Researched and written by Anja Segmüller, BA History at Harris Manchester College


In 1786, “a very respectable Meeting of Gentlemen” was held in Manchester and the record of the founding meeting succinctly states the nature and aims of the new Manchester Academy. The new institution was established on a plan of offering:


“a full and systematic course of education for divines, and preparatory instructions for the other learned professions, as well as for civil and commercial life. This institution will be open to young men of every religious denomination, from whom no test, or confession of faith, will be required.”

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This emphasis on non-subscription was not merely an empty formula and throughout its history the institution had remained true to this principle on many occasions. This was especially remarkable as the University of Oxford did not open its doors to non-Anglicans after the 1871 Universities Tests Act and the Oxford theology faculty not until 1919.

The principle of religious liberty was reiterated in advertisements such as the 1817 prospectus stating that Manchester College’s mission lay “in pursuing their primary object, the education of Dissenting Ministers.” Though the college was from the first associated with a particular branch of Dissent – the ‘rational’ Dissent of Presbyterians and later Unitarians – non-Unitarians were admitted, with successive principals and theological tutors aiming to keep their teaching unbiased. In an often-quoted letter, Charles Wellbeloved declared in 1809 that he would not teach “Unitarianism – or any ism but Christianism.” Later principals also strove to avoid denominational labelling - often at the annoyance of the Unitarian body.

Manchester Academy (1786-1803)

Thomas Barnes (1747-1810) was the first principal of Manchester Academy. Dedicating the College “To TRUTH! To LIBERTY! To RELIGION!” as main the reason for its existence, he set the agenda with many of his values, interests, and public engagement projecting the journey the College was to take in the next 150 years. In addition to preaching religious freedom, he also advocated for education for intending businessmen and promote knowledge of industrial processes – especially important given the College’s location in industrial Manchester – lecturing “on the origin, history, and progress of arts, manufacturers, and commerce, - the commercial laws and regulations of different countries."

He was also part of Manchester’s first committee for the abolition of the slave trade in 1787 and chaired the public meeting in 1789 to renew the application to parliament for the repeal of the Test and Cooperation Acts. In 1786 Thomas suggested at a discourse delivered at the commencement of the Manchester Academy that “The Liberty which you claim for yourselves, you extend with equal latitude to others. The burden to which you will not submit, you will never impose” illustrating how 18th-century Unitarians conceived anti-slavery and abolition as an extension of that religious liberty to which they themselves aspired and of which they were still partially deprived.

Manchester College, York (1803-1840)

In 1803 the college moved to York to accommodate its next principal: Charles Wellbeloved

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Charles Wellbeloved (1769–1858)
Image credit: Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

Charles Wellbeloved (1769–1858)

Charles Wellbeloved was a dissenting liberal minister and educator most widely known for his scholarship and his defenses of liberal Christianity. In 1797 Wellbeloved was invited to succeed Thomas Barnes as divinity tutor and principal at the dissenters’ academy in Manchester, but only accepted in 1803 on the condition that it move to York. In his teaching he substituted biblical exegesis for systematic theology carefully reading the whole of the Old and the New Testament with his students to encourage them to develop their own views.

Charles Wellbeloved (1769–1858) 1826
James Lonsdale (1777–1839)
Oil on canvas
H 76.2 x W 63.5 cm
Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

Though he avoided teaching any particular doctrine or openly expressing his own theological opinions, he was a Unitarian of the school of Priestly with a distinct ideology espousing necessarian philosophy, Hartleyan psychology, a Utilitarian political economy, and a Whig constitutional history. Though steeped in the ‘empirical’ and ‘necessarian’ mode of thought, the teaching in science such as medical, chemical, and industrial interests of the first period of the College’s history were replaced with the study of geology, archaeology, and botany as Wellbeloved as a keen antiquarian and Curator of the Antiquities for the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.

His reputation largely rested on his work as principal of Manchester College, but as a scholar and reformer he made important contributions to 19th-century York. Wellbeloved was also actively concerned with reform and social movements – especially interesting was his involvement in exposing the shameful abuses of the York Lunatic Asylum in 1813. The York Lunatic Asylum was poorly managed and many of its practices were inhumane. He took an active role in the administration of the asylum replacing severity with kindness and winning the patient’s trust. He also had a leading role in the York Mechanics Institute which aimed to provide education for ordinary people and helped to set up the Wilberforce School for the Blind.

The Second Manchester Period (1840-53)

Soon, Manchester College returned to its hometown with Robert Wallace succeeding as principal.

