Friday, 7 October 2011

Evangelicalism within Anglicanism

The Evangelical Revival in the eighteenth century was partly a consequence of the increasing frustration felt by individuals like the Wesleys with the intense conservatism of Anglican high churchmen. [1] Not all of those who supported Wesleyan Methodism left the Church of England in the 1790s.  From 1750, another group of Evangelical clergy and laity also began to attack the conservatism of the established church from within. They took a considerable initiative in missionary work and campaigns for social and ‘moral’ reform and by the 1820s were beginning to establish a foothold in the parishes of some larger towns. [2] By 1830, three Evangelicals had been made bishops. Despite their emphasis on spiritual conversion and the absolute supremacy of Scripture over the traditions of the Church, they were not anti-sacramental encouraging frequent communion services. Theirs was a simple and unmysterious form of worship. People are all in a state of natural depravity, weighed down by sin and life is an arena of moral and spiritual trial in which people are tempted, tested and ultimately sorted into saints and sinners.   There is a spiritual contract between each soul and God in which intermediaries like the clergy are of relatively little importance. Redemption comes through the faith of the individual in Christ’s Atonement on the Cross. This was an evangelical ‘scheme of salvation’. Within the Anglican middle-classes, evangelicalism spread rapidly from the mid-1820s because of economic alarms, Catholic Emancipation, constitutional crises, cholera and other signs of impending divine intervention. [3]

By the 1820s, Anglicans were speaking about Anglican Evangelicals as ‘the Evangelicals’ as if they were the only ones. [4] This division between Anglican and non-Anglican evangelicals had not existed during the first phase of evangelicalism before the 1780s when people moved freely across the formal boundaries between denominations. The division developed as a result of Wesleyan Methodists separating from the Established Church in the 1790s and because Anglican Evangelicals were the only ones who mattered socially and politically. If an ability to excite ‘the affections’ enabled evangelicalism to transcend the inertia of eighteenth century religion, a corresponding suspicion of ‘worldly’ pleasures slowly brought it down to earth. Originally the movement was premised on religious freedom, but as instinctive suspicion developed into the increasing hostility in the early-nineteenth century, it became coercive and alienating. It was in the wounded conscience of evangelicalism that the crisis of Victorian religion began. This was evident in the second phase of evangelicalism that began with the conversion of William Wilberforce and Hannah More in the 1780s. [5] These individuals brought a social distinction and respectability and conservatism that it had previously not enjoyed. Under their banner of the ‘Evangelical Party’, in itself an ambiguous term given the diversity of Anglican Evangelicalism, this group became the most dynamic and ambitious element in the Established Church.  

Evangelical Anglican clergy worked within the Establishment claiming, much to the annoyance of bishops during the early-nineteenth century that they represented the central Anglican tradition established during the mid-sixteenth century. The Islington Clerical Conference, which first convened in 1827 and continued uninterrupted until 1983, provided an annual forum for Anglican evangelicals laying an important role in keeping them together by acting as a check on bitter disagreements and failings out. By the 1830s, Evangelicals were in control of most of the national and local religious societies, though the latter were more interdenominational than their national headquarters. They published the bulk of  the popular  Christian  literature of the period:  the Bible  in  all languages; classics  of the Evangelical point of view like The Pilgrim’s  Progress;  soul-arousing  works of every kind,  and, periodicals  like The Christian Observer and The Eclectic Review. It was developing, through the work of Charles Simeon, parochial organisation designed to maintain an intense religious life and to channel the charitable impulse to promote social and religious discipline.  By the 1830s, its national leadership was consolidated among peers, MPs, bishops and the leading figures of the ecclesiastical and business world. [6]

This diffusion of Anglican Evangelicalism was not achieved without some loss of vigour. This process has been called one of ‘accommodation’ making Evangelicalism palatable and manageable for the cultivated classes, an attractive and exemplary model for a combination of piety and social position. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which this was a conscious aim of Wilberforce and his supporters or a reflection of the level of its success.  But there is little doubting its influence throughout British society touching those who were not evangelically-minded and who may not have liked its theology: for example, Sunday observance, the enforcement of the blasphemy laws, especially in the 1820s, and the encouragement of Sunday and day schools. The moral revolution was accomplished and overt sexuality for the middle-classes was driven into a private underworld or into lower-class life. Victorian respectability predated the accession of the Queen in 1837. [7]

