Atheist Centre 50+ Golden Jubilee (1940-1990)
International Conference on
"Future of Atheism -- Humanism"
Vijayawada, December 29-31, 1990
[OCR, HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]

Bradlaugh and Secularism:
'The Province of the Real'
by Jim Herrick
from his book, "Against the Faith"

(This text is as printed in the book, not as printed in the Conference Souvenir.)

George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) was prosecuted for blasphemy in 1842. Richard Carlile was present at his trial and over-enthusiastically described Holyoake's nine-hour speech in defence of his case and freedom of speech as 'the most splendid of its kind ever delivered in this country'. In 1851 Holyoake adopted the word 'secularism' to mean a positive alternative to atheism and to delineate 'the province of the real, the known, the useful, and the affirmative' (Reasoner, 1853). Secularist groups and the National Secular Society were to become active in a campaign for the rights of atheists and in promoting anti-Christian views. The most powerful secularist leader was Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), whose struggle to enter Parliament became a national cause célèbre. Holyoake and Bradlaugh were very different personalities and their relationship was often strained: Holyoake's pedantry and constant self justification contrasted with Bradlaugh's thorough forcefulness. They also differed in their attitude towards the existence of God, Holyoake preferring the label 'agnostic' and Bradlaugh choosing 'atheist'. They debated their differences in 1870 at the Hall of Science in London, when the propositions included 'The principles of Secularism do not include Atheism' and 'Secular Criticism does not involve Scepticism'.

Secularist groups were formed around the nuclei of earlier Owenite and Zetetic freethought groups. Robert Owen (1771-1858) is best known for his contribution to the Co-operative Movement and trade unionism, but his utopian views were highly individual and not widely accepted by the growing working-class movement. His decisive rejection of religion was intrinsic to his view of human nature. He claimed in his autobiography that he had early decided that contending Christian sects were all wrong and that the differences between them were due to social circumstances: 'Thus I was forced, through seeing the error of their foundation, to abandon all belief in every religion which had been taught to man. But my religious feelings were immediately replaced by the spirit of universal charity -- not for a sect, or a party, or for a country or a colour -- but for the human race, and with a real and ardent desire to do good.'

The single idea which dominated his life was that man and society could be remade if upbringing and environment were changed. He put this belief successfully into practice at his model factory at New Lanark and attempted to influence men of power by expounding his ideas in essays, pamphlets and at public meetings. A New View of Society was a series of 'Essays on the Principle of the Human Character and the application of the principle'. He read parts of it to the Archbishop of Canterbury, sent copies to the Prime Minister, many European leaders, and the governors of all the states of America. A plan to solve British social and economic problems which involved model Villages of Co-operation was received less enthusiastically; the Establishment realized that he was proposing a radical change of society, and workers feared that he wanted to turn the whole country into a workhouse. In 1817 Owen addressed large public meetings to persuade the public of his views. He saw this as a turning-point in his life and feared that the public expression of his views on religion had created opponents: in fact his autocratic paternalism and impractical utopianism did more to deter individual followers. On 21 August 1817 he denounced religion as a prime source of error and distress:

 

Then, my friends, I tell you that hitherto you have been prevented from even knowing what happiness really is, solely in consequence of the errors -- gross errors -- that have been combined with the fundamental notions of every religion that has hitherto been taught to men. And, in consequence, they have made man the most inconsistent, and the most miserable being in existence. By the errors of these systems he has been made a weak, imbecile animal; a furious bigot and fanatic or a miserable hypocrite; and should these qualities be carried, not only into the projected villages, but into Paradise itself, a Paradise would no longer be found!

 

The remainder of Owen's long life was devoted to public debates, writing and editing and to the creation of utopian communities, such as the one established by his son Robert Dale Owen in Indiana, or the community of Harmony Hall at Queenswood, Hampshire. His attempts to create a form of 'rational religion' were of limited appeal to working-class groups where his ideas were gaining currency. The title of the journal which he edited, New Moral World, sums up the interest of the later stages of his life. The Book of the New Moral World, published in three volumes from 1836 to 1844, became the Bible of Owenite groups and was read like scripture at meetings. A succession of groups were devoted to his ideas: the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists eventually became the Rational Society. There were paid Owenite missionaries, the so-called 'socialist Bishops' with headquarters in different towns. The unorthodox teaching made it difficult to hire rooms and Halls of Science were built -- not without opposition; for instance, in Bradford the local gas company refused to supply the Owenite Institute, and when premises were planned in Manchester in 1839 a local clergyman formed a committee for 'the counteraction and suppression of that hideous form of infidelity which assumes the name of Socialism'.

Owen himself became a sad figure, ineffective but tireless; he never despaired of convincing the world of the truth of his ideas and he never seemed to understand why his reforms at New Lanark could not be successfully transferred to the world at large. Finally, at the age of eighty-three, he found support for his ideas in another world and learned, via a medium, that the spirit world eagerly awaited the earthly world's conversion to Owenism. He continued to lecture, and published a lively Life the year before he died in 1858 with the last words, 'Relief has come'. His yoking together of social reform and rational religion was a prime influence on G. J. Holyoake and nineteenth-century secularism.

G. J. Holyoake abandoned the metal foundry in Birmingham, where he had worked as a youth with his father, for the Mechanics' Institute to which he had been introduced by Unitarian acquaint ances. After failing to gain a teaching post there he obtained a position as an Owenite lecturer in Worcester. The title of his first lecture, 'An Enquiry into the Incentives Offered by present Society in the Practice of Honour, Honesty and Virtue' suggests a worthy rather than an exciting lecture style and his audiences were small. In 1841 he moved to the larger Sheffield group, where he also had responsibility for a school, but 'neither my School nor my lectures were well attended'.

Infidelity and Owenism frightened the clergy and the Tory bishop of Exeter, Henry Philpott, lambasted the Owenites in a speech in the House of Lords in 1840. An attempt was made to persuade Owenite lecturers to take the oath of a Dissenting preacher. The Central Board of Owen's movement, because of financial problems, was disposed to ask lecturers to take the oath to avoid trouble, but some supporters chafed at any compromise. One such was Charles Southwell, an adventurer and fiery open-air speaker. After criticizing Owen, he resigned his lectureship and set up his own paper in rivalry to New Moral World. Southwell's Oracle of Reason attacked religion vehemently. The Bible, for instance, was condemned vigorously: 'That revoltingly odious Jew production, called BIBLE, has for ages been the idol of all sorts of blockheads, the glory of knaves, and the disgust of wise men. It is a history of lust, sodomies, wholesale slaughtering and horrible depravity; that the vilest parts of all other histories, collected into one monstrous book, could scarcely parallel!' Not surprisingly, he was arrested for blasphemy and sentenced to one year's imprisonment. Oracle of Reason was kept going and after a couple more issues Holyoake agreed to become editor; the tone immediately became less belligerent.

In 1842 Holyoake set out to walk from Sheffield to Bristol. According to some accounts he had resigned his post in Sheffield and was looking for work, according to others he was travelling to visit Southwell in gaol. He gave a lecture at Cheltenham en route. His subject was 'Home Colonisation as a means of superseding Poor Laws and Emigration', and controversial religious matters might have been avoided had not a local clergyman asked him what place God was assigned in the new community. His reply is famous: 'If I could have my way I would place the Deity on half-pay as the Government of this Country did the subaltern officers.' He went on his way, but on reading a Cheltenham newspaper which announced that his arrest was sought, he decided to return to face the authorities. It was a moment of defiance which was not typical; for most of his life he took a compromising attitude towards authority.

Holyoake was duly arrested and placed in Gloucester Gaol. Only after protest that he was being denied due process of law was he released to prepare his defence. For the first time in his life he visited London and contacted Richard Carlile, secured the services of the liberal lawyer, W. H. Ashurst, and spoke at a public meeting at the Rotunda. At his trial he spoke in his defence for a full nine hours; but he seems to have been better at irritating the judge than inspiring the jury with the justice of his case and was sentenced to six months in gaol.

