Friday, 30 December 2011

Was there a Victorian ‘crisis of faith’?

The intellectual ferment of the second half of the nineteenth century differed from that of earlier periods in important aspects of tone and substance and in the extent to which it implicated the ordinary church-going population as well as the religious intelligentsia. It was the percolation downwards of theological uncertainty into the ranks of ordinary believers that marks the Victorian period off from the doubt and disbelief of Hanoverian society. Radical and potentially subversive ideas were popularised across society and this added a new dimension to the relationship between the Churches and the wider intellectual world. Victorian laymen, judged by popular religious newspapers, periodicals and sermons, were capable of considerable theological subtlety, but even those who were less subtle could be caught up in the crises of Darwinism and biblical criticism. [1] The popularisation of controversy and the involvement of the general public in religious debates was what contemporaries often found noteworthy.

What was novel was the emergence of popular theological speculation within the Churches. Popular infidelity was not new, but in the past its hostility to the Christian tradition had militated against its chances of subverting the faith of the church-going population. City Mission workers found in the late-nineteenth century that there was a strong undercurrent of plebeian secularism, Paineite in the bold invective and blunt ribaldry through which it was expressed. This augmented the more urbane secularism of people such Charles Bradlaugh, George Jacob Holyoake and Annie Besant. [2] But the Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ was not precipitated by such counter-religious propaganda. It was not secularists but devout Christians who were its most effective proponents. The controversial Essays and Reviews of 1860 was the work of six Anglican clergymen and a devout layman.

There were profound misgivings in all the Churches that the traditional tenets of belief and faith were being questioned in an attempt to come to terms with wider intellectual tendencies. The periodical The Sword and the Trowel brought tensions to a head among Baptists in 1887, publishing a series of articles accusing radicals of the denomination of virtual apostasy. Similar crises occurred in Wesleyanism in the early 1880s when Rev. W. H. Dallinger was prevented from delivering the Fernley lecture advancing the synthesis of Methodist theology and evolutionary theory. [3] Among Congregationalists similar problems arose as the result of the airing of advanced theological opinions during a meeting associated with the autumn session of the Congregational Union held in Leicester in October 1877. [4] Despite the tensions that the popularisation of these issues generated and the fascination they held for denominational editors, preachers and pamphleteers, controversy was less significant within the Churches than the absence of permanent division. The ‘crisis of faith’ was contained and produced very little actual loss of faith. While there were notable cases of apostasy, doubt generally led not to disbelief but to theological revision or accommodation of one kind or another.

The decline of religious adherence in modern English society was not caused by the loss of existing members. Membership retention has not been a major problem. From the 1830s, when various churches associated with the Baptist Union began compiling statistics, a growing number of English religious organisations have collected and collated data on aspects of recruitment and loss. A similar picture emerges in each case. While they have been growing rapidly, religious organisations have had a high turnover in membership: losses by expulsion, lapsing and leakage were offset by extremely rapid recruitment. But as their growth rates have declined, so did membership turnover. In Wesleyanism, for example, annual losses of total membership were 14.1% of the total membership in 1880-1881 but only 6.8% in 1932. However, in 1881 it had attracted enough new members to offset the loss but by 1932 losses greatly exceeded new member. Recruitment rather than loss was the crucial variable in declining support.

What were the links between the Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ and the growing inability of the Churches to draw new members from the broader society? The intellectual tensions occasioned by theological revisionism and Darwinian Theory did not produce significant levels of defection among existing adherents largely because of the strong social and cultural pressures that existing among Victorian Christians to reach some sort of ideological compromise. The heat was generally taken out of the crises by an almost irresistible imperative towards accommodation with the wider intellectual world. In a society that was no longer dominated by a pervasive religious belief, there was a distinctively modern religious-cultural preoccupation with making the Christian faith relevant. The quest for relevance is a characteristic of neither churches in which relevance is assured by social domination, nor of sects that accepted cultural marginality but is a preoccupation of denominational type religion. It is essential for the survival of denominations that depend on the voluntary allegiance of members who adhere in general to the prevalent ideas and intellectual fashions of their age. Victorian Christianity’s attempts to come to terms with biological and geological science, social science, archaeology, comparative religion, historical scholarship and philosophical theology can be seen in this light. The alternative to ideological accommodation was the increasing marginality and cultural isolation of organised religion within English society.

Denominations do not have the control over their members of either churches or sects. Membership does not exclude other commitments and denominational life is only one of a variety of associational activities. The denomination must compete for members with other recreational, social, cultural and vocational activities. The transition to denomination means that the organisation could no longer demand levels of participation from its members previously regarded as normal. In fact, the membership’s beliefs and values were increasingly moulded by ‘worldly’ associations as by ‘religious’ ones. There was a decline in commitment, especially evident among Nonconformists. The Church of England had long accommodated people willing to worship in church but unwilling to tolerate too intense or too disciplined a religious life. The pervasive nature of Nonconformity to its adherents, especially falling attendance at weekday prayer, preaching and class meetings, was beginning to decline by the early 1850s. By 1900, many church leaders felt that they were fighting a losing battle to rival ‘the social party, the secular concert or the tennis club’. [5] The choices facing them were bleak. On one side religion was growing increasingly worldly where recreational activities went alongside and often were more important that spiritual ones. The alternative was alienation both from the wider culture and from the great majority of Victorians and Edwardians who were prepared for accommodation with the changing spirit of the times. It was the worldliness of accommodation rather than the alienation of reaction that was the norm.

The Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ was a matter of the Churches coming to terms ideologically with the secularising tendencies within the wider culture. But this was only partially successful. What was a ‘crisis of faith’ for believers was for outsiders a ‘crisis of plausibility’ and the failure of the Churches to deal effectively with this that hindered their ability to maintain an adequate rate of recruitment from the broader society. Far more important for the future of English religion than the specific challenges of Darwinism or biblical criticism, or the internal adjustments that these challenges demanded of the Churches, was the gradual divergence, increasingly evident after 1860, between religious and secular modes of interpreting reality. Previously there had been something like a consensus between believers and unbelievers about the plausibility of the religious worldview. Religious definitions of reality had been credible even to those who had rejected or ignored them. This was not the case in the cultural milieu of modern industrial England. Well before 1900, commentators insisted that the most serious threat to English religion was not the incompatibility between science and religion but the growing tendency for people without much knowledge of theology or interest in it becoming alienated from the modes of thought and definitions of reality that made religiosity explicable and relevant.

Two powerful forces were operating in society to produce this fundamental secularisation of the values and beliefs of the population outside the Churches. First, there was a popularisation of the ‘scientific spirit’. [6] Increasingly after 1850 science dominated popular definitions of reality. The scientific ethos as a popular philosophy tended to stultify all forms of metaphysical thinking, despite the fact that many of the scientists putting forward these views were themselves Christians. [7] Secondly, popular materialism emerged as a major social force. There is a significant link between the economic changes that occurred after 1750 and the growing secularisation of society. Poverty, scarcity and disease had been the common lot of all but the fortunate few in pre-industrial societies. But in nineteenth century England, the material wealth of a whole society began steadily to improve. The self-sustaining economic growth of a maturing industrial society and economy had already undermined attitudes and values that had taken shape amidst the poverty and economic insecurity of generations before the Industrial Revolution.

The crisis of plausibility produced by the emergence of industrial society in England made its presence felt early in the Victorian period. Increasingly the Churches were becoming estranged from modern English society, though this was not brought home fully until the experience of the First World War. Victorian fears about the alienation of the working-classes from organised religion, though grounded in the definition of religiosity as attendance, were not groundless. It was also becoming apparent that for the middle and upper-classes, religion was an increasingly irrelevant activity and cultural influence. The denominational compromises of the Victorian churches in their search for relevance undermined their evangelical verve just as the crisis of plausibility undermined their influence on wider society. In seeking to understand why religious adherence declined after 1850, science and theology provide only part of the answer.



[1] Knight, P., The Age of Science, (Basil Blackwell), 1986, places the Darwinian dispute in its nineteenth century context while the monumental biography Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James, Darwin, (Michael Joseph), 1991, is a major study of this enigmatic figure.

[2] On Holyoake and Annie Besant, see Grugel, Lee E., George Jacob Holyoake: a study in the evolution of a Victorian radical, (Porcupine Press), 1976, and Taylor, Ann, Annie Besant: a biography, (Oxford University Press), 1992.

[3] Haas, J. W., ‘The Reverend Dr William Henry Dallinger, F.R.S. (1839-1909)’, Notes & Records of the Royal Society (of London), Vol. 54, (2000), pp. 53-65.

[4] Ledger-Lomas, Michael, ‘“Glimpses of the Great Conflict”: English Congregationalists and the European Crisis of Faith, circa 1840-1875’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 46, (2007), pp. 826-860, Thompson, D. M., ‘R. W. Dale and the “civic gospel”‘, in Sell, Alan P. F., (ed.), Protestant nonconformists and the west Midlands of England: papers presented at the first conference of the Association of Denominational Historical Societies and Cognate Libraries, (Keele University Press), 1996, pp. 99-118.

[5] Cit, ibid, Gilbert, A. D., Religion and Society in Industrial England, p. 181. See also, Hennell, Michael, ‘Evangelicalism and worldliness, 1770-1870’, in Cuming, G. J., and Baker, D., (eds.), Popular belief and practice; papers read at the ninth summer meeting and the tenth winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, (Cambridge University Press), 1972, 229-236.

[6] Fyfe, Aileen, ‘Science and Religion in Popular Publishing in 19th Century Britain’, in Meusburger, Peter, Welker, Michael, and Wunder, Edgar, (eds.), Clashes of Knowledge: Orthodoxies and Heterodoxies in Science and Religion, (Springer Science), 2008, pp. 121-132, and Ruse, Michael, ‘The relationship between science and religion in Britain, 1830-1870’, Church History, Vol. 44, (1975), pp. 505-522.

[7] See, Lucas, J. R., ‘Wilberforce and Huxley: a legendary encounter’, Historical Journal, Vol. 22, (1979), pp. 313-330, Gilley, Sheridan, ‘The Huxley-Wilberforce debate: a reconsideration’, in Robbins, Keith, (ed.), Religion and humanism: papers read at the eighteenth summer meeting and the nineteenth winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, (Oxford University Press), 1981, pp. 325-340, and James, Frank A. J. L., ‘An ‘Open Clash between Science and the Church’?: Wilberforce, Huxley and Hooker on Darwin at the British Association, Oxford, 1860’, in Knight, David M., and Eddy, Matthew, (eds.), Science and beliefs: from natural philosophy to natural science, 1700-1900, (Ashgate), 2005, pp. 171-194.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Was there a civic religious culture after 1830?

Some aspects of Victorian religious culture cut across denominational lines and tended to escape denominational control altogether. Virtually all clergymen, Catholic as well as Protestant, regarded the threat of eternal punishment as essential to Christian faith and morals in 1850. However, by the 1870s, this increasingly seemed 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 and was replaced by church music that took a more central role in worship. [1] Hymns, long established in nonconformity, quickly caught on in Anglican churches and Hymns Ancient and Modern first appeared in 1861 rekindling the spirit of worship even when the objects of worship were becoming problematic. [2]

Sabbatarianism was a major force in this period. [3] The Lord’s Day Observance Society, founded by Anglican evangelicals in 1831, acted as the main pressure group. [4] 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. [5] Membership of Band 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 to 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 and 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 appeal of 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. There could be morality, people now believed, without the fear of hell and without religion altogether. A more persuasive argument is 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 an ‘invented’ civil religion. [6] 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.


