Thursday, 27 October 2011

How did Methodism develop under Jabez Bunting?

Between 1800 and 1830, Wesleyan Methodism faced threats from outside and from within as it sought to find ‘respectability’ and acceptance throughout British society. [1] Three problems dominated discussions: first, the problem of Methodist loyalty; secondly, how and where should Methodism grow; and finally, how should Methodism respond to popular radicalism. The problem was that Methodism seemed particularly revolutionary since enthusiasm and evangelism tapped strong emotions and was believed to have genuinely dangerous potential. Methodists were therefore suspected of radical tendencies, even when their leaders went to great pains to demonstrate their support for the Tory establishment. Within Methodism the struggle was between ‘conservative’ and broadly ‘liberal’ wings both convinced they were being faithful to Wesley’s principles and intentions.  

On Wesley’s death in 1791, ‘Church Methodism’ was still an option and those who advocated it could use Wesley’s refusal to separate himself from the Church of England as a conclusive argument. [2] Though theoretically an option it was soon replaced by the determination to build a church more strongly organised than the Church of England.   The Methodist Conference of preachers was to be the ‘living’ Wesley, entitled to govern autocratically as he had governed but delegating its power to local superintendent ministers appointed by it. With this hierarchical conception of church government went a ‘no politics’ rule that in practice meant no radical politics.   A  ‘liberal’ wing opposed this conception of government arguing that they were faithful  to Wesley’s own impatience with rules,  loyal  to  his appeal  to  the poor over the heads  of the  existing  dominant aristocratic elite. Ministers were regarded as servants rather than masters and laymen had to be included at every level of government from national to local level. The minister’s function was to evangelise and bring new recruits into the Christian family where all were equal. Implied in this alternative view of Methodism was a revolutionary vision of Britain not, as the conservatives maintained, an acceptance of the existing social structure. [3]

Between the 1790s and 1820s, the aristocracy suffered from a growing paranoia and political radicalism and widespread economic distress caused government to be apprehensive. [4] This was also the period when Methodism, that was about 100,000 strong in 1791, reached its point of organisational take-off. Methodists claimed, though probably with some exaggeration, that there were 200,000 members by 1802, 270,000 by 1806 and 367,000 by 1812.   A more moderate, and more reliable, claim saw 167,000 members in England alone in 1815 with 631 preachers and 1,355 chapels, with over half a million members and hearers combined. Figures apart, there is evidence of the Connexion moving boldly into the more settled towns and villages of rural England posing a direct challenge to the Established Church.

For many, Methodism seemed a great threat to stability and Anglican clergy were especially disconcerted by ‘levelling principles’.  Popular religious feeling was, to those who governed, synonymous with fanaticism and fanaticism was an enemy to stability.  The response from the Connexion was twofold. First, the Methodists continued, following Wesley, to insist that their religious beliefs made loyalty to the established order a spiritual imperative. Methodist sermons, conference resolutions and tracts continually emphasised loyalty, for conscience sake, to the government and the Crown.   Secondly, the preachers of the Connexion proclaimed that Methodism dampened the discontent of the lower orders and that its influence was consciously exerted to bring about peace and good order’.  By 1830, these arguments that corresponded with Wilberforce’s views as to the practical, political effects of ‘vital Christianity’ were becoming more widely accepted outside Methodism but it was a slow process.

The second problem that Methodists faced was how they could increase the number of members and what direction that growth should take.   There was a fine line between acceptable mass evangelism and revivalist excesses that had on occasions worried Wesley and increasingly concerned Wesleyan preachers in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Though some expressed theological doubts about revivalism, more important was the political pressure from government and the Church of England about growing Methodist extremism. The problem was made worse by two things. First, American Methodism that was trying to introduce frontier-style revivalism into eastern cities was introduced into England by Lorenzo Dow. Secondly, Methodist revivalist offshoots in Britain began to organise themselves into some kind of connectional system. Arriving in England in late 1805, Dow soon made contact with revivalist Methodists in Lancashire, Cheshire and the Potteries. Under his influence Hugh Bourne and William Clowes adapted the ‘camp-meeting’ technique of the American frontier. Camp meetings were condemned by the Methodist Conference and many chapels were closed to Dow and his followers but they won considerable support.   The result, in 1811, was the formation of the Primitive Methodists that seceded from the parent body. It spread quickly through the Midlands and its membership of 7,842 in 1819 quadrupled to 33,507 by 1824. A roughly similar movement, the Bible Christians flourished in Devon and Cornwall with revival meetings that lasted several days and nights and its application to join the Wesleyan Connexion was refused. [5]

Foremost among those opposed to revivalism was Jabez Bunting.  What Bunting wanted was a marriage between vital religion and educated opinion, because in his view revivalism was not only divisive but also childish and degrading. In their opposition to revivalism Bunting and others failed to distinguish between the temporary outbreaks of zealous revivalism in some northern towns and the massive rural support for the brand of Methodism offered by Bourne and Clowes.   Revivalism was not the monolithic entity that Bunting perceived but was something that had degrees of acceptability and unacceptability.  As in 1797, the Wesleyan leadership decided that the best method of control was expulsion.

Bunting dominated Wesleyan Methodism until his death in 1858. In 1813, Bunting, then only 34 years old, was stationed at Leeds as an itinerant preacher serving under the superintendence of George Morley; stationed nearby was Richard Watson.   There was no doubting Bunting’s orthodoxy.  But Richard Watson, born in 1781, though briefly a Wesleyan itinerant, had joined the New Connexion in 1804.   Watson met Bunting in 1811 when the latter was helping organise opposition to Sidmouth’s bill.   They formed a close friendship and Bunting urged Watson to apply for readmission to the Old Connection that, because of Bunting’s considerable exertions, occurred in 1812. [6] Bunting, Watson and Morley planned the organisation of the Leeds Missionary Society as a model for the Connection.  The usefulness of this initiative in its appeal to the rank-and-file was recognised at the 1814 Conference and led to the introduction of a new rule in relation to the Legal Hundred, the 100 senior ministers who could veto the decisions of the Conference. Previously ministers were received into that body by a system of strict seniority but from 1814, though three out of four vacancies were filled by seniority, the fourth would be a nominee of all the preachers of the Conference. Bunting was the  first minister  to  benefit from the new system and the extent  of  his success  may  be seen  in  his  election  as  Secretary of  the Conference as well.

The final problem that Methodism faced was popular radicalism. [7]  The Conference and the Committee of Privileges were vocal in their support for the existing social order, but the number of circulars they issued testifies to their ineffectiveness among rank-and-file members.   In 1812 preachers, including Bunting fought a hard and potentially dangerous campaign against Luddites, refusing to conduct Luddite funerals and closing chapels to Luddite orators.   The ineffectiveness of institutional solutions came home to Bunting when six Luddites, whose fathers were Methodists, were hanged at York in 1813. [8] Throughout the Midlands and the north Methodism faced competition from, and was influenced by, the new generation of political clubs.   Also in 1812 Wesleyans in the hosiery districts of the East Midlands became involved in the anti-war petitioning of the Friends of Peace. [9]  The changing fortunes of war in late 1812 and 1813 spared the Conference from further embarrassment.

