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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
James Martineau (1805–1900)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
TWO names overtop all others in the history of English Unitarian thought and leadership,—Joseph Priestley and James Martineau. Priestley died in 1804, and Martineau was born the following year, April 21st, coming of a Huguenot family which had been long settled in England. From his father he inherited the gentleness and refinement of his nature, from his mother that intellectual strength in which his celebrated sister Harriet so fully shared. His education began at the “Grammar School” in Norwich, where his father was a manufacturer and wine merchant; and was continued at Bristol with Dr. Lant Carpenter, then a prominent Unitarian minister, but now best known as the father of the scientist W. B. Carpenter and Mary the philanthropist. The next step was to the workshop, with a view to making himself a civil engineer. This phase of his experience enriched his mind with the materials for many a brilliant metaphor in his writings, wonderful to his readers until they know his early history. But his heart was not in his work; and at length his father yielded to his solicitations, and assuring him that he was “courting poverty,” sent him to Manchester New College, which was then at York,—a lineal descendant of that Warrenton Academy in which Priestley taught and Malthus was educated, but already, in 1824, a Unitarian theological school. Here Martineau was graduated in 1827, and soon after became junior pastor of a church in Dublin, nominally Presbyterian like most of the early Unitarian churches in England and Ireland. Already distinguished as a preacher of great eloquence and fervor, upon the death of his senior he refused to take that senior’s place because it entailed the regium donum: a gift of the Crown to Protestant ministers, which he thought discriminated unfairly against Roman Catholics. His next charge was in Liverpool, whither he went in 1832, and in 1836 published his first book, ‘Rationale of Religious Enquiry,’ which was strikingly in advance of the current Unitarian thinking. In 1839 he made himself a great reputation in the famous “Liverpool Controversy”; accepting, with the Unitarians Thom and Giles, the challenge of thirteen clergymen of the Established Church to a public debate. Martineau’s contribution was the most brilliant and effective ever made to Unitarian controversial writing. This success may have done something to set the habit of his life; for it is certain that it continued ever after stoutly controversial,—his numerous essays and reviews, and even his most important books, being cast for the most part in a controversial mold, while his sermons frequently take on a controversial character without any of the personalities which the other things involve.  1
  In 1840 he was made professor of mental and moral philosophy in Manchester New College; which, following its peripatetic habit, in 1841 returned from York to Manchester, went to London in 1847, and to Oxford in 1889. Martineau was connected with it as professor, and for many years as its head, until 1885. In the mean time he had removed from Liverpool to London, in 1857, after ten years of journeying there to his lectures and back to his pastoral work. The substance of his college work is embodied in his ‘Types of Ethical Theory’ (1885), ‘A Study of Religion’ (1888), and ‘The Seat of Authority in Religion’ (1890).  2
  The critical radicalism of the last of these volumes did much to alienate the sympathies of those whose religious conservatism had attracted them to the two others, and to the general working of his mind as opposed to the materialistic tendencies which were dominant and aggressive in the third quarter of the century. But as a critic of the New Testament and Christian origins there was nothing in ‘The Seat of Authority’ to astonish or surprise any one acquainted with the course of his development. In this respect he had been consistently radical from first to last. Some of the most radical positions in the book will be found, germinal if not developed, in his reviews and studies of a much earlier date. The result of his criticisms was, for himself, a conception of Jesus and his work in history which, ethically and spiritually, transcended any that he found in the traditional presentation, but was strictly within the limits of a humanitarian view.  3
  If Martineau’s theological and philosophical position was conservative as compared with his criticism, it was so only from the accident of a temporary swaying of the pendulum of thought towards materialism—a tendency which has already reached its term, and which no English writer has done so much to counteract as he. But an intuitive philosophy, anti-materialistic, anti-necessarian, anti-utilitarian, was not a conservative but a radical philosophy from 1840 until 1860; and this was the philosophy of Martineau in those years of earnest thought and active change. He had begun as an ardent disciple of Locke and Hartley and Priestley; serving out his captivity with them more patiently because of the idealization of their doctrine by the younger Mill, who as early as 1841 noticed in a syllabus of Martineau’s lectures that he was falling away from his allegiance to the empirical school, and begged to have the lectures printed lest he should “be studying them in another state of existence” were their publication long delayed. In a little while Martineau found himself bound “to concede to the self-conscious mind itself, both as knowing and willing, an autonomous function distinct from each and all of the phenomena known, and changes willed,—a self-identity as unlike as possible to any growing aggregate of miscellaneous and dissimilar experiences.” This involved a surrender of determinism and a revision of the doctrine of causation. In 1848–9 he spent fifteen months in Germany, studying with Trendelenburg, and was soon brought into the same plight with reference to the cognitive and æsthetic side of life that had already befallen him in regard to the moral. He had become a metaphysician,—the possible as real for him as the actual, noumena as real as phenomena, mind central to the universe, and God a righteous will.  4
  It would be difficult to find a more brilliant series of writings—culminating in the elaborate treatises of 1885, 1887, 1890—than those in which Martineau defended his new-found philosophic faith. He had many foemen worthy of his pen. In the persons of Mansel and Spencer he opposed himself to Agnosticism before Huxley had named the terrible child, and while it was provisionally called Nescience. Against Tyndall and others as the prophets of Materialism, he put forth his utmost strength. In the great battle with Determinism and Utilitarianism he met all those who came up against him with a dialectic supple and keen as a Damascus sword. On these several fields he was a recognized captain of the host, and obtained the admiration and the gratitude of many who could not abide his Unitarian faith. His scientific knowledge was so large that it enabled him to cope with noble confidence with scientists venturing across his lines. He has lived to see many of the bolder of them retreating from positions too rashly taken up; but that his own are final is not to be supposed. One may greatly admire him, and yet conceive that he has been far more apt in finding what is weakest in the philosophical and religious implications of a transitional science, than in appropriating those scientific elements which make for a more satisfactory solution of the universal mystery than any yet obtained.  5
  But if Martineau had not been a master in philosophy and ethics, he would still have been one of the most distinguished preachers of his sect and time. His most helpful books have been his volumes of sermons, especially the two volumes (1843–7) ‘Endeavors after a Christian Life.’ The published sermons of his later life are too much overcrowded by the fear that the materialists be upon us. They have not the joyous march and song of the ‘Endeavors.’ A penetrating spirituality is the dominant note of all his works; a passion for ideal truth and purity. The beauty of holiness shines from every page as from the preacher’s face. His style, though marvelously brilliant, has undoubtedly been a deduction from his influence. It is so rich with metaphor that it dazzles the reader more than it illuminates the theme. Moreover, we are arrested by the beauty of the expression as by a painted window that conceals what is beyond. Nevertheless, for those straining after an ideal perfection, his sermons are as music to their feet. He won the unbounded love and reverence of his own household of faith; and all the great universities of Great Britain, America, and Continental Europe accorded him their highest honors. His death occurred in 1900, at the advanced age of 95 years.  6

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