BHA mourns Harold Blackham (1903-2009): ‘architect of the humanist movement’

27 January, 2009

Harold John Blackham (born 31 March 1903), philosopher, lecturer, writer, ‘architect of the British and international humanist movements’ and ‘founder of the British Humanist Association’, has died at the age of 105 (on 23 January 2009). Obituaries were published by The Times and New Humanist and The Independent.

H J BlackhamThe only brother of four sisters, Harold Blackham was educated at King Edward VI School, but left early at the end of the First World War to be a farm labourer, where he worked with and developed an abiding love of horses.  He went on to Birmingham University where he was a student of literature and ethics. For two years he taught at Doncaster Grammar School but left to work as a freelance lecturer and writer in Birmingham. In 1933 he moved to London where his active involvement in organised humanism began. He became the assistant to and then the successor of Stanton Coit, the American who ran the West London Ethical Society in Bayswater, and who had founded a British Union of Ethical Societies in 1896 after a long career of social reform in his native USA. In 1934 Blackham became chairman of the Union and it was this organisation that eventually became the British Humanist Association (BHA), of which he became the first director.

Blackham’s father, a Birmingham bookseller and lay Congregationalist preacher (as was his grandfather), died when he was a child but left him with a life-long love of the written word and his many articles and books over almost 70 years helped to make him one of the most significant figures in twentieth century Humanism. A biography of Stanton Coit, published by the Rationalist Press Association, was his first book in 1948 and at the age of 98, he wrote the epilogue to the revised version of J B Bury’s classic History of Freedom of Thought, published by the University Press of the Pacific in 2001. His Six Existentialist Thinkers, published by Routledge in 1952, became the standard university textbook on the subject, and was re-printed a number of times, but it was on Humanism that he wrote most widely. He edited Living as a Humanist, a collection of essays, in 1950 and his The Human Tradition (his own favourite of all his books) was published by Routledge in 1953, followed by Religion in a Modern Society (Constable, 1966) and Humanism (Penguin, 1968). He had edited Objections to Humanism, published by Constable in 1963 and Penguin in 1965, in which humanists responded to criticisms of the humanist worldview, and this critical openness also informed his Humanists and Quakers: an exchange of letters, published in 1969 by the Society of Friends. His other books included The Fable as Literature (1985) and The Future of our Past: from Ancient Greece to Global Village (1996). His fellow humanist writer, Barbara Smoker, in her anthology Blackham’s Best (1988 and various reprints), describes his writing as driven by a desire to distil and communicate the wisdom of the past to others, and as ‘condensed, taut, aphoristic … with multiple layers of meaning – often more like classical poetry than modern prose’.

It was not just in writing, however, that he earned his reputation as the effective founder of modern Humanism in Britain and internationally, but through a long life of practical action. As he said himself, ‘Faith without works is not Christianity, and unbelief without any effort to help shoulder the consequences for mankind is not humanism.’ (Objections to Humanism, 1963). During the Second World War he worked in the London Fire Service, driving a fire engine throughout the blitz in the London docks, finally becoming liaison officer to the Port of London, while continuing to work part-time as a philosophy lecturer and writer and the secretary of the West London Ethical Society and the Ethical Union. After the war he set out to revive the freethought movement under the banner of ‘Humanism’, a concept which had already been adopted in the United States, India and the Netherlands. As he wrote in 1981,

When, as the Second World War came to an end, I took on the secretaryship of the Ethical Union, it was with the idea of recovering for expression in a modern Humanism the full body of the age-old tradition, with its accumulating scientific, social and ethical content.

He saw this tradition as originating in the ancient world, with Greeks such as Epicurus, through the Renaissance and Enlightenment to emerge in the utilitarians, rationalism, secularism and the ethical movement, converging into ‘a modern consensus that human beings are of age and on their own, and have in their hands the technical means of providing for all the conditions of a life worthy to be called human.’ In 1944 he launched a quarterly magazine, The Plain View, which ran for twenty years and in which he worked out his ideas together with a group of colleagues and outside contributors, especially Julian Huxley and Gilbert Murray – in fact Blackham attracted the foremost minds of the day to contribute to this exceptional journal.