After 1815, Methodism came under attack from two fronts. The radical press claimed it was too reactionary, while the government accused it of harbouring radicals.   Wesleyan leaders transferred responsibilities to local preachers and the result was a squeeze on membership as individuals were expelled for radical actions. Growth in the northern manufacturing districts came to a halt and even went into temporary decline in 1819 and 1820. In Rochdale, for example, there was a 15% decrease in members between 1818 and 1820. Events between 1800 and 1830 had led to a closer definition of Methodism in both a denominational and social   sense. Government pressure, revivalism and radicalism and administrative and financial difficulties led to changes in the structure and organisation of the Methodism. Wesleyan conservatism was now well rooted, at least among those with influence. Methodism was becoming respectable.[10]

Bunting was undoubtedly sincere in his own support for the Methodist mission at home and abroad, but he was also convinced that he was indispensable to that mission’s success.[11] Though the formal basis of his power was not large, his control that over the direction that Methodism took after 1820 was both absolute and clerical. He was often called the ‘Pope of Methodism’. [12]  He was secretary of the Methodist Conference after 1814 and of the missionary society that emerged on a nationwide scale.   He was president of the Conference for the first time in 1820 and again in 1828, 1836 and 1844. He was a member of every important committee, weighty speaker at every Conference, edited the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine, and had a decisive influence on the ‘stationing’ of ministers.   He managed Conference because the majority supported his policies, because he mastered every subject, because he was more moderate in proposals than in manner and because he was a realist.  He persuaded the Wesleyans to open a ‘theological institution’ with himself as active president in 1834. Bunting established both a spiritual ideal and a disciplinary system, ruthlessly punishing any who dared to criticise him.

Bunting redefined the government of the Connexion.  The Conference, which consisted of the Legal Hundred and other preachers, had to some extent been reformed in 1814. But the Connexion remained under Bunting’s control and both senior churchmen and Conference aimed at strong government as the only way of directing Methodist expansion. The burden and responsibility over the local Methodist societies and chapels was carried by local laymen though Conference chose district committees to act during the year.   To overrule a decision by determined local officers who controlled the money invited collision between Conference and its congregations, between central and local government, between high clerics and low laymen.  Bunting’s control over the Stationing committee enabled him to press the authority of itinerant ministers and diminish that of congregations.   In 1818, preachers were authorised to call themselves ‘the Reverend’. In 1836, Conference approved the laying on of hands in all ordinations of ministers.  High Methodists preferred clerical costume but opposition from anti-ritualists in the northern congregations resulted in the 1842 Conference banning them.

As Conference met for only a few days a year and most of the preachers who attended lacked experience of business, real power lay with a permanent executive dominated by Bunting.  When Bunting was absent from sessions of the Conference it was found that it could not conduct sensible business.   The problem with this control was that it allowed little room for opposition or independence. Conference tended to agree with what the executive proposed. The consequence of this was a growing conflict between central government and local initiative.   In any local dispute, Bunting upheld the right of ministers to instruct and to discipline their members. In 1827, for example, he insisted that the Brunswick Chapel in Leeds should have an organ, though most of the Methodists there considered it a symbol of clericalism, if not Popery, and in protest formed their own denomination, the Protestant Methodists. [13]   In 1835, one of his opponents, Samuel Warren of Manchester, was expelled by the Conference and the Lord Chancellor upheld that decision.   Warren and  his supporters wanted local societies to be given more  independence, Methodist  money  to  be controlled  by  laymen, no  legislation without  the consent of a majority of the local societies and the theological institution to be abandoned. These two groups joined forming the Wesley Methodist Association. For those who did not wish to be expelled from Methodism it seemed safer to let Bunting dominate and define Wesleyanism. Teetotalism posed a further threat to the unity of the Connexion in the late 1830s and early 1840s.  In England it was usually led by Methodists and old dissenters and in Cornwall it resulted in members deserting ministers who would not sign the pledge and give the sacraments with unfermented wine.[14] In 1841, Conference prohibited this wine but a prudent Cornish superintendent prevented worse schism by turning a blind eye to some usage of the banned wine.   In 1842, however, a group of about 600 separated from Conference and organised as the Teetotal Wesleyan Methodists. [15]

By the 1840s, ways of worship within Methodism were as diverse as those in the Established Church. At one extreme, some chapels were solemn and liturgical and used the Book of Common Prayer. At the other end, the worship was revivalist. Irrespective, women did not become eminent as local preachers in Wesleyan Methodism, though they did among Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians. [16] Bunting, though he stood for order, recognised the rightfulness of revivals.  It was the extent of revivalism that, by the 1840s, he questioned. He disapproved of ranting and sought to repress it and was careful to disassociate himself from the emotionalism of Primitive Methodists. The most serious opposition to Bunting and the most serious secession came in the 1840s.  Both the Wesleyan Times and anonymous pamphlets or Fly Sheets attacked Bunting’s personality and policies furiously. Though he never acknowledged authorship, James Everett, a disgruntled preacher and satirist, was accused and in 1849 was expelled along with two contributors to the Wesleyan Times.   The venom of the dispute between Conference and Everett was intense and was a reflection of discontent with Bunting’s regime.  The result was the formation of the Wesleyan Reformers and led to up to a third of Wesleyan Methodists leaving the Conference. Some  seceders formed Wesleyan Congregationalist churches, other gravitated towards the Primitive  Methodists and in 1857 Everett succeeded  in  joining with  those who had walked out with Warren in forming the United Methodist Free Church, Liberal in politics and lay in emphasis. Everett became the first president of almost 40,000 members. [17]

The Wesleyan splits left the seceders more radical and those who remained more conservative. But they also aroused many feelings of bitterness and cynicism. Wearmouth called it a ‘spiritual earthquake that shook the very foundations’. [18] They may  also  have  diverted Methodism  from evangelism among  the working  population,  though  even at the nadir of  the  reaction against  Bunting in 1855 there were still some  260,000  adult Wesleyans who accepted his control of their national life and the local rule of ministers acceptable to him. Bunting’s policies of establishing Wesleyan Methodism as a religious grouping between dissent and the Established Church had been bought at the cost of theological repression and expulsion but in the Methodism he had refashioned many people found an acceptable spiritual home.

Methodism accounted for nearly a quarter of the total attendance in the 1851 Religious Census.   It was most dominant in the belt of open arable country stretching from the south Midlands into Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, and in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight.   Its influence was least felt  in  three regions: everywhere south-east  of a line from  Bournemouth  to Great Yarmouth; in the three northern counties of Northumberland, Westmoreland and Cumberland; and, in the counties bordering the Bristol Channel (Gloucestershire Devon and Somerset)  and extending north across the Welsh Marches. The south-eastern counties of Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and large parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire were devoid of Wesleyan Methodism in 1851 and no sustained effort was made to introduce it till 1865. Why this area was a ‘Methodist Desert’ was partly a result of Wesley’s policy of concentrating on urban areas where the Church of England was failing in its functions and in areas that would readily accept his message. The situation in the south-east was less responsive since the Anglican parochial system had not broken down as it had in the north.   By contrast, Methodism was highly successful in the Isle of Wight after 1800 when it stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the Church of England. A similar situation existed in Cornwall that Methodism capitalised on. By 1851, Methodist influence was at its peak and all branches of the original Connexion were represented. Wesley also paid frequent visits to Devon but it was not until after 1850 that Methodism took off but never to the same extent as Cornwall. The strong position of Dissent in Devon before 1740 helps to explain this compared to the existence of fewer Dissenting chapels in Cornwall.

Methodism was never a monolithic denomination. During Wesley’s lifetime the only division within Methodism was between those who subscribed to a Calvinist theology led by George Whitefield and the Arminian Wesleyans. The nineteenth century saw its progressive decline as individual churches either rejoined mainstream Methodism or became Congregational churches. In England the only concentration of Calvinistic Methodists was in a belt from Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, south through London into Kent. The Methodist New Connexion, formed into a separate denomination in 1797, was virtually identical to the parent body, except for the power it gave to the laity.[19]   It drew its membership almost exclusively from north of the Severn-Wash line and in 1851 there were only nine churches south of that line: five in London, three in Cornwall and one in Norfolk. The New Connexion was essentially a phenomenon of the Midlands and the north and its greatest strength lay in the complex of counties formed by Cheshire, Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire and the West Riding and into the north-east.

