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SPEARS, ROBERT (1825–1899), unitarian preacher and journalist, fifth son by the second wife of John Spears, foreman of ironworks, was born at Lemington, parish of Newburn, Northumberland, on 25 Sept. 1825. His father was a Calvinistic presbyterian, but the family attended the parish church. Brought up as an engineering smith, his love of reading led him to leave this calling and set up a school in his native village. He joined the new connexion methodists; a debate (1845) at Newcastle-on-Tyne between Joseph Barker [q. v.] and William Cooke, D.D., gave him the conviction that doctrine must be expressed in ‘the language of scripture.’ In 1846 he was master of the new connexion school at Scotswood-on-Tyne, and was taken on trial as a local preacher. A lecture at Blaydon, Northumberland, in 1848, by George Harris (1794–1859) [q. v.], was followed by an intimacy with Harris, to whom Spears owed his introduction to the Unitarian body in 1849. Leaving the methodists, he became Unitarian minister (without salary) at Sunderland (1852–8), where he conducted a very successful school, and originated (1856) a monthly religious magazine, the ‘Christian Freeman’ (still continued). He removed to a pastorate at Stockton-on-Tees (1858–61), where he originated (30 Dec. 1859) the ‘Stockton Gazette’ (now the ‘North-Eastern Gazette’).

In 1861 Spears attracted the attention of Robert Brook Aspland [q. v.], was invited to London by Sir James Clarke Lawrence, bart. (d. 1898), and became (1862) minister of Stamford Street chapel, Blackfriars. In 1867 he was elected co-secretary of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association with Aspland, on whose death (1869) he became general secretary, ‘put new life into every department,’ and nearly quadrupled its income. In 1874 he left Stamford Street to take charge of a new congregation at College Chapel, Stepney Green. His theological conservatism was the cause of his resigning (1876) the denominational secretaryship. He at once established (20 May 1876) a weekly paper, the ‘Christian Life,’ as an organ of biblical and missionary unitarianism; in 1889 he bought up the ‘Unitarian Herald,’ a Manchester organ (which he had been invited to manage at its establishment in 1861), and amalgamated it with his paper. In 1886, aided by Matilda Sharpe, younger daughter of Samuel Sharpe [q. v.], he established a denominational school for girls at Channing House, Highgate Hill, and in consequence left Stepney to found a Unitarian chapel at Highgate. Among other new causes due directly to his suggestion, and largely to his aid, were those at Clerkenwell, Croydon, Forest Hill, Netting Hill, and Peckham; and, outside London, there were few parts of the country where his influence was not felt among unitarians as a stimulus to propagandist work. Biblical as he was in his own theology, he was deeply interested in the monotheistic movement of the Brahmo Somaj of India, and was in close contact with its leaders from the visit (1870) to this country of the late Keshub Chunder Sen (who was his guest). On his initiative was founded (7 June 1881) the ‘Christian Conference,’ which has brought together representatives of all denominations, from Cardinal Manning to Dr. Martineau. He had travelled in France, Italy, and America, and kept up a correspondence with liberal thinkers in all parts of the world. Personally he was a man of singularly winning characteristics; his massive head was full of strong good sense and marvellous knowledge of men and things; his robust energy was equalled only by his generous warmth of heart. He died at his residence, Arundel House, Highgate, of internal cancer, on 25 Feb. 1899, and was buried at Nunhead cemetery on 1 March. He married, first (1846), Margaret Kirton (d. 1867), by whom he had five children, of whom the youngest daughter survived him; secondly (1869), Emily Glover, who survived him with two sons and four daughters.

He published:

  1. ‘The Unitarian Hand-book,’ Newcastle-on-Tyne, 1859?, 12mo; 2nd edit. 1862, 12mo; later edits, revised by Russell Lant Carpenter (d. 1892).
  2. ‘Record of Unitarian Worthies’ [1877], 8vo; the prefixed ‘Historical Sketch’ was reprinted, 1895, 8vo.

He prefaced Belsham's ‘Memoirs of Lindsey’ (3rd edit. 1873, 8vo); compiled from Priestley's works ‘The Apostolic and Primitive Church … Unitarian’ (1871, 12mo); and wrote the introduction and appendix to Stannus's ‘History of the Origin of the Doctrine of the Trinity’ (1882, 8vo). He brought out popular editions of Channing's works, 1873, 8vo; 1884, 4to. His ‘Scriptural Declaration of Unitarian Principles’ has been the most widely circulated of Unitarian tracts.

[Sketch of the Life, by Samuel Charlesworth, 1899, 12mo (reprinted from Christian Life, 4 March 1899); Reminiscences of a Busy Life, in Unitarian Bible Magazine, December 1895-January 1899; Christian Life, 25 March 1899.]

A. G.