Martineau, James (1805–1900), Unitarian minister
by Ralph Waller

Martineau, James (1805–1900), Unitarian minister, was born in Magdalen Street, Norwich, on 21 April 1805, the seventh child of a middle-class merchant family. His father, Thomas (1764–1826), a cloth manufacturer, was a descendant of the surgeon Gaston Martineau, a Huguenot, who had settled in Norwich after the revocation of the edict of Nantes; his mother, Elizabeth Rankin (1770/71–1848), was the eldest daughter of the grocer and sugar refiner Robert Rankin of Newcastle upon Tyne. James's earliest memory at the age of four was of travelling to Newcastle to visit his grandfather, a monotonous journey in a post-chaise that lasted four days which was only lighted by the inspiring view of Durham Cathedral.

Childhood and education, 1805–1821

The house in which Martineau was born and brought up still stands in Magdalen Street, Norwich: although the ground floor, at the time of writing, is used as a second-hand shop, with a little imagination one can picture how this spacious building must have been in the opening years of the nineteenth century. A steady stream of visitors called, and intense discussions took place round the fireside in the evenings, especially on a Sunday, when Thomas Madge (1786–1870), the Unitarian minister, would call. The whole family worshipped at the nearby Octagon Chapel, and it was on this fellowship that its social and cultural life was centred. Built by the English presbyterian Dr John Taylor, the chapel had been founded on non-sectarian lines; however, by the early years of the nineteenth century it had moved, like most English presbyterian congregations, towards Unitarianism.

Martineau's home had its own invigorating atmosphere. There were eight children, and the older children played their part in the formal education of the younger: Thomas, the eldest, taught Latin, while Elizabeth taught French, and Henry writing and arithmetic. All this activity took place with the enthusiastic support of their parents, who knew the importance of discerning encouragement in education: Martineau later said of his father that he was always ready to strain every nerve to advance the education of his children. From 1815 to 1819 he was a day pupil at the public grammar school in the cathedral close, then under the headmastership of Edward Valpy (1754–1836). There were some 230 pupils in the school, several of whom later rose to prominence in civil and military life, including James Brooke, the raja of Sarawak, George Borrow, the writer, and Edward Rigby and John Dalrymple, who became eminent in the field of medicine. However, his schooldays were not happy as he suffered bullying; his intellectual impulses were frustrated, too, as the ethos of the school was centred on classics and grammar, while his interest lay in the direction of mathematics and science. His unhappiness came to an end through the intervention of his sister, , who returned to Norwich full of enthusiasm for the classes of Dr Lant Carpenter (1780–1840) that she had attended in Bristol. Thomas Martineau provided the 100 guineas a year to meet the fees and enrolled James in Carpenter's school.

Carpenter carried his wide range of interests with him into the classroom: he was a man of the world who read the daily papers to the pupils around the dinner table and kept them in touch with the parliamentary debates. He encouraged his pupils to start their own debating society and to care for the poor from their own funds. He laid great stress on moral and religious education, and introduced his pupils to contemporary biblical criticism. The school curriculum at Bristol included lessons in science, history, geography, and in the Greek Testament, as well as in classics and mathematics. This curriculum widened Martineau's horizons and gave him a foundation which enabled him to cope with the scientific revolution of the nineteenth century. Even more important than the subject matter and the patterns of thought developed at Bristol was the immediate influence of the man: Lant Carpenter was both a deeply religious man and a profound thinker, and his spirit stayed with Martineau for the rest of his life.

Training and early ministry, 1821–1828

On the completion of Martineau's schooling in the autumn of 1821 the family took a holiday in the Lake District, staying with friends near Cockermouth. The view of the distant mountains with their sunny knolls and dark hollows filled James with wonder. It awakened within him a love of mountaineering and, like many others of his time, he found a new world in the beauty of nature. At the end of the holiday he travelled to Derby to begin his training with James Fox at his engineering works. Although Fox was a kind and practical man, he was unable to give Martineau a satisfactory theoretical and mathematical grounding for his mechanical interests. This disappointment, combined with the death of his cousin Henry Turner, the young minister of High Pavement Church, Nottingham, and his courtship of Helen Higginson (1804–1877), daughter of the Unitarian minister Edward Higginson and his wife, Sarah (née Marshall), channelled Martineau's aspirations in the direction of the ministry. In 1822, against the advice of his father (who had warned him he would face poverty but nevertheless found the money to support him), he entered Manchester College, York, to train for the ministry.

