Friday, 30 December 2011

Was there a Victorian ‘crisis of faith’?

The intellectual ferment of the second half of the nineteenth century differed from that of earlier periods in important aspects of tone and substance and in the extent to which it implicated the ordinary church-going population as well as the religious intelligentsia. It was the percolation downwards of theological uncertainty into the ranks of ordinary believers that marks the Victorian period off from the doubt and disbelief of Hanoverian society. Radical and potentially subversive ideas were popularised across society and this added a new dimension to the relationship between the Churches and the wider intellectual world. Victorian laymen, judged by popular religious newspapers, periodicals and sermons, were capable of considerable theological subtlety, but even those who were less subtle could be caught up in the crises of Darwinism and biblical criticism. [1] The popularisation of controversy and the involvement of the general public in religious debates was what contemporaries often found noteworthy.

What was novel was the emergence of popular theological speculation within the Churches. Popular infidelity was not new, but in the past its hostility to the Christian tradition had militated against its chances of subverting the faith of the church-going population. City Mission workers found in the late-nineteenth century that there was a strong undercurrent of plebeian secularism, Paineite in the bold invective and blunt ribaldry through which it was expressed. This augmented the more urbane secularism of people such Charles Bradlaugh, George Jacob Holyoake and Annie Besant. [2] But the Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ was not precipitated by such counter-religious propaganda. It was not secularists but devout Christians who were its most effective proponents. The controversial Essays and Reviews of 1860 was the work of six Anglican clergymen and a devout layman.

There were profound misgivings in all the Churches that the traditional tenets of belief and faith were being questioned in an attempt to come to terms with wider intellectual tendencies. The periodical The Sword and the Trowel brought tensions to a head among Baptists in 1887, publishing a series of articles accusing radicals of the denomination of virtual apostasy. Similar crises occurred in Wesleyanism in the early 1880s when Rev. W. H. Dallinger was prevented from delivering the Fernley lecture advancing the synthesis of Methodist theology and evolutionary theory. [3] Among Congregationalists similar problems arose as the result of the airing of advanced theological opinions during a meeting associated with the autumn session of the Congregational Union held in Leicester in October 1877. [4] Despite the tensions that the popularisation of these issues generated and the fascination they held for denominational editors, preachers and pamphleteers, controversy was less significant within the Churches than the absence of permanent division. The ‘crisis of faith’ was contained and produced very little actual loss of faith. While there were notable cases of apostasy, doubt generally led not to disbelief but to theological revision or accommodation of one kind or another.

The decline of religious adherence in modern English society was not caused by the loss of existing members. Membership retention has not been a major problem. From the 1830s, when various churches associated with the Baptist Union began compiling statistics, a growing number of English religious organisations have collected and collated data on aspects of recruitment and loss. A similar picture emerges in each case. While they have been growing rapidly, religious organisations have had a high turnover in membership: losses by expulsion, lapsing and leakage were offset by extremely rapid recruitment. But as their growth rates have declined, so did membership turnover. In Wesleyanism, for example, annual losses of total membership were 14.1% of the total membership in 1880-1881 but only 6.8% in 1932. However, in 1881 it had attracted enough new members to offset the loss but by 1932 losses greatly exceeded new member. Recruitment rather than loss was the crucial variable in declining support.

What were the links between the Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ and the growing inability of the Churches to draw new members from the broader society? The intellectual tensions occasioned by theological revisionism and Darwinian Theory did not produce significant levels of defection among existing adherents largely because of the strong social and cultural pressures that existing among Victorian Christians to reach some sort of ideological compromise. The heat was generally taken out of the crises by an almost irresistible imperative towards accommodation with the wider intellectual world. In a society that was no longer dominated by a pervasive religious belief, there was a distinctively modern religious-cultural preoccupation with making the Christian faith relevant. The quest for relevance is a characteristic of neither churches in which relevance is assured by social domination, nor of sects that accepted cultural marginality but is a preoccupation of denominational type religion. It is essential for the survival of denominations that depend on the voluntary allegiance of members who adhere in general to the prevalent ideas and intellectual fashions of their age. Victorian Christianity’s attempts to come to terms with biological and geological science, social science, archaeology, comparative religion, historical scholarship and philosophical theology can be seen in this light. The alternative to ideological accommodation was the increasing marginality and cultural isolation of organised religion within English society.

