Monday, 1 September 2008

The state of working-class religion

In his report on the 1851 Religious Census Horace Mann noted that ‘a sadly formidable proportion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion.’ There were major difficulties of interpretation in the census but some firm observations were made. First, vast numbers of people stayed  away  from  formal  religious services,  especially  the working  population  in  the large industrial  and  manufacturing cities  and  towns that were apparently altogether  outside  the range of church and chapel influence. Secondly, the Church of England could no longer claim to be the ‘national’ church. It remained strongest in the counties round London and in eastern England, but in some northern and western areas and in Wales chapel-goers were in the majority.[1]

There   seems to be almost complete disagreement among historians about the role and significance of religion in the lives of the working population. One reason for this confusion lies in the difficulty of interpreting the sources. The 1851 Religious Census is frequently quoted as evidence for widespread religious apathy.   But what constituted ‘high’ as opposed to ‘low’ attendance?   How far can people’s religious beliefs be concluded from whether they attended on a particular day or not? Religious apathy was highlighted by many middle-class or clerical observers, whose definition of religiosity included regular church attendance, but working-class autobiographies suggest that their authors were strongly interested in religion.  It has been argued that the working population had their own different, but equally valid approach to religion that was strongly practical and concerned especially with mutual aid and with maintaining standards of ‘decent’ behaviour.   However, historians’ views on this issue are still largely influenced by the work of E.R. Wickham on Sheffield and K.S. Inglis with their rather negative treatment of religion among the labouring population with their stress on ‘indifference’ and ‘apathy’.

The impact of religion on the working population in the first half of the nineteenth century was multi-faceted.  Any interpretation has to deal with the contradictory notions of secularising trends and the continuing strength of working-class religiosity.   In  1846  Austin  Freeman wrote of  the  spiritual effects of industrialisation ‘...it  has  destroyed  social unity and replaced it  by  social disintegration and class antagonism....’ The building of new churches failed to keep pace with the growth of population and people grew up outside the ‘dependency system’ of squire, parson and the traditions of the community that existed in English rural society.  The weakness of the Established churches left a religious vacuum that was sometimes filled by Nonconformity or by militant secularism.

A weakening hold?

The weakening of the hold of the Established churches throughout Great Britain can be clearly seen in the eighteenth century before many of the developments that those who analysed the 1851 Religious Census used to explain religious attitudes. The  prevailing  style  of  religion tended to  be  rational  and moralistic  and the level of commitment required was fairly  low. Indifference and scepticism was widespread and ‘enthusiasm’ was viewed with suspicion.   Religion failed to satisfy the emotional needs of large sections of society who either conformed  because it  was  expected of them or who left the parish church to  form their  own  religious groups sometimes with a separate  place  of worship.   From the 1730s throughout Britain there was a steady stream  of defections  from  the  church  questioning both  its latitudinarianism  and erastianism and  its  rationalistic  and unemotional  nature.   Evangelism and the emergence of groups within the church and outside it, Methodism for example, raised the level of religious awareness and emotional commitment.

Parallel to this revolution in sentiment was a failure on the part of the establishment to provide sufficient new churches to keep pace with the growth of population, especially in urban centres.   This was believed by contemporaries to have encouraged the spread of Nonconformity and non-churchgoing. The 1790s saw a polarisation of religious attitudes with the addition of a political dimension. The Established churches were seen as vital agencies for the preservation of a paternalistic, hierarchical society, a conservatism that discredited them in the eyes of those who favoured radical reform. Nonconformist growth was spectacular and millenarianism evoked a widespread, though less permanent, interest.

Millenarianism and irreligion as solutions?

Both nonconformists and millenarians reflected the hopes of those who believed that events in France heralded a new era of equality and social justice.[2]   But was the impending revolution the work of God or of man?   Radicals were often interested in prophecies and many church reformers were also political reformers.   It is not surprising that religion and revolution were closely linked in the conservative mind.   Millenarians like Richard Brothers, a naval officer living in London who was imprisoned as a lunatic after 1795, and Joanna Southcott who from 1801 until her death in 1814, enjoyed a widespread following. They maintained that the violent events of the 1790s and 1800s had their place in God’s plan for the salvation of mankind and that the millennial kingdom was coming soon. Millenarianism was a very old tradition but the 1790s saw the emergence of a new phenomenon, organised irreligion. Paine’s Age of Reason, published in 1794, was a leading influence but its influence was less that his other works and led to resignations from the London Corresponding Society when it decided to publish it. In London the ‘infidels’ seem to have won some support among the radicals. Many clergy as evidence for ‘infidelism’ saw non-churchgoing but this neglects the extent to which there were simply insufficient places in churches.

Working-class religion: up or down?

