Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Religion in the eighteenth century

John Wesley

Secularism: the debate

Historians debate how far eighteenth-century England was moving towards secularisationCompared with previous centuries, there was a greater range of leisure activities and reading materials, and this made people less reliant on religion that in the past. On the other hand, the eighteenth century saw important religious movements and religion continued to play a major role.

Varieties of religion

In his Letters on the English, the French sceptical writer, Voltaire saw religious liberty as characteristic of England. 
‘Everyone is permitted to serve God in whatever way he thinks proper.’ 

He was struck by the variety of religious practice he had observed during his stay in England from 1726 to 1728. 

Since the reign of Elizabeth I the Church of England had been the established religion of the country. Everyone was obliged by law to attend their parish church on Sundays and religious dissent was not tolerated. But during the Civil the machinery for enforcing uniform religious observance broke down. The Anglican monopoly was challenged, first by Presbyterians and Independents, and then by Baptists and Quakers.  

With the return of the Church of England in 1660 there was an attempt to restore the earlier monopoly and many Dissenters were imprisoned under the Clarendon Code. But the Toleration Act of 1689, which followed the Glorious Revolution, had allowed for freedom of worship, though under limited conditions. The Church of England had lost its monopoly power and its powers to compel church attendance, making England (and to a lesser extent Scotland) was a religiously diverse country.

However this toleration was not absolute. The 1698 Blasphemy Act made denying the doctrine of the Trinity, the truth of Christianity, or the authority of Scripture punishable by law. However this law was rarely invoked.

The Church of England

The parish structure of the Church of England, which dated back to the Anglo-Saxons, was proving inadequate in an age of population growth and incipient industrialization. New, disorderly settlements, such as the mining community of Kingswood near Bristol, were not amenable to clerical control.

The 27 Anglican dioceses differed in size and wealth. Rochester had fewer than 150 parishes, Lincoln over 1500. Sodor and Man was the smallest (no seat in the Lords). There were great variations in episcopal income. Bishops were increasingly aristocratic; the fathers of over twenty per cent of George III’s bishops were connected with the peerage, but the Church was also a career open to talent. The annual Parliamentary session kept the bishops in London for a considerable time each year. 

Anglican public worship was uniform and followed the Book of Common Prayer: mattins, ante-communion, sermon; with evensong in the afternoon. There was great regional variation over the practice of ‘double duty’ (taking services more than once a day). Very few parishes fell below the canonical minimum of three communion services a year.

An age of negligence?

The eighteenth-century church has been described as corrupt, materialistic and spiritually moribund. However,  modern scholarship has found much evidence of conscientious administration, and the bishops' visitation returns suggests that the Church was more successful in maintaining frequent services than its critics claimed.  

Clergy were now almost entirely graduates, though they received no theological training. Rectors were supported by tithes, and Queen Anne’s Bounty relieved much clerical poverty. But pluralism and non-residence were constant problems and were an open invitation to Dissenters and anti-clericals to attack the Church. Few new churches were built, but many galleries were put in.

Voluntary activity

"Society for Propagating the Gospel seal".
Licensed under Public domain v
via Wikipedia Commons
Voluntary religious activity was a remarkable feature of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (founded 1698)  printed Christian literature and promoted and co-ordinated the operation of hundreds of local charity schools. The Society for Propagating the  the Gospel in Foreign Parts  (founded 1701) promoted overseas missions. The volume of religious publications remained high. On average nearly 100 sermons a year went into print during the first half of the 18th century. The hymns of the Dissenting preacher Isaac Watts were widely sung (though hymn singing was not an official part of Anglican worship until the 1820s).

Religious attitudes

Personal religious attitudes are harder to quantify. But diaries, the contents of libraries and periodicals, literature painting and music show the evidence of Christian belief. Endowments of churches and schools are another form of evidence. There was still a large demand for religious chapbooks and ‘godly broadsides’. Popular superstition remained high – represented by almanacs and fortune-tellers. John Wesley - an Oxford graduate -  continued to believe in witches. For most people there was still no coherent alternative to Christianity.


