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19th Century Secularisation

A/N: Part I, paper 10 essay from Michaelmas term of the 2008/09 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. E. Foyster at Clare.

‘The assumption that modern society underwent a long-term process of secularisation is belied by actual patters of belief and worship.’ Discuss with respect to any period of 100 years between 1700 and 1914.
I'm too lazy to make another, so the spelling mistake is here to stay!

For much of the twentieth century it has been implicitly believed that secularisation was a process that had already occurred; something that had been inevitable and necessary for a modern state. Considering the hundred year period from 1800 to 1900 this assumption is quickly undermined. Wolffe points out that a purely institutional definition of religion has ignored the strength of religious belief that existed amongst those who were not regular church-goers. By expanding the definition of religion to include personal belief it soon becomes apparent that secularisation was nowhere near complete by 1900. Arguments typically used to prove the secularisation theory, then, such as declining church attendance figures and the growth of non-religious leisure associations, are far from conclusive. In truth the lingering belief in large scale nineteenth-century secularisation reflects the nature of twentieth century academia rather than any strong grounding in fact. Intellectual historians of the 1950s and 1960s merged the contemporary vogue for academic atheism with a whiggish ideal of progress, the result being a belief that any and all steps towards secularisation were a sign of progress. Burn has called this approach ‘selective Victorianism’ as evidence to the contrary, such as the strong religious beliefs of scientists, was summarily ignored. In more recent years revisionist historians have began to look at religion on its own terms. It is only by recognising the strength of religious belief that the assumptions made by Intellectual historians, who could not or perhaps would not see religion as anything more than a pragmatic part of people’s lives, can be overturned and the real picture revealed.

Traditionally historians have pointed to statistics to back up their claims of secularisation. Such figures have been used to prove declining church attendance. In addition some of the new dissent denominations, such as the Baptists and the Congregationalists found their numbers actually declining. Such statements are not as straight forward as they might appear however. As ever there are problems with how such statistics are collated, the 1851 religious census, for instance, which was used to prove the decline of religion only recorded one Sunday and counted people who attended church more than once that day as separate attendees. The main problem with statistics is that they present religion as nothing more than an institutional practise and ignores the personal belief of individuals. Many churches required pews to be rented, up to six months in advance, a cost that excluded the very poor from Sunday services. In addition many poor families refused to attend church in their shabby clothes, as it was expected that everyone would wear their ‘Sunday best’ to services. This view of the church as elitist meant that many people who considered themselves good Christians might not step foot in church more than a few times a year. Clearly statistics only serve to confuse the picture of actual contemporary religious belief.

The perceived corruption of the church has long been seen as one of the major factors for secularisation. As early as the middle ages some commentators argued against the organised church because of the corruption and immorality of its members. This view continued, not least because there were always unscrupulous members of the clergy ready to use their position to their best advantage. By 1830 only around forty per cent of parishes had resident Anglican clergymen, low incomes forcing many into pluralism or serving as magistrates. The state’s hold over the Church of England also meant extensive use of the patronage system, going someway to explain the close ties between the Anglican Church and the Torys, the party dedicated to conservative, landed interests. There are, however, problems with accepting these problems as reasoning for secularisation. Not only were attempts made to improve the Anglican Church, tighter controls over clerical non-residence were introduced by the Whigs in the 1830s for example. But, more importantly, there is no obvious reason why disillusionment with the church of the state should inevitably lead to secularisation. What it did do was encourage further fragmentation of the Christian faith.

Throughout the century the influence of the new denominations grew. Whereas membership of the older dissenting religions, such as the Quakers, fell the new dissenters expanded rapidly in the first half of the nineteenth century. Thompson points out that perhaps the most well known of these new denominations, the Methodists, could only claim around 5,000 members in 1790, nothing compared to its 230,000 strong membership by 1827. A figure that is likely to be a significant underestimate of its influence as many people attended Methodist meetings without actually becoming members. These new denominations were popular not because of the finer points of their theology but because they were more inclusive than the Anglican Church. One did not need Sunday best to attend an open air Primitive Methodist meeting. As dissent became more acceptable as the century wore on, and the conversionist zeal of groups such as the Baptists mellowed into the consolidating chapel building of the 1880s, new dissenting denominations emerged to fill the void. The Salvation Army was one of the few denominations to experience large scale growth in the last years of the nineteenth century for example. The suggestion is, then, that far from movement en masse towards secularism, the nineteenth century saw an increase in religious activity, just not under any one single denominational banner.

As might be expected, then, the evidence for the growth of actual atheism is patchy at best. Intellectual historians of the mid twentieth-century were keen to point to the anti-religious ideas of scientists like Darwin. Yet a surprising number of such men had little difficulty in reconciling their faith with scientific and technological advancement. Man might try to play at being Gods, invariably with horrifying results as documented in such sensationalist late Victorian works as Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, but this did not mean the God of creation did not exist. Where people were driven to renouncing all semblance of faith they were as likely to be men of the cloth as men of science. Budd found that it was the violence and cruelty of the Bible rather than scientific theories of evolution which were the real challenges to religious belief. Men who joined the secularist ‘freethinker’ movement (for members were typically men claims Budd) were in search of a higher morality than the petty revenge and sexual licentiousness that filled the Bible. More common however was agnosticism, generally implying less a lack of belief in God, than a lack of belief in organised religion. The much documented late Victorian ‘Crisis of Faith’ was more the movement towards personal morality without the intervening corruption of the church, by a relatively small number of intellectual thinkers.

If, then, religious belief was not in danger of disappearing it stands to reason that the institutional nature of religion came under much less strain than some commentators have assumed. Take, for example, the Sunday school movement. Founded in the late eighteenth century, by the late nineteenth century attendance was so entrenched that only the most fervent of unbelieving parents would keep their children away. McLeod points out the pragmatic reasoning that has traditionally been ascribed to the growth of the movement, such as its child-minding function and the material benefits it afforded. Sunday schools often subsidised outings for children and membership reflected the respectability of the whole family, invaluable for lower working class families who found themselves forced to rely on church charity from time to time. Yet this misses the fundamental religious belief that underlay the attendance of many children. For the majority of both working and middle class parents Sunday school attendance and religious instruction more generally were seen as essential in cultivating manners and morals. Thompson criticises the Methodist Sunday schools for terrifying working class children into submission with tales of hell and damnation, but this is to disregard the nature of faith. Children, from the viewpoint of religious leaders, needed to know the dangers of sin if they were to be dissuaded from its path. The role of such teaching in providing an obedient and subservient workforce might seem apparent in retrospect but to the working class Methodist teachers an age of equality did not seem likely; it was better to live a moral life than waste it dreaming of seemingly unachievable radical aims.

The importance placed on religion can be seen clearly in nineteenth century politics in more aspects than diminishing the impact of radical political thought. Non-conformism and Liberalism became closely entwined as the Liberals proved themselves willing to legislate in favour of temperance. Similarly the links between Anglicanism and Toryism remained strong, stressing the importance of the traditional squire parish in the national psyche. Even as more tolerant legislation was passed in favour of the non-conformists, such as the 1828 repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, allowing dissenters to hold public office and the opening of Oxbridge to dissenters in 1871, religious prejudice remained strong in politics. In particular antagonism between Catholics and Protestants continued to cause problems throughout the period. Five ritualist clergymen were convicted under the 1874 Public Worship Regulation Act for example, evidence of the lingering fear of Catholic practises. Brown argues that class only replaced religion as the major variable in political viewpoints in 1918 with the widening of the franchise. Such evidence suggests that far from decreasing in importance religion continued to have a major impact on all aspects of life in the nineteenth century.

Indeed religious belief was a matter of course for the majority. The autobiographical accounts of those who battled with their faith had led historians to assume a widespread ‘crisis of faith’ in the late Victorian period. Yet the truth was that such accounts represented a relatively small proportion of society. The Bristol oral history project investigated the religious beliefs of those who grew up in the late Victorian period and found only a tiny percentage completely denied the existence of God. As already argued, doubt over the morality of the organised church rarely resulted in a complete movement towards secularism. Turner argues that questioning of religion was for many simply part of growing up. As young adults left the family home and encountered new ideas many were forced to re-evaluate their beliefs and perhaps change denominational allegiance. Marian Evans (better known as George Eliot) gave up on Evangelicalism after reading Unitarian tracts in her early twenties for example. This youthful questioning rarely resulted in outright atheism simply because religion was so predominant. Belief provided structure and comfort, to do away with it was completely unthinkable to most people; those who did such as G.J. Romanes struggled to deal with the desolate void it left. This point has been so glossed over by generations of historians simply because it is difficult for the rational academic community to accept such blind faith as existing in the recent past; once it is accepted that patterns of belief are not rational the continued importance of religion becomes obvious.

In conclusion whilst there was increased toleration of secularism by the end of the century it would be mistaken to argue that secularisation as a process had come close to completion. Religious belief had been bolstered by the evangelical revival of the first half of the nineteenth century and continued to have a strong hold over the national mindset. Even as puritanical zeal softened somewhat religion was deemed as indispensable. Historians of the mid twentieth historians tended to equate the growth in church leisure associations and Sunday schools with religious decline; that the church essentially had to ‘sell out’ to keep attendance levels up. In fact this branching out by the churches and chapels was so popular not only because of its pragmatic benefits, but because of the more inclusive nature of these more informal activities. The new dissenting denominations, such as the Methodists, by focussing on prayer meetings and choral activities, proved more attractive than the stuffy formality of Anglican Church services. What the nineteenth century saw, then, was not a significant movement towards secularisation, but rather a movement towards the fragmentation of religion. It was not until the late twentieth century that this fragmentation would move closer to the secularisation envisaged by the Intellectual historians who so championed the secularisation theory.

 Religion Bibliography 

  • J. Obelkevich, ‘Religion’ in F.M.L. Thompson (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain vol.3 (1990). 
  • C.G. Brown, ‘Religion and social change’, in T.M. Devine and R. Mitchison (eds.), People and Society in Scotland I (1988). 
  • J. Wolffe, God and Greater Britain: Religion and National Life in Britain and Ireland 1843-1945 (1994). Introduction. 
  • E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), chapter 11. 
  • A.D. Gilbert, Religion and Society in Industrial England (1976). 
  • S. Budd, ‘The loss of faith: reasons for unbelief among members of the secular movement in England, 1850-1950’, Past and Present 36 (1967). 
  • F.M. Turner, Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life (1993), chapters 1 and 3. 
  • C.G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain (2001), Introduction. 
  • H. Mcleod, Religion and Society in England, 1850-1914 (1996), chapter 2.


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