Herford, Brooke

Brooke Herford
Brooke Herford

Brooke Herford (February 21, 1830-December 21, 1903) was a Unitarian minister, noted preacher, and author, who served several important churches in Great Britain and America. In addition, he was a religious enthusiast who travelled tirelessly throughout Britain spreading with great success the Bible-based message of Unitarian Christianity.

He was born in Altrincham, Cheshire, England, the eighth surviving child of John Herford (1789-1855) who was variously a stockbroker, wine merchant, chemist and insurance agent, and member of Manchester Town Council. His mother Sarah (1791-1831) was the daughter of Edward Brooke Smith of Birmingham. Both families were of English Presbyterian latterly Unitarian stock in Cheshire and in Birmingham. His grandfather John Herford kept a girls school in Altrincham as had his mother Sarah, who died when he was little more than a year old. His father was remarried to Helen Ryland (1803-1875) with whom Brooke had a very happy relationship.

Brought up in Unitarianism, his earliest memory was attending a service at Blackley Chapel at the age of four. Educated at the school of John Relly Beard from 1838 to 1843 he later recalled learning geography, mental arithmetic and not much Latin. In 1844 he started work in his father’s wine merchant’s business in Manchester and met the leading Manchester Unitarian businessmen of the day who were his father’s customers. In 1846, when his father was working in Paris, France, Brooke went to live with his brother Charles in Manchester. This proved to be the turning point of his life, as he became closely involved in the work of the Mosley Street Chapel, in particular the Sunday School, where four of his brothers had also been involved. Brooke was much influenced by Philip Carpenter, a Presbyterian minister in Warrington and Travers Madge, a young spiritual ascetic. Madge, the son of a Unitarian minister, had trained for the ministry but refused to take money for teaching religion; he wore himself out working for the poor, an example which Brooke took to heart. Brooke visited the poor in their homes, and he later wrote, “I feel that I learned more there than I ever taught. The friends who I met there influenced my life.”

By 1847, Herford had decided to enter the ministry. His father was strongly opposed: “He told me that he had never seen the least sign of grace for that (which was sadly true). If I wished to become a chimney-sweep or an actor, he would help me – but he pooh-poohed the college and the ministry altogether.” After his brother William became the Unitarian minister at Lancaster in 1848 his father dropped his opposition.

While continuing in his father’s business, Brooke prepared for entry to Manchester New College, located at that time in Manchester, then the only place to train for the Unitarian ministry. When he joined the teetotalism movement his job as a wine merchant became problematic. He worked on all his activities with seemingly endless energy, commencing his day at 5 a.m. each morning, and was successful in gaining college entry in 1848. Earlier that year he had met Hannah Hankinson (1823-1901) his future wife; she came from a Unitarian family at Hale, Cheshire. They were married there in 1852.

Herford was an adept student but he felt that missionary work and preaching were more important than scholarly attainment. “When I first started to preach I had the profound conviction that if I could only get a fair hearing I could convert the human race.” He preached to the industrial workers in the villages round Manchester and to anyone who would listen. “My first words in actual preaching were from a rickety chair in the open air in a village.” By 1851 he was preaching regularly at Todmorden, Calder Valley and wanted to be minister there as well as attend the College. This arrangement was not allowed so he left Manchester to become settled minister at Todmorden, before which he went on a preaching tour in Cornwall to “extend the faith.”

His income at Todmorden was small especially as children soon arrived. Nevertheless, he quickly increased the congregation and soon received invitations to move elsewhere. He resigned in 1855 without accepting any of them, for he felt he was being used like a private chaplain by the famous and rich Fielden family. However he was not without a pulpit for long as in January 1856 he was appointed minister at Upper Chapel, Sheffield, a key Unitarian congregation, at a larger salary.

In Sheffield, Herford was able to carry out systematic missionary work in the Yorkshire villages aided by a band of lay preachers. He also went into the North Midlands and helped form the Christ Church congregation in Nottingham. “It involved many a long tramp on Sundays and he could be seen swarming up a signpost on a dark winter evening to read the direction, driving many miles to get back to his own evening service.” In addition he formed a new congregation at Upperthorpe, Sheffield and revived the old chapel at Rotherham. During the 1860s he produced pamphlets, Home Mission Tracts, to aid mission work. Herford was appointed missionary tutor at the new Home Missionary Board (much later the Unitarian College Manchester) so the tracts were also given out by his students as they ventured around the poorest areas of Salford, a Manchester borough.

In 1859 Herford helped found the Unitarian Herald, the first Unitarian newspaper to be priced at just one penny, and became a joint editor. A series of articles were published there in 1860-61 of anonymous amusing satires on congregations and their ministers, which some readers found too biting. Years later they were published under his name by the American Unitarian Association as Eutychus and his Relations: Pulpit and Pew Papers (1905).

His ministry at Sheffield established his “reputation for hard work as a pastor, for plain common sense preaching as a minister, and for practical interest in the extension of the cause of Unitarian Christianity, as well as active service in the social, educational and philanthropic activities of the town.” As a preacher he was very popular and his sermons, when printed, had a wide circulation. His funeral sermon, “Sergeant Brett’s Keys” about the 1867 shooting of a policeman by Fenians as they were liberating two men from a prison van was extensively circulated; it praised those with a strong sense of duty.

At times, Herford held mission services in circus tents, theatres, and large halls, attracting large numbers of working people. In 1861 there were clashes between masters and men, which led to some nasty crimes. Brooke Herford had good relations with the trades unions and sometimes spoke at their meetings. He took the largest hall in Sheffield and spoke on “Trade Outrages: who are responsible for them?” It was thought there could be violence as a result but his strong and calming words did not provoke. This lecture brought him into a wider prominence. When Travers Madge the young spiritual ascetic in the Mosley Street congregation died in 1866, Herford organized the memorial service. It was published the next year as Travers Madge: a memoir (1867).

Herford wanted to return to Manchester, and to the congregation at Strangeways that was so closely associated with his first teacher John Relly Beard. It meant accepting a smaller salary since he felt so strongly that there should only be free sittings (no pew rent) and his income therefore would depend entirely on the offertory. Strangeways could only guarantee half of what he was receiving at Sheffield. Despite his growing family financial needs, Herford didn’t let that stop him from doing what he thought was right. He started at New Bridge Street Chapel, Strangeways in November 1864. He took on more work in 1868 when he joined the editorial team for a new edition of the History of the county palatine and duchy of Lancaster: Volume II (1870) after the death of Edward Baines, it’s original author. He felt exhausted after this effort and attempts to relieve him achieved little. It was continuous sermon production which tired him.

In 1875 he was given leave of absence and went to America to visit his son. While there, on the suggestion of Robert Collyer, he was invited to supply for three months the pulpit of the Church of the Messiah, now the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. It was really a trial ministry, and shortly after his return to England, the congregation wrote asking him to be their settled minister. He accepted and by January 1876 was back in Chicago.

Wallace P. Rusterholtz in his history of the First Unitarian Society declared, “He was a popular and powerful speaker.” Other sources shared that assessment, the Boston Evening Transcript stating, “His ministry in Chicago was a most acceptable one.” In addition to his effective congregational work, he also energetically pursued missionary activities in the Midwest.

Herford was “stirred” by the vigorous bold spirit he discovered in the West, the “alertness, electric energy, and readiness for strain and tension” that dominated its business and cultural life. Most of all he loved the “breezy frankness” of the people. “I don’t know,” he said, “that I did much for that western life, but it did a good deal for me. It not only stirred me, but taught me. It taught me a new trust in man, and in that broad, popular freedom and self-government that rest on trust in man.” Furthermore, “what stirred me most strongly of all in that western life – the ever deepening sense that this old gospel of Christ, set forth in his own simplicity, is still, and there and everywhere, the one divinest foundation for man’s upward reaching faith, the only unchanging rest for the world’s weary and unstable life.”

As in England, he asked his church to meet its budget needs through voluntary offerings, but in the end he and the church compromised on the issue, so that morning services had rented pews and evening worship open ones. The result was, he felt, a church “with a common-sense living faith, a free pulpit, and a church cordially opening its doors to rich and poor.”

Each month while he was in the United States he wrote a letter home to his family. They are quite long and recorded his impression not only of life in Chicago and Boston but of Unitarianism, politics and much else. Hannah regularly wrote home too.

Herford was soon involved with the work of the Western Unitarian Conference (WUC), and served for a time as its treasurer. The WUC was divided between liberal ministers like Jenkin Lloyd Jones, its Corresponding Secretary and editor of its magazine Unity, and more conservative leaders like Jabez T. Sunderland. Herford who described himself as “conservative without apology” sided with Sunderland in the theological struggles that took place within the WUC. In 1886, after his move to Boston, he joined with Sunderland to establish, The Unitarian, a more conservative magazine that would compete with Unity for readers and influence. In the July issue he wrote “The fact is, there are a few of our Western ministers, who have got it into their heads that for Unitarians to stand avowedly for Christianity, or even for the worship of God, is the setting up of a creed. So they have been steadily working to divest our Western churches and conferences of any distinctively and necessarily religious character.” As a result, he concluded, “many people have failed to see how false, misleading, and mischievous, such a non-religion attitude would be for our work at large.” In the long run, however, the WUC moved in a direction not compatible with his views.

