Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barmby, John Goodwyn

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BARMBY, JOHN GOODWYN (1820–1881), christian socialist, was born at Yoxford in Suffolk. His father, who was a solicitor, died when Goodwyn — he does not appear to have used the first christian name at all —was fourteen years old. He declined opportunities of entering various professions, and became an ardent radical. When only sixteen he would harangue small audiences of agricultural labourers. At seventeen he went to London, and became associated with a group of revolutionists, and in 1840 he visited Paris, living in the students' quarter, and examining for himself the social organisation of the French capital. Here he claimed to have originated the now famous word ‘communism’ in the course of a conversation with a French celebrity. In 1814 he founded the Communist Propaganda Society, which was afterwards known as the Universal Communitarian Association. He was one of the men grouped around James Pierrepont Greaves at Alcott House, who met periodically, and during 1843–4 published the ‘New Age or Concordian Gazette’ as their organ. He was a practical preacher of christian socialism; and he attempted to realise in his own household the scheme of universal brotherhood. His socialistic home was known as the Morville Communitorium at Hanwell. The form of socialism which Barmby advocated adopted the Church of Jerusalem as its model, but the ‘orthodox’ views of Christianity were largely modified by pantheism. Thomas Frost about this time describes him as ‘a young man of gentlemanly manners and soft persuasive voice, wearing his light brown hair parted in the middle after the fashion of the Concordist brethren, and a collar and necktie à la Byron.’ He combined with Frost to revive the ‘Communist Chronicle,’ for which he translated some of Reybaud's ‘Sketches of French Socialists,’ and wrote a philosophical romance, entitled ‘The Book of Platonopolis.’ The views of Frost and Barmby were divergent, and a separation, if not a rupture, soon followed. In 1848 he revisited Paris as the messenger of the Communistic Church to the friends of freedom in France. He had already been the editor and principal writer of a periodical called ‘The Promethean,’ and he now began to contribute to ‘Howitt's Journal,’ the ‘People's Journal,’ ‘Tait's Magazine,’ ‘Chambers's Journal,’ and other periodicals. He had the friendship of Mr. W. J. Fox, M.P., and it was probably to him that he owed his introduction to the unitarian denomination. After his return from Paris he was successively minister at Southampton, Topsham, and Lympstone, Devonshire, Lancaster, and Wakefield, and at the last-named place his ministry extended over a period of twenty-one years. He was one of the best known ministers in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In the organisation known as the ‘Band of Faith’ he embodied some of the aspirations of his earlier life. He retained his radical convictions to the last, and in 1867 was the moving spirit of a great meeting held at Wakefield in support of manhood suffrage as the basis of the reform agitation then proceeding. The socialism of his earlier years was replaced by more modified convictions as to the help to be given by co-operation in bettering the condition of the people. In 1879 his health gave way, and he retired to the home of his boyhood at Yoxford, where he continued to hold private services, which were notable for their intensely devotional and liberal spirit.

His writings were: 1. ‘The Poetry of Home and Childhood,’ 1853. 2. ‘Scenes of Spring,’ 1860. 3. ‘The Return of the Swallow,’ and other poems, London, 1864. This includes a reprint of ‘Scenes of Spring.’ 4. ‘Aids to Devotion,’ 1865. He also issued several volumes of the ‘Band of Faith Messenger,’ which was printed and issued at Wakefield from 1871 to 1879. The Band of Faith was ‘a brotherhood and sisterhood’ consisting of associates and ‘covenanted members,’ with ‘elders’ who were to work for the spread of liberal ideas in theology. ‘It is only,’ he said, ‘through organisation that the broad church of the future can supplant the narrow churches of the past and present.’ The ‘Messenger’ contained many contributions from Goodwyn Barmby and from Catharine Barmby. He was a frequent writer of tracts. He was also the composer of many hymns. He was twice married. His first wife was Miss Reynolds, who, under the signature of ‘Kate,’ contributed to the ‘Moral World.’ He died 18 Oct. 1881, and was buried at the cemetery of Framlingham, Suffolk. His character was ardent and truth-loving, fearless and uncompromising; but he was also tolerant, sympathetic, and hospitable.

[The Inquirer, xl. 721 (29 Oct. 1881); Unitarian Herald, xxi. 358 (this last notice, which appeared 9 Nov. 1881, was written by Rev. William Blazeby, B.A., who conducted his funeral service, and was an intimate friend); Holyoake's History of Co-operation, 1875, i. 228–30; Frost's Forty Years' Recollections, London, 1880, 54–75.]

W. E. A. A.