The members of the Manchester College staff, Charles Wellbeloved (1769–1858), John Kenrick (1788–1877), and William Turner (1788–1853), were all competent men. It was the admirable teaching of Turner, in particular, which gave fresh impetus to Martineau's mathematical studies and enabled him to achieve his ambition of reading Newton's Principia. Martineau also greatly admired the principal, Charles Wellbeloved, and from him received not only the principles of sound biblical criticism but also an overriding view of the catholicity of the church. John Kenrick had just returned from studying with F. D. Schleiermacher, the father of modern German theology, in Berlin, and shared with his pupils the results of his recently gained knowledge; he and Martineau became lifelong friends. In addition to his studies Martineau joined a college missionary society, which went regularly to visit the village of Welburn, almost at the gates of Castle Howard. The small congregation to which they preached so increased that the students decided to build a chapel: Martineau was appointed the architect and on one visit to oversee the building work he met Sydney Smith, the local incumbent and a famous wit, observing the rising walls. In order to deflect Smith's good-natured grumbling Martineau pointed out that without a chapel the people for whom it was meant would go nowhere; Smith replied, ‘So long as you only gather and tame my refractory parishioners, I shall look upon you as my curates, to get people ready for me’ (Martineau, ‘Biographical memoranda’).

While Martineau was still a student his father died, leaving the family with great financial burdens; through the generosity of the college James was awarded a bursary which enabled him to complete his five years' study at York. In 1827 the illness of Lant Carpenter and his consequent absence from the school resulted in Mrs Carpenter inviting Martineau to Bristol to take charge of the fourteen pupils. He undertook this post for one year, and it provided him with two important opportunities. The first came through the good offices of Dr James C. Pritchard, who introduced Martineau to a private philosophical society. He looked back on the evening meetings of the society as one of the most precious passages of his life, when he heard able local men discuss the newest questions of the time and the greatest questions of all time. This society broadened his outlook and prepared him for the part he was later to play in the famous , and for his defence of theism against those who propounded a purely mechanical evolutionary theory. The second opportunity was that of hearing the great Baptist preacher Robert Hall (1764–1831) on Thursday evenings at Broadmead Chapel. His style of preaching, which captivated Martineau, influenced the congregation not by addressing them, but rather by thinking aloud before them. Martineau subsequently adopted a similar form of preaching himself, composing thoughtful meditations, and kept to it in spite of later persuasions by Francis Newman (1805–1897) to change and become a more popular preacher.

Dublin, 1828–1832

In the summer of 1828, after one year in Bristol, Martineau accepted the post of junior minister of Eustace Street Presbyterian meeting-house, Dublin, with the Revd Joseph Hutton (1765–1856), grandfather of Richard Holt Hutton (1826–1897), as his colleague. At the end of that year, on 18 December, he married Helen Higginson, and settled down to his teaching and ministerial work with the hope of a long and fruitful stay in Dublin. In the event his ministry lasted under four years, owing to his refusal to accept any part of the regium donum, the annual grant bestowed by parliament on presbyterian ministers. During his Dublin years he published A Collection of Hymns for Christian Worship (1831), containing 273 hymns, five of which were by his sister Harriet. Martineau drew his hymns from a wider spiritual tradition than had many previous compilers of Unitarian and non-subscribing presbyterian hymnbooks, with the hymns of Isaac Watts and Bishop Reginald Heber well represented. His residence in Dublin coincided with Daniel O'Connell's political agitation, and although Martineau was ministering to a protestant congregation he made several friends among the Catholic population, including the old Irish patriot Hamilton Rowan (1751–1834), in whose home he was often a guest. His sympathy with the Roman Catholic population caused him some difficulty: he signed a petition for Catholic emancipation, only to be told that ministers should not meddle in politics by a member of his congregation who, nevertheless, thought it was Martineau's duty to sign on the other side.

