Elizabeth Gaskell knew Martineau and Newman, became friends with some American Unitarians, and definitely embraced the spiritual side of Unitarianism. She thought Priestley's brand of Unitarianism was cold and hard. Jesus, though not Christ, was a living presence, and the Bible remained an indispensable book. But Elizabeth Gaskell was also of the social reform school of Unitarianism, in company with Harriet Martineau and Florence Nightingale in England, and Theodore Parker and Dorothea Dix in this country.
Gaskell was writing at a time when the mill owners struggled against a social system in which the landowners were paramount and often charged exhorbitant rents to the industrialists. Thomas Malthus direly predicted that population would soon outstrip food supply. Utopian socialists planned alternative, cooperative societies. And Frederick Engels presented his dark picture of the situation in Manchester in "The condition of the Working Class in England." Gaskell's writing seems to us far from radical, and those on the left found her solutions paternalistic. But hers was a paternalism of aiding adult children and watching them become independent agents rather than the "Father Knows Best" paternalism prevalent at the time. In both Mary Barton and North and South she shows the folly of mill owners refusing to inform workers of even good reasons for their actions and assuming that workers wouldn't understand or had no right to know, anyway. Gaskell was one of the few writers with some sympathy for workers's unions. In North and South, she envisioned union leaders acting in an advisory capacity in the affairs of the mills.
Charles Darwin, a distant cousin of Elizabeth Gaskell, published On the Origin of Species, in 1859 and evolution was the center of the public debate throughout the 1860s. Unitarianism still was primarily the rational and scientific religion of Joseph Priestley despite the move toward more spirituality, and Unitarians welcomed the theories and as usual loved discussing Darwin's concepts. At the time, Oxford and Cambridge only allowed Anglican students, and studies concentrated there on ancient languages, literature and history. Science, as a discipline for study, was not valued. Gaskell, in Wives and Daughters illustrates the attitude with a vignette of two sons. The parents hail the eldest, a student of poetry, as the genius of the family, while they view the younger son, with a keen interest in science and nature, as slow-witted. Unitarians studied at other Universities, such as in Edinburg, that may not have been as prestigious, but had great science departments. They were among the Theory of Evolution's staunchest defenders in the early confrontations between science and religion. The Gaskells had two liberal Anglican friends at Oxford, Benjamin Jowett and Mark Pattison, who were charged with heresy for embracing Darwinism and denying the existence of hell. I'm not sure which outraged the Anglican establishment more, but a conviction of heresy was overturned on appeal. uufhc.net