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.

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