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This note was written by William Johnson Fox and is the draft for one buried under the foundation stone of London’s South Place Chapel. South Place, opened in 1824, was built to house a congregation which had begun in the late 1700s, and whose ideas had evolved over the decades into unitarianism – a liberal form of Christianity which emphasises freedom of conscience. The note itself testifies to a man, and a congregation, who always kept an eye on the future, and its wider story to the commitment of South Place (forerunner of Conway Hall) to the evolution of thought in line with changing times. Laying the chapel’s foundation stone in 1823, Fox emphasised the core values he hoped would continue to animate those who gathered there, saying:

All of us must soon pass away, and other generations shall succeed us here; but may the same spirit blend together all the successive generations… animating them with the like ardour for truth and righteousness; uniting them in love and good works; surrounding them with a bright atmosphere of usefulness on earth.

From his earlier years as a dissenting minister, Fox had hoped to build a community ‘with Virtue and not Faith for the bond of union’. This ideal would come to underpin the ‘Ethical movement’, which became the humanist one. Around him at South Place, Fox gathered a community of freethinkers, political radicals, and creatives, and was active in campaigning for a range of reforms – challenging corn laws, divorce laws, and the suppression of free speech.

The 1825 trust-deed for the chapel contained the provision that the congregation would be a place for religious worship

at such times, according to such forms, and under such regulations as are now adopted, or shall from time to time be adopted by the said Society.

This established the freedom and flexibility that would allow it to become the South Place Ethical Society under the later leadership of Stanton Coit, and ultimately Conway Hall: a humanist centre. It is important to note, though, that although some modern humanist organisations had their precursors in these unitarian and ethical organisations, humanist thought did not evolve from Christianity. In fact, the approach we now call ‘humanist’ long predates the emergence of Christian ideas, as Margaret Knight highlighted in her Humanist Anthology.


© Conway Hall Ethical Society (Humanist Library and Archives SPES/5/2/2)

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