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James Martineau

James Martineau (April 21, 1805 - January 11, 1900), English philosopher and divine, was born at Norwich, the seventh child of Thomas Martineau and Elizabeth Rankin, the sixth, his senior by almost three years, being his sister Harriet (see above).

He was descended from Gaston Martineau, a Huguenot surgeon and refugee, who married in 1693 Marie Pierre, and settled soon afterwards in Norwich. His son and grandson--respectively the great-grandfather and grandfather of James Martineau--were surgeons in the same city, while his father was a manufacturer and merchant.

James was educated at Norwich Grammar School under Edward Valpy, as good a scholar as his better-known brother Richard. But the boy proving too sensitive for the life of a public day school, was sent to Bristol to the private academy of Dr Lant Carpenter, under whom he studied for two years. On leaving he was apprenticed to a civil engineer at Derby, where he acquired "a store of exclusively scientific conceptions," but also experienced the hunger of mind which forced him to look to religion for satisfaction. Hence came his "conversion," and the sense of vocation for the ministry which impelled him in 1822 to enter Manchester College, then lodged at York. Here he "woke up to the interest of moral and metaphysical speculations." Of his teachers, one, the Rev. Charles Weilbeloved, was, Martineau said, "a master of the true Lardner type, candid and catholic, simple and thorough, humanly fond indeed of the counsels of peace, but piously serving every bidding of sacred truth." "He never justified a prejudice; he never misdirected our admiration; he never hurt an innocent feeling or overbore a serious judgment; and he set up within us a standard of Christian scholarship to which it must ever exalt us to aspire." The other, the Rev. John Kenrick, he described as .a man so learned as to be placed by Dean Stanley "in the same line with Blomfield and Thirlwall," and as "so far above the level of either vanity or dogmatism, that cynicism itself could not think of them in his presence."

On leaving the college in 1827 Martineau returned to Bristol to teach in the school of Lant Carpenter; but in the following year he was ordained for a Unitarian church in Dublin, whose senior minister was a relative of his own. But his career there was in 1832 suddenly cut short by difficulties growing out of the "regium donum," which had on. the death of the senior minister fallen to him. He conceived it as "a religious monopoly" to which "the nation at large contributes," while "Presbyterians alone receive," and which placed him in." a relation to the state" so "seriously objectionable" as to be "impossible to hold." The invidious distinction it drew between Presbyterians on the one hand, and Catholics, Friends, freethinking Christians, unbelievers and Jews on the other, who were compelled to support a ministry they" conscientiously disapproved," offended his always delicate conscience; while possibly the intellectual and ecclesiastical atmosphere of the city proved uncongenial to his liberal magnanimity. From Dublin he was called to Liverpool, and there for a quarter of a century he exercised extraordinary influence as a preacher, and achieved a high reputation as a writer in religious philosophy. In 1840 he was appointed professor of mental and moral philosophy and political economy in Manchester New College, the seminary in which he had himself been educated, and which had now removed from York to the citV after which it was named. This position he held for fortyfive years. In 1853 the college removed to London, and four years later he followed it thither. In 1858 he was called to occupy the pulpit of Little Portland Street chapel in London, which he did at first for two years in conjunction with the Rev. JJ Tayler, who was also his colleague in the college, and then for twelve years alone. In 1866 the chair of the philosophy of mind and logic in University College, London, fell vacant, and Martineau became a candidate. But potent opposition was offered to the appointment of a minister of religion, and the chair went to George Croom Robertson--then an untried man--between whom and Martineau a cordial friendship came to exist. In 1885 he retired, full of years and honours, from the principalship of the college he had so long served and adorned. Martineau, who was in his youth denied the benefit of a university education, yet in his age found famous universities eager to confer upon him their highest distinctions. He was made LL.D. of Harvard in 1872, S.T.D. of Leiden in 1874, D.D. of Edinburgh in 1884, D.C.L. of Oxford in 1888 and D.Litt. of Dublin in 1891.

The life of Martineau was so essentially the life of the thinker, and was so typical of the century in which he lived and the society within which he moved, that he can be better understood through his spoken mind than through his outward history. He was a man happy in his ancestry; he inherited the dignity, the reserve, the keen and vivid intellect, and the picturesque imagination of the French Huguenot, though they came to him chastened and purified by generations of Puritan discipline exercised under the gravest ecclesiastical disabilities, and of culture maintained in the face of exclusion from academic privileges. He had the sweet and patient temper which knew how to live, unrepining and unsoured, in the midst of the most watchful persecution, public and private; and it is wonderful how rarely he used his splendid rhetoric for the purposes of invective against the spirit and policy from which he must have suffered deeply, while, it may be added, he never hid an innuendo under a metaphor or a trope.

He was fundamentally too much a man of strong convictions to be correctly described as open-minded, for if nature ever determined any man's faith, it was his; the root of his whole intellectual life, which was too deep to be disturbed by any superficial change in his philosophy, being the feeling for God. He has, indeed, described in graphic terms the greatest of the more superficial changes he underwent; how he had "carried into logical and ethical problems the maxims and postulates of physical knowledge," and bad moved within the narrow lines drawn by the philosophical instructions of the class-room "interpreting human phenomena by the analogy of external nature"; how he served in willing captivity "the 'empirical' and 'necessarian' mode of thought," even though "shocked" by the dogmatism and acrid humours "of certain distinguished representatives" and how in a period of "second education" at Berlin, "mainly under the admirable guidance of Professor Trendelenburg," he experienced" a new intellectual birth" which " was essentially the gift of fresh conceptions, the unsealing of hidden openings of self-consciousness, with unmeasured corridors and sacred halls behind; and, once gained, was more or less available throughout the history of philosophy, and lifted the darkness from the pages of Kant and even Hegel."

But though this momentous change of view illuminated his old beliefs and helped him to re-interpret and re-articulate them, yet it made him no more of a theist than he had been before. And as his theism was, so was his religion and his philosophy. Certainly it was true of him, in a far higher degree than of John Henry Newman, that the being of God and himself were to his mind two absolutely self-luminous truths--though both his God and his self were almost infinitely remote from Newman's. And as these truths were self-evident, so the religion he deduced from them was sufficient, not only for his own moral and intellectual nature, but also for man as he conceived him, for history as he knew it, and for society as he saw it.

We may, alternatively, describe Martineau's religion as his applied philosophy or his philosophy as his explicated religion, and both as the expression of his singularly fine ethical and reverent nature. But to understand these in their mutual and explanatory relations it will be necessary to exhibit the conditions under which his thought grew into consistency and system. His main function made him in his early life a preacher even more emphatically than a teacher. In all he said and all he thought he had the preacher's end in view. He was, indeed, no mere orator or speaker to multitudes. He addressed a comparatively small and select circle, a congregation of thoughtful and devout men, who cultivated reverence and loved religion all the more that their own beliefs were limited to the simplest and sublimest truths. He felt the majesty of these truths to be the greater that they so represented to him not only the most fundamental of human beliefs, but also all that man could be reasonably expected to believe, though to believe with his whole reason. Hence the beliefs he preached were never to him mere speculative ideas, but rather the ultimate realities of being and thought, the final truths as to the character and ways of God interpreted into a law for the government of conscience and the regulation of life. And so he became a positive religious teacher by virtue of the very ideas that made the words of the Hebrew prophets so potent and sublime. But he did more than interpret to his age the significance of man's ultimate theistic beliefs, he gave them vitality by reading them through the consciousness of Jesus Christ. His religion was what he conceived the personal religion of Jesus to have been; and He was to him more a person to be imitated than an authority to be obeyed, rather an ideal to be revered than a being to be worshipped.

