Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Victorian religion

The chancel of St Mary's Morthoe, Devon: a Victorian
restoration of the medieval interior
Public Domain

‘Never was Britain more religious than in the Victorian age. Contemporaries agonized over those who did not float upon the flood of faith. We marvel at the number who did.’ Theodore Hoppen, The Mid Victorian Generation (Oxford, 1998), p. 425.
See here for a very comprehensive site - much better on this subject than Wikipedia!

Victorian religious philanthropy
 From wwwVictorianweb.org

The denominations

Within the British Isles there were two established churches, the Church of England (Anglican) in England and Wales and the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) as well as a number of other denominations. In Wales Protestant Dissenters were a clear majority. Until 1869 the Anglican Church was established in Ireland though three quarters of the population were Catholic and half the remainder Presbyterian. In Scotland Presbyterianism dominated though since 1843 it had been split between the mainstream Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland (the 'Wee Frees').

'Papal aggression'

From the 1840s Irish immigration was changing Britain, adding a new Catholic population to the existing older Catholic families. From being a religion of rural country gentry, Catholicism was rapidly becoming a religion of the urban poor in centres like London and Liverpool.

In October 1850 Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman issued a pastoral letter announcing the reintroduction of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales. He himself was to be Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. The press and the public reacted with outrage to what was dubbed 'papal aggression' and the government of Lord John Russell introduced a bill to make Catholic ecclesiastical titles illegal. (Queen Victoria's reaction was much more measured and sensible.) 

From Punch, November 1850
The Pope as Guy Fawkes
Public Domain

But in spite of this reaction, the Catholic hierarchy was restored and the ecclesiastical census (see below) recorded that on 30 March 1851 about a quarter of a million Roman Catholics attended mass in England and Wales.

The Census

On Sunday 30 March 1851 a religious census was undertaken, quite separately from the normal census, which attempted to count the number of ‘attendances’ at places of worship and the extent of the seating accommodation provided. The returns are in the National Archives and can be viewed here. The report generated great excitement at the time (21,000 copies were sold) and has provided great confusion ever since. In 1854 the statistician in charge, Horace Mann, published his tabulation of the results, which tried to make sense of the raw data and yet are agreed to have been unsatisfactory. This means that historians are still debating the usefulness of the census.

His formula calculated the number of attendants at worship as distinct from the total number of attendances. It was agreed that some people attended worship more than once on census day. His formula took the total morning congregation plus half the afternoon and one third of the evening congregations. This was considered to be disadvantageous to Nonconformists whose highest turnout was in the evening. His formula for calculating irregular attenders was equally controversial. He doubled the figures for Anglican and Roman Catholic attenders and increased Nonconformists by two thirds, by means of sweeping assumptions, to make the number of attendances yield the number of individual persons who attended - which cannot be done.

The census forms themselves have been criticised. There were different forms for different denominations. The Church of England form asked for details of income and endowments, the others did not. There was insufficient information on the form to convey all the necessary information and there was confusion in the distinction between total figures for the general congregation and for Sunday scholars. This led to inconsistent results.

As with all large-scale surveys there were problems with incomplete and duplicated returns. Some were actually completed and signed before census day. The return did not ask for details of mid-week services.

Each census form was completed by a different person applying different interpretations and it is quite clear that estimated figures were used in most cases.

The English and Welsh census dealt two shocks to the mid-Victorian psyche: 

  1. half the population (18 million) had stayed at home 
  2. just under a quarter of the population worshipped with the Church of England.

Mann’s pessimistic analysis (‘a sadly formidable portion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion’) was accepted by contemporaries and has coloured much of the historical treatment. But compared with parts of continental Europe the proportion of church-goers was high.

The Index of Attendance reveals distinct regional, denominational and class differences. It is not always easy to correlate the figures with class, as the occupations of churchgoers were not included in the census. The Primitive Methodists had a large working-class following; the Congregationalists and Baptists mainly middle-class. But only the Roman Catholics attracted solid working-class support. The census showed (predictably) that they were strongest in Lancashire.

Too much focus on denomination obscures the fact that many people attended the services of more than one religion. The census returns revealed that in bad weather some people went to the nearest place of worship.

Popular religion

(a) The survival of 'superstition': For many people religion meant something very difficult from the tenets propagated by the clergy, and what might be called semi-pagan beliefs played a powerful part in popular beliefs, especially in rural Britain. Labourers were the chief bearers of superstition, with farm and domestic servants the most superstitious. A parson in North Yorkshire found much local interest in holy wells, magical cures and witchcraft. Villagers might go to the parish church on Sunday mornings and to the Methodists in the afternoon, but then put up a straw doll or a horse shoe over the door. Belief in ghosts appears to have been widespread in rural areas.

(b) rites of passage: Figures for attendance at church provided only part of the picture. Many, who otherwise had no formal contact with the Church of England, used the church for baptism, churching, confirmation, marriage, of burial. These services probably constituted the church’s greatest parochial achievement in the Victorian period.

‘Churching’ was particularly popular among women of all social groups. It was associated with ancient ideas of ‘uncleanness’ and ‘luck’. Some people believed that in the short term the churching ceremony would prevent another conception; in Lambeth it was thought to prevent a future miscarriage.

Confirmation usually took place between the ages of 14 and 19. Confirmations were transformed by the railways, which allowed the bishop to travel round his diocese as never before in Christian history. Energetic bishops like Samuel Wilberforce spent considerable time in travel. Bishops were now able to confirm candidates in smaller numbers, which made the service more reverent. They were generally held in the evenings, because employers often refused to allow time off. Confirmations were accompanied by treats and festivities usually organized by the clergy.