In Birmingham in the 1920s he had founded a local branch of the League of Nations Union and in 1938 he had helped to organise a World Union of Freethinkers conference in London, which turned out to mark the end of the old freethought movement in the face of Fascism and Communism (he was himself involved with bringing Jewish refugee children from Austria to Britain to escape Nazi persecution.) Still thinking internationally after the war, in 1946 he called a London conference of the World Union of Freethinkers to discuss ‘The Challenge of Humanism’. The need, however, was for a new international organisation and Blackham, working with the ethical organisations in Britain and other countries, and also with new Humanist organisations around the world. Visiting Holland after the war he met with the Dutch philosopher and humanist leader Jaap van Praag, with whom he went on to found the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). Today, the IHEU is a worldwide union of over 100 organisations in 40 nations which continues to develop Humanism internationally. Blackham served as its secretary from 1952 to 1967 and Julian Huxley became its first president, just as he was to become the first president of the British Humanist Association. (Blackham worked closely with Huxley in many ways including helping him to revise his Religion without Revelation.) As well as serving as its secretary, Blackham represented the IHEU in its dialogue with the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Believers. In recognition of his many contributions to international Humanism, he received the IHEU’s International Humanist Award in 1974, and the Special Award for Service to World Humanism in 1978.

At the same time as he was working on building the international humanist movement, Blackham worked to bring together Ethical and Rationalist organisations in Britain, and in 1963 his efforts led to the formation of the British Humanist Association, of which he was the effective founder and first director, retiring in March 1968. Today the British Humanist Association is the national charity supporting and representing non-religious in Britain, renowned for its work in education, in the provision of non-religious funerals and other ceremonies, and active in campaigning for an open society and a secular state.  Without Harold Blackham it would not have existed. Working with leading British humanists such as Huxley, Barbara Wootton, A. J. Ayer and Jacob Bronowski, Blackham inspired and contributed to pioneering practical work in sheltered housing, adoption and non-directive counselling (he co-founded the British Association of Counselling) even as he continued to develop the philosophy of Humanism in his writing and lecturing, including part time at Goldsmith’s College.

Blackham cared deeply about education, and moral education in particular. This focus on education persists in the agenda of today’s BHA, stimulated by this decade’s sad expansion of state-funded faith schools which would have been unimaginable at the time of the BHA’s founding. Blackham himself had been involved in founding the Moral Education League while with the Ethical Union. Working with people like Cyril Bibby, Lionel Elvin, Sir Gilbert Flemming and Edward Blishen, he went on make the BHA a significant advocate of moral education and personal development in schools, recognised as such even by the Church of England Board of Education. He co-founded the Journal of Moral Education – which continues today as the leading global journal in its field and of which he remained an honorary associate until his death – and edited Moral and Religious Education in County Primary Schools (NFER 1975) and Education for Personal Autonomy: Inquiry into the School’s Resources for Furthering the Personal Development of Pupils (1977). Working with Dr James Hemming, his fellow humanist and educationist who died in 2007 aged 98, Blackham ensured that the humanist voice was a feature of debates over religious, moral and values education throughout the second half of the twentieth century, always seeking to work with non-humanists find agreed solutions. To that end he founded the Social Morality Council (later the Norham Foundation), which brought together humanists and eminent religious believers to produce agreed solutions to moral questions affecting society. In Moral and Religious Education in County Primary Schools, he said, ‘At all ages, when world religions and non-religious convictions are studied, it is important to foster an attitude of tolerance and a willingness to stand where the other person stands in an effort to see how something must appear to them. There is a danger that without an attempt to reach this empathetic standpoint, the study of different convictions may produce only negative results. Tolerance and understanding will be achieved most effectively by personal contact, and in the absence of that, by a skilful use of literature and by the teacher’s encouragement of sensitive relationships within the classroom and the school. The fostering of these positive attitudes in the children will then extend, we hope, outside the schools into the wider community.’

On his retirement in 1968, Harold Blackham joined the advisory council of the BHA, to which he had himself recruited such luminaries as Karl Popper and E M Forster, and he remained a member until his death including a spell as President, 1974-77. He was an appointed lecturer at London’s South Place Ethical Society from 1965 until his death and an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association from 1977 until his death, having been for many years a director. He continued writing, lecturing, and officiating at humanist funerals into his nineties, eventually retiring to the Wye valley, where he used his ‘uninterrupted leisure in spectacular natural surroundings’ to grow vegetables and continue his reading and writing. Although he described his personal philosophy as Epicurean, others have seen him as a stoic. He wrote of ‘a resourceful, self-dependent, realistic, constructive attitude to life’ – and his long and productive life, committed to a variety of progressive causes, is a monument to the Humanism he espoused.