The existence of the Establishment meant that relations between Anglican and non-Anglican evangelicals became increasingly difficulty after 1820. During the 1820s and 1830s, Nonconformists moved from a reluctant acceptance of Establishment to an attitude of general dislike of it.  By the 1840s, disestablishment became a major issue with Nonconformists wishing to reduce the Church of England to an equality of status with their own denominations, competing freely in an open religious’ market. [8]

This view of the Establishment was known as ‘voluntarism’ and was an attitude increasingly sympathised with by Methodists of every kind, by many Presbyterians in England as well as Scotland and by Irish Roman Catholics.  Though some Evangelicals such as Lord Shaftesbury never hesitated to co-operate with Nonconformists and few left the Church, most Anglican Evangelicals persisted in seeing the Establishment as an advantageous and necessary condition.

While the existence of an Establishment was a cause of division within evangelicalism, the principle of ‘No Popery’ was a ground of unity.   This has been seen as one of the causes of the lowering of the tone of evangelicalism and a resurgence of anti-Catholic feelings in the 1840s and 1850s. Some change in the relationship between public men and public opinion may partially explain what happened to Evangelicalism after 1830. Post-reform politics saw the emergence of a more politically conscious public with worries, real or imaginary, about which that public wanted something done. [9] By 1836, Wilberforce, Hannah More and Charles Simeon had died and their successors, Shaftesbury and Fowell Buxton were not personally inferior but Evangelicalism seems to have moved into a lower gear. [10] Best argues:

It is almost as if its greatest contribution had by then been made and as if it was felt to lack the breadth and tone of distinction that could satisfy many of its natural leaders in the post-revolutionary age. [11]

Evangelicalism, as a religion of duty placed service above doctrine and appealed to women in particular. Wilberforce argued in A Practical View that women were more favourably disposed to religion and good works than men.[12] The activities and restrictions of nineteenth century family life and female education tended to focus the affections and raise philanthropy to the level of obedience to God. [13] Though some women found Christianity restrictive, most female reformers saw it as an emancipatory influence heightening women’s self-esteem and giving them a sense of place and direction. Christianity confirmed that women had a rightful and important place in the charitable world; a place that particularly to men was a subordinate one. [14]  Female Evangelical piety did not threaten the social order.  Clare Lucas Balfour wrote in 1849:

...the  history  of every religious and benevolent society  in  the civilised world shows the female sex pre-eminent in numbers, zeal and  usefulness, thus  attesting  the  interest  women  take  in Christian labours for the welfare of society. [15]

Historians acknowledge the importance of evangelicalism in shaping the mentality of the first half of the nineteenth century but recognise the problem in defining that role precisely. Evangelicalism’s middle-class piety fostered concepts of public probity and national honour based on the ideals of economy, professionalism and ‘respectability’. [16] Though many prominent Evangelicals were paternalists and bitterly opposed to the prevailing ‘laissez-faire’ ethos of the period, many contemporaries thought of evangelicalism as synonymous with philanthropy.  Boyd Hilton argues that Evangelicals helped to create and to buttress the very capitalist philosophy then under attack. They wanted society to operate as closely to ‘nature’ as possible by repealing interventionist laws leaving people to work out their own salvation and spiritual life in the course of their ordinary lives. In that evangelical ethos, suffering seemed to be part of God’s plan and governments took a harsh attitude to social underdogs in order not to interfere with such dispensations of providence. ‘Self-help’ was both an economic and spiritual means of achieving salvation.

While unreformed the Anglican Church claimed the allegiance of the whole society.   It was thoroughly integrated within the mainstream culture and social structure and monopolistic in its attitude to religious rivals.   As long as political sanctions against religious deviance were firmly upheld widespread, support for alternative religious perspectives could be held in check but from 1689 onwards British society moved gradually towards a pluralist, religious voluntarism. By the 1830s, Britain had become an increasingly pluralistic society containing not one but a plurality of cultural systems. The reforms of the 1830s and 1840s represented a decisive turning point for Anglicanism. Though still the Established Church in England, Wales and Ireland, it had accommodated itself to the reality of permanent competition with other ‘churches’ within its boundaries.  The State might intervene to support the Establishment but there was no chance that it would restore the Church to its constitutionally prescribed role as a monopolistic religion. Like the landed elite, the Church, though it fought a skilled rearguard action for the rest of the century, was increasingly prepared to compromise to preserve its remaining privileges.   The change was one of metamorphosis, not restoration.

The result was a shift in the character of the Church to being one denomination among several.


[1] Noll, Mark A., The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, (IVP), 2004, and Walsh, John, ‘“Methodism” and the origins of English-speaking evangelicalism’, in Noll, Mark A., Bebbington, D. W., and Rawlyk, George A., (eds.), Evangelicalism: Comparative studies of popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles and beyond, 1700-1990, (Oxford University Press), 1994, pp. 19-37.

[2] Scotland, Nigel, Evangelical Anglicans in a revolutionary age 1789-1901, (Paternoster), 2004.

[3] Smith, Mark A., and Taylor, Stephen, (eds.), Evangelicalism in the Church of England c.1790-c.1880: a miscellany, (Boydell), 2004. See also, Balleine, George R., A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England, (Longmans, Green and Co.), 1908, and Hylson-Smith, Kenneth, Evangelicals in the Church of England, 1734-1984, (Continuum), 1989, pp. 109-224.

[4] Hilton, R. Boyd, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought 1785-1865, (Oxford University Press), 1988, is essential. See also, Best, G., ‘Evangelicalism and the Victorians’, in Symondson, A., (ed.), The Victorian Crisis of Faith, (SPCK), 1970, pp. 37-56, and Smyth, C., ‘The evangelical movement in perspective’, Cambridge Historical Journal, Vol. 7, (1941-3), pp. 160-174. Bebbington, D. W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, (Unwin Hyman), 1987, pp. 75-150, covers the whole of the period.

[5] Wolffe, John, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney, (IVP), 2007.

[6] Holladay, J. D., ‘English Evangelicalism, 1820-1850: diversity and unity in “Vital Religion”‘, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 51, (1982), pp. 147-157. See also, Wolffe, J., The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain, 1829-1860, (Oxford University Press), 1991.

[7] On the moral revolution, see Jaeger, M., Before Victoria: Changing Standards and Behaviour 1787-1837, (Chatto and Windus), 1956, and Wilson, Ben, Decency & Disorder: The Age of Cant 1789-1837, (Faber), 2007.

[8] Macintosh, W. H., Disestablishment and Liberation: The movement for the separation of the Anglican Church from state control, (Epworth Press), 1972.

[9] For the significance of the evangelical mission, see Lewis, D. M., Lighten their Darkness: the Evangelical Mission to Working-class London, 1828-1860, (Greenwood Press), 1986.

[10] Follett, Richard R., ‘After Emancipation: Thomas Fowell Buxton and Evangelical Politics in the 1830s’, Parliamentary History, Vol. 27, (2008), pp. 119-129.

[11] Best, G., ‘Evangelicalism and the Victorians’ in ibid, Symondson, A., (ed.), The Victorian Crisis of Faith, p. 48, and Bradley, C., The Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical Impact on the Victorians, (Jonathan Cape), 1976.

[12] Wilberforce, William, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians: in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country: contrasted with Real Christianity, 19th ed., (Crocker and Brewster), 1829, pp. 286-289.

[13] Ibid, Wilberforce, William, A Practical View, pp. 229, 270-271.

[14] Elliott, D. W., The Angel out of the House: Philanthropy and Gender in Nineteenth-century England, (University of Virginia Press), 2002, pp. 111-134. See also, Bowpitt, Graham, ‘Evangelical Christianity, Secular Humanism and the Genesis of British Social Work’, British Journal of Social Work, Vol. 28, (5), (1998), pp. 675-693.

[15] Balfour, C. L., Women and the Temperance Reformation, (Houlston and Stoneman), 1849, p. 6.

[16] Tolley, C., Domestic Biography: The Legacy of Evangelicalism in four Nineteenth-century Families, (Oxford University Press), 1997, looks at the Macaulays, Stephens, Thorntons and Wilberforces.

No comments: