Papers of Alexander Gordon

Scope and Content

An extensive collection of papers relating to the historical researches of Alexander Gordon. Most of the material consists of biographical material collected by Gordon to produce entries for the Dictionary of National Biography. There are also notes on general historical themes relating to the history of dissent and of Unitarianism, notebooks containing historical notes and notes of lectures delivered by Gordon. There is a scrapbook built around a printed roll of students at different dissenting institutions, with annotations throughout, and there is extensive correspondence connected with Gordon's historical researches alongside personal correspondence with close friends.

Administrative / Biographical History

Alexander Gordon was born in Coventry on 9 June 1841. His father, John Gordon, trained for the Anglican ministry but came into conflict with the Church over his refusal to assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles. He became a Wesleyan Methodist minister, only to break with the Methodists in 1835, eventually finding his way to Unitarianism.

Alexander was initially educated by his father, after which he attended King Henry VIII School Coventry, followed by the Royal High School, Edinburgh and Edinburgh University, graduating from the latter at the age of 18. He trained for the Unitarian ministry at Manchester New College where he was taught by John James Taylor and James Martineau. Whilst at the College he received a scholarship to study under the theologian and ecclesiastical historian Ignaz von Döllinger at Munich University. He was awarded a fellowship by the Hibbert Trust in 1863 and obtained a Masters degree in 1864.

Gordon's first ministerial position was at Aberdeen in 1862, moving to Hope Street Church, Liverpool in 1863 and Norwich in 1872. In 1877 he became a minister at the First Presbyterian Church, Belfast where he remained until 1889. From 1880 he also worked as divinity tutor for the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians preparing students for the ministry. In 1890 he was appointed to be the first full-time Principal of the Unitarian Home Missionary Board, which at his insistence became the Unitarian Home Missionary College. Under his leadership the curriculum was radically revised and the College moved to its new premises at Victoria Park Manchester early in the new century. Whilst working at the College Gordon delivered lectures in ecclesiastical history at the University of Manchester and formed close links between the College and the University, helping to set up the University's Faculty of Theology in 1904.

Gordon was highly regarded as a scholar and historian of religious dissent, and an enthusiastic writer of biographical studies. His major achievement was the production of 778 entries for the Dictionary of National Biography, including portraits of the Wesleys, George Whitefield, George Fox and many of the major figures in the history of mainstream Christianity and religious dissent. He produced 39 articles for the eleventh edition (1910-11) of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His output of written work was prodigious: as well as his biographical sketches he produced chapel histories, books on the history of dissent and regular historical pieces for Christian Life. He was an active member of the Congregational, Baptist, Friends and other denominational history societies and wrote for the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society. His first biographer said of him that he 'delved deep into the history of Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Friends, Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians and Swedenborgians; of obscure sects like the Tryonites, Traskites, Muggletonians, and Grindletonians of the seventeenth century, the Sandemanians and Sabellian Baptists of the eighteenth, and Southcottians and Jezreelites of the nineteenth, whilst his acquaintance with Protestant sects on the Continent - Socinians, Mennonites, Collegiants, and Anabaptists - was not less intimate'. The impressive extent of his publication history is illustrated by the fact that the bibliography of his writings accompanying Herbert McLachlan's biography of Gordon covers 61 pages.

He married Clara Maria Boult in 1872 and they had 6 children, 5 sons and a daughter. He died in Belfast on 21 February 1931 and was buried at the Old Meeting House, Dunmurry.


The papers have been arranged into 6 series:

  • Dictionary of National Biography Notes
  • General Historical Notes
  • Notebooks
  • Scrapbook
  • Correspondence
  • Photograph


Herbert McLachlan, Alexander Gordon, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1932).

Herbert McLachlan, 'Alexander Gordon, Biographer and Historian', Essays and Addresses, ed. Herbert McLachlan (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1950).

Herbert McLachlan, 'Alexander Gordon and his copy of the Dictionary of National Biography', Essays and Addresses, ed. Herbert McLachlan (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1950).

Herbert McLachlan, The Unitarian Home Missionary College, (London: Sherratt and Hughes, 1915).

Alan Rushton, 'Gordon, Alexander (1841-1931)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

David Steers, 'Alexander Gordon', Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.

Obituary, 'Alexander Gordon',Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, vol. 5:1 (1931/1934), p. 101.