Saturday, 24 December 2011

Was there a civic religious culture after 1830?

Some aspects of Victorian religious culture cut across denominational lines and tended to escape denominational control altogether. Virtually all clergymen, Catholic as well as Protestant, regarded the threat of eternal punishment as essential to Christian faith and morals in 1850. However, by the 1870s, this increasingly seemed inconsistent with God’s love and was quietly pushed into the background. The churches had to adapt to a moral consensus they could no longer control. There was also general agreement, among Protestants at least, about public worship. Yet the sermon lost its pre-eminent position shrinking from an hour in 1830 to twenty-five minutes or less by 1914 and was replaced by church music that took a more central role in worship. [1] Hymns, long established in nonconformity, quickly caught on in Anglican churches and Hymns Ancient and Modern first appeared in 1861 rekindling the spirit of worship even when the objects of worship were becoming problematic. [2]

Sabbatarianism was a major force in this period. [3] The Lord’s Day Observance Society, founded by Anglican evangelicals in 1831, acted as the main pressure group. [4] Most of its attempts to impose their views by legislation failed but in 1856 it scored a major success in ensuring Sunday closing for the British Museum and National Gallery. The churches were less successful in keeping control of holidays and the holiday calendar. Christmas, in its modern form largely a Victorian invention had less to do with Christianity than with the middle-class cult of the family. The harvest festival, though introduced by high church Anglicans in the 1840s, was essentially pagan in spirit. National days of prayer and thanksgiving fell into disuse. Bank Holidays, created in 1871 by-passed Christianity altogether.

Churches became social as well as religious institutions. Sunday schools alone were a major industry. [5] Membership of Band of Hope, Boy’s Brigade, Men’s Societies, the Girls’ Friendly Society and the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations ran into millions. Other church activities included literary and debating societies; recreation, including cricket and football teams from which professional clubs like Aston Villa and Everton later emerged; and philanthropy. These activities, however, carried with them a danger of diverting the church from its primary religious role, particularly as they became vulnerable to the expansion of commercial leisure and to the growing provision of welfare by the state. In the 1870s, the first signs appeared that the long period of growth was coming to an end. Though membership was still increasing, it failed to keep pace with the growth in population and church going actually began to decline. Such hallmarks of Victorian religiosity as strict Sunday observance and family prayers were being abandoned and the churches condemned but were unable to curb the middle-class practice of birth control. Criticism of Christian doctrine was openly published; agnosticism and ‘secular religions’ won support. Behind the statistics of falling attendance lay a deeper disaffection with the churches and their message.

The decline of the appeal of churches has had many explanations, no one of them sufficient by itself. The most general argument is simply that modern industrial society made secularisation inevitable. But this says nothing about the specific causes and processes of decline. The effect of scientific discoveries is difficult to estimate. At the level of ideas it was less the scientific than the moral critique of Christianity that did the most damage. There could be morality, people now believed, without the fear of hell and without religion altogether. A more persuasive argument is that the social pressures that had encouraged middle-class church-going earlier in the century were weakening. In an economy of large firms and professional qualifications attending church to demonstrate one’s moral credentials no longer seemed so necessary. Yet the decline of the churches did not necessarily mean a decline of religion in a broader sense. Those who drifted away from orthodox belief were sometimes attracted to successor faiths like nationalism that themselves had a religious quality and dimension. Queen Victoria’s jubilees in 1887 and 1897, the increasingly elaborate coronations and the cult of Empire were the rituals of an ‘invented’ civil religion. [6] For the first time, religious impulses found expression on a large scale outside the churches and outside Christianity, though probably not enough to make up for the decline in the churches themselves.

[1] See Ellison, Robert H., The Victorian pulpit: spoken and written sermons in nineteenth-century Britain, (Susquehanna University Press), 1998, on the importance of the sermon and preaching in Victorian religion

[2] Phillips, C. S., ‘The beginnings of ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’’, Theology, Vol. 38, (1939), pp. 276-284, and Watson, J. R., ‘Ancient or Modern, Ancient and Modern: The Victorian Hymn and the Nineteenth Century’, Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 36, (2), (2006), pp. 1-16. Dibble, Jeremy, ‘Musical trends and the Western Church: A collision of the ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’’, in ibid, Gilley, Sheridan, and Stanley, Brian, (eds.), World Christianities, c. 1815-1914, pp. 121-135, and Routley, Erik, A short history of English church music, (Mowbrays), 1977, provide the context. See also, Yamke, S. S., Make a joyful noise unto the Lord: Hymns as a reflection of Victorian social attitudes, (Ohio University Press), 1978.

[3] Wigley, J., The rise and fall of the Victorian Sunday, (Manchester University Press), 1980, Murray, Douglas M., ‘The Sabbath question in Victorian Scotland in context’, in Swanson, Robert Norman, (ed.), The use and abuse of time in Christian history, (Boydell), 2002, pp. 319-330, Robertson, C. J. A., ‘Early Scottish railways and the observance of the sabbath’, Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 57, (1978), pp. 143-167, Brooke, David, ‘The opposition to Sunday rail services in north eastern England, 1834-1914’, Journal of Transport History, Vol. 6, (1963), pp. 95-109, and Harrison, B. H., ‘The Sunday trading riots of 1855’, Historical Journal, Vol. 8, (1965), pp. 219-245.

[4] Vervaecke, Philippe, ‘Les loisirs dominicaux contestés: La Lord’s Day Observance Society et le respect du ‘Sabbat’, 1831-2006’, Revue française de civilisation britannique, Vol. 14, (2007), pp. 135-145.

[5] Cliff, P. B., The rise and development of the Sunday School Movement in England 1780-1980, (National Christian Educational Council), 1986, and Rosman, Doreen M., ‘Sunday schools and social change in the twentieth century’, in Orchard, Stephen, and Briggs, John H. Y., (eds.), The Sunday school movement: studies in the growth and decline of Sunday schools, (Paternoster), 2007, pp. 149-160.

[6] See Kuhn, William M., ‘Queen Victoria’s Jubilees and the Invention of Tradition’, Victorian Poetry, Vol. 25, (1987), pp. 107-114.

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