Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Working-class religion: The changing nature of historiography

How religious was the working-class after 1850? How widespread was irreligion among working people? In 1936 the historian R.C.K. Ensor wrote that ‘No-one will ever understand Victorian England who does not appreciate that among highly civilised... countries it was one of the most religious the world has ever known.’ This was the orthodoxy that prevailed until around 1960. Historians debated as to whether this religiosity was a good or bad thing; they discussed when and why it went into decline; but no-one doubted that it was a reality.[1]

Historians then began to take a more critical view of this orthodoxy. The challenge to the consensus came from an Anglican bishop E.R. Wickham and an Australian historian, K.S. Inglis.[2] Wickham was concerned with the lack of involvement in the church by the working-classes in the years before World War II and this led him to trace the roots of this apparent indifference back to the nineteenth century. Inglis’ interest was in Christian evangelistic and social reform movements of the later nineteenth century -- ranging from the Salvation Army to the Settlements, to various forms of Christian Socialism. He concluded that there was a common thread running through all these movements: they were a response to a general working-class alienation from churches. Both Wickham and Inglis did not deny that the Victorian period witnessed a ‘religious boom’ but insisted that it was overwhelmingly middle-class and passed the working-classes by. They challenged existing assumptions about the nature of Victorian religion because of their use of two largely neglected sources: the censuses of church attendance conducted nationally by government and locally by newspapers at various points, notably in the 1880s; and the numerous books and sermons of Victoria churchmen that deplored examples of working-class irreligion. Especially important was Inglis’ analysis of the national religious census of 1851 that, he argued, demonstrated that none of the churches made a significant impact on the urban working-classes.

In the 1960s and 1970s a series of local studies and thematic articles appeared that reached broadly similar conclusions: the great majority of Victorian working people were indifferent, if not hostile, to organised religion, and the many attempts by Victorian Christians to convert the working-classes were a massive failure.[3] Wickham and Inglis might be termed the leaders of the first generation of historians of Victorian working-class religion. They laid the foundations on which all subsequent researchers have built. The basic point that they established was the centrality of class to any discussion of Victorian religion. By the 1970s a second generation was emerging. This was a boom period for both social history and for ‘history from below’. Both these features influenced interpretations of working-class religion. They began to ask whether too narrow a definition of religion was being used. The idea that ‘You can be a good Christian without ever going to church’ is widespread in England today but were similar views held in Victorian England? Was too much emphasis being placed on church going as a measure of working-class religiosity?

Two major developments can be identified. One was a growing interest in popular religion, a term used to describe a wide range of beliefs that were religious but diverged from the official orthodoxy of church and chapel.[4] The second was the attempt to relate religious changes more closely to their economic and social context. The most widely read study was that by Alan Gilbert who suggested that in the long run industrialisation aided secularisation, but in the short term it helped trigger a temporary religious revival that petered out by the 1840s. [5] He maintained that industrialisation was ultimately subversive to all religion, because increased human control over the environment has provided technical means of solving most of the problems that formerly required supernatural assistance. Stephen Yeo’s study of Reading suggested that it was not industrialisation or urbanisation as such that undermined organised religion, but the specific form of capitalism that was emerging in the early twentieth century. [6] One further trend on the 1970s was the growing interest in oral history that provided a wealth of data about religious beliefs and practices in the period from about 1890 onwards.

During the 1980s a third generation of historians emerged, many of whom have been much more critical of the Wickham/Inglis orthodoxy. The most influential was the American historian Jeffrey Cox and his study of the south London borough of Lambeth.[7] He accepted that working-class attendance at church and chapel was low; but in many other respects he challenged existing assumptions. Perhaps the most important aspect of his book was a discussion of the wide-ranging social role of the Victorian churches through which they entered into people’s lives at many points and could exercise a pervasive influence even in communities were church attendance was low. He explicitly rejected Gilbert’s determinism and suggested that the decline of English churches was not the inevitable consequence of industrialisation and urbanisation but a result of the specific ways in which they chose to respond to these developments. Callum Brown has taken things further rejecting the Wickham/Inglis orthodoxy on just about every point: big towns were not significantly less church-going than small towns; working-class participation in church life than has generally been assumed; the nineteenth century was a period of religious growth not decline; when decline did come it was associated with suburbanisation not urbanisation. [8]

So we have at least four rival chronologies of Victorian working-class religion on offer. First, the Inglis view suggests that working-class religious involvement was consistently low. Secondly, Wickham argues that there was some increase in working-class involvement between about 1850 and 180 during a period of relative prosperity but accepts that the level was generally low. Thirdly, Gilbert sees religious involvement reaching a peak in the turbulent and disease-ridden 1830s and 1840s and declining as living standards improved. Finally, the more recent argument of Callum Brown suggests the peak came much later, perhaps as late as the 1890s. Historians who accept this proposition tend to take a relatively positive view of the achievements of the Christian evangelicals and social reformers and who take seriously Archbishop Cosmo Lang’s claim that the period from about 1980 to 1914 marked the ‘golden age of parochial work in the cities of England’. It is apparent that rival theories as to when working-class religion declined are linked to rival theories as to why it declined. One view would be that absence from church of the urban labourer was merely a continuation of habits formed in the countryside and that the hierarchical nature of English society led to a general alienation from the church of those at the bottom, whether in town or countryside. This view suggests continuity between pre-industrial and industrialised society and questions the views of Gilbert et al that emphasised the importance of urbanisation and industrialisation.

