George Jacob Holyoake (April 13, 1817 – January 22, 1906) was a significant activist in the British Secular and Cooperative Movements. He created the term “secularism,” and stopped using the description “atheist,” not out of any rancor towards atheists, but because “he wanted to describe what he was, not what he declined to be…he wanted men to give all their devotion to the problems of this world (saeculum)…Secularist was the best name to adopt” (McCabe, p. 31). He worked all his life alongside people who described themselves as atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secularists, etc., to reform the UK to be more secular in government and education. His activism with the Cooperative Movement involved support for business ventures that were owned and democratically managed by their members. Most of his work was as a newspaper editor and a lecturer. The latter activity resulted in his prosecution for “Blasphemy,” a religiously-motivated form of legal censorship that was not eliminated in British law until 2008.*
Joseph McCabe’s biography of Holyoake is itself a piece of history. It is part of the “Life Stories of Famous Men” series, created by secularist publisher Charles Albert Watts, and issued for the Rationalist Press Association. Like the Little Blue Book Series in the United States (for whom McCabe also wrote), this book was intended as brief, low-cost propaganda aimed at working class readers. The writing is ghastly. McCabe’s bio has all the sobriety and rationalism of an eager choir boy’s school report on his favorite nun. He characterizes secularism as “the noblest struggle on which the sun has ever shone” and Holyoake’s advocacy as setting out “to slay dragons” (McCabe, p. 31). But a modern reader does not approach this book for its content. It is to be examined as a historical, propagandistic document. Given the elements that its author emphasizes, this book is more valuable for what it reveals about the UK of 1922, than what it tells us about Holyoake. So what does it reveal? What are the points that McCabe leans upon to press his case?
First, it is significant that this book and series are aimed at the working class, given that this is a group whose political influence is on the rise in 1922. Before World War I, aristocracy was highly regarded in Britain. Herbert Henry Asquith, Earl of Oxford, was the Prime Minister who led the United Kingdom into that war. While the Great War was patriotically regarded by the populace at large, there was a great deal of criticism for the way that aristocratic generals conducted campaigns. Aristocratic officers with no experience but great titles, sent thousands of working class soldiers over the tops of trenches to die for a few feet of soil, only to see those conquests re-captured the next day. It was this perception of aristocratic responsibility for the slaughter which prompted Parliament to finally give the sacrificing working class universal suffrage. By the time that McCabe had written this biography, the Labor Party had surpassed the Liberal Party as the primary opposition to the Conservatives in Parliament. Of course it did help that George Jacob Holyoake had working class roots and that he was a leader in the Cooperative Movement, both good reasons to select him for the series. But the constant emphasis on his roots does show the growing political importance of the working class at the time of the writing.
Second, this book, a piece of secularist propaganda, ironically displays the importance of religion in UK society. Language is used in reference to Holyoake that evokes religious feeling. Phrases like “Holyoake was touched by the sacred fire” (McCabe, p. 14) and “then his real martyrdom began” (McCabe, p. 19) show that religious feeling still exist and can be evoked to support even the cause of secularism. Throughout the book, this reformer is shown inviting theists to join his society (McCabe, p. 32) or being praised by clerics (i.e. “even Bishops avowed the same esteem as Ingersoll” [McCabe, p. 95]). These examples are meant to express to readers who have grown-up in Christian households, that it’s okay to see the good in a secularist and even join-in with them. Such encouragement would be unnecessary were religion unimportant to the target audience.
Third, there is a marked attempt to secure the interest of women in the Secular Movement. Women who were householders obtained the right to vote in 1918. There was significant feminist agitation for the franchise to be extended to all women, which succeeded in 1928. As the women’s movement is increasingly important in the public sphere, Holyoake’s support is emphasized: “the woman movement (sic)…round him gathered the little band of early pioneers in the struggle. Harriet Martineau admired him enthusiastically” (McCabe, p. 35).
Fourth, in spite of a growing egalitarianism in Great Britain, big names still impress circa 1922. Litanies of socially prominent admirers are a frequent occurrence in this biography. For example: “Sir Wilfrid Lawson writes: ‘I have long thought that you are one of our few original thinkers and writers.’ Jacob Bright says: ‘I value highly your judgment.’ The Marquis of Ripon says: ‘I am glad to see your handwriting again.’” It goes on for a page and a half (McCabe, p. 111-2). Regardless of how progressive and educated society has become, the rich and famous remain a source of public fascination.
The purpose of this evaluation is not to single-out secularists for criticism. Whether secular or religious, left-wing or right-wing, all movements use propaganda. Examining propaganda allows a reader to step back from a document and see both how it is attempting to influence, and what it shows about the values of the society it is directed towards. This kind of analysis helps one understand the historical uses of this technique, and makes one more mindful of its use in our own time. The biography George Jacob Holyoake is useful for some factual information on the activist’s life, for what it shows about 1920s Britain and for its exemplification of propaganda.
McCabe, Joseph. George Jacob Holyoake. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.
*Ruth Geller. "Goodbye to Blasphemy in Britain". Institute for Humanist Studies. Archived from the original on 2008-06-07