April 5, 1884. He began his letter, ‘Dear Rev. James Martineau’. It was the letter of a 19 year old boy from County Down, Ireland, the son of a non-subscribing Presbyterian farmer, who was seeking to train for Unitarian ministry under Martineau, the principle of Manchester New College in London. References were sent, tests were taken, and he was accepted to train.
William Jellie’s intellectual thought was shaped and informed by a very different world to the one we now inhabit. In the 1880s he moved from rural Ireland to London - Queen Victoria’s London. A London with no cars, but horse drawn carts. A London with huge economic disparity, the plight of the poor captured in the works of Charles Dickens. Huge slum areas. A London plagued with disease, a London run on coal fire, a London in which the sewage water ran straight into the river Thames. A London which gave the Irish idealist pause for thought. Could something be done about the plight of the poor? Last week we sang ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, and after the service a few of us talked about some of the verses of that hymn, particularly a verse which was removed, which read:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, highly or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
Conventional Church of England opinion in Victorian London was that poor were poor and the rich were rich by God’s design. That that was the natural order of our world. William Jellie found himself amongst liberally religious minded individuals, who began to critique and question the legitimacy of the economic status quo. All this discussion was underpinned by their evolving understanding of how the Bible and Jesus’ ministry were to be understood. As Christians were we to renounce the world and set our mind upon the afterlife, the glory to come, or were we to strive to redeem the world in which we found ourselves? To work to alleviate poverty, to shift the gears of the state, that wealth might be distributed equitably? Jellie was encouraged by his tutors to not simply think of what was culturally and politically possible now, but to imagine the kind of world we should strive towards, however improbable such an ideal may seem now. It was a minister of religion’s responsibility, to transform and influence what people perceived to be possible.
So it was, with this idealistic optimism, that William Jellie took up his first post in London at the Stamford Street Chapel in 1890. For the next six years, Jellie worked to alleviate the plight of the poor, experiencing first-hand the suffering and deprivation caused by unreformed capitalism. He split his time between the chapel and a poverty relief mission in the East End. Also during this time, he became increasingly involved with socialist activism and the labour church movement. Following this six-year stint, he left his first Unitarian post, and took up his second in Ipswich. Two posts in greater contrast could not be imagined; from the poor and crowded streets of London to a country town in the of East England. On the face of it, it seems like an odd move for Jellie to even make. My sense is that the nature of his work in London had begun to take its toll on Jellie, that despite only being 31 years of age, his colleagues had advised him to take a provincial office, an office in which he could focus on preaching and teaching. I got in contact with Wayne Facer early last year, because I heard he was doing some research on William Jellie. It was in correspondence with him that I learned that this book was on the horizon. ('A Vision Splendid' by Wayne Facer) Of course, my interest arose from the fact that he is a predecessor of mine. However, there is very little about Ipswich in here. He was in post here for only three years from 1896 to 1899. He just found himself here perhaps, that he might prepare himself mentally and spiritually for the huge move, the huge undertaking he was about to make.
In 1899, William Jellie, having served three years here as the Ipswich Unitarian minister, left this country for New Zealand. The majority of the book Wayne Facer wrote concerns the impact this British Unitarian minister had upon New Zealand’s Unitarianism, and more broadly on New Zealand itself. Now the reason William Jellie decided to go to New Zealand in 1899 I think would seem a bit odd today, but it had to do with his political ideals. It was believed that because New Zealand did not have the same traditions, political legacies, and class concerns that the United Kingdom had, that moulding the country into a socialist state was an attainable goal. It was just the kind of grand project that Jellie needed. New Zealand was considered a more advanced democracy. Women over 21 years of age had already had the vote for about a decade, whereas in the UK it would be another two decades before women received the vote, and even then it was restricted to women over the age of 30 who owned property. And so he took to the pulpit and gave his first address in New Zealand. He said: "We want to build a church. Not an organisation that shall arrogate to itself supernatural privileges, or exclusive powers from God, but a place of worship, a place for prayer and praise, a place for the study and practice of religion, a place for the promotion of good conduct, a place for the study of truth, a place for the education of men and women in the ways of righteousness, as individuals, as members of a state, and as members of the human brotherhood of all races and nations. That is our idea of a church."
