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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

A Unitarian creation

Photo credit: Permission of Harris Manchester College

The six days of the Biblical creation story are depicted here in stained glass by William Morris (1834-1896) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). An exquisite work of Pre-Raphaelite art, the window was a memorial by two grieving parents for their son, Godfrey Arlosh, who died in 1890 aged only 20. Although now recognized as among the great treasures of Harris Manchester College, the stained glass was controversial when it first went up. For some pious Unitarians, such visual delight was a direct rejection of their puritan past. Only plain glass would do – and certainly not these ‘idle women shuffling along with fantastic robes and gaudy wraps … doing nothing but make eyes at those who court them’. For others, this apparent Biblical literalism was the problem. In the aftermath of Darwin, argued one, the choice of the creation story seemed ‘studiously incongruous’. Each response, of course, simply illustrated the importance that these symbols possessed.

was especially important for the founders and funders of Manchester (now Harris Manchester) College. This was a place set up to provide a base for Unitarians in Oxford: something that would have been unthinkable only a few years before it opened in 1892. Because of their willingness to dispute the divinity of Christ and the plausibility of a Trinitarian God, Unitarians has long been regarded by many Christians as little more than atheists – or worse. The reforms of the 1870s, which opened up the University to a wider range of beliefs, enabled this foundation and the College soon pioneered theological debate and co-education.