Sue Young Histories

James Speirs 1842 - 1912

June 28, 2011

James Speirs 1842 - 1912 (also misspelt as Spiers by those who knew him - see Swedenborg Archive K125 [15] letter dated 13.12.1892 from James John Garth Wilkinson to John Thomson) was the publishing agent for the Swedenborg Society for 40 years. Spiers acted as publishing agent for the General Conference, and he was also a Secretary of the Swedenborg Society. His greatest service to the New Church was the weekly magazine Morning Light which he published from its inception in 1878 and edited until early 1904. He was Treasurer of the New-Church College from 1901 until his death.

James Spiers name is in both of James John Garth Wilkinson’s address books at Bloomsbury Street WC (Swedenborg Archive Address Book of James John Garth Wilkinson dated 1895. See also Swedenborg Archive Address Book of James John Garth Wilkinson ‘Where is it’ dated 1.10.1892).

James Spiers was also an advocate of homoeopathy, a subscriber to The Hahnemann Hospital at 39 Bloomsbury Square, and a member of The British Homeopathic Association (Anon, The North American journal of homeopathy, Volume 62, (American Medical Union, 1914). Page 42). At the time of his death James Spiers was engaged in revising and preparing for publication in Dent’s Everyman’s LibrarySamuel Hahnemann’s Novum Organon _(actually the Dent’s book is simply called The Organon _

as Samuel Hahnemann preferred the name Organon Der Heilkunst).

The original suggestion that Hahnemann’s Organon was worthy of a place in Everyman’s Library came from the late Mr. James Spiers, and was supported by the British Homeopathic Association, of whose Council Mr. Spiers was a member…’

With thanks to Richard Lines, Secretary of the Swedenborg Society for drawing my attention to this article from The Annual Journal of the New Church Historical __Society for the Year 2010’ (editor, the Revd Norman Ryder):


James Spiers had a remarkable career lasting over 40 years as publishing agent for the Swedenborg Society and the General Conference of the New Church, as a publisher in his own right and, in his later years, also as Secretary of the Swedenborg Society. He was born into a New Church family on 24th May 1842 in Paisley and was baptized into the church by the Revd DG Goyder. When he was about a year old his family moved to Glasgow and here he was educated at a private school and, after he started work, in his spare time at the Glasgow Athenaeum and elsewhere where he learned Latin, Greek and German. He had four sisters, three of whom were to survive him. His father died when he was 11 years old, but his mother lived to be 77, dying in 1890.

As a young man he worked for the Glasgow publisher Strahan & Co., publishers of Good Words and The Sunday Magazine, well-known periodicals in the middle of the nineteenth century. He became an active member of the Glasgow New Church Society when the Revd TO Prescott (later known as O Prescott Hiller) was Minister, being a Sunday- School teacher and Treasurer of the Society. In November 1868 the Swedenborg Society’s publishing agent, CP Alvey, tendered his resignation, having ‘engaged in a business that required all his attention’, and the Society’s Committee placed an advertisement for a successor in the December and January issues of the Intellectual Repository. Several excellent candidates responded to the advertisement and the Committee selected the man they considered the strongest of these, James Spiers. It was noted that he was a respected member of the Glasgow New Church Society and also that he held a ‘highly responsible position’ at a Glasgow publisher’s and was ‘consequently well acquainted with bookselling in its various departments’. Fifteen years earlier the Society had employed a Glaswegian bookseller, William White, as its manager and agent. It proved a disastrous choice, the Society eventually having to take legal proceedings in the Court of Chancery to evict White from the Society’s premises at No. 36 Bloomsbury Street. But in February 1869 they made a wise choice. Spiers was to remain with the Swedenborg Society for the rest of his life.

After moving to London, Spiers joined the Cross Street Society of the New Church. That society moved to Camden Road in 1876 when the new building there was opened. He became a committee member in 1871 and served in that capacity for the rest of his life, being chairman for the year on three occasions. He served as Sunday-School superintendent, Secretary of the Society and became an occasional lay preacher. He represented Cross Street and then Camden Road at Conference on no less than thirty-six occasions.

In 1879 Spiers married Fanny Irving, granddaughter of Richard Parkinson founder of the Preston New Church. There were no children of the marriage. Fanny was born in London where she was baptized by the Revd Samuel Noble, but the family moved soon afterwards to Manchester and she grew up in the Peter Street Society there. She became a Sunday-School teacher at Camden Road and was involved in other activities there and was also for thirteen years a member of the Board of Management of the New Church Orphanage which was established by EH Bayley and his father the Revd Dr Jonathan Bayley in memory of the former’s first wife Hannah who had died in 1880. It was said that she was one of its ‘painstaking and beloved lady visitors’. Fanny died in March 1901 after a long and painful illness at the comparatively early age of 54. It was said of her that she ‘combined in an eminent degree sweetness of disposition with business aptitude’. After Fanny’s death it is said that Spiers ‘practically resumed his bachelor status and maintained it, mitigated by the kindly hospitality of his numerous friends, until the end’. He moved from Hilldrop Crescent in Holloway, very near the Camden Road Church, to Highgate where in his later years he was a ‘constant and ever-welcome guest’ at the home of David Wynter.

He was permitted by the Swedenborg Society’s Committee to supplement his work for the Society ‘to any extent for his own private advantage’ and over the years he undertook the publication of many important works. These include the five volumes of The Spiritual Diary (1883-9), The Brain in two volumes (1882-7), the Revd Samuel Warren’s Compendium (1873) and AH Searle’s General Index to Swedenborg’s Scripture Quotations (1883). All these works were subsequently bought from Spiers by the Swedenborg Society and became part of its stock. He was also the London publisher of the Revd Frank Sewall’s translation of Swedenborg’s Rational Psychology. He published biographical sketches of Swedenborg by James John Garth Wilkinson, the Revd John Hyde, the Revd JF Buss and others. The Swedenborg Society’s collection of ‘collateral’ works housed in the Secretary’s office at Swedenborg House, now an enlarged Marchant Room, contains a large number of books bearing the imprint of ‘James Spiers’. They include most of James John Garth Wilkinson’s prolific output, Theodore Compton’s biography of John Clowes, the second edition of Mary Catherine Hume’s biographical sketch of Charles Augustus Tulk, and many other works.

The Swedenborg Society has from its earliest days had a policy of presenting copies of works of Swedenborg to libraries, other institutions and individuals. In the early 1870s Spiers compiled a list of these and this was published in the Society’s Annual Report for 1874. Updated versions were printed in the Annual Reports for 1879 and 1894.

Spiers became a member of the Swedenborg Society’s Advisory and Revision Board in 1895 and served on it until his death. He was Secretary of the Board in 1909-10. As a member of the Board, he did editorial work on four volumes of Arcana Caelestia, two volumes of Apocalypse Explained and five smaller works. One of these was the Doctrine of Life in Esperanto, La Dogmaro pri la Vivo, to which Spiers, an enthusiast for Esperanto, contributed a biographical sketch. He gave great assistance to the Revd James Hyde in the preparation of his Bibliography of the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg published in 1906, where in the index of persons and institutions there are sixty-three references to him. In his Preface to the Documents concerning Swedenborg, published in three volumes in 1875 and 1877, the Revd Dr RL Tafel acknowledged the help given by James Spiers.

The Secretary of the Swedenborg Society when Spiers was appointed agent was Henry Butter, a founder member of the Society in 1810. He retired in 1872, being then nearly 80 years old and was succeeded by TH Elliott who was in office for twenty-one years. On his retirement in 1893 Charles Higham, a bookseller, was appointed Secretary, but, finding the demands of his business too great, he resigned after two years, whereupon James Spiers was appointed Secretary of the Society at a salary of £20 a year in February 1895. This salary was in addition to the salary of £125 a year paid to him as agent. Spiers was to remain the Society’s Secretary until his death in 1912.

Towards the end of his service as Secretary the Society organised an International Swedenborg Congress in London in July 1910 to celebrate its centenary. It was planned by a small executive committee under the chairmanship of FA Gardiner, Hon. Treasurer of the Society, and Spiers was its secretary. Although the work was devolved to three sections, dealing with science, philosophy and theology respectively, each of which had its own secretary, the work of the General Secretary of the Congress, as Spiers became, was onerous and ‘involved much correspondence’, as the Society’s Annual Report for 1910-11 put it. After the end of the Congress the Society published the Transactions of the International Swedenborg Congress 1910, containing the texts of the many papers delivered at the Congress, the names of the officials and the names and addresses of all the participants, together with many photographs. Spiers was the editor of this volume.

A limited edition of twenty-five de luxe copies of the Transactions was printed. One copy was sent to George V, whose Private Secretary wrote expressing His Majesty’s thanks for ‘this interesting volume’, and another was presented personally to King Gustav V of Sweden on the 18th November 1910. Spiers travelled to Stockholm with a small delegation from the Society where they were given an audience of the King. Travelling on to Uppsala, Spiers and his party were present at a ceremony in the cathedral there at which Swedenborg’s sarcophagus was unveiled. Following this, the party attended the celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the Royal Scientific Society of Uppsala, of which Swedenborg had been a founding member.

In addition to his functions for the Swedenborg Society, Spiers acted as publishing agent for the General Conference. His greatest service to the New Church was the weekly magazine Morning Light which he published from its inception in 1878 and edited until early 1904. He was a frequent contributor to this magazine. He was also publisher to the Missionary and Tract Society and was an active participant in the New Church Evidence Society. For this society he contributed, or helped in the production of, articles on Swedenborg in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and in Chamber’s Encyclopaedia. He was Treasurer of the New-Church College from 1901 until his death.

In 1881 he had been involved in the establishment in London of a ‘New Church Coffee Meeting’ along the lines of that originally set up by the Revd John Clowes in Manchester in 1792 at which difficult subjects were discussed ‘under conditions of pleasant social intercourse’. These meetings were discontinued after the death of the Revd Dr RL Tafel in 1893, but were revived later as the ‘Theological and Philosophical Society’, meeting at No. 1 Bloomsbury Street with Spiers as secretary.

With so many different New Church and Swedenborg Society activities, it might be assumed that Spiers had little time for anything else. That was far from the case. As a younger man he had been active in the Volunteers, the predecessor of the Territorial Army, serving in the London Scottish. He was a believer in homoeopathy and was a subscriber to The Hahnemann Hospital at 39 Bloomsbury Square and a member of The British Homeopathic Association.

At the time of his death he was engaged in revising and preparing for publication in Dent’s Everyman’s Library, Samuel Hahnemann’s Novum Organon (actually the Dent’s book is simply called The Organon).

In the mid-1880s he was a founder member of the ‘Swan of Avon Society’ which held monthly meetings at the homes of its members for the study and dramatic reading of Shakespeare’s works. That society was still thriving at Spiers’ death. His interest in Esperanto, the new international language invented by Ludwig Zamanhof and claiming just before the First World War nearly half a million adherents, has already been noted.

In August 1912 he took a well-deserved extended holiday in Europe with a party of New Church and Esperantist friends, visiting Rothenburg in northern Bavaria, Salzburg, Linz and Vienna from where they took a train to Cracow (then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to attend an international Esperanto conference in that city. The conference lasted a week and ‘gave unlimited satisfaction to all concerned’. Leaving Cracow, the party travelled to Zakopane, where the party obtained carriages for a two-day drive over the High Tatra Mountains in the Carpathians into Hungary. At one point Spiers alighted with others of the party and took a short cut on foot which, unfortunately, ‘proved both steep and long’. He arrived at the top completely exhausted, but said he admired the beauty of the mountains, and the party proceeded across Hungary to Budapest where they took a steamer down the Danube to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Here his condition began to give cause for concern and the leading doctor in that city (who had attended the Crown Prince) was consulted. He diagnosed a heart weakness of at least fifteen years’ duration and advised that on his return to England Spiers would have to give up work entirely and live the ‘life of an invalid and a recluse’. While most of the party travelled on to Bulgaria, Spiers remained in Belgrade with his friend Alfred Mudie as nurse, until he was well enough to travel home, as far as possible by river. They reached Vienna where, ‘with the aid of two sturdy porters’, he was able to enjoy the art gallery, and then on to Linz and here, greatly weakened, he died on the 1st September.

James Spiers’ unexpected death while on holiday abroad shocked and saddened his many New Church friends and colleagues. The Church and the Swedenborg Society were deprived of the services of a man who, despite having recently attained his ‘three score years and ten’, had shown no sign of wishing to retire, or even to slow down. But perhaps it was providential that he should have died ‘in harness’ and while enjoying a splendid holiday and without having to endure the indignities and weaknesses that come with old age. There is something very touching about the circumstances of his death. The International Swedenborg Congress that he had done so much to organise was, it seems to us now a century on, the swansong of the Swedenborg Society’s Edwardian age. Spiers spent his last holiday in a Europe that was about to vanish. It was the quarrel between the splendid, but rather ramshackle, Austro-Hungarian Empire and the small Kingdom of Serbia culminating in the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife on 28th June 1914, that was the spark that ignited the First World War. James Spiers was spared having to witness that conflict and that too, it seems to me, was providential.

Of interest:

Alexander Archibald Hagart Speirs 1869 – 1958, was an orthodox physician who converted to homeopathy, to become President of the British Homeopathic Society.


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