Countdown to 125th Humanists UK anniversary

3 August, 2020

Pictured: Susan Stebbing, a former President of Humanists UK [1941-1942]
In 2021, Humanists UK will hit a big milestone – 125 years of promoting rational thought and kindness underpinned by a naturalistic approach to life.

The 12-month countdown has begun to the organisation’s big birthday next July, to be marked with a season of celebrations in 2021 itself. Among those celebrations will be the launch of an in-depth new Humanist Heritage online resource, detailing the rich heritage of humanist thought and activism, drawn from history books and Humanists UK’s own extensive archive materials held at the Bishopsgate Institute.

A history of humanist thought and activism

The Union of Ethical Societies, founded in 1896, brought together the existing ethical movement in the UK into a national force for non-religious moral thinking, charitable work, and campaigning. It was incorporated as the Ethical Union in 1920, later becoming the British Humanist Association in the mid-1960s and Humanists UK in 2017.

The idea of a union to bring together the existing British humanist movement belonged to Stanton Coit, an American who did much to promote the ethical movement in Britain. Having worked with the Society for Ethical Culture in New York, Coit’s leadership at South Place Ethical Society (now Conway Hall) had heralded its shift from a ‘religious’ to an ‘ethical’ society, and in 1892 he had founded the West London Ethical Society (one of the country’s largest).

Although Stanton Coit is remembered as the principal founder, he by no means worked alone in realising his ambition. Many women also helped to found the Union, and from its inception women were represented at the very top of the organisation. The very first Chair (or President) of the Annual Congress, an equivalent role to the President of Humanists UK today, was one Mrs Elizabeth Schwann. It was she who oversaw the merger of ethical societies which first created the Union. She was succeeded by another woman, Ms Corrie Grant, in 1897. At an executive level, the Union’s first Secretary (equivalent to today’s Chief Executive) was Miss Zona Vallance, an early feminist writer and campaigner. She was in turn succeeded by Miss Florence Winterbottom. The Humanist Heritage project will expand on their lives and those of other women leaders in the early humanist movement whose names and achievements have not been justly recorded by history to date.

From early on, the Union exerted a large influence. Through meetings, lectures, and ongoing publications like the Ethical World, it played a big role in the ongoing social and political debates of its time. Some of its founding members went on to achieve significant successes elsewhere. One of the earliest holders of the Presidency, for example, was a young political rising star named Ramsay MacDonald. He President of the Annual Congress in 1900 and 1901. Though raised in the Free Church of Scotland, Ramsay’s faith gradually waned over his life, finding ethical stimulation at first in the Unitarians and later in the Ethical movement. He later became MP for Leicester in 1906 and Labour’s first Prime Minister in 1924.

In its first years, Humanists UK was involved in the work of poverty alleviation, and adoption and housing associations, as well as human rights campaigning. It also acquired its long standing focus on education reform early on. Its Moral Instruction League, founded in 1897, advocated for ‘non-theological education’ on moral subjects. Many of its innovative services, such as secular adoption and housing, were taken over by the state and the private sector as social mores changed. The humanist movement went on to found the Journal of moral Education, which is still published today.

Its members originated the idea of non-religious funerals in the 1890s, which also continue today as Humanist Ceremonies. Humanist wedding celebrants were conducting affirmation ceremonies for same-sex couples for many decades throughout the 20th century, ahead of the eventual recognition of Civil Partnerships and later same-sex marriage in the UK.

As campaigners, humanists have been in involved in such historic achievements as the decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion; the end of the death penalty; the introduction of the Family Planning Act; and more recently the Equality Act; the repeal of English blasphemy laws; and a ban on the teaching of creationism in science lessons. Outside Parliament, humanists were involved in promoting social change, for example by organising the world’s first ever global anti-racism conference in 1911, or by taking to the streets to march in opposition to Section 28 in 1988.

Many important writers and thinkers made up the organisation’s Advisory Council in the 20th century. These included Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Vanessa Redgrave, Harold Pinter, Baroness Wootton, and E M Forster. Its long list of Presidents includes leading historians and writers and activists, such as the classicist Gilbert Murray (1929-1930), the philosophers GE Moore (1935-1936) and Susan Stebbing (1941-1942), and the biologist and internationalist Sir Julian Huxley (1966-1969). Its Presidents in more recent times include writer Claire Rayner (1999-2004), comedians Linda Smith (2004-2006) and Shappi Khorsandi (2017-2018), and scientist broadcasters Jim Al-Khalili (2013-2016) and Alice Roberts (2019-present).

The Humanist Heritage project will also look at the broader history of humanist thought and activism in the UK. Many of the UK’s leading social reformers, scientists, and artists were humanists, including the poet Percy Shelley, the novelist George Eliot, the naturalist Charles Darwin, the codebreaker Alan Turing, the chemist Rosalind Franklin, along with NHS founder Nye Bevan. Although focused on the British isles, it will also touch on the untold histories of others connected to the humanist movement, such as Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt’s close involvement with humanist societies overseas.

Humanist Heritage Coordinator Madeleine Goodall said:

‘The history of humanism in the UK is momentous but often goes under-appreciated and under-recognised. In the coming weeks and months as we work towards our 125th anniversary celebrations, we hope to begin exploring and celebrating that history and sharing with the public the fruits of our ongoing Humanist Heritage research project.’

Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

‘For nearly 125 years, humanists have worked together cooperatively in our country to achieve social reform and promote a positive and empowering outlook on life, and in 2021, we will be celebrating that proud tradition.

‘Humanists have been involved intimately in significant milestones of our social and legal history and have made enormous cultural and scientific contributions that have changed the world we live in. Our Humanist Heritage project aims to re-centre those stories, and shed light on the work of pioneering men and women who did so much to shape the world we now live in, but whose names are little remembered today.’

Important dates

  • 12 November 1895 – first exploratory meeting of the founding ethical societies
  • 30 April 1896 – first formal meeting of Union of Ethical Societies delegates
  • 5 July 1896 – first annual congress of the Union of Ethical Societies
  • 7 December 1897 – inaugural meeting of the Moral Instruction League within the Union marks start of humanist campaigning for ‘non-theological education’
  • 26-29 July 1911 – Union leaders organise First Universal Races Conference, the first ever global conference against racism
  • 15 May 1920 – at the 25th annual congress, a resolution is passed changing the name of the Union of Ethical Societies to the Ethical Union
  • 17 May 1963 – The British Humanist Association (the Ethical Union and the Rationalist Press Association) is formally inaugurated with a dinner at the House of Commons
  • August 1979 – the Gay Humanist Group (today LGBT Humanists) is formed in response to the Gay News blasphemy trial
  • 22 May 2017 – British Humanist Association becomes Humanists UK

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Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefiting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.