George Holyoake

British secularist, co-operator, and newspaper editor (1817-1906)

George Jacob Holyoake (13 April 1817 – 22 January 1906), was a British secularist, co-operator, and newspaper editor. He coined the term "secularism" in 1851 and the term "jingoism" in 1878. He edited a Secularist paper, the Reasoner, from 1846 to June 1861, and a Co-operative paper, The English Leader, from 1864-67.

George Holyoake


  • I had certainly intended to mark, by a convenient name, a new species of patriots who, often found in the germ state in their native haunts, had propagated in the bibulous atmosphere of a Tory Government, had begun to infest public meetings, and were unrecognised and unclassified. Their characteristic was a war-urging pretentiousness which discredited the silent, resolute, self-defensiveness of the British people. … A term to obtain currency must be brief, relevant to the time, and easily spoken. The qualities I did not invent. I had no merit save that of discerning them in the new political pretensions of the Music Hall party and their Jingo song.
  • There is an abuse of the term when applied to politicians of intelligence and sober thought who are for the consolidation of the empire or for imperial policy. The Jingoes are mainly the habitués of the turf, the tap-room, and the low music halls, whose inspiration is beer, whose politics are swagger, and whose policy is insult to foreign nations.
  • Mr. Owen looked upon men through the spectacles of his own good-nature. He seldom took Lord Brougham's advice "to pick his men." He never acted on the maxim that the working class are as jealous of each other as the upper classes are of them. The resolution he displayed as a manufacturer he was wanting in as a founder of communities. ... No leader ever took so little care as Mr, Owen in guarding his own reputation. He scarcely protested when others attached his name to schemes which were not his. The failure of Queenwood was not chargeable to him. When his advice was not followed he would say : "Well, gentlemen, I tell you what you ought to do. You differ from me. Carry out your own plans. Experience will show you who is right." When the affair went wrong then it was ascribed to him. Whatever failed under his name the public inferred failed through him. Mr. Owen was a general who never provided himself with a rear guard. While he was fighting in the front ranks priests might come up and cut off his commissariat. His own troops fell into pits against which he had warned them. Yet he would write his next dispatch without it occurring to him to mention his own defeat, and he would return to his camp without missing his army. Yet society is not so well served that it need hesitate to forgive the omissions of its generous friends. To Mr. Owen will be accorded the distinction of being a philosopher who devoted himself to founding a Science of Social Improvement and a philanthropist who gave his fortune to advance it. Association, which was but casual before his day, he converted into a policy and taught it as an art. He substituted Co-operation for coercion in the conduct ot industry and the willing co-operation of intelligence certain of its own reward, for sullen labour enforced by the necessity of subsistence, seldom to be relied on and never satisfied.
    • George Jacob Holyoake in The History of Co-operation in England (1875; 1902)
  • Moved by a generous eagerness to turn men's attention to the power which dwelt in circumstances, Mr. Owen devised the instructive phrase, that "man's character was formed for him and not by him." He used the unforgettable inference that "man is the creature of circumstances." The school of material improvers believed they could put in permanent force right circumstances. The great dogma was their charter of encouragement. To those who hated without thought It seemed a restrictive doctrine to be asked to admit that there were extenuating circumstances in the career of every rascal. To the clergy with whom censure was a profession, and who held that all sin was wilful, man being represented as the "creature of circumstances," appeared a denial of moral responsibility. When they were asked to direct hatred against error, and pity the erring — who had inherited so base a fortune of incapacity and condition — they were wroth exceedingly, and said it would be making a compromise with sin. The idea of the philosopher of circumstances was that the very murderer in his last cell had been born with a staple in his soul, to which the villainous conditions of his life had attached an unseen chain, which had drawn him to the gallows, and that the rope which was to hang him was but the visible part. Legislators since that day have come to admit that punishment is justifiable only as far as it has preventive influence. To use the great words of Hobbes, "Punishment regardeth not the past, only the future."
    • George Jacob Holyoake in The History of Co-operation in England (1875; 1902)
  • A Liberal is one who seeks to secure for everyone the same rights, political, social or religious, which he claims for himself.
    • Undated manuscript, quoted in Ian Bradley, The Optimists: Themes and Personalities in Victorian Liberalism (1980), p. 76

The Limits of Atheism: Or, Why Should Sceptics be Outlaws? 1874


George Holyoake. The Limits of Atheism: Or, Why Should Sceptics be Outlaws?. 1874.

