Stewart Headlam

Stewart Headlam

Stewart Headlam, the son of an Evangelical Christian, was born at Wavertree near Liverpool on 12th January. After Eton, Headlam went to Cambridge University where he influenced by the ideas of the Christian Socialist, Frederick Denison Maurice. Headlam agreed with Maurice, who taught him moral philosophy at Cambridge, that God's Kingdom on earth would replace a "competitive, unjust society with a co-operative and egalitarian social order."

Headlam was ordained and appointed curate of St. John's Church in Drury Lane. He was shocked by the poverty he witnessed in London and was determined to do all he could to reduce this suffering. In 1873 he moved to St. Matthew's Church, Bethnal Green, where the conditions were even worse than in Drury Lane. The vicar at the church, Septimus Hansard, was another Christian Socialist who influenced the ideas of Headlam.

In his sermons, Headlam attacked the wide gap between rich and poor and warned the working class that they should distrust middle-class reformers. Headlam presented Jesus Christ as a revolutionary and when the Bishop of London, heard about this, he threatened him with dismissal. Headlam refused to change and in 1878 he was sacked.

Headlam now became a vicar without a parish. He established the Guild of St Matthew which soon had 400 members, a quarter of them church ministers. He toured the country expounding Christian Socialism. Influenced by the ideas of Henry George, the author of Progress and Poverty, Headlam argued for a tax on land and the redistribution of wealth as a means of ending poverty. He also denounced wealth as robbery and inconsistent with Christianity.

In 1886 Headlam joined the Fabian Society. He soon became one of the leading figures in the movement, helping to formulate policy and speaking at public meetings. He wrote the Fabian pamphlet Christian Socialism, where he declared that his main objective was not to convert socialists to Christianity, but to make socialists out of Christians. He was also editor of The Church Reformer, a Christian Socialist journal that was published from 1884 to 1895.

Headlam was active in local politics and in 1888 he and Annie Besant, were elected to the London School Board. Together they attempted to persuade the School Board to abolish compulsory religious instruction and to provide free meals for the poor. Headlam also joined the campaign to persuade the government to help intelligent members of the working class to receive a university education.

Most of the leaders of the Fabian Society did not share Headlam's religious beliefs. However, Headlam was willing to help non-Christians if they shared his political beliefs. Headlam joined the campaign to persuade Parliament to allow the leader of the Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh, to take his seat in the House of Commons. Headlam also helped Oscar Wilde during his trial for homosexual offences and when he was released from prison in 1897.

Elected to the London County Council in 1907, Stewart Headlam remained active in politics until his death on 18th November, 1924.

Primary Sources

(1) Stewart Headlam, speech at a meeting of the Guild of St Matthew (1883)

Jesus was the social and political Emancipator, the greatest of all secular workers, the founder of the the great Socialistic society for the promotion of righteousness, the preacher of Revolution.

(2) Stewart Headlam, speech (1883)

We who are Socialists owe a special debt of gratitude to the men who gathered round Maurice in 1848, and under his influence and teaching made by their work and writings the propagation of Socialism a far easier thing than it otherwise would have been.

(3) Stewart Headlam, Christian Socialism (1892)

The Christian Church is intended to be a society not merely for teaching a number of elaborate doctrines, not even for maintaining a beautiful ritual and worship but mainly and chiefly for doing on a large scale throughout the world those secular, socialistic works which Christ did on a small scale in Palestine.