Unitarian Home Missionary Board (1854 to present)

(Historical account to 1860)

The Unitarian Home Missionary Board was established in Manchester in 1854, the year after the removal of Manchester New College to London. Proposed as early as 1850, it was not intended to replace New College, but to answer a need 'to provide [the] means for training ministers suited to the wants of the less educated classes of the community' (The Inquirer, 10 June 1854, 365). Its object was to prepare 'home missionaries' for Unitarian congregations or missions. The promoters of the new institution were conscious not only of the failure of Unitarians to address the needs of the poorer families, but also of the inability of the movement to train enough ministers. Over thirty pulpits were said to be vacant, and as a consequence many of those chapels were shut. Perhaps worse, without trained ministers 'miscellaneous and non-descript persons' were taking possession of Unitarian pulpits (Beard, Unitarian Home Missionary Board, . . . May 31st, 1854, 14).
The new institution opened in December 1854 with ten students, though two quickly withdrew. They included students from both the north and south of England. The Revd John Relly Beard was appointed principal and theology tutor, and the Revd William Gaskell literary tutor. The appointment of a superintendent missionary proved more difficult, and the Revd Francis Bishop, minister to the poor in Manchester, was not appointed until the following year. The board chose not to acquire any college buildings, and so the students were accommodated privately in the town, and given ten shillings a week for their board and lodging. At first lectures were held in the homes of the tutors, then in 1855 rooms in Cross Street were rented, and in 1857 the board took four rooms at the top of an old warehouse in Marsden Square. The latter proved quite unsuitable. The air was foul and poorly ventilated, leading to health problems for both tutors and students. In 1865 the institution moved to the Memorial Hall, Albert Square, built in part for the purpose of accommodating the lectures and library. It remained there until premises in Victoria Park were purchased to mark the college's jubilee in 1904.
The board sought to provide an education which mixed practical experience with academic study. The students were engaged in systematic visiting of the poor, usually for two hours on Mondays, and sent out on Sundays to preach. In 1859 13 students conducted over 1,000 services in 55 towns. To avoid the accusation that the board was lowering the standard of ministerial education, a general course of instruction covering three years was adopted. Made up of six terms of five months each, the course consisted of lectures on English language and literature, New Testament Greek, the history of the world, the history of religion and the evidences of revealed religion, the literary history of the bible, biblical interpretation, the qualities, laws, and relations of the human mind, as well as instruction in pastoral care.
There were nonetheless those who saw the new institution as providing an inferior, indeed inadequate education, below that acceptable for someone to be entitled to call himself a Unitarian minister. The controversy intensified in 1862 when a majority of the ministers who had been trained by the Home Missionary Board publicly stated that the education provided was 'not sufficient for the purposes of their work' (The Inquirer (29 Nov. 1862), 843). The college gained support because it clearly answered the need for more trained ministers, though in doing so it departed from the original aim to train missionaries. One critic calculated that only 24 students educated at Manchester New College between 1842 and 1862 actually entered the Unitarian ministry, a fifth of the number required, while the Home Missionary Board in its first seven years educated 25. In turn, only 9 of the first 25 served as domestic or district missionaries compared with 15 in regular ministry. Most observers recognised that whatever the board's intentions, the majority of its students would serve regular congregations, not least because out of forty missionary stations no more than fifteen were likely to have the resources to support a missionary.
Despite the early success of the college (it did not lack for candidates, nor did its students lack pulpits to fill), it was in financial difficulties almost from the start. The committee believed it needed an income of £1,100 a year to undertake its work. This was never achieved in the early years. Subscriptions for the first year amounted to £763 1s. 6d., and expenditure £677 5s. 11d., but expenses were low because not all the offices of tutor were filled and the number of students was only eight. The financial situation became increasingly desperate. In 1863 the board's receipts were only £891 against expenditure of £1,211, and the original reserve fund of £472, formed from donations made in the first year, was by then entirely exhausted in meeting successive deficits.
In 1889 the board changed its name to the Unitarian Home Missionary College, and assumed its present title Unitarian College in 1925. The college continues today as a member of 'the Partnership for Theological Education' based in Manchester.
David L. Wykes


The principal archives are the minutes, reports and correspondence of the Unitarian Home Missionary Board, part of the Unitarian College Collection at John Rylands University Library Manchester: Unitarian Home Missionary Board minute book, vol. 1 (Dec 1853-Feb 1855), vol. 2 (19 Mar 1855-15 Aug 1861); letters and applications for admission, 1854-69 (UCC/1/1/1-16); printed circulars and reports (UCC/1/6/2). There are two student accounts in the UCC collection covering the period: George Fox, letters, diaries and MS Autobiographical notes; typescript copy of MS diary of J. C. Street.

Published sources

Addresses Delivered at the Inaugural Meeting of the Unitarian Home Missionary Board, held in the Cross-Street Chapel, Manchester, on the Evening of the 4th of December, 1854, by the Rev. John R. Beard, D.D., and the Rev. William Gaskell, M.A., Tutors of the Institution (London, 1855).
Beaumont, G., 'Unitarian Home Missionary Board', The Inquirer, 29 Nov. 1862, 843.
McLachlan, Herbert, The Story of a Nonconformist Library (Manchester, 1923)
-----, The Unitarian College Library: its History, Contents and Character (Manchester, 1939).
-----, Unitarian College, Manchester. Register of Students 1854-1929 ([Manchester, c.1930]).
-----, Unitarian Home Missionary College 1854-1914: its Foundation and Development with Some Account of the Missionary Activities of its Members (London and Manchester, 1915).
Smith, Leonard (ed.), Unitarian to the Core: Unitarian College, Manchester, 1854-2004 (Manchester, 2004).
Unitarian Home Missionary Board, Established at a Meeting of Unitarian Ministers and Laymen, Held in Manchester, May 31st, 1854 (Manchester, [1854]).
'Unitarian Home Missionary Board', Christian Reformer, ns 10 (1854), 425-28.
'Unitarian Home Missionary Board', Christian Reformer, ns 11 (1855), 58-59.
Unitarian Home Missionary Board. Report Presented at the First Annual Meeting of the Members, held March 5th, 1856, with the Laws, and List of Subscribers (Manchester, 1856).
Unitarian Home Missionary Board. Fourth Annual Report. Presented at the General Meeting of Members, January 28, 1859 ([Manchester, 1859]).
Wykes, David L., 'Training Ministers suited to the Wants of the Less Educated Classes: the Establishment of the Unitarian Home Missionary Board', Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, 23 (2005), 615-24.

David L. Wykes, 'Unitarian Home Missionary Board, 1854 to present)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, October 2013.