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Joseph Rayner Stephens (1805-1879)

Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949).

JR Stephens was a social reformer. He was the sixth child of John Stephens (1772-1841), by his wife, Rebecca Eliza Rayner, of Wethersfield, Essex. Stephens was born at Edinburgh on 8 March 1805. His father, a native of St. Dennis, Cornwall, became a Methodist preacher in 1792, and was president of the Wesleyan conference in 1827. George Stephens (1813-1895) was his brother. Joseph entered Manchester grammar school in 1819, where he made friends with William Harrison Ainsworth and Samuel Warren (1807-1877). He was also at the Methodist school, Woodhouse Grove, near Leeds, and in 1823 taught in a school at Cottingham, East Riding.

In July 1825 he became a Methodist preacher, and was appointed in 1826 to a mission station at Stockholm. He was soon able to preach in Swedish, and acquired a taste for Scandinavian literature, which he communicated to his younger brother, George. He attracted the notice of Benjamin Bloomfield, first baron Bloomfield, then plenipotentiary at Stockholm, who made him his domestic chaplain. He also enjoyed a brief but ardent friendship with Montalembert, who spent some time at Stockholm in 1829. Stephens was ordained as a Wesleyan minister in 1829, and stationed at Cheltenham in 1830.

His Wesleyan career ended in 1834, when he resigned under suspension for attending disestablishment meetings in Ashton-under-Lyne circuit. He had joined, under Richard Oastler, the movement for improving the conditions of factory labour, and thought establishment checked the popular sympathies of the clergy.[1] Francis Place (1771-1854) says of Stephens that he ‘professed himself a tory, but acted the part of a democrat.’ The opposition of leading liberals to the ‘Ten Hours Bill’ confirmed him as a ‘tory radical,’ a name first given by O'Connell to Feargus O'Connor.

He threw himself with more zeal than discretion into the agitation for the People's Charter (8 May 1838), drafted by William Lovett. Lovett reckoned O'Connor and Stephens among the ‘physical force chartists’ with James Bronterre O Brien, and though Stephens repudiated even the name of ‘chartist,’ and maintained that his views were ‘strictly constitutional,’ his impassioned language gave colour to another interpretation. As an orator he possessed unusual gifts; he was distinctly heard by twenty thousand people in the open air; his energy of expression and his mastery of homely sentiment were alike remarkable. His brother George designates him (1839) ‘the tribune of the poor;’ but his sympathy with popular needs was in excess of his political sagacity. His weekly sermons were for some time published as ‘The Political Pulpit.’ He contributed to the ‘Christian Advocate,’ edited by his brother John.

On 27 December 1838 he was arrested at Ashton-under-Lyne on the charge of ‘attending an unlawful meeting at Hyde’ on 14 November. He was tried at Chester on 15 August 1839, the attorney-general, Sir John Campbell, prosecuting. Stephens defended himself, and was sentenced by Mr. Justice Pattison to find sureties for good behaviour for five years, after suffering imprisonment for eighteen months in the house of correction at Knutsford; for this Chester Castle was substituted. He writes that his confinement was made ‘as little irksome and unpleasant as possible,’ adding, ‘To a man who has slept soundly with a sod for his bed, and a portmanteau for his pillow, within a stone's throw of the North Cape, and who has made himself quite at home among Laplanders and Russians, there is nothing so very, very frightful in a moderately good gaol, as gaols now go'. On the expiration of his five years' bail a presentation of plate was made to him (10 Febuary 1846).

He settled in 1840 at Ashton-under-Lyne, where he preached at a chapel in Wellington Road, and conducted several journalistic efforts: Stephens's Monthly Magazine (1840), the Ashton Chronicle (1848-9), the Champion (1850-1). In 1852 he removed to Stalybridge. In 1856 he sold his Ashton chapel to Roman Catholics (opened as St. Mary's, April 1856, rebuilt 1868), but still continued to preach at a chapel which he rented in King Street, Stalybridge, till 1875.

He took part in various local agitations, retaining his power and popularity as a speaker, and being the recipient of various testimonials from his friends. For some time he was a member of the Stalybridge school board. He took no lead in politics, and claimed to stand aloof from parties. During his long career he published many pamphlets, not equal to his speeches, though he was an admirable letter-writer. In his later years he suffered from gout and bronchitis. He died at Stalybridge on 18 February 1879 and was buried on 22 February in the churchyard of St. John's, Dukinfield, where his tombstone is the font from his King Street chapel. He married, first, in 1835, Elizabeth Henwood (d. 1852); secondly, in May 1857, Susanna, daughter of Samuel Shaw of Derby, and had children by both marriages. On 19 May 1888 a granite obelisk to his memory was unveiled in Stamford Park, Stalybridge.

[1]My thanks to Steve Parish, MTh., for the following information: he says

I’d have some minor disagreement with the comment [above] that Joseph Rayner Stephens' Wesleyan career 'ended in 1834, when he resigned under suspension for attending disestablishment meetings in Ashton-under-Lyne circuit. He had joined, under Richard Oastler, the movement for improving the conditions of factory labour, and thought establishment checked the popular sympathies of the clergy'.

I’ve not found evidence for the latter assertion, which seems to derive from Holyoake’s 1881 biography of Stephens - not wholly reliable, but relied on by subsequent Chartist historians for this bit - whereas Michael Edwards’s comprehensive biography of Stephens, Purge This Realm (1994) says Oastler and Stephens didn’t meet until 1835, and that Stephens had not acted about factory reform until after his expulsion from Methodism.


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