JACKS, Lawrence Pearsall



9th October 1860 to 17th February 1955


Biographical Text

Jacks was a Unitarian minister, writer and lecturer. He was a popular speaker in both Britain and the USA, and wrote prolifically on religious faith, philosophy and society. 

Jacks was born in Nottingham on 9 October 1860, the son of an ironworker. After the death of his father, Jacks left school to teach in local private schools. He studied for a degree through the University of London’s extension programme, and in 1881 spent several months studying in Göttingen. An Anglican by birth, Jacks converted to Unitarianism in his early twenties and decided to become a minister. In 1882 he entered Manchester New College, then located in London, graduating BA in 1883 and MA 1886. He then spent a year studying at Harvard on a scholarship provided by the Hibbert Trust, a foundation that sponsored Unitarian students and scholars. 

Back in London, Jacks spent a year giving lectures for the University of London’s extension programme. During this time he also mingled with liberal and left-leaning thinkers such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw and Edward Burne-Jones. In 1888 Jacks was appointed minister of Renshaw Street Chapel in Liverpool. He married Olive Brooke, daughter of the influential Unitarian minister Stopford Brooke, in 1889. In 1894 he moved to the Church of the Messiah in Birmingham, where his congregation included Joseph Chamberlain.  

In 1902 Jacks was appointed founding editor of The Hibbert Journal, making it the voice of the Unitarian faith but also promoting free debate on a wide range of subjects including politics and society. He gave up the ministry soon after to take a post as lecturer in philosophy at Manchester College, which by then had moved from London to Oxford. In 1915 he became principal of the college. 

Despite his prominence, Jacks was not wholly at ease within the Unitarian movement. He became disenchanted with organised religion in general, and also found the academic environment increasingly restrictive. In 1931 he retired from Manchester College and also removed his name from the roll of Unitarian ministers. This did not prevent him from giving several addresses at Liverpool cathedral in 1934, an act which provoked controversy in the press and within the church and led to the cathedral authorities being formally rebuked for allowing a Unitarian to address the congregation.  

Jacks continued to edit The Hibbert Journal until 1947, by which time he was in his late eighties. He died at his home near Oxford on 17 February 1955. 

Jacks was a prolific writer. He wrote on spiritual issues but also on politics and society. As well as numerous books, he contributed many articles to The Hibbert Journal and also wrote for other publications including The New Republic and Atlantic Monthly. Among his books, The Legends of Smokeover (1921) was a book short didactic stories intended to encourage people towards a more spiritual life; it was highly successful, and led to several sequels. Some of his early books speculate about the nature of the mind (Jacks was a supporter of the Society for Psychical Research, and served as the society’s president in 1907. 

Jacks supported the war effort during the First World War, believing that German militarism was a threat to civilised society. In a famous article, ‘The Peacefulness of Being at War’, Jacks argued that the war had served as a purifying force, uniting Britain and forcing people to concentrate on issues that really mattered, rather than being distracted by shallow materialism. This article was written before the full human cost of the war had become apparent; by war’s end Jacks had changed his mind and begun to move towards pacifism. In 1936 he argued that the League of Nations should be demilitarised. He had earlier been an opponent of the League itself, arguing in an article in 1923 that the League of Nations as proposed was merely a league of governments, unrepresentative of its citizens. 

Citizenship was a subject that preoccupied Jacks for much of the 1920s, this preoccupation being reflected in books such as Constructive Citizenship and My Neighbour the Universe. He became increasingly concerned at the effect that technology was having upon society, and in common with many other writers of the day – Aldous Huxley being perhaps the most famous example – argued that mechanisation was leading to a dehumanisation of society. 

Jacks’s first Rowntree lecture in 1924, on ‘the ethic of workmanship’, is an attempt to provide a moral dimension to industrial work. He points out the centrality of work to our lives, arguing that work, ‘the thing done, rather than the thing said’, is the foundation of modern civilisation. ‘So long as a civilisation remains predominantly industrial’, he continues, ‘the moral qualities of its people will be determined in the main by the quality of their industry.’ 

Therefore, it is not only the work itself that matters. Of equal, if not greater, importance is how well that work is done: 

The ethic of workmanship lays the main stress on the quality of the work done… The ethic of workmanship, of course, is by no means unconcerned with the question of just and humane relations between the various parties engaged in work, such as employers and employed. But it begins by asking another question, namely: ‘What is the value of the work in which employers and employed are jointly engaged?’ 

If the work is ‘valueless or bad’, Jacks asserts, then the effort that goes into his wasted: ‘Nothing but thorns and thistles will grow out of that soil.’ But there is, he says, an increasing absence of morality in the workplace today, and that lack of morality is also spreading beyond the workplace. How can a person cultivate goodness and beauty in their private life, he wonders, where they are surrounded by ugliness? The reason for this moral collapse, Jacks says, is mechanisation: ‘Machinery, narrowing the scope of spiritual freedom, has long since been putting morality out of action.’ 

In his second paper, ‘The worker’s body’, given in April 1930, Jacks focuses on the relationship between body and mind. We give too much attention to the body, he says, citing popular passions for sport and athletics, but ‘no large real attempt has been made to correlate the culture of the mind with the culture of the body’. 

This is important for works managers and foremen, he says, because they need to recognise that issues such as fatigue in the workplace are often as much a matter of tired minds as tired bodies. Exhaustion can take many forms. On the other side of the coin, workers who are happy as well as well-rested and well-fed are likely to be more productive. He closes by calling for employers to consider the interests of the ‘whole man’ (or woman), body, mind and spirit, and to remember that the three are closely connected. 

Major works 

The Alchemy of Thought (1910). 

Mad Shepherds and Other Human Studies (1910). 

All Men Are Ghosts (1913). 

‘The Peacefulness of Being at War’, The New Republic (1915). 

‘International Control of War Finance’, The Hibbert Journal (1918-19). 

The Legends of Smokeover (1921). 

‘A League of Nations as a League of Governments?’ Atlantic Monthly (1923). 

The Faith of a Worker (1925). 

Constructive Citizenship (1927). 

My Neighbour the Universe: A Study of Human Labour (1929). 

Education for the Whole Man (1931). 

Revolt Against Mechanism (1933). 

‘A Demilitarised League of Nations’, The Hibbert Journal (1936). 

Near the Brink: Observations of a Nonagenarian (1952). 



Webb, R.K, ‘Jacks, Lawrence Pearsall’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 

RushtonA., ‘Jacks, Lawrence Pearsall’, in S. Brown (ed.) Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2005. 


Original Source

‘The ethic of workmanship’, 26 September 1924, Balliol College
‘The worker’s body’, 6 April 1930, Balliol College


“JACKS, Lawrence Pearsall ,” The Rowntree Business Lectures and the Interwar British Management Movement, accessed August 5, 2020, http://rowntree.exeter.ac.uk/items/show/633.