Charles Bradlaugh

A passionate non-believer, Bradlaugh loved to debate the merits of the Bible with fervent, often well-known, believers. He was a courageous and stirring orator and crowds flocked to hear his verbal duels. Some of the public debates were so lengthy they were conducted over several consecutive evenings. Others became heated, and sometimes the authorities tried to stop him speaking. Opponents to secular speakers sometimes tried to trick them into saying something that would be regarded as blasphemous. Some secularist speakers even went to prison for blasphemy. Bradlaugh, however, was ingenious in outwitting his opponents; in the coastal town of Devonport in 1859 he addressed a meeting from a barge just a few feet off-shore so that he would be speaking outside the jurisdiction of the town’s police.

Bradlaugh’s oratory was later put to good use in his parliamentary career. He was elected as an MP for Northampton , but was not allowed to take the oath to take his seat in Parliament. A by-election was called, and he was elected again – this process recurred several times until a new Speaker of the House of Commons conceded that he should be allowed to take his seat after making a non-religious affirmation. Legal oaths are also required, for example, in courts and in connection with some legal documents. In 1888 Bradlaugh’s Oaths Act enabled non-religious affirmations to be accepted as an alternative to religious oaths.

Before the advent of broadcasting, books and magazines were much widely read than today. So, to spread the word about “secularism”, Bradlaugh wrote books and pamphlets, including A Plea for Atheism (1877), and founded an influential magazine called the National Reformer.

Bradlaugh will be best remembered however for having founded the National Secular Society, which he did in 1866, and his pioneering work to make artificial contraception widely available to those of all classes. In 1877 he was tried, with his friend, feminist and socialist, Annie Besant, for publishing a pamphlet supporting birth control. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment and a large fine, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. Without artificial contraception, women frequently bore five or more children, and many were miserable and poverty-stricken because of this. The churches, however, rigorously opposed artificial contraception. The Church of England abandoned this policy in 1930, but the Roman Catholic Church still retains it.