- W.T. Stead: Nonconformist and Newspaper Prophet by Stewart J. Brown
William Thomas Stead, Victorian Britain, spiritualism, puritanism, media, paranormal, mediumship, psychical research
A few months ago, after stumbling upon a remarkably early description of telepathy in a primary document, I wrote to a senior scholar in the area who is much more knowledgeable in the field than I am. "What is the best history of psychic phenomena?" I wrote greedily. "Not a history of the Society for Psychical Research, or Mesmerism, or the Rhine lab, but a holistic cultural history of psychic phenomena?" His response suggests the critical need for more studies like Stewart J. Brown's 2019 book W. T. Stead: Nonconformist and Newspaper Prophet. "I sincerely doubt that we have such a history," he replied.
Brown's book is, of course, not the history I was asking for. We remain a long way from that history, and Brown's biography of William Thomas Stead, "newspaper editor, author, social reformer, women's rights advocate, peace campaigner, and spiritualist" (vii), shows how such a history will be intimately entangled in the histories of media, religion, literature, and politics. As an entry in Oxford University Press's Spiritual Lives series of religious [End Page 117] biographies, Brown's study of the British newspaper editor and journalist is a succinct and readable account of a man who is not always remembered as a religious figure. Brown's study capably demonstrates Stead's dual role: as a journalist with a Puritan moralizing voice and as a popularizer of psychical phenomena for a Victorian readership beyond the pages of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.
Brown's biography cuts across many of the most significant cultural transformations of the Victorian period. As the son of devout Congregationalists, Stead's early life was shaped by Puritan ideals within the broader community of British Nonconformists. With his first major journalistic appointment as the editor of the Nonconformist Northern Echo in 1870, Stead found the bully pulpit that would shape his religious philosophy and his sense of journalism as a moral force in a secularizing world. As Brown writes, Stead's "late nineteenth-century newspaper took on certain roles previously filled by the church, proclaiming a high social ethics, exposing and denouncing sin . . . and forming participatory networks of readers for moral action" (ix). Stead himself put it in even grander terms—for him, the role of editor "combine[s] the function of Hebrew prophet and Roman tribune with that of Greek teacher" (41).
The first part of Brown's biography is devoted to Stead's journalism, and, in particular, to the kind of moralizing and sensational press campaigns that he pioneered and for which he is remembered today. Readers with an interest in media studies will find a great deal of useful material throughout this biography. For a person who conceptualized his journalistic role in terms of the ancient functions quoted above, Stead's journalism was strikingly modern in practice. In Stead's editorializing, the newspaper was a place to establish social networks of social justice, drawing attention to the destitute people and places that went ignored by both church and state. The parallels between Stead's editorial voice and the contemporary role of the journalist and of new media social justice movements is on vivid display in Brown's study. For Stead, the newspaper was above all a civic instrument of tremendous power and responsibility, which he envisioned overtaking the functions of church and state in the future. The hubristic appraisals of the political value of new media will also remind readers of the contemporary moment. Indeed, Brown's Newspaper Prophet shows how little has actually changed politically over the past century. For example, Stead worried on the page that working people of the world are under "a constant preoccupation with the question, 'Shall I get enough to eat to keep my body and soul together.' "(125). For all the social power of the newspaper, the social landscape that Stead looked out over has largely resisted popular efforts at reform.