Religious practice, to most churchmen, was synonymous with Sunday attendance. But when attendance was measured, as in the 1851 Religious Census, results were disconcerting. Church going was influenced by a wide variety of social and geographical circumstances. Attendance was higher in Scotland than England and highest of all in Wales. Within England it was higher in the countryside than in the towns, though this should not be exaggerated. There were considerable variations between regions, but undoubtedly the strongest influence was that of class.
Religion never simply reflected class divisions: none of the larger churches was the preserve of any single group or class; all cut across class lines. However, class had a bearing not only on the mere fact of attendance at church but at what church people worshipped in, and more importantly on the content and character of their religiosity and on the place religion had in their lives. Among the gentry and aristocracy there was a sense that the Anglican Church deserved support precisely because it was part of a social order in which they had a privileged position. They attended partly to set an example to their inferiors and sent the bailiff round if a tenant was absent. They gave large amounts of money to build and restore churches, working with the clergy to promote Anglican interests -- and their own. The rural labouring piety of the 1850s crumbled in the 1870s and 1880s, not because of ‘irreligion’, but because of the enforced migration and collapse of archaic community structures brought about by the agricultural depression. Falling land values also eroded the status and social prestige of the Anglican clergy who were from the 1880s sliding inexorably downwards from the lesser ranks of the landed gentry into the urban lower middle-class.
It was in the middle-classes that the Victorian religious boom had the biggest impact. Religion was the opiate not of the masses but of the bourgeoisie, and their heavy involvement in church life was one of the distinctive features of the British religious scene. It was in the middle-classes that religion was most strongly sustained by social pressure: regular church attendance and keeping the Sabbath were felt to be essential for a family’s respectability. Yet external motives were far from being the only ones and deep and genuine religious commitment evidence in this and other classes in Victorian society should not be underestimated. Middle-class religiosity, despite a good deal of variation in church going, reveals some common themes. Religion was treated as a family matter. Husband, wife and children formed a religious unit not only at church but at home, in family prayers and grace before meals. Middle-class people also tended to regard their church as a social centre, where they could meet others of similar outlook and join in the various recreational and philanthropic activities and where young people could meet suitable partners of the opposite sex. By the 1870s the integrative function of Nonconformity was waning, as economic tensions rose, and as issues like Empire, feminism and Irish Home Rule split Nonconformists into rival political allegiances. Moreover, the lower middle-class, the backbone of nonconformity, was changing in character and there was a world of difference between the religious outlook of superior artisans and small shopkeepers of the 1850s and the office-workers of 1900. For the former, religion was often an expression of solidarity with the local community. For the latter it was often an expression of separateness and difference and increasingly likely to take the form, if not of Anglicanism, then of a more refined and anonymous suburban Nonconformity than had been common forty years before.
As for the urban working-class, now the majority of the population, the common view was simply that they rarely attended church and that they were therefore ‘spiritually destitute’. The obsession of churchmen and the middle-classes with Sunday attendance meant that they overlooked the fact that working-class people came into contact with the churches on a great many occasions and that they had religious notions of their own, however unorthodox. To many working-class people the churches were alien, middle-class institutions where people like themselves, lacking good clothes and unable to afford pew rents, felt out of place. Church-goers tended to be regarded as snobs and hypocrites and an member of the working-class going to church was liable to be condemned for putting on airs and setting himself above his neighbours. Social pressure did as much to deter church going in the working-class as it did to encourage it in the middle and upper-classes.
The great majority of the working-class, neither regular attenders nor total strangers to the churches, considered themselves Christian. Recent studies in oral history suggest that contemporary surveys probably underestimated the piety of the poor and that outside London as many as a fifth of the Edwardian working-class may have attended churches on a more or less regular basis. Most married in church; many mothers up to 1914 insisted on being ‘churched’ after giving birth; and most had their babies christened. Most working-class children went to Sunday school. Children looked forward to the summer treat as one of the high points of the year; the Sunday school anniversary, particularly in nonconformity, was a major festival. Many children received religious instruction in church day schools. The elaborate pomp of working-class funerals, popular resistance to the spread of cremation and the universal fear of the pauper’s grave, suggest no lack of interest in the resurrection of the body and prospect of everlasting life. The working-classes also looked to the churches and to Anglican parsons in particular for charity. Most urban churches set up extensive welfare schemes, doling out food, blankets, money and Bibles, even if such charity was only a degree less shameful than going to the workhouse. Working people dealt with the churches on their own terms, taking what they wanted and ignoring the rest.
Religion and politics
The religious conflicts of the Victorian period were fought out not only in pulpits and pamphlets but also in the political arena. The churches during much of the period did more to mobilise political feeling than the political parties themselves. The antagonism between Protestants and Catholics intensified in a period that saw heavy Irish immigration, the nationalist struggle in Ireland and the adoption of aggressive tactics both by the Catholic Church and by its Protestant opponents. It had its effect at national level on such issues as the Maynooth grant (1845) and Irish home rule; locally, in areas with large Irish Catholic populations, it led to party divisions along religious lines. No less hard-fought were the battles over the established churches. Even the Church of Ireland was a leading issue in the election of 1868 before being disestablished the following year by Gladstone. In Wales, disestablishment was the chief aim of the Liberal nonconformist majority and the central political issue from the 1860s to 1914. But it was England that saw the conflict between church and chapel in its classic form.
