Portrait of Reverend Robert Spears, Malcolm Burns, private collection.
Portrait of Reverend Robert Spears, The Channing School Archives, Highgate, London.

Reverend Robert Spears

MediumPortrait on porcelain
LocationPrivate collection of Malcolm Burns

Robert Spears is most often remembered in connection with “Biblical Unitarianism,” for he stubbornly defended the authority of the Bible over and against the transcendentalist current swaying Unitarian congregations in Britain and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.1 Three events punctuate his career. Spears was a supporter of the budding relationship between Unitarianism and the Brahmo Samaj. In 1870, acting as the secretary of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, he saw to it that Keshub Chunder Sen (Mozoomdar’s friend and mentor in the Brahmo Samaj) could speak in front of full audiences throughout the country during a two-month lecture tour.2 In March of 1876, Spears ended his tenure as B&FUA secretary in a huff, protesting a decision by the association to publish the writings of transcendentalist Theodore Parker.3 Two months later, Spears began the journal, Christian Life. This weekly circular would come to be the primary organ of relatively conservative Unitarians throughout the nineteenth century, and Spears continued to publish his strand of Biblically-based teachings in its pages until his death in 1899.4

Although most accounts of Robert Spears mention his acquaintance with Keshub Sen, few detail the much more lasting relationship he had with Mozoomdar, who lived with him for weeks at a time in 1874, 1883, and 1893. During PCM’s 1874 trip to Britain, he spent nearly one month in the care of Spears, who helped him just as he had helped Keshub Sen four years earlier. The following is quoted from Mozoomdar’s autobiographical notes:

On Many a sweet Sunday morning, when the pealing music of church bells filled the whole atmosphere of the grand city, and mingled with the delicious sunlight to increase the gladness of all who have worked well during the week, and earned the sacred rest of the sabbath dawn, I hastened to the cab-stand, or railway-station with my good friend Robert Spears, who would give me the chart he had prepared for my local direction, and send me on my way to do the Lord’s work with a hearty good wish.5

Further reference is made of the closeness between Spears and PCM within the latter’s letters to Saudamini in 1893. Mozoomdar writes to his wife of how Spears’ children had grown since he last saw them a decade before, how Mrs. Spears had aged somewhat, and how the reverend had kept his youthful vivacity ever intact, with “the enthusiasm and mindset of a 28 year-old.”6 Yet the surest indication of their friendship takes the form of the eulogy of Robert Spears that Mozoomdar wrote for Christian Life in April of 1899. In it, PCM thanks Spears for his kindness to Keshub and himself, defends him from critics of his conservativism, and remembers once again his tenacity in fighting for a good cause.7


I owe thanks to Malcolm Burns, the great-great-grandson of Robert Spears, for permission to reproduce the porcelain portrait of the reverend in this exhibit. Susan Trackman and Catharine Wells of the Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution for a photograph of Arundel House, putting me in touch with both Mr. Burns and the archivists of the Channing Girls School. For this, they have my warm gratitude. Further thanks go to Mary Embleton and Sarah Harper, who provided me with the scan of the black-and-white photograph of Robert Spears.



  • Bose, Suresh Chunder. The Life of Protap Chunder Mozoomdar. Calcutta: Nababhidan Trust, 1927.
  • Memorials of Robert Spears 1825-1899. Belfast: Ulster Unitarian Christian Association, 1903.
  • Mozoomdar, Protap Chunder. Letters Written by Protapchandra to his Wife. Translated by Subhranil Roy. Edited by Nick Tackes, 2018.
  • Ruston, Alan. “Robert Spears - the Unitarian Dynamo,” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society 22, no.1, (1999): 54-67.