A brief history of the Rationalist Association
New Humanist began life as Watt's Literary Guide in 1885. Its founder, Charles Watts, was following in the footsteps of his father, also called Charles, who was a prominent figure in the Victorian freethought movement and founding secretary of the National Secular Society. In 1874 Charles Snr had taken charge of a well-established secularist publishing business and when he began spending much of his time in North America, control of this was handed to his son.
Watt's Literary Guide set out to print "literary gossip" that might be of interest to freethinkers, together with "a complete record of the best liberal publications in this country" and within its pages the Christian establishment was criticised on every imaginable front, from science and metaphysics to history and poetry.
Soon, afterwards, Watts organised a support organisation called the Propagandist Press Committee (later incorporated as the Rationalist Press Association), which provided him with a large group of subscribers and enabled him to expand the Guide until it averaged 20 large pages an issue, with thousands of grateful readers not only in Britain but around the world.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Watts & Co started to expand from producing the Guide and a range of propagandistic pamphlets, to publishing books, including a celebrated series of Cheap Reprints which made the works of sceptical Victorians like Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and John Stuart Mill available to working people at only sixpence a volume. In 1929 Watts began publishing another famed series of books, the Thinker's Library, which printed 140 volumes over 22 years, including works by HG Wells, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain and JBS Haldane.
In 1924 Watts acknowledged in the Guide some of the eminent supporters who had been associated with the RPA over the years – the philosopher Herbert Spencer for example, Ramsay Macdonald, and the bombastically freethinking Marquis of Queensberry.
Charles Watts died in 1946, but this did not spell the end for the RPA. The book publishing arm became less prolific in the post-war years, but publication of Watt's Literary Guide continued, as did publication of the RPA Annual. This had started as the Agnostic Annual in 1884, becoming the Rationalist Annual in 1927 and Question in 1968, before ceasing publication in 1980. Great names published in the Annual included Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper and HG Wells.
Watt's Literary Guide dropped the name of its founder in 1956, becoming simply the Literary Guide. This name was changed to the Humanist in 1966 and in 1972 the magazine adopted its current title of New Humanist.
One lesser known part of the RPA was the Rationalist Benevolent Fund, a charitable arm established after the First World War for the "relief of distressed rationalists". In an age when welfare services and relief were often provided by the church, it seems that the trustees of the RPA sought to provide a similar service for its members, who would not have wished to turn to religious organisations in order to make ends meet. In 1992 the RBF was wound up and its funds and function transferred to a new charity, the Rationalist Trust, which was committed to the wider charitable objective of advancing rationalism, humanism and education.
In 2002 the RT was succeeded by the Rationalist Association and the RPA's membership was transferred to this new body, the RPA itself becoming dormant. The RA is a charity whose aims are to promote reason and evidence-based understanding in the understanding of life. A great deal of this work is done through the publication of New Humanist, but also through other channels such as public lectures and discussions, the publication of books and raising funds and support for Mustard Seed, a humanist school in Uganda.
Part of this piece is extracted from Jonathan Rée's article on the history of the Rationalist Association, written to celebrate our 120th birthday in 2005. Further details taken from Bill Cooke's The Blasphemy Depot: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association