Sunday, 28 August 2011

What did people believe in the nineteenth century?

In the first half of the nineteenth century British society became increasingly polarised and an important part in that process was religious adherence:

The Church of England system is ripe for dissolution.  The service provided by it is of a bad sort: inefficient with respect to the ends or objects professed to be aimed at by it:  efficient with respect to the divers effects which, being pernicious, are too flagrantly so to be professed to be aimed at. [1]

So, in the nineteenth century religion was itself a major source of conflict in west-European societies; it also reflected the other fundamental lines of division. The battles between the official churches and their opponents initially brought together coalitions of those from different social classes. [2]

British society was undoubtedly religious in 1830 and, despite the somewhat pessimistic conclusions contemporaries read into the Religious Census of 1851, it remained so. This did not mean that religion and particularly religious institutions were not under pressure. The state religions, Presbyterianism in Scotland and Anglicanism in England, Wales and Ireland, faced threats from within and without and sought to broaden their popular appeal and strengthen their defences against hostile forces. [3] The eighteenth century had seen the beginnings of a popular Protestantism based on evangelicalism that revitalised both Anglicanism and the existing Dissenting sects and, after 1800, led to a rebranding as Nonconformity.  The third type of religion was grounded in Roman Catholicism. All these religion groupings made absolute claims for themselves and attempted to mark out sharp and clear boundaries between their own communities and the world beyond. [4] This was, as Hugh McLeod has rightly said, ‘the age of self-built ideological ghettos’ [5]  that were able to maintain over several generations a network of institutions, a body of collective memories, particular rites, hymns and legendary heroes. As the authority of the state churches was challenged, these groups sought to impose the same degree of control within their own sphere of influence that the state churches had once exercised. [6] This competition was exported to Britain’s colonies and replicated especially in the predominantly white-settler communities and was also evident in the burgeoning missionary activities of the different denominations. [7]


[1] Bentham, Jeremy, Church of Englandism and the Catechism Examined, (E. Wilson), 1818, pp. 198-199, cit, Edwards, D. L., Christian England, Vol. 3, (Collins), 1984, p. 102.

[2] McLeod, H., Religion and the People of Western Europe 1789-1970, (Oxford University Press), 1981, p. 22.

[3] Brown, Stewart, J., The National Churches of England, Ireland and Scotland, 1801-1846, (Oxford University Press), 2001.

[4] Paz, Denis G., (ed.), Nineteenth-Century English Religious Traditions: Retrospect and Prospect, (Greenwood Publishing Group), 1995, contains essays summarising the different religious traditions and the tensions they faced. See also, Melnyk, Julie, Victorian Religion: Faith and Life in Britain, (Praeger), 2008.

[5] Ibid, McLeod, H., Religion and the People of Western Europe 1789-1970, p. 36.

[6] Yates, Nigel, Eighteenth Century Britain: Religion and Politics 1714-1815, (Longman), 2007, and Brown, Stewart, Providence and Empire 1815-1914, (Longman), 2008, provide a recent summary of developments. Gay, J. D., The Geography of Religion in England, (Duckworth), 1971, is valuable especially for its maps,  Gilbert, A. D., Religion  and Society in Industrial England  1740-1914,  (Longman), 1976, and Ward, W. R., Religion and Society 1790-1850, (Batsford), 1972. Currie, R. R., Gilbert, A. D., and Horsley, L. S., Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700, (Oxford University Press), 1977, provides a statistical treatment of national religious trends but does little on trends for regions and localities. Religion in Victorian Britain, 4 Vols., (Manchester University Press), 1988: Parsons, Gerald, (ed.), Vol. 1, Traditions, Vol. 2, Controversies and Vol. 4, Interpretations, and Moore, J. R., (ed.), Vol. 3, Sources, is of immense value for detailed analysis. Brown, Stewart, and Tackett, Timothy, (eds.), Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 7, Enlightenment, Reawakening and Revolution 1660-1815, (Cambridge University Press), 2006, and Gilley, Sheridan, and Stanley, Brian, (eds.), Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 8, World Christianities c.1815-c.1914, (Cambridge University Press), 2005, give a global perspective. Morgan, Sue and de Vries, Jacqueline, (eds.), Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain, 1800-1940, (Routledge), 2010, contains several relevant papers.

[7] Cox, Jeffrey, The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700, (Routledge), 2008, and Porter, Andrew N., Religion versus empire?: British Protestant missionaries and overseas expansion, 1700-1914, (Manchester University Press), 2004 provide good summaries. See also, Carey, Hilary M., God’s Empire: Religion and Colonisation in the British World, c.1801-1908, (Cambridge University Press), 2011, and CarrĂ©, J., (ed.), Le monde britannique: Religion et cultures (1815-1931), second edition, (Sedes), 2009.

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