Primitive Methodism arose as a result of attempts to stifle enthusiasm that were taking place in the main body of Methodism. Originating in Staffordshire, it spread quickly between 1810 and 1850.   From its original home it expanded along the line of  the River  Trent,  encountering  considerable success  in the  East Riding  and  then  it  spread northwards into Durham  and  south through Lincolnshire  into Norfolk. On reaching the Bible Christian strongholds in south-east and south-west England Primitive Methodism lost its impetus.   By 1851, it was firmly established as a denomination accounting for over 20% of all Methodists, and the second largest Methodist group. Primitive Methodism was largely rural in character and, with the exception of Durham and the Potteries; its main strength was in the predominantly agricultural counties of England. It was not until after 1850 that its appeal to the urban worker became obvious.  Primitive Methodism was used, to a certain extent, by nineteenth century agricultural labourers as a means through that they could fight for social and economic recognition and the Primitive Methodist chapels provided the rural worker with a symbol of independence and defiance of the established social order.

The Bible Christians were a product of the West Country and, unlike the other branches of Methodism they were not a breakaway body. [20]   Though they adopted features similar to Methodism when they applied for membership of the Wesleyan Connexion this was rejected because of the independent character of its charismatic leader William O’Bryan.   The Bible Christians opened their first chapel at Shebbear in north Devon in 1815 and four years later held their first Conference.   In the early 1820s, the leaders of the movement sent a mission to Kent and London and also accepted an invitation to take their cause to Somerset.   By 1851, there were small groups of Bible Christians all along the south coast from Cornwall to Kent.   However, over large parts of England there was little success. The appeal of Bible Christianity, like Primitive Methodism, was in rural society and provided a religious position from which to attack the economic system symbolised by the Church of England and Anglican landowners.  It is no surprise that the Bible Christians found industrial towns difficult to evangelise. Both Primitive Methodism and Bible Christianity arose in response to the need to fill the religious vacuum left by the Church of England among rural workers.   The spread of Primitive Methodism was halted when it reached the Bible Christian strongholds and the converse was true.  The similarities between them made it unlikely that both groups could flourish in the same locality though this did occur in Hampshire and Cornwall. [21]

The Protestant Methodists, formed in 1827, united with the followers of Samuel Warren to make the Wesley Methodist Association in the 1830s. It was, with the exception of Cornwall, weak everywhere south of the Severn-Wash line.  The main concentrations were in Cheshire, Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmoreland, with eastern extensions into Durham and Yorkshire and then south in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. It made little headway in the strongly revivalist counties of the east: Norfolk, Lincolnshire, the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire. The Wesleyan Methodist Reformers, formed when James Everett was expelled in 1849, was barely organised by 1851.   To a large extent, the Reformers complemented the Association in geographical distribution and in 1857 they joined with the Association to form the United Free Methodist Church with an initial membership of around 40,000.

The 1851 Religious Census appeared to show a resurgent Nonconformity and a defensive Anglicanism. Most contemporaries accepted this but it is deceptively simple. By the 1840s, Nonconformity was beginning to enter a phase of limited growth that eventually led to decline.   The economic, demographic and cultural conditions of the previous one hundred years had been highly receptive to Nonconformist recruitment. But three separate circumstances began to alter this situation. First, effective Anglican competition emerged with the resurgence of the Church of England after 1832. Secondly, society was changing in ways unfavourable to Nonconformity. The decline of traditional supporters like the urban artisan and the tenant farmers and agricultural labourers meant that Victorian Nonconformity depended  heavily for support on  those  social groups, like the middle-classes, least insulated from  the influence of the religious Establishment. Finally, Nonconformist religious culture was evolving institutional and denominational priorities that slowed down the rate of growth and by 1851 Nonconformity was just passed the zenith of its power.


[1] Methodism between 1820 and 1914 can be approached in the following general works: Davies, R. E., George, A. S., and. Rupp, E. G., (eds.), A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol.  2, (Epworth Press), 1978, Vol. 3, (Epworth Press), 1980, and the documentary Vol. 4, (Epworth Press), 1987,   Hempton, David, Methodism: empire of the spirit, (Yale University Press), 2005, Semmel, B., The Methodist Revolution, (Heinemann), 1974, the brief study by Bebbington, D., Victorian Nonconformity, (Headstart History), 1992, and Hempton, D., Methodism  and Politics in British Society  1750-1850, (Hutchinson), 1984. More specific older studies include Edwards, M., After Wesley: a study of the social and political influence of Methodism in the middle period, 1791-1849, (Epworth Press), 1948, Taylor, E. R., Methodism and Politics 1791-1851, (Cambridge University Press), 1935, and Wearmouth, R. F., Methodism and the Working-class Movements of England 1800-1850, (Epworth Press), 1937.  Currie, R., Methodism Divided: A Study in the Sociology of Ecumenicalism, (Faber), 1968 gives full weight to the secessions.  

[2] Lloyd, Gareth, ‘“Croakers and Busybodies”: The Extent and Influence of Church Methodism in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries’, Methodist History, Vol. 42, (1), (2003), pp. 20-32.

[3] Bowmer, J. C., Pastor and people: a study of church and ministry in Wesleyan Methodism from the death of John Wesley (1791) to the death of Jabez Bunting (1858), (Epworth Press), 1975.

[4] Vickers, J. A., Thomas Coke: An Apostle of Methodism, (Epworth Press), 1969, and Thomas Coke and world Methodism, (World Methodist Historical Society), 1976, are good studies of a neglected figure who led the movement between Wesley and Bunting. See also, Smith, W. T., ‘Thomas Coke’s doctorate’, Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, Vol. 41, (1978), pp. 169-173, and Lloyd, Gareth, ‘The papers of Dr Thomas Coke: a catalogue’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, Vol. 76, (2), (1994), pp. 205-320.

[5] See, Kendall, H. B., The Origins and History of the Primitive Methodist Church, 2 Vols.,  (Robert Bryant), 1919, Milburn, G. E., Primitive Methodism, (Epworth Press), 2002, and Wilkinson, J. T., Henry Bourne 1772-1852, (Epworth Press), 1952, examine the major secession, Shaw, T., The Bible Christians, (Epworth Press), 1975, a less important one. See also, Walford, John, Memoirs of the life and labours of the late venerable Hugh Bourne: Founder of the English Camp Meetings, and the Originator, and for Twenty-two Years Editor of the Primitive Methodist Magazines, 2 Vols., (T. King), 1855-1856, reprinted Antliff, W., (ed.), 2 Vols., (Berith Publications), 1999, and Brittain, J. N., ‘Hugh Bourne and the Magic Methodists’, Methodist History, Vol. 46, (2008), pp. 132-140.

[6] See, Bunting, Jabez, Memorials of the late rev. Richard Watson, including the funeral sermon and brief biographical notices, (John Mason), 1833.

[7] Dolan, John, The Independent Methodists: A History, (James Clarke Company), 2005, provides the definitive history of Independent Methodism from its beginnings shortly after the death of John Wesley. The early Independent Methodist societies arose from breaches in Wesleyan Methodism over involvement in radical politics and the refusal to allow writing to be taught in Wesleyan Sunday Schools. Other societies came into being through the attraction of a ‘free’ ministry, particularly in communities where poverty was prevalent; this attracted some dissident Primitive Methodists.

[8] Hargreaves, John A., ‘Methodism and Luddism in Yorkshire, 1812-1813’, Northern History, Vol. 26, (1990), pp. 160-185.

