George William Foote
George William Foote

The Freethinker is published by GW Foote & Co Ltd, the company set up in 1916 in memory of George William Foote (1850–1915), the founder and first editor of the Freethinker from 1881, and later second president of the National Secular Society. Foote’s successor as editor was Chapman Cohen (1868–1954); when Cohen relinquished the post in 1951, GW Foote & Co Ltd was acquired by Secular Society Ltd.

The current editor, Daniel James Sharp, took over in April 2024. The magazine was redesigned and relaunched in March 2022, and its purpose restated for the 21st century. Find out more about our logo, Porcus Sapiens, here.

Secular Society Ltd also has a long and proud history. Founded by G.W. Foote in 1898 as a way of evading legal barriers to the leaving of bequests to supposedly blasphemous freethought organisations, the arrangement was be tested in a ground-breaking court case, Bowman v. Secular Society Ltd. This was eventually decided in the Society’s favour by the House of Lords in 1917. In the case report, the Society’s aim was defined as being to ‘promote the principle that human conduct should be based upon natural knowledge, and not upon supernatural belief, and that human welfare in this world is the proper end of all thought and action.’

The objects of SSL today are given below. It is a not-for-profit company whose aim is to maintain funds provided by supporters over the years, and to use the income generated from those funds to undertake activities which promote secularism and freedom from religious influence. While religious or humanist organisations qualify as charities ‘for the advancement of religion’ (or humanism) under English law, no such provision is available for organisations that aim to advance free thought or secularism – hence why SSL is a not-for-profit, but not a charity.

The Freethinker has always relied on the generosity of its readers to stay afloat, and is heavily dependent on its historic endowment. But our remaining funds do not cover our costs, and continued support from readers is vital in ensuring a sustainable future. All subscription fees, donations and legacies received from our supporters will be used to ensure that GW Foote & Co Ltd and the Freethinker can continue to promote ‘the best of causes’ (in the words of Foote’s friend, the novelist George Meredith) for many years to come.

Objects of Secular Society Ltd

(a) To promote in such ways as may from time to time be determined, the principle that human conduct should be based on natural knowledge, and not on supernatural belief, and that human welfare in the world is the proper end of all thought and action;
(b) To promote the utmost freedom of enquiry and the publication of its discoveries;
(c) To promote the secularisation of the State, so that religious tests and observances may be banished from the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary;
(d) To promote the abolition of all support, patronage, or favour by the State of any particular form or forms of religion;
(e) To promote universal Secular Education, without any religious teaching, in public schools maintained in any way by municipal rates or imperial taxation;
(f) To promote an alteration in the laws concerning religion, so that all forms of opinion may have the same legal rights of propaganda and endowment;
(g) To promote recognition by the State of marriage as a purely civil contract, leaving its religious sanctions to the judgement and determination of individual citizens;
(h) To promote the recognition of Sunday by the State as a purely civil institution for the benefit of the people and the repeal of all Sabbatarian laws devised and operating in the interests of religious sects, religious observances or religious ideas;
(i) To purchase, lease, rent or build halls or other premises for the promotion of the above objects;
(j) To employ lecturers, writers, organisers, or other servants for the same end;
(k) To publish books, pamphlets or periodicals;
(l) To assist by votes of money or otherwise other Societies or associated persons or individuals who are specially promoting the above objects;
(m) To have, hold, receive and retain any sums of money paid, given, devised or bequeathed by any person and to employ the same of any of the purposes of the Society;
(n) To cooperate or communicate with any kindred Society in any part of the world;
(o) To do all such and other lawful things as are conducive or incidental to the attainment of all or any of the above objects.

George William Foote’s introduction to the first issue of the Freethinker, May 1881

We will not bore you with a long introductory address, containing a catalogue of promises that may never be kept. The Freethinker is an anti-Christian organ, and must therefore be chiefly aggressive. It will wage relentless war against Superstition in general, and against Christian Superstition in particular. It will do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation; and it will not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that may be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense. During the summer months special attention will be given to the out-door advocacy of Free-thought. Our first number will give a fair idea of the style in which the paper will be conducted.

Any competent Christian will be allowed reasonable space in which to contest our views; and if fuller opportunity is desired, the editor will always be ready to hold a public debate with any clergyman, minister, or accredited representative of the other side.

For those who are interested, some more detail about the format and publishing history of the Freethinker:

The history of the Freethinker can also be divided up into eras based on the format of publication. Between 1881 and 2014, the magazine was a print journal. The first four editions (May-August 1881) were issued monthly. From 4 September 1881, the Freethinker was a weekly journal; this continued until the end of 1972, and from January 1973, it became a monthly again. In the early years, there were various special issues (such as Christmas 1881 and Summer 1893) which were particularly lavish and included many cartoons and pictorial, coloured wrappers. Over the years, the size of the journal varied enormously; at its largest there were 12 foolscap pages each week printed in a small font, although some of the ‘Specials’ were even larger. An accompanying and very basic webpage was launched in 1998. In 2014, the Freethinker went online only (the last print issue came out in May 2014), publishing on its own dedicated website until July 2021. Between then and December 2021, it published via the Patheos platform. In March 2022, the Freethinker returned to its own dedicated website and relaunched under Emma Park. 

Almost all of the journal’s published output since 1881 is now available for free to the public, most of it in the digital archive of print editions from 1881 until 2014 (forthcoming). You can find much of the 2014-2021 content here and here, though note that these years are available via the Internet Archive and are not hosted by us. They are, therefore, unorganised. Owing to factors beyond the our control, they are unlikely to be organised in the way that the digital print archive has been. Note also that many of the articles published before the Patheos era appear on Patheos anyway, having been republished there (to clarify: only the articles between July and December 2021 were originally published on Patheos). Finally, all of the content from 2022 onwards is available through the website you are currently reading.

List of editors

  • George William Foote, May 1881 – October 1915 (Edward Aveling edited the paper during Foote’s imprisonment, 1883)
  • Chapman Cohen, October 1915 – June 1951
  • Frank Ridley, June 1951 – April 1954
  • A Committee consisting of F. A. Hornibrook, Bayard Simmons, G. H. Taylor May 1954 – August 1959.
  • Colin McCall replaced Simmons in 1957, his name appearing alongside Hornibrook and Taylor from December that year. He became sole editor from August 1959 until December 1965
  • David Tribe, January 1966 – May 1966
  • Kit Mouat, June 1966 – January 1967
  • David Collis, January 1967 – October 1967
  • Karl Hyde, November 1967 – August 1968
  • David Reynolds, September 1968 – July 1970
  • William McIlroy, August 1970 – December 1971
  • Nigel Sinnott, January 1972 – September 1973
  • Christopher Morey, October 1973 – December 1974
  • William McIlroy, January 1975 – December 1976
  • Jim Herrick, January 1977 – August 1981
  • William McIlroy, September 1981 – December 1992
  • Peter Brearey, January 1993 – May 1998
  • Barry Duke, June 1998 – January 2022
  • Dr Emma Park, January 2022 – March 2024
  • Daniel James Sharp, April 2024 –