The Dissenting denominations were Presbyterians, Independents, Baptists and QuakersThe Toleration Act  gave freedom of worship to all but Unitarians, but required them to register their places of worship and ensure that only officially licensed preachers conducted Sunday services. Dissenters were mainly based in urban areas and their meeting-houses were frequented by the middling sort.
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons

Dissenters had a range of grievances about their place in society.

  1. The Test Act of 1678 stated that only communicant members of the Church of England could hold public office. However there were ways of getting round the Act and Presbyterian businessmen effectively dominated several towns. 
  2. Dissenters could not matriculate at Oxford and Cambridge, as this required subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles.
  3. Besides supporting their own chapels and meeting-houses, Dissenters had to pay local church rates and tithes. 
  4. Following Hardwicke’s Marriage Act (1753) they could only be lawfully married in a parish church by a clergyman of the Church of England, yet they might be denied right of burial in a local churchyard.
Dissenters had their own strategies for coping with their disadvantages. See here for the ongoing Dissenting Academies' project, which is providing a database for the many academies set up to train Dissenting ministers and to give an academic education to the sons of Dissenting families.

Roman Catholics

Catholics were just 1% of the population (at most 60-80,000 people), clustered geographically in Lancashire, Staffordshire, the north-east, West Sussex and London. They were expanding at a slower rate than the population as a whole.

Catholics had to pay a double rate of land tax, and faced numerous restrictions on residence and travel. Yet enforcement was always patchy. 

In 1778 the Roman Catholic Relief Act allowed Catholics to purchase land and repealed the laws that made Catholic priests liable to the charge of felony. The act did not specifically grant freedom of worship, though by this time no Catholics were prosecuted from hearing mass. The Act of 1791 licensed Catholic worship, though Catholics did not have their own hierarchy until 1850.

The Gordon Riots, 1780

"LordGeorgeGordon" by
Contemporary Portrait -
The proposal to extend the 1778 Act to Scotland in 1779 led to the worst rioting ever seen in EnglandIn June 1780, incited by the Scottish aristocrat, Lord George Gordon, crowds attacked the chapels of the Sardinian and Bavarian embassies, and destroyed the house of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield.The Bank of England was briefly besieged. Newgate was set on fire. 

The riots reached their peak on 7 and 8 June, with fresh attacks on Catholic property in Westminster, the City, and Holborn.
The King’s Bench prison and part of the Fleet prison, along with the new gaol, Southwark, and the toll houses on Blackfriars Bridge, were fired. 

On 7 June the king issued a Proclamation giving authority to the army to quell the disturbances. The riot then ended quickly but the troops killed more than 200. 450 were arrested. 62 were eventually sentenced to death, of whom 25 were eventually hanged and 12 others imprisoned.

Individuals received compensation to the value of over £70,000 and the damage to public buildings was estimated at over £30,000.  

The Methodists

The first prominent Methodist was not John Wesley but George Whitefield (1714-70), who was converted in 1735, three years before Wesley, and who at the time of Wesley’s conversion was already using open-air preaching to dramatic effect.

John Wesley (1703-91) entered Christ Church, Oxford (a High Church stronghold), in 1720. He and graduated in 1724. In 1728 he was ordained priest. In 1729 he returned to Oxford to fulfil the residential requirements of his fellowship. There he joined his brother Charles and others in a religious study group, the ‘Holy Club’, one of a number of societies of devout young men. These societies were concerned with the ‘reformation of manners’ – attacking swearing, blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking. The ordered lifestyle and High Church piety of the Oxford club earned them the nickname ‘Methodists’.

Following his father’s death in 1735 Wesley went to Georgia, to oversee the spiritual lives of the colonists and to missionize the Indians as an agent for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. While travelling out there he and Charles were much impressed by the piety and courage of the Moravians, members of a German religious movement, who were also travelling there. Wesley’s stiff High Church piety antagonized many of the colonists, and many quarrels broke out. The worst concerned a naive attachment to the niece of the chief magistrate of Savannah. In December 1737 Wesley virtually fled from Georgia.