[9] Cookson, J. E., The Friends of Peace: Anti-war Liberalism in England 1793-1815, (Cambridge University Press), 1982, pp. 190-191, 245-249.

[10] Engemann, T. S., ‘Religion and political reform: Wesleyan Methodism in nineteenth-century Britain’, Journal of Church & State, Vol. 24, (1982), pp. 321-336, provides a good summary.

[11] Hempton, David, The Religion of the People: Methodism and Popular Religion c. 1750-1900, (Routledge), 1996, pp. 91-108, considers Bunting’s formative years to 1820.

[12] Ward, W. R., (ed.), The Early Correspondence of Jabez Bunting, (Royal Historical Society), 1972, and Early Victorian Methodism: The Correspondence of Jabez Bunting 1830-1858, (Oxford University Press), 1976. See also, Hayes, A. J., and Gowland, D. A., (eds.), Scottish Methodism in the early Victorian period: the Scottish Correspondence of the Rev. Jabez Bunting 1800-57, (Edinburgh University Press), 1981, and Bunting, T. P., and Rowe, G. S., The life of Jabez Bunting, D.D., 2 Vols., (Harper & Brothers), 1859, 1887. Kent, J. H. S., Jabez Bunting: The Last Wesleyan, (Epworth Press), 1955, and his defence of Bunting in The Age of Disunity, (Epworth Press), 1966, puts one side of this leading figure while ibid, Currie, R., Methodism Divided, is more hostile. Ibid, Bowmer, J. C., Pastor and People, recognises Bunting’s arrogance but regards him as essentially a defender of ‘classical’ Wesleyan church order.

[13] Hughes, J. T., ‘The story of the Leeds ‘non-cons’: formation of the Wesleyan Protestant Methodists’, Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, Vol. 39, (1973), pp. 73-76.

[14] Lander, John K., ‘The early days of teetotalism in Cornwall’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, ns, Vol. II, (2002), pp. 85-100, and Rule, John, ‘Explaining revivalism: the case of Cornish Methodism’, Southern History, Vol. 20-21 (1998-1999), pp. 168-188.

[15] Small, William, Methodism versus Teetotalism: The Despotism of modern Wesleyan Methodism, (Ingram and Cooke), 1841, is a witty attack on Bunting over the issue.

[16] Lloyd, Jennifer M., Women and the Shaping of British Methodism: Persistent Preachers, 1807-1907, (Manchester University Press), 2010, considers the experience of Bible Christian and Primitive Methodist female evangelicals especially before 1850.

[17] Beckerlegge, Oliver A., The United Methodist Free Churches: a study in freedom, (Wesley Historical Society Lecture), 1957, and Gowland, D. A., Methodist Secessions: The origins of Free Methodism in three Lancashire towns, Manchester, Rochdale, Liverpool, (Manchester University Press), 1979.

[18] Wearmouth, R. F., Methodism and the struggle of the working classes, 1850-1900, (Epworth Press), 1964, p. 91.

[19] Larsen, Timothy, ‘Methodist New Connexionism: lay emancipation as a denominational raison d’etre’, in Lovegrove, Deryck W., (ed.), The Rise of the Laity in Evangelical Protestantism, (Routledge), 2002, pp. 153-164.

[20] Ibid, Shaw, T., The Bible Christians,

[21] See, Few, Janet, ‘Uproar and Disorder?: The Impact of Bible Christians on Communities of Nineteenth Century North Devon’, Family and Community History, Vol. 12, (1), (2009), pp. 37-50.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Older Nonconformist sects

Presbyterianism had slowly moved away from the doctrine of the Trinity and by 1830, a majority of its members were Unitarian in creed. [1] Unitarianism had developed from  the ‘rational theology’ of  the  eighteenth century  but  its association with free thought, radicalism  in politics  and its  defence of people such as Richard Carlile  made orthodox Dissent suspicious. Increasingly the doctrinal differences between Unitarians and Trinitarians mattered. [2] In 1816, the minister of the Wolverhampton Unitarian chapel was discovered to be a Trinitarian and his congregation dismissed him. In the ensuing legal case the vice-chancellor held that the chapel was built when it was illegal to be a Unitarian and that the law could therefore have upheld no endowment to support Unitarian worship.   The Wolverhampton case put in jeopardy the chapel and endowment of every Unitarian congregation founded before 1813, when Unitarian opinion ceased to be illegal.  A similar decision in favour of Trinitarians occurred over the fund left by Lady Hewley in 1704 to provide endowments in the six northern English counties. The vice-chancellor’s court confirmed that only Trinitarians were eligible for endowments from the fund in 1833 and this judgement was maintained respectively by the Lord Chancellor and the House of Lords in 1836 and 1842. These cases divided English dissenters and in March 1836, a majority of Unitarian congregations in London separated themselves from the Protestant dissenting deputies, splitting the alliance of ‘Old’ dissent.

The legal uncertainty for Unitarians created by the Lady Hewley case was exacerbated by a suit over the richly endowed Eustace Street chapel in Dublin in 1843-1844 when Irish Trinitarians sought to acquire the chapels and endowments of Irish Unitarians. The result, that followed the 1836 precedent, meant that every Unitarian chapel might now become the subject of litigation. Sir Robert Peel attempted to resolve the problem by introducing a Dissenters Chapels Bill. This said that where there was no trust deed determining doctrine or usage that the usage of a certain number of years (twenty five was agreed on) should be taken as conclusive evidence of the right of any congregation to possess a chapel and its endowments and that any suits pending should have the benefit of the act. Peel was surprised by the depth of opposition from   Wesleyan and other nonconformists and the evangelical clergy of the Church of England.   Its passage was important as a further extension of the 1813 Toleration Act to others besides orthodox Trinitarians. [3]

The   few  surviving  Trinitarian  congregations looked to Scotland  for  aid but the established Church of Scotland  was reluctant  and  in  1839, the General  Assembly acknowledged  the independence  of the  Presbyterian  Church of England. The Unitarians were not an expanding religious grouping but the Trinitarians, their numbers swelled by Scottish immigration into England, were.   In 1836, the congregations of Lancashire and the north-west agreed to form a synod of two presbyteries and adopted the Westminster confession of faith. The synod expanded during the late 1830s and 1840s:  London and Newcastle were brought in 1839; Berwick in 1840; Northumberland in 1842 and Birmingham in 1848. The changing attitude of the synod was reflected in the change of name: in 1839, it was the ’Presbyterian Church of England in connection with the Church of Scotland’ and in 1849 the ‘Presbyterian Church in England’.   Not until 1876 did it become the Presbyterian Church of England. The 1851 Religious Census showed that the distribution of Presbyterianism was almost entirely a reflection of Scottish immigration into England.   Half of total number of attendances was recorded in the three northern counties of Northumberland, Durham and Cumberland.  Lancashire and London each accounted for about 20% each and the remaining 10% included isolated congregations in Cheshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, Westmoreland and Yorkshire. [4]

Between 1830 and 1860, the Congregationalists turned from a loose federation into something like a modern denomination. [5] This was a major achievement since a denomination meant some form of central authority and Independents had always held that each chapel was sovereign. The force that moved Independents towards some form of central authority was the recognition that dissenters’ rights over marriage or burial or church rates were better protected by county associations than by small sovereign units and the need for central support for colleges and to make stipends adequate for ministers. An attempted union in 1811 failed but in 1831 a Congregation Union was tentatively established. During the 1830s, the Union survived uneasily. County associations joined slowly: Oxford and West Berkshire in 1841, Cornwall in 1846 and Hampshire in 1848 were among the latest to join, but they sent no money. The union was saved by the skill of Algernon Wells, secretary from 1837 until his death in 1850. [6] He put the Union on a sound financial and organisational footing with profits from its publications.   After 1845, the Union ran into problems caused by the conflict within Wesleyan Methodism that brought its central government into question.  Many Independents sided with Bunting’s opponents and the death of Algernon Wells in 1850 removed an important force for moderation within the Union.

