Thursday, 15 December 2011

Why was religion so important in Victorian politics?

The religious conflicts of the Victorian period were fought out not only in pulpits and pamphlets but also in the political arena. [1] The churches during much of the period did more to mobilise political feeling than the political parties themselves. The antagonism between Protestants and Catholics intensified in a period that saw heavy Irish immigration, the nationalist struggle in Ireland and the adoption of aggressive evangelising tactics both by the Catholic Church and by its Protestant opponents. [2] It had its effect at national level on such issues as the Maynooth grant in 1845 and Irish home rule; locally, in areas with large Irish Catholic populations, it led to party divisions along religious lines. No less hard-fought were the battles over the established churches. Even the Church of Ireland was a leading issue in the election of 1868 before being disestablished the following year by Gladstone. In Wales, disestablishment was the chief aim of the Liberal nonconformist majority and the central political issue from the 1860s to 1914. [3] But it was England that saw the conflict between church and chapel in its classic form.

On one side were the nonconformists, allied with Whigs and Liberals, seeking to remove their disabilities; on the other were the Anglicans, allied with the Conservatives defending the privileges of the establishment. They clashed at national and especially at local levels where nonconformists entered municipal politics in large numbers after 1835. The struggle to turn the confessional state into a secular state was a long one. The Whig governments of the 1830s did little to whittle down Anglican privileges. It introduced civil registration, allowed nonconformists to perform their own marriages, but compulsory church rates remained in force despite bitter local struggles. In the 1850s, the church courts lost their jurisdiction over divorce and wills was abolished. The main breakthrough came with Gladstone’s first government: it abolished church rates in 1869 and opened Oxford and Cambridge up to nonconformists the following year. The last disability was removed by the Burials Act 1880 that allowed nonconformist ministers to perform their own funeral services in parish churchyards. [4] But the establishment itself remained a matter for dispute as did a variety of other issues above all the closely related and bitterly contested issue of education.  Any attempt to channel public money into denominational schools or to give the Church of England a privileged position in state schools provoked intense opposition from Nonconformity. That England was late in creating a system of public education was mainly due to rivalry and mistrust between the churches. The Education Act 1902, that favoured the Anglicans, spurred a large nonconformist vote for the Liberals in the 1906 general election. By this time, however, religious issues were being replaced by class ones, the ‘social gospel’ attracted little interest and support grew for the notion that the churches should stay out of politics altogether.


[1] Ibid, Machin, G. I. T., Politics and the Churches in Great Britain, 1832 to 1868, and Politics and the churches in Great Britain 1869-1921, (Oxford University Press), 1987.

[2] See, Ruotsila, Markku, ‘The Catholic Apostolic Church in British Politics’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 56, (2005), pp. 75-91.

[3] See, Machin, Ian, ‘Disestablishment and democracy, c.1840-1930’, Biagini, Eugenio F., (ed.), Citizenship and community: liberals, radicals and collective identities in the British Isles, 1865-1931, (Cambridge University Press), 1996, pp. 120-147, Bell, P. M. H., Disestablishment in Ireland and Wales, (SPCK), 1969, and O’Leary, Paul, ‘Religion, nationality and politics: disestablishment in Ireland and Wales, 1868-1914’, in Guy, John R., and Neely, W. G., (eds.), Contrasts and comparisons: studies in Irish and Welsh Church history, (Welsh Religious Historical Society), 1999, pp. 89-113.

[4] Stevens, Catrin, ‘The “burial question”: controversy and conflict, c.1860-1890’, Welsh History Review, Vol. 21, (2002), pp. 328-356, and Wiggins, Deborah, ‘The Burial Act of 1880, the Liberation Society and George Osborne Morgan’, Parliamentary History, Vol. 15, (1996), pp. 173-189.

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