2012 sees the 220th anniversary of the conferring of French citizenship upon some of the most prominent Unitarians in British history: Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley, Rev. Richard Price and Jeremy Bentham. Also granted citizenship was the abolitionist William Wilberforce and his ally Thomas Clarkson. This honour was due to their religious and political radicalism, and indeed Priestley and Price were elected as members of the French National Convention (the revolutionary government which replaced the ‘ancien regime’ Monarchy of Louis XVI in 1789). We often forget the radical message of our Unitarian movement and with the likes of jingoistic popular historical fiction such as ‘Sharpe’ o r ‘Flashman’ forget that not everyone in Britain was opposed to either the French Revolution or to Napoleon Bonaparte. Unitarians in South West Wales sang the Marseillaise and even translated it into Welsh and it was sung well into the 19th century! The Revolution and Napoleon had vocal and active supporters in this country, especially amongst religious and political radicals, not least amongst them Unitarians, who agreed wholeheartedly with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
Support for the Revolution
Unitarians together with other British radicals welcomed the French revolution: they interpreted it as a move toward modernity, the throwing off of the old absolute monarchy of the Bourbons and breaking the power of the Catholic Church, moving toward a more enlightened constitutional model of government. The humanist and Unitarian William Hazlitt spoke for many in his famous account of the revolution:
‘A new world was opening to the astonished sight. Scenes, lovely as hope can paint, dawned upon the imagination; visions of unsullied bliss lulled the senses, and hid the darkness or surrounding objects, rising in bright succession and endless gradations, like the steps of that ladder which was once set up on the earth and whose top reached to heaven. Nothing was too mighty for this new-begotten hope; and the path that led to human happiness seems as plain as the pictures in “Pilgrim’s Progress” leading to Paradise.’ As our Chief Officer Derek McAuley recently pointed out his in blog, Unitarians in South Wales sang the Marseillaise and it was translated into Welsh and regularly sung well into the mid 19th century!
Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley’s sermon on the matter was printed at the request of new fewer than seven congregations of Dissenters; Dr William Shepherd in Liverpool, Rev. Isaac Worsley at Bristol, Rev. John Holland at Bolton and Lewis Loyd at Failsworth all preached and published sermons in praise of the revolution in France. Revs Theophilus Lindsey and Thomas Belsham both celebrated the revolution. Rev. Richard Price (a republican: he had supported the American colonists in their War of Independence) was invited to preach to the French National Assembly, but declined the offer and instead wrote an address, to which Edmund Burke wrote his famous reply ‘Reflection on the French Revolution’. The Rev. Dr. Joseph Towers of London and Priestley wrote their own replies to Burke – Priestley’s going through three editions in one year. Perhaps the two most famous replies to Burke were those of the Quaker Thomas Paine ‘The Rights of Man’ and the Unitarian Mary Woltsonecraft ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’. Both were friends of Richard Price, their mentor. The Unitarian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge welcomed the stir the very public debate had aroused, but they could not have predicted the violent backlash against supporters of the revolution in Britain.
Burke’s reflections on the French revolution helped inspire a reactionary backlash in Britain; In July 1791 at Birmingham the two Unitarian churches, the New Meeting and Old Meeting and Kingswood together with Priestley’s house were burned down. The houses of prominent supporters of Priestley, such as William Hutton, T. E. Lee, William Russell or John Taylor, were also burned. There were serious disturbances in Norwich and Liverpool and a riot in Manchester, which was only quelled after the Unitarian Thomas Walker – a member of Cross Street –managed to quell the crowd. The situation grew worse in 1792 following Britain’s declaration of War with France. A printer in Newark was arrested for printing ‘The Rights of Man’ and a Baptist Minister, Rev. William Winterbotham was imprisoned for four years in July 1793 for a sermon in which he said ‘every man in a land of liberty had a right to know how his money was applied’. Unitarians at Oxford and Cambridge Universities came under attack: the Rev. William Frend, formerly Fellow of Jesus College, the Rev. T. Fyshe Palmer of Queen’s College and Rev. Jebb of St John’s College were all hounded out of office; Fyshe Palmer was deported to Australia for correcting a handbill for an organisation called ‘The Society of Friends of Liberty’ whilst minister at Dundee.
In 1795 the Prime Minister, William Pitt, suspended the right of Habbeus Corpus and a series of Acts were passed which limited the last vestiges of civil liberty and restricted gatherings of working men. At Manchester a ‘Thinking Club’ was established where its members sat in silence to ‘dwell upon the evils of our time’. At its first meeting 300 were present and when an attempt was made to break up the meeting (the members of the club had been accused of treason) no charges could be made because nothing treasonous had been said! At Bolton the Rev. John Holland and Thomas Paine were burned in effigy before the Church door and an effigy of Thomas Paine and copies of his book were burned in Birmingham at the door of the Unitarian minister, Rev. Joshua Toulmin.
