by Nicky Hilton
Irreplaceable humanist archives, are being rediscovered as part the Alternatives to Religion Project. The material, described by the National Archives as having the potential to ‘transform research and understanding of alternatives to religion’ includes items created by the British Humanist Association (BHA), Conway Hall Ethical Society (CHES) and the National Secular Society (NSS). The current phase of the project is funded by the National Cataloguing Grant Programme and will see historic material from all three organisations catalogued, preserved and made publicly available.
As the professional Archivist implementing this phase of the project, I’ve come across a huge array of items since I started work on the collections in April. The archives consist of official records, such as minutes, deeds and annual reports, as well as campaign material, plans, correspondence and photographs.
My favourite items from the archives are those which convey the changes to thinking of those pioneering agnostics and Unitarians who established the Ethical Movement and laid the foundations of Humanism.
Tracing the origins of Conway Hall Ethical Society through the archives, the researcher will soon encounter minutes and ledgers of Parliament Court Chapel, Artillery Lane. The records evoke a time when this progressive East London congregation (led by William Johnson Fox from 1817), were still navigating the boundaries between dissenting religion, agnosticism and humanism. The congregation met from approximately 1807 until 1824 and although Christian, the congregation were non-conformists, and described in some reports as Universalist. A natural leader, Fox gradually led his congregation away from Christianity to rationalism and presided over the move in 1824 from Parliament Court Chapel to the purpose built South Place Chapel (near Moorgate Station). The official minutes from this time convey a simple shift away from describing the attendees as ‘the congregation’ to the word ‘members’. From this point, the members of South Place Chapel continued to move away from established religion, but it was the arrival of another charismatic leader, Dr Stanton Coit in 1888 which finally saw a complete break from Christianity. The archives record that Coit was appointed Lecturer (no longer Minister) and presided over the change of the organisation’s name from Chapel, to Religious Society, and finally to Ethical Society.
In the British Humanist Association Archive there is further evidence of this gradual, but confident break from religion. As well as leading South Place Ethical Society, Dr Coit was a member of the Ethical Union (forerunner of the BHA) and his vision for the Ethical Movement created some of the most interesting items in the archives. For example, Coit’s scrapbook reveals his unwavering commitment to relieving the plight of the Victorian working classes, not through salvation, but by education and self improvement. His Neighbourhood Guilds, a type of trade union based on locality rather than employment, attracted international attention because of the socialist undertones and atheism. This desire to support people within an ethical framework also led Coit to establish the unique Ethical Church at Bayswater. Occupying a former Methodist Chapel, Coit saw his non-religious church as a template for an inclusive, secular, Church of England. Photographs of the interior of the building show the lectern from where Coit gave his Sunday lectures. Behind him stood an engraving which could easily be taken from a modern work of Humanism: “Thanks to the human heart by which we live”.
The material mentioned here is just a tiny fragment of the total collection. These archives are a treasure trove of humanist, secular and ethical activities, with more untold stories waiting to be uncovered by researchers. Cataloguing of CHES and BHA archives is continuing, and the records of the NSS are due to be started in the new year. Highlights of the Alternatives to Religion project so far are displayed on the project blog at: http://alt2religion.tumblr.com/ which is updated weekly. You can also search the partial BHA catalogue at: http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/Library/Library-Catalogue ; and the partial SPES catalogue at: http://www.conwayhall.org.uk/catalogue
Nicky Hilton is the Archivist for the Alternatives to Religion Project.