Centenary celebrations at the Freethinker, July 1981, with Jim Herrick centre. Photograph by Barry Duke, editor of the Freethinker from 1998–January 2022. page copyright: Freethinker (1981).


Readers of this journal, particularly the older generation, will be saddened to learn of the death of Jim Herrick in Cambridge at the age of 78.

Herrick read history and English at Trinity College, Cambridge, and then worked for several years as a schoolteacher before emerging as a stalwart of the freethought, secularist and humanist movement and an important personality in all its organisations. He contributed as speaker, as manager, organiser and campaigner and, most of all, as writer and editor.

Over 30 years, Herrick wrote numerous pieces for the Freethinker and New Humanist, including book, theatre and cinema reviews. He also published five books: Aspiring to the Truth: Two Hundred Years of the South Place Ethical Society (2016); Humanism: An Introduction (2003); Humanist Anthology: From Confucius to David Attenborough (1995); Against the Faith: Some Deists, Skeptics and Atheists (1985); and Vision and Realism: A Hundred Years of The Freethinker (1982).

Against the Faith reveals the depth of Herrick’s understanding of the freethinking intellectual tradition and its roots. In his introduction, he noted the wide range of backgrounds of those who have contributed to freethought, ranging from fiery activists and politicians, like Paine and Bradlaugh, through poets, historians, scientists and philosophers (including Shelley, Gibbon, TH Huxley, and JS Mill), to polymaths like Bertrand Russell. In his review, Harold Blackham (Freethinker, June 1985) wrote:

‘Jim Herrick shows himself learned and acquainted with the ideas of his selected representatives, and is direct in expression… His temper throughout is cool and fair, and his material is controlled by judicious and perceptive comment.’

After leaving the teaching profession, Herrick’s first employment was as Assistant General Secretary of the BHA. In June 1977, he became General Secretary of the NSS, serving until August 1979. 

Herrick was assistant editor of the Freethinker from October 1975 until he took over as editor in January 1977, a post he held until to August 1981. In 1982, he published Vision and Realism, his centenary history of the magazine. In 1984, he became editor of New Humanist, and then, in 2002, literary editor, until his retirement in 2005; he also served as editor of International Humanist News.

Herrick’s association with the NSS, begun in the 1970s, continued until 2009, when he stepped down from the Council of Management.  He also served as one of the society’s vice-presidents. He was a long-term member of the Board of Secular Society and GW Foote & Co. (publishers of the Freethinker) and served as Chair of both; he was also a trustee of the Rationalist Association, which publishes New Humanist. In 1996 he received the Distinguished Humanist Service Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), and in 2022 he was the recipient of the International Rationalist Award. Herrick was a founder member of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association as well as acting as its Chair.

Herrick and the Freethinker 

According to the authors of The Humanist Movement in Modern Britain (2023, p. 239), a book recently published with the support of Humanists UK (HUK), Herrick told the research assistant Jessica Douthwaite in a 2018 interview that he left the Freethinker because he was ‘tired of all the anti-religious stuff…bashing the church’. In the concluding pages of Vision and Realism, published the year after he left the Freethinker, he recorded some of the ‘ill-feeling’ and verbal slights that had passed between some members of the National Secular Society (NSS) and the Freethinker on the one hand, and of the British Humanist Association (BHA, now HUK) on the other. The secularists spoke bitterly of ‘narcissistically Intellectual Humanists … disinclined to fraternise with working-class people.’ The humanists responded with pointed remarks about the ‘essential sterility of secularism’.

Yet in the same book Herrick also emphasised the ‘diversity’ within both the BHA and the NSS, and the fact that ‘there was overlap of membership and activists’. He characterised the purpose of secularism as ‘criticising religion and propounding social reform’. In the May 1981 issue of the Freethinker, he seemed more positive about the role of secularism, freethought and even the magazine itself than his later comments in The Humanist Movement might suggest. As he put it:

‘The major issues of our time such as disarmament, race relations, unemployment and equable sharing of the world’s resources of food and energy, do not allow us to look to the future with easy optimism. Freethought – the “best of causes” – will continue to clear the ground by exposing religions where they obscure issues and cloud thought. The secular humanist outlook… will continue to provide an essential ingredient of civilisation. Long may the Freethinker flourish.’

Herrick and humanism

Denis Cobell, NSS President from 1997 to 2006, knew Herrick for over 40 years, and regarded him as a friend. In his words:

‘Jim was not a self-publicist and was quietly spoken at meetings when matters of dispute arose. He displayed patience, kindness and objectivity. He was committed to what was once known as “the best of causes” and always went well beyond his duty.’

Herrick’s own view of humanism was poignantly encapsulated in a letter to the Guardian (24 August 2002), in response to claims by the indefatigable Giles Fraser that ‘the humanist agenda is almost entirely parasitic upon religious belief itself’. Not true, said Herrick:

‘The “unspeakable” may be experienced by humanists listening to a string quartet, or touching the depths of love, or acknowledging the puniness of self in the face of the vastness of the universe. There is nothing easy or empty about humanity and reason’.

Further obituaries of Jim Herrick: Humanists UK

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1 comment
  1. A great piece on Jim Herrick and reflects my own dealings with Jim when he was Chair of G W Foote & Co and Secular Society Ltd. He was always thoughtful and wanted essential truths about atheism to provide a basis for rational discussion about wider reaching world problems. On a personal note I valued a very good working relationship with him while serving as Company Secretary of G W Foote & Co and Secular Society, We had a number of very enjoyable lunches together in Guildford when I was working in Godalming, before he relocated to Cambridge. I will miss his intellect and wry sense of humour.

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