Godkin, James (1806–79), Congregational minister, writer, and journalist, was born at Gorey, Co. Wexford, possibly to William and Hester Godkin, whose sons Edward and William were baptised in Christ Church (Church of Ireland), Gorey, in 1809 and 1812. His family was comfortably off, and Godkin received a good education. He was said to have made in his teens ‘a brief excursion into the catholic church, to which he did not belong, and from which he soon returned’ (Campbell, IBL, ii (1911), 117). He then thought of ordination as a Church of Ireland clergyman, but became a minister of the Congregational church at Armagh in September 1834; the Irish Evangelical Society sent him in that year as a missionary among catholics in Connacht. His first published work, described as ‘by the Rev. James Godkin, formerly a Roman Catholic’, was A guide from the church of Rome to the church of Christ (1836; 2nd ed., also 1836; 3rd ed., 1845). He founded (April 1838) a weekly newspaper, the Christian Patriot, in Belfast, the aim of which was to reconcile catholic and protestant, while covering national and international affairs. Despite initial mutual prejudice, Godkin and Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) gradually became friends during Duffy's stay as a newspaper editor in Belfast. On the failure of his Belfast newspaper (1840) Godkin moved to Derry and became editor of the Derry Standard. He increasingly came to believe that Gavan Duffy's political views were correct, and in 1844, he won third prize for an essay, ‘The rights of Ireland’, using the pseudonym ‘A protestant clergyman’, in an essay competition promoted by the Repeal Association. In his essay Godkin explored the possibility of reestablishing an independent Irish parliament, but asserted that this should only be done by constitutional means and only when Irish protestants agreed to it, and that such a parliament should ensure that no church be established or endowed in Ireland. The essay was published in the collection Essays on the repeal of the union by James Duffy (qv) (1845). As a result of the political stance revealed in the essay, the Irish Evangelical Society terminated Godkin's involvement in their activities. Thomas Davis (qv) found him work on the Freeman's Journal.
Godkin hoped to secure employment as a professor in the new Irish college at Maynooth, but was disappointed in this, and in 1847 went to London, where he became a leader-writer for provincial journals and a contributor to reviews. He formally left the ministry (1848), returned to Ireland (1849), and was editor of the Dublin Daily Express for ten years and Dublin correspondent for the London Times for seven years. From 1850 he was increasingly interested in the land question and was active on behalf of the Tenant League. In June 1868 he launched in Dublin the National Review, a monthly Irish equivalent of the Spectator or the Saturday Review. By the fourth issue the National Review had become a weekly, but it closed by the end of the year, following the Liberals’ election success. ‘The battlefields of ‘98’, historical essays on the 1798 rebellion, appeared in the Review, and contained a good deal of traditional and hitherto unpublished material; Godkin intended to publish a volume on the rising in Ulster, but it never appeared. In 1869, as a special commissioner for The Times, he travelled widely in Ulster and the south of Ireland. making observations on the system of landholding in different parts of the country. His writings on agrarian reform for The Times were widely read and influential, as was his writing on church reform.
Godkin's reflections on Irish history and on his contacts with tenant farmers were published as The land-war in Ireland (1870), in which he made use of evidence supplied by J. A. Froude (qv), J. P. Prendergast (qv), and the Rev. C. P. Meehan (qv). He concluded that the way to resolve ancient injustices and contemporary unrest lay through the implementation of Gladstone's land bill. Godkin's other major works included Apostolic Christianity: or, the people's anti-dote [sic] against Romanism (1842), Education in Ireland: its history (1862); Ireland and her churches (1867), in which he argued strongly for church equality and security of tenancy; and A religious history of Ireland, primitive, papal, and protestant (1872). In 1871, with John A. Walker, he published The new handbook of Ireland: an illustrated guide (468 pp.). He was awarded a civil list pension in 1873 for services to literature; in that year he published an Illustrated history of England from 1820 to the death of the prince consort. He died 2 May 1879 in Upper Norwood, Surrey.
He married (c.1830) Sarah, daughter of Anthony Lawrence, landowner, from Moyne, Co. Wicklow. One of their two sons was Edwin L. Godkin (qv); there were also three daughters.