James Barry’s Transatlantic World of Books and Ideas

D. M. Bennett, Champions of the Church: Their Crimes and Persecutions (New York, 1878). Bennett was a radical tree thinker, and publisher of the Truth Seeker (1873-1883): “Opposed to: priestcraft, ecclesiasticism, dogmas, creeds, false theology, superstition, bigotry, ignorance, monopolies, aristocracies, privileged classes, tyranny, oppression, and everything that degrades or burdens mankind mentally or physically.” Exactly the kind of truth James Barry sought! Image source: archive.org

Co-published with Acadiensis blog.

James Barry (1822-1906) was a Six Mile Brook, Pictou County miller, printer, fiddler, iconoclast, and curmudgeon. Born, like so many Pictou County folk, into the Presbyterian church, over his life he became intensely critical of Christian theology. His route is visible in outline, but the details are less clear; his diary, detailed in so many ways, offers no “Eureka” moment. But there are clues. Most of those clues, I argue, stem from his immersion in text – that is, that he saw text as defining the world, and thus critical engagement was necessary to properly understanding it. Very early in life, Barry distanced himself from both free church and Church of Scotland Presbyterianisms. By the time he was in his 30s, he was describing himself as a Morisonian, a small sect of Scottish Presbyterians defined mostly by their rejection of any form of church government. In the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, his Morisonian thinking was certainly more radically individualistic and textually-focused than that of his Free Church neighbours. But this was not that far outside dissenting Presbyterianism; his critical engagements were within Presbyterian theological controversies. 

By the 1870s, however, that had changed dramatically. Where in 1857, for example, he celebrated and strictly observed Sunday as “the Lord’s Day, [as] a day of rest for man and beast”, by August 1879 he maintained that “Sunday is only a manmade day … All religion is of man’s manufacture”. Even his early focus on the universality of the Atonement – a significant feature of Morisonian theology – came under critique: “I am reading works on the Atonement”, he recorded in December 1853, citing particular biblical passages as textual proof of his position:

Barry’s daily diary spanned over 56 years, from 1849 to 1906. Source: MG1, vol 1219, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

“I am firmly of the opinion Christ died and thereby made Atonement for every man – every human being. For the sin of Old Adam sunk the human race and the apostle says “that where sin abounds grace did much more abound’ [Romans 5, 20] and ‘that Christ tasted death for every man’ [Hebrews 2, 9] and ‘he is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world’ [John 2, 2]”

By the 1870s his reading patterns were quite different. And by 1883, after six or seven years of reading Charles Watts, Robert Ingersoll, and other free thinkers, Barry’s thinking had shifted ground significantly:

“I was in my Shop all day setting type for an article by Charles Watts entitled ’The Fall and Redemption’ and an able handling he gave it. In fact he knocked the fall and redemption into nonsense, which every sensible man and woman can easily see ….  ‘Fall’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Inspiration’, ‘Atonement’, in fact the whole jumble of incoherent nonsense in ‘Theology’ is absurd … and ordinary people are coming fast to see it, and reject it in toto.”

If not explaining to us in any detail how Watts “knocked” these ideas “into nonsense”, Barry was absolutely clear in highlighting his own shifting worldview. Equally clear is his textual evidence, citing first the bible then later Watts. Indeed, text also enabled what might normally be experiential evidence. The “ordinary people … coming fast to see it”, upon whom Barry rested his belief in progress, were ordinary people in New York and Chicago, not Six Mile Brook – the people of his textual world.

So, we can see that Barry had undergone a radical change in his thinking on theology, and that that came about through his engagement with new ideas in the books he was reading. It also coincides with a shift in local booksellers moving their primary suppliers from Edinburgh and London to Philadelphia and New York, a shift that no doubt was related to the dramatic rise of coal trade shipping to the eastern seaboard. Can we see that trans-Atlantic shift in Six Mile Brook? Can we see him transmitting those old and new ideas into Six Mile Brook, the West River, and beyond? The typically asocial Barry was not a prime candidate for promoter of the unfaith, or much of anything really. He had some regular reading friends, notably Dr Murdoch Munro, with whom he had a generally amiable friendship clearly centred on books and discussion. He admired educated men, and judged them accordingly. When his neighbour William Sutherland died in the summer of 1857, Barry commended his faith, but not his education. “I think he was a true Christian, although not a very learned one”. Barry’s Christianity was profoundly textual and like most evangelicals he explored this faith through “the Word” of the bible; unlike most evangelicals, however, that deep, critical immersion in text and reading eventually pushed him to free thought. For Barry, learned status competed with faith as a marker of worth, but with his faith rooted in textual criticism the door to abandoning faith was wide open. 

List of books lent, ca. 1877. Bennett’s Champions of the Truth is listed four times. Source: Barry Diaries, MG1, volume 1223, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

The diary gives us a very clear picture of the mill as a community hub. Barry certainly could be less than charming but most everyone in the community went there either to grind their grain, saw their wood, or purchase shingles, staves, or fenceposts. These conversations are almost completely inaccessible to us, but we get glimmers in the diary. “Kenneth Irvine was here at the mill and we had a long chat about the Bible and some other things”, reads a fairly typical entry from November 1877. Religion, and increasingly over the years, anti-religion, was the most common topic. “Many about the mill today”, he reported, in July 1883, “talking about the Bible, they are superstitious”. Politics too was common, notably in the period between the Quebec Conference in 1864 and the death of Nova Scotia’s anti-Confederation movement around 1870. Here, some of the talk was based on local public meetings, but the vast majority stemmed from their readings of the newspapers.  The bases for his long discussion with his employee, Sandy Sutherland, in May of 1854 about “Nova Scotia railways and the war in Russia” [the Crimean War] no doubt also came from newspapers.

The focus of discussions, like the focus of his reading, was shifting. By the late 1870s, free thought and a fundamental critique of Christian theology also seem to have become common conversations around the mill. One evening his friend Munro came by and they discussed D. M. Bennett’s recent book: “Dr Munro was here this evening”, he noted in August 1877. “‘Champions of the Church’ was the book that occupied my attention most. It gives fearful accounts of Cruelty practised by one Christian on another. They are all tarred with the same stick it seems”. It’s hard to say how influential Barry was here – in other entries, Munro seems more intrigued than invested – but the miller was certainly bringing new ideas to everyday conversation in Six Mile Brook.

In all these discussions, Barry was always right. In town buying supplies in 1883, he “had some talk about Bible stories to various persons but [I] always came of conquerer [sic] by a long chalk. Most don’t know much, they are stupid and ignorant”. He wasn’t much of a proselyte, typically dismissing the ignorant and praising only those with whom he agreed. But he tried. “McDonald the miller came by this morning. I presented him with a Book of Tracts on free-thought. He is no bigot not a pious fool. He will learn”. There were numerous such discussions and it’s still clear that most involved an exchange of ideas and Barry loaning, selling, and sometimes even giving a suitable book. If he suffered no fools, and thus often spoke only to those already onside, Barry was nonetheless an active agent of intellectual exchange. In the market for ideas, he had a product and some willing customers.

We have a less clear sense of how many then purchased those ideas. The diaries and an account book give us only fragmentary clues on Barry’s reach, but if we take into consideration his place at the centre of the community (that is, as a miller, not as a social person!), his frequent trips to town where he almost always reported engaging with someone, and combine that with the fact that he was printing and binding dozens of the free-thought works (among much more), then he certainly had the potential to reach a lot of people. 

Part of the “backload” from 1884? The Mysterious Stranger was republished dozens of times over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This edition is the 1st US edition published in New Haven in 1817. I think, but can’t yet prove, Barry printed his own edition and this then would give us some sense of the volume of his work. Source: archive.org

Precise numbers are scarce. But a single entry in the diary from April of 1884 offers a hint. “I sold [Johnny McLeod] a whole Back-load of Books – Henry More Smith and the family doctor, 3 doz of the former and 4 doz of the latter”. We don’t know that he printed these, but he was printing books and here at least he’s selling dozens of copies. He printed a wide range of materials and neither of the titles noted here were free-thought works. But he was tight with his money and however much he loved printing (a point he made several times) he wouldn’t cast type, print and bind works purely for the pleasure. It suggests that the miller on Six Mile Brook, who spent much of his time in his “little shop”, as he termed it, was not only a miller but also a printer, a bookseller, and very much a critical node in this tiny corner of the transatlantic world of books and idea. A decidedly uncharismatic proselyte, he was nonetheless an able aggregator and disseminator of everything from domestic self-help guides to radical free-thought works. James Barry brought distinctly modern ideas and debates into the back-country world of the West River. Six Mile Brook was a tiny place far from the colonial metropolis, but it was it was very much a centre of the modern world.