Though the Union diminished the variety of uses in chapels, the pressure had always been towards free worship and the breadth of Independent doctrine.   Congregational churches were faithful to Calvinism but could not observe the advances of Methodism without adopting some of its devices and missionary enthusiasm. They gained from Sunday schools and village preaching but there was a thinning in the upper and educated ranks of society.   Political disputes between church and dissent in the 1830s and 1840s [7] raised fears that Independents were natural allies of Irish and radicals and this meant that by 1850, Congregational churches had a more broadly lower middle-class composition than they had in 1800, though they housed more worshippers. [8]

The 1851 Religious Census revealed the same basic geographical pattern that existed at the end of the seventeenth century.  Congregationalism was most important in a line of counties stretching eastward from Cornwall and Devon to Essex and Suffolk. The Census shows that whatever hold Dissent had in the largest urban complexes was due largely to the Wesleyan Methodists.  The exception was London where Congregationalists took the leading role but the picture was patchy.  There were few congregations in Kensington, Chelsea and Bayswater where Anglicanism was dominant.  The East End also proved poor soil. There were few Congregational chapels apart from a number of missions supported by wealthy suburban congregations.   In the lower middle-class suburbs, especially south of the Thames, the field was left clear for Baptists and Methodists.   It was in the prosperous and expanding suburbs like Hampstead, Brixton, Highbury and Clapham that Congregationalism had its real base.

The Baptists were Independent congregations that practised the baptism of believers and there was little to distinguish them from Congregationalists. [9] But this outward harmony concealed considerable diversity. Congregational chapels contained few labourers, while many Baptist chapels were composed of people from the lower levels of society. Baptist congregations had less educated pastors, more illiterate members, held their Calvinism more firmly, were doctrinally more conservative and held to their notion of independence more vehemently. Congregationalists were moderate Calvinists but Baptists were divided into three groups:  General or Arminian Baptists; Particular Baptists who were moderate Calvinists and Strict and Particular Baptists who were Calvinist but not moderate. [10] Most of the General Baptist congregations went back to the seventeenth century and had faded into Unitarian belief but since 1770 a small group, the General Baptists of the New Connexion, preserved the orthodox Arminian faith. [11]

The nineteenth century saw a coming together among Baptists and as early as 1813 a Baptist Union was created to provide a common meeting ground for Particular and General Baptists. [12] To create a ‘union’ proved more difficult than among Congregationalists  even though the same needs  for  union existed; a missionary society in need of money  and direction, training of ministers,  stipends for pastors and chapels in debt. The General Baptists were only lukewarm in their support for the 1813 union and, though it was reorganised in 1832, support for it grew more slowly than that for the contemporary Congregational Union.[13] The 1851 Religious Census showed that about 366,000 Baptists attended services. Particular Baptists had 1,491 chapels in England and 456 in Wales.   New Connexion of General Baptists had 179 chapels in England and three in Wales.   Old General Baptists had 93 chapels.   The Baptists’ main strength lay in the block of counties stretching from the East Midlands to the coast of East Anglia.  Except in Dorset and Methodist Cornwall, Baptists increased in all the southern counties of England after 1800. By contrast, there were few Baptists in the northern counties apart from the West Riding.

The major expansion of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) took place in the eighteenth century and they were numerically strongest in the north (Lancashire, Yorkshire and Westmoreland), in the south-west and in London, Bristol and Norwich. [14] Most Quakers came from the rural and urban ‘petite bourgeoisie’ with few from the upper-classes or the lower orders. But this trend was reversed in the first half of the nineteenth century. Contemporaries identified three major causes of this. First, the evangelical revival had the effect of dividing Quakers into those who adopted an evangelical approach to their belief and those for whom discussion of the Bible (its reading aloud at meetings did not occur until 1860) was unthinkable. [15]  The dispute came to a head in 1835-1837 and led to about 300 Friends of Lancashire and Kendal leaving the Society. For a time they maintained a separate denomination as Evangelical Friends but soon found little to divide them from other denominations and some joined the Church of England and others the Plymouth Brethren. Secondly, Quaker religious education was extremely poor. It was seen as secondary to simply waiting upon the word and was consequently undeveloped.  Quaker Sunday schools were not begun until the 1840s. Thirdly, marriage discipline was strict and it was broken then the individual was bound to be expelled.  John Bright’s brother and two sisters were expelled for marrying outside the Society. Perhaps a third of the Friends who married between 1809 and 1859 had, according to one contemporary, been expelled for marrying outside the Society.   The conservatism of the Quakers led to decline and this was not arrested until the 1860s when marriage discipline became less draconian, religious education was improved and there was recognition of the positive value of evangelism.

During the nineteenth century, a number of religious movements grew up in the United States and that were brought to Britain.   Before 1850, only the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or the Mormons was of any significance. [16] Founded in the 1820s, the Mormons claimed to be the only true and valid church and first appeared in Britain in 1837 when seven Mormon missionaries landed at Liverpool.  A second mission in 1840, led by the leader Brigham Young, proved equally successful. Based on Liverpool, Mormon missions were sent round the country and it is small wonder that many of the early converts were the poor for whom the 1840s were a period of intense hardship. Furthermore the Mormons organised a very efficient emigration system out of Liverpool. [17]   Between 1841 and 1843, nearly 3,000 emigrants left Liverpool and, despite the suspension of all emigration in 1846 and 1847, by 1850 the number of emigrants had risen to nearly 17,000.

In the 1851 Religious Census 16,628 Mormons attended the evening service of Sunday. [18] The 1850s saw Mormonism is decline throughout Britain. In part this was the result of improved conditions for the working population. More important was the announcement by Brigham Young in 1852 that polygamy was God’s will. Outside the Mormon mission house in Soham (Cambridgeshire) 1,200 people watched as village youths enacted a Mormon wedding, to which seven brides rode on donkeys. Polygamy exposed Mormonism to charges of immorality and vice and was fatal to evangelism in Britain. The number of Mormons fell back slowly to 2,000 by the 1860s.


[1] Bolan, C. G., et al, The English Presbyterians, (Beacon Press), 1968, remains important.

[2] Unitarianism is a non-Trinitarian Christian theology which holds that God is only one person, in contrast to the doctrine of the Trinity (God as three persons). Richey, R. E., ‘Did the English Presbyterians become Unitarian?’, Church History, Vol. 42, (1973), pp. 58-72, Schulman, Frank, ‘Blasphemous and wicked’: the Unitarian struggle for equality 1813-1844, (Manchester College, University of Oxford), 1997.

[3] Bebbington, D. W., ‘Unitarian Members of Parliament in the Nineteenth Century’, Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, Vol. 24, (3), pp. 153-175, examines the elite within the Church who were generally successful businessmen, Liberal in politics and progressive in social attitudes.

[4] For Presbyterianism in Ireland see, Holmes, A. R., The shaping of Ulster Presbyterian belief and practice, 1770-1840, (Oxford University Press), 2006.

[5] Jones, R., Congregationalism in England 1662-1962, (Independent Press), 1962, and Pope, Robert, (ed.), Congregationalism in Wales, (University of Wales Press), 2004, are important studies. Rimmington, Gerald T., ‘Congregationalism in Rural Leicestershire and Rutland, 1863-1914’, Midland History, Vol. 31, (1), 2006, pp. 94-104, is a good case study. Thorne, Susan, Congregational Missions and the Making of an Imperial Culture in Nineteenth-century England, (Stanford University Press), 1999, considers the impact of foreign missionary societies.

