Skip to main content
×
×
Home

ATHEISM AND POLYGENESIS IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: CHARLES BRADLAUGH'S RACIAL ANTHROPOLOGY*

  • NATHAN G. ALEXANDER (a1)
Abstract

This article examines a previously unexplored chapter in the history of atheism: its close links with nineteenth-century racial anthropology. These links are apparent especially in many atheists’ interest in polygenesis, the theory that human races had separate origins, in contrast to the orthodox Christian doctrine of monogenesis that said all races descended from Adam and Eve. The article's focus is Charles Bradlaugh (1833–91), arguably the most important British atheist of the era, representing the radical working-class, secularist movement that emerged in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. The article charts the ways Bradlaugh and other atheists used the research on polygenesis from leading scientific racists in both Britain and the United States to critique Christianity. It also explores some of the contradictions of this use, namely the ways polygenesis clashed with Darwinism and a longer chronology of the age of the Earth. Finally, the article explores how polygenist ideas informed Bradlaugh's imperial worldview and notes that, despite his acceptance of polygenesis, Bradlaugh was a supporter of the rights of nonwhites in the British Empire, particularly in India.

Copyright
Footnotes
Hide All
*

I would like to thank John Clark, Felix Driver, Colin Kidd, David Livingstone, and the two reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

Footnotes
References
Hide All

1 There is no discussion of Bradlaugh's racial thinking in Tribe, David, President Charles Bradlaugh M.P. (London, 1971); Niblett, Bryan, Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh (Oxford, 2010); or Royle, Edward, Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866–1915 (Manchester, 1980). The only works to my knowledge which mention Bradlaugh's use of polygenesis are a book and an article from Timothy Larsen, though in both cases only very briefly. See Larsen, Timothy, A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (Oxford, 2011), 86–7; Larsen, “The Book of Acts and the Origin of the Races in Evangelical Thought,” Victorian Review 37/2 (2011), 35–9.

2 See, for example, Stephens, Mitchell, Imagine There's No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World (New York, 2014); Jacoby, Susan, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York, 2004).

3 The following two paragraphs are based on Popkin, Richard H., Isaac La Peyrère (1596–1676): His Life, Work, and Influence (Leiden and New York, 1987); Kidd, Colin, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000 (Cambridge, 2006), chaps. 3, 4; Livingstone, David N., Adam's Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins (Baltimore, 2008), chaps. 1–3.

4 Stanton, William, The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America, 1815–59 (Chicago and London, 1960), 2833.

5 Ibid., 100–12; Agassiz, Louis, “The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races,” Christian Examiner 49 (July 1850), 110–45.

6 Banton, Michael, The Idea of Race (London, 1977), 5 .

7 Quoted in Stanton, The Leopard's Spots, 122.

8 Quoted at ibid.

9 Horsman, Reginald, Josiah Nott of Mobile: Southerner, Physician, and Racial Theorist (Baton Rouge and London, 1987), 17 .

10 Ibid., 38–9.

11 Ibid., 39–41.

12 Quoted in ibid., 61.

13 Nott, Josiah, Two Lectures, on the Natural History of the Caucasian and Negro Races (Mobile, 1844), 5, original emphasis.

14 Nott, Josiah, Two Lectures on the Connection between the Biblical and Physical History of Man: Delivered by Invitation, from the Chair of Political Economy, Etc., of the Louisiana University (New York, 1849), 7 .

15 See Harrison, Peter, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago, 2015), chap. 6.

16 Nott, Josiah and Gliddon, George, Types of Mankind: Or, Ethnological Researches, Based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and upon Their Natural, Geographical, Philological, and Biblical History (Philadelphia, 1854), 56, original emphasis.

17 Ibid., 61.

18 Nott, Natural History, 3.

19 Keel, Terence D., “Religion, Polygenism and the Early Science of Human Origins,” History of the Human Sciences 26/2 (2013), 332 .

20 Bachman, John, A Notice of the “Types of Mankind,” with an Examination of the Charges Contained in the Biography of Dr. Morton, Published by Nott and Gliddon (Charleston, 1854), 5 .

21 “Books of the Day,” The Reasoner 18/450 (1855), 6.

22 Ibid.

23 “A Man before Adam,” Boston Investigator, 3 May 1854, 2.

24 “Climate Not the Cause of Color,” Boston Investigator, 8 July 1857, 4; “Ethnology,” National Reformer, 3 June 1866, 346–7, at 346.

25 Watts, John, “The Origin of Man,” National Reformer, 15 Jan. 1865, 41–2, at 42.

26 Graves, Kersey, The Bible of Bibles; or, Twenty-Seven “Divine Revelations”, 4th edn (Boston, 1879), 291 .

27 “The God Idea,” Boston Investigator, 11 July 1888, 5.

28 Stocking, George W. Jr, Victorian Anthropology (New York, 1987), 247–54.

29 On Knox's life and thought see Lonsdale, Henry, A Sketch of the Life and Writings of Robert Knox the Anatomist (London, 1870); Richards, Evelleen, “The ‘Moral Anatomy’ of Robert Knox: The Interplay between Biological and Social Thought in Victorian Scientific Naturalism,” Journal of the History of Biology 22/3 (1989), 373436 .