[1] See Ellison, Robert H., The Victorian pulpit: spoken and written sermons in nineteenth-century Britain, (Susquehanna University Press), 1998, on the importance of the sermon and preaching in Victorian religion

[2] Phillips, C. S., ‘The beginnings of ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’’, Theology, Vol. 38, (1939), pp. 276-284, and Watson, J. R., ‘Ancient or Modern, Ancient and Modern: The Victorian Hymn and the Nineteenth Century’, Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 36, (2), (2006), pp. 1-16. Dibble, Jeremy, ‘Musical trends and the Western Church: A collision of the ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’’, in ibid, Gilley, Sheridan, and Stanley, Brian, (eds.), World Christianities, c. 1815-1914, pp. 121-135, and Routley, Erik, A short history of English church music, (Mowbrays), 1977, provide the context. See also, Yamke, S. S., Make a joyful noise unto the Lord: Hymns as a reflection of Victorian social attitudes, (Ohio University Press), 1978.

[3] Wigley, J., The rise and fall of the Victorian Sunday, (Manchester University Press), 1980, Murray, Douglas M., ‘The Sabbath question in Victorian Scotland in context’, in Swanson, Robert Norman, (ed.), The use and abuse of time in Christian history, (Boydell), 2002, pp. 319-330, Robertson, C. J. A., ‘Early Scottish railways and the observance of the sabbath’, Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 57, (1978), pp. 143-167, Brooke, David, ‘The opposition to Sunday rail services in north eastern England, 1834-1914’, Journal of Transport History, Vol. 6, (1963), pp. 95-109, and Harrison, B. H., ‘The Sunday trading riots of 1855’, Historical Journal, Vol. 8, (1965), pp. 219-245.

[4] Vervaecke, Philippe, ‘Les loisirs dominicaux contestés: La Lord’s Day Observance Society et le respect du ‘Sabbat’, 1831-2006’, Revue française de civilisation britannique, Vol. 14, (2007), pp. 135-145.

[5] Cliff, P. B., The rise and development of the Sunday School Movement in England 1780-1980, (National Christian Educational Council), 1986, and Rosman, Doreen M., ‘Sunday schools and social change in the twentieth century’, in Orchard, Stephen, and Briggs, John H. Y., (eds.), The Sunday school movement: studies in the growth and decline of Sunday schools, (Paternoster), 2007, pp. 149-160.

[6] See Kuhn, William M., ‘Queen Victoria’s Jubilees and the Invention of Tradition’, Victorian Poetry, Vol. 25, (1987), pp. 107-114.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Class

The fourth volume in the Nineteenth Century British Society series has now been published on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nineteenth-Century-British-Society-ebook/dp/B006MY93GK/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1324111713&sr=1-1

All societies are, to some degree, stratified or divided into different social groups. These groups may be in competition with each other for social control or wealth. They may be functional, defined by their contribution to society as a whole. They may share common ‘values’, have a common ‘national identity’ or they may form part of a pluralistic society in which different ‘values’ coexist with varying degrees of consensus or conflict. They have different names like ‘castes’ or ‘ranks’or ‘classes’. British society in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century has been called a ‘class society’ but there are some differences between historians about its precise meaning or whether it is meaningful at all.

This volume examines the nature of social class in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century. The book first examines the ways in which contemporaries and historians have viewed class and how a ‘class’society developed as the result of economic change. The remaining three chapters follow the conventional three class definition and consider the working-classes, middle-classes and upper-classes. Particular regard is placed on the changing role of working-class and middle-class women and how their economic, social and cultural roles changed when faced with massive economic dislocation and male-dominated outlooks.

The book is divided into five chapters:

  1. Class

  2. The working-classes

  3. The middle-classes

  4. The Upper Class

Further Reading identifies the most valuable books on these subjects while the detailed notes provide a guide for further research.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Why was religion so important in Victorian politics?

The religious conflicts of the Victorian period were fought out not only in pulpits and pamphlets but also in the political arena. [1] 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 evangelising tactics both by the Catholic Church and by its Protestant opponents. [2] It had its effect at national level on such issues as the Maynooth grant in 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. [3] 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, 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 in 1869 and opened Oxford and Cambridge up to nonconformists the following year. The last disability was removed by the Burials Act 1880 that allowed nonconformist ministers to perform their own funeral services in parish churchyards. [4] 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.


[1] Ibid, Machin, G. I. T., Politics and the Churches in Great Britain, 1832 to 1868, and Politics and the churches in Great Britain 1869-1921, (Oxford University Press), 1987.

[2] See, Ruotsila, Markku, ‘The Catholic Apostolic Church in British Politics’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 56, (2005), pp. 75-91.

[3] See, Machin, Ian, ‘Disestablishment and democracy, c.1840-1930’, Biagini, Eugenio F., (ed.), Citizenship and community: liberals, radicals and collective identities in the British Isles, 1865-1931, (Cambridge University Press), 1996, pp. 120-147, Bell, P. M. H., Disestablishment in Ireland and Wales, (SPCK), 1969, and O’Leary, Paul, ‘Religion, nationality and politics: disestablishment in Ireland and Wales, 1868-1914’, in Guy, John R., and Neely, W. G., (eds.), Contrasts and comparisons: studies in Irish and Welsh Church history, (Welsh Religious Historical Society), 1999, pp. 89-113.

[4] Stevens, Catrin, ‘The “burial question”: controversy and conflict, c.1860-1890’, Welsh History Review, Vol. 21, (2002), pp. 328-356, and Wiggins, Deborah, ‘The Burial Act of 1880, the Liberation Society and George Osborne Morgan’, Parliamentary History, Vol. 15, (1996), pp. 173-189.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Was faith a matter of class?