[6] Wells, Algernon, The Principles and Position of the Congregational Churches: A Discourse delivered at the recognition of the Rev. J. Gill, (John Snow), 1849.

[7] See, for example, Salter, F. R., ‘Congregationalism and the ‘Hungry Forties’’, Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, Vol. 17, (1955), pp. 107-116, in relation to the Anti-Corn Law League.

[8] Brown, K. D., ‘The Congregational ministry in the first half of the 19th century: a preliminary survey’, Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society, Vol. 3, (1983), pp. 2-15.

[9] Underwood, A. C., A History of the English Baptists, (Kingsgate Press), 1947, Briggs, John H. Y., The English Baptists of the 19th century, (Baptist Historical Society), 1994, and George, Timothy, Baptists: A Brief History, (B & H Publishing), 2009. Ellis, Christopher, ‘Baptists in Britain’, in Wainwright, Geoffrey, Westerfield Tucker, and Karen B., (eds.), The Oxford History of Christian Worship, (Oxford University Press), 2006, pp, 560-573, provides a succinct overview.

[10] Breed, G. R., Particular Baptists in Victorian England and their strict communion organizations, (Baptist Historical Society), 2003, and Dix, Kenneth, Strict and particular: English strict and particular Baptists in the nineteenth century, (Baptist Historical Society), 2001.

[11] Oliver, Robert W., History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1771-1892: from John Gill to C. H. Spurgeon, (Banner of Truth Trust), 2006.

[12] Briggs, John H. Y., The English Baptists of the 19th century, (Baptist Historical Society), 1994.

[13] Ward, W. R., ‘The Baptists and the Transformation of the Church, 1780-1830’, Baptist Quarterly, Vol. 25, (1973), pp. 167-184.

[14] Walvin, James, The Quakers: money and morals, (John Murray), 1997, is a good overview while ibid, Isichei, Elizabeth Allo, Victorian Quakers is more focussed.

[15] Bright, Simon, ‘‘Friends have no cause to be ashamed of being by others thought non-evangelical’: unity and diversity of belief among early nineteenth-century British Quakers’, Studies in Church History, Vol. 32, (1996), pp. 337-350.

[16] See, Jensen, Richard L., and Thorp, Malcolm R., (eds.), Mormons in early Victorian Britain, (University of Utah Press), 1989.

[17] Shepperson, W. S., ‘The place of the Mormons in the religious emigration of Britain, 1840-60’, Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 20, (1952), pp. 207-218, Taylor, P. A. M., ‘Why did British Mormons emigrate?’, Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 22, (1954), 249-270, and Taylor, P. A. M., Expectations Westward: the Mormons and the Emigration of their British converts in the 19th century, (Cornell University Press), 1966.

[18] Benson, E. C., and Doxey, C., ‘The ecclesiastical census of 1851 and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’, Local Historian, Vol. 34, (2), (2004), pp. 66-79.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Nonconformity 1800-1850: Introduction

The metamorphosis within the Established Church was bound to have significant effects on the Dissenting churches after 1830. [1] But Anglicanism was not the only form of organised religion undergoing fundamental changes in the first half of the nineteenth century.  There was a shift within Methodist, Congregational and Baptist communities away from the sect-type religious culture of the eighteenth century towards a new and patently denominational orientation to the wider society. Methodism in particular ceased to be a movement and became an organisation. The term ‘Dissent’ was gradually evolved into ‘Nonconformity’ and ‘dissenters’ to ‘nonconformists.’ [2] The movement towards denominationalism had its origins in the late-eighteenth century. This was both organisational and ‘clerical’. Denominational organisation was the result of the need and desire to pursue new goals.  It arose out of the evangelical revival in the eighteenth century and was not a reaction to it. The new goal was evangelism in the form of missionary activities both abroad and at home and was possible because of the theological shift away from the Calvinist doctrine of the elect that would have rendered such activity pointless. In this situation the church could and should be open to all.  

The formation of the Northamptonshire Association in 1764 among Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists marked a turning point.  In 1797, the Baptist Home Mission Society was formed in London. County or Area Associations of Churches were formed among the Independents,  but generally later than  among Baptist,  in Warwickshire  in  1793,Wiltshire and East Somerset in 1797, Hampshire in 1797, Lancashire in 1806 and Hertfordshire in 1810. In due course, a Congregational Home Missionary Society was formed in 1819 working mainly in those areas where County Associations were weak or non-existent. Village preaching depended on support from elsewhere and united action by a number of churches was an obvious way of doing this. Itinerancy challenged isolationism and undenominationalism and, during the second and third decades of the nineteenth century, the freedom enjoyed by the early itinerants succumbed to the process of institutionalisation. [3]  Evangelism came to be seen as a denominational rather than local responsibility. Despite this development, the 1820s saw the first signs of formalism that later sapped the dynamic strength and recruiting power of English Nonconformity.

It was possible for the central organisations of the different churches to exert control and discipline. [4] Denominationalism also had expression in an increasingly ‘clerical’ approach. Jabez Bunting and his Wesleyan colleagues gradually strengthened the distinction between travelling and local preachers, not only by developing the doctrine of the ‘pastoral office’ but also by enforcing the commitment to permanent itinerancy and corporate discipline among the travelling preachers.  

Excessive spontaneity, too much lay initiative, was seen as a threat to the integrity of Wesleyanism and a theological basis for the differentiation of roles and functions between ministers and laymen was elaborated. This redirection of the Methodist movement under ministerial initiative imposed immense internal strains and the result was a prolonged period of conflict and schism, beginning with the New Connexion breakaway in 1797 and ending with the major disruptions and realignments between 1849 and 1857. ‘Primitive Methodists’, ‘Bible  Christians’, Tent Methodists’ and ‘Wesleyan Reformers’ all contained sectarian overtones  in  their names and were significant in capturing  an element of protest against the consolidation and institutionalisation that underpinned  the fragmentation of the Methodist version of evangelical Nonconformity.   Other Nonconformists lacked both the will and the machinery to sharpen the clerical-lay distinction in this way.

The movement from undenominationalism to denominationalism, from a ‘unity of experience’ to a ‘unity of organisation’, can be seen as a response to the need for some form of social control. In this view, denominationalism has been seen as a failure of Nonconformity to respond to popular religion and of the anxiety and potential dangers to the country if it got out of control. This view seems to draw too stark a distinction between lay or undenominational and clerical or denominational.  It seems more likely that the move to denominationalism was occasioned by the need to maintain the constituencies of the different nonconformist groups within an increasingly open religious ‘free-market’. Between 1780 and 1815, Nonconformity was preoccupied with rural society where it challenged the dominance of the Established Church.  Congregationalist County associations and regional Baptist bodies devoted their energies to the hinterlands rather than the larger centres of population. Even national bodies pursued similar aims. By 1823, the Baptist Western Association numbered 78 member churches, an increase of 44 since 1780. With the spread of urban awareness came recognition of the problems involved in establishing effective contact with urban populations.  Neither the individualism of the pioneering preachers or the rudimentary organisation of the regional societies could cope with the scale of the problem. The result was a move to national networks under the control of denominational bodies that were, alone, capable of integrating planning and direction. Denominationalism was a consequence of the need to mobilise resources effectively to deal with the urban problem.

