Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Church of England: Evangelicalism within Anglicanism

The Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century was partly a consequence of the increasing frustration felt by individuals like the Wesleys with the intense conservatism of Anglican high churchmen.[1] Not all of those who supported Wesleyan Methodism followed them out of the Church of England in the 1790s. From the mid-eighteenth century another group of rather more Evangelical clergy and laity also began to   attack   the conservatism of the established church from within.   They took a considerable initiative in missionary work and campaigns for social and ‘moral’ reform and by the 1820s were beginning to establish a foothold in the parishes of some larger towns.  By 1830, three Evangelicals had been made bishops.   Despite their emphasis on spiritual conversion and the absolute supremacy of Scripture over the traditions of the Church, they were not anti-sacramental encouraging more frequent communion services. Theirs was a simple and unmysterious form of worship. People are all in a state of natural depravity, weighed down by sin and life is an arena of moral trial in which people are tempted, tested and ultimately sorted into saints and sinners.   There is a sort of spiritual contract between each soul and God in which intermediaries like the clergy are of relatively little importance. Redemption comes through the faith of the individual in Christ’s Atonement on the Cross. This was an evangelical ‘scheme of salvation’. Within  the Anglican  middle  classes evangelicalism spread rapidly from the mid  1820s  because  of economic  alarms,  Catholic Emancipation, constitutional crises, cholera and other signs of an impending divine intervention.

By the 1820s, Anglicans were speaking about Anglican Evangelicals as ‘the Evangelicals’ as if they were the only ones. This division between Anglican and non-Anglican evangelicals had not been the case during the first phase of evangelicalism before the 1780s when people moved freely across the formal boundaries between denominations. The reason why this division grew up was in  part a result of Wesleyan Methodists not staying  within  the Established Church  after  the 1790s and in part because the Anglican Evangelicals were the only ones who  mattered  socially and politically.

The   second  phase  of  establishment  Evangelicalism was inaugurated  by the conversion of William Wilberforce and  Hannah More  in  the  1780s  and these individuals  brought  a  social distinction  and respectability  that had not previously  been enjoyed.  Under  their  banner of the ‘Evangelical  Party’, in itself a somewhat ambiguous term given the diversity of  Anglican Evangelicalism, this  group became  the  most   dynamic and ambitious element  in  the Established  Church.   Evangelical Anglican clergy worked within the Establishment claiming, much to the annoyance of bishops during the early nineteenth century that they represented the central Anglican tradition established during the mid sixteenth century.   By the 1830s  Evangelicals were  in  control  of most of the national  and  local  religious societies, though the latter were more interdenominational  than their  national headquarters. They  published the bulk of  the popular  Christian  literature of the period:  the Bible  in  all languages; classics  of the Evangelical point of view like The Pilgrim’s  Progress;  soul-arousing  works of  every kind,  and, periodicals  like The Christian Observer and The Eclectic Review. It was developing, through the work of Charles Simeon, parochial organisation designed to maintain an intense religious life and to channel the charitable impulse to promote social and religious discipline.  By the 1830s its national leadership   was consolidated among peers, MPs, bishops and the leading figures of the ecclesiastical and business world.

This diffusion of Anglican Evangelicalism was not achieved without some loss of vigour. This process has been called one of ‘accommodation’ making Evangelicalism palatable and manageable for the cultivated classes, an attractive and exemplary model for a combination of piety and social position. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which this was a conscious aim of Wilberforce and his supporters or the level of its success.  But there is little doubting its influence throughout British society touching those who were not evangelically-minded and who may not have liked its theology:  for example,   Sunday observance, the enforcement of the blasphemy laws, especially in the 1820s, and the encouragement of Sunday and day schools. The moral revolution was accomplished and overt sexuality was driven into private or underworld or into lower-class life. Victorian respectability predates the accession of the Queen in 1837.[2]

Changing evangelicalism

The existence of the Establishment meant that the relation between   the Anglican and non-Anglican evangelicals became increasingly difficulty after 1820. During the 1820s and 1830s the Dissenters moved from a reluctant acceptance of Establishment to an attitude of general dislike of it.  By the 1840s disestablishment  was  raised  as a major issue  with  Dissenters wishing to reduce the Church of England to an equality of  status with  their own denominations,  competing  freely  in  an  open ‘religious’ market.   This view of the Establishment was known as ‘voluntarism’  and was an attitude increased sympathised with  by Methodists  of  every kind,  by many Presbyterians in England as well as  Scotland  and by Irish  Roman  Catholics.  Though  some Evangelicals like Lord Shaftesbury never hesitated to  co-operate with Dissenters and  a  few  left  the  Church,  most  Anglican Evangelicals persisted  in looking on the Establishment  as  an advantageous and necessary condition.

