George Harris 1845 – 1859

Rev. George Harris

When McAlister resigned, the congregation sought a successor who could reunite what was a divided church. They found in Edinburgh exactly what they wanted in Rev. George Harris, who was an eloquent and forceful preacher. Harris was born in Maidenhead in May 1794, the son of the Unitarian minister there. He claimed descent from Oliver Cromwell on both sides of his family. His father, Abraham Harris, was Unitarian minister at Swansea for 40 years or more. At the age of 14 George was sent to work in a warehouse in Cheapside, London, but withdrew himself from that as he had a desire to enter the Unitarian ministry. He entered first the Islington Academy, one of many dissenting academies founded to provide an education and often a vocational training for nonconformist ministers, and then Glasgow University, which did not apply the same religious disabilities as in England. Whilst at Glasgow his studies were constantly interrupted by demands for his services as a preacher and lecturer, and in 1818 he also found time to play a major part in the founding of the Scottish Unitarian Association. Not content with that, he also founded Unitarian churches, notably in Paisley, Greenock and surrounding towns.

In April 1817, just short of his 23rd birthday, he was invited to become minister at Renshaw Street Chapel, Liverpool (now Ullett Road), where he quickly became involved in controversy. Many, even among Unitarians, censured what they regarded as his imprudent and needlessly severe attacks on evangelical doctrine. His pamphlet, ‘Unitarianism, the only Religion which can become Universal,’ and a course of Sunday evening lectures, afterwards published with notes and an appendix in an octavo volume, under the title of ‘Unitarianism and Trinitarianism contrasted,’ called forth trenchant replies. Dr. James Barr of Oldham Street Presbyterian Church, Dr. John Stewart of Mount Pleasant Secession Church, and Mr. Jones of St. Andrew’s Church were his most prominent opponents.

In 1818 he planned a Unitarian Christian Association and travelled throughout Lancashire and Cheshire drumming up support for it. In 1821, the congregation of Bank Street, Bolton split. Those who left the established congregation officially opened their new church on Easter Sunday, 7th April 1821 and appointed George Harris as their own minister (though he only served for two years). Interestingly, as we have seen, it was a split in the congregation which brought George Harris to Newcastle.

Harris continued to provoke controversy which culminated in a speech in Manchester, leading to a long correspondence, which was afterwards published under the title of ‘The Manchester Socinian Controversy,’ and indirectly caused the famous Dame Hewley lawsuit. Lady Sarah Hewley left to trustees a landed estate to be used after her death for benevolent purposes, including the support of “poor and Godly preachers of Christ’s Holy gospel”. She died in 1710. Over the years grants were made to ministers of three denominations, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Baptist.

By the end of the 18th century all the trustees of the charity and most of the Presbyterian recipients were Unitarians. The Trustees were challenged, and the Court decided that the beneficiaries of the trust should have a Trinitarian commitment (because Unitarian beliefs were illegal when the Trust was established and it could not have been established for an illegal purpose). This decision put at risk Unitarian ownership of chapels which had been in a continuous line of succession but whose theology had changed over generations. As a consequence, the Dissenters Chapels Act 1844 was passed by Parliament, effectively reversing the court’s decision, and securing many Unitarian congregations in their church premises. (Lady Hewley incidentally was one of the original founders of what is now York Unitarian chapel where they have a chair known as Lady Hewley’s chair.)

In 1825 Harris returned to Glasgow, his wife’s home city. He preferred the call to Glasgow to one from London, because, he said, he wished to stand in the front of the battle. Harris attracted immense audiences, and during the sixteen years of his Glasgow ministry obtained for Unitarian principles a position of prominence not hitherto reached in Scotland. From Glasgow he went to Edinburgh, yet also found time to establish Unitarian groups in Girvan, Aberdeen and Tillicoultry.

He also continued his publication of controversial tracts and pamphlets and his public lectures. He was certainly getting his message through – the Scottish Calvinists knew him as “the Devil’s Chaplain”. The retort to that (from whom is not recorded) was, “The Prince of Darkness must be a gentleman if his chaplains are like George Harris.” Harris accepted an invitation to become our Minister at Hanover Square in 1845, four years after William Turner had retired. When Turner retired in 1841 there was a strong minority in the Church who did not want Joseph McAlister to take over as Minister. He was appointed on a vote of 140 to 138 and the rift thus caused did not heal. McAlister resigned in August 1844. In order to restore the fortunes of the Church the Committee sought an eloquent and forceful preacher. Boy, did they get one! His energy and enthusiasm soon infused new life among them. In little more than a year after Harris’s arrival, the congregation wanted a new building worthy of their history, their position and their prospects.

New Bridge Street Church

In fairness, the Trustees must have had some idea what they were letting themselves in for, because Harris visited Newcastle in April 1844. On 16th April in that year the congregation held a Soiree at the Assembly Rooms to meet him. Doors opened at 5.00 pm and as the invitation states, “Tea will be served at 6 o’clock precisely”. Tickets for the Soiree were 2/6 (12.5p) (including tea and coffee) for Gentlemen and 2/- (10p) for Ladies and young persons under 14 years of age. A site was found for the new church in New Bridge Street, almost exactly where the new Central Library now stands. It was named, “The Church of the Divine Unity,” on the insistence of Harris and despite opposition from the Trustees. It is said that Harris declaimed, “If the Church of England can have a Church of the Holy Trinity then we can have a Church of the Divine Unity.”

Richard Welford, who wrote a history of our congregation in1904, described the opening service in these terms: “No one who was present on that day, 50 years ago, has ever forgotten it. For the preacher, Dr Montgomery of Belfast, rivalling the old Puritan ministers, gave us what the Newcastle Chronicle described as ‘a masterly effort of pulpit eloquence’ and that masterly effort occupied nearly three hours in delivery!”

So continued the history of Unitarian witness in Newcastle. The Church had recognised that the centre of the town had moved north and the existing premises in Hanover Square had therefore become isolated. With the arrival of the dynamic and forceful personality that was George Harris, the congregation was able to put aside its differences and erect a building of architectural merit to house a truly exceptional congregation. After two years, George Harris was able to announce that the full cost of the move had been paid off – £5750 9s 3d. The church continued to flourish until well into the 20th century, but sadly, George Harris’s connection did not continue for long.

It appears that for all his forceful personality and apparently robust constitution, the move to New Bridge Street had finally worn him out. Richard Welford puts it this way: “Mr Harris’s labours and anxieties had undermined his health. No longer upon public platforms, denouncing oppression and tyranny or assailing the forces of ignorance and vice, as in the early days of his ministry, was his powerful voice heard. He did not actually break down for five years after the opening, but when the collapse did come it was irremediable.” In May 1859 George Harris took the funeral service of his distinguished predecessor, William Turner, who had died the previous Easter Monday while the church was celebrating its fifth anniversary. Harris himself did not last much longer, preaching his last sermon on 18th December 1859. On Christmas Eve that year he passed away.

George Harris is buried in Jesmond Old Cemetery where, coincidentally, also lie John Dobson and Richard Cail, the architect and builder of the Church in New Bridge Street. The gravestone can still be found and the inscription reads, “Sacred to the memory of George Harris who for a period of nearly fifteen years was the respected and beloved minister of Hanover Square Chapel and of the Church of the Divine Unity, Newcastle upon Tyne. The congregation erected this stone as a memorial of his private worth: of his unwearied and self-sacrificing devotedness to the promotion of Christian truth, freedom, and righteousness; and of his noble championship of the rights of oppressed humanity”.

Throughout his life Harris was constantly writing, lecturing, or preaching, and advocating Sunday-schools, benevolent funds, tract and book societies, and institutions for mutual improvement. He threw himself into many political and sanitary, educational, and moral movements. He was a keen radical, active for the repeal of the Corn Laws, on behalf of which he drew up the first petition sent from Scotland. He took an active share in promoting many other movements, including notably those for the abolition of capital punishment and of slavery. Though decidedly combative, he was naturally genial and warm-hearted. He had a fine presence, a clear, forcible style, and much natural oratory. His final publication was the result of his ministry here: ‘The Christian Character, as illustrated in the Life and Labours of the late Rev. William Turner,’ 1859.

I leave the final summary of his ministry in Newcastle to Richard Welford:

“Though his church and its agencies were his first care, his voice was heard in lecture-halls, and upon public platforms, whenever oppression and tyranny could be effectively assailed, and wherever the forces of ignorance and sin could be baffled, weakened, or turned aside. In company with Dr. White, he undertook a mission among the lowest slums of Newcastle, and wrote an earnest appeal for sanitary improvement and the better housing of the poor. With the aid of self-sacrificing friends he gathered into the school-room attached to his church young men and women of the worst class, taught them to read and write, encouraged them to be truthful and honest, and tried to lure them from the paths of error and vice. In promoting Ragged Schools and Reformatories, and encouraging habits of temperance and thrift, he was indefatigable. That which William Turner had been among the cultured inhabitants of Tyneside, that was George Harris among the poor and lowly — guide, counsellor, and friend”.

Could there be a more fitting epitaph?

Maurice Large