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Robert Wallace (1791–1850), Professor of Theology
Image credit: Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

Robert Wallace (1791–1850)

In 1840 Manchester College returned to Manchester and Wallace was appointed to succeed Wellbeloved first as professor of critical and exegetical theology, then as principal. He followed the principle of his predecessor and thinkers like Dr. James Taylor: “I shall regard it as my sacred duty, in the capacity of his successor, not to inculcate any formal scheme of doctrine; but simply to conduct my classes through critical investigation of the Bible, and to supply them with the means of ascertaining for themselves what it teaches.”

Robert Wallace (1791–1850), Professor of Theology
unknown artist
Oil on canvas
H 76.2 x W 63.5 cm
Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

A distinguished theological writer and reviewer, he regularly contributed to the Monthly Repository and the Christian Reformer, it has been said that he was the first to bring to his classroom ‘the processes and results of German critical research’.

However, Wallace’s health was not robust, he found the Manchester climate trying and the financial position of the College did not contribute to his peace of mind either, so that he resigned after only 6 years to move to Bath.

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John Kenrick (1788–1877)
Image credit: Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

John Kenrick (1788–1877)

Wallace was succeeded by a scholar that was “spoken in higher terms than were ever bestowed upon a young man.” (Charles Wellbeloved, 6 April 1809) He complained that “the Church of England has first injured Dissenters, and then insulted them for the inferiority in learning which is the consequence of her own injustice.” As a result, he devoted his life to provide those who are educated for ministry with extensive education so nobody shall accuse their faith as being a result of ignorance.

John Kenrick (1788–1877) 1837
Henry William Pickersgill (1782–1875)
Oil on canvas
H 91.4 x W 71.1 cm
Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

And indeed, Kenrick was a man of wide interests and his dedication to education and learning was extensive: he was a classical scholar translating Latin Grammar and writing an Introduction to Greek Prose Composition, he became a professor of history publishing The Egypt of Herodotus (1841) and Phoenicia (1855), he was a curator of antiquities in the Yorkshire Museum, published extensively on Roman York, was interested in the advancement of science and published on the religious controversies over Darwinism. Upon Kenrick’s death, The Times described him as “indisputably the greatest nonconformist scholar of our day.”

Like the father figure and radical hero of the Unitarians of industrial England – Priestley – Kenrick was interested in history and the natural sciences. This was indeed significant in the contemporary context of the social fabric and development of English science in the industrial center that was Manchester. By the 1840s when the College returned to Manchester, chemists and engineers were established as scientific professions together with reformed medicine. In this context the College attempted to provide university-level education in both arts and sciences experimenting with professional education for engineers. Though this was ultimately unsuccessful.

George Vance Smith (1850-53)

George Vance Smith served as principal for three years before he resigned. He was a biblical scholar who would be well-known for his distinguished work on the New Testament. Years after his time at Manchester College he published the book Bible and Popular Theology and Texts and Margins in the Revised New Testament affecting Theological doctrine – both books went through several editions and were well-received. During his time at Manchester College, he failed to win the confidence of his students and they strongly expressed their dissatisfaction.

It was likely a matter of temperance rather than scholarship, but when he resigned Dr Drummond noted that “the Committee, after anxious inquiry, decided that the interests of the College required them to accept the resignation.” His resignation was concurrent with the crisis which led to the removal of the college to London and the appointment of Tayler as principal.

Manchester New College, London (1853-1889)

After much debate, the decision had been taken to move the college to London as a purely theological institution.

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The Reverend John James Tayler (1797–1869)
Image credit: Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

John James Tayler (1797–1869)

Tayler, like many of the men he succeeded, studied in Germany and thus had the opportunity to study continental theology. He remained a keen student of German religious thought and the German way of life – especially impressed with the work of F. D. E. Schleiermeier and J. K. L. Gieseler’s systematic approach to church history. This approach influenced Tayler’s own study of church history and the contact between English and German religious thought was indeed extensive. After both Tayler and Manchester College had returned to Manchester, he was appointed professor of ecclesiastical history and when the College moved to London, he assumed the post of the principal.

The Reverend John James Tayler (1797–1869) 1867
John Prescott Knight (1803–1881)
Oil on canvas
H 101.6 x W 76.2 cm
Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

Tayler was an active participant in political and social reform movements while in Manchester and campaigned passionately in support of the abolition of slavery. In fact, campaigning for the abolition of Slave Trade has been closely connected to the unitarian college from its birth as Thomas Barnes on 14 September 1786 declared: “The Liberty which you claim for yourself, you extend with equal latitude to others. The burden to which you will not submit, you will never impose.” Unitarians in the 18th century saw abolition as an extension of the religious liberty they aspired to – a tradition of thinking has continued in the college.

In London, Manchester New College opened its doors in a somewhat altered form exclusively teaching theology and Priestley’s ideas were increasingly abandoned by a new generation of Unitarian theologians. Both Tayler and Martineau were involved in major controversies as they founded the Free Christian union – a society aimed at promoting Christian unity between liberal Christian Churches and individuals calling for common action in the search for the divine truth based on religious sympathies rather than theological agreement.

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James Martineau (1805–1900)
Image credit: Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

James Martineau (1805–1900)

James Martineau was a figure of national reputation, not least because of these controversies and his attacks on the materialism of John Tyndall and the agnosticism of Herbert Spencer which was praised by churchmen of various denominations and made Unitarianism respectable. In 1862 he engaged in a major debate after Spencer published his First Principles. In response, Martineau wrote an article titled ‘Science, Nescience, and Faith’ which was called one of the best apologies of the 19th century.

James Martineau (1805–1900) 1847
Charles Agar (c.1813–1871)
Oil on canvas
H 91.4 x W 61 cm
Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

However, Ralph Waller suggests that Martineau’s major contributions were not his articles on ethics or religion and science, but his devotional writing. He wrote two volumes of sermons, Endeavour after the Christian life (1840) and Hours of Thought on Sacred Things (1876-9) which poignantly convey deep insights into the human condition and “will continue to speak to other generations as vividly as they did to his own.”

A group photograph of 1902 shows Martineau’s pupils: both James Drummond and Joseph Estlin Carpenter (who would succeed him as principals) depicted as was Gertrude von Petzold, the first woman admitted for full ministerial training. As Martineau was a skilled lecturer, the Irish social reformer, Frances Power Cobbe asked him to allow her and three women to attend his lectures. Though he was sympathetic to the idea, he warned about practical difficulties. It was also during Martineau’s principalship that women were admitted as full students to London and women were officially accepted into the college.

An additional dimension of analysis is class: though Unitarianism was growing among some of the less well-off, support was usually drawn from the elite of Dissent socially and economically as most were from an industrial middle-class background.

Manchester College, Oxford (1889-present)

After much debate, Manchester New College chose to move to Oxford it being “from the days of Wiclif to those of Wesley and Newman… the cradle of those movements of thought which have most stimulated and refreshed the religious life of England.” In its early years in Oxford, the college saw several new directions such as admitting women students to complete ministerial training alongside male colleagues, and Hungarian, Indian and Japanese students enrolling in the college, to a close association with the Hibbert Trust. Though the College was welcomed to Oxford by many members of the University, L.P. Jacks relates an anecdote of the reaction of some of the more conservative scholars:

“A certain ecclesiastic… walking one day in company of a friend down the Mansfield Road, paused in front of the newly erected College. ‘The erection of that building in Oxford’, said the ecclesiastic, ‘is an impertinence. Even the architecture is obstrusively Unitarian: solid but cold.’ ‘Yes’, answered his friend, ‘built to last, not to please. You can imagine it lasting to the Day of Judgement’. ‘Ah’, said the ecclesiastic, ‘I can imagine it lasting to the Day of Judgement. But not afterwards.’”

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James Drummond (1835–1918)
Image credit: Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

James Drummond (1835–1918)

Drummond was the principal when the College moved to Oxford, and it was the principle theological freedom and reputation of doctrinal tests of Unitarianism and the College that appealed to him. He thus repeatedly affirmed and placed renewed emphasis on the College motto, ‘Truth, Liberty, Religion’.

James Drummond (1835–1918)
George Reid (1841–1913)
Oil on canvas
H 67.3 x W 54.6 cm
Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

Before assuming principalship, he was professor of biblical and historical theology at Manchester New College. He showed great independence in his scholarship, especially in his rejection of David Hume’s argument that miracles are antecedently incredible treating the problem as a question of fact, but also departed dramatically from Unitarian interpretations. He closely examined the Bible narratives and suggested to his students that the evidence for the gospel miracles and the resurrection were insufficient. With a profound dis-like of theological speculation, he instead emphasized the limitations of human faculties.

The Hibbert Journal became closely associated with many scholars at Manchester College. Though the later principal L. P. Jacks, who would become the editor for many years, was most closely associated with the journal, James Drummond also made considerable contributions to the journal. Notably, the Supplement of 1909 – Jesus or Christ? – featured articles by both Drummond and Carpenter on the debate that had been prompted by Rev. R. Roberts of Bradford discussing the problem of the relationship of the Jesus of History to the Christ of Religion. Using philosophical analysis, historical imagination, and theological understandings, the scholars traced the debate back to traditional ideas of Jewish monotheism.

