This morning we’re thinking about the 19th Century Unitarian minister William Gaskell, and more broadly, where he fits into the wider Unitarian epic. William Gaskell is most often overshadowed by his more famous wife, the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. When we think of William Gaskell, we think of Manchester, we think of Cross Street Chapel where he was involved for 85 years, being their minister for 56 of those years. He never ministered anywhere else. Like our Meeting House, Cross Street Chapel, or as it was known originally, The Dissenters Meeting House, was an English Presbyterian church which gradually shifted towards its Unitarian position. By the time of Gaskell it was firmly Unitarian. They first opened their doors five years before us, in 1694. William found himself ministering to the congregation from 1828 onwards, which consisted at the time of many wealthy and powerful families, who were motivated to both remove the legal limitations which continued to disadvantage nonconformists, and to improve the lot of the city’s working class, through improving educational and social conditions.
Throughout the Victorian period, Cross Street chapel was at the heart of social and cultural change within the city. It was the fountainhead of Manchester Liberalism and the central spoke of northern Unitarianism, even being described as the cathedral of northern Unitarianism. During William Gaskell’s ministry he was involved in a great deal of social action groups, sitting on many committees from poverty relief societies to the sanitation commission, and to various schools and libraries, particularly the Lower Mosley Schools in which both William and Elizabeth taught. The Industrial Revolution had created a lot of problems within Manchester, from poor working conditions to overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure, a lack of political representation, a lack of education for the poor; the list goes on and on. William Gaskell, and his congregation more generally, championed the relief of these ills and worked tirelessly for the disadvantaged. William Gaskell being the Unitarian he was, put education at the heart of his outreach, devoting a great deal of time to teaching and lecturing at colleges, working men’s clubs, or taking on private pupils. If you search for information about the Gaskell’s, as I have done, you will find a great deal of information concerning the vast amount of charity work they were involved with in Manchester. I was more interested, however, in uncovering the beliefs and attitudes which underpinned these good works.
William Gaskell’s Unitarianism was comprised of three main strands. First there was the literary strand, concerned a great deal with reading and discussing literature and philosophy. It was influenced a great deal by Wordsworthian Romanticism, particularly an emphasis upon the importance of our interior worlds of feeling. Secondly, in terms of theologians he was influenced most by Joseph Priestley and his brand of ‘Rational Christianity’ (I'll come back to that); and thirdly, the Bible itself. His Unitarian Christianity put the study of the Bible at the centre of his faith. As I said, William spent a lot of his time going to working men’s clubs and teaching in the heart of Manchester, and more often than not it was the poetry of William Wordsworth to which he would turn. It's difficult for me to imagine what that would be like. I suppose it must have been effective because these hard working men spent all their days toiling within the factories of Manchester, starved of beauty and nature - the primary themes of Wordsworth. There was no television or radio to monopolise their attention, and so the oration of the much loved William Gaskell in the evening was a desirable option. Like myself, William Gaskell never spoke extemporaneously, he only ever read his lessons and sermons from scripts. And so there he was, in some gloomy Manchester club, surrounded by men covered in grime and sweat drinking their beer, while William read aloud, describing to them the importance of certain themes as seen in Wordsworth’s ‘daffodils’. It's almost unimaginable.
Education was paramount. Today when we think of political reform in aid of the lower class, what comes to mind is helping children to pass exams, or raising the minimum wage, or supporting food banks perhaps. I’m sure the reform minded Unitarians of the 19th Century would have been in sympathy with all that, but it was secondary to a more paramount concern - to furnish and awaken people’s interior worlds of meaning, to grow their awareness. So, it's an emphasis on education, but not quite the emphasis on education as that issue is framed today. Certainly not results orientated but rather concerned with one’s interior and spiritual wellbeing. That’s true poverty, to William Gaskell, poverty of the mind. The importance of this interior awakening amongst the poor, which so motivated William, is linked in with the pre Great War beliefs around perpetual progress and the fast approaching ‘Christian Millennium’. And this is where the ideas of Joseph Priestley come in. Joseph Priestley: most famous for discovering oxygen, the radical theologian, who as we know served as the minister in Needham market for a few years in his 20s, who went on to become the leading dissenting thinker of his generation, whose ideas greatly influenced the founding fathers of America and were often discussed in the correspondence between Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
The Christian Millennium idea varies a bit depending on what theologian we’re talking about, but for Joseph Priestley it was a belief that there would be a 1000 year golden Christian epoch, before the second coming.The idea being, that at this time in history the culmination of political liberty with individual liberty, the free and open exchange of ideas, with the scientific revolution, greater literacy, a greater knowledge of history, the education of woman, and a rational and proper reading of the Bible, one could expect nothing other than this new golden age to come. An age in which monarchies would fall, and new democracies of liberty would arise. Priestley pointed in particular to the French Revolution. To quote Priestly he says, “My opinion is founded altogether upon revelation and the prophecies. I take it that the ten horns of the great beast in Revelations mean the ten crowned heads of Europe, and that the execution of the king of France is the falling off of the first of those horns; and the nine monarchies of Europe will fall, one after another, in the same way.”
All in all I think this demonstrates just how different the Unitarianism of the 18th and 19th Centuries was to now; a gulf often minimised. William Gaskell was undoubtedly a great humanitarian, but let’s not forget that his humanitarianism was underpinned by some quite strange ideas. And the reason these ideas seem strange today is because, by and large, Christians in the 18th and 19th Centuries, even rational Unitarian Christians, were still reading and understanding the Bible in mostly literalistic terms. Both Joseph Priestley and William Gaskell, for example, believed in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus. By the tail end of the 19th Century, new, and more critical approaches to reading the Bible were starting to seep in. And throughout the 19th Century you can begin to see moves in this direction. For example in 1840 James Martineau preached a sermon in Leeds all about the ascension of Jesus, and why he didn’t think it happened literally; a sermon which caused a great deal of buzz at the time. It seems like William Gaskell was willing to go along with Martineau on this, but he definitely wouldn’t have accompanied Martineau into his beliefs about a non-literal bodily resurrection, which Martineau arrived at in later life.
To put it very simply then, I think throughout the 19th Century, and definitely by the Great War, Unitarianism had moved from away from a thoroughly optimistic outlook towards a more realist outlook, a necessary shift away from ‘onward and upward forever’. But there remains something desirable I think in William Gaskell’s hope, in his unshakable belief that by just liberating minds great things would be achieved. I envy that kind of optimism. We can’t go back of course, we wouldn’t want to go back, but perhaps there is a new Unitarian optimism to be found, one that encompasses all that has transpired from Gaskell to now. It’s a worth a thought anyway.