Beard, John Relly

John Relly Beard
John Relly Beard

John Relly Beard (August 4, 1800-November 22, 1876), British educational reformer and minister, was a militant exponent and populariser of mid-Victorian Unitarianism. His most enduring achievement is the Unitarian Home Missionary Board.

John was born at Portsmouth, Hampshire, the first of John and Ann Beard’s nine children. His father was a small tradesman, his family quite poor. His father’s religious evolution was from Calvinism to Universalism. Beard said of him, ‘My father, a kind, intelligent, and single-minded man, had inherited a rigid Calvinism, by which he was almost driven to suicide. As his eldest child, I shared his inmost thoughts, and heard how he had been tormented with the fear of Hell, not being able to persuade himself that he was one of the few favourites of heaven.’

While John was a pupil at a local grammar school, he started to attend the Unitarian chapel Portsmouth with his father. The minister, Russell Scott, encouraged the boy in his studies, and in 1817 a leading member of the chapel, Sir James Carter, sent him to a boarding-school in France. At the French school he developed an impressive facility with foreign languages. He returned home to prepare for entry to Manchester College, York. He joined the College in 1820, and so studied for the ministry as a contemporary of James Martineau and Robert Brook Aspland. At this time Scott prophesied, ‘I think you will do something for the advancement of Unitarian Christianity.’

On leaving college in 1825, Beard became minister of the newly formed congregation at Salford, near Manchester. (The congregation in 1842 migrated to Strangeways, Manchester.) Beard remained with them until 1864.

In June 1826 he and Mary Barnes married in the Church of England chapel at Portsea, because the law required that all marriages be made in the established parish church. The couple handed the clergyman a signed protest against such parts of the service ‘as not to imply our credence in the unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity’. John and Mary Beard had ten children. Their eldest son, Charles Beard (1827-1888), was a leading Unitarian minister and writer of his day. The father and son collaborated on several publications.

His growing family and a declining stipend forced Beard, like many other Unitarian ministers, to keep a school until 1849. Beard was a successful educational pioneer. One of his pupils, William H. Herford (1820-1908), another leading Unitarian, a well known educational innovator, and early disciple of Froebel and Pestalozzi (as was Beard) wrote to him in 1876, ‘My indebtedness to you begins in 1835 . . . The introduction to literature, rational geometry and natural science which you provided for us, were all openings-up of rich feasts, after starvation.. . . as an idealist in education, I shall always look upon you as one of the Reformers before the Reformation.’

In the 1830s Beard’s controversial books attacked the poor provision of education in Lancashire. His unremitting pressure for reform, and that of his influential friends, helped produce significant educational improvement. He argued increasingly that most social ills flowed from a lack of education. He helped found Manchester and Lancashire associations to foster public elementary education, and pressed its cause on a national basis. Beard advocated nonsectarian control and professional standards for these schools very much on the lines suggested by Horace Mann, an American Unitarian educational innovator in Massachusetts.

Beard’s belief in education for the masses led him to create a number of popular educational publications including, among many others, Latin made easy, 1848, Dictionary of the Bible, 1847, and The People’s biographical dictionary, 1851, for which he became known nationally and internationally. He articulated the intellectual needs and aspirations of ordinary people. In 1841 the University of Giessen awarded him an honorary DD for services to literature.

Beard was also a crusading Unitarian propagandist who preached widely and wrote extensively. A compiler, a populariser, and a translator, he put into simple terms religious and doctrinal developments in England, France, and Germany. Between 1826 and 1876 he wrote or translated thirty-eight works on religion and theology. His translations of French and German theologians in the 1860s significantly modified British theological thinking. In his lifetime he completed sixty publications, including a collection of hymns in 1837. In 1835 Beard founded the journal, the Christian Teacher. In 1861 he was the joint founder of the Unitarian Herald, of which he was also sometimes joint editor. The Herald was considered by many one of the best presented religious newspapers of its time.

