Stephens, a social reformer, was born on 8th March 1805 in Edinburgh. He was the sixth child of John Stephens (1772–1841) and Rebecca Eliza Rayner (d. 1852), of Wethersfield, Essex. His father, a native of St Dennis in Cornwall, was a prominent Methodist minister, who served as president of the Wesleyan conference in 1827. Three of Joseph Rayner’s brothers also rose to prominence: John as a newspaper editor, Edward as a banker, and George Stephens as a professor of Scandinavian studies. Stephens was educated at Woodhouse Grove Methodist School, near Leeds (c.1813–1815), and later at Leeds and Manchester grammar schools. In 1823, he began to teach at a school in Cottingham, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Soon he became a local preacher in the Beverley circuit and in 1825 offered himself for the ministry. The following year he was ordained and appointed to a mission station in Stockholm, under the auspices of the Wesleyan Missionary Society. He found his assignment to be a difficult one. Restrictions on non-Lutheran missionary enterprises prevented him from evangelizing on a wide scale. Samuel Owen, an English shipbuilder, provided initial support for Stephens’s efforts, and he soon came to the attention of Benjamin Bloomfield, the British envoy to Stockholm, who invited him to serve as an unofficial domestic chaplain at the embassy. He also developed a close friendship with the son of the French ambassador, Count Charles de Montalembert. The probationary period of Stephens’s ministry was concluded and he was received into full connexion when he returned from Sweden in 1829.
Stephens served briefly in Cheltenham and Newcastle upon Tyne before being appointed to the Ashton under Lyne circuit in 1832. Dissenters’ grievances and the cause of disestablishment attracted many advocates in the Ashton area, particularly following the earl of Stamford’s refusal to grant land in the centre of town for a new Congregational chapel. Stephens became a strong proponent of church disestablishment and served as a secretary of the Church Separation Society. These activities brought him into conflict with the Wesleyan hierarchy, and he resigned from the connexion under charges in 1834. In the wake of his departure from the local Wesleyan circuit many others seceded. In November 1834, Stephens consented to become minister to a group of separatists in Ashton. Also, at this time, he was making plans to be married to Elizabeth Henwood (d. 1852), the niece of a noted Wesleyan layman, James Henwood. The marriage took place on 28th January 1835 in Hull.
Stephens’s encounters with Charles Hindley, the Liberal-radical cotton manufacturer, coupled with a fresh look at industrial circumstances upon his return from missionary service, led to a radicalization of his political views. He joined Richard Oastler in the campaign to improve factory conditions and, by the beginning of 1836, emerged as one of the prominent leaders of the movement. He also became one of the most vocal critics of the new poor law. He travelled extensively and drew large audiences as he inveighed against the predicament of the poor; reportedly, he was a gifted and powerful orator. In explaining his motivation Stephens said he always sought to ‘apply the rule of God’s commandments to various institutions of the social system’ in order ‘to bring the operations of the manufacturers, the commerce and legislation of this professedly Christian land to the standard of God’s Holy Word’. Stephens became associated with the Chartist movement though he rejected being labelled as a Chartist. Yet he owned twenty shares (each worth £1) in the Chartist Northern Star and figured prominently in public meetings to promote the various radical causes of the day. His weekly sermons were published as The Political Pulpit (1839) and he frequently contributed to other radical publications including the Christian Advocate, edited by his brother John. In the 1837 general election, he made an unsuccessful bid to enter parliament for Ashton.
Stephens’s reputation for violent speeches and sermons eventually led to his arrest on 27th December 1838. The indictment contained a list of charges: intending to disturb the public peace on 14th November 1838, making a seditious speech at Hyde, and two counts of riot and one of being present at an unlawful assembly. The case was finally tried at the Chester assizes on 15th August 1839. Stephens represented himself at the trial and, lacking legal experience, provided only a weak defence. After a very brief deliberation and verdict from the jury, he was sentenced by Mr Justice Pattison to eighteen months’ imprisonment at Knutsford house of correction, followed by a five-year period in which he had to find sureties for good behaviour. In the event, confinement in Chester Castle was substituted for Knutsford.
By his own reckoning, Stephens’s itinerant activities in Scandinavia had inured him to hardship, and he found prison ‘as little irksome and unpleasant as possible’. But while incarceration did not seem to alter his commitment to the poor, it clearly changed his perspective on how his convictions should be expressed, and his language and activities were much more restrained after his release in 1840. He committed himself to the cause of factory reform but rejected Chartism: the revolutionary zeal with which he pursued his goals in the 1830s was absent. While he resumed preaching, he seemed to exhibit a preference for written expression and became involved with a number of literary ventures: Stephens’s Monthly Magazine (1840), the People’s Magazine (1841), the Ashton Chronicle (1848–9), and The Champion (1850–51).
Perhaps the clearest sign of his change in outlook was his election as a poor-law guardian in 1848. Even though he remained adamantly opposed to the new poor law he was willing to work from within the system to champion individual cases of distress. Following the death of his first wife in 1852, he married Susanna (1838/9–1920), daughter of Samuel Shaw of Derby, on 19th May 1857. In his later years, he became involved in educational enterprises, trade unionism, and agitation on behalf of the unemployed. His activities were in time restricted by severe gout. He died at his home in Stalybridge, Lancashire, on 18th February 1879 of a kidney ailment coupled with persistent vomiting and exhaustion, and was buried on 1st March at St John’s Church, Dukinfield, Cheshire. He was survived by his second wife and several children.
 Sources: M. S. Edwards Purge this realm: a life of Joseph Rayner Stephens, 1994, G. J. Holyoake Life of Joseph Rayner Stephens, 1881, P. B. Templeton A report of the trial of the Rev. J. R. Stephens, at the Chester assizes, on Monday, August 15, 1839, 1839, E. G. Lyon Politicians in the pulpit, 1999, G. D. H. Cole Chartist portraits, 1941), T. Gallandhartley (ed.) Hall’s circuits and ministers, 1912, J. Macdonell and J. E. P. Wallis (eds.) Reports of state trials, [new series.], 8 volumes, (1846–1921), volume. 3 and J. R. Stephens The political pulpit: a collection of sermons, 1839. Archives: British Library: Place MSS, Add. MS 27820, fols. 150–51, 218v–219, 257, 266–7, 281–5, 300–02, 349, 359–61, 401–2; 27821, fols. 13, 225–6
 J. R. Stephens The Political Preacher, 6th January 1839, pages 13–14