He experienced real hardship in gaol, and though he was prone to over-emphasize the experience throughout his life, as a means of boosting his radical credentials, the death of his young daughter, weakened because he lacked the funds to keep his family well fed, was a bitter wound. He was an industrious prisoner and wrote over two thousand letters and two pamphlets, one of which was a refutation of Paley's arguments from design entitled 'Paley Refuted in His Own Words'. He was consolidating his position as an unbeliever.

On release he found, as he ruefully put it in his memoirs, that 'graduating in gaol was not a recommendation afterwards', although he was at first in demand lecturing as the 'Liberated Blasphemer'. For a number of years he made ends meet with teaching and secretarial posts and with help from middle-class liberal friends. Slowly he established a reputation as a lecturer and journalist. The Owenite groups were in decline and his post with small groups such as the London branch of the Rational Society or the Glasgow Rational Society were neither lucrative nor fulfilling. He founded a paper, the Movement, which proposed to 'maximize morals and minimize religion' and then for nearly twenty years edited the Reasoner and Herald of Progress, which announced its ambition to be 'Communistic in Social Economy -- Utilitarian in Morals -- Republican in Politics -- and Anti-Theological in Religion'.

The failure of the Chartists in 1848 led to disarray and depression among radical groups. At this time Holyoake founded a society to oppose the 'vast organized error of religion' which became the Society of Theological Utilitarians. In 1851 a group of three hundred freethinkers gathered at the London Hall of Science for an address by Holyoake: the Society of Reasoners was founded and shortly changed its name to the Secular Society. Holyoake developed the use of the word 'secularism' and was influenced by Comte's positivism; he liked to quote Comte's words, 'Nothing is destroyed until it is replaced'. Some unbelievers preferred straightforward attacks on religion and complained that 'Secularism should not shroud itself in refined obscurities'. The number of secularist groups slowly increased, and he attended a conference of secularist groups in Manchester. At a meeting of the London society in 1853, Holyoake, its President, was presented with £250. Thornton Hunt, the radical journalist, and Louis Blanc, the French socialist, were present, and messages were received from Owen and Harriet Martineau. The money enabled Holyoake to buy premises in Fleet Street where he could establish a freethought publishing business.

Holyoake was a poor administrator and lacked force as a leader. Bradlaugh ousted him as President of the London Secular Society in 1858. For the remainder of his life he remained active within secularism hoping to be a focus for those who agreed with him that 'To make Atheism the Shibboleth of the Secular Party would be to make Secularism an atheistic sectarianism as narrow and exclusive as any Christian sectarianism'. He devoted much time to the Co-operative Movement and attempted to acquire eminence as a journalist and campaigner.

[Souvenir begins here]

Under Charles Bradlaugh the secularists became a notable pressure group. Bradlaugh's father was a conscientious but unexceptional legal clerk, who found it difficult to earn enough to keep his family in times of economic depression. They moved from Hoxton to Hackney to Bethnal Green, and the young Bradlaugh saw enough of the worst side of Victorian urban squalor to gain an abiding concern with sanitation, birth control and temperance. His education was rudimentary and finished when he was eleven, but an early political awareness is seen in his purchase of a copy of the Charter for a precious half-penny when he was ten. He felt a responsibility to contribute to the family budget, and was first an office boy then a clerk and cashier for a small coal merchant. He made a short speech at a rally in support of the Charter and obtained a lesson in political education when he witnessed the spectacular failure of Chartism to muster its threatened march on Parliament in 1848.

