Harold John Blackham, 1903–2009

Barbara Smoker

H. J. Blackham—philosopher, writer, educationalist, lecturer, and doyen of the secular humanist movement—died peacefully on January 23, 2009, two months short of his 106th birthday. He is commonly known as the father of modern humanism.

Although he left school at the end of the First World War to become a farm laborer, he never stopped thinking— especially about religion. He eventually gained a place at Birmingham University to read divinity and history. He then became a teacher of divinity—only to find his Christian faith slipping away.

In 1932, Blackham saw an advertisement seeking someone to administer the Ethical Church in London—a church without supernatural assumptions. He applied for the position and was appointed. In the end, however, he was to strip the church of all its quasi-religious emblems, while officiating at nonreligious funerals and other ceremonies and fulfilling the role of counselor. Later he cofounded the British Association of Counselling.

In the late 1930s, Blackman helped organize a conference of the World Union of Freethinkers. At the same time, he was involved with bringing Jewish refugee children from Austria to England to escape Nazi persecution. He drove a fire truck throughout the Blitz—while continuing to work parttime as a philosophy lecturer and writer and the secretary of the West London Ethical Society and the Ethical Union.

Envisaging an international organization for humanism, in its modern sense, he visited Holland soon after the war to meet the leader of the Dutch humanists, together with whom he set up the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Blackman became its first secretary-general. In 1963, he transformed the Ethical Union in his country into the British Humanist Association and served as its first executive director. “Humanism,” he said, “is a teaching.”

In addition to innumerable articles, pamphlets, and published lectures, he produced a number of books, including Six Existential Thinkers (1952)—his most successful book, with many translations and reprints as a university textbook. He also published Living as a Humanist (1950), The Human Tradition (1953), Religion in Modern Society (1966), Humanism (Pelican Original, 1968), and The Fable as Literature (1985). His Conway Memorial lecture, The Way I Think, was published as a pamphlet in 1985. When I asked him, some years ago, which of his books he thought best, he named The Human Tradition. For myself though, more important than any particular book or article, is simply his life, his compassion, and his caring fellowship.

In 1944, he founded the prestigious quarterly journal The Plain View, for which, for two decades, he contrived to obtain scholarly contributions from the foremost thinkers of the day—making it, for percipient readers, probably the most important liberal journal of the twentieth century, though its circulation remained small. Blackman continued to edit it until 1965, when it came to an end with his retirement. However, The Journal of Moral Education, which he also founded, continues as a highly regarded publication with international influence.

In his late sixties, Blackman left the London area for the Welsh Marches, looking out on the lovely Wye Valley, in order, he said, to escape from no fewer than seventeen London committees! However, he went on writing, officiating at funerals, and traveling around the lecture circuit until his nineties.

Barbara Smoker

Barbara Smoker was hands-on president of the National Secular Society (U.K.) for twenty-five years (1971–1996).


H. J. Blackham—philosopher, writer, educationalist, lecturer, and doyen of the secular humanist movement—died peacefully on January 23, 2009, two months short of his 106th birthday. He is commonly known as the father of modern humanism. Although he left school at the end of the First World War to become a farm laborer, he never stopped …

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