Robert Owen

On this date in 1771, reformer and philanthropist Robert Owen was born in Newtown, Wales. He became known as “a capitalist who became the first Socialist.” Owen started work as a clerk at age 9. With help from a sympathetic cloth merchant to whom he was apprenticed, Owen educated himself. He 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. In 1799 he married Ann Dale, 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 Great Britain and a three-grade school for children under 10. 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 an 1817 public meeting calling for “villages of unity and cooperation,” living wages and education of the poor at the City of London Tavern, 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 many trade unionists. An essay titled “Scientific Socialism: The Case of Robert Owen” by David Leopold describes the Halls of Science as:

“a base for ‘social missionaries’ and cultural and leisure activities for members (typically drawn from the best paid strata of the working class). By 1840 there were over sixty branches, with weekly events — including dances, concerts, lectures, and debates (all with a whiff of teetotalism) — ‘instituted to improve the habits and manners of the working classes, and more generally to cultivate kindly feeling and social fellowship among all classes.’ Owenite events sometimes shadowed the Christian calendar, with branches providing Owenite sermons and hymns on Sundays, and even Owenite rites for baptisms, marriages, and funerals.”

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)

Freedom From Religion Foundation