Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Birmingham 3

Church Chartism

There was a vital and organic link between politics and religion in the nineteenth century. Chartism reflected this and used religious language and gained the support of 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. 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 and the Baptist Thomas Davies of Merthyr to the eloquent Congregationalist Alexander Duncanson. 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. 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. 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[1].

By March 1840, permanent congregations had been formed in some places and this formed the beginnings of the Christian Chartist Churches. 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. Despite this, when Reverend William Hill toured Scotland in August 1842, he found that the Christian Chartist churches remained the main strength of Scottish Chartism.

The focus for Church Chartism had already moved south into England. Arthur O’Neill[2] 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. Moreover, 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’. 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. His attitude to the middle class was not 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 as 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. George White, the leader of the NCA in Birmingham, supported his outlook. 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 – 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’. 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. It absorbed both the Complete Suffrage Union and the Chartist Church that 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 short-lived Reform League in the town supporting Joseph Hume’s agitation for the ‘Little Charter’.

After 1842

Reorganisation of Chartism took place in Birmingham in late 1843. Chartism in the district had been disorganised since the miners’ strike of August 1842. There was a suggestion that the different localities in the town merge but this was opposed. Eventually a resolution setting up localities was passed and a large Birmingham committee of thirty-two men was then elected. An important degree of district organisation was achieved by the setting up of the Birmingham and Midland Counties Charter Association in early 1843 but this appears to have achieved little. There appears to have been a shift in focus by many working class radicals in Birmingham in 1843 and 1844 towards trade unionism. This may have been linked to the revival in trade but at the annual Chartist convention in April 1845, there was no delegate from Birmingham. There was some involvement by Chartists in the town in the Land Plan and a revival, of sorts in 1847 and 1848. Though Chartist persisted in the town until February 1860 and co-existed with Secularism throughout the 1850s, Chartism ceased to play as significant a role in the town compared to the years between 1838 and 1843.


Historians have traditionally divided Birmingham’s style of Chartism into two differing types.

  • In Birmingham, radicalism was based either on artisans or on the middle classes. It was characterised by a focus on moral force or philanthropy.
  • In the surrounding Black Country, working class radicalism was more important and, under the influence of Feargus O’Connor grounded in physical force.

This oversimplifies the situation and is based on a false view of the ways in which Birmingham’s economy functioned. The notion that there was a significant degree of class co-operation in the town is, after 1839 invalid. Working class radicalism, in one form or another was endemic in the town during the 1830s. The belief that the revival of the BPU that led to the development of working class radical leadership in the town is largely the creation of historians from Gammage onwards.

[1] H.U. Faulkner Chartism and the Churches: A Study in Democracy, New York, 1916 provides a somewhat dated view of the development of ‘Church Chartism’ in the early 1840s but should be supplemented by Eileen Lyon Politicians in the Pulpit: Christian Radicalism in Britain from the Fall of the Bastille to the Disintegration of Chartism, Ashgate, 1999.

[2] Valuable biographical information on Arthur O’ Neill can be found in Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography volume vi, Macmillan, 1982, pages 193-198 and Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 391-394.

No comments: