I am in Manchester for a little less than two weeks. The city was historically the heart of British Unitarianism–and I am told that even now about half of the Unitarians in the United Kingdom live within 50 miles of the city center–and the University of Manchester has one of the largest collections of Unitarian books and archival materials in the world. They actually have two separate reading rooms. The first is on the university campus and is a fairly basic reading room set-up. The other is in the beautiful, neo-gothic, John Rylands Library.

The Rylands is in the city center. The original reading room and building, which, sadly, I am not working in, are made of gorgeous, vaulted, carved, redstone. It is well worth a wander through as an architectural site–think cathedralesque–on its own.

The reading room I am in is plain and in a modern part of the remodeled building. It overlooks a square and there’s lots of light. There are also a number of other researchers. One, in particular, is working with a series of interesting documents. He’s studying the use of collecting to establish the class credentials of the Manchester barons of industry (it is important to remember here that Manchester played a major role in the Industrial Revolution and inspired Marx and Engels in developing their critique of capital).

There’s still a strong legacy of class consciousness in the city. There’s a statue of Engels in a major square and stickers and posters–the Wobblies used to call them silent agitators–expressing working class politics pretty much everywhere. My favorites are those that simply say, “Fascists out of working class areas.” I took some pictures of them which I posted to Instagram.

The city is also home to the People’s History Museum. It tells the history of the last two centuries of British life from a working class perspective. There are banners and buttons, information about the rise of the union movement, general strikes, the birth of the Labour Party, the suffragette movement, anti-racist campaigns, the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights, and various kinds of solidarity (one of particular note is a banner from a famous miners’ strike in the 1980s in which an openly LGBTQ+ collective supported the workers).

The museum had a reference to Robert Wedderburn, who I am researching, at one point. It is striking, for all the reasons that makes my skin crawl, that someone who was tried for blasphemy as a Unitarian minster in 1820 was been completely written out of the movement’s history. Wedderburn was likely the first Black Unitarian minister–declaring himself one prior to even the establishment of the American Unitarian Association–and yet he’s almost entirely unknown in Unitarian Universalist circles (some British Unitarians do know who he but they don’t treat him as a major figure in their history).

I suspect that one reason why Wedderburn isn’t lifted up as a major figure in our tradition is that he had openly revolutionary politics. He was involved in a plot to overthrow the British government and likely only escaped arrest and execution for his part in the conspiracy because he was on trial for blasphemy, for his Unitarian views, at the time.

I have found most of his extant pamphlets–some are collected in The Horrors of Slavery, ed. Iain McCalman–but several are not. I also plan to read all of the police reports about him that exist in the National Archives over the next couple of weeks, while I am in London.

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  • How exciting it must be to be reading the history and lack of history in the seat where so much history was made. I had no idea that so many Unitarians lived within 50 miles of where you are now study. Thank you for updating us and the education we are receiving from reading your posts. I follow your journey with interest. Blessings Edi

  • this is all fascinating work, especially about the Unitarian heresy trial. I was fascinated also for a while by Gerrard Winstanley who. proclaimed Universalism before anyone in our traditional history, and was an anarchist based on his communistic theology.

    • One of the interesting things about small u unitarianism and universalism is that they seem to pop in a variety of working class radical movements. Unfortunately, this rarely seems to lead to Unitarian Universalists in the US figuring out how to connect to working class people. There’s all sorts of theories around why this is (classism and racism are the two most frequently put forward) and what might be done about it. My own observation is that the congregations that have managed to build up something of a working class membership have done so precisely by supporting working class radicalism. The Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, where I served for five years, had the largest working class constituency (by percentage) of any congregation I have been involved with. Why? Because it regularly hosted meetings for local radical groups of all stripes and had connection with the labor movement that stretched back to at least the 1950s (when one of the ministers had been a former steel worker and union militant).

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