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Barker, Joseph (DNB00)

BARKER, JOSEPH (1806–1875), preacher, author, and controversialist, was born 11 May 1806, at Bramley, near Leeds, where his ancestors, originally of Keighley, had been settled for several generations as farmers and manufacturers. Here his father was employed in the woollen manufacture; and here in early life Joseph, who was the fourth son of a family of eleven, was engaged as a wool-spinner. His childhood was one of great privation and suffering; and his desultory education was obtained chiefly at the Sunday school. His parents were Wesleyans, and he was enrolled a member of the same community, in which he soon became an occasional preacher, and was ‘put upon the plan’ as a home missionary and exhorter, and, after about three years of probation and trial, as a local preacher. The improved circumstances of his father now allowed him to be sent to ‘a noted methodist school’ at Leeds, kept by Mr. James Sigston. Forsaking the Wesleyan communion, he joined the ministry of the Methodist New Connexion. In this body he officiated for a year, 1828–9, as assistant to the superintendent of the Liverpool circuit, which he left with a recommendation to ‘go out as a travelling preacher on trial.’ Barker was appointed successively to the Hanley circuit 1829–30; to the Halifax circuit 1830–1, during his stay in which, contrary to the rule affecting preachers of his standing, he married a Miss Salt, of Betley, in Staffordshire, and was in consequence sentenced by the next conference to lose a year of his probation; to Blyth, in the Newcastle-on-Tyne circuit, 1831–2, a disciplinary migration; and to the Sunderland circuit for six months, 1832–3, with residence at Durham. His remarkable fluency and general ability in the pulpit had speedily obtained for him great popularity. Though accused of heretical views, he was in 1833 admitted into ‘full connexion,’ and appointed, by an innovation, the ‘third married preacher at Sheffield,’ 1833–5. While stationed at Sheffield and afterwards in the Chester circuit, 1835–7, Barker strongly advocated teetotalism. From 1837 to 1840 he conducted a weekly periodical called ‘The Evangelical Reformer.’ At the conference of 1839 he was removed from Mossley to Gateshead, a comparatively new circuit, and there denounced Socialism.

From the Methodist New Connexion, Barker was expelled at the conference which met at Halifax in 1841, on the ground that he ‘had denied the divine appointment of baptism, and refused to administer the ordinance.’ After his expulsion, which was followed by a loss to the connexion of ‘29 societies and 4,348 members’ (Baggaly, Digest, &c., p. 113), Barker became the pastor of a church in Newcastle-on-Tyne, which had, like himself, left the Methodist New Connexion. Here it was Barker's daily custom to deliver lectures, followed by free discussions. He turned printer, and in addition to other publications began to issue a periodical called ‘The Christian,’ whilst his adherents were known as Barkerites. At this period he held a ten nights' discussion with the Rev. William (afterwards Dr.) Cooke, ‘the ablest minister,’ Barker says, ‘in the body to which I myself had formerly belonged.’ Barker, whose views were constantly changing, for a time inclined to quakerism, and afterwards to unitarianism. In 1845 he preached in unitarian chapels both in London and elsewhere. The unitarians enabled him to start a printing establishment on a larger scale at Wortley, a suburb of Leeds, where, on 6 July 1846, a steam printing-press, which had been provided at a cost of some 600l., was publicly presented to him by Dr. (afterwards Sir John) Bowring. Some months previously Barker had issued a ‘Proposal for a new library of three hundred volumes, the cheapest collection of works ever published.’ To this task he now applied himself with much energy, and issued week by week a series of books, theological, philosophical, ethical, and otherwise, under the title of the ‘Barker Library.’ The price of these works was so small that ‘their printer and publisher may be regarded as the pioneer and first originator of cheap literature in this country.’ Here also he published anonymously an autobiographical work entitled ‘The History and Confessions of a Man, as put forth by himself,’ 8vo, Wortley, 1846; which was substantially reproduced in ‘Barker's Review,’ 1861–3, as ‘The Life of a Man,’ and in the posthumously published ‘Life of Joseph Barker, written by himself,’ 8vo, London, 1880. In 1846 Barker ‘began,’ he says, to ‘dabble in politics,’ advocating republicanism for England, repeal for Ireland, which he had visited in June and July 1845, and the nationalisation of the land. He commenced a weekly periodical called ‘The People,’ to propagate his extreme opinions, which reached a circulation of more than 20,000 weekly. In 1847—in the course of which year he made a six months' tour in America—he foretold, in his ‘Companion to the Almanac,’ the French revolution of 1848. Barker threw himself into the chartist agitation which followed, as the advocate of ‘peaceful legal measures.’ After the summer assizes in 1848, the judge at Liverpool issued bench warrants for the arrest of a number of political agitators, including Barker. He was arrested about six weeks later, and taken to the city gaol at Manchester. He was detained until four o'clock on the succeeding day, when the magistrates took bail; and Barker went to Bolton, where he had been the same day elected M.P. for the borough by an immense majority. ‘And as no one else was elected at that time, either by show of hands or a poll, he was, in truth, the only legal representative, though he never sat in parliament.’ Whilst still waiting for trial at the Liverpool winter assizes, he was elected a member of the town council of Leeds. At the assizes the attorney-general at the last moment entered a nolle prosequi, and Barker was set at liberty. His inveterate habit of shifting his opinions had now landed him in something like deism pure and simple. In 1851 he transported himself and his family to Central Ohio. In the United States he joined the anti-slavery party with great zeal, and was intimately associated with Mr. Lloyd Garrison, Mr. Wendell Phillips, Mr. Henry C. Wright, and other leading abolitionists. After one or two removals he settled in Nebraska, where he purchased a large tract of land at a small price. In the summer of 1857, he began a long lecturing tour. In Philadelphia he fulfilled an engagement of eight months, during which he lectured every Sunday. After spending a few weeks with his family in Nebraska, he returned to Philadelphia in August 1858, to undertake another eight months' course of lectures. Barker sailed from Boston 11 Jan. 1860, for England, and having landed at Liverpool proceeded to Betley, in Staffordshire, the native place of his wife. His wife and children followed in August of the same year, and found him already engaged in a secularist propaganda as one of the editors of the ‘National Reformer,’ a position which, however, he presently vacated in disgust. On a re-examination of the Bible he subsequently began to retrace his steps towards orthodoxy, and to doubt ‘the beneficent tendency of infidelity.’ The process of return is to be traced in the successive numbers of ‘Barker's Review of Politics, Literature, Religion, and Morals, and Journal of Education, Science, and Co-operation,’ the publication of which he commenced on Saturday, 7 Sept. 1861, after he had abandoned what he called the ‘unbounded license party.’ In 1862 he became lecturer to a congregation of an eclectic kind of ‘unbelievers’ at Burnley, where he lived and laboured for more than a year, enforcing the precepts of morality, and often taking occasion to speak favourably of the Bible and christianity. He was formally reconciled to his old religious belief, and afterwards preached, at their invitation, to the methodist reformers of Wolverhampton. After accepting like invitations from the primitive methodists of Bilston and Tunstall, he joined their community as a local preacher, and held the office until 1868. The vicissitudes of Barker's career had undermined his constitution, and he suffered for some years from acute dyspepsia, brought on by his mental labour. The death of his wife, which took place at Nottingham about this time, affected him greatly; and he returned to America ‘with the intention of resting, but this was contrary to his nature.’ Upon his arrival he stayed for a short time at Omaha, where his estate had become a very valuable property; then went east, and made Philadelphia his headquarters. ‘He printed several books and numbers of tracts in defence of the christian religion. … He generally returned and spent several months in the summer at Omaha with his family.’ After spending the winter of 1874–5 at Boston, he slowly travelled back to Omaha in the following spring, resting with friends at New York and Philadelphia on his way. He died at Omaha 15 Sept. 1875, and was buried there. A few days before his death he solemnly declared that he ‘died in the full and firm belief of Jesus Christ, and in the faith and love of His religion as revealed in His life and works, as described in the New Testament.’ The name of Barker's works is legion. To those already mentioned as most expressive of his current and fluctuating opinions may be added his ‘Christianity Triumphant,’ 12mo, Wortley, 1846; ‘The Life of William Penn, the celebrated Quaker and Founder of Pennsylvania,’ 8vo, London and Wortley, 1847, the second volume of the ‘Barker Library;’ ‘Lectures on the Church of England Prayer-book,’ 8vo, Wortley, 1847; ‘Confessions of Joseph Barker, a Convert from Christianity,’ 8vo, London, 1858, a letter addressed to Mr. G. J. Holyoake, from Omaha city, Nebraska, 22 July 1858, and reprinted from the ‘Reasoner;’ and the ‘Life of Joseph Barker, written by himself,’ 1880, the autobiographical portion of which was brought down to the year 1868, whilst later particulars, as well as some running commentaries, were supplied by Mr. Joseph Barker, junior, and Mr. J. T. Barker, the editor of the volume, whence phrases and passages are quoted above.

[The Jubilee of the Methodist New Connexion, 8vo, London, 1848; Methodist New Connexion Magazine, July 1842, September 1843, and December 1875; Baggaly's Digest of the Minutes, Institutions, Polity, Doctrines, Ordinances, and Literature of the Methodist New Connexion, 8vo, London, 1862; Barker's Review, 4to, London, 1861–3; Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 7 Oct. 1875; the Life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, John Thomas Barker, 8vo, London, 1880.]

A. H. G.