The Victorian crisis of faith has dominated discussions of religion and the Victorians. One problem with the ‘crisis of faith’ narrative is that it has had the effect of excluding much of the religious life of the period and has, too often, become the main story. Many Victorians may have experienced doubt about religion but many more did not. The ‘crisis of faith’ was a by-product of Victorian religiosity and in particular the influence of evangelicalism. Victorians wrote and discussed this crisis but many did so because they prized faith and feared and cared about its loss. In that respect, the widespread debate over faith was less a measure of the extent of the crisis as a measure of the extent of their concern.[1] Stories are frequently told of prominent Victorians such as George Eliot losing their faith. This crisis is often presented as demonstrating the intellectual weakness of Christianity as it was assaulted by new lines of thought such as Darwinism and biblical criticism. The second half of the nineteenth century was certainly marked by bitter and prolonged controversies primarily precipitated by the intellectual polemics of the Tractarians, the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, [2] the provocative theological symposium Essays and Reviews in 1860 [3] and its milder successor Lex Mundi in 1889 and the promulgation of the Vatican Decrees [4] in 1870. Poets and novelists portrayed the trauma of the loss of faith by individuals and editors of newspapers and journals provided a forum for the religious elite that grappled very publicly with questions of doubt and disbelief. [5] However, these articulate individuals were not a cross-section of their society. They were the talented, well educated and the kind of people whose beliefs and values were recorded either by themselves or others. It is not easy to generalise from what they wrote and what was written about them to the attitudes of society as a whole. Was their ‘crisis of faith’ part of a new phenomenon of ideological secularisation that set the Victorian age apart from earlier periods of English religious history? If it was, can the decline in religious observance after 1900 be attributed, at least in part, to the gradual erosion of religious practice by this tide of doubt and disbelief?

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. [6] There were considerable variations between regions, but the strongest influence was that of class.[7]

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 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 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. [8]

It was among 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. [9] 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 deep and genuine religious commitment was evident in this and other classes in Victorian society and should not be underestimated. Middle-class religiosity, despite variations 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. [10] 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 suburban Nonconformity than had been common forty years before.

As for the urban working-classes, the common view was that they rarely attended church and were therefore ‘spiritually destitute’. The obsession of churchmen and the middle-classes with Sunday attendance meant that they overlooked the fact that the working-classes came into contact with the churches on a great many occasions and had religious notions of their own, however unorthodox. 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 a 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-classes as it did to encourage it in the middle and upper-classes. Although neither regular attenders nor total strangers to the churches most considered themselves Christian. [11] 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. [12] The working-classes also looked to the churches and to Anglican parsons in particular for charity. [13] 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.


[1] Helmstadter, Richard J., (ed.), Victorian Faith in Crisis: Essays on Continuity and Change in Nineteenth-century Religious Belief, (Stanford University Press), 1990.

[2] See, for example, Lyon, John, ‘Immediate reactions to Darwin: the English Catholic press’ first reviews of the Origin of the Species’, Church History, Vol. 41, (1972), pp. 78-93.

[3] Altholz, J. F., Anatomy of a controversy: the debate over ‘Essays and reviews’, 1860-1864, (Scolar), 1994.

[4] Fitzsimons, R., ‘The Church of England and the First Vatican Council’, Journal of Religious History, Vol. 27, (2003), pp. 29-46, Von Arx, J.P., ‘Interpreting the Council: Archbishop Manning and the Vatican decrees controversy’, Recusant History, Vol. 26, (2002), pp. 229-242, and Altholz, J. F., and Powell, J., ‘Gladstone, Lord Ripon, and the Vatican decrees, 1874’, Albion, Vol. 22, (1990), 449-459.

[5] Larsen, Timothy, Crisis of doubt: honest faith in nineteenth-century England, (Oxford University Press), 2006, serves as a corrective to the ‘crisis of faith’ narrative. It focuses on freethinking and Secularist leaders who came to faith. As sceptics, they had imbibed all the latest ideas that seemed to undermine faith; nevertheless, they went on to experience a crisis of doubt and then to defend in their writings and lectures the intellectual cogency of Christianity.

[6] Crockett, Alasdair, ‘Rural-Urban Churchgoing in Victorian England’, Rural History, Vol. 16, (2005), pp. 53-82, Green, Simon J. D., ‘Secularization by default?: urbanisation, suburbanisation and the strains of voluntary religious organisation in Victorian and Edwardian England’, Hispania Sacra, Vol. 42, (1990), pp. 423-433, and Pugh, D. P., ‘The strength of English religion in the nineties: some evidence from the north west’, Journal of Religious History, Vol. 12, (1983), pp. 250-265.

[7] Williams, Sarah C., ‘Victorian Religion: A Matter of Class or Culture?’, Nineteenth Century Studies, Vol. 17, (2003), pp. 13-17.

[8] Smith, J. T., Victorian class conflict?: schoolteaching and the parson, priest and minister, 1837-1902, (Sussex Academic Press), 2009.

[9] Twells, Alison, The civilising mission and the English middle class, 1792-1850: the “heathen” at home and overseas, (Palgrave), 2009.

[10] See, for example, Tiller, Kate, Thomas, Terry, and Collins, Brenda, ‘Family, community and religion’, in Golby, John, (ed.), Communities and families, (Cambridge University Press), 1994, pp. 155-193, and Pawley, Margaret, Faith and family: the life and circle of Ambrose Phillipps de Lisle, (Canterbury), 1993

[11] Entwistle, Dorothy, ‘“Hope, colour, and comradeship”: loyalty and opportunism in early twentieth-century church attendance among the working class in north-west England’, Journal of Religious History, Vol. 25, (2001), pp. 20-38.

[12] See, for example, Stevens, Catrin, ‘“The funeral made the attraction”: the social and economic functions of funerals in nineteenth-century Wales’, in Gramich, Katie and Hiscock, Andrew, (eds.), Dangerous diversity: the changing faces of Wales: essays in honour of Tudor Bevan, (University of Wales Press), 1998, pp. 83-104.

[13] This can be explored in Shapely, Peter, ‘Saving and salvation: charity and the Anglican church in Victorian Manchester’, in Ford, Chris, Powell, Michael, and Wyke, Terry J., (eds.), The Church in Cottonopolis: essays to mark the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Manchester, (Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society), 1997, pp. 72-84.

Friday, 2 December 2011

A Catholic revival?

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. [1] 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. [2]

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. [3] 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. The presence of a large Catholic population was an important factor in the Catholic revival at the end of the nineteenth century. [4] Cardinals Wiseman and Manning, archbishops of Westminster, restructured the expanding Catholic Church in Britain. Impoverished Irish immigrants contributed to the building of local Catholic churches.


