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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
by Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen (Grant Allen) (1848-1899), the son of an Irish Protestant minister and notable scholar, was born at Alwington, near Kingston, Ontario, Canada, on 24 February 1848. He was partly educated in America and France. In England he was at King Edward's School in Birmingham, and later at Merton College in Oxford, graduating with honors in 1871. He also studied in Europe. Two years later, in 1873, he was appointed Professor of Logic at Queens College, Spanish Town, Jamaica. He also taught philosophy, ethics, Latin, and Greek at this college for Negroes. When its principal died, Allen took over and from 1874 to 1876 was the college's principal.
At one point, while on the island, he took a brief holiday to the Blue Mountains. Since there were no hotel accommodations there, he put up at a store kept by a mulatto woman. In the small back room he occupied, there were a few books which he picked up and read. One was Darwin's Origin of Species and the other was Edward Clodd's The Childhood of the World. The latter had in it the name and the address of the author. From that beginning Grant Allen developed agnostic and radical views on life, eventually becoming an ardent socialist. He went to England in 1876 and immediately looked up Mr. Clodd, with whom he remained friends for the rest of his life.
In England he then devoted himself to journalism and letters. He quickly found that there was no sale for science books in the literary market. His first venture, Physiological Aesthetics, left him £50 in debt but did call him to the attention of Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher, and Alfred Wallace, an English naturalist. They in turn secured a hearing for him with Sir Leslie Stephen. With such sponsorship he was then able to bring out a series of popular essays on science. Mr. Clodd notes that in the writing of these essays \he had few equals and . . . no superior.\ Another contemporary described him then as becoming known by his popular expositions of Darwinism, a cultured exponent of various aspects of the evolutionary idea in biology and anthropology. Some of his poetry was, in fact, supportive of evolution:
Born into life, man grows
Forth from his parents' stem,
And blends their bloods, as
Of theirs are blent in them;
So each new man strikes root into
a far foretime.
Grant was, of course, an enthusiastic disciple of both Darwin and Spencer. He also wrote on many other subjects such as practical science, evolution, sociology, literature — and religion, making his a respected figure in the group of late-Victorian agnostics. Although he had much scientific knowledge, and had a gift for expression, nonetheless profits from such works were meager.
He was loath to turn to fiction and the demands of a publisher; hence he frequently wrote under pseudonyms. At one point he wrote under the name of J. Arbuthnot Wilson. His first three-volume novel, Philistia, was written under the nom de plume Cecil Power. His first sensational novel was The Devil's Die written in 1888. Generally, his novels were potboilers.
Grant Allen traveled frequently and his Guide Book work paid him handsomely, giving him the monetary support and the time he needed to follow his primary intellectual inclinations. His Evolution of the Idea of God was characterized by the English Freethinker magazine as being capable, painstaking, honest, and really thorough. Even on the point as to whether Jesus Christ ever existed as a real person, Mr. Allen expressed sincere doubts; and it takes some courage to do that.
Charles A. Watts, a British freethought publisher, at this time was putting out the Agnostic Annual, which became sixty-four pages long in 1884. Watts had persons such as T. H. Huxley, Leslie Stephen, W. E. H. Lecky, H. T. Buckle, Herbert Spencer, J. G. Frazer, Ernst Haeckel, Winwood Reade, Ludwig Blichner, Grant Allen, and Edward Carpenter writing for him.
Additionally, in the 1890s Victorian respectability and morality were under attack from such people as Havelock Ellis, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, Walt Whitman, Henrik Ibsen, Edward Carpenter, and Grant Allen, although — generally — freethought leaders tried to steer a moderate course.
There was in England, at this time, a John Gott group of freethinker/socialists, explained in one sentence by a free-thought historian: \The libertarian anarchy of Grant Allen sums up much of the philosophy behind Gott's group.\ There was much ferment at the time over birth control and liberalization of sexual standards.
In 1895 Allen's book The Woman Who Did was published by John Lane in London and by Roberts Bros. in Boston. As a point of interest, a copy of the book was recently purchased for the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archives from a rare book dealer in Baltimore, Maryland, who specializes in nineteenth-century fine and decorative arts, fine press and illustrated books. The cover is indeed handsome, but the bookseller had no idea what the book was. Allen, however, wanted another distinction for his book — to make a point — and he prefaced his work with a curious dedication:
Written at Perugia [Italy], Spring 1893, for the first time in my life wholly and solely to satisfy my own taste and my own conscience.
