Ward's Book of Days.

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JANUARY 30th  

On this day in history in 1891, died Charles Bradlaugh.

Bradlaugh was a politician, who developed the principles of agnosticism, and attempted to make atheism the state religion.   

Bradlaugh was born on 26th September 1833, at Hackney, London, the son of legal clerk. Having left school at the age of 11, Bradlaugh had a succession of jobs as errand boy, clerk, soldier and others. When working as a Sunday school teacher, at the age of 17, he became perturbed by apparent discrepancies between current Anglican teaching and the Bible as he interpreted it. When Bradlaugh raised his concerns with the local vicar, he was accused of atheism, dismissed from his position and ejected from the family home.

Hearing of his plight, Elizabeth Carlile, widow of Richard Carlile, a radical publisher, offered him a place in her home and introduced him to George Holyoake, the creator of the concept of secularism. Bradlaugh became an avowed atheist. He immediately published a brief pamphlet, A Few Words on the Christian Creed, under the name of Iconoclast. In 1860 he took over the editorship of the periodical National Reformer, which was continually prosecuted for blasphemy and sedition.

In 1866, Bradlaugh founded the National Secular Society, an organisation devoted to the disestablishment of the Church of England, and the creation of a secular state. In 1877, Bradlaugh published Fruits of Philosophy, a birth-control pamphlet by Charles Knowlton, an American doctor. The work was vilified by the public and Bradlaugh was indicted for selling an indecent work. He escaped conviction on a technicality.

In 1880, Bradlaugh was elected to the House of Commons, as member for Northampton. Upon presenting himself to the House, he asked to be allowed to affirm, rather than take the statutory ‘Oath of Allegiance’ by swearing on the New Testament. This was refused, and Bradlaugh was denied his seat. Parliament ordered a bye-election, for which Bradlaugh stood and was elected again. Again refusing to swear on the New Testament, Bradlaugh was ejected from the Commons, but attempted to enter the Chamber, and was arrested and imprisoned in the Clock Tower of the Parliament building. Bradlaugh was elected for a third time, but this time offered to take the oath, but his offer was refused. In 1886, permission was finally granted and Bradlaugh took his place in the House.  

Bradlaugh was an advocate of trade unionism, women's suffrage and Indian independence, but he vehemently opposed socialism, which he claimed defied liberal individualism. His anti-socialism was divisive, and many socialists in the Secular Society, left the secularist movement because of its identification with Bradlaugh. In 1888, he secured the passage of the Oaths Act, which conferred the right of affirmation to members of Parliament, and to witnesses in criminal proceedings. Despite all his efforts, Bradlaugh did not disestablish the Anglican Church, or create a secular state.  

Bradlaugh died on 30th January 1891, and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery. His funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners, including Mohandas Gandhi. [Brookwood Cemetery. Cemetery Pales, Brookwood, Woking, GU24 0BL]

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