Joseph Barker was born on 11th May 1806 at Bramley, near Leeds. His ancestors, originally of Keighley, had been settled in this area for several generations as farmers and manufacturers. The identity of his parents has not been discovered, though it is known that his father was employed in woollen manufacture and served for some time in the militia, and that Joseph was the fifth child and the fourth son in a family of eleven. Barker’s autobiographical works, written late in life, emphasise the great deprivation and hardships of his childhood: he remarked that long hours at the spinning jenny resulted in physical disability and general weakness, but did afford him the opportunity to read as he worked. His early education was obtained largely through Sunday school; his parents were devout Wesleyan Methodists, and in 1822 he joined the church, though admitting that ‘my determination to yield was not quite full’. He was involved in regular prayer meetings and became an occasional preacher. He furthered his education during this time with the help of Joseph Sutcliffe, a Wesleyan travelling preacher, who assisted him with his reading and grammar. Joseph Hill, a schoolmaster at Bramley and a local preacher, instructed him in Latin and Greek. When his family’s financial circumstances improved, he was sent to the Methodist school run by James Sigston in Leeds.
About a year after joining the Wesleyans, Barker was encouraged to preach more regularly and ‘put on the plan’ as a home missionary and exhorter, and later as a local preacher in spite of questions about his views on the atonement. He proved popular, but was unable to offer himself as a travelling preacher because he was unwilling to serve abroad (those wishing to become travelling preachers were required to indicate a willingness to be sent anywhere by the conference). However, a much larger issue was the requirement to subscribe to the doctrine of the eternal sonship as taught by Richard Watson and Jabez Bunting, in opposition to Adam Clarke. This was a test to which Barker could not bring himself to subscribe. Reflection on these questions led Barker to scrutinise other aspects of the Wesleyan communion. He began to feel that the old connexion was wrong on other issues as well, and looked to the preachers of the Methodist New Connexion. He proclaimed that her ‘doctrines were almost all expressed in Scripture language, and plainly designed to allow of considerable variety of opinion’.
Barker joined the ministry of the Methodist New Connexion and went to Nottingham to assist John Henshaw, who was ill, and then to Liverpool as a supply preacher. Barker was appointed as a travelling preacher on trial to the Hanley circuit in Staffordshire, from 1829 to 1830, and to the Halifax circuit in Yorkshire from 1830 to 1831. During the latter appointment, in 1830 he married Francis Salt of Betley, in Staffordshire. They had at least two sons and a daughter. Conference rules forbade a travelling preacher to marry while on probation, and as a penalty Barker lost one year of his probationary term. In addition to this, a disciplinary migration sent him to Blyth, in the Newcastle upon Tyne circuit (1831–2), from whence he proceeded to Durham for service in the Sunderland circuit for six months (1832–3). In Newcastle, he benefited greatly from the vast library of Dr Tomlinson of St Nicholas’s Church. One effect of his reading was a resolution to be free of the restrictions the connexion had placed upon him.
Despite his tremendous popularity, Barker feared that he would have difficulty being received into full connexion: while his abilities and labour were deemed satisfactory, a number of questions arose about his theological opinions, but he was none the less admitted into full connexion in 1833 and appointed to the Sheffield circuit. Here he became involved in various educational enterprises for young people and ministers, and also entered into the controversy with ‘unbelievers’ in the area, offering a course of public lectures and publishing The Character and Tendency of Christianity (1833). These activities further strengthened his resolve to become ‘an evangelical or a theological reformer’. He became a teetotaller while in Sheffield and quickly became a zealous lecturer on the topic of abstinence both in Sheffield and afterwards in the Chester circuit (1835–7). The further radicalisation of Barker’s views was evident from his decision to give up tobacco, tea, and coffee for a time in 1835. From Chester, Barker moved to the Mossley circuit in 1837. There he began a weekly periodical called the Christian Investigator and Evangelical Reformer, which explored a range of issues including temperance, marriage, trade, and education. The freedom of expression which Barker sought soon brought him difficulties. He held unorthodox opinions on child baptism and the Lord’s Supper; his views were deemed by some to be heretical. At the conference of 1839 he was moved to Gateshead, a comparatively new circuit. It was here that he became a prominent lecturer against Owenite socialism. He published a number of pamphlets, tracts, and sermons on this subject in addition to materials in the Evangelical Reformer.
In the final issue of the Reformer (1840), Barker restated some of the theological views which had created controversy, and his case was brought before the conference of the Methodist New Connexion. Meeting at Halifax in 1841, it expelled Barker on the ground that he ‘had denied the divine appointment of baptism, and refused to administer the ordinance’. His expulsion was followed by a loss to the connexion of ‘29 societies and 4,348 members’, among them a congregation in Newcastle upon Tyne, of which Barker became the pastor. He was determined to model his new church as closely as possible on New Testament principles, but later admitted to the impracticable nature of such plans and to the gradual dispersal of his followers, who were known as Barkerites. In his chapel Barker delivered many lectures and encouraged free discussion on a range of topics. He also worked as a printer, and in addition to other publications began to issue a periodical called The Christian. During this period his views were in a state of flux, first inclining towards Quakerism, and afterwards to Unitarianism. In 1845, he preached in Unitarian chapels both in London and elsewhere. The Unitarians enabled him to start a printing establishment on a larger scale at Wortley, a suburb of Leeds: on 6th July 1846 Dr John Bowring presented him with a steam printing press, purchased at a cost of some £600 with money specially raised for the purpose. Some months previously Barker had issued a ‘proposal for a new library of three hundred volumes, the cheapest collection of works ever published’. He issued books on a range of theological, philosophical, and ethical topics which were bound in cloth and priced at between 1s and 1s. 3d each.