His religious education was gained at Sunday school, where he became a student teacher. The Rev. John Graham Packer gave him the Thirty-Nine Articles to study before his confirmation. He examined them so thoroughly that contradictions became apparent and he wrote to the Rev. Packer asking for an explanation. The clergyman reacted with unreasonable alarm to Bradlaugh's adolescent doubts and suspended him from his Sunday School duties for three months. Although Bradlaugh still considered himself a Christian, he went to hear speakers critical of religion and became acquainted with sceptical literature. He later recounted how he had 'flung himself down and prayed aloud to God, if God there were, to give him light and help, and how no answer came from the void above him, from the empty air around'. The Diegesis by Robert Taylor (see p. 152) was one of the books acquired by Bradlaugh and he sent a copy to the Rev. Packer. Packer did not take kindly to this study of Christianity as a mythical structure; Bradlaugh's father and employers were contacted and the youth was told he must either change his beliefs or lose his job. Before the three days' ultimatum had expired, he left home. No doubt his future militancy stemmed in part from the bigoted reaction to his sincere early doubts.

Bradlaugh needed a roof over his head, and he gravitated to the nearby home of Eliza Sharples, former companion of Richard Carlile (now dead). He continued his self-education and learnt Hebrew. He began to speak in public, was known as 'Baby' and was admired for his ability to hold an audience's attention. He wrote pamphlets, the first published being A Few Words on the Christian Creed which was addressed to the Rev. Packer. At the Hall of Science he met Holyoake and a collection was taken for the 'victim of the Rev. J. G. Packer'. He was developing that 'Self-Reliance' of which Emerson wrote in an essay which so impressed Bradlaugh that he copied out a large part of it:

 

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men -- that is genius.... Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.... What I must do, is all that concerns me; not what the people think.... Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

 

An early attempt to start his own coal merchant business failed because he lacked sufficient capital. Attracted by the idea of foreign travel, he signed up with the army and, with the prospect of secure employment, was reconciled with his family. In 1851 he set sail for Dublin. His three years' experience of army life taught him that he was well able to defend himself with his fists against other soldiers or with wit and legal astuteness against authorities. He was popular for his ability to write letters and defend his colleagues' rights. Observation of the army's purpose of suppressing the Irish peasantry made him a life-long champion of Irish freedom. He obtained leave to visit his dying father and then bought himself out of the army with a small legacy from a great-aunt.

For many years he combined attempts at a legal and commercial career with freethought campaigning. He rapidly gained recognition as a speaker. In 1855 he led a group of demonstrators to Hyde Park to oppose a restrictive Sunday Trading Bill. The demonstrations had been banned and Bradlaugh, not for the last time, resisted arrest by the police. As a lecturer throughout the country he often had to contend with local opposition. In Devonport he was forbidden to speak at an open air meeting by a police constable. He defiantly announced a further date and time, but when the mayor and soldiers set out to stop him they found that his platform was a boat on water just outside the jurisdiction of the town authority. His skill at using the legal system to his own advantage was to be one of his greatest strengths.

He continued to write and began to publish The Bible, What It Is! in serial form; Holyoake and others stopped its publication from the Fleet Street headquarters, because it was thought dangerous and improper -- the Garden of Eden story was seen as a sexual allegory. In fact Bradlaugh was a model of Victorian virtues, dressing with the respectability of a non-conformist clergyman. He settled with his wife in Tottenham, and their house was visited by famous refugees, such as Herzen.

Bradlaugh was amongst those who criticized Holyoake's management of the Fleet Street premises, and his election as President of the London Secular Society marked the beginning of recognition by secularists of his leadership qualities. The National Reformer was started in Sheffield in 1860 by Joseph Barker and Bradlaugh was invited to be co-editor. The two disagreed over the introduction of material related to birth-control -- a moral question which often divided secularists -- and Bradlaugh became sole editor. Apart from a break in 1863, caused by poor health, he remained editor until 1890, and the National Reformer was to become 'a sort of personal diary' which covered his public life. Freethought journalists were often divided about how far to stick exclusively to an anti-theological programme and how far to embrace wider political issues: Bradlaugh took the broad approach, deciding that the National Reformer should be 'an avant-courier on political, social and theological questions, but that it should never deal with one to the entire exclusion of others'. It took much of his energy for most of his life.

In the National Reformer Bradlaugh described his position as that of an atheist, a stance from which he never wavered:

 

I do not deny 'God', because that word conveys to me no idea, and I cannot deny that which presents to me no distinct affirmation, and of which the would-be affirmer has no conception. I cannot war with a nonentity. If, however, God is affirmed to represent an existence which is distinct from the existence of which I am a mode, and which it is alleged is not the noumenon of which the word 'I' represents only a speciality of phenomena, then I deny 'God', and affirm that it is impossible 'God' can be.

 

To those who said that criticism of religion was a destructive task and that something must be put in its place, he replied:

 

Tell the backwoodsman, who, with axe in hand, hews at the trunks of sturdy trees, that his is destructive work, and he will answer: 'I clear the ground, that plough and reaping-hook may be used by and by'. And I answer that in many men -- and women too, alas! -- thought is prison-bound, with massive chains of old church welding; that human capacity for progress is hindered, grated in by prison bars, priest-wrought and law-protected; that the good wide field of common humanity is over-crowded with the trunks of vast creed frauds, the outgrowth of ancient mythologies.... Atheist, without God, I look to humankind for sympathy, for love, for hope, for effort, for aid.

 

Among his business ventures was involvement in a company set up to obtain iron and coal from Southern Italy. Occasionally able to combine his business and political career, he acted as a link between Mazzini and England on his travels to Italy.

His inability to work through ill-health in 1863 and the financial crisis in 1866 left him in severe financial difficulties. But leadership was his natural role and when the National Secular Society was founded in 1866, he became its first President and remained so for over twenty years. His energy ensured that most secularist groups joined the national organization. He campaigned for the right of atheists to affirm and supported the work of the Reform League to extend the franchise. After the Reform Bill of 1867, he decided that Parliament was the best place to continue his work and was adopted as candidate at Northampton for the general election of 1868. There was much opposition and, although he did his best to separate his political campaign from his atheism, the Daily Telegraph wrote deploring the candidature of a man who encouraged Englishmen to 'revile the sublime moralities of the New Testament'. During his campaign, as frequently in his career, he had to deal with libellous attacks on his character. He was not averse to litigation but found himself in a dilemma: 'If when I am libelled I take no notice, the world believes the libel. If I sue, I have to pay about one hundred pounds' costs for the privilege, and gain the smallest coin the country knows for recompense.'

During the 1870s, the secularist groups were for several years quite inactive. Much of his energy went into republicanism, which was aimed not just at the monarchy, but at land reform, hereditary privileges and reform of the House of Lords. Even so conservative an institution as the University of Cambridge had a republican club with a young mathematics don, W. K. Clifford, as secretary. One of the most famous of Bradlaugh's publications was The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick. His fame extended beyond Britain and some European observers tipped him as the most likely man to be the first president of a British republic. He twice visited America on lecture tours as a means of earning money and met celebrated freethinkers such as Ludwig Büchner and Emerson.

Having failed to be elected in 1874, Bradlaugh acquired a further handicap to his electoral image by adding to atheism and republicanism the defence of birth control -- an issue tainted with suspicion of obscenity and immorality. By 1876 Annie Besant had risen rapidly to a prominent position as a secularist lecturer and become a close friend of Bradlaugh. She was a woman of more enthusiasm than judgement or consistency and her long career spanned secularism, socialism and theosophy. She and Bradlaugh were for over ten years extremely close but, although scurrilous rumours hinted at adultery, there is no evidence of it. (The monotonous sexual probity of English nineteenth-century freethinkers compares oddly with the hedonistic pleasures of the eighteenth-century European philosophes.) Bradlaugh and Mrs Besant stood trial after republishing The Fruits of Philosophy; or the Private Companion of Young Married Couples by Charles Knowlton. The jury found them guilty but exonerated them from 'any corrupt motive' and the verdict was quashed on a technicality on appeal.

In 1880, having been accepted as an official candidate of the Liberal Party, Bradlaugh was finally elected to Parliament. His struggles were not over, and he spent six years fighting to take his seat in the House. He was not the first openly unbelieving MP, for John Stuart Mill and others had preceded him. He thought the Evidence Amendment Acts of 1869 and 1870, which he had done much to bring into law and which gave atheists the right to give evidence in court, allowed him to affirm rather than take the oath when he formally entered Parliament. There was doubt about the legal position and a Select Committee decided, by the casting vote of its Conservative chairman, against his right to affirm. He therefore prepared to take the oath. However, since he had made statements indicating that he thought the oath was 'Idle and meaningless' and 'a form less solemn to me than the affirmation I would have reverently made', a parliamentary caucus led by Randolph Churchill opposed his taking the oath on the grounds that he could not be bound by it. Another Select Committee, set up to decide whether Bradlaugh should be allowed to take the oath, ruled against. A motion that he be allowed to affirm put forward by his Northampton colleague, Labouchère, was defeated. Bradlaugh made a speech at the bar declaring that 'there is a court to which I shall appeal: the court of public opinion'. The Speaker asked him to withdraw, he refused, and after a struggle was taken to the Clock Tower. He was the last political prisoner to spend a night there. An amnesty was granted. Gladstone successfully moved a motion that unbelievers be allowed to affirm and in a moment of tense excitement Bradlaugh affirmed and took his seat. Within hours, an opponent, the reactionary Newdegate, took legal steps to bring a writ against him declaring his affirmation was void.

For the subsequent five years Bradlaugh faced complex legal cases, was more than once forced to return to Northampton for re-election, and several times tried to administer the oath to himself. Throughout the country supporters and opponents rallied their forces. In 1881 he publicly declared his intention of taking his seat, arrived in Parliament Square by coach, was cheered by supporting crowds, climbed the steps of the House and was forcibly ejected by the Serjeant at Arms after a physical struggle. His daughter was prevented from studying at University College and Annie Besant was banned from teaching at the Hall of Science. Bradlaugh rightly assumed that his opponents wanted 'to weary and ruin me'.

Another famous case against a freethinker came as a result of Bradlaugh's Parliamentary struggle. G. W. Foote had founded the militant atheist paper The Freethinker in 1881. It was provocatively anti-Christian and contained cartoons ridiculing biblical texts. Bradlaugh was thought, wrongly, to be implicated in the publication of the relevant issues of The Freethinker and in a further attempt to wear him down a blasphemy prosecution was brought against The Freethinker in 1882. One of the most notorious offending cartoons was 'Moses Getting A Back View of God' which depicted the rear side of an elderly gentleman wearing baggy pants. Although Bradlaugh, now expert at threading his way through any legal labyrinth, was able to prove himself not involved in the publication, G. W. Foote was sentenced to a full year's imprisonment -- a punishment the severity of which shocked even leading Christians.

Bradlaugh found time for much parliamentary activity, even though technically not seated in the House. In 1883, in a further attempt to pass a Bill giving atheists the right to affirm, Bradlaugh made one of his finest speeches from the bar. He pleaded:

 

The House, being strong, should be generous ... but the constituents have a right to more than generosity.... The law gives me my seat. In the name of the law I ask for it. I regret that my personality overshadows the principles involved in this great struggle; but I would ask those who have touched my life, not knowing it, who have found for me vices which I do not remember in the memory of my life, I would ask them whether all can afford to cast the first stone ... then that, as best judges, they will vacate their own seats, having deprived my constituents of their right here to mine.

 

Ministers cheered and his opponents were impressed.

By a strange irony Bradlaugh eventually took his seat in a Conservative-dominated parliament. In 1886, after a general election brought in a new Conservative government, the Speaker, Sir Arthur Wellesley Peel (son of the former Prime Minister) said that a new parliament need not be bound by previous resolutions and quickly allowed Bradlaugh to take the oath before there was any opportunity to oppose it. By this time, Bradlaugh had become a national figure seen, like Wilkes, to be a champion of the parliamentary rights of the people. The fight had gone out of his opponents.