Denominations do not have the control over their members of either churches or sects. Membership does not exclude other commitments and denominational life is only one of a variety of associational activities. The denomination must compete for members with other recreational, social, cultural and vocational activities. The transition to denomination means that the organisation could no longer demand levels of participation from its members previously regarded as normal. In fact, the membership’s beliefs and values were increasingly moulded by ‘worldly’ associations as by ‘religious’ ones. There was a decline in commitment, especially evident among Nonconformists. The Church of England had long accommodated people willing to worship in church but unwilling to tolerate too intense or too disciplined a religious life. The pervasive nature of Nonconformity to its adherents, especially falling attendance at weekday prayer, preaching and class meetings, was beginning to decline by the early 1850s. By 1900, many church leaders felt that they were fighting a losing battle to rival ‘the social party, the secular concert or the tennis club’. [5] The choices facing them were bleak. On one side religion was growing increasingly worldly where recreational activities went alongside and often were more important that spiritual ones. The alternative was alienation both from the wider culture and from the great majority of Victorians and Edwardians who were prepared for accommodation with the changing spirit of the times. It was the worldliness of accommodation rather than the alienation of reaction that was the norm.

The Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ was a matter of the Churches coming to terms ideologically with the secularising tendencies within the wider culture. But this was only partially successful. What was a ‘crisis of faith’ for believers was for outsiders a ‘crisis of plausibility’ and the failure of the Churches to deal effectively with this that hindered their ability to maintain an adequate rate of recruitment from the broader society. Far more important for the future of English religion than the specific challenges of Darwinism or biblical criticism, or the internal adjustments that these challenges demanded of the Churches, was the gradual divergence, increasingly evident after 1860, between religious and secular modes of interpreting reality. Previously there had been something like a consensus between believers and unbelievers about the plausibility of the religious worldview. Religious definitions of reality had been credible even to those who had rejected or ignored them. This was not the case in the cultural milieu of modern industrial England. Well before 1900, commentators insisted that the most serious threat to English religion was not the incompatibility between science and religion but the growing tendency for people without much knowledge of theology or interest in it becoming alienated from the modes of thought and definitions of reality that made religiosity explicable and relevant.

Two powerful forces were operating in society to produce this fundamental secularisation of the values and beliefs of the population outside the Churches. First, there was a popularisation of the ‘scientific spirit’. [6] Increasingly after 1850 science dominated popular definitions of reality. The scientific ethos as a popular philosophy tended to stultify all forms of metaphysical thinking, despite the fact that many of the scientists putting forward these views were themselves Christians. [7] Secondly, popular materialism emerged as a major social force. There is a significant link between the economic changes that occurred after 1750 and the growing secularisation of society. Poverty, scarcity and disease had been the common lot of all but the fortunate few in pre-industrial societies. But in nineteenth century England, the material wealth of a whole society began steadily to improve. The self-sustaining economic growth of a maturing industrial society and economy had already undermined attitudes and values that had taken shape amidst the poverty and economic insecurity of generations before the Industrial Revolution.

The crisis of plausibility produced by the emergence of industrial society in England made its presence felt early in the Victorian period. Increasingly the Churches were becoming estranged from modern English society, though this was not brought home fully until the experience of the First World War. Victorian fears about the alienation of the working-classes from organised religion, though grounded in the definition of religiosity as attendance, were not groundless. It was also becoming apparent that for the middle and upper-classes, religion was an increasingly irrelevant activity and cultural influence. The denominational compromises of the Victorian churches in their search for relevance undermined their evangelical verve just as the crisis of plausibility undermined their influence on wider society. In seeking to understand why religious adherence declined after 1850, science and theology provide only part of the answer.



[1] Knight, P., The Age of Science, (Basil Blackwell), 1986, places the Darwinian dispute in its nineteenth century context while the monumental biography Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James, Darwin, (Michael Joseph), 1991, is a major study of this enigmatic figure.

