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.

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