South Place Ethical Society

For another look at Victorian progressivism, let’s take the South Place Ethical Society. Like the Boden Professorship, it is something I tried to discuss on twitter as a demonstration of the pre-Marxist flowering of harmful progressivism, but I was not able to make my case clearly, and I also made a serious factual error, which I will come to below.

In this instance my route to the subject is not a Featured Article, but my own reminiscences: twenty years ago, I considered myself a Secular Humanist, and went so far as to join SPES (as it then was).

The history of the Society is recorded on both its own website and Wikipedia. It started as a non-conformist church in 1787, became unitarian, and then discarded any belief in a personal god, becoming an “Ethical Society” in 1888.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, the society was associated with campaigns for free education, abolitionism, and womens’ rights. The central aim was to encourage the major churches to follow their example, rejecting belief in the supernatural in favour of secular ethics.

If Max Müller was at the prestigious, respectable mainstream of intellectual progressivism at this time, South Place was the slightly iffy fringe. Think of it as Chomsky to Müller’s Krugman. You could suggest that the members were perhaps taking things a bit too far, without losing your own standing as a right-thinking person, but it was still influential. From its website:

'The great and the good'! It would take up too much space here to list all the famous people who have occupied the Society‘s platform and been reported in its journal during all these years, but here is a more-or-less random selection: Felix Adler, Norman Angell, William Archer, A J Ayer, Annie Besant, C Delisle Burns, Herbert Burrows, W K Clifford, John Drinkwater, G W Foote, John A Hobson, Laurence Housman, Fred Hoyle, Julian Huxley, T H Huxley, Cyril Joad, Margaret Knight, Peter Kropotkin, Joseph McCabe, William Morris, Gilbert Murray, H W Nevinson, S K Ratcliffe, John M Robertson, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Leslie Stephen, Graham Wallas, Sidney Webb, Rebecca West and Israel Zangwill.

My original intent in bringing up the society on twitter was to make two points — first, that today’s progressivism was approaching at a rapid pace throughout the nineteenth century, and wasn’t something triggered in the twentieth. I think that is well supported: the destruction of the family, of the church, of the idea of hierarchy, were all deliberate projects embarked on by influential people in the Victorian era.

My second intended point was that the evolution of a protestant sect into atheist leftists was something home-grown in Britain in the 19th Century, and not a foreign import. That claim is not borne out by a study of the society’s history. On the contrary, from 1864 to 1897, which includes the period when it ceased to be a nominally Christian church and became an explicitly non-religious society, it was run by two American ex-Unitarians: Moncure Conway, after whom the society’s premises and now the organisation itself is named, and Stanton Coit, who organised the wider “Ethical” movement in Britain. Their intellectual inheritance comes straight from Emerson’s Transcendentalism, and their activist background was abolitionism. Conway “was asked by American abolitionists to go to London to convince the United Kingdom that the American Civil War was a war of abolition”.

I never heard about the Society’s American roots during my membership, but then US connections were not popular with British leftists during the administration of the first Bush, so it is not that surprising they preferred to emphasise Fabian connections — which were close: this quote is from the Ethical Movement article:

The short lived Fellowship of the New Life, established in 1883, furnished the London Ethical Society with much of its membership when it disbanded. Those who did not join the Ethical Society made their way to the much more politically active Fabian Society, which was itself a direct offshoot of the Fellowship.

Though I am backpedalling on my claims that Britain produced a form of extreme leftism in isolation, the importance of the Fabian Society is hard to exaggerate.

Ultimately, the Ethical Movement slightly overreached — its aim of explicitly converting churches to open atheism was not quite subtle enough. That, perhaps, is the purpose of the “slightly iffy fringe”, to make the progressive mainstream look moderate. But all its practical goals were accomplished in the long run.