Gaskell, William

William GaskellWilliam Gaskell (July 24, 1805-1884), minister of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester, England for more than fifty years, was a pioneer in the education of the working-class and women. He helped to train men without previous academic background for the Unitarian ministry. A scholar of the English language and dialects and a celebrated lecturer on literature, he assisted his wife, Elizabeth Gaskell, in research for and editorial preparation of her novels.

The Gaskells had long been a family of Dissenters. William’s parents, William and Margaret Jackson Gaskell, attended Sankey Street Unitarian Chapel in Warrington, an industrial town on the Mersey River, halfway between Liverpool and Manchester. Warrington, known as the “cradle of Unitarianism,” was until 1786 the home of Warrington Academy, institutional ancestor of Harris Manchester College (now part of Oxford University). William Gaskell, Sr. was a manufacturer of sailcloth for the British Navy and a lay teacher of theology. He died in 1819. Soon afterward Margaret Gaskell married Edward Dimock, who shortly became minister at Sankey Street.

Joseph Saul, an Anglican minister, tutored William in the classics. Since as a Dissenter he could not attend an English university, he studied at Glasgow University, 1820-25. He trained for the Unitarian ministry at Manchester New College in York, 1825-28, studying under Charles Wellbeloved, John Kenrick and William Turner, Jr. Among his classmates were John Relly Beard, Edward Tagart and James Martineau. Upon graduation Gaskell was called to be the assistant to minister John Gooch Robberds at Cross Street Chapel in Manchester.

Through Robberds, Gaskell met Elizabeth Stevenson, a Unitarian from nearby Knutsford. They married in 1832. Although their personalities were quite different—Elizabeth extroverted and free-spending, William shy and frugal—their shared projects, and mutual forbearance bound them happily together. They had four daughters. Within his family circle the staid minister was playful, especially when his children were young. He had a reputation for making endless puns, and signed himself “Mr. Goosequill.”

Both William and Elizabeth taught at the Lower Mosely Street Sunday Schools, giving instruction in basic skills to young mill workers. When the Unitarians were criticized for teaching non-religious subjects on Sunday, Gaskell replied that in teaching the alphabet they were engaged in “their Father’s business.” In 1836 he began to give evening classes at the Mechanic’s Institute. With the assistance of his wife he prepared two series of lectures on “Poets and Poetry in Humble Life.” When a Working Men’s College was started in Manchester, he taught literature. Gaskell had a special appreciation for the sounds of the English language. One student recalled that he was “the most beautiful reader I have ever heard.”

In 1840 Manchester New College, formerly Warrington Academy and Manchester Academy, moved back from York to Manchester. Gaskell served as Secretary to the Board of Governors and six years later was appointed Professor of English Literature and History. When the college moved to London in 1853, he was Chairman of the Trustees. A year later, with his friend John Relly Beard, Gaskell helped to found the Unitarian Home Missionary Board for the training of working-class ministers. At first holding classes in his own study, Gaskell taught literature, history and New Testament Greek. In 1874 he succeeded Beard as Principal.

Gaskell also tutored female students privately, helping them to get education denied them in institutions of learning. Amongst his pupils were the hymn translator Catherine Winkworth and her sister, German scholar Susannah Winkworth.

In 1845 when Elizabeth was despondent over the loss of their infant son, William encouraged her to write a novel. He contributed to the resulting book, Mary Barton, 1848, by providing her with church reports about the condition of the poor, assisting her with the characters’ Lancashire dialects, editing, proofreading, and acting as her literary agent. He also defended his wife against adverse criticism from the business-owning constituency within the Cross Street congregation. As her literary career flourished, he continued to read and correct her manuscripts and helped her get suitable compensation for her labours.

Gaskell found it difficult to turn down requests to lecture or to work on charitable committees. In 1849 he was made Chairman of Manchester’s Portico Library. In 1857 he joined the council of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. In 1859 he was made Visitor at Manchester New College (then in London). In 1865 he was chosen President of the Assembly of Presbyterian and Unitarian Ministers of Lancashire and Cheshire.

He held all these positions for the rest of his life. His wife protested that he volunteered too much time away from the family, but could not stop him from accepting these invitations. Even when he was at home, the family saw him only at meals. Elizabeth wrote, “If he gets a holiday I am afraid he will spend it in his study, out of which room by his own free will he would never stir.”

With his wife’s help Gaskell worked to aid the mill workers in times of economic crisis, in the early and late 1840s and during the cotton shortage caused by the American Civil War. Beginning in 1852 he was on the committee of the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association, an organization created to combat cholera. He later lectured on hygiene for the Association. At the same time he joined a committee to regulate beer houses. Years before, in 1839, he had published Temperance Rhymes, in which he expressed sympathy for victims of alcoholism.

When Robberds died in 1854 Gaskell became senior minister at the Cross Street Chapel. According to one of his ministry students, “his appearance in the pulpit was a sermon in itself.” Gaskell learned to give short sermons adapted to his audience—conversational in style and narrative in content. As he could not learn to speak extemporaneously, he carefully crafted his texts, memorized them and delivered them with lively expression. His advice to his students was “If you would move others you must first be moved yourself.”

In his public theological pronouncements Gaskell adopted a position between the necessarian (deterministic) Unitarianism of his forbear Joseph Priestley and the free-will transcendentalism of his contemporary James Martineau. His personal theology, however, was Priestleyan. He believed that everything, even suffering, is for the good and part of an overall divine plan. Within this framework, morality is the guide to cause and effect. “Vice inevitably produces punishment,” he preached in 1878, “and virtue necessarily brings rewards and happiness.” The discoveries of Charles Darwin and other scientists did not challenge or weaken his faith. On the contrary he felt that the new knowledge “reveals more fully the Creator’s glory.”

Gaskell considered the orthodox doctrines of the trinity and the dual nature of Christ to be incoherent, unscriptural, and not conducive to good religion. He portrayed Jesus as “a man approved of God,” whose actions provided a realistic pattern of merit and whose story was “a sweet solace and refreshment.” Disbelieving in original sin, Gaskell thought human beings were capable of rising above their shortcomings and attaining nobility. He disliked everything about creeds and mandatory belief. In a 1844 sermon, Eternal Salvation Not Dependent on Correctness of Belief, he claimed that doctrinal orthodoxy encloses the intellect “in a fiery circle,” “buries faith in a grave of verbal obscurites,” and “turns away thoughts from moral goodness to fix them on mental correctness.” Since “the penalty overhanging erroneous belief is so tremendous . . . men dare not imagine that they can be mistaken.” Consequently they “assume something of the tone and bearing of infallibility,” taking it upon themselves to “limit the boundless mercy of the Universal Father to such alone as could bring themselves to worship their idea of truth.”

Distrusting man-made ritual as much as man-made belief, Gaskell was especially unsympathic towards Roman Catholicism. When his oldest daughter Marianne in 1861 returned from a trip to Italy wanting to join the Catholic Church, he and his wife made a great—and ultimately successful—effort to reclaim her for her childhood faith.

In 1861 Gaskell, together with John Relly Beard, Brooke Herford and John Wright, founded Unitarian Herald, a denominational paper meant to appeal to a working-class audience. He co-edited and contributed to the Herald for 15 years.

Elizabeth Gaskell died of a heart attack in 1865. William outlived her by nearly two decades, working at more than full pace until early 1884. His daughters Meta and Julia filled their mother’s place in that they ran the Gaskell household and helped with their father’s charitable work. In 1878 Gaskell was honoured both by his church and by the Portico Library for his fifty years of service to the community. When he died, young Beatrix Potter, granddaughter of his close friend Edmund Potter, wrote, “If ever anyone led a blameless peaceful life it was he. There has always been a deep childlike affection between him and me.”

Correspondence and published sermons and addresses of William Gaskell are in the Unitarian College Collection at the John Rylands University Library in Manchester. There is information about Gaskell in the letters of his wife, collected in J.A.V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard, The Letters of Mrs Gaskell (1966). None of her many letters to him have survived. Gaskell’s published sermons include Submission to the Will of God (1855), Unitarian Christians Called to Bear Witness to the Truth (1862), The Strong Points of Unitarian Christianity (1873), The Person of Christ (1874), The Christianity of Christ (1875), and Popular Doctrines That Obscure the Views Which the New Testament Gives of God (1875). Among his many lectures are Two Lectures on the Lancashire Dialect (included in 1854 edition of Mary Barton), Discourse to Manchester and District Sunday Schools (1850), Brief Notices of Some of the Unitarian Martyrs and Confessors of England (1851), and The Address Delivered at the Inaugural Meeting of the Unitarian Home Missionary Board (with John Relly Beard, 1855). He wrote 79 hymn texts, some being translations from German, for Beard’s Collection of Hymns for Private and Public Worship (1837). Some of these are still in use, two in Hymns for Living and four in Hymns of Faith and Fellowship. Two were used in Hymns of the Spirit. The chief William Gaskell biography is Barbara Brill, William Gaskell, 1805-1884 (1984). His life is also treated in biographies of his wife, notably Winifred Gérin, Life of Elizabeth Gaskell (1976) and Jenny Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell, A Habit of Stories (1993). There ia a treatment of his theology in Robert K. Webb, “The Gaskells as Unitarians,” in Joanne Shattock, Dickens and Other Victorians (1988). There are a few mentions of him in Beatrix Potter’s Journal: 1881-1897 (1966). His portrait and his bust are displayed in the new Cross Street Chapel in Manchester.

Article by Peter Hughes
Posted September 14, 2002