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W.L.Sargent, says that 'From this date for nearly twenty years Owen's proceedings have little to interest people generally.' But there was a continuing dialogue between his little group and the Chartists in which the Owenites were maintaining a larger view of the reforms necessary to serve the working class interest; and in the person of Thomas Allsop, Lincolnshire landowner and disciple of the theologian and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Owen had an intermediary with the Chartists, since Allsop was also acting as an adviser to the Chartist leader, Feargus O'Connor. The Owenites argued against over-reliance on an extension of the franchise, pointing out that the working class had the franchise in North America but thousands were still unemployed. They also argued against the other temptation of the Chartists - physical force revolution: 'The victory must have been achieved by physical force and some individuals must thereby attain the political power now possessed by the aristocracy of this country. Who the parties acquiring this power, after such a revolution, might be, no man can know, probably some more fortunate military chiefs.'

In 1839, Owen's latest 'society' - The Society of Rational Religionists - took a lease on land in Hampshire for a new attempt at forming a community - Queenswood. With a population of nineteen people it fell far short of the ambitions Owen had had for New Harmony - not to mention Texas. The Rational Religionists also established 'Halls of Science', and employed lecturers, who included the atheist and lifelong champion of the co-operative principle, George Jacob Holyoake, the last man to be imprisoned for blasphemy on grounds of atheism. His friend, Charles Southwell who had been imprisoned just before him, was also one of the Rational Religionist lecturers.

The context in which this happened was a protest launched by the Bishop of Exeter, Henry Philpotts, when Lord Melbourne - the same Lord Melbourne who had refused to pardon the Tolpuddle Martyrs and had given government backing to the lockouts that broke the Consolidated Union - formally presented Owen to Queen Victoria. It wasn't Owen's socialism that upset the Bishop so much as his views on religion. Owen was a deist - believing in God but disbelieving in any special revelation from God, other than the normal operations of the human reason. But even Holyoake thought him lacking in tact when in 1837, for example, he said to Rev J.H.Roebuck in Manchester that 'he was compelled to believe that all the religions of the world were so many geographical insanities.'

Philpotts's protest stimulated a small wave of persecution against what the Bishop considered to be atheism. Owen's old associate, William Pare, lost his job as registrar of births, deaths and marriages in Birmingham. And since the rooms in which the Rational Religionists lectured were under episcopal license, those churchmen who wished could make the use of them dependent on swearing an oath that, to put it in Holyoake's words, 'they held Christian tenets and took the Bible as the guide of their teaching.' A number of them, including Alexander Fleming, editor of the New Moral World, took the oath but Southwell, Holyoake and two of their colleagues refused. Southwell then issued the journal The Oracle of Reason or Philosophy Vindicated with its defiant masthead: 'Faith's empire is the world; its monarch God; its ministers the priests; its slaves the people.' It claimed to be 'the only exclusively ATHEISTICAL print that has appeared in any age or country.' Southwell was imprisoned for an article that appeared in issue number 4, Holyoake for responding warmly to a clergyman who challenged him on his religious views when he was lecturing in the Cheltenham Mechanics Institute on the very Owenite topic of 'self supporting Home Colonies.'

Owen, then, was still at the centre of an interesting intellectual life even if he himself at times seemed rather oblivious of it.


In the autobiography written at the end of his life, Owen imagines himself being questioned by an 'inquisitor', who asks:

'What makes you so confident of ultimate success?"

He replies:

'The daily aid which I receive from superior spirits, who promise effective assistance until success shall be secured.'

Spiritualism had sprung up as a movement in North America in 1847, through the mediums, Margaretta and Catherine Fox. It had been introduced to Britain in 1852 by Mrs Maria Hayden, who converted Owen in 1854, to the dismay of many of his followers. As Sargent puts it: 'He owed his conversion to the spirits of his father and mother who kindly and as it seemed most anxiously desired that he should see and know the truth of our future existence "and the unimaginable glories and happiness of a never-ending, progressive immortality."'

Owen passed on much of what he learned from the spirits - his parents, the Duke of Kent, President Jefferson, Shelley, Byron, some of the Old Testament prophets - but they seemed to bear a remarkable resemblance to his own ideas on the need to reform the world and unite the human race. 

One of the characteristics of the spirits, he said, was that they retain much the same character they had on earth. Some years after his death, he himself appeared to the medium, Emma Harding Britten, and revealed to her the 'Seven Principles of Spiritualism' later adopted by the Spiritualists National Union. One of the seven principles was 'personal responsibility' - whether we do good or ill is within our power and we may legitimately be given praise or censure depending on the choice we make. Which implies that in the spirit world Owen somewhat uncharacteristically changed his mind. All his life he had taught that this notion of personal responsibility was the fundamental error at the root of all our social and moral ills.

In 1902, at the unveiling ceremony of a memorial raised to him in Newtown, his old comrade, G.J.Holyoake, chairman of the memorial committee, said he 'loved the Welsh people and the place of his birth'. He 'came back to the little town, which gave him birth, and was laid to rest in this old churchyard. Those who buried him, and those connected with this place, raised a monument to his memory.' Perhaps the rugged old atheist had Owen's Spiritualism in mind when he added 'and it was well said of him that "his grave was too cold and damp for a soul so warm and true."'

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