[2] On Holyoake and Annie Besant, see Grugel, Lee E., George Jacob Holyoake: a study in the evolution of a Victorian radical, (Porcupine Press), 1976, and Taylor, Ann, Annie Besant: a biography, (Oxford University Press), 1992.

[3] Haas, J. W., ‘The Reverend Dr William Henry Dallinger, F.R.S. (1839-1909)’, Notes & Records of the Royal Society (of London), Vol. 54, (2000), pp. 53-65.

[4] Ledger-Lomas, Michael, ‘“Glimpses of the Great Conflict”: English Congregationalists and the European Crisis of Faith, circa 1840-1875’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 46, (2007), pp. 826-860, Thompson, D. M., ‘R. W. Dale and the “civic gospel”‘, in Sell, Alan P. F., (ed.), Protestant nonconformists and the west Midlands of England: papers presented at the first conference of the Association of Denominational Historical Societies and Cognate Libraries, (Keele University Press), 1996, pp. 99-118.

[5] Cit, ibid, Gilbert, A. D., Religion and Society in Industrial England, p. 181. See also, Hennell, Michael, ‘Evangelicalism and worldliness, 1770-1870’, in Cuming, G. J., and Baker, D., (eds.), Popular belief and practice; papers read at the ninth summer meeting and the tenth winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, (Cambridge University Press), 1972, 229-236.

[6] Fyfe, Aileen, ‘Science and Religion in Popular Publishing in 19th Century Britain’, in Meusburger, Peter, Welker, Michael, and Wunder, Edgar, (eds.), Clashes of Knowledge: Orthodoxies and Heterodoxies in Science and Religion, (Springer Science), 2008, pp. 121-132, and Ruse, Michael, ‘The relationship between science and religion in Britain, 1830-1870’, Church History, Vol. 44, (1975), pp. 505-522.

[7] See, Lucas, J. R., ‘Wilberforce and Huxley: a legendary encounter’, Historical Journal, Vol. 22, (1979), pp. 313-330, Gilley, Sheridan, ‘The Huxley-Wilberforce debate: a reconsideration’, in Robbins, Keith, (ed.), Religion and humanism: papers read at the eighteenth summer meeting and the nineteenth winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, (Oxford University Press), 1981, pp. 325-340, and James, Frank A. J. L., ‘An ‘Open Clash between Science and the Church’?: Wilberforce, Huxley and Hooker on Darwin at the British Association, Oxford, 1860’, in Knight, David M., and Eddy, Matthew, (eds.), Science and beliefs: from natural philosophy to natural science, 1700-1900, (Ashgate), 2005, pp. 171-194.

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.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Class

The fourth volume in the Nineteenth Century British Society series has now been published on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nineteenth-Century-British-Society-ebook/dp/B006MY93GK/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1324111713&sr=1-1

All societies are, to some degree, stratified or divided into different social groups. These groups may be in competition with each other for social control or wealth. They may be functional, defined by their contribution to society as a whole. They may share common ‘values’, have a common ‘national identity’ or they may form part of a pluralistic society in which different ‘values’ coexist with varying degrees of consensus or conflict. They have different names like ‘castes’ or ‘ranks’or ‘classes’. British society in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century has been called a ‘class society’ but there are some differences between historians about its precise meaning or whether it is meaningful at all.

This volume examines the nature of social class in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century. The book first examines the ways in which contemporaries and historians have viewed class and how a ‘class’society developed as the result of economic change. The remaining three chapters follow the conventional three class definition and consider the working-classes, middle-classes and upper-classes. Particular regard is placed on the changing role of working-class and middle-class women and how their economic, social and cultural roles changed when faced with massive economic dislocation and male-dominated outlooks.

The book is divided into five chapters:

  1. Class

  2. The working-classes

  3. The middle-classes

  4. The Upper Class

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

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.

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.

Friday, 2 December 2011

A Catholic revival?