Bradlaugh was prematurely aged by the experience, but in his remaining five years he was a tireless and original Member of Parliament. Ironically, he did not live long enough to benefit from his greatest parliamentary achievement -- the passage of the Oaths Act, 1888, which finally gave all MPs the right to affirm. The many causes which he championed in the House included the rights of the Irish, of miners, of labourers and of Indians. He took such an interest in Indian affairs that he became known as 'the member for India'. He was received in Bombay with acclamation and presentation of scrolls and banners, when, following a doctor's recommendation of rest and a long sea voyage, he travelled to India in the winter of 1890-91.

In the last few years he was not free from the litigation and conflicts which had so sapped his energy. His relationship with Annie Besant became distant as her enthusiasm flitted from socialism to theosophy. His disagreement with socialism was serious, for he was profoundly individualistic, preferring people to 'rely more on themselves and look less for salvation to paper statutes'. Socialists were often atheists, and their programme of social reform overtook the secularists; in dealing with a limited range of anti-religious themes the secularists had remained a pressure group and failed to become a political party. However for a decade the sceptical atheist views of the many individuals in this book grew into a popular -- albeit small -- movement. Whether secularists were a cause or a symptom of the gradual secularization of society, they were superseded not by a return to religion but by what they often scornfully termed 'Indifferentism'. Atheism was becoming respectable; Huxley's neologism 'agnosticism' was gaining currency and even if militants like Bradlaugh saw it as 'a mere society form of Atheism', it was a mark of the extent to which sceptical views had penetrated all levels of society. When a Conservative MP friendly to Bradlaugh said to him, 'Good God, Bradlaugh, what does it matter whether there is a God or not?' he was as much a herald of the twentieth century as Bradlaugh himself.

Bradlaugh's last pamphlet was Humanity's Gain from Unbelief, published in 1888. It is imbued with an optimism and belief in progress that the most ardent humanist could not sustain in the twentieth century. Bradlaugh looks to a period when religion will wither away. This, he thought, would be a gradual progress:

 

No religion is suddenly rejected by any people; it is rather gradually outgrown. None sees a religion die; dead religions are like dead languages and obsolete customs: the decay is long and -- like the glacier march -- is perceptible only to the careful watcher by comparisons extending over long periods.

 

He thought that the 'ameliorating march of the last few centuries has been initiated by the heretics of each age' and, although he admitted that 'many eminent servants of humanity have been nominal Christians', he considered their services 'have not been in consequence of their adhesion to Christianity, but in spite of it'. The improvement of the human condition was due to the 'modern study of the laws of health, experiments in sanitary improvement, more careful application of medical knowledge', which 'have proved more efficacious in preventing or diminishing plagues and pestilence than have the intervention of the priest or the practice of prayer'. He also saw a gain in freeing the mind from 'the terrible doctrine that eternal torment is the probable fate of the great majority of the human family' and 'the faith that it was the duty of the wretched and the miserable to be content with the lot in life which providence had awarded them'.

It was a measure of Bradlaugh's own progress that by the end of his life he was accepted and respected throughout the House of Commons. During the struggle to gain his seat, Gladstone had declared: 'I have no fear of Atheism in this House.' Bradlaugh's integrity had dispelled the fear of atheism as a threat to morality.

In 1890, failing health caused Bradlaugh to resign as President of the National Secular Society. In January 1891 the kidney disease which had weakened him for many years worsened. Much sympathy was expressed in the House, where members were debating a motion to expunge the record of his expulsion from the Journals of the House. But his strength was fading and he did not hear the news that the motion had been passed. He died on 29 January. In a will of 1884 (not his last) he had directed that 'my body be buried as cheaply as possible and no speeches be permitted at my funeral'. His daughter believed this was his last wish and endeavoured to carry it out; so many people, from working men to MPs, wished to pay their respects that a special train was laid on from Waterloo to Brookwood (where he was buried with his family). The young Indian student Gandhi was among the mourners. A group of Nottingham secularists sent an inscription with their flowers: 'Brave, honest, incorruptible, thorough'.

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