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Joseph Estlin Carpenter (1844–1927)
Image credit: Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

Joseph Estlin Carpenter (1844–1927)

Carpenter was invited to Manchester College in 1875 as a professor of ecclesiastical history, comparative religion, and Hebrew. He became principal in 1906, succeeding Drummond. His contemporaries certainly acknowledged his expertise in the field. Max Müller is recorded to have asked A. J. Edmunds “Could you, without much trouble, tell me the latest date that can safely be assigned to Exodus 3.14?” to which Edmunds replied that ““there are hundreds of scholars who know more about the New Testament than I do, and scores who know more about the Pali Texts; but I know of only one man on earth who is equally well acquainted with the two, and that man is Estlin Carpenter.”

Joseph Estlin Carpenter (1844–1927)
Howard Somerville (1873–1952)
Oil on canvas
H 86.4 x W 62.2 cm
Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

Carpenter did much to enhance and develop the discipline of Comparative Religion at Oxford, as well as encourage Unitarian thinking so that it encompassed a broader more engaged viewpoint of other cultures. He was active in bringing individuals from different cultures and who expressed other viewpoints to speak at College. He invited Abdul-Bahá, leader of the Persian Bahai to speak in (1912), and Tagore to lecture in College (1913). In addition, lecture series such as Hibbert, Dunkin and Case lectures were held in College, and he bought established academics to speak to the student body, building an intellectual and diverse culture within the College.

Carpenter indeed lived a busy and well-filled life. He had a ‘marriage of true minds’ with Alice Mary, dedicated much time to practical affairs such as campaigning for a pension fund for ministers or advocating for international peace and poverty relief, and showed great concern for the welfare of his students. This pastoral care for his students led to him offering the hospitality of his home in Hampstead where he held musical and literary evenings and taking them to outings frequently.

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L. P. Jacks (1860–1955)
Image credit: Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

Lawrence Pearsall Jacks (1860-1955)

Carpenter became increasingly interested in comparative religion – especially Buddhism – and like him, Jacks was interested in comparative religion and in 1926 invited Radhakrishnan Tagore to the College to give a lecture with the title ‘The philosophy of Hinduism in its bearing on the problems of today’. Tagore came back to the College many times for lectures and speaking to the students about Indian philosophy informally.

L. P. Jacks (1860–1955) 1929
George Harcourt (1868–1947)
Oil on canvas
H 76.2 x W 63.5 cm
Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

Jacks himself continued to preach Unitarianism, though he became increasingly critical of and disenchanted with institutional religion. This frustration expressed itself in his refusal to let his name be added to a list of Unitarian ministers published by the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches 1928 and kept the college from joining the assembly. To the offence of some members of the college, he instead argued in The Education of the Whole Man (1931) that the education of the future should be broad-based and include physical education.

After he left the college in 1931, Jacks was invited to speak at an evening service in Liverpool Cathedral. This triggered great controversy and a campaign led by Lord Hugh Cecil infuriated that the cathedral authorities offered the pulpit to a Unitarian minister. As a result of Cecil’s campaign, the convocation of York was forced to withdraw the invitation illustrating the continuing religious tensions.

Over a period of 50 years, Jack’s publications were extensive consisting of visionary works, popular lectures, biographies, articles and addresses. After the First World War he argued that modern life had become increasingly mechanical and the military spiral had become more deadly than the economic one. He suggested that humankind was on a dangerous path, as he explained in his Revolt Against Mechanism (1933):

“The mechanical mind has a passion for control – of everything except itself. Beyond the control it has won over the forces of nature it would now win control over the forces of society, and win it by the same method, that of stating the problem and producing the solution, with social machinery to correspond.”

He was convinced that humankind must save itself from this mechanistic world through education and a wider world vision. ‘The Tyranny of Mere Things’, ‘Arms and Men: A Study of Habit’, ‘Mechanism, Diabolism and the War’, all published in The Hibbert Journal, develop his remarkable ideas of how “science, always fostered as the benefactress of man, has become the handmaid of destruction.”

For all the moves of the College – both in place and in time – there are extraordinarily impressive continuities in 150 years of history explored through the portraits of the College’s past principals. Charles Baudelaire said in 1859 that “nothing in a portrait is a matter of indifference” – instead, everything realises the European ideal of an image that contains all ‘essential’ information defining the sitter’s character. The principals by wearing traditional scholarly or ministerial dress, fashioning themselves in the Oxford scholarly robes, or placing their hand upon a Bible shows their devotion to religion, education and knowledge.

However, there are many achievements, personal histories, and controversies that defined these men and Manchester College’s history that can only be fully grasped by exploring sources beyond the visual image – and this short exploration of Harris Manchester College’s history has been an attempt to use the portraits as a starting point to explore the complex scholarly, religious, and personal relationships that made the college.