William Hazlitt and Rev. Robert Aspland both admired Napoleon I; whilst Hazlitt saw him as the ‘saviour of the French revolution’ and ‘great liberator from Tyrants of the ancient regime’ Aspland was more sceptical. He praised his egalitarian politics but abhorred his war-like methods. He also claimed that Napoleon was used as an ‘excuse’ for war; he found no favour with the argument of ‘Divine Right of Kings’ and believed that populations should be at liberty to chose their rulers. He wrote ‘Bonaparte is an excuse for war...his spirit of Liberty predominates Europe...and there is a spirit dominant in those in power which cannot rest in peace, but will find in him some plea for war!” Forty years later, the American Unitarian theologian and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson described Napoleon I ‘as the man of the 19th century’ and that he was the ‘rallying call for all those who seek Liberty’. Whilst not necessarily supporting his methods, he certainly supported Napoleon’s politics and referred to his nephew, the future Emperor Napoleon III as ‘the Napoleon of peace’.
The Minister of Cross Street Chapel, Manchester saw Napoleon as ‘heaven sent, predicted in Scripture’ bringing him with a new world order. The Vicar of Bolton, however, whilst also seeing Napoleon predicted in scripture, saw him as God’s instrument of vengeance against a ‘greedy’ Britain and had been sent by God to destroy sinful Britain and its love of money.
In 1798 the Rev. Gilbert Wakefield a one-time Tutor at Manchester Academy, was put on trial for treason due to his pacifism, claiming that war was contrary to the spirit of Christianity. The following year Rev. Benjamin Flower was arrested and sent to Newgate Gaol. He had founded the radical newspaper ‘The Cambridge Intelligencier’. Indeed, the pacifism of Unitarian congregations in Failsworth, Bolton, Duckinfield and Leeds led to reprisals; the church in Failsworth being attacked by a mob shouting in favour of ‘The King, Church and Country’. Obviously, pacifism was linked to treachery, or as President Bush said ‘you are either with us or against us’. The Unitarian Colonel Joseph Hanson (grandson of the Minister at Gorton Chapel, latterly Brookfield Church) ‘the Weaver’s Friend’ supported the emerging Luddite movement with their demands for a fair wage and employment. In 1808 when he and his regiment, The Manchester and Salford Independent Rifles, were asked by the Manchester Magistrates to police a mob at St George’s Field, Manchester, he refused to have his men fire on the crowd and was therefore arrested. A Grand Jury in Lancaster found him guilty of aiding and abetting the weavers of Manchester in a ‘conspiracy to raise their wages’. He was fined £100 and imprisoned for six months. Hanson was instrumental in a ‘Monster Petition for Peace’ which circulated the industrial North West in summer 1807 following Napoleon’s peace with Russia, finally bringing peace to Europe (however short-lived). He pointed out that wages in Manchester, Preston, Wigan, Bolton and Stockport had been artificially depressed at a time of increasing cost of living and mechanisation had left thousands destitute as a direct result of ten years incessant warfare with France. The petition started in January 1808 at Bolton Unitarian Church amassed 17,000 signatures in favour of peace. In 1808 and again between 1811-1812 there were strikes amongst the weavers of the North West due to mechanisation and low wages; the cotton industry was particularly hard-hit between 1812 and 1815 due to Britain being at War with the USA and blockading the US ports. From 1812 this unrest against mechanisation and low wages became characterised as ‘Luddism’ (named after the fictitious ‘General Ludd’) and Unitarian congregations, such as that in Bolton, supported them, but when they became violent rapidly distanced themselves.
ConclusionUnitarians may have been naïve in their idealised support of the French revolution, but they did so and maintained their support for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity against a backdrop of fierce hostility and repression directed both against their religious belief (rejection of the Holy Trinity was punishable by death until 1813) and of their politics. Indeed, Unitarian support for a meritocratic ideal and pacifism re-appeared fort years later during the revolutions across Europe in 1848 and the Crimean War (1853-1856). They never lost their faith in God or humanity. Whilst being deported to Australia Fyshe Palmer sang the hymn ‘The head the once was crowned with thorns’ and believed he – and others – had been ‘sacrificed on the altars of Establishment and Greed ’ because of their belief in civil and religious liberty; Sarah Flower Adams, the daughter of Benjamin Flower, was inspired by her father’s imprisonment and suffering to pen the hymn ‘Nearer my God to thee’, which rose to international fame 100 years ago because of the Titanic disaster. Whilst abhorring the violence and war-like methods of the French 1st Republic and 1st Empire Unitarians and other religious radicals agreed with the egalitarian and meritocratic principles of those regimes, political principles they and other radicals fought hard for in Britain in the coming century and beyond. Indeed, may we all still strive for, and work towards Liberty, Equality and Fraternity not only in our congregations but society at large.