So did the involvement of the working population in religion increase or decline after 1830?  The various splits within Methodism, the church building programmes of the various denominations  and  the  growing confidence  of  the  Established church  calls  into  question  the  view  often  expressed that religious adherence  was in decline.  The problem of numbers is exacerbated   by   the lack of accurate figures for most denominations until 1851.   For A.D. Gilbert the first half of the nineteenth century saw that involvement at its highest. He suggests that the great expansion of Nonconformity ground to a halt in the 1840s and that there was a large number of ‘crisis points’ when individuals turned to religion because of the widespread belief that many human problems could not be solved by natural means.   After 1850, he argues both church and chapel appealed to the middle-classes. E.R. Wickham, by contrast, defined the second half of the nineteenth century as a ‘religious boom’ in Sheffield with the building of new churches and chapels.  He stressed the middle-class character of most congregations but he implied an increase among congregations composed of working people.   Gilbert’s analysis overstates the degree to which the third quarter of the nineteenth century was one of decline but there is no doubt that important changes were taking place in the religion of the working population.

If the statistical argument is inconclusive how far does ‘identity’ with established denominations provide a solution? Membership of the Established churches symbolised membership of civil society. The parish church, where the overwhelming majority of the population was baptised, married and buried, was the main symbol of community.  The bitter disputes over lay patronage in Scotland and over ritual in nineteenth century England were a reflection of the feeling that the parish church belonged to the people. In addition it was felt what went on there was everyone’s concern not just the concern of an elite whose rights may have been legal but were of questionable morality.   Orthodoxy meant citizenship and to deliberately cut oneself off from the parish church was viewed with intense suspicion and meant limiting oneself to the status of a second class citizen. Orthodoxy was a public affirmation of belief in the existing social system even if beliefs were private.

Pluralism and secularism: some conclusions

The emergence of legitimate religious pluralism and the movement away from legislative limitations on non-conforming groups had a deeply divisive effect. In the nineteenth century sectarian identity influenced most areas of life and even those less interested in religion found themselves in situations where an identity was forced upon them. Sectarian conflict took two major forms in Britain. First, it was the result of the decline of established social systems and the transition to more open and pluralistic society. Secondly, it was the product of the mixing of different populations following social movement from rural to urban environments.   Antagonism between church and chapel belonged to the first category, that between Catholics and Protestants to the second. Catholicism was an essential part of the national identity of Irish immigrants and in areas where they settled Protestantism tended to be equally self-conscious and, of necessity, competitively aggressive. Individuals tended to regard adherents of the rival religion in terms of hostile stereotypes.   By 1850 most British cities had distinct Irish Catholic neighbourhoods and anti-Catholicism reinforced the inner cohesion of these communities and the Catholic identity of their members.

The division between church and chapel was less clear-cut, at least in England, and was far more widespread than the localised Catholic-Protestant conflicts.  Increasingly between 1830 and 1850 church and chapel symbolised the identity and aspirations of rival elites in their struggle for power. Divisions between the upper and middle-classes were reflected in membership of different religious denominations.   The issue was not a theological one since there were no clear-cut doctrinal differences between the Established churches and the larger Dissenting bodies but one of church government. Membership of a  Dissenting  congregation  was a criticism not  simply  of  the Church  of England but of the whole socio-political  system  of which it was an integral part. In Wales the ‘chapel’ provided an identity grounded   in nationality and language that the Established Church could not provide. It symbolised a rejection of Anglicisation. Religious identity and political identity were two side of the same coin. The clergy of the major denominations were deeply involved in the party political system. Between 1832 and 1850 surviving poll books show that Anglican clergy overwhelmingly voted for Tory candidates while Nonconformist ministers and Roman Catholic priests voted for Whigs, Liberals or Radicals.  Their congregations often paralleled their voting behaviour and these patterns of behaviour had deep roots.  The only major change in the first half of the nineteenth century was the decline of Toryism within the Wesleyan Connexion in the 1840s.

The clergy tended to determine the official stance of their denomination but they did not necessarily always speak for their entire congregation.   There were frequently tensions between the clergy and the laity, between higher and lower clergy and between lay  leaders  and  the  rank  and file  between  1800  and  1850. However, holding a political position at variance with that of the church’s leaders could be extremely difficult, especially in those centralised denominations like Methodism, Roman Catholicism and Scottish Presbyterianism. Radical Methodists were expelled from the Wesleyan Connexion. Political radicalism often grew out of religious heterodoxy. Unitarians with their congregational autonomy and non-trinitarian doctrines developed a number of working-class chapels.  In Oldham, for example, these appear to have played a significant role in the emergence of radicalism among the working population.

The most important aspect of the political implications of religious heterodoxy was the role of secularism from the 1790s onwards.   The freethinking tradition established in the 1790s largely through Paine’s writings raised the issue of the freedom of the press to publish anti-Christian or radical literature and newspapers.   Pitt’s action against the radical press in 1798 and 1799 as well as the more general conservative backlash forced freethinking underground.   It re-emerged as a vibrant force after 1815. The leading figure in the revival of freethinking was Richard Carlile and between 1817 and 1825 he fought a campaign against Liverpool’s administration and moral reformers.   He claimed that the press had the right to criticise the institutions of Church and State and the government had found that its policy of legislative and judicial repression was self-defeating. By the early 1830s Carlile’s influence on the ‘infidel’ tradition was declining and the anti-Christian component of Owenism came to the fore.   Owen’s opposition to Christianity was grounded in the argument that it seemed to produce division rather than harmony in society. Denominations were ‘competitive’ rather than ‘co-operative’ and for Owen prevented the creation of his ’new moral world’.   Two of Owen’s ideas were regarded  by contemporary society  with particular  suspicion.   First, Owen questioned whether people were ‘bad’ by nature, arguing  that character was determined by environmental factors. Secondly, his views of marriage and divorce involved Owen in early campaigns for birth control.

The growth of secularism from the late 1830s was the result of a split within Owenism. The break was precipitated by Charles Southwell who attacked Owen as a wrong-headed dreamer and in 1841 began the Oracle of Reason in which he proclaimed the rational truths of atheism.   Southwell’s arrest and prosecution led to Malthus Ryall and George Jacob Holyoake setting up the Anti-Prosecution Union. The 1840s resembled the 1820s in many respects and with the same results.   Peel and Russell could use the courts to punish freethinkers but they could not silence them.   In London intense activity led to the development of the London  Atheistical Society to agitate for a change in the law as it affected ‘infidels’ and a Free Thinkers  Tract  Society  was formed  to disseminated radical literature.  By 1850 there had been a significant weakening of infidel organisations, as much a result of internal disagreement as external pressures, and this led Holyoake to set up a new movement that in 1852 he called ‘Secularism’. The  appeal of freethinking was never very wide and in  the first  half of the nineteenth century the choice for the  working population  was  between ‘orthodox’ churches and  none  at  all. There was, however, nothing new about this. The ‘indifference’ of the working population to organised religion was increasingly defined in middle-class terms.   The social crisis of the 1830s and  1840s  instilled the middle-classes and aristocratic  elite with  an intense  fear of revolution coincided  with  a  renewed evangelical  concern on the part of the clergy of the Established Churches and they combined to give urgency to an endemic problem.

Developments in the first half of the nineteenth century led to an increasing sense of alienation of the working population, especially the poor, from the Established churches and from many nonconformist congregations. Acceptable social identity was defined in terms of ‘respectability’ and the middle-classes were busily   distancing themselves from everything that seemed uncultivated and vulgar. The hierarchical seating arrangements in  churches and  chapels,  the  system  of  pew-rents  and  the language  and  religious tone were set by their social  superiors emphasised the inferiority of the working population many of whom were becoming less ready  to  accept humiliating   social distinctions.

By 1850 organised Christianity had become the religion of the successful. Material rewards were reserved for those who followed a Christian life.   Middle-class domination of the major denominations led to attacks on popular culture that provided the working population with a sense of identity.  The indifference  for  organised  religion  that  the middle  class perceived  among the  working population reflected  no  so  much indifference  but a lack of interest in the kinds of religion  on offer. Evangelicalism appealed to the emotions of the working population but church government and centralised control was seen as an attempt to impose middle-class values and remove control from the congregations. A.D. Gilbert concluded that ‘.... in the long term the Industrial Revolution was  instrumental in diminishing the cultural and institutional role of religion in English society....by accelerating the disintegration of the old prescriptive order  and  abetting  the  rise  of  a  pluralistic society....produced a basic religious division between Church and Chapel to mirror the emerging complexities of the industrialising nation.   But denominational religion was a midwife of the new, urbanised society,  not  an  offspring For  the  long  term concomitant  of  industrialisation was secularisation and  modern English  society  is  a context in  which  significant  religious commitment is a subcultural phenomenon.’


[1] On the issue of working class ‘indifference’ and antagonism towards the churches see H. McLeod Religion and the Working Class in Nineteenth Century Britain, Macmillan, 1984 for a brief bibliographical study.  K.S. Inglis Churches and the Working Classes in Victorian England, Routledge, 1963 is a ’classic’ study.   On the position of the Church of England see B.I. Coleman The  Church of England in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: A Social Geography, The Historical Association, 1980 and ‘Religion in the Victorian City’, History Today, August, 1980.

[2] On  ’infidelism’ see E. Royle Victorian Infidels,  Manchester University Press,  1974 and his documentary  collection Radical Politics 1790-1900: Religion and Unbelief, Longman, 1971. S. Budd Varieties of Unbelief, Heinemann, 1977 takes the 1850’s as its starting point.  J.F.C. Harrison The Second Coming, Routledge, 1979 is standard.

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