Freethought Archives > Charles Southwell > Apology for Atheism (1846)

Superstition Unveiled (1854)


Charles Southwell was born in London  in 1814, the youngest child of William Southwell, a noted Dublin piano-maker. Charles had no fewer than 32 siblings, the children of his father's two previous marriages. At a young age he was led to doubting Christianity by reading Timothy Dwight's Calvinist writings. He became involved in radical and anti-clerical movements, and opened a radical bookstore in London. In 1835 he joined the British Legion, which fought in support of the constitutionalists in Spain.  After his return to London in 1837 he found work as a lecturer and was briefly associated with Robert Owen's movement.

In 1841 Southwell established the Oracle of Reason, thought to be the world's first atheistic newspaper.  An article attacking the Bible earned Southwell twelve months' imprisonment for blasphemy and a fine of £100. George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), later to become the leading figure of the British secularist movement, assumed editorship of the Oracle during Southwell's imprisonment.

On his release from prison Southwell resumed work as a lecturer and founded two further newspapers, the Investigator and the Lancashire Beacon. While remaining opposed to organised religion he modified his tactics and ceased to identify with atheism, having become convinced that it was futile to publicly debate abstract matters such as the existence of a deity.

Philosophical and personal differences with Holyoake put an end to Southwell's career in Britain.  In April 1855 he sailed for Melbourne, Australia, where he quickly became involved in public affairs while supporting himself as a lecturer and Shakespearean actor.  He stood for public office but was obliged to withdraw when his British freethought activities were exposed and held against him.  After a brief period as an actor in Sydney he moved to Auckland, New Zealand in January 1856.  There he founded the Auckland Examiner, a weekly paper that attacked corruption and hypocrisy among local dignitaries, politicians, and missionaries.  Southwell died of tuberculosis on 7 August 1860, aged only 46, and was buried in Auckland's Grafton Cemetery.


F.B. Smith, 'Southwell, Charles 1814 - 1860'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.
Bill Cooke, 'Charles Southwell: New Zealand's first Freethinker', The New Zealand Rationalist & Humanist, Spring 1998
Margaret Debenham, Charles Southwell: A Timeline

NOTE: There are no known images of Southwell with the exception of few rough sketches and caricatures. Any information concerning the existence of a portrait or photograph would be appreciated.


Socialism Made Easy, or a Plain Exposition of Mr Owen's Views.
London: J. Watson, 1840.  16pp.

A Plain Answer to the Query, "Ought There to Be a Law Against Blasphemy"
   Birmingham: J. Taylor, 1852. 23pp.

Confessions of a Freethinker.
   London: Printed for the Author. Undated - c.1845?

Apology for Atheism.
London: J. Watson, 1846.  96 pp.  (Published anonymously.)

The Difficulties of Christianity; stated in a series of letters to the Rev. Hugh McNeile.
Liverpool: Joseph Shepherd, 1849?  90pp.

Impossibility of Atheism Demonstrated, with hints to Nominal Atheists, in a letter to the Freethinkers of Great Britain.
London: J. Watson: c. 1852?  24pp.

Another 'Fourpenny Wilderness', in which may be found More Nails for the Coffin of Nonsense called Atheism, More Hints to Freethinkers, and a Reply to George Jacob Holyoake's "Examination of Charles Southwell's 'Impossibility of Atheism Demonstrated'".
   London: no date, c. 1852?  24pp.

Supernaturalism Exploded in a Review of the Famous Six Nights Controversy between Rev. Brewin Grant, Christian, and George Jacob Holyoake, Secularist.
   London: J. Watson, 1853.  40 pp.

Superstition Unveiled: Abridged by the author from his 'Apology for Atheism'
London: Edward Truelove, 1854.  48pp.