In the summer of 1832 the Martineaus left their first home, said farewell to their friends, stood in silence together in the French churchyard by the little grave of their first-born child, a daughter, Helen Elizabeth, and then crossed the sea with their surviving son and daughter to enter upon the most formative and productive period of Martineau's life.

Liverpool, 1832–1857

On his arrival in Liverpool, Martineau took up the position of minister of Paradise Street Chapel in June 1832. It was here that he formed a close association with J. H. Thom (1808–1894), Charles Wicksteed (1810–1885) of Liverpool, and John James Tayler (1797–1869) of Manchester. They were aided by Joseph Blanco White (1775–1841), the turbulent Spanish Roman Catholic priest who became an Anglican and member of the Oriel College senior common room before being introduced by Thom into Liverpool Unitarian circles. For several years, while editing the Prospective Review, the four friends met once a month at Tayler's home, dining, spending the evening together, and often staying overnight. These were memorable occasions for all of them, and they interacted to stimulate and promote one another's thoughts.

In 1836 Martineau published a remarkable little book under the title The Rationale of Religious Inquiry, which went into four editions and was republished after his death under the title What is Christianity? The impact of this book was extensive. It was read and reviewed in America, and in England it was seen as an important attempt to examine Christianity philosophically. In the preface Martineau maintained that religion and philosophy had traditionally occupied different spheres with little or no contact between them, except in the field of natural religion. Martineau published this volume in the hope of providing an improved philosophical method for investigating Christianity, namely, that religious truth must not be contrary to reason. Martineau was not advocating that the Christian faith must lie within the limits of reason, but rather that, although it goes beyond what reason can prove, it does not go against reason. He expressed this in the phrase, ‘A divine right, therefore, to dictate a perfectly unreasonable faith cannot exist.’ In the development of Martineau's religious thought there were two movements taking place at this time: one was towards a more critical approach to the scriptures and religious tradition, while the other was towards a religion based on feeling which emphasized worship and devotion to Christ. Both these elements can be found within The Rationale, although the critical element dominates. The Wesleyan Conference meeting the following year was urged to make special appointments to Liverpool to refute the brilliant Martineau.

The Liverpool controversy of 1839 and the removal of Manchester College from York back to Manchester had a profound effect on Martineau's thought. The Liverpool controversy was occasioned by the Revd Fielding Ould and twelve other Anglican clergymen inviting, by poster and in the press, the Unitarians of the city to attend a series of lectures in which the errors of their beliefs would be exposed. On the Unitarian side Martineau, together with John Hamilton, Thom, and Henry Giles, accepted the invitation and issued a reciprocal invitation to the Anglicans of Liverpool to hear a reply to each lecture. Martineau gave five of these replies; his papers were well-argued and closely reasoned treatises, containing many of the ideas which came to fruition in his later works. At the end of the controversy Blanco White declared that the Unitarians were the outright winners. The controversy caused Martineau to set down systematically his developing views on a wide variety of theological issues. His lectures show that he had abandoned the idea of revelation as a body of truth, the authenticity of which was assured by miracles, and had replaced it by the view that revelation had to be received by the individual soul, and that its appeal was not to external authorities but to the conscience and the affections. Miracles were still important, but they were performed not to guarantee truth, which could be verified internally, but as a compassionate act of Christ in response to human need. By the close of the Liverpool controversy Martineau had taken his first tentative steps against philosophical necessity, which was one of Joseph Priestley's favourite doctrines.

