Spears, Robert

Robert SpearsRobert Spears (September 25, 1825-February 25, 1899), a remarkably able and successful Unitarian minister, was the voice of Biblically-based British Unitarianism in his day. He organized or reinvigorated twelve congregations and founded journals and social service organizations. Because of his great energy he has been called the Unitarian dynamo of the 19th century. Amongst the majority of those who knew something of Unitarianism in Britain, he was taken to be the representative figure.

Born at Lemington in the district of Newburn, near Newcastle upon Tyne, Robert was the fifth son of John Spears, an ironworker, and of his second wife, Mary Ann Glenn. His father was a Scottish Calvinist Presbyterian, his mother a Methodist. Early in life Robert adhered to his mother’s faith. The Spears family was poor and Robert’s time at school short. In the 1830s he was apprenticed as an engineering (industrial) blacksmith. His mother encouraged her bright son to educate himself. In the Methodist church Spears discovered a gift for teaching and preaching. In the 1840s he became a local (lay) Methodist preacher.

In 1845 Spears attended and listened earnestly to a debate at Newcastle between William Cooke, a well known Methodist minister, and Joseph Barker whom the Methodists had expelled and, at that time, associated with the Unitarians. Spears soon sought out George Harris, the Unitarian minister at Newcastle, and changed the course of his life.

He ever afterwards held the Bible to be Unitarian in all its teachings from beginning to end. Admiration for the New Testament became his passion. In the 1840s, when asked by the Methodists, ‘Do you believe in the Trinity and unity of God?’, he asked them to rephrase their question in the language of the New Testament.

Harris gave Spears some informal training. Later in life Spears acknowledged that he began his career with ‘no college or ministerial training, no family prestige, and had the disadvantage of a northern dialect or brogue’.

In 1852 he became Unitarian minister at Sunderland, a near defunct congregation. Paid very little, he soon drew large numbers. He proclaimed the Unitarian faith to be both simple and clearly based on Jesus and the Bible. In 1856 he migrated to nearby Stockton-on-Tees, a congregation founded in the 17th century, which had fallen on hard times. Again, he soon had the pews filled with hearers drawn by his energy, commitment, and willingness to argue a Unitarian understanding of the scriptures with anyone.

His energetic ministry overflowed into journalism. In 1859 he founded and edited a weekly newspaper, the Stockton Gazette, in which he upheld the principles of the Liberal party and free trade. Late in the century the paper became a daily with a circulation of forty thousand.

His reputation spread to London. Biblically-based Unitarians saw in him a new champion, one who would proclaim their beliefs from the housetops, and counter the “new thought” advanced by James Martineau and John James Tayler. Despite his lack of formal ministerial training, in 1861 Spears became minister to a tiny congregation at Stamford Street Chapel in South London. He steered the same course as before, making ‘open profession, exposition, and defence of Unitarianism.’ In seven years the chapel grew to be one of the largest Unitarian congregations in London. He boasted, ‘There was no dilly dallying about the name Unitarian.’

Spears’s remarkable abilities and drive were acknowledged when, in 1867, he was chosen, with Robert Brook Aspland, Co-Secretary of the British & Foreign Unitarian Association. In 1870 he became Secretary. ‘The few years that I had the honour of that office the income from all sources was nearly quadrupled’, Spears wrote. ‘The sale of books and tracts of the Association during my secretaryship rose from £10 to upwards of £500.’

Spears championed the theology and writings of the celebrated American Unitarian, William Ellery Channing. With the aid of wealthy supporters, he republished Channing’s works in tens of thousands of cheap editions. When the Association decided in 1876 to republish a key work of the American transcendentalist Theodore Parker, Spears resigned as Secretary in protest, believing Parker’s books encouraged attacks on Biblically-based Unitarian doctrine. The event is considered a watershed in British Unitarian history. James Martineau regarded Spears as a narrow sectarian, but few Unitarians wanted to lose the benefits of his dynamism. Though endlessly engaged in disputes, Spears had never engendered ill will or dislike. A testimonial subscription provided him an income for life.

Recognizing that traditional Unitarians needed a strong voice, in 1876 Spears founded Christian Life, a weekly newspaper he edited for the rest of his life. Moreover, his irrepressible missionary drive flowered. He founded and supported congregations all over the country. For example, he started new congregations at both Walthamstow and Southend in Essex and in three to four years had buildings erected in both places. He also founded several pioneering organisations, among them, in 1886, the Channing House School in Highgate, London for the daughters of Unitarians and their ministers, which continues to this day.

Although not a radical in politics, Spears encouraged discussion on key social issues and was a supporter of women’s rights. On 6 April 1868 he made his chapel available and spoke at what has been found to be the first ever public meeting on women’s right to vote to be held in London.

With his prophet’s beard, Spears was an imposing presence. He charmed and influenced men and women from all walks of life. Wealthy Unitarians consistently supported him. He also had a wide range of acquaintances and colleagues in Europe, America and India, as well as in other British Christian denominations, even though he always made his Unitarian theological position abundantly clear.

In 1891 he rejoiced that ‘with the help of God, I have been the means of sorrows lessened, of joys heightened, of lives made more bright and pure, of hearts made more strong, of homes made happier, and of gratitude expressed a thousand times for our gospel of Unitarianism.’ An obituary said of him, ‘To speak adequately of Robert Spears would be to give a history of Unitarianism in these islands for about the last half century, so involved has he been in every question affecting our denomination.’

Some few letters, chiefly addressed to Spears, are at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, and papers relating to his time with the British & Foreign Unitarian Association are at Dr Williams’s Library, London. Spears published so much during his life that somewhere amongst this vast collection his views on almost everything can be found, in particular the Christian Life, which he edited 1876-1899, the Inquirer from the 1850s and a whole range of other newspapers and journals. His publications in the form of booklets mainly consisted of tracts and guides to the Bible. His important book was Record of Unitarian Worthies (1876) which remains, for all its defects, a significant source on several figures. The work Memorable Unitarians, published after his death in 1905 from material which he wrote for the Christian Life, has similar important references.

The biographies of Spears are Memorials of Robert Spears 1825-99 (1903) and Alan Ruston, ‘Robert Spears—the Unitarian dynamo’, Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (April 1999). Obituaries are in Christian Life (4 March 1899, 11 March 1899, 25 March 1899) and Inquirer (11 March 1899). There is an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. For his role in the early suffrage meeting see Virginia Clark, ‘Stamford Street Unitarian Chapel 6 April 1868: A Unitarian First for Women’s Suffrage’, Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (April 2000).

Article by Alan Ruston
Posted February 2, 2002