  • Plato in his 'Laws,' remarks that 'Atheism is a disease of the soul before it becomes an error of the understanding.' This just opinion, if applied to mere sensualists, who disbelieve in God because his holiness is a restraint upon their infamous passions, has since been applied to the pure thinkers like Spinoza, to whom it is an insult and an outrage. Let us see how little such a remark is applicable to those who thoughtfully pause before adopting a creed which, however dictated by a feeling of piety, is far less reverential than thoughtful silence.
    • p. 13
  • The popular theology, it must be owned, has many repulsive aspects. The vulgarest and most illiterate believer is encouraged to profess a familiar and confident knowledge, hidden from the profoundest philosophers. It is an unanswerable position, that had God spoken, the universe would have been convinced.
    • p. 15

The Origin and Nature of Secularism, 1896


George Holyoake (1896), The Origin and Nature of Secularism: : Showing that where Freethought Commonly Ends Secularism Begins.

  • One of the two great forces of opinion created in this age is what is known as Atheism, which deprives superstition of its standing ground, and compels Theism to reason for its existence.
    • p. 42

Memorial dedication (1902)

It is said by parrot-minded critics that Owen was "a man of one idea," whereas he was a man of more ideas than any public man England knew in his day. … The truth is he succeeded in more things than any public man ever undertook. If he made more promises than he fulfilled, he fulfilled more than any other public man ever made. ~ George Holyoake
Dedicatory address by George Jacob Holyoake at the unveiling of a monument for Owen's grave, Newtown, Wales (12 July 1902) PDF document
He cared for no cause that reason could not win. There never was a more cautious innovator, a more practical dreamer, or a more reasoning revolutionist. ~ George Holyoake
Thanks to the doctrine of national environment which Owen was the first to preach — Knowledge is greater; Life is longer; Health is surer… ~ George Holyoake
  • It is said by parrot-minded critics that Owen was "a man of one idea," whereas he was a man of more ideas than any public man England knew in his day. He shared and befriended every new conception of moment and promise, in science, in education, and government. His mind was hospitable to all projects of progress; and he himself contributed more original ideas for the conduct of public affairs than any other thinker of his generation. ... Because some of his projects were so far reaching that they required a century to mature them, onlookers who expected them to be perfected at once, say he "failed in whatever he proposed." While the truth is he succeeded in more things than any public man ever undertook. If he made more promises than he fulfilled, he fulfilled more than any other public man ever made. Thus, he was not a man of "one idea" but of many. Nor did his projects fail. The only social Community for which he was responsible was that of New Harmony, in Indiana; which broke up through his too great trust in uneducated humanity — a fault which only the generous commit. The communities of Motherwell and Orbiston, of Manea, Fen, and Queenwood in Hampshire were all undertaken without his authority, and despite his warning of the adequacy of the means for success. They failed, as he predicted they would. Critics, skilled in coming to conclusions without knowing the facts, impute these failures to him.
  • He was the first to advocate that eight hours a day in the workshop was best for industrial efficiency. The best employers in the land are now of that opinion. He did not fail there. Who can tell the horrors of industry which children suffered in factories at the beginning of the last century? Were not the Factory Acts acts of mercy? The country owed them to Robert Owen's inspiration. ... He was the first who looked with practical intent into the kingdom of the unborn. He saw that posterity — the silent but inevitable master of us all — if left untrained may efface the triumphs, or dishonour, or destroy the great traditions of our race. He put infant schools into the mind of the world. Have they been failures? He, when it seemed impossible to anyone else, proposed national education for which now all the sects contend. Has that proposal been a failure?
  • He carried no dagger in his mouth, as many reformers have done. He cared for no cause that reason could not win. There never was a more cautious innovator, a more practical dreamer, or a more reasoning revolutionist. Whatever he commended he supported with his purse. It was this that won for him confidence and trust, given to no compeer of his time.
  • It was he who first taught the people the then strange truth that Causation was the law of nature and of mind, and unless we looked for the cause of an evil, we might never know the remedy. Every man of sense in Church and State acts on this truth now, but so few knew it in Owen's day that he was accused of unsettling the morality of the world. It was the fertility and newness of his suggestions, as a man of affairs, that gave him renown, and his influence extends to us. This memorial before us would itself grow old, were we to stay to describe all the ideas the world has accepted from Owen. I will name but one more, and that the greatest.
    He saw, as no man before him did, that environment is the maker of men. Aristotle, whose praise is in all our Universities, said "Character is Destiny." But how can character be made? The only national way known in Owen's day was by prayer and precept. Owen said there were material means, largely unused, conducive to human improvement. Browning's prayer was — "Make no more giants, God; but elevate the race at once." This was Owen's aim, as far as human means might do it.
  • Great change can only be effected by unity. But "Union without knowledge is useless; Knowledge without union is powerless." Then what is the right knowledge? Owen said it consisted in knowing that people came into the world without any intention of doing it; and often with limited capacities, and with disadvantages of person, and with instinctive tendencies which impel them against their will, and which disqualifications they did not give themselves. ... Dislike dies in the heart of those who understand this, and the spirit of unity arises.
  • This was the angerless philosophy of Owen, which inspired him with a forbearance that never failed him, and gave him that regnant manner which charmed all who met him. We shall see what his doctrine of environment has done for society, if we notice what it began to do in his day, and what it has done since.
    Men perished by battle, by tempest, by pestilence, Faith might comfort, but it did not save them. In every town, nests of pestilence co-existed with the churches, who were concerned alone with worship. Disease was unchecked by devotion. Then Owen asked, "Might not safety come by improved material condition?" As the prayer of hope brought no reply, as the scream of agony, if heard, was unanswered, as the priest, with the holiest intent, brought no deliverance, it seemed prudent to try the philosopher and the physician.
    Then Corn Laws were repealed, because prayers fed nobody. Then parks were multiplied because fresh air was found to be a condition of health. Alleys and courts, were begun to be abolished-since deadly diseases were bred there. Streets were widened, that towns might be ventilated. Hours of labour were shortened, since exhaustion means liability to epidemic contagion. Recreation was encouraged, as change and rest mean life and strength. Temperance — thought of as self-denial — was found to be a necessity, as excess of any kind in diet, or labour, or pleasure means premature death. Those who took dwellings began to look, not only to drainage and ventilation, but to the ways of their near neighbours, as the most pious family may poison the air you breathe unless they have sanitary habits.
  • Thanks to the doctrine of national environment which Owen was the first to preach — Knowledge is greater; Life is longer; Health is surer; Disease is limited; Towns are sweeter; Hours of labour are shorter; Men are stronger; Women are fairer; Children are happier; Industry is held in more honour, and is better rewarded; Co-operation carries wholesome food and increased income into a million homes where they were unknown before, and has brought us nearer and nearer to that state of society which Owen strove to create — in which it shall be impossible for men to be depraved or poor.

Quotes about George Holyoake

  • We don't want to fight, but by jingo if we do,
    We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too.
    We've fought the Bear before and while we're Britons true,
    The Russians shall not have Constantinople.
    • G. W. Hunt. (Called "the Kipling of the Halls.") As sung by the "Great McDermott," in 1878 it made the term "Jingo" popular. "Jingo," first used as a political term of reproach, by George Jacob Holyoake, in a letter to the London Daily News, March 13, 1878. "He … falls a-fighting it out of one hand into the other, tossing it this way and that; lets it run a little upon the line, then tanutus, high jingo, come again." Traced by the Oxford Dict. to John Eachard—Grounds and Occasion of the Contempt of Clergy. 1670, p. 34. See also John Oldham, Satires upon the Jesuits (1679), IV. "By Jingo" found in a translation. of Rabelais—Pantagruel, Book IV, Chapter LV. Also in Cowley—Cutter of Coleman Street, pub. 1663, performed, 1661. "By the living Jingo" in Goldsmith—Vicar of Wakefield, Chapter X.
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