The Oracle of Reason

The Oracle of Reason, or Philosophy Vindicated was founded by Charles Southwell, William Chilton and John Field in 1841 as ‘the only exclusively ATHEISTICAL print that has appeared in any age or country’ (Oracle 1, 1842,: ii, emphasis in original).

This small group of working- class atheists started the Oracle in response to the perceived failure of working-class movements to address the rising tide of working-class poverty; and disgust at the apparent appeasement of the authorities by the version of Owenite socialism then prevalent.

The publication promised to be radically democratic, atheistic and secular in its criticism and recommendations.

Charles Southwell

The first editor of the Oracle was Charles Southwell. The fourth issue included an antisemitic article “The Jew Book”, which described the Bible as “This revoltingly odious Jew production…” As a consequence, Charles Southwell was arrested for blasphemy on 27 November 1841 and imprisoned for twelve months in January 1842.

George Jacob Holyoake

George Jacob Holyoake, the Owenite lecturer for Sheffield, defended Southwell in December 1841, in a lecture and took over the editorship of the Oracle.

Holyoake’s approach was more moderate than Southwell’s. However, on 24 May 1842, he delivered a lecture in Cheltenham, during which he answered a question from a local preacher in the the audience about God’s place in a socialist community. He said ‘for my part I don’t believe there is such a thing as a God’….’If I could have my way I would place the Deity on half-pay as the Government of this Country did the subaltern officers’

Holyoake was arrested for blasphemy on 2 June and eventually sentenced to six months imprisonment in Gloucester gaol.

Thomas Paterson

Thomas Paterson took over as editor and was himself imprisoned for one month in January 1843 for “displaying obscene and blasphemous literature in the window of the Oracle office in Holywell Street; and for fifteen months in November 1843 for selling blasphemous publications in Edinburgh.”

The last edition was published in 1843.

Southwell was released from prison in February 1843, but refused to resume the editorship of the Oracle mainly because he had changed his mind about the value of the tone which he had originally given to the paper and which Paterson had maintained.

On the closure of the Oracle, Holyoake founded the moderate Movement, and anti-persecution gazette, to which Chilton was a contributor. It lasted until 1845.

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