Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Religion in decline?

The Victorian age was self-consciously religious. Britain’s greatness, Victorians believed -- its prosperity, political liberties and Empire -- was rooted in Christian and Protestant faith. Yet if religion flourished, it did not bring harmony or good feeling. The transition from religious unity to pluralism brought with it conflict and controversy, with Protestants ranged against each other and against Catholics, evangelical against high churchman, Christian against unbeliever. Nor were the conflicts limited to the religious sphere. Both politics and social life were riven by the clashes of churches and creeds.[1] The churches’ biggest problem, however, was not their disputes with each other but changes in the wider society especially the continued spread of industry and large towns and the deepening class divisions. The churches responded with their characteristic energy and determination, making religion more relevant to British society in 1850 than it had been a century earlier. But despite their best efforts they largely failed to win the allegiance of the urban working-classes and by 1900 they were losing their hold on the respectable middle-classes as well. The portents of decline were apparent long before 1914.

The Church of England: an Anglican revival?

The most important, if least expected development in this period was the resurgence of the Church of England. After the crises of the 1820s and 1830s it belatedly reformed itself, fought back against the nonconformists and regained much of the initiative it had lost. The first round of reforms was imposed from outside, by the Whig governments of the 1830s. Tithes were commuted, the rules of clerical non-residence tightened and resources began to shift from cathedral foundations to needy urban parishes. The church also put its own house in order. A tough, new breed of bishops cracked down on pluralism and non-residence and warned parsons away from the hunting field and magistrates’ bench. In towns, thousands of new churches were built -- though the country parish remained the Anglican ideal -- and by 1900 the number of clergy had doubled.

The clergy played the central role in the Anglican revival. They began to receive professional training and to bring to their work a more energetic and combative approach; in urban parishes they served not only as priests and pastors but as social organisers as well. They set up social and recreational activities, mobilised the laity, though kept control in their own hands, and conducted the services with smooth professionalism. With the church now showing some ‘aggression’ of its own and using some of the weapons of dissent against dissent, it steadily improved its share of the religious market. A slow-moving establishment recast itself as a church militant. The 1830s also saw a new departure in its life. As evangelicalism had revived its Protestant and Puritan traditions, the Oxford movement now revived its Catholic traditions, rescuing them from Protestant contempt and restoring them to the life of the church. Spiritual renewal brought discord in the 1840s when Newman and some of his followers went over to Rome and in the 1850s when the younger Tractarian clergy began to introduce incense, vestments and other ‘Catholic’ ritual practices into their services.

From the 1840s Anglicanism was torn by conflict between its rival ‘parties’. The broad churchmen, liberal in theology and politics were caught in the middle. The Anglo-Catholics, as they later came to call themselves, formed a virtual sect within the church, complete with heroes (but not heroines), martyrs, seminaries, organisations and periodicals. Outraged Protestants reacted with sermons, lawsuits, legislation and even mob violence in a long and futile campaign to halt the ‘ritualist’ plague. Disraeli, denouncing the ‘mass in masquerade’, passed the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 under which five ritualist clergymen were convicted and sent to jail. Though their best known efforts were in slum parishes, where they hoped to win over the poor with their colourful ritual and self-sacrificing pastoral work, it was eventually the middle-classes, especially in London and the south-east, who provided the bulk of their support. The Anglo-Catholics nevertheless brought change to Anglicanism as a whole. Their insistence that communion was the central act of worship and the badge of active church membership, gradually came to be accepted by nearly all sections of the church. The doubling of the numbers of communicants in the decades before 1914, even as attendance declined, was a reflection of their influence.


The Victorian period was one of the high points in Nonconformist history. The different groups matched their Anglican rivals in numbers -- in the mid 1880s their combined membership, excluding adherents, was about 1.4 million, much the same as the number of Anglican Easter communicants, while their huge Sunday school enrolments easily surpassed those of the Anglicans. They were largely successful in their campaign to remove their disabilities but it did not become clear until near the end of the period that with political gains there was a loss of evangelical fervour.

In the 1830s and 1840s, however, nonconformity was still expanding rapidly. Carefully planned yet intensely emotional revival meetings produced thousands of conversions and enabled it to keep pace with the increase in population. After 1850, however, as British society stabilised, religious revivals gradually ceased -- the Welsh revival of 1904-1905 was the last -- and growth rates slackened. Recruitment was also affected by competition from the Church of England and by the further spread of factory industry that left fewer of the independent artisans who had flocked to the chapels in the past. As the supply of adult converts dwindled, nonconformists were forced to recruit from within, concentrating on children of existing members; the Sunday school replaced the revival meeting. In the 1880s nonconformity began to decline relative to the total population and in the decade before 1914 there was a fall in absolute numbers.[2]

Nonconformity’s social composition changed little. The core of membership still came from the lower middle and upper working-classes. Not even Primitive Methodism, the most plebeian of the larger churches, made much headway with factory workers. Each of the main denominations could boast its rich businessmen -- such figures as W.H.Lever (Congregationalist), Thomas Cook (Baptist), George Cadbury (Quaker), Jesse Boot (Wesleyan Methodist) and Samuel Courtauld (Unitarian) -- and solid middle-class prosperity was well represented among the leading lights in the chapels. It was often said that such people eventually went over to the social superior Church of England that ‘the carriage only stops for one generation at the chapel door’. Nevertheless, a significant minority of the provincial urban elite were nonconformists, and though socially untypical of chapel-goers as a whole, they did much to give nonconformity its characteristic form -- its energy, its confidence and also its resentment towards the Establishment.

Being a nonconformist always involved more than accepting certain religious beliefs or attending a particular chapel. They were nonconformists by choice and principle and prided themselves on their independence and refusal to defer to authority. At the very least it meant a determination to uphold their faith regardless of legal disabilities or social snobbery. In most denominations they chose their own ministers, paid their stipends and managed chapel affairs with a minimum of interference from outside. Nonconformity also brought with it a social network and public identity. Nonconformists did business with each other, married into each other’s families and come to be known as nonconformists in the local community. From their preachers and denominational press they gained a distinctive perspective on the wider world and its problems. More than a religious commitment, nonconformity involved a way of life and an outlook on life.

At the centre of that outlook was the principle of religious freedom. Nonconformists condemned Anglicanism as a ‘state church’ and argued that there should be ‘free trade’ in religion as there was in the economy. A free and fair competition in religion, they believed, was one they would expect to win, one that would confirm that they and not the Anglicans were the true national church. The ‘nonconformist conscience’ gave them a belief in their role as the arbiters of the nation’s morals and they brought it to bear on all manner of public and private issues, especially on the drink problem. Temperance became, after 1850, not only their favourite moral reform but part of their identity and part of their claim to moral superiority.

As nonconformity prospered it became more settled and dignified. New chapels were larger and more expensive, built increasingly after the 1850s in the Gothic style. Cushioned pews replaced the older wooden ones reflecting a taste for comfort and luxury that marked nonconformity’s ‘mahogany age’. Ministers received academic training and became ‘reverends’. From the 1890s, ‘connections’ or ‘unions’ were replaced by the collective name of Free Churches. In the process much of their former vigour and control over discipline was lost. Services became shorter and auxiliary activities like literary societies and cricket clubs multiplied. The punitive God of old gave way for the kind father who understood and made allowances. Inward experience of sin and conversion faded; everyone had their own spark of the divine spirit. Yet nonconformity helped many thousands of ordinary people lead lives of dignity and self-respect, giving them opportunities for self-improvement and responsibility in the life of their chapels.

Roman Catholicism

Neither the Anglican Church nor its Protestant rivals changed as profoundly as Roman Catholicism. Its devotional life was transformed by the ultramontanism of the continent. From Ireland came the immigrants who increased the Catholic population from 750,000 in 1851 to over 2 million by 1914; the great majority of Catholics were now urban, Irish and working-class. From Anglicanism, finally, came a small but significant stream of converts, of whom Newman and Manning were the best known, bringing new blood into the clergy and the promise of further gains amongst the educated classes. As English Catholicism entered its ‘second spring’ some hoped for nothing less than the ‘reconversion’ of England to Rome.

The arrival of the Irish posed enormous problems for English Catholics. The ‘folk’ Catholicism that had served them well enough in rural Ireland did not hold up for long in London or Liverpool and a high proportion of immigrants lost all contact with the church. Priests carried out what amounted to a ‘devotional revolution’ to prevent further seepage abandoning the cool, restrained piety of the eighteenth century and adopting an unashamedly emotion, almost missionary, approach. Their preaching matched the fervour of Protestant revivalists; their new churches, with the candles, incense, plaster statutes and other props of ultramontane piety, emulated those of Rome or Naples.

Victorian Catholicism was dominated by the clergy. The role of the old Catholic gentry was minimal, nor was there any challenge to the priests from the small, Catholic middle-class. In the poor, inner city parishes, the priests were dedicated, dominant, often paternalist figures, laying down the law to their parishioners as well as bringing them faith and the sacraments. ‘Improvement’ was not ignored, but this was a church of the unskilled, where unlike most Protestant churches, it was no disgrace to be poor and stay poor.[3] Whatever the church’s dreams of reconverting England, its immediate strategies were realistic and defensive. Mixed marriages were condemned; great sacrifices were made to build a Catholic school system. The aim was to shield Catholics from all Protestant and secular influence, to keep them in self-enclosed communities where the church was the focus of social as well as religious identity. Catholicism was an important medium of both Celtic and proletarian culture.

What most Protestants knew of Catholicism was the bold triumphalist ultramontanism of its public stance and its effects on them was to deepen alarm into panic.[4] This was triggered by the appearance of Catholic fellow travellers in the Church of England. When bishops were restored to the Catholic Church in 1850, Cardinal Wiseman provoked near-hysterical charges of ‘papal aggression’; in Stockport in 1852 anti-Catholic and anti-Irish feelings erupted into violence. Many Protestants regarded the pope as antichrist, the mass as ‘idolatry’, the Irish famine as just punishment for the rejection of Protestant truth. They surrounded Catholicism with a kind of religious pornography, dwelling especially on the horrors of the confessional, where priests insinuated ‘impure’ thoughts into the minds of innocent girls and turned wives against their husbands. Good Protestant families felt shame and disgrace when one of their members ‘perverted’ to Rome. Anti-Catholic prejudice flowered in this period and was widespread in every social class.

[1] For the development of religion in the Victorian period see Owen Chadwick The Victorian Church, 2 volumes, 1970, 1972 for the standard reading with A.D. Gilbert Religion and Society in Industrial England, Longman, 1976 for a different interpretation.

[2] There has been considerable debate on the chronology of growth and decline of the various religious groupings in the nineteenth century. Not all historians would agree with the conclusions on A.D. Gilbert on dissent outlined in the text.

[3] The Salvation Army, founded by General Booth in the late 1870s, specifically targeted both its evangelical mission and its social work on the very poor. In part, this was a response to the success of Catholic evangelism.

[4] On this subject see D.G. Paz Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian England, Stanford U.P., 1993.

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