By 1846, Barker’s political interests had become more radical. He advocated republicanism for England, repeal of the Act of Union for Ireland, and the nationalisation of land. These views were presented in a weekly periodical called The People, which sought to ‘wage unsparing war with every thing that stands in the way of the people’s rights, the people’s liberties, the people’s improvement, and the people’s prosperity’. At the height of its popularity it sold more than 20,000 copies each week. In 1847, Barker went on a six months’ tour in America and became interested in various emigration schemes for the working classes. Back in England, he was a delegate to the Chartist convention in 1848. He professed to be a peaceful advocate of the Charter, but found himself arrested for seditious libel along with a number of other political agitators following the Liverpool summer assizes of 1848. While on bail Barker went to Bolton, where he was elected MP for the borough at a by-election by popular acclaim, though he never sat in parliament. He also offered himself as a candidate for the town council of Leeds as a representative of the Holbeck ward and was elected by a considerable majority.
The charges against Barker were dropped at the winter assizes, and he made another trip to the United States in 1849. His impression of the States was so favourable that he determined to leave England with his family and settle there. In 1851, they moved to Knox County, Ohio, a location not too distant from Barker’s brothers. Immediately he thrust his energies into the anti-slavery movement, travelling to many meetings in the north-eastern states from 1852 to 1854. The influence of the abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Henry C. Wright helped to accelerate Barker’s growing religious scepticism. The belief that the Bible sanctioned slavery led him to become a deist, and his lectures became marked by a strong secularist anti-slavery agenda. He was effectively driven from rural Ohio by other settlers who found his trenchant secularism and radical opinions intolerable. In 1854, Barker returned to England, where his interest in the labour movement was reawakened. He believed that he must advance the case of the slaves and the English and Irish workers in tandem. During his lecture tour he encountered further difficulties as a result of his religious opinions, and returned to Ohio in the spring of 1855. After one or two temporary relocations, he eventually settled in Nebraska in 1856. In the summer of 1857, he began a long tour in Philadelphia, where he lectured every Sunday for eight months. After spending a few weeks with his family in Nebraska, he returned to Philadelphia in August 1858 to undertake another eight-month course of lectures, but completed only two months of the engagement. Having concluded that ‘war with Christianity was not the way to promote the virtue and happiness of mankind’, he resolved to return to England, where he thought he might be able to distance himself from men of extreme views on religion and politics and feel free to pursue whatever path he believed to be true. Accordingly, he sailed from Boston on 11th January 1860, and his wife and children followed him in August of the same year.
In April 1860, Barker agreed to become one of the editors of the National Reformer, a secularist paper. He insisted on complete control over half of the paper, but soon found himself in conflict with his co-editor, Charles Bradlaugh. A turning point seems to have come when Barker was sent for review a secularist book which, in his view, undermined marriage and licensed extramarital sexual indulgence. He resigned the post in August 1861 and immediately began his own paper, Barker’s Review of Politics, Literature, Religion, and Morals, and Journal of Education, Science and Co-operation. Around this time he was ‘overpowered and reconverted by re-reading the Scriptures’, and began to retrace his steps back to Methodism via Unitarianism. In 1862, he became lecturer to a congregation of an eclectic kind of ‘unbelievers’ at Burnley, where he lived and laboured for more than a year, enforcing the precepts of morality and often taking occasion to speak favourably of the Bible and Christianity. As Barker returned to the fold, he considered seeking ordination in the Church of England, having dropped his objections to the state church. However, he recognised that his past and age were against him. He was formally reconciled to his old religious belief, and afterwards preached, at their invitation, to the Methodist reformers of Wolverhampton. After accepting like invitations from the Primitive Methodists of Bilston and Tunstall, he joined their community as a local preacher, and held the office until 1868. He was profoundly affected by the death of his wife in 1871, by which time his own health was failing. He returned to the United States, where he spent the winters in Philadelphia lecturing and printing Christian tracts and sermons. In the summers he joined his family in Nebraska. He died of dropsy and jaundice in Omaha on 15th September 1875, and was buried there. A few days before his death he solemnly declared that he died ‘in the firm and full belief of Jesus Christ, and in the faith and love of His religion as revealed in His life and works, as described in the New Testament’.
 The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, J. Barker, diary, 1865–75, Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska, Barker collection, The Christian (1844–8), The People (1848–9), B. Fladeland Abolitionists and working class problems in the age of industrialization, 1984, chapter 7, W. Baggaly A digest of the minutes…of the Methodist New Connexion, 1862, O. A. Beckerlegge ‘Barker, Joseph’, The Blackwell dictionary of evangelical biography, 1730–1860, ed. D. M. Lewis, 1995.
 The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, pages 40-41.
 The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, page 106.
 The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, pages 175-6.
 The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, page 260.
 The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, page 285.
 The People, 1/1, 1846
 The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, page 341.
 The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, pages 346-7.
 The life of Joseph Barker, written by himself, edited by his nephew, 1880, page 385