[1] 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.

[2] Quinn, Dermot A., Patronage and piety: the politics of English Roman Catholicism, 1850-1900, (Macmillan), 1993.

[3] On this subject ibid, Paz, D. G., Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian England.

[4] On the Irish and Roman Catholicism in London see the following papers by Gilley, Sheridan, ‘Papists, protestants and the Irish in London, 1835-70’, in Cuming, G. J., and Baker, Derek, (eds.), in Studies in Church History, Vol. 8: Popular belief and practice, (Cambridge University Press), 1972, pp. 259-266; ‘Heretic London, holy poverty and the Irish poor, 1830-1870’, Downside Review, Vol. 89, (1971), pp. 64-89; ‘Protestant London, no Popery and the Irish poor, 1830-60’, Recusant History, Vol. 10, (1970), pp. 210-230; Vol. 11, (1971), pp. 21-46; and ‘The Roman Catholic mission to the Irish in London’, Recusant History, Vol. 10, (1969), pp. 123-145.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Why was Nonconformity successful after 1850?

The Victorian period was one of the high points in Nonconformist history. The different groups matched their Anglican rivals in numbers and 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. [1]

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 [2] 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. [3]

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’. [4] 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. [5] 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. [6]

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. [7]

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.


[1] Johnson, Dale A., The changing shape of English nonconformity, 1825-1925, (Oxford University Press), 1999, pp. 77-163.

[2] On this see, Morgan, John Vyrnwy, The Welsh religious revival, 1904-5: a retrospect and a criticism, (Chapman & Hall), 1909, Harvey, John, ‘Spiritual emblems: the visions of the 1904-1905 Welsh revival’, Llafur, Vol. 6, (1993), pp. 75-93, and Gitre, Edward J., ‘The 1904-05 Welsh Revival: Modernization, Technologies, and Techniques of the Self’, Church History, Vol. 73, (2004), pp. 792-827.

[3] 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.

[4] Cit, Obelkevich, J., Religion and Rural Society, (Oxford University Press), 1993, p. 333. However, in the Parliamentary Debates, (Reuter’s Telegram Co.), 1907, p. 127, it was ‘Many of her bishops and archbishops had been not only men of high birth and....that the carriage never stopped for three generations at the chapel door’.

[5] Tensions, however, remained with the Church of England especially over burials; see, Stevens, C., ‘The Burial Question: Controversy and Conflict, c.1860-1890’, Welsh Historical Review, Vol. 21, (2002), pp. 328-356.

[6] Bebbington, D. W., ‘Nonconformity and electoral sociology, 1867-1918’, Historical Journal, Vol. 27, (1984), pp. 633-656, Valentine, Simon Ross, ‘The role of nonconformity in late Victorian politics’, Modern History Review, Vol. 9, (2), (1997), pp. 6-9, Hancock, W. C. R., ‘No compromise: nonconformity and politics 1893-1914’, Baptist Quarterly, Vol. 36, (2), (1995), pp. 56-69, and Smith, Leonard, Religion and the rise of labour: nonconformity and politics in Lancashire and the West Riding, 1880-1914, (Ryburn), 1994.

[7] Bebbington, D. W., The nonconformist conscience: chapel and politics, 1870-1914, (G. Allen & Unwin), 1982, and Larsen, Timothy, ‘A nonconformist conscience? Free churchmen in Parliament in nineteenth-century England’, Parliamentary History, Vol. 24, (2005), pp. 107-119.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Just published: Famine, Fenians and Freedom, 1840-1882

In these days when students often have a bad press, Famine, Fenians and Freedom, is dedicated to the sixth form students whom I taught and tutored in the two years before I retired. They were a witty, interested and interesting set of over fifty students who challenged both their own ideas and mine in lessons that combined the best of learning: achievement of the skills and understanding necessary to do well in examinations and in education in its broadest sense. They were amongst the most affable, brightest and certainly the most challenging (in the nicest sense of that word) individuals I had ever taught. Their collective success, something that continued at university and beyond is something I have followed with intense interest.

2011-11-18 14-30-46.173

Famine, Fenians and Freedom is a detailed and nuanced study of the exodus of the impoverished and persecuted from Ireland before and after the Great Famine of the 1840s as they emigrated, or in some cases were transported to, America, Canada and Australia as well as to the British mainland. The critical question for many Irish men and women was whether Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom, or whether they should seek greater freedom through devolved power or separation. This was an Ireland dominated by personalities such as Daniel O’Connell, James Stephens, Isaac Butt, and Charles Stewart Parnell, and by movements such as the Repeal Association, Young Ireland, the Fenians and Home Rule, and by rebellions against British domination in 1848 and 1867. It examines how those who saw themselves as exiled sought to restore Irish independence from what they determined as British tyranny. This led to unsuccessful Fenian invasions of Canada by Irish-Americans in 1866, 1870 and 1871, the attempted assassination of a member of the British Royal family, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, in Australia in 1868, and the murder of two British politicians in Phoenix Park, Dublin in 1882. It is a story replete with dramatic events; the monster meetings of the Repeal Association, the battle of Ridgeway, the voyages of the Erin's Hope and the Catalpa, the Manchester ‘outrages’, and the Clerkenwell bombing, and considers developments in Ireland in their global colonial context and setting.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

How far was the Church of England in decline after 1850?

The Victorian age was self-consciously religious. [1] Britain’s greatness, Victorians believed that its prosperity, political liberties and Empire was rooted in Christian and Protestant faith. Yet if religion flourished, it did not bring harmony and the transition to pluralism brought 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. 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 deepening class divisions. The churches responded with 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 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 even 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. [2] 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. [3] Disraeli, denouncing the ‘mass in masquerade’, passed the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 under which five ritualist clergymen were convicted and sent to jail. [4] 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. [5] 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.