Martineau's mental qualities fitted him to fulfil these high interpretative functions. He had the imagination that invested with personal being and ethical qualities the most abstruse notions. To him space became a mode of divine activity, alive with the presence and illuminated by the vision of God; time was an arena where the divine hand guided and the divine will reigned. And though he did not believe in the Incarnation, yet he held deity to be in a sense manifest in humanity; its saints and heroes became, in spite of innumerable frailties, after a sort divine; man underwent an apotheosis, and all life was touched with the dignity and the grace which it owed to its source. The 19th century had no more reverent thinker than Martineau; the awe of the Eternal was the very atmosphere that he breathed, and he looked at man with the compassion of one whose thoughts were full of God.

To his function as a preacher we owe some of his most characteristic and stimulating works, especially the discourses by which it may be said he won his way to wide and influential recognition--Endeavours after the Christian Life, 1st series, 1843; 2nd series, 1847; Hours of Thought, 1st series, 1876; 2nd series, 1879; the various hymn-books he issued at Dublin in 1831, at Liverpool in 1840, in London in 1873; and the Home Prayers in 1891.

But besides the vocation he had freely selected and assiduously laboured to fulfil, two more external influences helped to shape Martineau's mind and define his problem and his work; the awakening of English thought to the problems which underlie both philosophy and religion, and the new and higher opportunities offered for their discussion in the periodical press. The questions which lived in the earlier and more formative period of his life concerned mainly the idea of the church, the historical interpretation of the documents which described the persons who had created the Christian religion, especially the person and work of its founder; but those most alive in his later and maturer time chiefly related to the philosophy of religion and ethics. In one respect Martineau was singularly happy; he just escaped the active and, on the whole, belittling period of the old Unitarian controversy. When his ministry began its fires were slowly dying down, though the embers still glowed. We feel its presence in his earliest notable work, The Rationale of Religious Enquiry, 1836; and may there see the rigour with which it applied audacious logic to narrow premisses, the tenacity with which it clung to a limited literal supernaturalism which it had no philosophy to justify, and so could not believe without historical and verbal authority. This traditional conservatism survived in the statement, which, while it caused vehement discussion when the book appeared, was yet not so much characteristic of the man as of the school in which he had been trained, that "in no intelligible sense can any one who denies the supernatural origin of the religion of Christ be termed a Christian," which term, he explained, was used not as "a name of praise," but simply as " a designation of belief."

He censured the German rationalists "for having preferred, by convulsive efforts of interpretation, to compress the memoirs of Christ and His apostles into the dimensions of ordinary life, rather than admit the operation of miracle on the one hand, or proclaim their abandonment of Christianity on the other." The echoes of the dying controversy are thus distinct and not very distant in this book, though it also offers in its larger outlook, in the author's evident uneasiness under the burden of inherited beliefs, and his inability to reconcile them with his new standpoint and accepted principles, a curious forecast of his later development, while in its positive premisses it presents a still more instructive contrast to the conclusions of his later dialectic. Nor did the sound of the ancient controversy ever cease to be audible to him. In 1839 he sprang to the defence of Unitarian doctrine, which had been assailed by certain Liverpool clergymen, of whom Fielding Ould was the most active and Hugh McNeile[?] the most famous. As his share in the controversy, Martineau published five discourses, in which he discussed "the Bible as the great autobiography of human nature from its infancy to its perfection," " the Deity of Christ," " Vicarious Redemption," "Evil," and "Christianity without Priest and without Ritual." He remained to the end a keen and vigilant apologist of the school in which he had been nursed. But the questions proper to the new day came swiftly upon his quick and susceptible mind--enlarged, deepened and developed it. Within his own fold new light was breaking. To WE Channing[?], whom Martineau had called "the inspirer of his youth," Theodore Parker[?] had succeeded, introducing more radical ideas as to religion and a more drastic criticism of sacred history. Blanco White, "the rationalist A'Kempis," who had dared to appear as "a religious sceptic in God's presence," had found a biographer and interpreter in Martineau's friend and colleague, John Hamilton Thom. Within the English Church men with whom he had both personal and religious sympathy rose--Whately, of whom he said, "We know no living writer who has proved so little and disproved so much"; and Thomas Arnold, "a man who could be a hero without romance"; FD Maurice, whose character, marked by "religious realism," sought in the past "the witness to eternal truths, the manifestation by time-samples of infinite realities and unchanging relations"; and Charles Kingsley, "a great teacher," though one "certain to go astray the moment he becomes didactic."