Neither the Anglican Church nor its Protestant rivals changed as profoundly as Roman Catholicism. Its devotional life was transformed by the ultramontanism of the continent. From Ireland came the immigrants who increased the Catholic population from 750,000 in 1851 to over 2 million by 1914; the great majority of Catholics were now urban, Irish and working-class. From Anglicanism, finally, came a small but significant stream of converts, of whom Newman and Manning were the best known, bringing new blood into the clergy and the promise of further gains amongst the educated classes. As English Catholicism entered its ‘second spring’ some hoped for nothing less than the ‘reconversion’ of England to Rome.

The arrival of the Irish posed enormous problems for English Catholics. The ‘folk’ Catholicism that had served them well enough in rural Ireland did not hold up for long in London or Liverpool and a high proportion of immigrants lost all contact with the church. Priests carried out what amounted to a ‘devotional revolution’ to prevent further seepage abandoning the cool, restrained piety of the eighteenth century and adopting an unashamedly emotion, almost missionary, approach. Their preaching matched the fervour of Protestant revivalists; their new churches, with the candles, incense, plaster statutes and other props of ultramontane piety, emulated those of Rome or Naples.

Victorian Catholicism was dominated by the clergy. The role of the old Catholic gentry was minimal, nor was there any challenge to the priests from the small, Catholic middle-class. In the poor, inner city parishes, the priests were dedicated, dominant, often paternalist figures, laying down the law to their parishioners as well as bringing them faith and the sacraments. ‘Improvement’ was not ignored, but this was a church of the unskilled, where unlike most Protestant churches, it was no disgrace to be poor and stay poor. [1] Whatever the church’s dreams of reconverting England, its immediate strategies were realistic and defensive. Mixed marriages were condemned; great sacrifices were made to build a Catholic school system. The aim was to shield Catholics from all Protestant and secular influence, to keep them in self-enclosed communities where the church was the focus of social as well as religious identity. Catholicism was an important medium of both Celtic and proletarian culture. [2]

What most Protestants knew of Catholicism was the bold triumphalist ultramontanism of its public stance and its effects on them was to deepen alarm into panic. [3] This was triggered by the appearance of Catholic fellow travellers in the Church of England. When bishops were restored to the Catholic Church in 1850, Cardinal Wiseman provoked near-hysterical charges of ‘papal aggression’; in Stockport in 1852 anti-Catholic and anti-Irish feelings erupted into violence. Many Protestants regarded the pope as antichrist, the mass as ‘idolatry’, the Irish famine as just punishment for the rejection of Protestant truth. They surrounded Catholicism with a kind of religious pornography, dwelling especially on the horrors of the confessional, where priests insinuated ‘impure’ thoughts into the minds of innocent girls and turned wives against their husbands. Good Protestant families felt shame and disgrace when one of their members ‘perverted’ to Rome. Anti-Catholic prejudice flowered in this period and was widespread in every social class. The presence of a large Catholic population was an important factor in the Catholic revival at the end of the nineteenth century. [4] Cardinals Wiseman and Manning, archbishops of Westminster, restructured the expanding Catholic Church in Britain. Impoverished Irish immigrants contributed to the building of local Catholic churches.


[1] The Salvation Army, founded by General Booth in the late 1870s, specifically targeted both its evangelical mission and its social work on the very poor. In part, this was a response to the success of Catholic evangelism.

[2] Quinn, Dermot A., Patronage and piety: the politics of English Roman Catholicism, 1850-1900, (Macmillan), 1993.

[3] On this subject ibid, Paz, D. G., Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian England.

[4] On the Irish and Roman Catholicism in London see the following papers by Gilley, Sheridan, ‘Papists, protestants and the Irish in London, 1835-70’, in Cuming, G. J., and Baker, Derek, (eds.), in Studies in Church History, Vol. 8: Popular belief and practice, (Cambridge University Press), 1972, pp. 259-266; ‘Heretic London, holy poverty and the Irish poor, 1830-1870’, Downside Review, Vol. 89, (1971), pp. 64-89; ‘Protestant London, no Popery and the Irish poor, 1830-60’, Recusant History, Vol. 10, (1970), pp. 210-230; Vol. 11, (1971), pp. 21-46; and ‘The Roman Catholic mission to the Irish in London’, Recusant History, Vol. 10, (1969), pp. 123-145.