Thursday, 8 December 2011

Was faith a matter of class?

The Victorian crisis of faith has dominated discussions of religion and the Victorians. One problem with the ‘crisis of faith’ narrative is that it has had the effect of excluding much of the religious life of the period and has, too often, become the main story. Many Victorians may have experienced doubt about religion but many more did not. The ‘crisis of faith’ was a by-product of Victorian religiosity and in particular the influence of evangelicalism. Victorians wrote and discussed this crisis but many did so because they prized faith and feared and cared about its loss. In that respect, the widespread debate over faith was less a measure of the extent of the crisis as a measure of the extent of their concern.[1] Stories are frequently told of prominent Victorians such as George Eliot losing their faith. This crisis is often presented as demonstrating the intellectual weakness of Christianity as it was assaulted by new lines of thought such as Darwinism and biblical criticism. The second half of the nineteenth century was certainly marked by bitter and prolonged controversies primarily precipitated by the intellectual polemics of the Tractarians, the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, [2] the provocative theological symposium Essays and Reviews in 1860 [3] and its milder successor Lex Mundi in 1889 and the promulgation of the Vatican Decrees [4] in 1870. Poets and novelists portrayed the trauma of the loss of faith by individuals and editors of newspapers and journals provided a forum for the religious elite that grappled very publicly with questions of doubt and disbelief. [5] However, these articulate individuals were not a cross-section of their society. They were the talented, well educated and the kind of people whose beliefs and values were recorded either by themselves or others. It is not easy to generalise from what they wrote and what was written about them to the attitudes of society as a whole. Was their ‘crisis of faith’ part of a new phenomenon of ideological secularisation that set the Victorian age apart from earlier periods of English religious history? If it was, can the decline in religious observance after 1900 be attributed, at least in part, to the gradual erosion of religious practice by this tide of doubt and disbelief?

Religious practice, to most churchmen, was synonymous with Sunday attendance. But when attendance was measured, as in the 1851 Religious Census, results were disconcerting. Church going was influenced by a wide variety of social and geographical circumstances. Attendance was higher in Scotland than England and highest of all in Wales. Within England it was higher in the countryside than in the towns, though this should not be exaggerated. [6] There were considerable variations between regions, but the strongest influence was that of class.[7]

Religion never simply reflected class divisions: none of the larger churches was the preserve of any single group or class; all cut across class lines. However, class had a bearing not only on attendance at church but at what church people worshipped in and more importantly, on the content and character of their religiosity and on the place religion had in their lives. Among the gentry and aristocracy, there was a sense that the Anglican Church deserved support precisely because it was part of a social order in which they had a privileged position. They attended partly to set an example to their inferiors and gave large amounts of money to build and restore churches, working with the clergy to promote Anglican interests and their own. The rural labouring piety of the 1850s crumbled in the 1870s and 1880s, not because of ‘irreligion’, but because of the enforced migration and collapse of archaic community structures brought about by the agricultural depression. Falling land values also eroded the status and social prestige of the Anglican clergy who were from the 1880s sliding inexorably downwards from the lesser ranks of the landed gentry into the urban lower middle-class. [8]

It was among the middle-classes that the Victorian religious boom had the biggest impact. Religion was the opiate not of the masses but of the bourgeoisie, and their heavy involvement in church life was one of the distinctive features of the British religious scene. [9] It was in the middle-classes that religion was most strongly sustained by social pressure: regular church attendance and keeping the Sabbath were felt to be essential for a family’s respectability. Yet deep and genuine religious commitment was evident in this and other classes in Victorian society and should not be underestimated. Middle-class religiosity, despite variations in church going, reveals some common themes. Religion was treated as a family matter. Husband, wife and children formed a religious unit not only at church but at home, in family prayers and grace before meals. [10] Middle-class people also tended to regard their church as a social centre, where they could meet others of similar outlook and join in the various recreational and philanthropic activities and where young people could meet suitable partners of the opposite sex. By the 1870s, the integrative function of Nonconformity was waning, as economic tensions rose, and as issues like Empire, feminism and Irish Home Rule split Nonconformists into rival political allegiances. Moreover, the lower middle-class, the backbone of nonconformity, was changing in character and there was a world of difference between the religious outlook of superior artisans and small shopkeepers of the 1850s and the office-workers of 1900. For the former, religion was often an expression of solidarity with the local community. For the latter it was often an expression of separateness and difference and increasingly likely to take the form, if not of Anglicanism, then of suburban Nonconformity than had been common forty years before.