On one side were the nonconformists, allied with Whigs and Liberals, seeking to remove their disabilities; on the other were the Anglicans, allied with the Conservatives defending the privileges of the establishment. They clashed at national and especially at local levels where nonconformists entered municipal politics in large numbers after 1835. The struggle to turn the confessional state into a secular state was a long one. The Whig governments of the 1830s did little to whittle down Anglican privileges. It introduced civil registration and allowed nonconformists to perform their own marriages, but compulsory church rates remained in force despite bitter local struggles. In the 1850s the church courts lost their jurisdiction over divorce and wills was abolished. The main breakthrough came with Gladstone’s first government: it abolished church rates (1869) and opened Oxford and Cambridge up to nonconformists (1870). The last disability was removed by the Burials Act 1881 that allowed nonconformist ministers to perform their own funeral services in parish churchyards. But the establishment itself remained a matter for dispute as did a variety of other issues above all the closely related and bitterly contested issue of education. Any attempt to channel public money into denominational schools or to give the Church of England a privileged position in state schools provoked intense opposition from Nonconformity. That England was late in creating a system of public education was mainly due to rivalry and mistrust between the churches. The Education Act 1902, that favoured the Anglicans, spurred a large nonconformist vote for the Liberals in the 1906 general election. By this time, however, religious issues were being replaced by class ones -- the ‘social gospel’ attracted little interest -- and support grew for the notion that the churches should stay out of politics altogether.
Across denominational lines: towards a civic culture?
There was also a Victorian religious culture that cut across denominational lines and that in important respects tended to escape denominational control altogether. Virtually all clergymen regarded the threat of eternal punishment as essential to Christian faith and morals in 1850. Fire and brimstone were the stock in trade of Catholic as well as Protestant preachers. However, by the 1870s this ‘religion of the torture chamber’ began to seem inconsistent with God’s love and was quietly pushed into the background. The churches had to adapt to a moral consensus they could no longer control.
There was also general agreement, among Protestants at least, about public worship. Yet the sermon lost its pre-eminent position shrinking from an hour in 1830 to twenty-five minutes or less by 1914. It was replaced by church music that took a more central role in worship than at any time in the past. The religion of the unadorned word was being replaced by a religion of mood and feeling. Hymns, long established in nonconformity, quickly caught on in Anglican churches and Hymns Ancient and Modern first appeared in 1861. Like ornate ritual, music rekindled the spirit of worship even when the objects of worship were becoming problematic.
Sabbatarianism was a major force in this period. The Lord’s Day Observance Society, founded by Anglican evangelicals in 1831, acted as the main pressure group. Most of its attempts to impose their views by legislation failed but in 1856 it scored a major success in ensuring Sunday closing for the British Museum and National Gallery. The churches were less successful in keeping control of holidays and the holiday calendar. Christmas, in its modern form largely a Victorian invention had less to do with Christianity than with the middle-class cult of the family. The harvest festival, though introduced by high church Anglicans in the 1840s, was essentially pagan in spirit. National days of prayer and thanksgiving fell into disuse. Bank Holidays, created in 1871 by-passed Christianity altogether.
Churches became social as well as religious institutions. Sunday schools alone were a major industry. Membership of Bans of Hope, Boy’s Brigade, Men’s Societies, the Girls’ Friendly Society and the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations ran into millions. Other church activities included literary and debating societies; recreation, including cricket and football teams from which professional clubs like Aston Villa and Everton later emerged; and philanthropy. These activities, however, carried with them a danger of diverting the church from its primary religious role, particularly as they became vulnerable to the expansion of commercial leisure and to the growing provision of welfare by the state. In the 1870s the first signs appeared that the long period of growth was coming to an end. Though membership was still increasing, it failed top keep pace with the growth in population and church going actually began to decline. Such hallmarks of Victorian religiosity as strict Sunday observance and family prayers were being abandoned; the churches condemned but were unable to curb the middle-class practice of birth control. Criticism of Christian doctrine was openly published; agnosticism and ‘secular religions’ won support. Behind the statistics of falling attendance lay a deeper disaffection with the churches and their message.
The decline of the churches has had many explanations, no one of them sufficient by itself. The most general argument is simply that modern industrial society made secularisation inevitable. But this says nothing about the specific causes and processes of decline. The effect of scientific discoveries is difficult to estimate. At the level of ideas it was less the scientific than the moral critique of Christianity that did the most damage. Eternal damnation now seemed cruel and barbaric, the God responsible for it something of a monster; and if the everlasting fire burned no longer, what was the point of seeking salvation. There could be morality, people now believed, without the fear of hell and without religion altogether. A more persuasive argument us that the social pressures that had encouraged middle-class church-going earlier in the century were weakening. In an economy of large firms and professional qualifications attending church to demonstrate one’s moral credentials no longer seemed so necessary. Yet the decline of the churches did not necessarily mean a decline of religion in a broader sense. Those who drifted away from orthodox belief were sometimes attracted to successor faiths like nationalism that themselves had a religious quality and dimension. Queen Victoria’s jubilees in 1887 and 1897, the increasingly elaborate coronations and the cult of Empire were the rituals of a civil religion. For the first time, religious impulses found expression on a large scale outside the churches and outside Christianity, though probably not enough to make up for the decline in the churches themselves.