Harold Blackham’s first wife was Olga, with whom he adopted a son, Paul, who, with his wife Wenol, now has three sons and two grandchildren. He was also pre-deceased by his second wife, Ursula.

On his retirement as director in 1968, the BHA described him as ‘the architect of the British and international humanist movements’ and said, ‘In Britain, he has guided the development of the movement as philosopher and scholar, principal administrator and activist since the war-time days…his retirement is a change of roles, a relief from an arduous programme which has involved something like 2,500 committee meetings and 4,000 speaking engagements since 1945.’

David Pollock, a former chair of the BHA, paid tribute to him at his 100th birthday celebrations in 2003, saying:

Harold created today’s vision of Humanism as a philosophy of life, a lifestance with equal depth as the religions and far greater justification, deserving of equal standing and promising far better results both for the individuals who adopt it and for the world as it grows in significance. That was Harold’s contribution, for which we owe him our eternal gratitude.

Former editor of New Humanist Jim Herrick described him as living ‘the exemplary humanist life, that of thought and action welded together.’

Paul Kurtz, philosopher and humanist activist, said,

I am grieved to learn of the death of Harold Blackham, a man who I first met in 1967 and had been in touch with over the years on my many trips to Britain. This continued in our cooperative work together on behalf of the IHEU. I especially enjoyed visiting him and his wife at their home and garden.

I remember so well my first meeting with Harold and Hector Hawton (of the Rationalist Press Association) as I was preparing to launch Prometheus Books, a new Humanist Press. Both of these dedicated humanists were very encouraging. HJ Blackham was a man of great dignity, philosophical profundity, and an unmatched understanding of the meaning of humanism in practical life. His rare talent was that he was able to combine a dedication to both reflective wisdom and active involvement of the humanist life stance. It was the union of reason and virtue that was a rare talent that is the mark of the dedicated humanist.

Barbara Smoker, writer, lecturer and humanist activist, recalled,

On breaking free from Catholicism, sixty years ago, I used to cross London to replace Sunday Mass by a lecture at the Ethical Church, Bayswater, whenever the New Statesman listings named H J Blackham as the lecturer. He had a quiet sense of humour and occasionally a witty turn of phrase. I thought he looked very much like John Stuart Mill, and he was a charismatic speaker, though not an easy one. His lectures largely comprised my further education – not only in humanistic philosophy, but also in the English language, for there were always several words to look up in the dictionary when I got home. Later, when the Ethical Union was preparing to host the 1957 IHEU Conference in Conway Hall, I volunteered to do some of the secretarial work at Prince of Wales Terrace, for the ‘three Bs’ – Blackham, Burnett and Burall – and I have remained active in the movement ever since.

Hilda Hayden, now a BHA member, reflects on her friendship with Harold Blackham, beginning in his 97th year.

I first met HJ, as I knew him, when he was 97 and had suffered a stroke which robbed him of much of his speech.  John, my husband, had been asked as an Age Concern Visitor to talk to HJ and help him to regain what he had lost, and I went along because it was easier with two of us, and later after John died I continued alone, because by then we had got to know each other well.

He was a man of considerable intellect and he had clearly not lost his mental powers, and once we had established our system of inspired guesswork for the missing words we had many interesting talks.

A Conscientious Objector during the war, he  had joined the London Fire Brigade and been billeted in the Tower of London, and one of his stories concerned the time when as the driver of a fire engine he had dashed off in his engine too hastily only to remember that he had left the crew behind.

As a young man he had worked on farms and developed a great love of horses, and these were always a favourite theme on birthday cards. He had many stories to tell about this part of his life.  We learned about his life as a child in Jersey, the only boy among older sisters, and he seemed happy to dwell on his early life.  It seemed we got to know the real HJ Blackham, quite apart from the man who later came to have such an influence on the development of Humanism.

HJ lent us a number of books about Humanism, which we found fairly hard going, but he seemed not to take offence at our inability.  John was a very strong Anglican, whereas I had always been an agnostic, and so you might say HJ’s influence was more profound in my case, and I later joined the BHA.

I shall forever remember HJ sitting at his window overlooking the Wye and surveying the panoramic view, a tiny figure on his raised cushions.  We watched the changing seasons, and he would draw my attention to the flooded fields, or the opening of leaf buds, or the movements of the flocks of sheep, or the swans that migrated about the river according to the weather, or the birds gathering for their long journey.  There was always something for us to see and enjoy, and it was only most reluctantly that I had to leave him to another visitor when I began to have my own health problems.

HJ Blackham was a man whom I shall always remember with great affection.