As an unbeliever, I ask leave to plead that humanity has been real gainer from scepticism, and that the gradual and growing rejection of Christianity — like the rejection of the faiths which preceded it — has in fact added, and will add, to man's happiness and well being. — Charles Bradlaugh, “Humanity’s Gain from Unbelief” (1889)
Childhood and youth
harles Bradlaugh, one of Victorian Britain’s most important liberal activists, freethinkers, secularists, and atheists, was also an early advocate of then-radical causes: woman's suffrage, birth control, free speech, republicanism, national education, social reform and trade unionism. A son of a poor legal clerk, Bradlaugh was born at Hoxton (a working-class suburb of London) on 26 September 1833. He attended school at Bethnal Green and Hackney only five years until he was eleven. Next he began to work in an office as an errand boy, and later as a clerk to a coal merchant. At the age of fourteen he taught briefly at his parish Sunday school in Hackney Road until the parish priest suspended him when he developed doubts about religion while preparing for confirmation.
Charles Bradlaugh by William Strang. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
Bradlaugh continued to question Christian dogma, which led to arguments with his father, and after he refused to attend church, he was forced to leave home. He found shelter in the house of Mrs. Elizabeth Sharples Carlile, the widow of Richard Carlile (1790-1843), a radical publisher and agitator for the establishment of universal suffrage and freedom of the press. Thanks to Mrs Carlile, Bradlaugh could proceed with his self-education. He studied hard everything which came in his way, including a little Hebrew and some other languages. Through Mrs Carlile he was introduced to George Holyokae (1817-1906), a secularist, Owenite, pioneer co-operator, and a radical newspaper editor, who coined the term 'secularism' in 1851. Holyoake encouraged him to make public lectures about atheism. At age 17, Bradlaugh made his first public freethought lecture, “The Past, Present and Future of Theology” at the Temperance Hall, Commercial Road, London, on 10 October 1850.
Unable to support himself, Bradlaugh served as a soldier for three years from 1850. He enlisted with the Seventh Princess Royal's Dragoon Guards and was posted to Dublin, although he hoped to go to India. However, he did not like military life, and a legacy from his great aunt allowed him to obtain a discharge from the army in 1853. After return to London he found employment at ten shillings a week as a clerk in a law office, where he remained from 1854 until 1863. His experience in this law office enabled Bradlaugh to acquire that extensive knowledge of the law which helped him defend himself in his numerous legal battles in his later life.
In 1855, he married Susannah Lamb Hooper, the daughter of a freethinking Chartist. They had a son and two daughters. Susannah became a compulsive alcoholic, they separated in 1870, and she died in 1877. Only the younger daughter, Hypatia (1858-1935), outlived him. She continued her father's work as a secularist, freethinker, and peace activist. In 1895, she wrote his extensive biography, Charles Bradlaugh: A Record of His Life and Work.
Agitator and secularist
hen Bradlaugh was 17, he published under the pseudonym 'Iconoclast' his first pamphlet entitled A Few Words On the Christian Creed, which began his crusade against Christianity. In the mid 1850s he fully devoted himself to public agitation, lecturing widely about atheism and freethought in London and elsewhere in Britain. Soon he gained recognition after he had led a group of demonstrators in Hyde Park who opposed the Sunday Trade Bill, which forbade buying and selling on a Sunday, the only day off working people had.
In 1858-59, he edited the Investigator, a small freethought journal, and in 1860, he established together with Joseph Barker, a former Chartist, the radical and freethought journal, the National Reformer. The newspaper propounded atheism, republicanism, neo-Malthusianism and the separation of Church and State. In the first issue of the National Reformer Bradlaugh published the article “The Population Doctrines” written by George Drysdale, the prophet of birth control and the author of the bestselling book, The Elements of Social Science. In 1862, Bradlaugh became the proprietor and sole editor of the National Reformer and edited it until his death.
In 1858, Bradlaugh was elected President of the London Secular Society. The secularists were a heterogeneous group, but in 1866 Bradlaugh tried to unite the movement by establishing the National Secular Society which opposed Christian dogmas. He became its first President. In the 1880s, the National Secular Society boasted over a hundred branches in England, India, Australia and New Zealand (Arnstein 284).
During the 1860s and 1870s Bradlaugh toured England with antireligious lectures, such as “Is the Bible a Divine Revelation?,” “Is There a God?,” “Can Miracles Be Proven Possible?,” and “Is It Reasonable to Worship God?” His lectures and public debates attracted crowds of interested people an aroused a considerable controversy. On 9 October 1859, his lecture at the Eclectic Institute, Glasgow, on the “Creation” and the “Deluge” was attended by 1600 people, and over 4,000 people heard his mid-week lectures at the City Hall (Royle 212). In Doncaster, he spoke in the open air from the wagon, which increased his audience. As a result, Bradlaugh revived the Secularist movement in Britain, and he was instrumental in promoting secular views among the general public.
Bradlaugh joined the International Workingmen’s Association in 1865, but soon he withdrew his membership because he did not share Karl Marx's vision of socialism (d'Arcy 375). It should be noted, however, that in his day Bradlaugh was far better known than Marx. Bradlaugh's campaigns, which made the secularist and republican movement increasingly popular, led to the disintegration of many English branches of the first International . In the early 1880s the secular movement under the leadership of Bradlaugh boasted six thousand members, but as he became increasingly opposed to the developing socialist ideas, the movement rapidly declined after his death. Likewise, by the late 1880s republicanism as an organised movement also ceased to exist in Britain.
In 1874, Bradlaugh met Annie Besant, a clergyman's wife who also felt strong doubts about Christianity and had recently separated from her husband. She joined the National Secular Society and became the assistant editor of the National Reformer (until 1885). Both Bradlaugh and Besant criticised Christianity as a deterrent to human progress. It is believed that Bradlaugh and Besant had a very close, and even intimate relationship, although he had conservative views on extramarital sex. Both of them lived in legal separation from their spouses and could not hope for a divorce. For a decade, they together toured Britain with freethought lectures in which they called for the establishment of a secular society in Britain. They also advocated birth control and republicanism.
Bradlaugh was an active member of the Reform League established in 1865. He demanded manhood suffrage and the ballot in Great Britain. Like Annie Besant, he also opposed coercive measures in Ireland and was a supporter of Irish Home Rule. He supported the nationalist movements in Italy and Poland, and welcomed the establishment of a republic in France in 1870. Bradlaugh, who took interest in the Indian independence movement, was invited in 1889 to the Indian National Congress in Bombay. He criticised British imperial expansion and opposed the military involvement in South Africa, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Egypt.
Apart from his secularist interests, Bradlaugh was also involved in politics. He was acquainted with two central figures in the Italian Risorgimento (the movement for the liberation and unification of Italy in 1750-1870), Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) and Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), and supported them publicly. Bradlaugh was a charismatic promoter of republicanism in Britain in the 1870s and called for the parliamentary abolition of the British monarchy. In 1871, he became President of the London Republican Club, and in 1872, he published The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick, which became one of the most searching exposes of the extravagance, incompetence and corruption of the Hanoverian dynasty to appear in print (d'Arcy 373). He described English monarchs as 'costly puppets'. In 1874, during his tour through the United States, the New York Herald described him as “The Future President of England.” (Arnstein 255)
The Bradlaugh-Besant trial, Freemason, and Bradlaugh's election to Parliament
In 1876, Bradlaugh and Besant established the Freethought Publishing Company in order to publish freethought books. In 1877, they reprinted and distributed an old neo-Malthusian pamphlet advocating birth control for the poor, The Fruits of Philosophy, or An Essay on the Population Question, written in the 1830s by the American physician Charles Knowlton. In consequence, they were arrested, tried, and sentenced to six months' imprisonment and a fine of £200 for publishing an 'obscene libel'. The sentence was, however, suspended. The jury returned the following verdict: “We are unanimously of opinion that the book in question is calculated to deprave public morals, but at the same time we entirely exonerate the defendants from any corrupt motives in publishing it” (Craig 46). The immediate result of the prosecution of Besant and Bradlaugh was the massive sale of Knowlton's pamphlet, which sold 125,000 copies during the three months of the trial.
In 1859, Charles Bradlaugh, an avowed atheist, was initiated in the Grand Lodge des Philadelphes, an irregular French lodge meeting in London (Order of Memphis), and three years later he joined a regular lodge in Paris La Persérvérante Amitié. In September 1865, he became a joining member of the High Cross Lodge at Tottenham, London. Gradually, Bradlaugh became discontented with English masonry. The newspaper Freemason raised a question how Bradlaugh, Britain's most notorius atheist, could have become a mason since no atheist was allowed to join this organisation. The controversy about Bradlaugh's status as a regular freemason spread to other newspapers in England and on the Continent. In 1874, he resigned from his membership in protest at the nomination of the Prince of Wales as Grand Master, who, as he maintained, did not deserve to lead English Freemasonry.
Bradlaugh first ran for Parliament in 1868 and 1874 but was defeated. His political programme included compulsory national education and greater security for the tenant farmer (Arnstein 255). Eventually, he was elected Liberal MP in 1880. However, he was not admitted to the House of Commons because as an avowed atheist he refused to take the required religious oath on the Bible.
He was reelected for Northampton by special elections after his expulsion in 1881 and 1882, and at the general election in 1886 was once more returned, being permitted this time to take his seat without the Oath of Allegiance. Instead he made only an affirmation replacing the word “swear" with “solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm" and omitting the words “So help me God.” He became one of the most impressive speakers retaining his seat of a backbencher in the House of Commons until his death. However, Bradlaugh had many opponents inside and outside of Parliament. Both the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church in England were engaged in a campaign against him. Cardinal Manning wrote three articles attacking Bradlaugh for the magazine Nineteenth Century. Only Cardinal Newman did not participate in the anti-Bradlaugh campaign. “It little concerns religion,” he wrote, “whether Mr. Bradlaugh swears by no God, or by an impersonal material, or an abstract or ideal something or other” (Arnstein 263).
Bradlaugh did not attempt to popularise his ideas about birth control and republicanism in Parliament. Instead, he became an outspoken critic of socialism although he remained a radical. He made distinction between social reform and socialism. “Social reform — he wrote — is one thing, because it is reform, Socialism is the opposite because it is revolution” (Haggard 115). Bradlaugh opposed socialism because it, as he believed, defied liberal individualism.
Death and legacy
radlaugh died on 30 January 1891 at age 57 at his home in London of Bright's disease (chronic nephritis), and his death significantly weakened the Secularist movement in Britain for decades. He was buried in Brookwood Cemetery in the presence of three thousands of mourners from all classes who came to pay their respects. They included representatives of the Women’s Franchise League, the Vaccination Commission, the Markets Rights and Tolls Commission, the Financial Reform Association, the Good Templars, Toynbee Hall and the Brighton Anarchists, as well as delegates of political groups and secular societies from all over the country (Prescott). Among the various mourners was also a young Indian student named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Bradlaugh's legacy includes not only his contribution to secularism and family planning. He set a tone for a free public discourse, individual autonomy as well as cultural and political freedom. Being ahead of his time, hated by the monarchy and the Church, he contributed to the affirmation of the liberty of the press, and the freedom of expression. Bradlaugh held that individuals should have right to express their unorthodox views and not be harassed for them. Although now largely forgotten, Bradlaugh was one of the most outspoken Victorian freethinkers and the first atheist admitted to Parliament. His Victorian admirers wished that he might become the first president of a Republic of Great Britain.
Bradlaugh’s works on this site
- Working-class atheism, materialism, and evolution
- Atheistic satires on Christianity
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bradlaugh's works were brief controversial pamphlets and press articles. The most important are Half‐Hours with the Freethinkers (co-authored with John Vatts and Anthony Collins, 1856-57), The Bible: What It Is (1859), A Plea for Atheism (1864), Secularism, Scepticism and Atheism (co-authored with George Jacob Holyoake, 1870), The Land, the People and the Coming Struggle (1871), The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick (1872), Autobiography (1873), The Freethinker's Text-book (co-authored with Annie Besant 1876), Land for the People (1877), The New Life of David (1877), Genesis, its Authorship and Authenticity (1882), The True Story of my Parliamentary Struggle (1882), Political Essays (1887-89), and Miscellanies (1899).Arnstein, Walter L. “The Bradlaugh Case: A Reappraisal,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 18(2)1957) 254-269.
Bradlaugh, Charles. A Few Words About the Devil, and Other Biographical Sketches and Essays. New York: A. K. Butts & Co, 1874. (available in Project Gutenberg)
Craig, Alec.Suppressed Books: A History of the Conception of Literary Obscenity. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1963.
Bradlaugh, Hypatia and John M. Robertson. Charles Bradlaugh: A Record of His Life and Work by His Daughter, with an Account of His Parliamentary Struggle, Politics and Teachings. London: T.F. Unwin, 1908.
D'Arcy, Fergus A. “Charles Bradlaugh and the English Republican Movement, 1868-1878,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 25(2), 1982, 367-383.
Haggard, Robert F. The Persistence of Victorian Liberalism: The Politics of Social Reform in Britain, 1870-1900. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
Headingley, Adolphe S. [Adolphe Smith]. The Biography of Charles Bradlaugh. London: Remington, 1880.
Larsen, Timothy. Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Lavin, Deborah. Bradlaugh Contra Marx, Radicalism and Socialism in the First International. London: Socialist History Society, 2011.
Manvell, Roger. The Trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. New York: Horizon Press, 1976.
McLaren, Angus. Birth Control in Nineteenth-Century England. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978.
Nash, David S., Anthony Taylor, eds. Republicanism in Victorian Society. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2000.
Prescott, Andrew. Andrew Prescott, “The Cause of Humanity': Charles Bradlaugh and Freemasonry,” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, 116 (2003), 15-64.
Royle, Edward. Radicals, Secularists, and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866-1915. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980.
____. “Bradlaugh, Charles (1833-1891),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition is available.
Tribe, David. President Charles Bradlaugh, M.P. Hamden, Conn: Archon Books, 1971.
Wheeler, Joseph Mazzini. A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations. London: Progressive Publishing Company,1889.
Last modified 20 November 2014