Friday, 28 September 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Divergent Chartisms in the early 1840s -- 'Church Chartism'

The National Association was not the only organisation that emerged in the early 1840s to challenge the supremacy of O’Connor. There was a vital and organic link between politics and religion in the nineteenth century. Chartism reflected this and used religious language and religious leaders. Protestant evangelicalism was at its height and many Christian Chartists gathered strength from their belief that they were truly the agents of God’s work. Peter Foden told his Chartist audience that[1] “Their cause was of God and whatever the hand of man might attempt to do, God was still on the side of the poor, and they were sure to prosper.”

Divisions on religious grounds

In part, especially in 1838 and 1839, battle lines were drawn on religious grounds. In some areas clerical attitudes to working class action appear to have been crucial. At least forty clergymen sympathised actively with the Chartist movement from the Unitarian Yeovil minister Henry Solly[2] and the Baptist Thomas Davies of Merthyr to the eloquent Congregationalist Alexander Duncanson. Their support came from lecturing, chairing meetings, loaning chapels and giving radicals books and money. They stood on the ‘moral’ wing of the movement but that did not stop their chapel invective from being fiery. J.R. Stephens gave an apocalyptic sermon on 3rd August 1839 before his trial at Chester. He warned of God’s ruin of unrighteous civilisations and proclaimed the Second Coming[3]

“We are now arrived at the period when God is saying to us for the last time, ‘How often – how often would I have gathered you as a nation, taken you under my especial protection, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but ye would not!’ God, in my judgement, is now giving England her last opportunity; we are now at the eleventh hour of the day of our salvation; we are now favoured with an opportunity of lighting our lamps, of following the bridegroom, of entering in to the marriage supper… All men are agreed in believing that we are on the eve of a change, and a very great change, a very awful change and perhaps a very sudden change.”

Some, like preachers in the West Riding, shared the lives of their congregations. Benjamin Rushton was a working handloom weaver, William Thornton a wool comber and John Arran variously a blacksmith, teacher and dealer in coffee and tea. Clerical support was strongest from the oldest and newest branches of Nonconformity and this raised hopes of an alliance between Chartism and Nonconformity over issues like education, the relationship between church and state and political reform.

The sentiment, expressed by George Binns[4] the dominant Chartist figure on the Durham coalfields at his open-air meetings with banner proclaiming ‘We are born again’ and ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’, runs through the Chartist movement. Binns’ speeches – Gammage wrote of their magical effect -- were full of the need for regeneration, the unchristian nature of their opponents and the final triumph of the numbers and energy of the people: ‘they may boast of their Wellingtons, but we have a God’. O’Connor may have distrusted Christian Chartists but William Hill[5], editor of his Northern Star, defended them vigorously. In the early summer of 1843 at the start of a lecturing tour Hill stated that his purpose was to show that[6]

“Every consistent Christian must be a Chartist and that all will be better Chartists for being Christians….I believe Christianity to be the soul of which Chartism is the body; and I cannot consent to separate them”

It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of religious radicalism. Even the NCA membership card carried the words: ‘This is Our Charter, God is Our Guide’. It was also evident in the frequent inclusion of some form of religious ceremony into Chartist rituals, from blessing the food at radical dinners, singing ‘Chartist Hymns’ to holding Chartist funerals. The NCA executive did not speak for all Chartists when it refused to agree to the creation of Christian Chartist Churches at the expense of political organisations[7]. Parish church demonstrations took place in at least thirty-one localities in the second half of 1839. The corrupted church was contrasted with the true church that was the property of the people. Tithes and compulsory church rates, the role of Anglican clergymen as magistrates, pew rents and the limited membership of the parish vestry were all causes of this assault. The attack on the established church must be seen in the context of the structure of Tory-Anglican power. It had opposed reform in 1832 and now opposed the Charter.

The Anglican Church and the orthodox Methodist churches led the attack on the atheism (‘infidelism’) and violence of working class radicals. Jabez Bunting, leader of the Wesleyan Methodists, had no qualms in expelling lay preachers or ministers who sympathised with or actively supported the Chartists. When Joseph Barker was expelled from the Methodist New Connection in 1841 he took twenty-nine churches with him, many of which became Chartist in spirit if not in name. In Cornwall and Denbighshire, preachers went further than invective by disrupting political meetings and visiting houses to warn people against signing national petitions.

