Thomas Cooper (1805–1892) was a famed writer for the working-class Chartist movement in the early Victorian era. By degrees, he lost his faith and became a known atheist. He lectured on moral and social topics from an atheist perspective for many years, until—at the age of 40, while lecturing publicly at the Hall of Science in London—he suddenly recovered the faith-confession of his childhood and challenged all the skeptics in London.
In the second half of 1855, he writes of “a sense of guilt in having omitted to teach the right foundation of morals.” (The Life of Thomas Cooper, p. 352) But he did not announce the recovery of his faith until January 13th, 1856.
Read his astonishing story below:
“I commenced the year 1856 at the Hall of Science, with the aid of a large map of Europe, and signified that I should occupy the Sunday evenings by lecturing on the various countries, their productions, people, habits and customs. I delivered the first lecture on the 6th of January, “Russia and the Russians;” but on the 13th, when I should have descanted [blathered on], according to the printed programme, on “Sweden and the Swedes,” I could not utter one word. The people told me afterwards that I looked as pale as a ghost, and they wondered what was the matter with me. I could hardly tell myself; but, at length, the heart got vent by words, and I told them I could not lecture on Sweden, but must relieve conscience—for I could suppress conviction no longer. I told them my great feeling of error was that while I had perpetually been insisting on the observance of a moral life, in all my public teachings for some years, I had neglected to teach the right foundation of morals—the existence of the Divine Moral Governor, and the fact that we should have to give up our account to Him, and receive His sentence, in a future state.
“I used many more words in telling the people this and they sat, at first, in breathless silence, listening to me with all their eyes and ears. A few reckless spirits, by degrees, began to whisper to each other, and then to laugh and sneer; and one got up and declared I was insane. A storm followed some defending me, and insisting that I should be heard; and others insisting on speaking themselves, and denouncing me as a “ renegade,” a “turncoat,” an “apostate,” a “traitor,” and I know not what. But as I happened to have fought and won more battles than any or all of these tiny combatants put together, I stood till I won perfect silence and order once more; and then I told them, as some of them deemed me insane, we would try that issue. I then gave them one month for preparation, and challenged them to meet me in that hall on the 10th and 17th of February—with all the sceptics they could muster in the metropolis—to discuss, first, the Argument for the Being of God; secondly, the Argument for a Future State.”
Source: Thomas Cooper. The Life of Thomas Cooper, Written by Himself. 1872, pp. 353–354. I discovered this passage quoted among many other intriguing anecdotes in G. Holden Pike’s Dr. Parker and His Friends, 1904, pp. 269–270.