Beside these may be placed men like EB Pusey and JH Newman, whose mind Martineau said was "critical, not prophetic, since without immediateness of religious vision," and whose faith is "an escape from an alternative scepticism, which receives the veto not of his reason but of his will," as men for whose teachings and methods he had a potent and stimulating antipathy. The philosophic principles and religious deductions of Dean Mansel he disliked as much as those of Newman, but he respected his arguments more. Apart from the Churches, men like Carlyle and Matthew Arnold--with whom he had much in common--influenced him; while Herbert Spencer in England and Comte in France afforded the antithesis needful to the dialectical development of his own views. He came to know German philosophy and criticism, especially the criticism of Baur and the Tübingen[?] school, which affected profoundly his construction of Christian history. And these were strengthened by French influences, notably those of Renan and the Strassburg theologians. The rise of evolution, and the new scientific way of looking at nature and her creative methods, compelled him to rethink and reformulate his theistic principles and conclusions, especially as to the forms under which the relation of God to the world and His action within it could be conceived. Under the impulses which came from these various sides Martineau's mind lived and moved, and as they successively rose he promptly, by appreciation or criticism, responded to the dialectical issues which they raised.

In the discussion of these questions the periodical press supplied him with the opportunity of taking an effective part. At first his literary activity was limited to sectional publications, and he addressed his public, now as editor and now as leading contributor, in the Monthly Repository, the Christian Reformer, the Prospective, the Westminster and the National Review. Later, especially when scientific speculation had made the theistic problem urgent, he was a frequent contributor to the literary monthlies. And when in 1890 he began to gather together the miscellaneous essays and papers written during a period of sixty years, he expressed the hope that, though "they could lay no claim to logical consistency," they might yet show "beneath the varying complexion of their thought some intelligible moral continuity," "leading in the end to a view of life more coherent and less defective than was presented at the beginning." And though it is a proud as well as a modest hope,' no one could call it unjustified. For his essays are fine examples of permanent literature appearing in an ephemeral medium, and represent work which has solid worth for later thought as well as for the speculation of their own time. There is hardly a name or a movement in the religious history of the century which he did not touch and illuminate. It was in this form that he criticized the "atheistic mesmerism " to which his sister Harriet had committed herself, and she never forgave his criticism. But his course was always singularly independent, and, though one of the most affectionate and most sensitive of men, yet it was his fortune to be so fastidious in thought and so conscientious in judgment as often to give offence or create alarm in those he deeply respected or tenderly loved.

