Get off your knees

Ferdinand Mount

  • Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh, Atheist and Republican by Bryan Niblett
    Kramedart, 391 pp, £19.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 9564743 0 8

He was ‘unquestionably a great and good man’. Who could forget ‘his gigantic stature, his warm temperament, his good health and good humour, his bull-necked obstinacy, his generous and open temper? … He had many enemies and fought them all with generosity … In the last glimpse of the enormous “Iconoclast”, he is a priest defending an altar.’

This was the verdict of G.K. Chesterton on the death of Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91), atheist and republican, publicist for contraception – and, in short, for pretty much everything Chesterton hated. This genial tribute from the champion of Orthodoxy with a capital O to the self-styled ‘Iconoclast’ (Bradlaugh’s pen name) was not simply another piece of glittering paradox, one more instance of Chesterton’s determination to startle the reader at all costs. On the contrary, that was the way most people saw Bradlaugh. From the moment he burst onto the scene as a teenage preacher to his last days thundering at the Bar of the House of Commons, he struck everyone as enormous: physically so, six foot two, broad-browed, broad-shouldered (in later years elephantine and ponderous of gait) and gifted with a resonant voice which could reach audiences in their thousands without any visible effort; but also eloquent, serious, immensely moral and decent. He was the Gloria Steinem of atheism, an inexhaustible public personality who lent star quality to an unpopular and alarming cause. He defied in his own person the caricature so crudely chalked by Lord Randolph Churchill that the supporters of atheism ‘were for the most part … the residuum, the rabble and the scum of the population; the bulk of them persons to whom all restraint – religious, moral or legal – is odious and intolerable.’

Nobody could possibly say any such thing of Bradlaugh. For one thing, he was a lifelong teetotaller. After he had been sacked as a Sunday school teacher for pointing out the discrepancies in the Thirty-Nine Articles and the gospels, he took the queen’s shilling and was enrolled in the Seventh Dragoon Guards, where he was nicknamed Leaves because he preferred tea to alcohol and spent much of the time turning the pages of a book. All his life he was desperately concerned about appearances. He fired the poet James Thomson from the paper he edited for drunkenness (‘The City of Dreadful Night’ first appeared in Bradlaugh’s National Reformer). And though he was more or less in love with his long-time collaborator Annie Besant (and she desperately so with him), there could be no question of their living together so long as her ghastly husband, the Rev. Frank Besant, was still alive.

Born poor, Bradlaugh never lost his sympathy for the poor classes he came from. His father was a solicitor’s clerk, his mother a nurse, and he left school at the age of 11 to work as a wharf clerk in a coal merchant’s. Never embittered, never corrupted, he stayed poor. As a teenage soldier in Ireland, he had seen the horrors of the evictions after the Famine. When he became an MP, he was dismayed by how little interest his fellow MPs took in the sufferings and struggles of the Indian people. He was soon known as ‘the Member for India’.

But his compassion didn’t temper his critique of Christianity. In the first issue of his first periodical, the short-lived Investigator, he set out his editorial aims bluntly enough to satisfy any Hitchens or Dawkins: ‘We believe all the religions of the world are founded on error, in the ignorance of natural causes and material conditions, and we deem it our duty to expose their falsity. Our policy is therefore aggressive.’ And it was.

It was also unremittingly constructive. Derision and demolition were only necessary preliminaries. Bradlaugh was never more mid-Victorian than in his determination to build an alternative secular society. It was his predecessor George Jacob Holyoake who coined the term ‘secularism’ – ‘the province of the real, the known, the useful and the affirmative’ – in the year of the Great Exhibition, and it was not the least of the achievements of the age. But it was Bradlaugh who, still only 24, became president of the London Secular Society, elbowing aside the more hesitant Holyoake. For the rest of his life, he was the leader of English free thought. Though not always unchallenged, he saw off every challenger in briskly contested elections for any post that was going.

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