Moses Philip Manfield & His Time

The young Philip Manfield, as he was known, had moved to Northampton in 1843, and was to be part of our story until his death in 1899. He had been born in 1818, into a Unitarian cordwaining (posh for bootmaker) family in Bristol, where he had completed an apprenticeship. In 1854, he married Margaret Milne, a daughter of Mr. James Milne, the county surveyor. The Rev. Ierson, who conducted the service, married her sister, making Philip Manfield and the Rev. Ierson brothers-in-law. The latter never became minister of the Northampton congregation, but was appointed to the important post of Secretary of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association in 1876. The story of Philip Manfield’s success in the boot and shoe industry is part of the history of Northampton and needs no repetition here. Suffice it is to record, that for more than half a century, he was an active worker for the Unitarian cause. Records are sparse, but again and again his name appears as a leading figure and in the last three decades of the century, as chairman of the congregation. One such example was when he presided at the departure of the Rev. E. R. Grant on 16th August 1885 (to the pastorate of the Free Christian Church of Sydney, Australia). A full account of the presentation meeting and his farewell sermon, appeared in the Northampton Daily Reporter. Mr. M.P. Manfield said that they “had been a strong, united and harmonious congregation” when Mr. Grant arrived and he left them “stronger, more united and more harmonious; his mission, has not been in vain and he has not laboured without result”.

In his farewell sermon Mr. Grant spoke of “friends he esteemed and had learned to love”. “We met as perfect strangers, but were gradually brought together by common sympathies, common wants, common aspirations, thoughts and hopes.” They had never “attempted for an instant to make me a theological “bondslave” and have permitted me to say anything, to do anything that might call your thoughts, away from the constant hurry and noise of town life, to higher Christian experience and to deeper spiritual life”. He had tried to “strengthen them against evil, on the ground of natural justice, on the ground of human brotherhood and above all because conscience was higher than consequence, and the will of God higher than all”. He asked members of the congregation “are you wiser and better men and women, have you trained and cared for the little ones, have you watched over them and helped them, have you met here in vain or not?” He invited them to answer for themselves “tonight in the solemnity of this religious service”. He was being led away by a “call that he dare not disobey” and left them to “the Father who was the Shepherd and Bishop of all souls”.

Only four years later, the next pastor the Rev Frederick Lawton left in very different circumstances. In his farewell sermon he said that during the first twelve months of his ministry, he had made “an honest attempt to harmonise my own convictions with the current theology of the Unitarian body”. He had found it impossible and had abandoned the attempt. It had been something of an anomaly that he “unable to accept the Christian name”, should have been so long the minister “of a Church which retains it on its trust deed and inscribes it over its entrance porch”. But there was yet a great anomaly: that “a church numbering some 250 attendants, more than one- half should likewise be unable place their faith within the grasp of the dead hand”. He wished he said, “to be called A Humanist” At a presentation at the annual church tea, Alderman M.P. Manfield J.P., said that losing Mr. Lawton was “like losing a personal friend”. At these words, the audience broke into cheers. They understood his reasons, said the Alderman, but deeply regretted that he had felt it necessary to leave. Clearly the theology of the church, as it now seemed to be called, at least by its departing pastor, had begun to change. The bounds of Christian Unitarianism, Jesus the leader, the teacher, the enlightened one, were being seen as imposing unacceptably narrow limits.