If the Anglican Church was to be successful during the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century then it had to be successful in the cities where population was increasingly concentrated. The traditional view of the growth of the Victorian cities focussed on the increasing breakdown of community, individual isolation, poor housing, social deprivation and an ever growing class divide. In this context, organised religion struggled to survive and this led to the belief that the ‘industrial revolution divided men from God’ but Chadwick suggests that this view may be misplaced and that the city dwellers were never committed churchgoers. [6] Eighteenth century visitations, for instance, show that as few as 1-2% of parishioners took communion, this perhaps being a better indication of true religiosity than attendance.

Urbanisation actually aided the growth of the church in certain sections of society, especially the new and rapidly growing middle-classes. Cox suggests:

Even its greatest success is sometimes regarded as a failure…the Church of England succeeding in capturing or maintaining the allegiance of the new urban as well as the old rural elites. [7]

Nonetheless the church of the 1850s became increasingly aware, through the writings of Dickens, Kingsley and the work of the Poor law Commission, that the working-classes were largely alienated from the established church. In the 1880s, Charles Booth estimated that the upper- or middle-classes, who represented 12% of the population, made up the majority of the church, especially the Church of England. The churches were not inactive in their response to urbanisation. The dramatic need for more buildings to accommodate the burgeoning population was recognised by Joshua Watson and his Incorporated Church Building Society in 1818 and by Horace Mann after his Religious Census in 1851. There was an unprecedented mobilisation of resources through the charitable activities of the churches in areas of social deprivation. Despite this, the churches continued to decline in significance for many in the working-classes suggesting that decline was less to do with change itself but with the ways in which the church responded to that change.

Just how effective the Church of England was in urban centres depends on what determined success. Church attendance statistics were used as the major source of information about the state of nineteenth century Christianity and a successful church was therefore one that was full. The problem is that the impact of beliefs on any one section of society did not necessarily correspond with institutional statistics whose accuracy is difficult to corroborate. In addition, it depends on which indices of religiosity are used. For example the number of Anglican marriages declined from 90.7% of all marriages in 1844 to 64.25% in 1904, yet baptisms increased from 62.35% in 1885 to 65.8% in 1902. As a result, different historians have judged the church of the nineteenth century in different lights. Some have deemed the decline in attendance a failure of the church to reach the urban masses while others see the church holding its own, if not growing. What is clear is that the response to the Anglican Church varied by gender and region as well as by class. Attendance by women was higher across all classes and, for both working- and middle-classes women played a central role in maintaining their families’ religious values. Regional variations were also important but where the church had historically been strong, it remained so. London, the focus of much contemporary concern, was exceptionally secularised. In the 1880s 15-20% of London’s working-class attended a church compared with 40% of middle-classes while in Bristol this was probably 40% and 66% respectively.

Why was the working-class alienated from the Church of England? There was a cultural gap between the church and the working classes. The rural dean of Kennington quoted by Charles Booth said in the 1890s: ‘Working men don’t go to church for the same reason that I don’t go to the races’. [8] Certainly clergy in the East End of London were regarded as missionaries. McLeod writes:

The Church of England in Bethnal Green was a missionary church, its ministers isolated by the suspicion of the natives and by the differences in language and custom that made the life of the local population repugnant to them. [9]

Respectability was part of that cultural gap. The need to wear one’s best clothes to church was a bar to the poor but it was also an attraction. Working women who went to church were ‘respectable’. There were also few positions of responsibility avaiolable to the working-classes in the church. The Anglican clergy were almost entirely upper middle-class and three-quarters 75% had degrees in 1870. Lay leadership was limited as well; in Lewisham, for instance, although the church was 50% working-class, they were never represented as churchwardens. This lack of involvement was also evident in the charitable activities of the church. The problem was that the church did much for the people but little with them.

The Church of England embarked on a massive programme of church building and over 600 new churches were built between 1818 and 1884. The number of clergy increased significantly from 14,613 in 1841 to 24,232 in 1891. Building churches was one thing but filling them quite another. There were deeper structural problems within the Church of England that the church failed to recognise and so it began to blame the infidelity of the working classes rather than their own conservatism. The evangelical emphasis on industry, sobriety and thrift appealed to the upwardly mobile middle-classes but had little resonance among working people while its social conservatism simply alienated them. Relief offered by frequently condescending district visitors was frequently resented by the poor who in turn resented the poor’s ingratitude. Yet despite the immense amount of activity and effort the Victorian church poured into philanthropy, second in cost and manpower only to church building, it did little to encourage the working-classes to attend church.

Traditionally the urban contribution of the Church of England has been regarded as as one of failure. The church failed to reach the working-classes and, despite initial success with the middle class, a subsequent failure to hold them in the face of rising secularism. Yet, in 1901, the census showed attendance by 47,000 men and 61,000 women in the East End and in London as a whole one in five attended church. The church was an inescapable and intrusive part of the urban landscape. Individual clergy made heroic efforts to identify and communicate with the local community. The High churchman Osborne Jay of Jago took up boxing in Shoreditch, Weldon Champneys of Whitechapel gave weekday lectures in a school where he felt it was less off-putting for the working man than the church and he supported the coalwhippers fight for justice over employment. The Sunday school movement was on a huge scale and maintained a notion that the Church of England was ‘our church’. At Christ Church, Gypsy Hill, the one poor street in the parish provided 10% of all baptisms. The Anglican Church did have internal structural obstacles to reaching the entire urban populations and inevitably failed to attain this target. Yet its attempts to do so were not insignificant.


[1] For the development of religion in the Victorian period see Chadwick, Owen, The Victorian Church, 2 Vols., (SCM Press), 1970, 1972, for the standard reading with ibid, Gilbert, A. D., Religion and Society in Industrial England, for a different interpretation. For the period after 1900, see, Robbins, Keith, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales: The Christian Church 1900-2000, (Oxford University Press), 2008, pp. 1-96.

[2] Haig, Alan, The Victorian clergy, (Routledge), 1984, considers the professionalising of the clergy.

