When we think about famous Unitarians from the 18th and 19th Century: William Gaskell, Theophilus Lindsey, Joseph Priestly, James Martineau, etc., we are almost always talking about well-to-do intellectuals. Today’s service is about a Unitarian minister who does not fit that mould: Robert Spears.
Robert Spears was largely an uneducated man, a man proud of his humble North England roots. Nevertheless, his impact upon 19th Century Unitarianism was profound, so much so that he had an entire chapter devoted to him in Alan Ruston’s most recent book, On the Side of Liberty, a look at some of the most influential Unitarians of the last 300 years. Robert Spears was certainly a man with the common touch, with his full rugged beard, and his strong Northumbrian accent. He was a powerhouse, ministering to congregations, helping to create causes, founding newspapers, and serving for a time as the secretary of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association. His father was a Calvinist and a foreman of an ironworks. His father must have been a man defined by his hard work, and his frugality.
Robert’s early life revolved around two things – the ironworks, where at a young age he became an apprentice to a smithy, and the Bible. His Bible-based upbringing laid the foundation for his entire life: though he would depart from his father’s Calvinistic (and his mother’s Methodist) beliefs, he never departed from his Bible-based faith. Despite Robert Spears’ start in life, his love of books, and love of learning, compelled him to pursue a life outside of the ironworks. And so, barely out of his teens, he founded a school, and soon found himself preaching at his local Methodist church. However, he quickly found himself getting into trouble; his earnest spirit and increasingly unorthodox beliefs made his position increasingly untenable. When he met the Unitarian minister George Harris, he was persuaded that the Unitarians were a better fit for him. And so, with a letter of recommendation from George Harris, Robert Spears, at the age of twenty-seven, started his first Unitarian post at the Unitarian chapel of Sunderland.
In 1852, Robert took up his post at the Unitarian chapel of Sunderland, near Durham, and it’s fair to say they were a struggling congregation, with barely seven or eight people each Sunday. Though he went against the grain of what that congregation was comfortable with, in just seven short years he grew that congregation to 120 with his simple message of hope, that the truth of Christianity might be believed and loved. His sermons became increasingly political, speaking often on the liberal causes of his day; the anti-slavery cause, and the need for deep political reform.
Due to his success, in 1858 he took up a new post at a similarly dying congregation, at Stockton-on-Tees, near Middlesbrough. While there his political interest grew still further, and to increase his readership he founded a newspaper called the Stockton Gazette, which focused on the principles of Liberalism. In just a few years, he had that congregation’s numbers up to healthy levels. The community was alive and kicking again. With the success he saw over these ten years, his reputation spread, particularly amongst the more Bible-based of the Unitarians. And so he was given his biggest challenge yet, in 1861, now aged thirty-six, he took up the ministerial post at Stamford Street Chapel, London.
Alan Ruston notes the difficulty this gear shift must have presented, to go from two northern England churches to a church in London, and not being particularly well educated or well-polished must have made this transition very difficult. William Gaskell himself advised against the move, telling Robert that, having preached there once, it was a dead congregation, and he shouldn’t bother with it. But he did bother, and again he had remarkable success. In seven years he grew the congregation to be the largest in London.
A reading there from William Ellery Channing, the American preacher, and great supporter of a Bible-based Unitarian Christianity, and therefore loved by Robert Spears. Hearing that passage you can see the character of the minister Robert was striving after. There are a number of aspects of this reading which to a modern audience are rather cringe worthy – the male exclusive language, and the sharp distinction Channing draws between, what he terms, the civilized and the savage world. However, he does recognize the need for Christianity to be reinterpreted in each new age, to be understood through what he calls the ‘intellect of the age’. No doubt it was this approach which made Channing’s Christianity so appealing to Robert, in both taking the Biblical tradition seriously, and at the same time being rational, liberal, and thoroughly forward thinking.
A few years into his successful appointment at Stamford Street Chapel, London, Robert began to do more on the national and international Unitarian scene. He became the co-secretary of the ‘British and Foreign Unitarian Association’, a position he used to increase the circulation of Unitarian books and tracts, and an opportunity to reach out to anyone and everyone in search of a simple religion exemplified by the Jesus Christ whom he saw in the New Testament. Increasingly however, he found himself in conflict with Transcendentalist thought which was on the rise, and James Martineau’s “New School” of thinking. There was a general feeling that Biblical Unitarianism was on the way out, and a rise in anti-Biblical Unitarian thought, which suggested the soft liberal version of Christianity advanced by people like Robert Spears cherry picked the Bible – explaining away the offensive bits and highlighting the nice bits in an intellectually dishonest way.
And so due to all the power play that went on, ultimately Robert Spears’ camp lost, and the Unitarian movement’s impetus shifted in line with James Martineau’s “New School” of thinking. So, Robert resigned from the ‘British and Foreign Unitarian Association’, and immediately founded a new Unitarian newspaper called The Christian Life. It had combative tone, taking every opportunity possible to deride James Martineau’s approach. Robert always referred to the Unitarian movement as either a sect or a denomination, to emphasize what he saw as Unitarianism’s true nature, which should be, as far as he was concerned, unashamedly Christian.
Robert Spears published a book entitled ‘A Unitarian Handbook of Scriptural Illustrations and Expositions’. Its preface states in a tone so arrogant, I find it amusing, ‘It is a curious fact there is not a text in the Bible advanced to uphold the doctrine of Trinity… the following pages will show that no church has Scripture more decidedly on its side that we have.” I have spoken before about the distinction between modernist (in the philosophical sense), and post-modernist. Robert Spears in this sense was thoroughly a modernist, he believed there really was a capital T truth, and that Biblical Christian Unitarianism was that truth. He was convinced by Christian Unitarian dogma, and would have had no patience for Unitarian sentiments like ‘everyone’s opinion is equally valid’.
His book is more akin to the kind of books Calvinists find edifying, with statements of “fact” concerning Christian Unitarian doctrine followed by lists of passages from the Bible plucked out of context to justify the positon. In this repetitive fashion he goes through all the traditionally held Christian Unitarian beliefs: the rejection of original sin, the rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, the rejection of the Deity of Christ, the rejection of a penal substitution model of the atonement, and so on, proving the legitimacy of his position. I think his steam-roller approach would be quite off putting to most Unitarians today. But despite that, despite his thinking being rather basic, a simplistic kind of faith, the reading we had of Robert Spears’ list from the Psalms of why we know God to be loving, clearly worked in his context: a simple faith for a plain people. They received his words gladly. Apart from this book, his ‘Unitarian Handbook’ which Spears regarded as his key publication, his ministerial crowning achievement, as far as he was concerned, was his republishing of William Ellery Channing’s complete works here in England. In the 1870’s it was difficult to get hold of Channing’s work, and if you did manage it, it cost you a lot of money. So in 1873 Robert Spears got a one-shilling version of his complete works published.
After a successful thirteen-year ministry at Stamford Street Chapel, London, he moved to Highgate. In this latter stage of his life he had various shorter ministerial posts; he wrote unceasingly for his newspaper ‘The Christian Life’, and he even had time to found a school, which is still running to this day: Channing House School, named after his hero. All this work, however, starting having a detrimental effect on his health. Robert Spears was always a man of action. A principled man, he never did anything ‘softly softly’, but promoted his simple, clear message of faith without ceasing. He gave his last sermon in January 1899, at the age of 73, and died a month later. Upon his death, The Inquirer not so subtly highlighted his uneducated approach, and the fact that it was those who knew him that were most attracted to him, re-emphasizing the stark contrast he had come to represent with mainstream English Unitarianism. What I want to take from Robert Spears’ ministry is his determination, his unceasing resolve even in the face of much criticism and resistance. That is a message of encouragement useful to all of us, especially when we find ourselves cutting against society norms, or as a community promoting values that are counter-cultural.
I will finish with a quote from Robert Spears: “Forty years ago I entered on my duties with a sense that I was called to work of this kind, and yet I have no special aptitude, had no college or ministerial training, no family prestige, and had the disadvantage of a northwestern dialect… if I had life to live over again, it would be done with the old name ‘a Unitarian minister’ and nothing I know would win me from that straight line of duty… with the help of God I have been the means of sorrow lessened, of joys heightened, of lives made more bright and pure, of hearts made more strong, homes made happier, and of gratitude expressed a thousand times for our gospel of Unitarianism”.