Union of Ethical Societies

The Union of Ethical Societies was founded in 1896 and went on to become the British Humanist Association in 1967.

Ethical Societies – disentangling moral ideals from religious doctrines

Ethical Societies grew out of the development of an ethical movement established by Felix Adler in America in 1876.  The aim of the ethical societies was to ‘disentangle moral ideals from religious doctrines, metaphysical systems and ethical theories’. The societies were also involved with moral education, penal reform and neighbourhood community work, along with assisting the women’s movement and drawing attention to racial, colonial and international problems by initiating and supporting effective action.

Stanton Coit Photograph courtesy of Bishopsgate Library

Stanton Coit.  Photograph courtesy of Bishopsgate Library

The movement was brought to Britain in 1886 by Stanton Coit who formed the London Ethical Society. Coit was very keen on the idea of an Ethical Church and even held the fanciful idea that the Church of England could be turned into an ethical church.

There were twenty-six Societies in 1905-6, and seventy by 1915. The West London Ethical Church held Sunday services with up to 400 members and ethical hymns, readings and highly regarded music.

The Ethical Union

The Ethical Union was founded in 1896 bringing together four ethical societies, rising to 15 affiliates in 1915/16. The strength of the Union continued to decline during and after the war and by the early 1930’s, only ten Ethical centres were affiliated to the Ethical Union.

The Union of Ethical Societies was incorporated in 1928 as the Ethical Union.

Ethical centres affiliated to the Ethical Union 1896/7 - 1915/6

Source: G. Spiller (1934) The Ethical Movement in Great Britain: A Documentary History, London

Social reform

Apart from the reflection on high ideals of “the good and the beautiful”, the Union also campaigned for social reform.

It joined a coalition for the Repeal of the Blasphemy Laws in 1912 and also worked for secular education, with an additional emphasis on the development of Moral Education.

Ethical members joined the Peace Society set up by freethinkers in the period before the Great War, which called for no conscription and opposition to military training in schools.

More women were involved in the Ethical Union than in the Secular movement and there was support for the suffragettes.

Harold Blackham

Harold Blackham

Harold Blackham

Coit fell out with the South Place Ethical Society, but remained a leader within the Union until beyond 1930s. He was joined by Harold J. Blackham as a ‘minister’ at the West London Ethical Church. Harold Blackham shifted the movement away from worship and the final vestiges of the movement’s religious past.

Attempts at a merger- Humanist Association and Humanist Council

In the 1950s, with ethical worship having lost its popularity, there was a move towards merging the Union of Ethical societies with the Rationalist Press Association (RPA) and South Place Ethical Society. In this, Harold Blackham played a leading role.

The Humanist Council was set up and a meeting in 1957 led to the launch of the Humanist Association to investigate amalgamation. Members agreed on action to support unilateral disarmament for nuclear tests, opposition to racial discrimination and support for work for underdeveloped countries.

Unfortunately, there were technical obstacles to merger, including difficulties surrounding charitable status, and the Humanist Association was replaced in 1959 by a co-ordinating Humanist Council.

‘British Humanist Association’ – an umbrella group

In 1963 the RPA and Ethical Union decided to sponsor an ‘umbrella’ British Humanist Association and its inaugural meeting took place in 1963 in the House of Commons with Sir Julian Huxley, A. J. Ayer, and Baroness Wootton among those present.

Although both organisations retained their individual identities: the Ethical Union in West London was concerned with public relations, and the RPA, in Drury Lane, with publishing, both also promoted the British Humanist Association.

There was an immediate rise in membership and activity, with increasing numbers of local and university groups (the latter had been brought together in the University Humanist Federation in 1959). Shortly afterwards A J Ayer took over the presidency from Huxley, Baroness Wootton took over the Vice-Presidency and Blackham became Director, a position he remained in until his retirement in 1968.

British Humanist Association as we know it

In 1965 charity law meant that the Ethical Union was removed from the charities register on a technical point and this necessitated the RPA, because of its own charitable staus, pulling out of the joint running of the BHA.

The Ethical Union then changed its name to British Humanist Association, the old umbrella BHA being wound up. The battle for charitable status continued and was eventually won in 1983.

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