Sketch of Thomas Cooper

Sketch of Thomas Cooper by Kiersten Sundberg

Thomas Cooper (1805-92) was not a man to do things by halves. His unflagging energy and enormous appetite for knowledge matched his relentless determination to do what he felt was right, whatever it might cost. That energy and that determination propelled him into the pulpit, into a Stafford jail, into the freethinking movement, and ultimately into a most improbable career that kept him constantly busy for the last thirty years of his life.

Cooper’s father died when he was young, and like many poor boys he was apprenticed to a tradesman—in his case, to a cobbler. There cannot often have been a greater mismatch between abilities and opportunities. Cooper’s intellectual gifts drove him to read voraciously, and before long he obtained a position as a lay preacher among the Wesleyans. His unusual gift for public speaking made him immediately popular. It also attracted the unfavorable attention of a less gifted superintendent who, by Cooper’s account, did what he could to thwart the younger man’s career in the church. Some unpleasant ecclesiastical wrangling ensued that left Cooper without a pulpit.

Undaunted, he turned his energies in a new direction. A keen sense of the plight of the poor drew Cooper to the Chartist movement, and he began publishing and speaking on social issues. In 1842 he gave a speech to a group of working men, who, carried away in a frenzy, went on a rampage and burned down several houses. Cooper himself did not join in the fray, and he denied that he had encouraged them to engage in the destruction of property. But British justice demanded a scapegoat, and there was no denying that Cooper had delivered the speech. He was ultimately sentenced to two years in the Stafford jail.

This incarceration was the beginning of a dark period in Cooper’s mental life. He reflected bitterly on the result of his attempt to help the poor—the poor were still suffering, his own wife was in dire straits, and he was powerless to help her. The problem of evil loomed large in his mind, insinuating doubts about Christianity; and his bitterness over his ill treatment by the Methodist superintendent still rankled. When Cooper read David Friedrich Strauss’s massive Leben Jesu, which criticized the New Testament as a tissue of myths wreathed around a very small and thoroughly unsupernatural core of historical fact, his faith was shattered.

He emerged from the Stafford jail utterly penniless but determined to set the record straight about Christianity. Having taught himself numerous languages, he read prodigiously and could lecture on an array of topics that displayed his self-acquired learning to best advantage. He lectured on European political developments, injustice in Ireland, and the literary genius of Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, and Byron. He lectured on various schools of painters—Italian, Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, French, and English—and on the music of Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven. He gave a ten-lecture series on the history of Greece, a seventeen-lecture series on the history of Rome, and a series of fifty-one lectures on the history of England. He lectured on philosophy, geology, astronomy, natural history, on ancient Egypt and modern Poland, on Mohammed and on Swedenborg.

But he added lectures critical of traditional Christianity to the mix, and his lectures on this subject were well received by the freethinking community. In 1850, he popularized Strauss’s arguments, summarizing in plain, manly English the leading claims and arguments of the dour German scholar. No one knows who wrote the Gospels, or where, or when; they are anonymous documents. And though they may contain bits and pieces of factual information, they also bear signs of legendary development and alteration. The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are incompatible. The gospels are filled with contradictions. Jesus himself is an admirable figure, but we must, in the name of truth, set aside the miraculous stories that have grown up around him.

If this indictment sounds familiar, it is because, in broad outline, the once scandalous claims of Strauss are taken for granted by a large number of biblical scholars today. The charges that the books of the New Testament are anonymous and that they are filled with contradictions are, in fact, as popular among atheists in the twenty-first century as they were among atheists in the nineteenth; many of the same arguments are perpetually recycled.

But in 1855, Cooper began to have doubts about his doubts. The basis of morality proposed by his fellow freethinkers seemed, on examination, to be no basis at all, and it seemed obvious to him that there must be a moral governor to the universe. But if Christianity were a mere legend, who could that governor be? He attacked the problem as he attacked everything else, with enormous intellectual energy and a sincere desire to get to the bottom of the matter. He wrestled in thought with Strauss, reading not only English works but also some of the German responses to the arguments that he himself had been popularizing. And throughout this period of painful indecision, he kept returning to the compelling figure of Christ as presented in the Gospels. In the summer of 1856, when he was struggling toward reconversion, he wrote to Charles Kingsley:

Can you tell me what to do—anything that will help me to Christ? Him I want. If the Four Gospels be half legends I still want him. . . . But how is it, then, that I am still so full  of doubts?

