Tuesday, 6 September 2011

What role did individuals play in Anglican church reform?

The Church could not resist the pressures for reform since it was not united in maintaining its authoritarian and conservative position. Critical opinion from evangelicals and from the laity led to concentration on the reform and reinvigoration of the parish. The Church of England and the Church of Ireland had been joined by the Act of Union. It became increasingly necessary to reform the gross abuses  and alter  the political position of the Church of Ireland and  this, by  extension,  raised  the  same  question in relation  to  the Anglican Church. Since it had no governing body of its own, the Church had to depend on Parliament and party politicians for support in its reactionary attitudes. The Church might claim to be aloof from public opinion, but after 1832 politicians could not afford to be.

Initially, reform of the Church was left to individuals. The Church of England still commanded considerable support among lay people who remained willing to donate large sums of their money and, in some cases their time and skill, to maintaining and extending its fabric. Charles Simeon, the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, sought to improve the quality of those entering the Church. [1]   There was little professional training for clergymen in the late eighteenth century and Simeon supplied the need in Cambridge with instruction to improve the quality and delivery of sermons. His example probably encouraged the establishment of the first specialist theological colleges at St Bees in 1816 and Lampeter in 1828. Simeon maintained that good evangelical clergymen were necessary but he also believed in the need to ensure that there was continuity of ‘gospel ministers’ in livings if the work of the Church was to be maintained.   The idea of a corporation or trust to secure advowsons had already been operated but in 1817, Simeon began his trust with the purchase of the patronage of Cheltenham. Simeon was perhaps more aware than many of his contemporaries of the need to secure a foothold in the growing industrial towns. His most important successes came as a result of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 that compelled corporations to give up their patronage. He and, after his death in  1836, his  successors secured  Bath,  Derby, Macclesfield, Bridlington, Beverley and two parishes in Liverpool. He was very conscious of the need to operate within the framework of the Church of England and disliked the insistence of evangelicals who believed that their commission to preach the gospels meant that they could override parochial boundaries.  He insisted on church order and this probably deterred many Anglican Evangelicals leaving the Church of England.

Lay influence on the Church of England was felt from the systematic nationwide penetration of the Anglican evangelicals associated loosely with William Wilberforce. The British and Foreign Bible Society [2] and the Church Missionary Society, [3] founded in 1803 and 1811, independently of the success they enjoyed abroad, played a major part in extending evangelical influence in Britain.   The Bible Society sought to disseminate copies of the Bible without note or comment; by 1825 it had issued over four million.   Many non-evangelical clergymen disliked this since they emphasised the importance of the Book of Common Prayer as well as the Bible and were suspicious of the co-operation with Dissenters that the Society encouraged. The Evangelical campaign sought to bring the working population within the orbit of the Established Church with the aim of keeping them in their place.  

Evangelicalism was seen as an antidote to revolution from the 1790s.   Hannah More (1745-1833) and her sister Martha played a considerable role in educating people for their place in society. [4] In 1795, she started the Cheap Repository Tracts in response to cheap radical literature especially Paine’s Rights of Man.  All 114 tracts had the same evangelical and conservative intention and an annual circulation of over two million copies. By 1830, the evangelicals had directed their attention at all sections of society. Wealth, social and political contacts, and the crisis occasioned by the French Revolution, helped them to spread their ideas among the aristocratic elite. The anti-slavery campaigns mobilised middle-class opinion and the Cheap Repository Tracts provided ‘proper’ reading for the working population.

Joshua Watson (1771-1855) was concerned to improve the ability of the Church to appeal to the growing urban population. [5] A wine merchant with wide commercial and financial interests, he retired from business in 1814 to devote himself to good works. He appealed to High Churchmen, in contrast to the Evangelicals, and the group that gathered at his house in Hackney became known as the Hackney Phalanx that publicise their activities through the British Critic. Watson was prominent in the formation of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in 1811.   Its purpose was to encourage parishes to start their own schools and within three years it had raised sufficient contributions to establish 360 schools in that there were 60,000 pupils and nearly a million twenty years later. It was not supported by the state until the government introduced grants in 1833. Though the 1839 Whig educational proposals were mangled by Anglican opposition, a committee of the Privy Council did take over the supervision of education and Watson’s resignation in 1842 coincided with the assertion of the authority of the State in education.

The  other  charitable  effort  that  Watson  led  was  the movement  to  build new churches.   There was little point in educating children into the Anglican faith if, when they grew up, they could not become regular churchgoers.   This was a very difficulty enterprise for private charity, even if money could be found.   Until 1818, a new parish had to be created by Parliament and to build a new church in an existing parish required the consent of the patron and the incumbent, either of whom might feel their rights were being infringed. In 1818, Watson formed an Incorporated Church Building Society and in the same year, the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool established an official commission with a grant of £1 million with a further £0.5 million added in 1824. [6]  Parliamentary grants were virtually used up by 1828 and were not renewed, but such was the stimulus given to private subscribers that the commission did not finish its work until 1857. By then it had built 612 new churches accommodating 600,000 people. This figure does not exhaust the total number of churches built as many were built or rebuilt by private means.


[1] Carus, William, (ed.), Memoirs of the life of... Charles Simeon...with a selection from his writings and correspondence, (Hatchard and Son), 1847, is an essential if partial source. Moule, H. C. G., Charles Simeon, (Methuen), 1892, and Hopkins, H. E., Charles Simeon of Cambridge, (Hodder & Stoughton), 1977, remain good studies of his life. Piper, John, Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce, (Crossway Books), 2006, is a more recent study placing Simeon in his evangelical context.

[2] Canton, William, The History of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 5 Vols., (Murray), 1904-1910, Howsam, Leslie, Cheap bibles: nineteenth-century publishing and the British and Foreign Bible Society, (Cambridge University Press), 1991, and Batalden, Stephen, Cann, Kathleen, and Dean, John, (eds.), Sowing the word: the cultural impact of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 1804-2004, (Sheffield Phoenix), 2004.

[3] Elbourne, Elizabeth, ‘The foundation of the Church Missionary Society: the Anglican missionary impulse’, in ibid, Walsh, John, Haydon, Colin, and Taylor, Stephen, (eds.), The Church of England, c.1689-c.1833: from toleration to Tractarianism, pp. 247-264, and Stock, Eugene, The History of the Church Missionary Society: its Environment, its Men and its Work, 4 Vols., (Church Missionary Society), 1899-1916.

[4] Stott, Anne, Hannah More: The First Victorian, (Oxford University Press), 2003, is an excellent biography; pp. 169-190, consider the Cheap Repository Tracts. See also, Pedersen, Susan, ‘Hannah More meets Simple Simon: tracts, chapbooks, and popular culture in late eighteenth-century England’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 25, (1986), pp. 84-113.

[5] Churton, Edward, Memoir of Joshua Watson, 2 Vols., (J. H. and J. Parker), 1861, and Webster, A. B., Joshua Watson: the story of a layman, 1771-1855, (SPCK), 1954.

[6] Port, M. H., 600 New Churches: the Church Building Commission, 1818-1856, 1961, rev. ed., (Spire Books), 2006.

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