Evidence of secularisation in the working-classes

The Religious Census of 1851 provides essential evidence for those historians who have stressed the secularity of Victorian working people with Horace Mann, the Anglican barrister who wrote the official report, as their star witness. Mann’s report emphasised that a large section of the population was absent from church and that the absentees were drawn mainly from the working-classes that had become ‘thoroughly estranged from our religious institutions’. He went on to analyse the causes of this estrangement and suggested six factors: social inequalities within the churches, for example class arranged and rented pews; the depth of class divisions within society that meant that working-class people would not wish to worship with members of other classes; the apparent lack of interest on the part of the churches in the material well-being of the poor; suspicion of the clergy; the effects of poverty: many working-class people lacked time or space for reflection and were too preoccupied with immediate problems to give much thought to religion; and, the lack of ‘aggressive’ missionary activity.

Though the last point is questionable -- the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were the golden age of the open-air preacher -- the other points Mann made clearly have at least some substance in them. During the 1830s and 1840s class tensions were more acute and the Church of England more unambiguously identified with the dominant classes than at any time since. In these circumstances the social inequalities within churches led to suspicion of clergy and doctrine that rapidly turned to often-blind bitterness and antagonism. However, for many working-class women, non-involvement in the church was not so much a deliberate choice as an inevitable part of a way of life that was overwhelmingly concentrated on home and kitchen. Many places of worship, including some in strongly working-class areas, had a clearly defined hierarchy, with highly rented seats at the front and low rented and free seats in galleries or behind pillars. Going to church could thus be a humiliating rather than uplifting experience for the poor.

Drink was a central part of the institutions (pubs and working men’s clubs) established by working-class men that provided a major alternative to the churches and chapels. Pub and church were competitors for the worker’s free time; but they also nourished opposing sub-cultures. The church brought men and women together and stressed the virtues of family life. The pub offered the attractions of an all-male environment and encouraged activities that were tabooed by the other including gambling, poaching, swearing and ‘broad’ humour. Other working-class institutions, such as friendly societies, co-ops, trade unions and radical political organisations, had a more ambiguous relationship with the churches and chapels. Certainly, there was no direct conflict and many people combined membership of both. But there was a potential for rivalry, especially in times of acute social tension.

These different elements could easily allow the conclusion that the case for interpreting Victorian working-class life in secular terms in overwhelmingly strong. However, by no means all historians would accept this conclusion largely because of the discovery of new forms of evidence and partly from the re-evaluation of facts that were already familiar but that had previously been regarded as relatively unimportant. Two areas illustrate this. First, it is well known that working-class women were more involved than their men in church and chapel. Since, in working-class household, women took most decisions relation to home and family, it has been suggested by Jeffrey Cox that female religiosity had much more influence on the rising generation than male indifference. Secondly, certain religious denominations, notably the Roman Catholics and the Primitive Methodists, had a large proportion of working-class members. There has, however, been a strong tendency to play down their significance on the grounds that the Catholics were largely Irish immigrants and therefore peripheral to discussions of the English working-class and that the Primitive Methodists were not sufficiently numerous to be worth serious consideration.

Working-class religiosity

The new evidence on working-class religion has been of two kinds. The first is very specific, but also very difficult to dispute namely a growing body of statistical evidence on the occupational composition of Nonconformist chapels. The second, much more wide-ranging but also more difficult to interpret, is the evidence of oral history.

Comparison of attendance lists with census schedules provides data on the occupations of church-goers. All such studies have concluded that most Nonconformist chapels had a substantial working-class element among their members. Gilbert’s analysis of Nonconformist baptismal and burial records, mainly from the period 1800-1837, suggested that artisans were by far the largest occupational group and that, with smaller numbers of labourers and miners, made up about three-quarters of Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists. He concludes that the dramatic expansion of Nonconformity between 1780 and 1840 was mainly due to recruitment among the working-classes and that chapels only became more middle-class by 1850.

More recent studies, however, suggest that the pattern described by Gilbert lasted much longer, and that it was only after 1900 than Methodism became predominantly middle-class. The most thorough study has been undertaken by Rosemary Chadwick in respect of Bradford chapels in the 1880s. She found that chapels tended to include considerable numbers of working-class women and of working-class men in skilled occupations but that there was an under-representation of men in semi-skilled and unskilled occupations.

Elizabeth Roberts concluded from her oral history of the working-classes in Barrow and Lancaster between 1880 and 1930 that: ‘The most striking and obvious act about religion during the first part of this period is the significance part it played in all but one family’s life.’ [9] The use of oral evidence has undermined existing orthodoxy in several ways. It suggests that the proportion of working-class people who went to church or chapel with some degree of frequency is rather higher than anyone might have guessed. Thompson and Vigne interviewed about 500 people born between 1872 and 1908 from selected regions of Britain about their memories of the period before 1918. They found that about 40 per cent of the interviewees from working-class families in industrial regions of England claimed their mother attended church or chapel with some degree of frequency. In London, the north Midlands, the Potteries and the north-east the figure for fathers was around 20 per cent, but it was higher in Lancashire (32%) and Yorkshire (40%). The average for both sexes is thus around 30 per cent, a figure somewhat higher than censuses taken on a single Sunday might suggest. The probable explanation is that because of illness, tiredness or child-care problems, working-class church-goers were less likely than their middle-class counterparts to attend every week and that counts like than taken nationally in 1851 accordingly under-represent the extent of working-class attendance.

Oral evidence provides graphic illustration of the argument of Jeffrey Cox that the churches had a pervasive social influence even in communities where church going was low. Churches and chapels were social centres for wide sections of the population, providing in one way or another for both sexes and all age groups. The most striking example of the inescapable presence of the church and chapel was the fact that the overwhelming majority of working-class children went to Sunday school. There have been many different views among historians as to the causes and consequences of this. E.P. Thompson, in his classic account of the period before 1832, stressed the indoctrination and ‘religious terrorism; practised by Sunday Schools and saw them as an effective means of training a new generation of docile factory hands.[10] Thomas Lacquer agreed that Sunday Schools were effective but he presented a much more sympathetic view of their objectives and methods and stressed their popularity both with working-class parents and many of their children. [11] Elizabeth Roberts saw Sunday Schools as popular, though principally because of the treats they provided. Stephen Humphries thought children resented going to Sunday school and did their best to disrupt classes. [12] Jeffrey Cox argued that, while enjoyably chaotic from the children’s point of view, the schools were ineffective as a means of inculcating religion or anything else.

These divergent interpretations arise from the very varied character of an institution that was sponsored by many very different religious denominations in social environments of many different kinds that evoked many different kinds of individual responses. One generalisation can, however be made: the almost universal exposure of Victorian working-class children to the Sunday School meant that the great majority of the population grew up with a basic acquaintance with the Bible, Christian hymns and Christian doctrine. For many people this acquaintance remained basic and the resulting sense of Christian identity was largely passive. Most important of all, the oral evidence highlights aspects of religious belief and practice otherwise hidden from public view. Contemporary observers were too ready to assume that those who seldom or never went to church were ‘secular’ or ‘indifferent’ in their religious outlook. There were indeed people who could be described in such terms but there were also a good many people whose religious views were far more complex.

Reconciling divergence?

Is it possible to reconcile such a diversity of interpretations? First, it has to be recognised that all types of sources contain their inherent weakness and biases. For instance, the large body of commentary on working-class life by middle-class observers is limited in value both by the act that the comments are those of outsiders and by the fact that these observers were often looking for evidence to support their own religious and social biases. Historians have been far too willing to take Engels’ view on working-class religion at face value. The divergence between historians’ interpretations of nineteenth century working-class religion is also partly explicable in the diversity of the Victorian working-class. There were important religious differences between regions, between ethnic groups, between occupational groups, and between men and women.


[1] For analysis of the literature see H. McLeod Religion and the Working Class in Nineteenth century Britain, Macmillan, 1984 and his more recent Religion and Irreligion in Victorian England, Bangor, 1993.

[2] E.R. Wickham Church and People in an Industrial City, London, 1958 and K.S. Inglis Churches and the Working Classes in Victorian England, Routledge, 1963.

[3] For example David Mole ‘Challenge to the Church: Birmingham 1815-65’ and John Kent ‘Feelings and Festivals’, both in H.J. Dyos and M. Wolff (eds.) The Victorian City, two volumes, Routledge, 1971.

[4] This definition of popular religion comes from James Obelkevich Religion in Rural Society: South Lindsey 1825-1875, OUP, 1976.

[5] A.D. Gilbert Religion and Society in Industrial England: Church, Chapel and Social Change 1740-1914, Longman, 1976.

[6] S. Yeo Religion and Voluntary Organisations in Crisis, London, 1976.

[7] J. Cox English Churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth 1870-1930, OUP, 1982.

[8] Callum Brown ‘Did Urbanisation Secularise Britain?’, Urban History Yearbook, 1988, pp. 1-14.

[9] Elizabeth Robert Working Class Barrow and Lancaster 1890-1930, Lancaster, 1976, page 62.

[10] E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, 2nd ed., Penguin, 1968, pp.412-16.

[11] T.W. Lacquer Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture 1780-1850, New Haven, 1976, chapters 6-7.

[12] Stephen Humphries Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth 1889-1939, Oxford, 1981, pp. 130-134.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent summary - Thanks. I was a history student in the mid-60s and remember Wickham and Inglis with enormous resoect and gratitude. They informed my research and shaped my later teaching. I believe that their work is capable of being read alongside later theorists. Churches have never existed in social, political and economic vacuums and meaning and significance need constant adjustment.