Origins in Scotland

The men who established Chartism in Scotland in the late 1830s were almost all closely connected to the churches[8]. The Chartist movement was seen by many as part of the long struggle in Scotland for civil and religious liberties. The impetus to establish Chartist churches came in large part from the hostile response of the existing dissenting clergy of the United Secession Church and the Relief Synod. Wilson says that in February 1839 the Glasgow Universal Suffrage Association petitioned 83 clergymen seeking their support and received one sympathetic reply. Roman Catholics who became involved with Chartism, meanwhile, had to reckon with expulsion from Catholic societies, as happened to Con Murray, a leading figure in the O'Connorite wing of the movement The Chartist Circular advised people to “Study the New Testament. It contains the elements of Chartism”. In the early stages of the movement Scottish Chartists, not surprisingly, looked to the Churches for support and leadership. Chartist committees quickly appointed deputations to meet the ministers of their parishes to seek their support. No co-operation was expected from the clergymen of the Established Church but the response of the Dissenting clergy was a profound disappointment. Their response was, in general, apathetic, a combination of diffidence in committing themselves to the Chartist cause and an innate prejudice against Christians ‘meddling in politics’. The important part played by the Reverend Patrick Brewster[9] of Paisley Abbey church and the Reverend Archibald Browning of Tillicountry in Chartism was the exception.

James Moir[10] had warned his fellow clergymen in April 1839 that their failure to support the Charter could lead to the development of a new religious denomination that would combine the principles of Christianity and Chartism. The following month, first in Hamilton and then Paisley, Chartists began conducting their own religious services. This spread quickly and by early 1840 Chartist Christian congregations had spread to at least thirty places. John Roger, president of the Bridgeton Radicals reported the success of his group's religious ventures to the Glasgow Universal Suffrage Association on 24th September that year, recommending that the organisation open its hall on Sundays for public worship. Malcolm McFarlane, a cabinet-maker and vice-president of the Glasgow association, was among the first preachers. The association now set up a religious worship committee, one of whose members, Thomas Mair, reported on 22nd October that though the “a considerable amount of money” had been collected, just three of the six committee members had yet officiated. Preachers included both regular clergy, Rev Mr Calder and Rev Mr Percy, among them, and lay preachers. These included such popular preachers as Andrew Cassels of Partick, William Tait of Auchinearn, Charles McEwan of Gorbals, and Arthur O'Neill of Maryhill.Arthur O’Neill [11], the youngest member of the Universal Suffrage Central Committee for Scotland, a former student of theology and an inspiring lay preacher, reported in late 1839 that[12] “Chartist congregations to become general in every corner of the land [needed] only Chartist preachers – men who would tell the truth, and the whole truth, and who would not scruple to raise their voices against any voice, whether in Church or State.”

It became necessary to establish rules governing such matters as baptism and marriage, as well as questions of doctrine, and a new denomination, calling itself “the Christian Church” was founded. On 1st March 1840 at Glasgow, three sermons were preached, three baptisms held and 65 new members enrolled at the Mechanics Hall, Tontine Place. With upwards of 20 congregations now established, a number of Chartists found themselves in regular employment as preachers, among them John McCrae, William Thomasan and Abram Duncan, all of whom had been delegates to the 1839 Chartist Convention. Thomasan, McCrae and most of the other pastors also acted as school masters to the children of Chartist, and schools were established at Alexandria, Arbroath, Greenock, Gorbals, Strathaven and Hamilton

The intention was not to develop an alternative to the older forms of organised religion but to put pressure on hostile or diffident clergymen. This proved very successful and some clergymen, even the most hostile, began to adopt a more sympathetic or at least neutral attitude. The Reverend Harvey, for example, changed his mind about Chartism and moved from violent denunciation of the movement in late 1839 to lecturing on universal suffrage showing the Christian duty of the middle classes to assist working people in getting the vote by January 1841.

By March 1840, permanent congregations had been formed in some places and this formed the beginnings of the Christian Chartist Churches. The True Scotsman reported in January 1841 that “A Chartist place of worship is to be found on the Lord’s Day in almost every town of note from Aberdeen to Ayr”. Some Chartists thought that a Chartist Synod should be set up to embrace all the local Chartist churches. In January 1841 a delegate conference of all the Chartist churches in Scotland was held to consider how they could help each other and whether any central organisation was necessary. No further delegate conferences were held and after 1841 there appears to have been a steady decline in the number of localities where Chartist services were held[13]. Despite this, when Reverend William Hill, the editor of the Northern Star, toured Scotland in August 1842, he found that the Christian Chartist churches remained the main strength of Scottish Chartism.