While the existence of an Establishment was a ground of division within evangelicalism, the principle of ‘No Popery’ was a ground of union.   This has been seen as one of the causes of the lowering of the tone of evangelicalism and a resurgence of anti-Catholic feelings in the 1840s and 1850s. Some change in the relationship between public men and public opinion may partially explain what happened to Evangelicalism after 1830. Post-reform politics saw the emergence of a more politically conscious public with worries, real or imaginary, about which that public wanted something done.   By 1836, Wilberforce, Hannah More and Charles Simeon had all died.   The successors to the Clapham leaders, Shaftesbury and Fowell Buxton were not personally inferior but Evangelicalism seems to have moved into a lower gear. Best argues that ‘It  is  almost as if its greatest contribution had by then  been made  and  as  if it was felt to lack the breadth  and  tone  of distinction  that  could satisfy many of its natural leaders in the post-revolutionary age.’

Evangelicalism was a religion of duty placing service above doctrine and appealed particularly to women.  Wilberforce argued in A Practical View that women were more favourably disposed to religion and good works than men. The activities and restrictions of nineteenth century family life and female education tended to focus the affections and raise philanthropy to the level of obedience to God.   Though some women found Christianity restrictive, most female reformers saw it as an emancipatory influence heightening women’s self-esteem and giving them a sense of place and direction. Christianity confirmed that women had a rightful and important place in the charitable world; a place that particularly to men was a subordinate one.  Female Evangelical piety did not threaten the social order.  Clare Lucas Balfour wrote in 1849 that ‘the  history  of every religious and benevolent society  in  the civilised world shows the female sex pre-eminent in numbers, zeal and  usefulness, thus  attesting  the  interest  women  take  in Christian labours for the welfare of society.’ [3]

Historians acknowledge the role of evangelicalism in shaping the mentality of the first half of the nineteenth century but recognise the difficulty of defining that role precisely. Evangelicalism’s middle-class piety fostered concepts of public probity and national honour based on the ideals of economy, professionalism and ’respectability’. Though many prominent Evangelicals were paternalists and bitterly opposed to the prevailing ‘laissez-faire’ ethos of the period, many contemporaries thought of evangelicalism as synonymous with philanthropy.   Boyd Hilton argues that Evangelicals helped to create and to buttress the very capitalist philosophy that was under attack. They  wanted  society to operate as  closely  to ‘nature’  as  possible by repealing interventionist laws  leaving people  to work out their own salvation and spiritual life in the course  of  their  ordinary lives.   In that evangelical ethos, suffering seemed to be part of God’s plan and governments took a harsh attitude to social underdogs in order not to interfere with such dispensations of providence.  ’Self-help’ was both an economic and spiritual means of achieving salvation.

Metamorphosis not reformation

While unreformed the Anglican Church claimed the allegiance of the whole society.   It was thoroughly integrated with the mainstream culture and social structure and monopolistic in its attitude to religious rivals.   As long as political sanctions against religious deviance were firmly upheld widespread, support for alternative religious perspectives could be held in check but from 1689 onwards British society moved gradually towards a pluralist, religious voluntarism. By the 1830s, Britain was well on the way to becoming a pluralistic society containing not one but a plurality of cultural systems. The reforms of the 1830s and 1840s represented a decisive turning point for Anglicanism. Though  still  the  Established  Church  in  England,  Wales  and Ireland  it had accommodated itself to the reality  of  permanent competition with  other ‘churches’ within its  boundaries.  The State might intervene to support the Establishment but there was no   chance   that   it   would restore the Church to   its constitutionally prescribed role as a monopolistic religion. Like the landed elite, the Church, though it fought a skilled rearguard action throughout the remainder of the century, was increasingly prepared to compromise to preserve its remaining privileges.    The change was one of metamorphosis,   not restoration.   The result was a change in the character of the Church to being one denomination among several.


[1] On  evangelicalism  see  G. Best  ’Evangelicalism  and  the Victorians’ in  A. Symondson (ed.), The Victorian Crisis  of  Faith, SPCK,  1970,  pp. 37-56  and C. Smyth ‘The evangelical movement  in perspective’,  Cambridge Historical Journal,  7 (1941-3),  pp. 160-174.   Boyd Hilton The Age of Atonement. The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought 1785-1865, OUP, 1988 is fundamental. D.W. Bebbington Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, Unwin Hyman, 1987 covers the whole of the period.

[2] On  the  moral  revolution see  M. Jaeger  Before  Victoria: Changing Standards and Behaviour 1787-1837,  Chatto and  Windus, 1956.

[3] C.L. Balfour Women and the Temperance Reformation, London, 1849, page 6.

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