W T Stead: Nonconformist and Newspaper Prophet

Professor Stewart J Brown has written a religious biography of pioneering 19th century journalist William Thomas Stead, whose editor's desk was his pulpit.

Professor Stewart J Brown with his biography of W T Stead
Professor Brown with his biography of W T Stead

In the book, published this week, Professor Brown describes Stead as a fluent, engaging writer, strongly influenced by a belief that God had called him to serve His divine plan for humankind.

Stead’s friend, the Baptist Christian Socialist Dr John Clifford, described Stead as “a journalist, but a journalist as Paul was an Apostle and Knox a Reformer.”

“‘To me,’ Clifford declared, ‘he was as a prophet who had come straight out of the Old Testament into our modern storm-swept life’.”

Rise to prominence

The author describes Stead’s background: “The son of a Congregational minister, Stead emerged to national prominence in the 1870s, when, as the young editor of the Darlington Northern Echo, he became a leading voice of the ‘Nonconformist Conscience’, supporting the efforts of Protestant Dissenters to reshape British politics and society around Christian moral standards. In 1881, he became assistant editor of London’s evening Pall Mall Gazette, and then, from 1883, the newspaper’s editor.”

“In 1885, he gained international prominence, and a prison sentence, for his highly controversial ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ newspaper campaign directed against the sex trafficking of girls and young women in London.”

“Remarkable, often highly contentious public career”

During the course of his extraordinary life, Stead worked to improve conditions for the urban poor, searched for proof of the afterlife, campaigned for international peace, learned more about other faiths and cultures, and came to question his early imperialist assumptions. His religious journey “reflected the challenges of preserving a Christian witness at a time of increasing secularization”.

As a Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Professor Brown is interested in Stead’s place in modern Christianity. His book explores how Stead and his newspaper “took on certain roles previously filled by the church, proclaiming a high social ethics, exposing and denouncing sin, seeking to discern the direction of the history and destiny of humankind, and forming participatory networks of readers for moral action… at a time of growing mass literacy, as a means to communicate a social gospel.”

‘W T Stead: Nonconformist and Newspaper Prophet’ will be published by Oxford University Press, as part of its series, Spiritual Lives.

It promises to be a fascinating read.


William Thomas Stead, newspaper editor, author, social reformer, women’s rights advocate, peace campaigner, and spiritualist, was one of the best-known public figures in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

Professor Stewart J Brown


W T Stead: Nonconformist and Newspaper Prophet’, September 2019, Oxford University Press

Professor Brown’s profile