O’Neill and the move into England

The focus for Church Chartism had already moved south into England. O’Neill had earned a considerable reputation for his work with the Lanarkshire Universal Suffrage Association. He preached to Chartist congregations on Sundays and built up the organisation during the week. He was appointed a delegate to the demonstration arranged for the release of John Collins and William Lovett from Warwick gaol in July 1840. His sincerity made a great impression on Birmingham Chartists. And, though he went back to Scotland for a short time, he returned to Birmingham, at Collins’ invitation, in late 1840 to give a series of lectures and sermons at the opening of a Chartist Church. The Birmingham Chartist Church was opened on 27th December 1840 at Newhall Street with O’Neill as its pastor. He believed that the true church could not remain aside from daily events but ‘must enter into the struggles of the people and guide them’. He made his position clear in late January 1841[14]

“The characteristics of members of a real Church was on the first day of the week to worship at their alter, and on the next to go out and mingle with the masses, on the third to stand at the bar of judgement, and on the fourth, perhaps to be in a dungeon. This was the case in the primitive Church and so it should be now.’

The Chartist Church was overtly political and its ideology and practice reflected the strengths and weakness of the Birmingham radical movement. O’Neill believed in the importance of links with the middle class. In August 1840 he had said that Birmingham Chartists should ‘go on steadily, avoiding all useless squabbles with the middle class’. His attitude to the middle class was not, however, uncritical. In the tract The Question: what good will the Charter do? He challenged the new industrial society criticising the middle class for its failure to fulfil the promises of the 1832 Reform Act and denouncing the inhumanity of both the New Poor Law and the factory system. Despite this, O’Neill always leaned, even in his most radical phases, towards the middle class alliance.

O’Connor saw the Chartist Church was a diversion from the ‘true’ aims of the movement. He opposed the Birmingham Church on particular as well as general grounds. He argued that it was objectionable to set up a church that barred Irish Catholics and his outlook were supported by George White[15], the leader of the NCA in Birmingham. O’Neill returned their antipathy by not allowing members of the Chartist Church to join the NCA. There were occasions when the two groups came together, for example in the joint petitioning for the release of Frost, Williams and Jones and their common opposition to the Anti-Corn Law League. However, the basic opposition of the Church to physical force and O’Neill’s support for a middle class alliance remained a serious obstacle to closer ties. Yet O’Neill remained a Chartist. He sided with the Chartist majority when Joseph Sturge and many of the middle class members of the Complete Suffrage Union withdrew from the December 1842 conference after the vote to endorse the Charter though the experience confirmed his fears about the Chartist leadership.

The rift with Sturge was short-lived. In January 1843, O’Neill attended a meeting of the council of the Complete Suffrage Union where his plans for strengthening its organisation were accepted. He was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in August 1843 and on his release returned to the Newhall Street Church declaring that he was ‘still a Chartist’. A Wesleyan minister, “who was no friend to Chartism”, described O'Neill’s preaching methods as follows[16]:

“O’Neill called himself a Christian Chartist and always began his discourse with a text, after the manner of a sermon; and some of our people went to hear him just to observe the proceedings and were shocked beyond description: there was unmeasured abuse of Her Majesty and the Constitution, about the public expenditure and complete radical doctrines of all kinds. They have a hymn-book of their own and affect to be a denomination of Christians. This is the way they gained converts here, by the name. There were very few political Chartists here, but Christian Chartist was a name that took. It is almost blasphemy to prostitute the name of Christian to such purposes.”

The context of Birmingham Chartism had, however, changed and no longer implied support for the national movement led by O’Connor. The revival of ‘harmonious co-operation’ between the classes was renewed and absorbed both the Complete Suffrage Union and the Chartist Church which dissolved respectively in December 1845 and the following year. This change in O’Neill’s attitude can be seen in 1848 when, as elsewhere, Chartism revived in Birmingham. With other former Christian Chartists O’Neill joined middle class radicals in forming a Reform League in the town supporting Joseph Hume’s agitation for the ‘Little Charter’. The League was short-lived but the alliance between working class artisans and middle class radicals survived.

Was Church Chartism a threat to the unity of the Chartist movement? It may have been strong in Scotland but in England its effect was more limited. The success of O’Neill in Birmingham was paralleled by James Scholefield[17] in Manchester and Benjamin Rushton in Halifax. Among the weaving communities Chartism often took the form of a holy war with all the trappings of revivalism. Wearmouth has identified over five hundred camp meetings in the early years of Chartism and in the late 1840s[18]. This certainly does not compare with the scale or the energy of the revivalism of the 1790s or after Peterloo. O’Connor’s concern was in part that the movement would be diluted by these ‘deviations’ but also that many of the leaders of Church Chartism had emerged from the crisis of 1839 as supporters of class-co-operation. For them politics was not simply about power but about moral regeneration. This O’Connor could not stomach.


[1] Quoted in Eileen Yeo ‘Christianity in Chartist Struggle 1838-1842’, Past and Present, volume 91, (1981), page 122.

[2] Owen R. Ashton and Paul A. Pickering Friends of the People, Merlin, 2003, pages 29-54 contain a useful biography of Henry Solly.

[3] Northern Star, 17th August 1839 quoted in Eileen Yeo ‘Christianity in Chartist Struggle 1838-1842’, Past and Present, volume 91, page 121

[4] George Binns (1815-47) composed a long poem called the Doom of Toil (1841). He formed a close political partnership with James Williams (1811-68) and the two ran a bookshop in Sunderland. This enabled Binns to travel as an agitator throughout the Durham coalfield. They were imprisoned in 1840 and Binns later went to New Zealand, where he died. Williams was a well-known figure in Sunderland all his life, working as a councillor and newspaper editor. See biography in J. O. Baylen and N. J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770 volume 2: 1830-1970, Brighton, 1984, pages 61-64.

[5] William Hill (1806?-67) was a Swedenborgian minister and the first editor of the Northern Star (1839-41).

[6] Quoted in David Jones Chartism and the Chartists, 1975, page 50.

[7] H.U. Faulkner Chartism and the Churches: A Study in Democracy, New York, 1916 is still, despite its age, perhaps the best introduction to the subject. It should, however, be supplemented by more recent work especially E. Yeo ‘Christianity in Chartist Struggle 1838-1842’, Past and Present, volume 91, reprinted in S. Roberts (ed.) The People’s Charter, Merlin, 2003, pages 64-94 and Eileen Lyon Politicians in the Pulpit: Christian Radicalism in Britain from the Fall of the Bastille to the Disintegration of Chartism, Ashgate, 1999.

[8] On Chartist in Scotland see Alexander Wilson The Chartist Movement in Scotland, Manchester, 1970, especially chapter xi on Christian Chartism and Alexander Wilson ‘Chartism in Glasgow’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, London, 1959, pages 249-287. W.H. Fraser ‘The Scottish Context of Chartism’, in Terry Brotherstone (ed.) Covenant, Charter and Party: Traditions of Revolt and Protest in Modern Scottish History, Aberdeen, 1989 looks at the subject in the light of recent research.

[9] Patrick Brewster (1788-1859) was a Scottish minister and moderate Chartist associated with teetotalism and class collaboration. Well known as a public speaker, he debated with O’Connor in 1839 and 1841.

[10] James Moir (1806-60) was a supporter of the radical cause in Glasgow for many years. He lent his support to Christian Chartism, middle class reform organisations and eventually the Liberal Party.

[11] Valuable biographical information on Arthur O’Neill (1819-96) can be found in Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography volume vi, London, 1982, pages 193-198.

[12] Scottish Patriot quoted in Wilson The Chartist Movement, page 145.

[13] In 1840-41, there were Chartist churches in Scotland in Alloa, Anderston, Arbroath, Bridgeton, Campsie, Cupar, Darvel, Dundee, Eaglesham, Glasgow (two), Greenock, Gorbals, Hamilton, Inverleven, Johnstone, Kilbarchan, Kilmarnock, Lanark, Leith, Linlithgow, Newburgh, Newmilns, Partick, Paisley, Pollockshaws, Shettleston and St Ninians, vale of Leven.

[14] Birmingham Journal, 23rd January 1841.

[15] George White (1812-68) fought for the suffrage all his adult life. An Irish wool comber active in Leeds, Birmingham and Bradford, he was imprisoned in 1840, 1843-4 and 1849. Very suspicious of middle-class radicals, he wrote a great deal including political pamphlets and verse.

[16] Parliamentary Papers, 1843, volume xiii, page cxxxii.

[17] Owen R. Ashton and Paul A. Pickering Friends of the People, Merlin, 2003, pages 101-126 contain a useful biography of James Scholefield.

[18] R.F. Wearmouth Methodism and the Working-Class Movements of England 1800-1850, London, 1937, pages 138-163.

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