The theological and philosophical discussions which thus appeared he later described as "the tentatives which gradually prepared the way for the more systematic expositions of the Types of Ethical Theory and The Study of Religion, and, in some measure, of The Seat of Authority in Religion." These books expressed his mature thought, and may be said to contain, in what he conceived as a final form, the speculative achievements of his life. They appeared respectively in 1885, 1888 and 1890, and were without doubt remarkable feats to be performed by a man who had passed his eightieth year. Their literary and speculative qualities are indeed exceptionally brilliant; they are splendid in diction, elaborate in argument, cogent yet reverent, keen while fearless in criticism. But they have also most obvious defects: they are unquestionably the books of an old man who had thought much as well as spoken and written often on the themes he discusses, yet who had finally put his material together in haste at a time when his mind had lost, if not its dialectic vigour, yet its freshness and its sense of proportion; and who had been so accustomed to amplify the single stages of his argument that he had forgotten how much they needed to be reduced to scale and to be built into an organic whole. In the first of these books his nomenclature is unfortunate; his division of ethical theories into the "unpsychological," "idiopsychological," and the "hetero-psychological," is incapable of historical justification; his exposition of single ethical systems is, though always interesting and suggestive, often arbitrary and inadequate, being governed by dialectical exigencies rather than historical order and perspective. In the second of the above books his idea of religion is somewhat of an anachronism; as he himself confessed, he "used the word in the sense which it invariably bore half a century ago," as denoting "belief in an ever-living God, a divine mind and will ruling the universe and holding moral relations with mankind." As thus used, it was a term which governed the problems of speculative theism rather than those connected with the historical origin, the evolution and the organization of religion. And these are the questions which are now to the front. These criticisms mean that his most elaborate discussions came forty years too late, for they were concerned with problems which agitated the middle rather than the end of the 19th century. But if we pass from this criticism of form to the actual contents of the two books, we are bound to confess that they constitute a wonderfully cogent and persuasive theistic argument. That argument may be described as a criticism of man and his world used as a basis for the construction of a reasoned idea of nature and being. Man and nature, thought and being, fitted each other. What was implicit in nature had become explicit in man; the problem of the individual was one with the problem of universal experience. The interpretation of man was therefore the interpretation of his universe. Emphasis was made to fall on the reason, the conscience and the will of the finite personality; and just as these were found to be native in him they were held to be immanent in the cause of his universe. What lived in time belonged to eternity; the microcosm was the epitome of the macrocosm;, the reason which reigned in man interpreted the law that was revealed in conscience and the power which governed human destiny, while the freedom which man realized was the direct negation both of necessity and of the operation of any fortuitous cause in the cosmos.

It was not possible, however, that the theistic idea could be discussed in relation to nature only. It was necessary that it should be applied to history and to the forces and personalities active within it. And of these the greatest was of course the Person that bad created the Christian religion. What did Jesus signify? What authority belonged to Him and to the books that contain His history and interpret His person? This was the problem which Martineau attempted to deal with in The Seat of Authority in Religion. The workmanship of the book is unequal: historical and literary criticism had never been Martineau's strongest point, although he had almost continuously maintained an amount of New Testament study, as his note-books show. In its speculative parts the book is quite equal to those that had gone before, but in its literary and historical parts there are indications of a mind in which a long-practised logic had become a rooted habit. While a comparison of his expositions of the Pauline and Johannine Christologies with the earlier Unitarian exegesis in which he had been trained shows how wide is the interval, the work does not represent a mifid that had throughout its history lived and worked in the delicate and judicial investigations he here tried to conduct.

Martineau's theory of the religious society or church was that of an idealist rather than of a statesman or practical politician. He stood equally remote from the old Voluntary principle, that "the State had nothing to do with religion," and from the sacerdotal position that the clergy stood in an apostolic succession, and either constituted the Church or were the persons into whose hands its guidance had been committed. He hated two things intensely, a sacrosanct priesthood and an enforced uniformity. He may be said to have believed in the sanity and sanctity of the ‘state rather than of the Church. Statesmen he could trust as he would not trust ecciesiastics. And so he even propounded a scheme, which fell still-born, that would have repealed uniformity, taken the church out of the hands of a clerical order, and allowed the coordination of sects or churches under the state. Not that he would have allowed the state to touch doctrine, to determine polity or discipline; btit he would have had it to recognize historical achievement, religious character and capacity, aiid endow out of its ample resources those societies which had vindicated their right to be regarded as making for religion. His ideal may have been academic, but it was the dream of a mind that thought nobly both of religion and of the state.

See Life and Letters by J Drummond and CB Upton (2 vols., 1901); JE Carpenter, James Martineau, Theologian and Teacher (1905); J Crawford, Recollections of James Martineau (1903); AW Jackson, James Martineau, a Biography and a Study (Boston, 1900); H Sidgwick, Lectures on the Ethics of Green, Spencer and Martineau (1902) ; and J Hunt, Religious Thought in England in the 19th Century.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

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