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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 84

Charles Bright

Charles Bright.

Mr. Charles Bright, who is now so well known in the Australian colonies and New Zealand as a lecturer on subjects connected with religious and social reform, Rationalism, and Spiritualism, is a native of Doncaster, Yorkshire, where he was born on the 16th February, 1832. He was educated in Doncaster and Liverpool, where his family removed when he was eleven years of age. Mr. Bright was for some years in a merchant's office in the latter place, but having studied shorthand under Mr. Henry Pitman, the brother of the inventor of phonography, Mr. Bright subsequently became connected with the Press. Living in Manchester for a year or two, he was an active member of the local Athenaeum. Mr, Bright left England for Australia in the year 1853, in the steamer Great Britain, and, on his arrival in Melbourne, formed one of a party bound for the Ballarat goldfields, the great centre of attraction at that time, in Victoria. Returning to Melbourne in the middle of 1854, he was appointed on the reporting staff of the Argus, with which journal he was connected, in various capacities, for more than twenty years. He was, for five years, editor of one of the weekly newspapers which preceded the Australasian under the Argus proprietary—viz., The Examiner—and he also edited Melbourne Punch during three years, when it was the property of Messrs. Kelly and Aspinall. At the end of 1866 Mr. Bright was appointed secretary in Australia to the London and Lancashire Insurance Company, which position he held for more than eight years, only resigning it when he had resolved on devoting himself to the lecture platform. During the whole of this period, however, he contributed largely to the leading columns of the Argus, Australasian, Age, Leader, and other newspapers.

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In the latter part of the year 1869 the subject of Spiritualism came to be generally discussed in Melbourne, owing mainly to the lectures delivered by Mr. B. S. Nayler, a gentleman of magnificent literary attainments, fine elocutionary powers, and, although upwards of seventy-five years of age at the time, immense energy and vigour. Mr. Bright was requested to write a series of descriptive articles on the subject in the Argus, and deemed it necessary, prior to doing so, that he should know something about it. He had already spoken against it, and ridiculed it in debates at the Melbourne Eclectic Association, but found now, as he came to study it deeply, that it was a very different and much more important matter than he had pre-supposed. The result was a series of papers in the Argus, giving a resumé of the rationale of Spiritualism, and a review of the Harmonial Philosophy of Andrew Jackson Davis, together with an account of the rise and development of the new movement in America. These articles were transferred to the columns of the Australasian and other journals, and subsequently published in pamphlet form under the nom de plume of "Epsilon." Mr. Bright continued his researches into Spiritualism under the guidance of Mr. Nayler, until he became thoroughly convinced of the fact that what we term "death" is but a change in the conditions of existence. When Mr. Charles Foster, the marvellous American medium, visited Australia, he brought a letter of introduction to Mr. Bright from an old friend, Mr. Henry Edwards, the well-known actor and entomologist; and during Mr. Foster's five weeks' stay in Melbourne Mr. Bright enjoyed a rare opportunity of studying the phenomena attaching to Spiritual medium-ship, of which he took full advantage.

It was at the beginning of 1872 that the subject of this sketch was first prominently known in Melbourne as a Freethought lecturer. He was a member of the committee of the Unitarian Church at the time when the late Rev. Mr. Higginson became too ill to continue his ministrations. In order to prevent the church from being closed, four members undertook to deliver, in rotation, Sunday lectures after service. These were Messrs. James Smith, H. G. Turner, John Ross, and Charles Bright. The pulpit was accordingly removed, a platform substituted, and Mr. Bright, on the second Sunday morning in January, delivered the opening lecture, Mr. Smith occupying the platform in the evening. The new arrangement was eminently successful, and the church was crowded. During that and the following year Mr. Bright lectured not only at the Unitarian Church, but at the Masonic Hall for the Spiritualistic Association, and at the Trades Hall for the Free Discussion Society. Early in 1875 he was waited on by a deputation from the committee page 85 of the Melbourne Spiritualists' Association, requesting him to deliver a course of thirteen Sunday evening lectures at the Temperance Hall, a large building capable of accommodating twelve or fifteen hundred people. This series proved immensely successful. Although Mr. Bright then wrote his lectures out and read them from the MS., crowds were attracted, and the sitting accommodation of the hall was taxed to the uttermost. It was in the middle of this year that Mr. Bright resigned his position as secretary to the London and Lancashire Insurance Company, receiving very flattering testimonials from both the English and Australian Boards of Directors. He subsequently lectured at the Town Hall, the Princess' Theatre, and the Opera House in Melbourne, to very large and enthusiastic audiences.

At the commencement of 1876, Mr. Bright was invited to visit Dunedin, New Zealand. Here a committee was formed, and, as no large building was available, the vast canvas erection known as Wilson's Circus, was secured for Sunday evenings. This place, which seated 3000 people, was crammed each Sunday evening during the month it remained in Dunedin. Mr. Bright afterwards visited the other towns of New Zealand, and after a short tour in this colony and Queensland, returned to fulfil a lengthy engagement in Otago. He was now fairly launched on a career which he is not likely to relinquish so long as health, strength, and capacity are granted him.

In January of last year, at the conclusion of a course of lectures extending over twelve months in Dunedin, a controversy arose in the papers between Mr. Bright and the Rev. M. W. Green, Minister of the Christian Disciples, which culminated in a public debate occupying four evenings. In the committee appointed to decide upon the question for discussion, the Attorney-General of New Zealand (the Hon. Robert Stout) acted on behalf of Mr. Bright, and in effect defined the terms of debate. The subject to be considered was thus stated:—"The Divine Origin of Christianity," accepting the following definition of terms:—1. By ' Divine origin,' it is understood to be of Divine origin in the sense in which no other religion is. 2. In the term ' Christianity,' it is understood that there are included the Deity of Jesus, and his death as an atonement for man's sin." This debate caused the greatest excitement in Dunedin. The Queen's Theatre, where it was held, was crowded with ladies and gentlemen from floor to ceiling, over 6000 admission tickets being issued. The entrance fee was fixed at the uniform charge of sixpence to all parts of the house, and £160 were taken; the proceeds, after paying for the theatre and advertising, were handed over to the local Benevolent Asylum. The debate was published, and is still obtainable; page 86 it is therefore not necessary for me to animadvert upon the conclusions that were arrived at.

Mr. Bright's present visit to Sydney commenced in April last, since which time he has occupied the stage of the Theatre Royal each Sunday evening, lecturing to very large, intelligent, and appreciative audiences. He has also delivered addresses on various occasions for the benefit of the Psychological Society and the Progressive Lyceum. For the information of country readers and others, I may say in regard to Mr. Bright's lecturing that it is marked by great force, earnestness, and accuracy. The lectures are delivered freely, without MS., and have been powerful in awakening the slumbering reason in many an accidental hearer. Instances have come to my knowledge wherein much good has been done by Mr. Bright's pitiless logic and his ceaseless efforts to clear away the cobwebs of superstition surrounding the eternal truths manifested in nature.

That this earnest reformer may be long spared to continue the good work which he has thus far so ably and unweariedly carried on, will doubtless be the sincere prayer of all those who have had the privilege of attending the lectures given by him in the Australian colonies and New Zealand.

Chas. Cavenagh.