The removal of Manchester College from York back to Manchester in 1840 provided an opportunity to enlarge the institution: Martineau was appointed professor of mental and moral philosophy and logic, while at the same time he continued his ministerial duties in Liverpool. The preparation of the lectures for his new appointment caused him finally to break away from the influences of Priestly in regard to his biblical and philosophical thought. In his new post he enjoyed close friendships with his colleagues John James Tayler and Francis Newman, the gifted brother of John Henry Newman. During his remaining seventeen years in Liverpool, Martineau wrote some forty-five major articles and contributed to several journals, as well as producing his outstanding hymnbook Hymns for the Christian Church and Home (1840) and his fine collection of sermons Endeavours after the Christian Life (1843). The former, which drew from a wide variety of Christian spirituality, exerted a powerful influence on English Unitarianism, becoming the most widely used hymnbook in the movement. The latter had a powerful influence outside English Unitarianism: avidly read by Anglicans such as John William Colenso and F. W. Robertson, its ideas and images were often reproduced in their sermons. Also during his ministry at Liverpool, Martineau started his classes for young ladies. Among those to benefit from his teaching were the Winkworth sisters, Catherine (1827–1878) and Suzanna (1820–1884), and Anna Swanwick (1813–1899), who felt grateful for the rest of her life to Martineau for his assistance and guidance in her youth; their friendship continued over the following sixty-five years.

During the 1840s Martineau began to feel that the Paradise Street church building—conducive to eighteenth-century rationalism—was inappropriate for his new theological emphasis. Like the members of the Oxford Movement, he too had been affected by romanticism. Hope Street Church was accordingly built in 1848 to rehouse the congregation: Thomas Barry and William Brown designed a beautiful Victorian-Gothic building, with statues, stained-glass windows, chair pews, and a high altar that was never used but which helped to create an atmosphere of medieval gloom, conducive to Martineau's etherial voice and aesthetic sermons.

While Hope Street Church was being built Martineau took his family for a prolonged stay in Germany, and spent several months studying in Berlin, reading the works of Plato and Hegel, as well as observing the great democratic revolutions. He also attended several lecture courses, including those of Professor Trendelenburgh, the well-known German theologian. He likened the German experience to passing through a second education. From that time onwards he read German theological journals and kept abreast of German scholarship. He later said that in Berlin he found only one professor who thoroughly understood Hegel, but sadly no one could understand that professor. He returned to Liverpool in 1849, and preached the ‘hauntingly beautiful’ sermon ‘Watchnight Lamps’ at the opening of the new church.

The year 1851 saw the end of Martineau's long and happy relationship with his sister Harriet. The two had always been close to each other; as children they had enjoyed each other's company and as young people they had undertaken walking tours together in Scotland. It was James who had originally encouraged Harriet to start writing articles. Early in 1851 Harriet and her friend Henry George Atkinson published Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development; in May, in the Prospective Review, James savaged the book, the main criticism being that it propounded atheism, not in the sense of a denial of a first cause, but the denial that the first cause was God as the intending and governing mind. This hurtful review destroyed the close relationship between James and Harriet, and although they occasionally met they never again corresponded with each other. In his ‘Biographical memoranda’ James devoted several pages to vindicating his position, but even he admitted that the consequences of the review caused an ‘epoch’ in his life.

London, 1853–1885

In 1853 Manchester College faced a financial crisis, and after a long and bitter struggle it was decided to move the college to London which, it was argued, would provide better scientific and literary opportunities for students and staff. Martineau retained his post within the college, and for the next four years commuted to London to deliver his lectures. In 1857 John James Tayler was appointed principal of the college and Martineau appointed a full-time tutor. For one and a half years he devoted himself solely to his academic work, but with the death of Edward Tagart in 1858 he combined his post with that of joint minister of Little Portland Chapel. The removal of the college to London was also the occasion of the appointment of James's eldest son, , to Manchester College as lecturer in Hebrew on the recommendation of the German theologian H. G. A. Ewald. Russell was promoted to professor in 1866, but had to retire only a few years later owing to his epilepsy.

It was during James Martineau's London years that he entered into his major controversies. He disliked confrontation and often felt himself badly equipped for it; but he was drawn into controversy, and even seemed to attract it and create it. In 1862 he engaged in a major debate with Herbert Spencer on agnosticism, following the publication of Spencer's First Principles. In October of that year Martineau wrote an article for the National Review under the title ‘Science, nescience and faith’, which was chiefly a criticism of Spencer's work and one of the best apologies of the nineteenth century for the theistic position.

