James Martineau: A short biography

James Martineau was the seventh of eight children of Thomas Martineau (1764-1826), a Norwich cloth manufacturer of Huguenot descent.

From 1815-19 James attended the grammar school in the Cathedral Close in Norwich where a contemporary was the writer George Borrow (1803-1881). Its classical emphasis did not engage Martineau’s scientific and mathematical bent.

He then went on to study under the non-conformist Reverend Lant Carpenter (1780-1840) in Bristol whose curriculum included History, Geography Mathematics, and Biblical criticism.

After a frustrating year at the engineering works of James Fox in Derby, Martineau moved to Manchester College, then based in York, to train for the ministry. He was much influenced by Reverend Charles Wellbeloved who taught Biblical criticism and Reverend William Turner who oversaw the study of Mathematics.

From 1828-32 Martineau was the junior minister at Eustace Street Presbyterian Chapel, Dublin during which period his anthology A Collection of Hymns for Christian Worship (1831) was published; it included five hymns by his sister Harriet. His years in Dublin prompted sympathy with the Roman Catholics there and he signed a petition calling for Catholic emancipation.

Martineau’s major years as a minister lay between 1832 and 1857 in Liverpool, first at Paradise Street Chapel and then, having prompted its building to replace the Paradise Street one, at the great Victorian Gothic Hope Street Chapel which opened in 1848. One of his triumphs in Liverpool lay in a series of lectures in 1839: a number of Anglican clergy invited Unitarians to some lectures aimed at their conversion; Martineau followed these with an invitation to Anglicans to lectures by himself and other dissenters to refute (in both a scholarly and brilliant manner) their arguments.

From 1840 Martineau combined his role in Liverpool with a position as Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy and Logic at Manchester College which had returned to Manchester from York. When the college moved to London in 1853 (to give its students better access to the culture of the capital), he retained his post and travelled regularly from Liverpool.

He moved to London in 1857 to be a full-time tutor at the college. Here he was drawn into the major controversies of the day: his ‘Science, Nescience and Faith’ published in the National Review, was a spirited defence of religion against positivism.

History has given much prominence to the debate on Darwin’s theory of evolution between Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. However the debate on the same issue between John Tyndall and Martineau in 1872 was as significant in its day, Martineau arguing that matter could not be self-sufficient. Martineau was regarded even by orthodox Christians as the champion of faith.

Based on the article on Martineau by Dr Ralph Waller in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Return to Martineau home page