Alexander Gordon (June 9, 1841-February 21, 1931), a Unitarian minister and educator, was a prominent historian of religion, particularly of religious dissent. Describing himself as “an Englishman by birth, a Scotsman by education and an Irishman by inclination”, he assisted in consolidating the strands of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland into a unified denomination.
Alexander was born on 9 June 1841 in Coventry where his father, John, was minister of the local Unitarian church. John Gordon, brought up as a Methodist but intended for Anglican orders, had refused, however, to assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles and instead entered the ministry of the Wesleyan Methodists. In 1835 he left that denomination over its support for the continuance of an established church and soon after became a Unitarian. Alexander Gordon’s later adherence to the ideals of non-subscription grew out of the principled stance of his father. His theological views, essentially Arian in outlook, were also adopted from his father.
John Gordon was appointed minister of St Mark’s Church, Edinburgh in 1854. Alexander did his undergraduate work at Edinburgh University, 1856-59, then trained for the ministry at Manchester New College, London. Awarded a scholarship, he studied at Munich University under the ecclesiastical historian Ignatz von Dollinger, 1860-63. A fellowship enabled him to take his MA at Edinburgh in 1864.
In 1862, while still a student, Gordon commenced his ministry at Aberdeen. At the end of the following year he became the colleague of the semi-retired Charles Wicksteed in the prestigious pulpit of Hope Street, Liverpool, the former church of James Martineau. The division of labour between the two pastors was not even and Gordon was unhappy in the settlement. In 1872, soon after marrying Clara Maria Boult, he accepted the pulpit of the Octagon Chapel, Norwich at substantially less stipend.
Gordon was always eager to propagate Unitarianism and was a willing servant of institutions that could assist in this. In Norwich he served as secretary to the Eastern Union and instituted services at Cambridge and Chelmsford, compiling a hymn book for the Cambridge congregation. In 1877 he left Norwich for Ireland, having received a call from Belfast’s First Presbyterian Church, one of the leading Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches in that city. This inaugurated a life-long connection with Irish Non-Subscribers.
In Belfast Gordon continued to be an innovative minister, introducing evening services, conducting the first harvest festival services, and helping the congregation to build a new central hall as a meeting place for the burgeoning social activities that churches began to undertake in the Victorian period. He was also secretary to the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians and Other Free Christians, 1880-92. At the time Irish Non-Subscribers were divided into five different ecclesiastical bodies, each of which had its own Unitarian position rejecting the imposition of creeds. Although the bodies could often be mutually hostile, they nevertheless co-operated in this Association (established in 1835) which took on many of the features of a denominational organisation. To this onerous job Gordon soon added a large teaching load as divinity tutor to the Association, and was responsible for the post-baccalaureate training of all Irish students for the Non-Subscribing ministry.
Gordon became an increasingly active scholar. He was a contributor to the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), 1882-1900, an enormously ambitious work in 63 volumes, which required hundreds of contributors. Gordon was one of the most notable, providing 778 biographies to the original volumes and the first two supplements, the seventh largest individual contribution. This was done alongside his other pastoral and educational offices. His DNB subjects include clergy from all over the British Isles and represent not just Unitarians and Presbyterians but every conceivable mainstream variety of Christianity and many minor sects such as Muggletonians, Sandemanians, and Christian Israelites as well. His biographies spanned the eleventh to the twentieth century and included prominent figures such as John and Charles Wesley, George Fox and George Whitefield as well as less well known figures, both clerical and lay.
What makes Gordon’s contribution to the DNB so important is not just its size but his painstaking and methodical approach. He made no assertion without detailed and exhaustive research. A compulsive visitor of archives and libraries, Gordon kept up a constant correspondence with librarians, archivists and church officials in all parts of Europe. He possessed excellent linguistic skills, as happy in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew as French, German, Spanish, or Italian. He acquired Welsh and Irish to a proficient level. When in Transylvania or Hungary he sometimes addressed meetings in Hungarian. His scholarship was acknowledged by academics of different denominations, many of whom had reason to thank him for advice and comments freely given.
When the Unitarian Home Missionary Board needed a new Principal in 1890 Gordon was the obvious choice. The Board had been established in Manchester in 1854 to supply ministers to the growing number of Unitarian congregations in the industrial cities of Britain. Accepting students for the ministry from a lower class than had previously been the case, the Board had initially struggled against the prejudices of more traditionalist Unitarians, not least from those associated with Manchester New College. Nevertheless the Board had flourished and by 1890 had produced a succession of highly trained ministers with both academic and missionary skills. Gordon accepted appointment as the first full time Principal on the understanding that the institution’s name be changed to Unitarian Home Missionary College. He helped to establish it as one of the main centres for the training of Unitarian ministers in Britain.
As Principal Gordon initiated closer co-operation with the other theological colleges in Manchester. When Manchester University was founded in 1904 he helped to set up the Faculty of Theology, the first theology faculty in England to be free of any theological tests. He became its first Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History.
Gordon continued to serve on committees and in various offices in Ireland while Principal in Manchester and after his retirement in 1911. During 1907-10 he took part in negotiations that brought the disparate elements of Irish Non-Subscription together in a unified General Synod, an outcome that gave him much satisfaction. In his eightieth year, 1921-22, he served as Moderator of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland and was an active member of all its courts.
In his later years Gordon continued to publish scholarly work, including 39 articles for the eleventh edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910-11. Some of his most important works appeared after retirement. These include Heresy: Its Ancient Wrongs and Modern Rights in These Kingdoms, his Essex Hall Lecture for 1913, a detailed consideration of attitudes towards heresy in all parts of the British Isles from the thirteenth century onwards; Freedom after Ejection, a Review (1690-1692), published in 1917, a survey of the origins of religious dissent in England after the ejection of 1662; and Cheshire Classis Minutes 1691-1745, an edition of the minutes of the local ministerial organisation formed by Presbyterians after they were granted toleration, published in 1919 with a substantial introduction and commentary.
To many of his contemporaries Gordon was something of an enigma. He could be gruff and was intolerant of what he perceived as pomposity. He rejected all offers of honorary doctorates from Edinburgh, Manchester, and at least two institutions in the United States. To his students he could appear forbidding yet he generally evoked a deep respect and loyalty amongst them. To many others in the Unitarian movement he was little known and distant. When the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches was founded in 1928 he did not allow his name to be added to the roll and, in fact, he held somewhat aloof from Unitarian organisations in Britain, finding more satisfaction, no doubt, in his connection with Irish Non-Subscription.
In theology and liturgy Gordon held firm opinions and was critical of those with whom he disagreed. He was an enthusiastic follower of William Ellery Channing and strongly disapproved of the theology of Theodore Parker. Yet he visited Parker’s grave in Florence on more than one occasion and kept a leaf from the rosebush which overhung the original tombstone. “One soon finds,” he later wrote, “that there are as many sorts of Unitarians as of Trinitarians, though there is this point of difference, even when they have not been too fond of each other, they have never gone the Trinitarian length of damning one another. Our history teaches something more than tolerance, it helps us to admire and appreciate many from whom we are compelled to differ.”
Although he disagreed with the dominant expressions of Unitarianism in Britain in his time, Gordon was a fierce proponent of Unitarianism as a religious movement. “Controversy is not what I supremely care for in Unitarianism,” he preached in 1877. “What I do care for is, that it allows me to pass by all the intermediate strata; it allows me to go direct to Christ, and to take him as my master, my example, my inspirer, and as the spirit of truth and of peace to my heart and to my soul.”
Gordon died in Belfast on 21 February 1931, having been predeceased by his wife and four of his six children. He was buried in the graveyard at Dunmurry.
Gordon’s papers form part of the Unitarian College Collection held by the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. Among his works not mentioned in the article above are Report of an Official Visit to Transylvania (1879); Heads of English Unitarian History (1895, reprinted 1970), a monograph published with lectures on Richard Baxter and Joseph Priestley; and Addresses, Biographical and Historical (1922) which includes pieces on Michael Servetus, Theophilus Lindsey, and Thomas Belsham. Herbert McLachlan, Alexander Gordon (9 June 1841-21 February 1931), A Biography with a Bibliography (1932) remains the most useful source for the study of Gordon’s life. The list of Gordon’s publications runs to sixty pages in the bibliography. McLachlan’s The Unitarian Home Missionary College (1915) gives details of his Principalship. G.E. Evans, Record of the Provincial Assembly of Lancashire and Cheshire (1896) gives a full breakdown of Gordon’s career up to 1896 provided from his own notes. Minutes of the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians and of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland provides information on his work for the churches in Ireland. Also useful is Services at the Installation of the Rev Alexander Gordon, MA, as colleague and co-pastor to the Rev J. Scott Porter in the First Presbyterian Church, Belfast (1877).
Article by David Steers
Posted April 2, 2003