapping, saw a distinct message was necessary to take them forward, so they called their church Unitarian or Unitarian Christian. They pur it up in large letters in front of their buildng. Martineau’s followers on the other hand stated that the need was to be open and catholic, so whatever our personal beliefs, we must not tie our church down by calling it by theological term, so they started to designate their church free christian rather tham presbyterian.


You’ll not be surprised that these two factions argued and disputed, but

some did develop in unexpected ways. The arguments within the congregation at Northampton, for example, proved so frought in the 1890s, that the only compomise possible was to call their new church building just ‘Kettering Road Church’. Here it was called just Rosslyn Hill Chapel, and that remains its title though not oin the chapel’s website where the phase Unitarian Church is added to it.


Such were the arguments and disputes between the two factions which took place all over the country. However after the First World War it had calmed down and neither group could see their continued separation was appropriate or wise, so in 1928 they formed – and you won’t be surprised at this title from what I’ve said – the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.


So whatvever faction you feel youself to be in – Unitarian on the one hand, or Free Christian on the other, or perhaps just a mixture, we can join together and support this General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches today. Admittedly the Assembly as it turned out would not have been to Martineau’s taste. The presentational pundits of today say it’s too long a phrase to put over adequately but there remains a distinction between the two aspects that continues to be felt by many Unitarians. It was, and I think still remains, a necessary compromise at the start of the 21st century. The tension between the two phrases may even provide a stimulus to our thinking. Perhaps you now have a better appreciation of the importance of Martineau’s ideas that still resonate in 2016. His influence and thought is not a spent force.