The Russell Family

Lady Frances Russell, who became a Unitarian at 70, and her grandson, Bertrand Russell, Unitarian until age 15, were members of a British family long prominent in reform politics. Although Lady Frances’s husband, Lord John Russell, was never a Unitarian, from 1859-73 he regularly attended the preaching of James Martineau and, in his Whig (Liberal) political career, he had a considerable impact on the history of Unitarianism in Britain. Bertrand Russell, after he had rejected Unitarianism, influenced many Unitarians, particularly Humanists. He was president of the Rationalist Press Association, 1955-70, and belonged to the British Humanist Advisory Council. Bertrand’s uncle, Francis Russell, wrote Unitarian hymns and verse.

Lord John RussellLord John Russell, later Earl Russell (1792-1878) was throughout his political career an ardent reformer and promoter of civil and religious liberty. He served as prime minister 1846-52 and 1865-66 and was twice a member of the cabinet under other prime ministers. As leader of the Whig party, he was most responsible for changing its name to the Liberal Party. He was instrumental in passage of the Reform Act of 1832, the first modern attempt to make parliament more representative. During his administration the Factory Act of 1847 limited the working day of women and children to ten hours.

A staunch broad church Anglican, Russell believed the best way to preserve the established Church of England was to remove legal disabilities for other forms of religion. He spearheaded repeal of the Test Acts in 1828 and 1863 which removed restrictions on Unitarians and other Protestant Dissenters from the Church of England; secured passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 which granted legal toleration to Roman Catholics; and for a decade continued to introduce legislation removing Jewish legal disabilities. The Jewish Relief Act was finally passed in 1858. Lord Russell’s tolerance of competition to the established church had its limits, however: in 1850 he opposed reestablishment of Roman Catholic bishoprics in Britain.

Russell wrote a bill passed in 1836 legalizing the marriages of Dissenters in their own chapels. He also made a notable speech in favor of the Dissenter’s Chapel Bill of 1844. This act aided Unitarians by establishing their title to chapels and trust funds, long in their possession, against the legal claims of orthodox dissenters. In 1878, near the end of his life, a delegation of dissenters, including two Unitarians, presented Russell with an address commemorating “his life long advocacy of religious freedom.”

Lady Frances Anna Maria RussellLady Frances Anna Maria Elliot Russell, later Countess Russell (November 15, 1814-January 17, 1898) was second wife of Lord John Russell. The couple had four children. Lady Frances also inherited the care of her husband’s children from his earlier marriage. She experienced childbearing and nurture as a great sacrifice. The eldest of her children died in young adulthood. The other three were either mentally ill or incapacitated as adults. Nevertheless, according to her grandson, she faced the challenges and tragedies of her family life with courage and “never lost a certain kind of gaiety.” After the deaths of her son and daughter-in-law, Viscount John and Viscountess Kate Amberley, she raised their two sons, the younger of whom was the philosopher and author, Bertrand Russell.

Although Lord John was nearly twice her age when they were married in 1841, Lady Russell imposed her own austere lifestyle on her husband. She was shy and serious. Despite her deficiencies as a political hostess, she was ambitious for her husband. She urged him to become “the head of the most moral and religious government” Britain had ever had. Her influence on Lord John caused him to consider diverse interests and therefore made him less decisive than he had been. Displeased with this alteration in their leader, his Liberal colleagues named her “Deadly Nightshade.”

Lady Russell’s political ideas were more radical than her husband’s. She opposed Britain’s imperialist wars, supported Irish Home Rule, and advocated abolition of the House of Lords. She favored abolition of the teaching of religion in tax-supported schools.

Highly cultured, Lady Russell read French, German, and Italian. She was a friend of Unitarian authors and poets, Charles Dickens, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The latter, she felt particularly, had a “spiritual nature.” She commemorated family events with her own poetry.

Raised a Scottish Presbyterian, she became a Unitarian in 1884. Reading the Life of William Ellery Channing, she found it “interesting in the highest degree—an echo of all those high and noble thoughts of which this earth is not yet worthy, but which I firmly believe will one day reign on it supreme.” She also read many of James Martineau’s works. At one time she hoped that her grandson Bertrand would become a Unitarian minister.

