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Martineau, James


MARTINEAU, JAMES (18051900), English Unitarian. Born in Norwich, England, and educated at Manchester College, Martineau served as a minister, principally in Liverpool (18311857), and as a professor, and later principal, of Manchester College (18401885).

An early devotee of the materialistic philosophical determinism that Joseph Priestley (17331804) had absorbed from David Hartley (17051757) and transmitted to the English Unitarians, Martineau turned away from that position in the mid-1830s, in part under the influence of William Ellery Channing (17801842). He gave up external proof for intuition, metaphysics for ethics, and determinism for conscience and free will, and gradually abandoned his early belief in the historical validity of the scriptural miracles. Study in Germany in 18481849 reinforced the biblical skepticism that had led him to give up his belief in the evidential value of miracles. In his struggle to break the Priestleyan hold on his denomination, the passing of time and changing sensibilities gave Martineau a victory of sorts by the 1860s, but he had made many enemies in the older school, and he watched younger colleagues turn away from the theism to which he remained loyal to preach antisupernaturalism, humanism, and a variety of enthusiasms. In his later works, the impact of Darwinism and other scientific developments led him to a vast expansion of the argument from design, while the centrality he assigned to divine will bears some resemblance to his former determinism.

For most of his career, Martineau was highly controversial. A brilliant critic, he could be deliberately provocative, sometimes unscrupulous, and often wounding. He was denied the chair in philosophy at University College, London, after agitation by leading anticlerical intellectuals, among them his sister Harriet Martineau (18021876), whose book celebrating her conversion to free thought he had gratuitously and savagely reviewed in 1851. From the 1830s on, he rejected the Unitarian name, seeing it as sectarian and preferring the older Presbyterian or newer Free Christian labels, but few of his co-religionists followed him in this, and his plan in 1888 for sweeping denominational reform was a failure. But his prolonged and more irenic old age brought him almost universal admiration, and his stature in Unitarian history ranks with that of Priestley.

Martineau's subtle, complex, and self-consciously lyrical preaching was highly influential, as were his collections of hymns and liturgical services. His principal works are The Rationale of Religious Enquiry (1836), A Study of Spinoza (1882), Types of Ethical Theory (1885), A Study of Religion (1888), and The Seat of Authority in Religion (1890).


The principal collection of Martineau's papers is in Manchester College, Oxford, but there are other major collections in many places. His most important sermons, reviews, and occasional papers are collected in Essays, Reviews, and Addresses, 4 vols. (London, 18901891). The two biographies are by students and close associates. The best is J. Estlin Carpenter's James Martineau, Theologian and Teacher: A Study of His Life and Thought (London, 1905), but James Drummond and C. B. Upton's The Life and Letters of James Martineau, 2 vols. (London, 1902), contains much valuable material. As yet there is no satisfactory extended study of English Unitarianism, but there is an excellent brief sketch: H. L. Short's "Presbyterians under a New Name," in The English Presbyterians: From Elizabethan Puritanism to Modern Unitarianism, by C. Gordon Bolam and others (Boston, 1968).

R. K. Webb (1987)

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