Adrian Desmond

Published On


Page Range

pp. 357–384


  • English

Print Length

28 pages

18. The Atheist Breakaway

  • Adrian Desmond (author)
The clergy’s legal opposition to the Halls’ Sabbath lectures caused ructions inside the socialist movement. Only churches were exempt, so Owen had his community rebranded as “The Universal Community of Rational Religionists”. This capitulation infuriated the hardcore atheists. Worse still, the Bishops Court demanded socialist missionaries swear their belief in the Scriptures. Some did, others refused. Even as Owenism flourished, with Saull helping the London Tract Society, which pumped out 140,000 socialist pamphlets in 1841-1842, the hardcore atheists now defected. The firebrand Charles Southwell’s case illustrates this growing alienation, while his Bristol co-conspirator, the compositor William Chilton, provides equally stark evidence of the scientific upshot. Amid the flourish of overtly atheist prints in 1841-1843, we highlight the Southwell/Chilton collective’s Oracle of Reason and Henry Hetherington’s Free-Thinker’s Information for the People to assess their alternate (socialist vs. radical) ways of weaponizing fossils. Why wealthy geological society would never consider acquiescing to Chilton’s call for it to accept a materialist evolution is also considered.


Adrian Desmond


Adrian Desmond was educated at University College London and Harvard University, where he was Stephen Jay Gould's first history of science PhD student. He has two MSc's, one in history of science, another in vertebrate palaeontology, and a PhD for his work on radical Victorian evolutionists. For twenty years he was an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London. He is the multi-award-winning author of nine books, which include: The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs, Archetypes and Ancestors: Palaeontology in Victorian London 1850-1875, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London, Darwin, Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest, Darwin’s Sacred Cause (with James Moore)