In 1881 the First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts asked Herford to be their minister, and while he found the opportunity to be a part of the Harvard community attractive, he declined. But clearly he was thinking about leaving Chicago, maybe even returning to England. The next year, when the Arlington Street Church in Boston invited him to be their minister; it was an opportunity he could not refuse. “To do his best work,” he wrote in his resignation letter, “a man should come here while his mental limbs still have the spring and flexibility of youth, be able to become a thorough Westerner in feel and sympathy, and be quick to throw himself into, initiate, and lead new plans of work.” Unfortunately, he concluded, “I came here about fifteen years too old.” On Sunday October 1, 1892 he was installed as minister of Arlington Street Church.

Brooke Herford
Brooke Herford

For Herford, Boston was a “modern Athens,” where he was immediately at home in the old church of William Ellery Channing and Ezra Stiles Gannett. He found in Boston a social refinement and personal dignity that was comfortable plus a culture that was varied with a “curious interest in human welfare.” As his obituary in the Unitarian Year Book suggested, his years in Chicago while “vigorous and effective” were but a prelude to his Boston ministry. Here Paul Revere Frothingham noted, “Mr. Herford was himself in the prime of his intellectual life, and in the richest period of moral and religious experience.” At the start of his ministry the Arlington Street Church was experiencing a decline in membership and serious financial problems. “Before he came here,” a parishioner commented, “I tried to sell my pew, but the treasurer told me I could give it to the church if I wanted to but there was no sale for it. Now the pews are all wanted.” Another remarked, “He was exactly adapted to the latitude of the Arlington Street Church, and he quickly became a leader – the leader – in the American Unitarian Association.

Once again he wanted the pews to be open but the Proprietors flatly refused that. Therefore, he held evening vesper services, as he had in Chicago, where pews were free to all. Soon both services were overcrowded and the Arlington Street Church was one of Boston’s most flourishing congregations. Next he initiated Friday evening services conducted by clergy from all denominations, and then with King’s Chapel he established midweek lunchtime worship for business people. Finally, he gave various Sunday evening lectures on topics such as “The Roman World” or “The Reformation.”

On the larger scene, Herford enthusiastically supported the work of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) and the National Conference of Unitarian Churches, the latter founded by Henry Whitney Bellows to strengthen the mission of the AUA to its churches. Significantly for Herford, both groups adhered closely to his definition of Liberal Christianity. In 1889 he became a member of the AUA’s Board of Directors, bringing to it his business experience along with a “zeal for church extension,” which allowed him with others to create the Church Building Loan Fund to help local churches. He also served as Chair of the National Conference, 1889-91.

In 1890 Harvard University invited Herford to join its Board of Preachers. That group supported the religious needs of students through Sunday services, morning prayers, and counseling. “The appointment,” the Harvard Advocate declared, “is a strong one, and undoubtedly a popular one in the college.” A year later Harvard awarded him the honorary DD and made him Lecturer on Pastoral Care and the Conduct of Worship for 1891-92. He only taught one semester, however, because he decided it was his “duty” to return home.

While he rejoiced in the greater religious freedom in America, a land where – as he expressed it – “there were no dissenters,” he felt he had to take his missionary message back to England. Returning there he took up the ministry at Rosslyn Hill Chapel Hampstead, London in 1892 at a salary of £600 a year. It was a substantial drop from the nearly $10,000 he had received in Boston. The Boston Evening Transcript wrote that he “left many fond memories here – memories of a most winning personality, of a real, pulpit force and of a strong pastorate.”

Herford felt he needed to enliven the Unitarian cause in England. His enthusiasm soon increased the Rosslyn Hill Chapel congregation. Nationally he increased the income and activities of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association. Serving as its president, 1898-99, he increased mission work, helped found a new Unitarian church in Kilburn, and played a significant role in ventures in others places. He returned briefly to America in 1895 to deliver the famed Dudleian Lecture at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; his subject was Catholicism. He also preached once again at his beloved Arlington Street Church.

By the late 1890s however, his dynamism was clearly in decline, a visiting American Unitarian minister noted in 1899, “the church was full and people received with profit the helpful, earnest, candid words . . . but the old time vigor had departed. The strong and joyous hold on life had gone.” He retired from the ministry in June 1901. He had a stroke that December from which he never really recovered. A subscription was raised for him among both British and American Unitarians, which raised £3200. Brooke Herford died in Hampstead two years later. His ashes were buried in the grave with his wife at Hale, Cheshire, near her family’s home.

Brooke Herford was a traditional Unitarian, almost evangelical in his approach; with a strong belief in a Biblical background to religious life, “he was never reconciled to the variety of new thinking of his day.” For example, the clash between science and religion did not engage his interest. His talent was to express with simplicity and clarity the big issues of his day in a common sense manner that indicated the paths to good living. Few left his services not following what he had said – he was above all understandable – in contrast to James Martineau, one of his college teachers. The obituary in the Manchester Guardian summarised his approach in both Britain and America: “He had an invincible faith in the ultimate triumph of right, but this optimism never led him to acquiesce in the continuance of a removable evil, but, on the contrary gave him that cheery courage with which he strove to advance the social and religious ideals in whose service he spent a long and arduous life.”

Herford’s large family absorbed most of his income leaving little for charity. Apologizing for his inability to aid Unitarians chapels and societies he said, “I have contributed nine little Unitarians to the cause, and I can’t afford much more.” As Samuel Atkins Eliot later declared, that proved to be “a very substantial contribution,” because his siblings and his children took an active role in Unitarianism as well as in the wider community, mainly in the Manchester area. His brother Edward (1815-1896) was Coroner of Manchester, assistant town clerk, and would in later life campaign for a freer Church of England. Brother William Henry (1820-1908) was for a time a Unitarian minister and subsequently a pioneer of Pestalozzi and Froebel education. His sister Anne Laura (1831-1870), a pioneer of art education for women exhibited at national exhibitions and painted a portrait of Thomas Sadler, Brooke Herford’s ministerial predecessor at Hampstead. Along with their other brother Charles James (1817-1891), they have been described as “strenuous fighters in various fields of social service.”

Herford’s eldest daughter Helen Brooke (1854-1935) was the main founder of the national Unitarian Women’s League in Britain in 1908, and his younger son Oliver (1860-1935), a poet, writer and illustrator in the USA was popularly known as “the American Oscar Wilde.” Sons, John “Jack” Herford (1857-1923) and William Herford were sheep ranchers in New Mexico and later ran a dude ranch in Yellowstone County, Montana. Beatrice Herford (1867-1952), a daughter, became a Broadway actress.

Niece Caroline Herford Blake (1860-1945) was an educational pioneer and headmistress of Lady Barn House School. Of his nephews, the most prominent were Charles Harold Herford (1855-1931), one of the leading literary scholars of his day and Professor of English at the University of Manchester in Manchester, England; Robert Travers Herford (1860-1950), was a Unitarian minister for over thirty years and administrator as well as a leading writer on historic Judaism. Another nephew, Ulric Vernon Herford (1866-1938) was a Unitarian minister for a while before moving on to older and more mystical beliefs; eventually ending up as the Nestorian Bishop of Mercia.


Harris Manchester College in Oxford, England has Brooke Herford’s papers; Dr. Williams’s Library, London holds some letters; while the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts has his American Unitarian Association ministerial files and records for the Arlington Street Church. Additional material can be found in the John B. Herford (1862-1953) papers in the Montana Historical Society Research Center Archives in Helena, Montana and the Helen Brooke Herford (1887-1972) collection at Montana State University Library in Bozeman, Montana.

A number of Herford’s sermons are available in print. His major publications include; Eutychus and his Relations: Pulpit and Pew Papers (1905), The Life of Travers Madge (1867), the Story of Religion in England: A Book for Young Folk (1878), Sermons of Courage and Cheer (1894), The Small End of Great Problems (1902), and Anchors of the Soul (1905).

For biographical information see Alan Seaburg, The Unitarian Pope: Brooke Herford’s Ministry in Chicago and Boston, 1876-1892 (2015); John Cuckson, Brooke Herford (1904); Philip H. Wicksteed’s biographical sketch in Brooke Herford, Anchors of the Soul (1905); “Brooke Herford, Incidents of his Life in Boston,” Boston Evening Transcript (1903); Samuel Atkins Eliot, Heralds of a Liberal Faith (1952); and Robert K. Webb, “Herford, Brooke (1830-1903)” in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

See also Wallace P. Rusterholtz, The First Unitarian Society of Chicago: A Brief History (1979); Paul Revere Frothingham, “A Faithful Minister in the Lord,” (1904); Christian Life (1903); Boston Evening Transcript, (1903); New York Times, (1903); the Unitarian Year Book, (1904); and various issues of the British Unitarian paper, The Inquirer (1901-08 & 1925).

Article by Alan Ruston and Alan Seaburg
Posted July 9, 2013