Lady Russell’s religion was practical, based on conscience rather than mystical experience. She believed in a loving, personal God, petitionary prayer, immortality, conscience, and free will. She despised “thoughtless conformity.” In 1876 she published Family Worship, a book of daily prayers and Bible quotations. Her religious writing was later made available in two Unitarian publications, Home Prayers and Bible Readings and Prayers.

Like her husband, Lady Russell considered theology “the greatest enemy of true religion.” She often remarked to her grandson Bertrand about metaphysics, “What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.”

Her son, Viscount John Amberley, wrote An Analysis of Religious Belief in which he set forth his belief in a non-personal God. Amberley rejected the divinity of Christ and was critical of the historical Jesus. Though horrified by aspects of the book, Lady Russell, after her son’s death, carefully edited and published his book.

As she aged, Lady Russell continued to change her mind about religious matters. She came to believe that neither the Bible nor any church nor any prophet is infallible. Though she honored Jesus, she believed that revelation comes directly to the mind and not through a mediator. She visited services of numerous denominations. On occasion she enjoyed silent, solitary worship with nature. She favored the name “Free Church” as representing her broad and tolerant views.

In 1888 Lady Russell helped organize the Unitarian congregation in Richmond, Surrey. Her last public appearance, in 1896, was at the dedication of Channing Hall, built for the Richmond Free Church. A memorial to the Countess was added two years later.

Hon. Francis Albert Rollo RussellHon. Francis Albert Rollo Russell (July 11, 1849-March 30, 1914), a meteorologist noted for his study of the worldwide effects of the 1883 volcanic explosion on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa, wrote Unitarian hymns with a scientific flavor.

Francis (called Rollo by the family), third child of Lord John and Lady Francis Russell, was the last child born to a prime minister in office until May 2000. Francis received his A.B. from Christ Church, Oxford in 1873. He served in the British foreign office until failing eyesight forced his resignation. Bertrand Russell said that his uncle was important to him when he was young. Rollo introduced him to eminent scientists and philosophers. While working on the Krakatoa paper Rollo treated Bertrand as though he were a collaborator rather than a child. Bertrand later wrote, “[Uncle Rollo] suffered all his life from a morbid shyness so intense as to prevent him from achieving anything that involved contact with other human beings. But with me, so long as I was a child, he was not shy, and he used to display a vein of droll humor of which adults would not have suspected him.”

Rollo and his mother, Countess Russell were members of the committee that founded the Unitarian Christian Church in Richmond in 1888. It is recorded that when the new meeting house, Channing Hall, was opened later that year “Rollo Russell took the chair.”

Francis Russell was a Darwinian who believed scientific determinism and free will compatible. His religious verse includes both “Not an atom nor a galaxy of suns, dares lift itself against the word . . . In the universe there is no corner void of law” and “the glorious freedom of will in man.” He used biblical meter to write modern psalms referring to atmospheric pressure, atoms, and the now discredited substance, ether “which bearest messages from matter through all creation.” His hymns appeared in Break of Day, 1893, and three -“Christian! Rise and Act thy Creed,” “Come, Holy Spirit Kind to All,” and “O God, whose Voice the Angels Hear”—were included in Horders Hymns, Supplement, 1894. “Christian Rise and Act thy Creed” also appeared in the American Unitarian Hymns of the Spirit, 1937, and the British Unitarian Hymns of Faith and Freedom, 1991. Eleven of his modern psalms were used in the British Unitarian Psalms and Canticles for Public Worship, 1918, and three of his antiphonal readings were included in Hymns of the Spirit. In addition Russell wrote a Unitarian tract, Religion and Life.

Bertrand RussellBertrand Russell (May 18, 1872-February 2, 1970), philosopher, mathematician, and political activist, was a prolific and controversial writer on an extraordinary range of topics, including education, social science, politics, ethics, and religion. Because of his “philosophical works . . . of service to moral civilization,” he was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize for literature. While he left no school of disciples and he himself eventually discarded nearly all of his own philosophical ideas, his methodology has furnished a framework for much modern philosophical thought. “Russell taught us not to think his thoughts,” said philosopher Gilbert Ryle, “but how to move in our own philosophical thinking.”

Russell’s parents, Viscount John and Viscountess Kate Amberley, advocates of woman’s rights and independent thinkers in matters of morality and religion, both died when he was quite young. At the age of three Bertie was turned over to his grandparents, Lord John and Lady Frances Russell. Lord John died two years later, so Bertie was reared by his grandmother. Lady Russell brought up her grandson in a Spartan manner with a sense of human sinfulness and the misery of mortal life. When she gave Bertie a Bible she inscribed it with the text, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.” They attended the Anglican church and the Presbyterian chapel on alternate Sundays. Bertie was taught Unitarian ideas at home. When the Unitarian Christian Church in Richmond was founded, he signed the membership register. Although in his Autobiography Russell wrote that he believed in the doctrines of Unitarianism until he was about fifteen, he attended the church as late as his eighteenth birthday.

During his late teens Russell systematically investigated his Christian beliefs, abandoning in succession free will, immortality, and the existence of God. In his studies at Cambridge, 1890-94, and in his subsequent work, he sought security and consolation in mathematics and philosophy. At the International Congress of Philosophy in 1900, Russell met Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano, who had succeeded in reducing all arithmetic to a logical system based upon five axioms. Russell wished to extend Peano’s work, basing all mathematics upon an even smaller number of basic assumptions. His subsequent elaboration of this project, in discussion with his friend and former teacher Alfred North Whitehead, was, as he described it, intellectually “the highest point in my life.”

Russell’s new approach to mathematical foundations, however, generated a paradox which reduced him to “intellectual sorrow.” In order to evade this paradox Russell had to compromise the planned simplicity of his mathematical foundation. When completed, Principia Mathematica, written with Whitehead, was much more complicated than they had first envisioned. It later became apparent that the project was, mathematically speaking, a failure. In 1931 Czechoslovakian mathematician Kurt Gödel published a critique of the Principia proving that Russell’s plan to reduce mathematics to pure logic was unsuccessful and demonstrating that all axiomatic mathematical systems are either incomplete or inconsistent.

Meanwhile, under the influence of his student Ludwig Wittgenstein, who saw mathematics as a set of tautologies, Russell feared that “to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-footed animal is an animal.” Therefore, he complained, “I cannot any longer find any mystical satisfaction in the contemplation of mathematical truth.”

Although Principia Mathematica did not become the foundation of mathematics, it was a seminal work in philosophy. Many borrowed Russell’s techniques, such as testing theories with thought experiments using difficult cases. Russell himself applied his methods to metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Over the years he adopted, tested, and later dropped a succession of philosophies, including logical atomism and neutral monism. According to logical atomism the world is made up of indivisible units or facts which combine sense data and some logical statement about them. Russell developed neutral monism using the work of William James. In this he categorized mind and matter as being of the same essence, but interpreted differently by the senses. Whatever the virtues of any of these theories, Russell could not maintain them once they were shown to apply partially rather than completely. As a result he initiated no specific school of thought. Nevertheless he is numbered among the founders of modern analytic philosophy.

On the other hand, his collaborator Whitehead, having moved in a different philosophical direction, developed process metaphysics. Lecturing at Harvard, Whitehead told his classes, “Bertie Russell says I am muddleheaded. Well, I say he is simple-minded.”

Russell’s ethical philosophy also passed through several stages of evolution. According to his 1910 paper “Elements of Ethics,” based on G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, a person discovers what is good by direct intuition. Like his grandmother, Russell believed that one should obey one’s conscience. After George Santayana mocked his views, Russell changed his mind and decided that ethics were subjective. This stance did not survive the experience of World War II and the Holocaust. Finally, in Human Society in Ethics and Politics, 1954, he tried to reintroduce objectivity by judging actions by their consequences.

As a moralist Russell never found any final theoretical grounding, though he is remembered for his courageous political stands. Because of the honor accorded to his social position and the fame of the Principia Mathematica and his other philosophical work, Russell was able to command public attention. Stands he took were often unpopular and sometimes illegal. He accepted his punishment in the spirit of non-violent protest.

At the turn of the 20th century, Russell’s political life was given its impetus, not by his philosophy, but by a mystical vision. He had come across Whitehead’s wife, Evelyn, in the midst of severe pain. “She seemed cut off from everyone and everything by walls of agony, and the sense of the solitude of each human soul suddenly overwhelmed me,” he recalled. “Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath me, and I found myself in quite another region.” All emotional assurance he had known before seemed superficial. The only thing that could penetrate such human isolation, he concluded, was “the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached.” Also, “whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless.” From this it followed that war is evil and “the use of force is to be deprecated.”