In the book Allen espoused, through the life of the heroine, the concept of free love without defining it as such — that is, mutually responsible decisions made by consenting adults: responsibility to each other, to their children, and to the race, but not to the coercive marital laws of the states. The book was successful since it touched on succes de scandale and after its publication, was followed by a number of cheap imitations. The publisher of his other works, Watts, wanted to be more conventional — divorce was as far as he would go. Even G. W. Foote defended marriage against this novel. Allen's work was an advocacy of free love, and \secularism\ had to be secure from it. Foote wrote in the 3 March 1895 Freethinker:
We are not of those who use the phrase \free love\ as a reproach, for love was never anything else but free. It cannot be commanded. It cannot be had to order. It is spontaneous, like all our affections. Nevertheless, the freedom, not of feeling, but of action, which Mr. Grant Allen pleads for, runs dangerously near to promiscuity; or at least to an instability that is almost as bad.
Fearful of the consequences of free love, the Legitimation League was founded in 1893 to campaign for legal rights for illegitimate children. Almost immediately a prosecution of the secretary of the League, George Bedborough, was brought before the court for selling a copy of Sexual Inversion by Havelock Ellis. Since it was a promising test case, a Free Press Defence Committee was formed, the members of which included Grant Allen, G. W. Foote, George Holyoake, George Bernard Shaw, Edward Carpenter, and J. M. Robertson. The arrest of George Bedborough rallied \all sorts of radicals, socialists, freethinkers and progressive individuals.\ There were many arrests during this period for the printing of \obscene\ birth-control literature and for blasphemy, so that the bravery of Grant Allen was appreciated.
In fact, all approved when Allen, in the March 1894 Fortnightly Review, in an article entitled \The New Hedonism\ attacking Christian asceticism and self-sacrifice, wrote:
It is our duty to think as far as we can think; to get rid of all dogmas, preconceptions and prejudices; to make sure we are not tied by false fears or vague terms; to examine all faiths, all beliefs, all fancies, all shibboleths, political, religious, social, moral. . . . We should each of us arrive at a consistent theory of the universe for ourselves, and of our own place in it.
Allen was adamant in support of Herbert Spencer's theory on the origin of religion:
I believe I have made it tolerably clear that the vast mass of existing gods or divine persons, when we come to analyze them, do actually turn out to be dead and deified human beings. . . . I believe that corpse worship is the protoplasm of religion.
Other then-modern thinkers did not agree, as Alfred Benn wrote:
So far, however, as Spencer's theory goes, . . . [i]t has not, to my knowledge, received the adhesion of any independent thinker except the lamented Mr. Grant Allen.
Allen died at his home on Hindhead, Haslemere, on 24 October 1899, one of the English authors and philosophers of the period who exerted an influence on American readers: Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, George Lewes, Winwood Reade, and Samuel Butler.
Allen, Grant. Charles Darwin. 1885.
Allen, Grant. The Colour Sense: its Origin and Development. Trubner & Co., 1879
Allen, Grant. Colours of Flowers as illustrated by the British Flora. Macmillan.
Allen, Grant. The Evolution of the Idea of God: an Inquiry into the Origins of Religion. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1897.
Allen, Grant. The Evolution of the Idea of God. Thinker's Library edition. London: C. A. Watts & Co., Ltd., 1931.
Allen, Grant. The Evolutionist at Large. 1881.
Allen, Grant. Force and Energy. 1888.
Allen, Grant. The Hand of God and Other Posthumous Essays together with some reprinted papers. London: Watts & Co., 1909.
Allen, Grant. Nature Studies. 1883.
Allen, Grant. Physiological Aesthetics. 1877.
Allen, Grant. Vignettes from Nature.
Allen, Grant. \The New Hedonism.\ Fortnightly Review 55, no. 327 (1 March 1894): 377-92.
Allen, Grant. [J. Arbuthnot Wilson, pseud.].
Reverend John Creedy. [Cecil Power, pseud.]. Philistio.
Reverend John Creedy. The Devil's Die.
Reverend John Creedy. The Great Ruby Robbery.
Reverend John Creedy. Kalee's Shrine.
Reverend John Creedy. The Lower Slopes.
Reverend John Creedy. \and several novels.\ He also edited the miscellaneous works of Buckle.
Benn, Alfred William. The History of English Rationalism in the Nineteenth Century. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1906.
Clodd, Edward. Grant Allen: A Memoir. 1899.
Clodd, Edward. Memories. London: Watts & Co., 1926.
Clodd, Edward. The Story of Creation, A Plain Account of Evolution. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1888.
\Death of Mr. Grant Allen.\ The Freethinker 19, no. 45 (5 November 1899): 709.
Gould, Frederick James. The Pioneers of Johnson's Court. London: Watts & Co., 1929.
Herrick, Jim. Vision and Realism, a Hundred years of The Freethinker. London: G. W. Foote & Co., 1982.
Royle, Edward. Radicals, Secularists and Republicans, Popular freethought in Britain, 1866-1915. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1980.
Warren, Sidney. American Freethought 1860-1914. New York: Gordian Press, Inc., 1966.