When Cooper finally resolved his doubts, he set out to undo the damage he had done. This was no deathbed conversion; Cooper embarked on a thirty year career in which he gave more than 6,800 public lectures and sermons in defense of Christianity, ranging over the whole of natural theology and the Christian evidences and incorporating information from his staggeringly wide reading. He made a point of never charging a fee, living on whatever people would give in a collection at the end of their own free will. In the closing pages of his most popular work, The Bridge of History Over the Gulf of Time, Cooper pleads with the next generation to take up the work of maintaining and defending the evidences for the truth of Christianity.

Will you, young men, get these evidences into your minds, and rehearse them in the ears of your sceptical acquaintances? Will some of you devote yourselves to a new mission, and live solely to spread these evidences? I have felt myself alone for these fourteen years, while constantly traversing this our loved British ground in every direction. There ought to be at least one hundred men in these realms devoting themselves entirely to this work.

Cooper’s apologetic legacy is a collection of books in which he reproduces some of the apologetics lectures that he gave during those three decades. In those lectures, Cooper returned repeatedly to Strauss, as if to blaze the trees to mark for others the path by which he had emerged from the dark wood of doubt. In The Bridge of History, for example, he lays out Strauss’s charge regarding the authorship of the Gospels and challenges it directly:

Does he mean that … nobody knows who these people were—they are mere men in the moon, there is no historical identity about them, there is nothing on record to connect them with the history they narrate, if it be a history? But if this be really what Strauss means, the simple reply is—it is not true.

And then he goes into the matter in as much detail as a public lecture allows. He lays out the external evidence, citing and in some cases quoting the testimony of Papias, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Jerome, Cyril, Chrysostom, and Augustine. He dwells at some length on the internal content of each Gospel, arguing that Strauss’s skeptical conclusion cannot stand in the face of the evidence. He places special emphasis on small points of circumstantial evidence that combine to create a cumulative case for the authenticity and genuineness of these works.

Cooper never intended his lectures or his works to stand alone; he wanted them to point people in the direction of fuller discussions in more scholarly works. But precisely because he is writing for everyman, his works serve surprisingly well as a point of entry for those who are beginning their study of the subject. If anyone who reads The Bridge of History were moved, on account of that brisk and bracing little work, to take up the larger tomes of Lardner, Paley, Horne, or Westcott, Cooper would consider his own more popular efforts to be amply rewarded.

Looking back on his life and work at the age of 80, Cooper was inclined to deprecate the success of his lectures because he felt he had failed to inspire a generation to take up the torch after him. In Thoughts at Fourscore and Earlier, he writes:

This volume must not come to a close without some registry of my convictions as to the work in which I have employed myself during the last thirty years of my life. Surely, the Author of all good does not suffer any effort wholly to fail, however feeble it may be, if it be made with the sincere intent to draw men away from sin and error, and to lead them to Christ and His truth. And I must inform the reader that as my labour has been solitary, it has not been mighty. Letters expressing gratitude, and testimonials given to me verbally, that I have been made instrumental, through the mercy and condescension of God, in doing good, have cheered me, often. But I have sometimes felt sad that no determined band of young men fitted for maintaining and defending the Evidences of their Saviour’s religion has yet arisen.

I do not lose the hope and confidence that such a band will, one day, arise, and pledge themselves to God and one another to pursue their work till death—despising poverty and difficulty and opposition and indifference on the part of those who ought to be their foremost helpers.

In 1892, blind in one eye, his voice worn out by decades of ceaseless travel and speaking, Thomas Cooper passed away. A few words cut on his tombstone describe him as he wished to be remembered, as a “lecturer in defence of Christianity.”

The best modern source for the life of Thomas Cooper is:

Cooper’s own biography may be found here:

A few more biographical reminiscences may be found here:

Cooper collected the sermons he preached on Sundays into two volumes:

The works in which Cooper reproduced the substance of some of his lectures on the evidences of Christianity are: