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I have ever considered that the only religion useful to man consists exclusively of the practice of morality, and in the mutual interchange of kind actions.

Henry Hetherington, Last Will and Testament (1849)

This handbill for a series of Sunday evening lectures at the Hall of Science, City Road comes from the appointment book of secularist and humanist George Jacob Holyoake. Halls of Science were centres of working class education, activism, and organisation, and among the lectures advertised is ‘How to Die; Illustrated by the Death-bed of the late Henry Hetherington’. Holyoake’s close friend Henry Hetherington was a writer, printer, publisher, and bookseller, who had worked tirelessly for freedom of the press, freedom of thought, and the rights of the working class. He had played a leading role in Chartist and Owenite organisations, as well as in the ‘war of the unstamped’, which fought to make radical ideas accessible to everyone, regardless of wealth or status. Hetherington died from cholera in late August 1849, and Holyoake had been with him during his final hours. He was therefore able to attest to Hetherington’s resolutely humanist attitude towards his approaching death, content with the sense of a life well-lived. Hetherington’s attitude towards death, and his will, were seen to typify a life of ‘usefulness’, care for others, and a devotion to Owenite principles. They became the subject of lectures, and formed part of G.W. Foote’s Infidel Death-beds, which compiled examples of the many freethinkers who had died without fear or religious conversion.

Although we don’t know the exact content of Holyoake’s lecture, his graveside oration – delivered, by the estimation of The Reasoner, to a crowd of 1000 – gives an idea of his emphasis: intending to inspire listeners with the example of Hetherington’s life, death, and legacy. Freethinkers at the time were acutely aware of the tendency of religious figures to claim the deathbed conversion of well-known atheists, so accounts of those like Hetherington were important. Holyoake described his friend as having been, in life, the ‘personification of good-humoured Democracy’ and, nearing death, confident that he had nothing to fear from any supposed afterlife.

Having always believed to the best of his understanding, and acted to the best of his ability, he had no reason for fear, and he manifested none. He alluded to his probable death with so much good sense, and his bearing to the last hour was so quiet and so full of equanimity, that I could discern no difference between his death and his life, save in his failing strength. As sickness could not alter the evidence on which his principles rested, they underwent no change. He died the avowed, the explicit, the unchanging foe of Priestcraft, Superstition, and Oppression; and he strongly and rightly concluded that a life devoted to the welfare of humanity in this world, was no unsuitable preparation for any other.

In his will, Hetherington had confirmed his belief that ‘the only religion useful to man consists exclusively of the practice of morality, and in the mutual interchange of kind actions’. On the canopy of the hearse carrying Hetherington’s body to Kensal Green Cemetery, in silver letters, was written a favourite phrase of his: ‘We ought to endeavour to leave the world better than we found it’.

Image: Bishopsgate Institute (HOLYOAKE/2/55)

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