Stephens, Joseph Rayner
1805-1879; e.m. 1825

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WM minister and social reformer, born in Edinburgh on 8 March 1805, the son of the Rev. John Stephens (1772-1841). He was educated at Woodhouse Grove School and grammar schools in Leeds and Manchester. He showed a linguistic flair and was the first WM missionary appointed to Stockholm, from 1826 to 1829, but found his ministry restricted by discrimination against non-Lutheran missions. He resigned from the ministry in 1834 after being tried at Conference for advocating disestablishment and became the minister of a 'Stephenite' circuit in the Ashton-under-Lyne area. A man of independent judgment and combative spirit, his pastoral ministry in a major cotton centre convinced him of the need for Christian activism and with his friend Richard Oastler he campaigned for the abolition of child and female factory labour, a ten (later eight) hours working day for men and the repeal of the hated Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. He held sway over thousands through his fervent, earthy but biblical oratory.

In 1838 he was briefly associated with the Chartists. His violent language led to arrest and imprisonment (1839-41), but on release he continued to reject party politics and to demand justice for the poor. In the cotton famine (1862-65) he championed the local operatives and was accused, unjustly, of instigating the Stalybridge riot. Ministerial duties were combined with new factory campaigns, education, trade unionism, politics and journalism. The Stephenites disbanded in 1875. For Methodists he represents a lost ideal of social holiness. He died in Stalybridge on 18 February 1879.

Of his three brothers, John Stephens (b.1806) became a newspaper editor, and founded the first Methodist newspaper, the Christian Advocate, in 1830, which incurred the hostility of the Conference by its independent stance. Edward Stephens was a banker who, like two of his brothers, emigrated to Australia. George Stephens (1813-1851) shared his brother Joseph Rayner's love of Scandinavian literature and became professor of English Studies at Copenhagen University.

  • Minutes of Conference, 1834, pp.417-20
  • G.J. Holyoake, Life of Joseph Rayner Stephens (1881)
  • Benjamin Gregory, Side Lights on the Conflicts of Methodism (1898) pp.150-65
  • G.D.H. Cole, Chartist Studies (1941)
  • F.H. Amphlett Micklewright, 'Joseph Rayner Stephens - a reassessment', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, January 1943, pp.51-58
  • Michael S. Edwards, 'The Resignation of Joseph Rayner Stephens', in WHS Proceedings, 36 pp.16-21
  • Michael S. Edwards, in Expository Times, 104 (1992-93) pp.136-40
  • Michael S. Edwards, Purge This Realm: a life of Joseph Rayner Stephens (1994)
  • Bob Hayes, 'Joseph Rayner Stephens has not fared well at the hands of the historians', in North West Labour History, 30 (2005) pp.17-20
  • Oxford DNB

See also

Entry written by: MSE
Category: Person
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