[3] Yates, Nigel, Anglican ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910, (Oxford University Press), 1999, Whisenant, James, A fragile unity: anti-ritualism and the division of Anglican evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, (Paternoster Press), 2003, and Whisenant, James, ‘Anti-ritualism and the moderation of evangelical opinion in England in the mid-1870s’, Anglican and Episcopal History, Vol. 70, (2001), pp. 451-477.

[4] Bentley, James, Ritualism and politics in Victorian Britain: the attempt to legislate for belief, (Oxford University Press), 1978, and Palmer, Bernard, Reverend rebels: five Victorian clerics and their fight against authority, (Darton, Longman & Todd), 1993.

[5] Reed, J. S., Glorious battle: the cultural politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism, (Vanderbilt University Press), 1996.

[6] Chadwick, Owen, The Secularisation of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge University Press), 1975, p. 95.

[7] Cox, Jeffrey, The English churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth, 1870-1930, (Oxford University Press), 1982, p. 5.

[8] Ibid, Cox, Jeffrey, The English churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth, 1870-1930, p. 105.

[9] McLeod, Hugh, Class and Religion in the Late Victorian City, (Croom Helm), 1974, p. 104.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Why was the state of working-class religion a problem in the mid-nineteenth century?

In his report on the 1851 Religious Census, Horace Mann noted:

...a sadly formidable proportion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion. [1]

There is significant disagreement among historians about the role and importance of religion in the lives of the working population. One reason for this confusion lies in the difficulty of interpreting the census but some firm observations were made. [2] First, vast numbers of people did not attend formal religious services, especially the working population in the large industrial and manufacturing cities and towns that were apparently largely beyond 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. [3]

The 1851 Religious Census is widely regarded as evidence for widespread religious apathy but it simply provides a snapshot of attendance on one day in one year. However, the work of E. R. Wickham on Sheffield and K. S. Inglis with their negative treatment of religion among the labouring population with their stress on ‘indifference’ and ‘apathy’ remains influential. [4] There are, however, important questions that need to be answered. What, constituted ‘high’ as opposed to ‘low’ attendance?   How far can people’s religious beliefs be ascertained from whether they attended on a particular day or not? How is it possible to resolve the problem of religious apathy highlighted by many contemporary observers, who equated religious belief with regular church attendance with working-class autobiographies suggesting that their authors were strongly interested in religion? [5]

The impact of religion on the working population in the first half of the nineteenth century was multi-faceted.  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. Any interpretation has to deal with the contradictory notions of secularising trends and the continuing strength of working-class religiosity.   Austin Freeman wrote of the spiritual effects of industrialisation:

...it has destroyed social unity and replaced it by social disintegration and class antagonism... [6]

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. The weakening of the hold of the Established churches throughout Great Britain can be clearly evident in the 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. Evangelicalism 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.

Both Nonconformists and millenarians reflected the hopes of those who believed that events in France heralded a new era of equality and social justice. [7] But was the impending revolution the work of God or 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. [8] 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. [9] Paine’s Age of Reason, published in 1794, was a leading influence but its influence was less than 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 saw non-churchgoing as evidence for ‘infidelism’ but this neglects the extent to which there were simply insufficient places in churches. [10]

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 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. [11] 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. [12]  He too stressed the middle-class character of most congregations but he implied an increase in 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 were baptised, married and buried, was the main symbol of community.  The 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.

The emergence of legitimate religious pluralism and the movement away from legislative limitations on nonconforming 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, but 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 Nonconformist bodies but one of church government. Membership of a Nonconformist 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 this 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. 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. [13] The freethinking tradition established in the 1790s largely 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. [14]   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. [15] 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:

....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 sub-cultural phenomenon. [16]

How religious was the working-class after 1850? How widespread was irreligion among working people? In 1936, the historian R. C. K. Ensor wrote:

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. [17]

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.[18]

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. 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. [19]

In the 1960s and 1970s, a series of local studies and thematic articles appeared reaching 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. Wickham and Inglis can be seen as leaders of the first generation of historians of Victorian working-class religion. 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. Historians 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. [20] The second was the attempt to relate religious changes more closely to their economic and social context. Alan Gilbert suggested that industrialisation aided secularisation in the long run but in the short term it helped trigger a temporary religious revival that petered out by the 1840s. [21] He maintained that industrialisation was ultimately subversive to all religion, because increased human control over the environment had 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. [22] 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. Most influential was the American historian Jeffrey Cox in his study of the south London borough of Lambeth. [23] 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 people chose to respond to these developments. Finally, 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 was more significant than has generally been assumed; the nineteenth century was a period of religious growth not decline; when decline did come in the late-nineteenth century, it was associated with suburbanisation not urbanisation when the church lost of the middle-classes that it had won successfully as the cities grew in the nineteenth century. [24]

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, 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 1880 to 1914 marked the ‘golden age of parochial work in the cities of England’. [25] 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.

The Religious Census of 1851 provides essential evidence for those historians who have stressed the secularity of Victorian working people. 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. [26]

Though the last point is questionable since 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, 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 Roman Catholics and 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.

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.[27] 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:

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. [28]

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. [29] They found that about 40% 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%, but it was higher in Lancashire (32%) and Yorkshire (40%). The average for both sexes is thus around 30%, 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 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. [30] 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. [31] 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. [32] 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 Sunday schools 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.

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] Mann, Horace, Census of Great Britain, 1851: Religious Worship in England and Wales, (Ge. Routledge), 1854, p. 93. Census of Great Britain, 1851: Religious worship in England and Wales, abridged from the official report made by H. Mann. 1854, Census of Great Britain, 1851: religious worship, England and Wales: reports and tables [1690] H.C., (1852-3), Vol. LXXXIX, 1, [1852-3] and Census of Great Britain, 1851: Religious worship and education: Scotland: reports and tables [1764] H.C., (1854), Vol. LIX, 301, [1854]. The census material for particular localities, for example, Kent and Bedfordshire, has been published generally by local history record societies.

[2] Thompson, David M., ‘The 1851 Religious Census: Problems and Possibilities’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 11, (1), (1967), pp. 87-97, Pickering, W. S. F., ‘The 1851 religious census: a useless experiment’, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 18, (1967), pp. 382-407. See also, the detailed analysis of the 1851 Religious Census in Snell, Keith D. M., and Ell, Paul S., Rival Jerusalems: the geography of Victorian religion, (Cambridge University Press), 2000, and Crockett, Alasdair, ‘Rural-Urban Churchgoing in Victorian England’, Rural History, Vol. 16, (1), (2005), pp. 53-82.

[3] On the issue of working-class ‘indifference’ and antagonism towards the churches see McLeod, H., Religion and the Working-class in Nineteenth Century Britain, (Macmillan), 1984, for a brief bibliographical study and Gill, Robin, The ‘empty’ church revisited, (Ashgate), 2003, pp. 69-134.   On the position of the Church of England see Coleman, B. I., The Church of England in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: A Social Geography, (The Historical Association), 1980, and ‘Religion in the Victorian City’, History Today, Vol. 31, (8), (1980), pp. 25-31.

[4] Wickham, E. R., Church and People in an Industrial City, (Lutterworth), 1957, and Inglis, K. S., Churches and the Working-classes in Victorian England, (Routledge), 1963 remain important studies.  

[5] Wolffe, John, ‘Elite and Popular Religion in the Religious Census of 30 March 1851’, Studies in Church History, Vol. 42, (2006), pp. 360-371.

[6] Freeman, R. Austin, Social Decay and Regeneration, (Constable), 1921, p. 284.

[7] On ‘infidelism’, Royle, E., Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British secularist movement, 1791-1866, (Manchester University Press), 1974, and his documentary collection Radical Politics 1790-1900: Religion and Unbelief, (Longman), 1971. Budd, S., Varieties of Unbelief, (Heinemann), 1977, takes the 1850s as its starting point.

[8] Matthews, Ronald, English Messiahs. Studies of six English religious pretenders, 1656-1927, (Methuen), 1936, pp. 127-195, considers Brothers and Southcott but see also, Brown, Frances, Joanna Southcott: the woman clothed with the sun, (Lutterworth), 2002, and Hopkins, J. K., A woman to deliver her people: Joanna Southcott and English millenarianism in the era of revolution, (University of Texas Press), 1982.

[9] Harrison, J. F. C., The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism, 1780-1850, (Routledge), 1979, is standard. For an important local study see, Bell, Karl, ‘‘The Humbugg of the World at an End’: the apocalyptic imagination of the uses of collective fantasy in Norfolk in 1844’, Social History, Vol. 31, (4), (2006), pp. 454-468.

[10] Turner, F. M., ‘The religious and the secular in Victorian Britain’, in Turner, F. M., Contesting cultural authority: essays in Victorian intellectual life, (Cambridge University Press), 1993, pp. 3-37.

[11] Ibid, Gilbert, A. D., Religion and Society in Industrial England 1740-1914, pp. 125-175.

[12] Ibid, Wickham, E. R., Church and People in an Industrial City, pp. 107-134.

[13] Brown, Callum G., The death of Christian Britain: understanding secularisation, 1800-2000, (Routledge), 2000, pp. 16-34.

[14] Wiener, Joel H, Radicalism and freethought in nineteenth-century Britain: the life of Richard Carlile, (Greenwood Press), 1983. See also, Marsh, Josh, Word Crimes: blasphemy, culture, and literature in nineteenth-century England, (University of Chicago Press), 1998, pp. 18-77.

[15] McLaren, Angus, ‘George Jacob Holyoake and the Secular Society: British popular freethought, 1851-8’, Canadian Journal of History, Vol. 7, (1972), pp. 235-251. See also, ibid, Marsh, Josh, Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century England, pp. 78-126.

[16] Ibid, Gilbert, A. D., Religion and Society in Industrial England 1740-1914, p. 207.

[17] Ensor, R. C. K., England 1870-1914, (Oxford University Press), 1936, p. 137.

[18] For analysis of the literature see McLeod, H., Religion and the Working-class in Nineteenth century Britain, (Macmillan), 1984, and Religion and Irreligion in Victorian England, (Headstart History), 1993.

[19] Inglis, K. S., ‘Patterns of religious worship in 1851’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 11, (1960), pp. 74-86.

[20] This definition of popular religion comes from Obelkevich, James, Religion in Rural Society: South Lindsey 1825-1875, (Oxford University Press), 1976.

[21] Ibid, Gilbert, A. D., Religion and Society in Industrial England 1740-1914, pp. 152-167.

[22] Yeo, S., Religion and Voluntary Organisations in Crisis, (Croom Helm), 1976, pp. 117-184.

[23] Cox, J., English Churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth 1870-1930, (Oxford University Press), 1982. See also, Williams, S. C., Religious Belief and Popular Culture in Southwark, c.1880-1939, (Oxford University Press), 1999.

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

[25] Cit, Bowen, Desmond, The Idea of the Victorian Church: A Study of the Church of England, 1833-1881, (McGill University Press), 1968, p. 421.

[26] Williams, Sarah, ‘The language of belief: an alternative agenda for the study of Victorian working-class religion’, Journal of Victorian Culture, Vol. 1, (1996), pp. 303-317.

[27] See, Chadwick, Rosemary, ‘Church and people in Bradford and district 1880-1914’, D.Phil thesis, University of Oxford, 1986.

[28] Robert, Elizabeth, Working-class Barrow and Lancaster 1890-1930, (University of Lancaster: Centre for North-West Regional Studies), 1976, p. 62.

[29] See, Thompson, Paul, The Edwardians: the remaking of British society, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson), 1975, (Routledge), 1992, and The voice of the past: oral history, (Oxford University Press), 1978.

[30] Ibid, Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working-class, pp. 412-416.

[31] Lacquer, T. W., Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working-class Culture 1780-1850, (Yale University Press), 1976, chapters 6-7.

[32] Humphries, Stephen, Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth 1889-1939, (Basil Blackwell), 1981, pp. 130-134.