30 Knox, Robert, The Races of Men: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Influence of Race over the Destinies of Nations, 2nd edn (London, 1862), v .

31 Lonsdale, Life and Writings of Knox, 10–13.

32 See Lectures I and II of Knox, The Races of Men.

33 Lonsdale, Life and Writings of Knox, 402.

34 Ibid., 404.

35 Richards, “‘Moral Anatomy’ of Robert Knox,” 404.

36 Knox, The Races of Men, 384.

37 Ibid., 581.

38 Ibid., 555.

39 Ibid., 477; Lonsdale hinted that Knox was sympathetic to deism: Lonsdale, Life and Writings of Knox, 407.

40 Autonomos, “Who Are the Jews? (1),” National Reformer, 12 May 1867, 293–4; Autonomos, “Who Are the Jews? (2),” National Reformer, 19 May 1867, 314–15; Autonomos, “Who Are the Jews? (3),” National Reformer, 26 May 1867, 322–4.

41 The whole series is Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (1),” National Reformer, 9 June 1867, 362–3; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (2),” National Reformer, 16 June 1867, 373; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (3),” National Reformer, 23 June 1867, 394–5; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (4),” National Reformer, 30 June 1867, 407; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (5),” National Reformer, 7 July 1867, 5–7; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (6),” National Reformer, 14 July 1867, 20–22; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (7),” National Reformer, 21 July 1867, 37–9; Autonomos, “Christian Filibusters in Africa (8),” National Reformer, 4 Aug. 1867, 69–71.

42 Hunt, James, “Introductory Address on the Study of Anthropology,” Anthropological Review 1/1 (1863), 1–20, at 19.

43 Hunt, James, “The President's Address,” Journal of the Anthropological Society of London 5 (1867), xliv–lxxi, at lix.

44 Quoted in Lorimer, Douglas, Colour, Class, and the Victorians: English Attitudes to the Negro in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Leicester, 1978), 138.

45 Hunt, “The President's Address,” lxii.

46 Hunt, James, “Anniversary Address, Delivered before the Anthropological Society of London, January 19th, 1869,” Journal of the Anthropological Society of London 7 (1869), civ–cix, at cviii.

47 Driver, Felix, Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire (Malden, MA, 2001), 99 ; Kennedy, Dane, The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World (Cambridge, MA and London, 2007), 169–70.

48 Bradlaugh, Charles, The Freethinker's Text-Book, Part I. Man; Whence and How? Or, Revealed and Real Science in Conflict (London, 1876), 38.

49 Conway, Moncure, Autobiography: Memories and Experiences, vol. 2 (London and Paris, 1904), 1 .

50 Ibid., 1–2.

51 Stocking, Victorian Anthropology, 254–6.

52 Bradlaugh, Charles, Heresy: Its Utility and Morality; a Plea and a Justification (London, c.1870), 5.

53 See, for example, The Reasoner 5/105 (1848), 16.

54 “Heathen and Civilized,” Boston Investigator, 21 June 1865, 52.

55 G.E.H., “The Ethnological Society,” National Reformer, 24 Dec. 1865, 822–3, at 822.

56 “Modern Scientific Theories,” National Reformer, 24 March 1867, 177–8, at 177.

57 Adams, J. P., “The Anthropologists and Their Opponents,” National Reformer, 3 Nov. 1867, 276–7, at 276.

58 Carter Blake, C., “Anthropology,” National Reformer, 12 Oct. 1879, 659–60, at 659.

59 Ibid., 660.

60 Carter Blake, C., “Anthropology,” National Reformer, 2 Nov. 1879, 710–11, at 711 ; Blake, “Biblical Negroes,” National Reformer, 28 Dec. 1879, 836–7, at 837.

61 Blake, “Biblical Negroes,” 837.

62 Carter Blake, C., “Races in Western Europe,” National Reformer, 1 Feb, 1880, 6970.

63 Caractacus, “Science and Slavery,” National Reformer, 9 April 1864, 58.

64 Wheeler, J. M., A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations (London, 1889), vi, original emphasis.

65 Ibid., 180, 240.

66 Ibid., 54–5.

67 Morean, J. N., “Original Communications,” Boston Investigator, 20 Oct. 1858, 1.

68 Examples include “Human Genera and Species,” Boston Investigator, 8 Sept. 1841, 2; “What Men Believed in the Sixteenth Century, and What They Believe Now,” The Reasoner 9/205 (1850), 44; Cooper, Robert, The Infidel's Text-Book, Being the Substance of Thirteen Lectures on the Bible, American edn (Boston, 1858), 209–10; J.S.H., “The Unity of the Human Race,” Boston Investigator, 24 Feb. 1858, 1; “Adam and Eve,” Boston Investigator, 22 Feb. 1860, 349.

69 Remsburg, John E., The Bible: I. Authenticity II. Credibility III. Morality (New York, 1907), 283.

70 William Draper, John, The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (New York and London, 1874).

71 Dickson White, Andrew, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, vol. 1 (New York, 1896), 255 .

72 Bradlaugh Bonner, Hypatia, ed., Catalogue of the Library of the Late Charles Bradlaugh (London, 1891), 69, 115, 116.

73 Bradlaugh, Charles, Anthropology (London, 1882), Lecture 1, 12, 4.

74 Bradlaugh, Charles, Were Adam and Eve Our First Parents? (London, c. 1865).

75 Bradlaugh, Man; Whence and How?

76 Bradlaugh, Charles, Genesis: Its Authorship and Authenticity, 3rd edn (London, 1882).

77 On the history of anthropology in Britain see Stocking, Victorian Anthropology; Sera-Shriar, Efram, The Making of British Anthropology, 1813–1871 (London, 2013).

78 This is clearest in his classic work: Tylor, E. B., Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, 2 vols. (London, 1871).

79 Bradlaugh's large library did include an early work by Tylor, Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization (1865), but not his later and more important work, Primitive Culture (1871). See Bradlaugh Bonner, Catalogue, 94.

80 See, for example, Ingersoll, Robert G., “The Gods” (1872), in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, 12 vols. (New York, 1902), 1: 790.

81 Bradlaugh, Adam and Eve, 8.

82 Ibid., 4; see also Bradlaugh, Genesis, 238–9.

83 Bradlaugh, Adam and Eve, 5.

84 Ibid., 6–7.

85 Ibid., 7.

86 Ibid., 1.

87 Underwood, B. F., The Burgess–Underwood Debate: Commencing June 29, 1875, at Aylmer, Ontario, and Continuing Four Days (New York, 1876), 91 ; Ingersoll, Robert, “Some Mistakes of Moses” (lecture, 1879), in Ingersoll, Works, 2: 99100.

88 Heston, Watson, The Freethinkers’ Pictorial Text-Book (New York, 1890), 123 ; on Heston's life see Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Village Atheists: How America's Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton and Oxford, 2016), chap. 2.

89 Arthur Moss, B., “The Age of Man,” Truth Seeker 14/5 (1887), 70–71, at 70.

90 Ibid., 71.

91 Grabill, J. W., “The Age of Man on the Earth,” Truth Seeker 14/14 (1887), 210–11, at 210.

92 Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James, Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (London and New York, 2009).

93 Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1st edn (London, 1871).

94 Bradlaugh, Charles, “Antiquity and Unity of Origin of the Human Race,” National Reformer, 29 Oct. 1864, 513–14.

95 Newstead, R., “Unity of Origin of the Human Race,” National Reformer, 12 Nov. 1864, 566.

96 Royle, Radicals, Secularists and Republicans, 171.

97 Ibid., 173; Mann, W., “The Hundred Best Books (1),” The Freethinker, 19 Nov. 1905, 740–42; Mann, “The Hundred Best Books (2),” The Freethinker, 26 Nov. 1905, 762–3.

98 Bradlaugh, Man; Whence and How?, 80.

99 Ibid., 65.

100 Ibid., 87.

101 Ibid., 92.

102 Bradlaugh, Anthropology, Lecture 1, 5.

103 Ibid., Lecture 4, 4.

104 See Bowler, Peter, Evolution: The History of an Idea, 25th-anniversary edn (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2009), chap. 9.

105 Bradlaugh, Anthropology, Lecture 1, 8.

106 Ibid., Lecture 4, 5.

107 Ibid., Lecture 2, 4.

108 Ibid., Lecture 2, 3.

109 Ibid., Lecture 3, 7.

110 Ibid., Lecture 3, 8.

111 Ibid., Lecture 4, 6.

112 Bradlaugh, Charles, “Jottings Out of Session,” National Reformer, 10 Oct. 1880, 270.

113 See Part Five of Arthur Nethercot, H., The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (London, 1961).

114 Arthur Nethercot, H., The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (London, 1963); see also Bevir, Mark, “In Opposition to the Raj: Annie Besant and the Dialectic of Empire,” History of Political Thought 19/1 (1998), 6177.

115 Nash, David, “Charles Bradlaugh, India, and the Many Chameleon Destinations of Republicanism,” in Nash, David and Taylor, Anthony, eds., Republicanism in Victorian Society (Stroud, 2000), 106–24.

116 Speech on India at Town Hall, Northampton, 19 Nov. 1883, in Charles Bradlaugh, Speeches (London, 1890), 42.

117 Ibid., 43.

118 Ibid., 45.

119 Bradlaugh, Charles, “England in Asia,” National Reformer, 29 June 1890, 402.

120 “Mr. Bradlaugh and India,” National Reformer, 5 Jan. 1890, 12.

121 Indian National Congress speech, Bombay, 29 Dec. 1889, in Bradlaugh, Speeches, 152.

122 Ibid., 153.

123 “Departure from Bombay,” National Reformer, 2 Feb. 1890, 76.

124 Tribe, President Charles Bradlaugh, 289.

125 Stocking, George W. Jr, Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology, new edn (Chicago and London, 1982), 53–4.

* I would like to thank John Clark, Felix Driver, Colin Kidd, David Livingstone, and the two reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
×

Metrics

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed