Some Unitarian clergy were interested in the missionary techniques of the Unitarian Joseph Tuckerman (1778-1840), a lifelong friend of William Channing. After Tuckerman had moved from New England to Boston in November 1826, he began a mission to connect with families not associated with any church. The idea was not to give material relief, though he might, but to spread the idea of moral improvement which, at that time, was to associate the unchurched with the gospel of Jesus Christ and thus God. It was to carry "Christian knowledge", "convictions, interests and desires" whilst professing to be of "no religious party" (Holt, Anne (1936), A Ministry to the Poor: being the History of the Liverpool Domestic Mission Society, Liverpool: Henry Young and Sons, 10)...
Tuckerman’s method was in the first place to visit the homes of the poor, which led to the name "domestic mission" being given to his enterprise. Contact was often made through the children whom it was sought to gather into Day and Sunday schools education not yet being a public charge. Then families could often he approached through their physical wants. Tuckerman had found that if the gospel was to be preached to many it must be in their homes, for as often as not they did not wish to meet with others in churches or chapels, and, even if they did, they frequently had not the clothes in which they would care to come. On the other hand, there were many who were glad to attend religious services if given the opportunity, as Tuckerman discovered when he opened his chapel in Friend Street. Some women indeed managed to be present even though they had to borrow the clothes to go in. (Holt, 1936, 10-11)
So here was something discovered, and found also to be the case in Liverpool: that one reason people did not go to church was because they didn't want to be seen in the rags they called clothes.
Another advantage of ihe movement was, as Tuckerman saw it, to form "a Christian connexion between the rich and the poor, the virtuous and the vicious," and he wished to see the ministry-at-large brought into the closest possible contact with the churches, and indeed considered that it should be an extended ministry of those churches. By the interchange of the minister-at-large with oiher ministers he hoped to see the churches enabled "to co-operate in the blessed work of extending Christian sympathies and influences to every family and individual without their own limits."... (1936, 11)
Contacts and movement existed with England.
The movement had been watched with interest on the English side of the Atlantic. W. J. Fox, then secretary to the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, was in touch with Tuckerman, and, in 1834, a mission was opened in Manchester, and the next year saw the beginning of one in London.
In Liverpool, at this time, the two chief congregations of Presbyterians, or Unitarians, as they were so soon to be called, were those of the Renshaw Street and Paradise Street chapels, now represented by Ullet Road and Hope Street churches. There was a strong union between them, and one of their ministers has described them "as one congregation which, for purposes of convenience, meets in two places ". In the year 1835 the ministers of both were remarkable young men. In 1832, at the age of twenty-seven, James Martineau [of Norwich] had come to Paradise Street from Belfast. The minister of Renshaw Street was John Hamilton Thom, an Ulsterman. He had been appointed in 1831 at the age of twenty-three. It is not surprising therefore that when, in 1834, Tuckerman visited Liverpool, he found ardent listeners. Sixty years later Martineau recollected how his enthusiasm had come "upon us like the Angel descending to stir the sleeping waters". The object was now to start a corresponding movement in Liverpool, and, we imagine, that the two young men had little difficulty in enlisting the help of members of their congregations. Probably much work had already been done, when on Christmas Day, 1835, Thom pleaded from his pulpit that a movement similar to Tuckerman’ should be set on foot in Liverpool.
Choosing for his text Matthew xi, 2-5, "Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent, two of his disciples and said unto him Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Jesus answered and said unto them: Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see; the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." Thom pointed out that it was the last sentence which Jesus produced as the essential evidence that he was the Messiah. He thought that Christmas Day was a suitable occasion for them to ask if the spirit of Christ was with them. The poor were not there, worshipping at their sides. Though many of the poor might be religious they had, on the whole, no wish to come and hear the gospel. "Leave them to themselves," he said, "and you leave them to live and die as they are." So, "if the poor will not come to the gospel, the gospel must be brought to the poor." One might consider that this was the work of the Established Church, but the Church had never cared. "The poor do not come to it." At one time Methodism had fulfilled this service, but it had ceased to do so. "Who then, is to do this work ?" he asked. " Whoever would prove that he has the Spirit of Christ, as Christ proved that he had the Spirit of God." Thom thought it would be impossible to combine a suitable ministry for the uneducated with that of the educated. "You must preach in a different way to each; but you must provide for both." With the uneducated there were two methods of introducing moral truth ; either through the senses and imagination, or through the affections. The former way was closed to such a class of Christians as they were. Therefore they must proceed through the affections, and this entailed coining into close contact with individual minds, "preaching, not to congregations, but from house to house; dealing not in general statements, which it requires some exercise of mind to bring to bear on the circumstances of our own experience, but carefully searching out the very feeling you are to address, the individual lesson you are to give, the individual irritation you are to smooth."
Such a passage gives fascinating insight into the beliefs of the time among Unitarians, and also the lethargy of the Church of England and what has passed regarding the Methodists. A little later:
Thom described the kind of man whom be believed that this ministry needed. " I would say then, rather abandon it altogether than consign it to an inferior man. He must be no hewer of wood and drawer of water, who is to inspire the very poorest with worthy views of their nature and their destinies. ... He must be no ordinary man, and have no ordinary knowledge of human nature."
"The ministry from which alone we venture to expect great good," Thom declared in a further sermon "must be that of a man who will consecrate to it his life and his mind, who takes it as his rnlssion on earth, who knows no other interest so dear to him who lives in it and for it, who thinks on it by night and by day, and whose education and mental training have qualified him to act upon human nature, to penetrate its secrets, to read its indications, to gather its love upon himself, to sympathize with the sources of its weakness, and to supply its wants." But, whoever was to be its workman, the congregation there present must be its originators.
So a congregation is behind it, but the minister goes forth:
In the second sermon, Thorn dealt more definitely with the work of the proposed ministry. The Minister to the Poor was to find families unconnected with any congregation. These were to be his charges. He was to be "the minister of outcasts and the friend of sinners." "This Ministry should have," Thom declared, " a peculiar and well-defined territory. Let ii perform a work which no one else is performing or attempting. It will find unclaimed wastes in the heart of the vineyard." (15)
To some today, it might sound like interference, but it was to be ecumenical.
"Do you ask me," he said, "what authority has any man to seek, unsolicited, such a connection with the poor? I answer, no authority but that which Christ had when He preached the gospel to the poor." It was not the original intention that the minister’s connection with individuals should he permanent. Having awakened the spirit of religion he was to consult with the individual as to which religious teacher, or to what religious body he wished to be attached. Pulpit services were not meant to be any part of the regular ministry, and, though it was not intended to have any chapels particularly for the poor, it might prove necessary to have a room in the neighbourhood to which the poor could come. (15-16)
So what happened, initially?
Shortly afterwards, at Martineau’s request, Thom repeated these sermons to the Paradise Street congregation. A provisional Committee was formed and a prospectus drawn up and circulated. It stated that the Ministry for the Poor had "for its object to bring under the influence of Christianity those who are now excluded from the means of moral and religious culture." It was calculated that out of Liverpool’s population of 200,000, probably 70,000 persons or 14,000 families were without religious affiliations. An additional supply of ministers and churches would not help. "What is wanted on the part of these ten thousand families is not temples to frequent" it stated, "but the desire to frequent them." Under the heading "A statement of the modes of operation to be employed in this Ministry" the writers urged that the Minister to the Poor should seek for families abandoned to themselves and be to them both a religious teacher and a Christian friend. "The field of this Ministry is strictly limited. To the poor, who shrink from an exposure of their poverty, - to the feeble and the aged who cannot come, - to the degraded, who will not come to the preaching of the gospel, - the Minister of the poor is to go and preach the gospel." He must win their affections and their trust; influence and guide their children, sanctify their temptations and trials, stir up their social ambitions, teach them self-subsistence and inspire them with confidence in themselves and in God. But he was not to look for new members for any particular flock. He was to try and bring individuals into connection with whatever communion they felt inclined to join. He was also to discover the needs of those he visited so that he could direct charity. (16-17)
So practical work happened:
On Good Friday, the 1st of April, 1836, after the usual service at which Martineau had preached, a meeting was held in Renshaw Street chapel. William Rathbone, fifth of that name, was in the chair. The first resolution, moved by Thom, and seconded by Thomas Bolton, declared it to be the moral obligation of Christians to extend Christianity to the destitute. The second, proposed by Henry Booth and seconded by Christopher Rawdon, drew attention to the 60,000 who in Liverpool passed "from childhood to age without any efficient means of a religious culture." A third pointed out that, although the existing places of worship only provided room for half the population they were never full. The fourth suggested that an important moral influence might be exerted by a distinct ministry for the poor. Then James Martineau moved, and S. S. Gair seconded the resolution that the success which had attended Dr. Tuckerman's plans in Boston, and the conduct of the Domestic Missions in London and Manchester justified the expectation of corresponding results from the establishment in Liverpool of a similar Ministry. "After which the Rev. Blanco White proposed and T. B. Barclay seconded "That the appropriate duties of the Minister for the Poor shall be, to establish an intercourse with a limited number of families of the neglected poor, to put himself into close sympathy with their wants and feelings, to become to them a Christian adviser and friend, to promote the order and comfort of their homes, and the elevation of their social tastes, to bring them into a permanent connexion wlih religious influences, and, above all, to promote an effective education to their children, and to shelter them from corrupting agencies." The next resolution, moved by the Rev. Dr. Shepherd and seconded by William Jevons, proposed "That a Society be constituted for the purpose of carrying into effect the above objects, to be called the Liverpool Domestic Mission Society; and that an annual subscription of any amount, or a donation of ten guineas should constitute membership." Further resolutions were passed establishing the rules of the Society. William Rathbone was elected first President, Thomas Holt, Treasurer, and John Hamilton Thom and Robert Fletcher joint secretaries. The ministers of the Renshaw Street, Paradise Street and the Park or Ancient Chapel were ex-officio members of the committee. Other members of the original committee were T. Avison, T. B. Barclay, Thomas Bolton, Samuel Bright, S. S. Gair, George Holt, Christopher Rawdon, R. Roscoe and R. V. Yates. (17-19)
Unitarian readers will recognise some big names there. And thus the Domestic Mission was born, and is the origin of those peculiar horse drawn vans in the north west of England seen in some early photographs.