The Presbyterian Communist: J.B. McLachlan’s library

Jean Sandeau, Madeleine: A Story of French Love (Glasgow, 1883 [1848]). Source: Beaton Institute.

My colleague Keith Grant and I are building a digital repository of the private libraries of Nova Scotian readers. On that quest, I recently spent a day at the Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University, going through the private library of the early-20th-century Cape Breton labour leader J. B. [James Bryson] McLachlan (1869-1937). This piece is co-published by The Nova Scotia Advocate. I thank Robert DeVet for his interest.

I didn’t expect to find a story of French love in J.B. McLachlan’s library, but there it was. Nor did I expect to find a series of adventure novels by Bret Harte, poetry by Shelley, and readers in French and Greek language instruction. But why should I be surprised? People are always more varied than their public personae and their libraries often offer helpful insights into that complexity. McLachlan was, I think without doubt, the most important labour figure in Nova Scotia history and his role with the Communist Party also gave him a national public prominence. And that side of McLachlan is well represented in the collection. There’s some Lenin, Engels [The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State], a history of the Paris commune, and even works on evolution and H.G. Wells’s Short History of the World. More surprising was the number of religious texts – I didn’t count, but about a third – with a heavy concentration of Presbyterian works from the middle and late 19th century.

McLachlan remains a vibrant figure in our day in part because of his place in popular memory, but increasingly so because of David Frank’s superb J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (Toronto, Lorimer, 1999). It’s a wonderful book that allows us to see the powerful orator and leader in action. There are few more careful historians than Frank; his research is extensive and his highly skilled and subtle writing really brings McLachlan’s world to life. Having read it twenty years ago, I remembered it as heavy on politics and light on religion. Returning to Frank’s biography, not surprisingly, the politics of labour dominates, but there is no doubt as to Presbyterianism’s moral, foundational role in the development of a communist life. While rarely specifically raising the issue of faith, the biography doesn’t allow religion to fall by the wayside in the narrative push to McLachlan’s full immersion in working-class radicalism.

What we might exepct to find in McLachlan’s library. G.B. Benham, A History of the Paris Commune of 1871 (San Francisco, International Publishing, 1898). Source: McLachlan papers, Beaton Institute.

Presbyterianism seems to have been a powerful force in McLachlan’s life and I’m intrigued by his apparent movement to secular politics. Faith, as opposed to the residual culture of religion, appears to have been messier. It’s fairly clear that he drifted farther from his foundation as he grew older, and as the very real demands of political struggle overtook the struggle of faith. But that movement from someone reared in critical Free Church, Presbyterian thinking, with its overt anti-statist, in some ways anti-authority, position on church, and broader, forms of government, to that of a Communist leader is remarkable. The injustice of a state church – be it Scottish, English, or Roman – imposing its way on good and pious men and women surely found expression in his later Communist politics.

The continued existence of a library with the Bible and works of biblical criticism suggest that foundation was not wholly forgotten, and that it may have continued to influence McLachlan in parallel with the many radical texts he consumed in the 1920s and 30s. Most of the older books no doubt belonged to his parents, and it’s certainly possible that he held onto them as nostalgic mementos. Even for the later works, we don’t know for certain that he purchased them, only that they were in his library. But he signed and dated several after 1890. One, Andrew M’Lean’s The Commission Given by Jesus Christ to His Apostles (Elgin, Peter Macdonald, 1848), is signed and dated “James McLachlan, April 30th 1900”. To that extent, then, in the 1890s, when his biographer has him already radicalised, he appears still to have been actively engaging his faith. All of this suggests that the man who brought his family to Cape Breton in 1902 remained a man of faith.

Joseph McCabe, The Truth About Secular Education (London, Watts & Co., 1908). Source: J.B. McLachlan Papers, Beaton Institute.

Some evidence of a dramatic shift in McLachlan’s faith comes from his possession of Joseph McCabe’s The Truth About Secular Education (London, Watts & Co, 1908). Similar to a good many evangelical Christians in the late 19th-century, McCabe drifted from Franciscan Catholicism to rationalism in the 1890s. McCabe’s path was common during the rise of rationalist and secular free thought in the late 19th century. Few of the major figures of the secularist movement were muddy-eyed liberal agnostics; they were more commonly raised in deeply religious households, often including formal religious training. McCabe’s book was published in 1908, six years after McLachlan arrived in Nova Scotia. Whether it marks a real engagement with the secularist movement, or simply a curiosity about a fashionable subject, his acquisition of the book suggests some kind of critical exploration of the path from faith. Similarly, the books on evolution and Wells’s history may suggest other dimensions of what may have been a protracted movement from Presbyterianism to Communism.

There is, however, one religious dimension of the library that is not treated in Frank’s biography of McLachlan. It suggests a still more protracted route, one marked by older elements of his Presbyterian past: the presence of a clear anti-Catholic dimension to several of the religious works. British Protestantism was steeped in anti-Catholicism, and probably no sect more clearly embraced that antipathy than the Presyterians. Indeed, the presence in McLachlan’s library of John M’Donald’s Romanism Analyzed … An Examination of the Errors of Popery (1894) and William Anderson’s Exposure of Popery (1878), as well as the classic anti-Catholic text, John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (originally 1573, but republished often throughout the 19th century) suggest a continued immersion not only in theological texts, but also in anti-Catholic thinking. It’s likely that Foxe’s book belonged to his parents, and perhaps Anderson’s, too, but M’Donald’s book was published a year after McLachlan married. At the very minimum, then, at a time when McLachlan’s reading was transitioning into more radical terrain, and as he brought his family to Cape Breton, older anti-Catholic works, and at least one new one, remained on his shelves.

What does it mean that J.B. McLachlan held onto these books? For me, this was the most interesting dimension of his library. There’s lots of possibilities here, but the most obvious question is, was McLachlan an anti-Catholic bigot? I don’t think so, but it would not have been unlikely given the make-up of the older Nova Scotia union, the Provincial Workmen’s Association where there was plenty of anti-Catholicism, as well as flat-out racism. Certainly the McLachlan we see in the 1920s showed no signs of such bigotry. His biographer Frank notes that such charges were occasionally made, but these were invaribly smears tossed out by business leaders and the church, designed to distract their increasingly left-looking members. McLachlan spoke clearly, and directly, to all industrial Cape Breton’s peoples: Catholic, Protestant and Jews, blacks and whites. There is no evidence that he was in any way actively anti-Catholic.

William Anderson, The Exposure of Popery (Edinburgh, Oliphant, 1878). Source: Beaton Institute.

And thus it’s worthwhile considering the path of a man, steeped in the ages-old anti-Catholicism of 19th-century Scottish Presbyterianism. While there’s no evidence of him every having been actively anti-Catholic, it’s hard to imagine he was unaffected by the deep culural force it held in Presbyterian practice. He appears not to have regularly attended church. Yet, Frank tells us that McLachlan continued to read aloud to his family from the Bible on Sundays, keeping alive at least parts of the old faith, just as his parents had. But this was not his parents’ world, and it’s here where we can imagine something of the Presbyterian Communist’s path. The complex, culturally plural experience of Cape Breton must have made clear to him that ancient prejudices and their cultural divides were the enemy of the working class. McLachlan’s Old-World radicalisation combined with the challenges posed by the more varied culture of New-World, industrial Cape Breton must have compelled him to examine the shared plight of workers in new ways. It was precisely in overcoming those divisions, particularly the privileging of some workers over others, a game played by the companies and the older unions alike, that enabled McLachlan and the other left leaders of the day to move industrial Cape Breton from the era of company towns to that of labour towns. J.B. McLachlan had a profound impact on Cape Breton, but Cape Breton seems to have had a profound influence on him as well.