Harriet Martineau

On this date in 1802, Harriet Martineau was born in England. The sixth of eight children of a silk manufacturer, sensitive Harriet recoiled from her family's Christian brand of Unitarianism, such as chapel admonitions for children and servants to obey their masters. She went through a devout teenage phase, but as an adult she wrote of Unitarianism: "I disclaim their theology in toto." Harriet turned to writing as a young woman to help out her family, and by 1830 was already a famous writer. She blazed a path for women by supporting herself with her nonfiction, writing 50 books and more than 1600 articles, signed in her own name. In her memoirs, she boasted of being "probably the happiest single woman in England." Her two-volume Society in America, as acclaimed as de Tocqueville's look at life in America, was a definitive work on the status of American women, whom she found unhealthily obsessed with religion. Because of her scrupulous methods of observation, she is credited by some with being the "first sociologist." Still anthologized is her essay "The Hour and the Man," a tribute to Toussaint L'Ouverture. After visiting the Mideast with friends, Harriet wrote an examination of the genealogy of Egyptian, Hebrew, Christian and Mohammedan faiths, Eastern Life: Past and Present (1848). Critics pounced on the "mocking spirit of infidelity."

Her 1851 book, On the Laws of Man's Nature and Development, featuring published letters between herself and H.G. Atkinson, made clear her freethought views (see quote below). Wanting to offer children an alternative to "pernicious superstition," Harriet wrote Household Education, 1848, as a secular guide to parents. She translated and condensed the six volumes of French atheist and philosopher Auguste Comte into two volumes, with his approval, in 1853. An erroneous prognosis by a doctor telling her she had fatal heart disease in 1855 propelled her to write her autobiography. She recorded that believers, hearing of her (misdiagnosed) illness, swamped her with self-righteous religious propaganda, such as the New Testament ("as if I had never seen one before"). "The lesson taught us by these kindly commentators on my present experience is that dogmatic faith compels the best minds and hearts to narrowness and insolence" (Autobiography, II, pp. 109-110). When Harriet died in 1876, Florence Nightingale wrote that Harriet Martineau "was born to be a destroyer of slavery, in whatever form, in whatever place, all over the world, wherever she saw or thought she saw it." D. 1876.

“There is no theory of a God, of an author of Nature, of an origin of the Universe, which is not utterly repugnant to my faculties. . .”

—Harriet Martineau, On the Laws of Man's Nature and Development, 1851.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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