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  Alexander Gordon (1841–1931), by unknown photographer Alexander Gordon (1841–1931), by unknown photographer
Gordon, Alexander (1841–1931), Unitarian minister and historian, was born on 9 June 1841 at Cheylesmore Manor House, Coventry, the second of the five sons of John Gordon (1807–1880), a Unitarian minister. John Gordon was born at Dudley, Worcestershire, on 1 March 1807, the son of Alexander Gordon, who was in business in the town, and his wife, Maria Loxton. Educated at Dudley grammar school, he was to prepare for the Church of England priesthood at Oxford, but he refused to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles; he maintained this libertarian stand throughout his life. He became a Methodist minister, but was in effect repudiated by the Methodist conference in 1835 on the same issue. After joining the Unitarians he was minister at Coseley, Coventry, Edinburgh, Dukinfield, and Evesham, and retired in 1873. He lectured widely and was considered one of the leading Unitarian ministers of his day. His knowledge of literature and history, on which he wrote, was profound, and he was a willing debater. An active religious libertarian, ‘he stood complete in his integrity’. He married first Sarah King, daughter of John Mumford, in 1832; she died, leaving a son, the following year. Secondly he married in 1840 Anna Maria, daughter of Thomas Hodgetts of Bristol, who was the mother of Alexander Gordon and three other sons. John Gordon died at Ladyes Hill, Kenilworth, on 24 April 1880.

Alexander Gordon was educated by his father, and then at King Henry VIII School, Coventry (1852–4), the Royal High School in Edinburgh (1854–6), and the University of Edinburgh (1856–9). He attended Manchester New College, London, for ministerial training from 1859 to 1862. Between 1860 and 1862 he studied under Döllinger at Munich and was Hibbert fellow at Edinburgh in 1863–4 (MA 1864). Gordon was successively Unitarian minister at Aberdeen (1862–3), Hope Street Church in Liverpool (1863–72), Norwich (1872–7), and the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church in Belfast (1877–89). From 1890 to 1911 he was principal of the Unitarian Home Missionary College, Manchester (later the Unitarian College), and lecturer in ecclesiastical history in the University of Manchester.

Gordon was probably the most eminent and highly regarded historian of nonconformity of his time, with an encyclopaedic knowledge and memory. Through his exhaustive and objective scholarship, based largely on primary sources, he significantly influenced subsequent research into religious dissent. He succeeded in bringing the life and work of early English dissenters in particular into the mainstream of historical research, but his erudition extended to European religious reformers. His acquaintance with minor protestant groups, such as the Mennonites, Collegiants, Anabaptists, and Familists, was hardly less intimate than his knowledge of English sects, such as the Traskites and the Muggletonians. Never formally trained as a historian, Gordon had a passion for writing biography: his outstanding contribution was to the Dictionary of National Biography, for which he wrote 778 entries, almost all the articles on Unitarians being from his pen. His articles included extensive memoirs on such major figures as John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Jabez Bunting, and George Fox. Readers, and those who have written for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, will appreciate the extent of his achievement. Gordon also contributed two articles to the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875–88), for which his father had also written, and thirty-nine articles to the eleventh edition (1910–11), seven of which were revised for the fourteenth (1929). Among his books, Freedom after Ejection, 1690–92 and The Cheshire Classis Minutes, 1691–1745 were standard works for many years.

Gordon's total output of articles was prodigious. From 1869 to 1930 reviews, chapel histories, and biographies flowed from his pen (he never used a typewriter), and covered every branch of nonconformity. He regularly contributed historical articles of high quality to the weekly Christian Life for over fifty years. His correspondence was as voluminous as his knowledge, which was willingly shared with other scholars. Gordon helped foster the increased interest in nonconformist history which arose at the beginning of the twentieth century, and played a unique role in the foundation of seven denominational history societies (1898–1915). He assembled a library of 12,000 items, together with a considerable collection of railway tickets.

Gordon was a complex, often cantankerous personality. Gruff and inordinately self-reliant, Gordon was highly conservative in attitude, theology, and lifestyle. Though he was warm and understanding to his students, stories of his sharpness are numerous. When asked by a pompous college dean, ‘My good man, I do not think I know you. Who are you?’, Gordon replied, ‘Oh, I'm just myself. Are you anybody?’ His hats were inscribed inside the brim ‘Not Yours’. Contemptuous of rank or title, he rejected offers of honorary doctorates from Manchester, Edinburgh, and various American universities.

On 23 April 1872 Gordon married Clara Maria (1846–1902), daughter of ; they had five sons and one daughter. After 1911 he chiefly resided in hotels. He died, after a brief illness, in Belfast on 21 February 1931 and was buried at the Old Meeting-House, Dunmurry, on 23 February 1931, ‘an Englishman by birth, a Scotsman by education and an Irishman by inclination’ (The Inquirer, 28 Feb 1931).

Alan Ruston


H. McLachlan, Alexander Gordon (1932) · The Inquirer (28 Feb 1931), 99–101 · Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, 5/1 (1931–4) · The Inquirer (9 Feb 1946), 40 · H. McLachlan, Essays and addresses (1950), 290–336 · G. E. Evans, Record of the provincial assembly of Lancashire and Cheshire (1896), 53, 93 · The Inquirer (1 May 1880) · The Inquirer (8 May 1880) · Christian Life (1 May 1880) · Christian Life (8 May 1880) · Christian Life (29 May 1880)


JRL, corresp. and papers, incl. research notes for DNB entries · NL Wales, notes relating to G. E. Evans, History of Renshaw Street Chapel


photograph, repro. in McLachlan, Alexander Gordon, frontispiece [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£5610 6s. 7d.: resworn probate, 6 May 1931, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · under £5000—John Gordon: probate, 1880