Especially concerning the Unitarian faith, Beard was an internationalist. In 1846 he enlisted the co-operation of English, American and Hungarian scholars to publish a series of essays, Unitarianism Exhibited in its Actual Condition. The book was amongst the first comprehensive accounts of Unitarian development in different parts of the world. By the 1860s he was so well known that letters reached him from foreign correspondents, though they were simply addressed to ‘John R. Beard DD, Manchester, England’.

In the 1830s Beard was instrumental in founding a vehicle for Unitarian expansion, the Manchester Unitarian Village Missionary Society. From this he learned that Unitarianism was as capable of spreading amongst the poor as amongst the richer and more educated. The work needed trained leadership, which could be readily provided. He wrote, ‘Under the Providence of God, and as a consequence of free enquiry, some three hundred societies holding Unitarian opinions have come down to us, and ought, with due increase, to be transmitted by us to the future. The present supply of ministers is insufficient.’

In 1854, in association with William Gaskell, Beard established the Unitarian Home Missionary Board for the training of young ministers who would organize new Unitarian churches in Britain. The Board did its work in face of the opposition of people like James Martineau who thought that training students from the lower classes would weaken the Unitarian cause. But Beard was certain that ‘Unitarianism will not spread extensively among the people till the people legislate for themselves and have preachers from among their own ranks.’ Beard was the first principal of the Unitarian Home Missionary Board and remained in post until 1874. In 1926 the Board became the Unitarian College. It is now part of the Partnership for Theological Education for the Training in Ministry of the University of Manchester.

In 1862 Beard helped to mobilise the wealthy Unitarians of Manchester to build the Memorial Hall in Albert Square to mark the bicentenary of the Great Ejection (Following the Act of Uniformity of 1662 some two thousand non-conforming clergy were deprived of their livings.) The hall was the first public building in the city devoted to ecumenical religious purposes.


In 1865 Beard moved to a new ministry at Sale Chapel, Cheshire, but by the late 1860s his enormous energy was waning. He retired in 1874 and died at Ashton upon Mersey, on 22 November 1876.

The Inquirer said at his death that Dr Beard was, while a Liberal in politics, by nature somewhat dogmatic and belonged to what is called the Old School of Unitarianism. The journal, Christian Life, said more appreciatively, ‘we may state without one qualifying word, our foremost man is gone’. One of his ministerial students, the Rev William Binns, perhaps best summed up Beard and his personality. He wrote, ‘Crusading was necessary to him. Popular appeals were the breath of his life, and nothing more rejoiced him than that the common people heard him gladly. He was a radical among Whigs, an enthusiastic among men of judicious common senseā€”a free-will fighter on the side of Providence among pious Necessarians who were contented with trusting in Providence.’


The written remains of Beard are to be found in the Unitarian Collection of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester. There are occasional letters etc. from him in other collections like Harris Manchester College, Oxford. Other letters are held in private hands by his descendants. His major works are listed in H. McLachlan, Records of A Family 1800-1933 (1935). The other main work on Beard is H. McLachlan, The Unitarian Home Missionary College, Manchester 1954-1914 (1915). There is also C.S.Grundy, Reminiscences of Strangeways Unitarian Chapel 1838-1888 (1888). Obituaries are in the Manchester Guardian (24 November 1876); The Inquirer and the Christian Life (25 Nov., 2 Dec., and 9 Dec. 1876); and the Unitarian Herald (1 Dec 1876 and 4 May 1877). There are also entries in various biographical dictionaries. The entry in the Dictionary of National Biography contains errors.

There is a recent work on Beard in booklet form by Geoffrey Head, The Life & Times of John Relly Beard, the second J. R. Beard Lecture delivered at the Unitarian General Assembly meetings April 1997. The J. R. Beard annual lecture was instituted in April 1996 by the Ministerial Fellowship of the General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches in honour of Beard who made a signal contribution to ministerial education amongst Unitarians. The theme of the lecture delivered each year during the Unitarian General Assembly meetings covers an aspect of the challenge of ministerial training today.

Article by Alan Ruston
Posted February 2, 2002