For his opposition to World War I Russell was first fined, then imprisoned. He believed the war was motivated by national pride and that submission to German might would be a lesser evil than a world war. Later, he came to support the fight against the Nazis in World War II, however, because he found them “utterly revolting—cruel, bigoted, and stupid.” After the dropping of the first atom bomb, he realized the danger posed by nuclear weapons and rose in the House of Lords to warn of the danger. So concerned was he about nuclear proliferation that he briefly urged the United States to use its military advantage to coerce Russia into abandoning the arms race. His 1954 radio broadcast “Man’s Peril” lead to the Russell-Einstein statement of concerned scientists and the beginning of organized popular resistance to development of nuclear weapons. He was sentenced to prison in 1961, at the age of 89, for civil disobedience at a demonstration for nuclear disarmament. During his last years he was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, accusing America of war crimes and atrocities in Southeast Asia.

During the 1940s Russell’s views on marriage and sexual morality generated considerable controversy. A suit was brought which prevented his teaching at the City College of New York. In Marriage and Morals, 1929, he had argued against repressive attitudes towards sex. While he did not believe in acting upon uncontrolled impulses, he thought self-control ought not be an end in itself. Believing the intimacy of a good marriage did not preclude sexual relationships outside that bond, he advocated what was later called “open marriage.” In the brief against him in the City College case, his works were characterized as being “lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrow-minded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fibre.”

Unemployed as a result of the verdict and stranded in America because of the war, Russell accepted a lectureship at a private foundation. The result was his best known book, A History of Western Philosophy, 1945. Alan Ryan, a biographer of Russell, while conceding that the History “too often seems casual, unfair and prejudiced, and too ready to shade the truth for the sake of the bon mot,” noted that Russell “wrote so well that he will always be the envy and the despair of other philosophers.”

Russell was married four times: to Alys Pearsall Smith in 1894, Dora Black in 1921, Patricia Spence in 1936, and Edith Finch in 1952. The first three marriages ended in divorce. Especially during the years around World War I he had a series of extra-marital affairs. His daughter Katherine wrote, “His loves were as spectacular as fireworks and often as brief,” and often afterwards left the woman “a burnt black shell.” One such affair was with the unstable Vivienne Eliot, wife of his student and friend T.S. Eliot.

Eliot earlier had portrayed something of Russell’s intellectual and sexual nature in the portrait poem “Mr. Apollinax” saying that “his dry and passionate talk devoured the afternoon” and “He laughed like an irresponsible foetus.” Russell brought to Eliot’s mind “Priapus in the shrubbery / Gaping at the lady in the swing.” Later, Eliot made Russell the model for the fourth tempter in the play Murder in the Cathedral. Another student, mathematician Norbert Wiener, described Russell as a “philosophical rake,” trying to chart a dangerous course in “a channel which is poorly lighted and poorly buoyed.”

For many years Russell refrained from having children because his grandmother had warned him of a strain of madness in the family. Eventually he fathered three. Although he intended to be a kind father, he raised his children according to educational and behavioral standards as exacting in their own way as those inflicted on him by his grandmother. Nevertheless, at the end of her memoir, his daughter concluded, “He was the most fascinating man I have ever known, the only man I ever loved, the greatest man I shall ever meet, the wittiest, the gayest, the most charming. It was a privilege to know him.”

Russell’s relationship with his daughter and her husband was troubled by their embrace of Christianity. Although he paid towards his son-in-law’s seminary education, he could not agree with their theology. He thought of himself as an agnostic, and considered the probability of the existence of God very small. Russell thought all traditional religions untrue and harmful. Since the religions disagreed with each other, logic dictated that at most one could be correct. He thought that many specific doctrines were, in themselves, evil, and that faith in general encouraged people to believe things in the face of evidence to the contrary, thus discouraging coherent and independent thinking.

In his lecture “Why I Am Not a Christian” Russell explained that he did not believe in God and immortality, and that he did not consider Christ “the best and wisest of men.” He thought that if there was any over-arching quality that might be called “good,” it transcended any possible god as well, thus rendering the deity unnecessary. He thought the world so flawed that it did not do much honor to any god that might have created it. In fact he thought it at least as plausible that “this world that we know was made by the devil at a moment when God was not looking.” The teachings of Jesus he divided into two categories, a few good and many others wrong-headed or cruel. Those he admired, such as “resist not evil, “judge not,” and “give all to the poor,” he found to be largely disregarded by professing Christians.

Although Russell detested traditional organized religion, he did not spurn the religious impulse. Through love and knowledge he sought to be “led upward to the heavens.” And through pity for the suffering of humanity, he was brought back to service on earth. His daughter thought that “he was by temperament a profoundly religious man, the sort of passionate moralist who would have been a saint in a more believing age.”

Some correspondence of Lord John Russell was published in Rollo Russell, ed., Early Correspondence of Lord John Russell, 1815-1840 (1913) and in G. P. Gooch, ed., The Later Correspondence of Lord John Russell, 1840-1878 (1925). There are a number of biographies of Lord John Russell, including A. Wyatt Tilby, Lord John Russell: A Study in Civil and Religious Liberty (1931); John Prest, Lord John Russell (1972); and Paul Scherer, Lord John Russell: A Biography (1999). There is a memoir of Lady Frances Russell: Desmond MacCarthy and Agatha Russell, Lady John Russell: A Memoir (1910). Family information on Lord and Lady Russell can also be found in two volumes devoted to their son and daughter-in-law, The Amberley Papers: Bertrand Russell’s Family Background, by Bertrand Russell and Patricia Spence Russell (1937); volume 1 of Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography (1967); and in Christopher Trent, The Russells (1966). The activities of the Russell family at the Unitarian Christian Church in Richmond are documented in Elizabeth Orr, The Unitarian Congregation in Richmond, 1888-1988 (1988). For information on the Unitarian churches in Britain and 19th century British Unitarian history see H. L. Short, “Presbyterians under a New Name,” in C. G. Bolam et al., The English Presbyterians: From Elizabethan Puritanism to Modern Unitarianism (1968) and R. K. Webb, “The Unitarian Background,” in Barbara Smith, ed., Truth, Liberty, Religion: Essays Celebrating Two Hundred Years of Manchester College (1986).

The largest repository of Bertrand Russell papers is the Russell Archives at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Other important collections are at the Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin and Trinity College Library at Cambridge University. There is a bibliography of Russell works by Lester E. Denonn, in Paul A. Schilpp, The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell (1944, bibliography revised in 1963). Some of the more significant works by Russell not mentioned above are The Principles of Mathematics (1903), The Problems of Philosophy (1912), Our Knowledge of the External World (1914), Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916), Mysticism and Logic (1918), Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919), The Analysis of Mind (1921), What I Believe (1925), On Education, Especially in Early Childhood (1926), An Outline of Philosophy (1927), The Analysis of Matter (1927), The Conquest of Happiness (1930), Freedom and Organization, 1814-1914 (1934), In Praise of Idleness (1935), Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits (1948), Authority and the Individual (1949), Unpopular Essays (1950), Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1954), Portraits from Memory (1956), Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays (1957), Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959), My Philosophical Development (1959), and Has Man a Future? (1961). Anthologies of the writings of Russell include Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Dennon, eds., The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell (1967); Louis Greenspan and Stefan Andersson, eds., Russell on Religion (1999); and Charles Pigden, ed., Russell on Ethics (1999).

Russell wrote a three volume autobiography (1967, 1968, and 1969). Biographical works include Allan Wood, Bertrand Russell: The Passionate Skeptic (1958); Rupert Crawshay-Williams, Russell Remembered (1970); G. H. Hardy, Bertrand Russell and Trinity (1970); Katherine Tait, My Father Bertrand Russell (1975); Ronald W. Clark, The Life of Bertrand Russell (1976); Alan Ryan, Bertrand Russell: A Political Life (1988); Caroline Moorhead, Bertrand Russell: A Life (1992); Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 (1996); and Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 (2000). Material on the relationship between Russell and T. S. Eliot can be found in Lyndall Gordon, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (1998). There are many books on Russell’s mathematics and philosophy. A few of them are: Alfred J. Ayer, Bertrand Russell (1972); Stefan Andersson, In Quest of Certainty: Bertrand Russell’s Search for Certainty in Religion and Mathematics up to The Principles of Mathematics (1903) (1994); Anthony C. Grayling, Russell (1996); and Ray Monk, Russell (1999).

Article by Wesley Hromatko
Posted January 27, 2001