As for the urban working-classes, the common view was that they rarely attended church and were therefore ‘spiritually destitute’. The obsession of churchmen and the middle-classes with Sunday attendance meant that they overlooked the fact that the working-classes came into contact with the churches on a great many occasions and had religious notions of their own, however unorthodox. The churches were alien, middle-class institutions where people like themselves, lacking good clothes and unable to afford pew rents, felt out of place. Church-goers tended to be regarded as snobs and hypocrites and a member of the working-class going to church was liable to be condemned for putting on airs and setting himself above his neighbours. Social pressure did as much to deter church going in the working-classes as it did to encourage it in the middle and upper-classes. Although neither regular attenders nor total strangers to the churches most considered themselves Christian. [11] Contemporary surveys probably underestimated the piety of the poor and that outside London as many as a fifth of the Edwardian working-class may have attended churches on a more or less regular basis. Most married in church; many mothers up to 1914 insisted on being ‘churched’ after giving birth; and most had their babies christened.

Most working-class children went to Sunday school. Children looked forward to the summer treat as one of the high points of the year; the Sunday school anniversary, particularly in nonconformity, was a major festival. Many children received religious instruction in church day schools. The elaborate pomp of working-class funerals, popular resistance to the spread of cremation and the universal fear of the pauper’s grave, suggest no lack of interest in the resurrection of the body and prospect of everlasting life. [12] The working-classes also looked to the churches and to Anglican parsons in particular for charity. [13] Most urban churches set up extensive welfare schemes, doling out food, blankets, money and Bibles, even if such charity was only a degree less shameful than going to the workhouse. Working people dealt with the churches on their own terms, taking what they wanted and ignoring the rest.


[1] Helmstadter, Richard J., (ed.), Victorian Faith in Crisis: Essays on Continuity and Change in Nineteenth-century Religious Belief, (Stanford University Press), 1990.

[2] See, for example, Lyon, John, ‘Immediate reactions to Darwin: the English Catholic press’ first reviews of the Origin of the Species’, Church History, Vol. 41, (1972), pp. 78-93.

[3] Altholz, J. F., Anatomy of a controversy: the debate over ‘Essays and reviews’, 1860-1864, (Scolar), 1994.

[4] Fitzsimons, R., ‘The Church of England and the First Vatican Council’, Journal of Religious History, Vol. 27, (2003), pp. 29-46, Von Arx, J.P., ‘Interpreting the Council: Archbishop Manning and the Vatican decrees controversy’, Recusant History, Vol. 26, (2002), pp. 229-242, and Altholz, J. F., and Powell, J., ‘Gladstone, Lord Ripon, and the Vatican decrees, 1874’, Albion, Vol. 22, (1990), 449-459.

[5] Larsen, Timothy, Crisis of doubt: honest faith in nineteenth-century England, (Oxford University Press), 2006, serves as a corrective to the ‘crisis of faith’ narrative. It focuses on freethinking and Secularist leaders who came to faith. As sceptics, they had imbibed all the latest ideas that seemed to undermine faith; nevertheless, they went on to experience a crisis of doubt and then to defend in their writings and lectures the intellectual cogency of Christianity.

[6] Crockett, Alasdair, ‘Rural-Urban Churchgoing in Victorian England’, Rural History, Vol. 16, (2005), pp. 53-82, Green, Simon J. D., ‘Secularization by default?: urbanisation, suburbanisation and the strains of voluntary religious organisation in Victorian and Edwardian England’, Hispania Sacra, Vol. 42, (1990), pp. 423-433, and Pugh, D. P., ‘The strength of English religion in the nineties: some evidence from the north west’, Journal of Religious History, Vol. 12, (1983), pp. 250-265.

[7] Williams, Sarah C., ‘Victorian Religion: A Matter of Class or Culture?’, Nineteenth Century Studies, Vol. 17, (2003), pp. 13-17.

[8] Smith, J. T., Victorian class conflict?: schoolteaching and the parson, priest and minister, 1837-1902, (Sussex Academic Press), 2009.

[9] Twells, Alison, The civilising mission and the English middle class, 1792-1850: the “heathen” at home and overseas, (Palgrave), 2009.

[10] See, for example, Tiller, Kate, Thomas, Terry, and Collins, Brenda, ‘Family, community and religion’, in Golby, John, (ed.), Communities and families, (Cambridge University Press), 1994, pp. 155-193, and Pawley, Margaret, Faith and family: the life and circle of Ambrose Phillipps de Lisle, (Canterbury), 1993

[11] Entwistle, Dorothy, ‘“Hope, colour, and comradeship”: loyalty and opportunism in early twentieth-century church attendance among the working class in north-west England’, Journal of Religious History, Vol. 25, (2001), pp. 20-38.

[12] See, for example, Stevens, Catrin, ‘“The funeral made the attraction”: the social and economic functions of funerals in nineteenth-century Wales’, in Gramich, Katie and Hiscock, Andrew, (eds.), Dangerous diversity: the changing faces of Wales: essays in honour of Tudor Bevan, (University of Wales Press), 1998, pp. 83-104.

[13] This can be explored in Shapely, Peter, ‘Saving and salvation: charity and the Anglican church in Victorian Manchester’, in Ford, Chris, Powell, Michael, and Wyke, Terry J., (eds.), The Church in Cottonopolis: essays to mark the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Manchester, (Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society), 1997, pp. 72-84.

No comments: