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Joseph McCabe

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Joseph McCabe
Born12 November 1867
Macclesfield, England
Died10 January 1955(1955-01-10) (aged 87)
OccupationWriter, lecturer, priest
Alma materCatholic University of Louvain

Joseph Martin McCabe (12 November 1867 – 10 January 1955) was an English writer and speaker on freethought, after having been a Roman Catholic priest earlier in his life. He was "one of the great mouthpieces of freethought in England".[1] Becoming a critic of the Catholic Church, McCabe joined groups such as the Rationalist Association and the National Secular Society. He criticised Christianity from a rationalist perspective, but also was involved in the South Place Ethical Society which grew out of dissenting Protestantism and was a precursor of modern secular humanism.

Early life[edit]

McCabe was born in Macclesfield in Cheshire to a family of Irish Catholic background, but his family moved to Manchester while he was still a child. He entered the Franciscan order at the age of 15, and spent a year of preliminary study at Gorton Monastery. His novitiate year took place in Killarney, after which he was transferred to Forest Gate in Essex (to the school which is now St Bonaventure's Catholic School) for the remainder of his priestly education. In 1890 he was ordained into the priesthood with the name Father Antony.[1]

He was recognised as an outstanding scholar of philosophy, and was sent for a year (1893–1894) to study at the Catholic University of Louvain. Here he was successfully taught Hebrew by Albin van Hoonacker, and, less successfully, Syriac by T. J. Lamy. He also studied under, and befriended, Mercier. He returned to London and resumed priestly and educational duties, until in October 1895 when he was put in charge of the newly founded Franciscan college in Buckingham, (which is now St Bernardine's Catholic Church, Buckingham). He had gradually been losing his faith and eventually left that post and the priesthood in February 1896.[2][3]

Writing career[edit]

Shortly after leaving the priesthood, McCabe began writing. He wrote a pamphlet on his experiences, From Rome to Rationalism, published in 1897, which he then expanded to book length as Twelve Years in a Monastery (1897). William Ferguson wrote of him: "He was bitterly anti-Catholic but also actively undermined religious faith in general."[4] From 1898 to 1899 he was secretary of the Leicester Secular Society, and he was a founding board member in 1899 of the Rationalist Press Association of Great Britain. He wrote prolifically on science, religion, politics, history and culture, writing nearly 250 books during his life. Many of his books and pamphlets were published by E. Haldeman-Julius,[3] both as Little Blue Books and Big Blue Books. Over 100 Big Blue Books by McCabe were published.

McCabe was also respected as a speaker, and gave several thousand lectures in his lifetime.[3]

McCabe was also an advocate of women's rights and worked with Mrs. Pankhurst and Mrs. Wolstenholme-Elmy on speeches favoring giving British women the right to vote.[5]

McCabe is also known for his inclusion in G. K. Chesterton's book Heretics.[6] In a previous essay he took Chesterton to task for including humor in his serious writings. By doing so, he allowed Chesterton to make the quip "Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else."

McCabe was also active in organizations, although his biographer notes that he had a difficult relationship with some of their leading figures, and consequently relations between McCabe and various groups could also be strained. He was an Appointed Lecturer at the South Place Ethical Society, where he could still occasionally be heard after 1934.[7] McCabe's freethought stance grew more militant as he got older, and he joined the National Secular Society in the year before he died.


In 1900 McCabe translated the book Riddle of the Universe by Ernst Haeckel. He also wrote a number of works on evolution. McCabe was also involved with the Rationalist Association and in 1925 they arranged for him to debate the early Canadian young earth creationist George McCready Price.[8]


In his essays The Myth of the Resurrection (1925) and Did Jesus Ever Live? (1926) McCabe wrote that Christianity is a direct representation of older Pagan beliefs. Slain saviors and their resurrection myths were currently known and celebrated across the ancient world before Christianity began. According to McCabe the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus contain numerous conflicts, contradictions and errors and are unreliable as they had been fabricated over the years by many different writers. McCabe came to the conclusion that Jesus was an Essenian holy man who was turned into a God over the years by hearsay and oral tradition.[9] The real bulk of McCabe's work was in historical criticism of the Roman Catholic religious system in which he was raised and educated. He documented his positions, was thorough in his analysis, and fair in his treatment of Romanism, but the fact was evident to his mind that Roman Catholicism propagated and perpetuated historical inaccuracies, fictions, and myths, and was supported by forged documents.

McCabe's observations of the ideas of resurrection myths and incarnate gods predating Christianity is valid, however, his conclusions of their amalgamation and representation in "Christianity" was colored by his Roman Catholic education. McCabe was an honest historian. In his own words, he expressed what his study of history and more particular, church history had taught him, "Historians have always been the most dreaded enemies of the Catholic Church."

In about 1947, McCabe accused the Encyclopædia Britannica of bias towards the Catholic Church. He claimed that the 14th edition, which had been published in 1929, was devoid of the critical comment about the church that had been in the 11th edition.[10] McCabe similarly accused the Columbia Encyclopedia of bias towards the Catholic Church in 1951.[11] These and similar actions have made him be termed a "Catholic basher" by his Christian critics. Biographer Bill Cooke, however, disputes the allegation, citing McCabe's opinion that "Catholics are no worse, and no better, than others", and "I have not the least prejudice against the Catholic laity, which would be stupid."[12]


In 1920 McCabe publicly debated the Spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle on the claims of Spiritualism at Queen's Hall in London. McCabe later published his evidence against Spiritualism in a booklet entitled Is Spiritualism Based on Fraud?.[13] McCabe had exposed the tricks of fraud mediums and wrote that Spiritualism has no scientific basis. His article Scientific Men and Spiritualism is a skeptical analysis of the subject and a look at how various scientists such as William Crookes and Cesare Lombroso had been duped into believing Spiritualism by mediumship tricks.[14] He also wrote the book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847.[15]


The 'Big Blue Books': (a selection of titles available online)

Some Other Works:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Crowley, Ronan and Lernout, Geert. "Joseph MacCabe in Ulysses", Genetic Joyce Studies, Issue 12 (Spring 2012), University of Antwerp". Archived from the original on 11 August 2016. Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  2. ^ Joseph McCabe (1897) Twelve Years in a Monastery
  3. ^ a b c The Secular Web: Joseph McCabe
  4. ^ Ferguson, William. "Christian Faith and Unbelief in Modern Scotland", Scottish Christianity in the Modern World, (Stewart J. Brown, George Newlands, G. M. Newlands, A. C. Cheyne, eds.), A&C Black, 2000 ISBN 9780567087652
  5. ^ McCabe, Joseph, "Eighty Years a Rebel", at 31 (describes writing their appeals for the Ethical weekly paper and being the only man to join in the cause).
  6. ^ Chesterton, G. K. (1905). "XVI – On Mr. McCabe and a Divine Frivolity". Heretics. New York: John Lane Company. OCLC 2400895.
  7. ^ MacKillop, I. D. (27 February 1986). The British Ethical Societies. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521266727.
  8. ^ Peter J. Bowler (2009). Science for All: The Popularization of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain. University of Chicago Press. pp. 45–46. ISBN 978-0226068633
  9. ^ Clinton Bennett. (2011). In Search of Jesus: Insider and Outsider Images. Continuum. pp. 210–211. ISBN 978-0826449160
  10. ^ Joseph McCabe (1947). The Lies and Fallacies of the Encyclopædia Britannica
  11. ^ Joseph McCabe (1951). The Columbia Encyclopedia's Crimes against the Truth
  12. ^ Bill Cooke. (2001). A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism. Prometheus Books. p. 211. ISBN 1-57392-878-X
  13. ^ McCade, Joseph (1920). Is Spiritualism Based on Fraud?. London: Watts & Co.
  14. ^ Joseph McCabe. (1920). Scientific Men and Spiritualism: A Skeptic's Analysis. The Living Age. 12 June. pp. 652–657
  15. ^ Joel Bjorling. (1998). Consulting Spirits: A Bibliography (Bibliographies and Indexes in Religious Studies). Greenwood. p. 34. ISBN 978-0313302848


  • Cooke, Bill (2001). A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-878-X

External links[edit]