Robert Owen

On this date in 1771, reformer and philanthropist Robert Owen was born in Wales. He became known as "a capitalist who became the first Socialist." Owen started work as a clerk at age nine. With help from a sympathetic cloth merchant to whom he was apprenticed, Owen educated himself. Owen was an unbeliever by 14, influenced by Seneca, and his acquaintance with chemist John Dalton and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. By 18, Owen established a small spinning mill in Manchester. He married the daughter of a Glasgow cotton manufacturer, purchasing his father-in-law's New Lanark mills in Scotland. Owen set out to put his humanitarian creed into practice, and turned New Lanark into a model community attracting the attention of reformers around the world.

Owen set up the first infant-school in Britain, and a three-grade school for children under ten. He appealed to the government and other manufacturers to follow his lead, but was rebuffed by clergy-led opposition when his views on religion became widely known. At a public meeting calling for "villages of unity and cooperation," living wages and education of the poor at the City of London Tavern (Aug. 21, 1817), Owen called "all religions" false. He sought to limit hours for child labor in mills in 1815, and saw passage of a watered-down Factory Act in 1819. Owen's Essays on the Principle of the Formation of Human Character (1816) were his major treatises, in which he advised: "Relieve the human mind from useless and superstitious restraints."

He founded New Harmony, a model settlement in Indiana, in 1825-28--a failed venture which he signed over to his sons Robert Dale and William Owen. Owen wrote Debate on the Evidences of Christianity (1829). Owen founded the Economist in 1821 to promote his progressive views, and The New Moral World in 1834, along with an ethical movement called "Rational Religion." His "Halls of Science" attracted thousands of nonreligious followers ("Owenites") and the trade unions. Owen founded several other publications. His autobiography was published in 1857-58. Joseph McCabe called him "the father of British reformers, and one of the highest-minded men Britain ever produced." (Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists, 1920). D. 1858.

“Finding that no religion is based on facts and cannot therefore be true, I began to reflect what must be the condition of mankind trained from infancy to believe in errors.”

—Robert Owen, Evidences of Christianity: A Debate with Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen (published 1829)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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