The impetus for structural definition stemmed from the need for more efficiency and a growing sense of denominational identity accompanied the return to peace after 1815.  There was a increasing  demand for religious accommodation, a  preoccupation displayed  in  most  of  the surviving  records,  and  with  the attendant  financial problems of their provision and maintenance. By the 1830s, this material interest had combined with rising ministerial status as an expression of contemporary concerns for ‘respectability’ and this hastened the change from individual spontaneity to a more formal assumption of responsibility for further expansion. By 1840, the shape of the movement had visibly altered with the old emphasis on free-ranging, outdoor evangelism supplanted by indoor, more controlled, gatherings. [5]


[1] Watts, Michael R., The Dissenters, Vol. 1: From the Reformation to the French Revolution, (Oxford University Press), 1978, and The Dissenters, Vol. 2: The expansion of Evangelical Nonconformity 1791-1859, (Oxford University Press), 1995, are the most valuable surveys. See also, Sellers, I., Nineteenth Century  Nonconformity,  (Edward Arnold),  1977,  for  a general survey and Thompson, D. M., Nonconformity in the  Nineteenth Century, (Routledge), 1972, and Briggs, J. H. Y., and Sellers, I., Victorian Nonconformity,  (Edward  Arnold),  1973, for documentary  studies.

[2]   Thompson, D. M., Denominationalism and Dissent 1795-1835: a question of identity, (Friends of Dr William’s Library), 1985.

[3] On itinerancy, Lovegrove, D. W., Established Church, Sectarian People: Itinerancy and the Transformation of Dissent 1780-1830, (Cambridge University Press), 1988, especially pp. 142-165, is valuable.

[4] Brown, K. D., A Social History of the Nonconformist Ministry in England and Wales, 1800-1930, (Oxford University Press), 1988, pp. 19-79.

[5] Johnson, Dale A., The changing shape of English nonconformity, 1825-1925, (Oxford University Press), 1999.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Education, Crime and Leisure

The third volume of the Nineteenth Century British Society series has now been published on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Education-Leisure-Nineteenth-Century-ebook/dp/B005UDIZXQ/ref=pd_rhf_p_t_1

Kindle Volume 3

The book addresses the problems posed by education, crime and leisure to society and the ways in which the state sought to legislate in its search for public order. The two chapters on education consider the periods before and after the passage of Education Act 1870 that, for the first time, established a national system of elementary education. In addition to schooling for the working-classes, education for the middle- and upper-class and girls are examined. There are three chapters that look at crime, punishment and policing. Finally, the ways in which people spent their leisure time is explored and the ways in which the state and voluntary groups sought to ‘control’ what people used their leisure time for is explored.  It is divided into six chapters:

  1. Literacy and schooling, 1830-1870
  2. A state system of education, 1870-1914
  3. Crime
  4. Punishment
  5. Policing
  6. Leisure

Further Reading identifies the most valuable books on these subjects while the detailed notes provide a guide for further research.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Evangelicalism within Anglicanism

The Evangelical Revival in the eighteenth century was partly a consequence of the increasing frustration felt by individuals like the Wesleys with the intense conservatism of Anglican high churchmen. [1] Not all of those who supported Wesleyan Methodism left the Church of England in the 1790s.  From 1750, another group of Evangelical clergy and laity also began to attack the conservatism of the established church from within. They took a considerable initiative in missionary work and campaigns for social and ‘moral’ reform and by the 1820s were beginning to establish a foothold in the parishes of some larger towns. [2] By 1830, three Evangelicals had been made bishops. Despite their emphasis on spiritual conversion and the absolute supremacy of Scripture over the traditions of the Church, they were not anti-sacramental encouraging frequent communion services. Theirs was a simple and unmysterious form of worship. People are all in a state of natural depravity, weighed down by sin and life is an arena of moral and spiritual trial in which people are tempted, tested and ultimately sorted into saints and sinners.   There is a spiritual contract between each soul and God in which intermediaries like the clergy are of relatively little importance. Redemption comes through the faith of the individual in Christ’s Atonement on the Cross. This was an evangelical ‘scheme of salvation’. Within the Anglican middle-classes, evangelicalism spread rapidly from the mid-1820s because of economic alarms, Catholic Emancipation, constitutional crises, cholera and other signs of impending divine intervention. [3]

By the 1820s, Anglicans were speaking about Anglican Evangelicals as ‘the Evangelicals’ as if they were the only ones. [4] This division between Anglican and non-Anglican evangelicals had not existed during the first phase of evangelicalism before the 1780s when people moved freely across the formal boundaries between denominations. The division developed as a result of Wesleyan Methodists separating from the Established Church in the 1790s and because Anglican Evangelicals were the only ones who mattered socially and politically. If an ability to excite ‘the affections’ enabled evangelicalism to transcend the inertia of eighteenth century religion, a corresponding suspicion of ‘worldly’ pleasures slowly brought it down to earth. Originally the movement was premised on religious freedom, but as instinctive suspicion developed into the increasing hostility in the early-nineteenth century, it became coercive and alienating. It was in the wounded conscience of evangelicalism that the crisis of Victorian religion began. This was evident in the second phase of evangelicalism that began with the conversion of William Wilberforce and Hannah More in the 1780s. [5] These individuals brought a social distinction and respectability and conservatism that it had previously not enjoyed. Under their banner of the ‘Evangelical Party’, in itself an ambiguous term given the diversity of Anglican Evangelicalism, this group became the most dynamic and ambitious element in the Established Church.  

Evangelical Anglican clergy worked within the Establishment claiming, much to the annoyance of bishops during the early-nineteenth century that they represented the central Anglican tradition established during the mid-sixteenth century. The Islington Clerical Conference, which first convened in 1827 and continued uninterrupted until 1983, provided an annual forum for Anglican evangelicals laying an important role in keeping them together by acting as a check on bitter disagreements and failings out. By the 1830s, Evangelicals were in control of most of the national and local religious societies, though the latter were more interdenominational than their national headquarters. They published the bulk of  the popular  Christian  literature of the period:  the Bible  in  all languages; classics  of the Evangelical point of view like The Pilgrim’s  Progress;  soul-arousing  works of every kind,  and, periodicals  like The Christian Observer and The Eclectic Review. It was developing, through the work of Charles Simeon, parochial organisation designed to maintain an intense religious life and to channel the charitable impulse to promote social and religious discipline.  By the 1830s, its national leadership was consolidated among peers, MPs, bishops and the leading figures of the ecclesiastical and business world. [6]

This diffusion of Anglican Evangelicalism was not achieved without some loss of vigour. This process has been called one of ‘accommodation’ making Evangelicalism palatable and manageable for the cultivated classes, an attractive and exemplary model for a combination of piety and social position. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which this was a conscious aim of Wilberforce and his supporters or a reflection of the level of its success.  But there is little doubting its influence throughout British society touching those who were not evangelically-minded and who may not have liked its theology: for example, Sunday observance, the enforcement of the blasphemy laws, especially in the 1820s, and the encouragement of Sunday and day schools. The moral revolution was accomplished and overt sexuality for the middle-classes was driven into a private underworld or into lower-class life. Victorian respectability predated the accession of the Queen in 1837. [7]

The existence of the Establishment meant that relations between Anglican and non-Anglican evangelicals became increasingly difficulty after 1820. During the 1820s and 1830s, Nonconformists moved from a reluctant acceptance of Establishment to an attitude of general dislike of it.  By the 1840s, disestablishment became a major issue with Nonconformists wishing to reduce the Church of England to an equality of status with their own denominations, competing freely in an open religious’ market. [8]

This view of the Establishment was known as ‘voluntarism’ and was an attitude increasingly sympathised with by Methodists of every kind, by many Presbyterians in England as well as Scotland and by Irish Roman Catholics.  Though some Evangelicals such as Lord Shaftesbury never hesitated to co-operate with Nonconformists and few left the Church, most Anglican Evangelicals persisted in seeing the Establishment as an advantageous and necessary condition.

While the existence of an Establishment was a cause of division within evangelicalism, the principle of ‘No Popery’ was a ground of unity.   This has been seen as one of the causes of the lowering of the tone of evangelicalism and a resurgence of anti-Catholic feelings in the 1840s and 1850s. Some change in the relationship between public men and public opinion may partially explain what happened to Evangelicalism after 1830. Post-reform politics saw the emergence of a more politically conscious public with worries, real or imaginary, about which that public wanted something done. [9] By 1836, Wilberforce, Hannah More and Charles Simeon had died and their successors, Shaftesbury and Fowell Buxton were not personally inferior but Evangelicalism seems to have moved into a lower gear. [10] Best argues:

It is almost as if its greatest contribution had by then been made and as if it was felt to lack the breadth and tone of distinction that could satisfy many of its natural leaders in the post-revolutionary age. [11]

Evangelicalism, as a religion of duty placed service above doctrine and appealed to women in particular. Wilberforce argued in A Practical View that women were more favourably disposed to religion and good works than men.[12] The activities and restrictions of nineteenth century family life and female education tended to focus the affections and raise philanthropy to the level of obedience to God. [13] Though some women found Christianity restrictive, most female reformers saw it as an emancipatory influence heightening women’s self-esteem and giving them a sense of place and direction. Christianity confirmed that women had a rightful and important place in the charitable world; a place that particularly to men was a subordinate one. [14]  Female Evangelical piety did not threaten the social order.  Clare Lucas Balfour wrote in 1849:

...the  history  of every religious and benevolent society  in  the civilised world shows the female sex pre-eminent in numbers, zeal and  usefulness, thus  attesting  the  interest  women  take  in Christian labours for the welfare of society. [15]

Historians acknowledge the importance of evangelicalism in shaping the mentality of the first half of the nineteenth century but recognise the problem in defining that role precisely. Evangelicalism’s middle-class piety fostered concepts of public probity and national honour based on the ideals of economy, professionalism and ‘respectability’. [16] Though many prominent Evangelicals were paternalists and bitterly opposed to the prevailing ‘laissez-faire’ ethos of the period, many contemporaries thought of evangelicalism as synonymous with philanthropy.  Boyd Hilton argues that Evangelicals helped to create and to buttress the very capitalist philosophy then under attack. They wanted society to operate as closely to ‘nature’ as possible by repealing interventionist laws leaving people to work out their own salvation and spiritual life in the course of their ordinary lives. In that evangelical ethos, suffering seemed to be part of God’s plan and governments took a harsh attitude to social underdogs in order not to interfere with such dispensations of providence. ‘Self-help’ was both an economic and spiritual means of achieving salvation.

While unreformed the Anglican Church claimed the allegiance of the whole society.   It was thoroughly integrated within the mainstream culture and social structure and monopolistic in its attitude to religious rivals.   As long as political sanctions against religious deviance were firmly upheld widespread, support for alternative religious perspectives could be held in check but from 1689 onwards British society moved gradually towards a pluralist, religious voluntarism. By the 1830s, Britain had become an increasingly pluralistic society containing not one but a plurality of cultural systems. The reforms of the 1830s and 1840s represented a decisive turning point for Anglicanism. Though still the Established Church in England, Wales and Ireland, it had accommodated itself to the reality of permanent competition with other ‘churches’ within its boundaries.  The State might intervene to support the Establishment but there was no chance that it would restore the Church to its constitutionally prescribed role as a monopolistic religion. Like the landed elite, the Church, though it fought a skilled rearguard action for the rest of the century, was increasingly prepared to compromise to preserve its remaining privileges.   The change was one of metamorphosis, not restoration.

The result was a shift in the character of the Church to being one denomination among several.


[1] Noll, Mark A., The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, (IVP), 2004, and Walsh, John, ‘“Methodism” and the origins of English-speaking evangelicalism’, in Noll, Mark A., Bebbington, D. W., and Rawlyk, George A., (eds.), Evangelicalism: Comparative studies of popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles and beyond, 1700-1990, (Oxford University Press), 1994, pp. 19-37.

[2] Scotland, Nigel, Evangelical Anglicans in a revolutionary age 1789-1901, (Paternoster), 2004.

[3] Smith, Mark A., and Taylor, Stephen, (eds.), Evangelicalism in the Church of England c.1790-c.1880: a miscellany, (Boydell), 2004. See also, Balleine, George R., A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England, (Longmans, Green and Co.), 1908, and Hylson-Smith, Kenneth, Evangelicals in the Church of England, 1734-1984, (Continuum), 1989, pp. 109-224.

[4] Hilton, R. Boyd, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought 1785-1865, (Oxford University Press), 1988, is essential. See also, Best, G., ‘Evangelicalism and the Victorians’, in Symondson, A., (ed.), The Victorian Crisis of Faith, (SPCK), 1970, pp. 37-56, and Smyth, C., ‘The evangelical movement in perspective’, Cambridge Historical Journal, Vol. 7, (1941-3), pp. 160-174. Bebbington, D. W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, (Unwin Hyman), 1987, pp. 75-150, covers the whole of the period.

[5] Wolffe, John, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney, (IVP), 2007.

[6] Holladay, J. D., ‘English Evangelicalism, 1820-1850: diversity and unity in “Vital Religion”‘, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 51, (1982), pp. 147-157. See also, Wolffe, J., The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain, 1829-1860, (Oxford University Press), 1991.

[7] On the moral revolution, see Jaeger, M., Before Victoria: Changing Standards and Behaviour 1787-1837, (Chatto and Windus), 1956, and Wilson, Ben, Decency & Disorder: The Age of Cant 1789-1837, (Faber), 2007.

[8] Macintosh, W. H., Disestablishment and Liberation: The movement for the separation of the Anglican Church from state control, (Epworth Press), 1972.

[9] For the significance of the evangelical mission, see Lewis, D. M., Lighten their Darkness: the Evangelical Mission to Working-class London, 1828-1860, (Greenwood Press), 1986.

[10] Follett, Richard R., ‘After Emancipation: Thomas Fowell Buxton and Evangelical Politics in the 1830s’, Parliamentary History, Vol. 27, (2008), pp. 119-129.

[11] Best, G., ‘Evangelicalism and the Victorians’ in ibid, Symondson, A., (ed.), The Victorian Crisis of Faith, p. 48, and Bradley, C., The Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical Impact on the Victorians, (Jonathan Cape), 1976.

[12] Wilberforce, William, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians: in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country: contrasted with Real Christianity, 19th ed., (Crocker and Brewster), 1829, pp. 286-289.

[13] Ibid, Wilberforce, William, A Practical View, pp. 229, 270-271.

[14] Elliott, D. W., The Angel out of the House: Philanthropy and Gender in Nineteenth-century England, (University of Virginia Press), 2002, pp. 111-134. See also, Bowpitt, Graham, ‘Evangelical Christianity, Secular Humanism and the Genesis of British Social Work’, British Journal of Social Work, Vol. 28, (5), (1998), pp. 675-693.

[15] Balfour, C. L., Women and the Temperance Reformation, (Houlston and Stoneman), 1849, p. 6.

[16] Tolley, C., Domestic Biography: The Legacy of Evangelicalism in four Nineteenth-century Families, (Oxford University Press), 1997, looks at the Macaulays, Stephens, Thorntons and Wilberforces.

Monday, 3 October 2011

15 Interesting Facts About the History of Vaccinations and Immunizations

The following blog has just been brought to my attention: http://www.mastersinpublichealth.net/15-interesting-facts-about-the-history-of-vaccinations-and-immunizations/  It provides an excellent summary on how doctors have used vaccines and immunisation to battle diseases such as smallpox, measles, polio and rabies.  It is well worth a look.