He believed the purpose of Unitarianism was to help men and women escape the evils and miseries of this life, in order that we might attain the good now. He thought this hinged, as you would expect as a good Unitarian, on people being granted their individual freedom. He said, ‘we advocate [for] freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry, freedom of speech, [and] freedom of worship.’ He framed his whole understanding of Unitarianism through the figure of Jesus, particularly the teachings of Jesus. He was a fan of the story of the Good Samaritan in particular. One gets the distinct impression from that parable that Jesus would be appalled that a religion was established in his name. The whole point the parable is driving at is that your religious or even ideological views are irrelevant if you’re unwilling to work for the good in this present moment. Ultimately, our conduct trumps what we claim to believe. When he arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, there was no dedicated Unitarian church. And so, he set himself to the task of raising the money for one. It really was a simpler time. In no time at all they had raised the necessary funds, the Auckland Unitarian Church was built, and it’s still there today. It was at this time that he met his wife-to-be, Ella. She then went to England to get her degree at Royal Holloway, largely because Oxford and Cambridge did not then admit women. When she returned, they got married, in 1906. In these years Jellie was focusing upon his ministry. The Auckland Unitarian Church in the first decade he was there gained the reputation as being the number one place for culturally liberal individuals to think about theology. Here is a newspaper publication from 1909: ‘The Rev. William Jellie, of the Auckland Unitarian Church, is certainly one of the best-read parsons Auckland can claim. He adds to a lucid style a depth of appreciation of modern problems, and his widely-trained mind presents us with results in sermons and addresses so far superior to the ordinary… But it is matter of regret that Mr. Jellie’s following is not larger and that all the work in inculcating the religion of the present day, of conducting worship clarified by scientific thought, should fall only upon his shoulders.’
After these 14 years of Unitarian ministry in New Zealand, in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, William Jellie and his wife and their now two young children decided to return to the United Kingdom. The idea of returning to the country he knew so well, full of his old friends and connections, was a joyful prospect for him, especially now that he knew he would be viewed as a Unitarian minister success story, having 20+ years of solid ministry under his belt. During the voyage home he set himself a new task - improving upon his Italian. The reason for this is he that was a big fan of Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’, and he hoped to get good enough grasp of the language that he could read the poem in its original language. Over the next seven years, as the war raged on, he had various postings around the country. Another child later, after some activism on the Irish independence issue, William and Ella decided to return to Auckland. Now in his late 50s, William Jellie decided he would not return to Unitarian ministry. Post-War New Zealand’s Unitarianism was struggling; as is often the case after war, there was a lurch towards religious conservatism, as people struggled to reconcile ideas like the love of God, and universalism, and ideals of liberty and tolerance, in light of what they experienced on the battlefield. So rather than ministry, he taught at the Workers Educational Association, an educational charity which sought to widen educational provision particularly for disadvantaged people. His particular focus was on European literature, most notably Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’, which he taught and wrote on a great deal. One year he ran a 30-week course on Dante. He retired in 1939, though stayed closely connected with his Auckland Unitarian Church, and taking services when his support was required.
William Jellie, above all else, valued his freedom of thought for the attainment of truth. Rationalism in one hand, and Unitarianism in the other. His contribution to society and Unitarianism were impressive, an entire life tirelessly dedicated to enlightening individuals’ minds, championing the plight of the poor, and advancing the Unitarian cause. An individual in my estimation well worth our admiration. May we strive, by his example, to be a community enlivened by our free enquiry, to seek after the love of God, and manifest together the good in the now.
Facer, Wayne. A Vision Splendid: the Influential Life of William Jellie, a British Unitarian in New Zealand. Blackstone Editions, 2017.