Back in London he met a Moravian, Peter Böhler, who convinced him that what he needed was simply faith. On 24 May 1738, he attended a Moravian mission in Aldersgate - an experience that was a turning point for him. It added a Protestant Evangelical fire to the Anglican Catholicism of his youth.

He then embarked on a lifetime’s mission throughout the British Isles in which he travelled over 200,000 miles and preached over 40,000 sermons. He quickly found that the ancient parochial structure of England was inadequate to his purpose and was not adapted to new population movements. In 1739 he was invited by Whitefield to come to Bristol and help preach to the colliers at Kingswood Chase. He came and found himself, much against his will, preaching in the open air. This enterprise was the beginning of the Methodist revival. 

Wesley was astonished at the dramatic results that followed, and the mass emotion of the crowds. Soon he was building up ‘societies’ which took the Oxford nickname, ‘Methodists’. The Methodist society started at the Old Foundry, Moorfields, London and quickly spread to Bristol. As the new buildings went up the Methodists became institutionalised, though they were still part of the Church of England. Wesley always declared that the Methodists were a ‘society’ or a ‘connexion’ not a church but by 1771 Methodists numbered just over 26,000; by the time of his death in 1791 they were nearly 57,000.
In the early days of Methodism, Whitefield was better known than Wesley. In 1739 he began the Methodist practice of open-air preaching when he preached to the miners at Kingswood, near Bristol. He established himself in London at the Moorfields Tabernacle (1741) and the Tottenham Court Chapel (1756). The two men worked together for a while but as early as the 1740s
differences surfaced over predestination. Whitefield and Selina Countess of Huntingdon (1707-91) were Calvinists. Whitefield became her chaplain in 1748. Following his death she set up her own chapels in the spa towns, Bath, Brighton, Tunbridge Wells. In 1768 she founded Trevecca College in Wales under the superintendence of Howel Harris for the training of ‘her’ clergy. In 1779 the Consistory Court in London disavowed her claim to appoint as many chaplains as she chose ; she therefore seceded from the Church of England and set up her ‘Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion’. 

Methodists in America found their work seriously affected when war broke out, and with the withdrawal of many Anglican clergy there was no-one to whom his followers could go to receive Communion. Accordingly in 1784 he took a stand on his own rights as an ordained priest of the Church of England to ordain men on his own initiative. With great inconsistency he was furious when the leaders of the American Methodists allowed themselves to be called bishops!

In 1784 Wesley drew up a Deed of Declaration; this appointed a Conference of 100 men (the ‘Legal Hundred’) to govern the Church after his death. In effect, the Methodists were now a separate denomination.

Wesley confronts the mob
at Wednesbury,
Hostility: The Methodists aroused extraordinary hostility. In 1748, for example, Wesley received a physical battering at Calne when the local curate advertised for volunteers to attack him. The war waged on the Staffordshire Methodists in 1743 and 1744  was perhaps the most bitter of all such campaigns of intimidation.  They were ‘irregular’, they conducted mass meetings, and they arose at a time of deep political controversy. Their class meetings subverted the existing hierarchical society. They had (in their early days) women preachers. They were constantly accused of superstition, credulity, extravagant behaviour.

Anglican Evangelicals

'Wilberforce ' by John Rising
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons -

The awakening was wider than Methodism and included prominent clergy such as Samuel Walker of Truro and William Grimshaw of Haworth, who never adopted Methodist itinerancy. In Olney the poet William Cowper and his friend, the curate of the village, John Newton produced the Olney Hymns (1779).  Newton’s Authentic Narrative (1764) provided the record of his conversion and his previous life as a slave-trader.  In 1785 Newton was instrumental in the conversion of William Wilberforce.


  1. Religion might have been less important in the eighteenth century but it still played a major role in society.
  2. England's relative religious freedom allowed a variety of religious expressions and organisations not found in most continental countries.
  3. The Methodist revival had a major impact on English life. It was followed by the Evangelical revival in the Anglican Church and was one of the forces behind the movement to abolish the slave trade.

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