In the spring of 1866 the chair of philosophy of mind and logic at University College, London, became vacant; Martineau's name was put forward and his candidature received the recommendation of the senate. However, the preference of the senate was overturned by the college council through a coalition of those who wanted no minister of religion to be appointed and those who wanted only a minister of the Church of England. The episode caused Augustus De Morgan (1806–1871) to resign his chair of mathematics at University College; he later wrote to Martineau:
I came here on the understanding that a man in office may have any theology provided he sticks to his own subject in his class; if the stipulation is to be that a man shall have no theology, I am just as much disqualified as you; and the College instead of respecting conscience, snubs conscience. (Martineau, ‘Biographical memoranda’)
Croom Robertson, who was appointed to the chair, went on to exert a powerful influence on philosophy in England, while Martineau returned to Manchester College, of which institution he became principal in 1869, and from where he launched his assaults on the materialism of John Tyndall.

Societies and controversies

In 1867 Martineau and J. J. Tayler hosted a meeting in the library of Manchester College to launch the Free Christian Union, a society aimed at promoting Christian unity between liberal Christian churches and individuals. The union called on those who loved God and their fellow men to a common action and a search for divine truth, based on religious sympathies rather than theological agreement. Its members included Henry Sidgwick, the Cambridge philosopher, and Kegan Paul, the vicar of Sturminster Marshall; Tayler had also persuaded Ananase Coquerel of the French Protestant church to be actively involved. At the end of the first year the movement gained considerable momentum, but with Tayler's death in 1869 was removed the one person who had the ability to hold the enterprise together.

In the year following the formation of the Free Christian Union, Martineau was involved in the foundation of the Metaphysical Society. The original plan drawn up by Dean Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Archbishop Manning, and James Knowles was to form a society of believers to discuss questions of theology and to refute agnostics. When Martineau was approached to join, he said that he had no wish to belong to a society of ‘gnostics to put down agnostics’. At his insistence the plan was enlarged to form a society comprehending all schools of thought, theological and scientific. Its membership included John Tyndall, Thomas Huxley, and Alfred Tennyson. In this influential society he formed many friendships.

The nineteenth-century debate on science and religion is often portrayed by the famous confrontation between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce which took place in the University Museum in Oxford. Although this encounter captured the public imagination, it can be argued that the major battle of the conflict between science and religion was not centred on Huxley and Wilberforce but on the debate of 1872 between James Martineau and Professor John Tyndall. Martineau's campaign was largely defensive and concentrated on two fundamental issues: he argued against matter being self-sufficient, able to create and construct out of its own necessity, and thus removing the need for God, and he vigorously opposed religion relinquishing to science the intellectual sphere and thus being confined to the emotional realm of human nature. It was Martineau's defence of religion against the claims of some scientists that caused Owen Chadwick to remark that there came a time after Darwin when even orthodox churchmen came to look upon Martineau as a champion of faith.

Later life and assessment

Martineau retired from Manchester College in 1885 and over the following eight years wrote several important books, including The Seat of Authority in Religion (1890), Types of Ethical Theory (1895), and A Study of Religion (1888). However, some of his work was already appearing dated by the time it came out in print; this was in part due to the fact that he was writing up and publishing his four-year cycle of lectures. His major contribution was not his many articles on science and religion, nor his ethical or theological writing, but his devotional writing. His two volumes of sermons, Endeavours after the Christian Life (1840) and Hours of Thought on Sacred Things (1876–9), still convey many splendid insights into the human condition and contain ideas and imagery that will continue to speak to other generations as vividly as they did to his own. His prayers also have a lasting quality. He both edited and wrote large sections of Common Prayer for Christian Worship (1862); and here for the first time, it has been suggested by Horton Davies, nonconformity produced a liturgical editor of rare genius. His Home Prayers (1892) contain deeply devotional and beautiful expressions of the Christian faith; these prayers have often been reprinted in other anthologies, sometimes without acknowledgement.

Martineau was too broad-minded to belong to any school. Eclectic by nature, he gathered ideas from any source that appealed to his own intellectual and emotional character. His philosophical theology was shaped more by his personality and the movements of the age than by specific adherence to one particular school of thought. He in himself was a record of nineteenth-century theology; born only three years after the death of Kant and living on into the twentieth century, he engaged or commented on almost every theological personality or movement of the age, as can be seen from his volumes of collected Essays, Reviews and Addresses (1890–91). Although a lifelong Unitarian, he rarely felt at home in Unitarianism and indeed disliked the name being applied to a church or a movement, believing that it should be kept to describe individual belief. Had he been an Anglican his influence would have been greater, but the Church of England was too narrow for him: Stopford Brooke once asked Dean Stanley if the Church of England would broaden sufficiently to allow James Martineau to be made archbishop of Canterbury. During the course of his long life Martineau often changed his mind. But this tall, wiry theologian, who enjoyed mountaineering and who had little small talk, was large-hearted and would give unstintingly of his time and effort to everyone who sought his help. James Martineau died at 35 Gordon Square, London, on 11 January 1900 and was buried in Highgate cemetery. Of his eight children, four daughters, including , and one son survived him.



R. Waller, ‘James Martineau’, PhD diss., King's Lond., 1986 · R. Waller, ‘James Martineau: the development of his religious thought’, Truth, liberty, religion: essays celebrating two hundred years of Manchester College, ed. B. Smith (1986), 227–64 · E. Carpenter, James Martineau (1905) · J. Drummond and C. B. Upton, James Martineau, life and letters (1901) · R. Waller, ‘James Martineau revisited’, Faith and Freedom, 38 (1985) · R. K. Webb, ‘James Martineau’, The encyclopaedia of religion, ed. M. Eliade, 9 (1987), 229–30 · DNB · J. Martineau, ‘Biographical memoranda’, Harris Man. Oxf. · A. Hall, James Martineau: the story of his life (1906)


DWL, lecture notes · Harris Man. Oxf., corresp., literary MSS, and papers · St Hilda's College, Oxford, lecture notes |  BL, letters to Sir A. Wills, Add. MS 63084 · Co-operative Union, Holyoake House, Manchester, letters to G. J. Holyoake · Devon RO, letters to W. I. E. Hickson etc. · DWL, letters to Thomas Chatfeild Clarke; letters to A. Lazenby; letters to Priestly Prime; letters to W. G. Tarrant · Hunt. L., letters mainly to Frances Power · Trinity Cam., letters to Henry Sidgwick · U. Nott. L., letters to William Hugh


silhouette, 1813, Harris Man. Oxf. · bust, c.1845, Harris Man. Oxf. · C. Agar, oils, 1846, Harris Man. Oxf. · E. Armitage, group portrait, pencil study, 1870, DWL · G. F. Watts, oils, 1873, Harris Man. Oxf. · G. F. Watts, oils, replica, 1873, NPG [see illus.] · E. R. Mullins, terracotta bust, 1877, DWL · H. R. Hope-Pinker, statue, 1878, Harris Man. Oxf. · C. Martineau, pencil drawing, 1887, NPG; related silverpoint drawing, DWL · H. Allingham, drawing, 1891, Harris Man. Oxf. · S. P. Hall, pencil drawing, 1893, NPG · H. R. Hope-Pinker, marble statue, 1897, Harris Man. Oxf. · C. Martineau, pastel drawing, 1899, DWL · E. Armitage, group portrait, fresco, DWL · Elliott & Fry, carte-de-visite, NPG · H. R. Hope-Pinker, plaster statuette, NPG; related statuettes, DWL · C. Martineau, pastels, Harris Man. Oxf. · E. Martineau, watercolour drawing, DWL · P. Pieraccini, plaster bust, DWL · chromolithograph, NPG · relief bust on memorial, Rochdale

Wealth at death  

£29,871 16s. 11d.: probate, 27 March 1900, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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James Martineau (1805–1900): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/18229