During the 1830s the marriage law was altered in two important statutes:
  1. Lord Lyndhurst’s Marriage Act (1835) prohibiting the marriage between a man and his deceased wife’s sister;
  2. the introduction of civil marriage (1837).
Lyndhurst’s Act remained on the statute book until 1907 and clerical opposition to its repeal was intense. Civil marriage made a greater impression in the towns than the countryside. Most couples continued to be married in the Church of England.

Burial was an increasing problem in mid-nineteenth-century London, as coffins piled up with no space for burial and the bones of the dead were used in the building of new streets. The Public Health Act (1848) and the Cemetery Acts (1852, 1853) led to the closure of some overcrowded churchyards and the opening of new cemeteries at some distance from the centres of population.

In the countryside space was not a problem but the question of a new burial ground was a potential strain on relations with Nonconformists, particularly if they were asked to contribute to its purchase by means of church rate. Until 1880 if there was not a Dissenters’ graveyard in a country parish, Nonconformists were forced to bury their dead according to the Prayer Book. This could lead to skirmishes at the graveside.

Nevertheless, rites of passage put the Church of England in an advantageous position. It was the ‘default’ church of the nation and most turned instinctively to its rituals. But the Nonconformist churches also had their rituals and ways of deepening solidarity. Methodists in particular, appealed to respectable working men. They had class meetings, love feasts, and popular hymns, and allowed for lay leadership in a way impossible within the Church of England. Whereas the Wesleyans (tending to comprise artisans and shopkeepers) were more establishment-minded, the Primitives undermined social deference, creating ‘a religious counter-culture, with its own values, activities, and community’.

Changes in services
Changes came slowly to old-fashioned country parishes and the Victorian novels generally reflect the old ways of worship rather than the new.

(a) Music: In 16th and 17th century worship music played very little part. The only music was the unaccompanied singing of metrical psalms and the congregation left the responses to the clerk. Music began to assume a larger role in worship during the 18th century, with Isaac Watts’s hymns, though these were only sung in Nonconformist churches. In the parish churches, however, musical provision increased with the formation of the village bands in the gallery or the special pew. The normal band consisted of two clarinets, a bassoon, a violoncello, and sometimes a small flute. Puddletown in Dorset had eight players in the west gallery. Thomas Hardy was descended from two generations of church players. At Steepleton church in 1879 the orchestra consisted of a shoemaker who played the bass viol and his mother who sang the air. The bands were sometimes rumbustious and irreverent. Part of the problem was that they were often independent groups who traveled round the country offering their serices to different churches or chapels.

It took time for music in churches to change, and the schoolmasters of the National Society probably did more than the clergy to create choirs. Their colleges, especially St Mark’s, Chelsea, offered a training in music. Starting gradually in the 1840s, choir practices became more common. During the 50s and 60s, if the vicar was a high churchman, the choir was put into the chancel, and then or later clothed in surplices. However, the movement for better music was retarded because many villages were unable to provide an organist; instead they bought a barrel organ with a small repertory of tunes and a tone inferior to that of the clarinets which it replaced.
Congregational worship slowly made its way, and Anglican congregations increasingly imitated the Dissenters in singing hymns. During the 1850s and 1860s over 400 collections were published in England alone. The result was often chaos until the publication of the Anglican Hymns, Ancient and Modern in 1861.

(b) Harvest Festival: In the country a new service took root, the harvest festival. This arose after the starvation year, 1842, when public authority issued a form of thanksgiving for the good harvest. Country parishes celebrated harvests with beer and drunkenness, and the clerical strategy was to divert their parishioners with a church service followed by a dinner of beef and plum pudding and beer.

(3) Appearance: Under the influence of A. W. N. Pugin and the Ecclesiological Society the churches 
A. W. N. Pugin
Public Domain
started to look different. Both favoured the Gothic style and aimed to recreate the atmosphere of medieval churches by emulating their designs. Many chancels were rebuilt (with much destruction of medieval structures). Ecclesiologists recommended that the altar should be raised above the level of the nave by the introduction of chancel steps. They also favoured the separation of the chancel and the nave by laced screens. There was no place now for the old three-decker pulpit and this was generally replaced by a pulpit and lectern on either side of the altar. Churches were also cleaner and more decorous and were unlocked on weekdays. Sermons were more frequent but shorter; clergy increasingly preached their own sermons rather than using those of other people.

Most parish churches of 1830 contained large box pews, lockable and controlled by the pew opener. Private territory for the middle class thus filled the main body of the church and left the poor on benches at the back. But as churches were restored the great eighteenth-century pews gradually disappeared.

Traditional box pews, St Paul's, Birmingham
Public Domain

(d) Anglican Ceremonial: In the early nineteenth century there was very little symbolism or ceremony in Anglican churches. Candles were used solely to provide light. Anglican clergy normally wore white surplices for reading the liturgy and for celebrating communion, and put on black gowns to preach. Even at the end of the century clerical vestments had been introduced in only 10% of churches, and candles on altars in only 25%.

When the Tractarians tried to introduce new rituals it was often in the face of fierce opposition. In 1845 there were ‘surplice riots’ in Exeter during which clergy who wore white surplices rather than black gowns for preaching were pelted with rotten eggs.

(e) The Mothers' Union: Mary Sumner (1828-1921), the daughter-in-law of the bishop of Winchester publicised a meeting for mothers in her husband’s parish in 1876. In 1885 the Mothers’ Union received formal recognition.

Reaching the unchurched

The second half of the nineteenth century saw many attempts to
'General' William Booth
Public Domain
reach the poor, one of the more successful (or less unsuccessful?) being the Salvation Army, founded in 1865 by William Booth, a former Methodist minister, and his no less formidable wife, Catherine. The main goals of his organisation were street preaching, personal evangelism and practical philanthropy. Catherine became a powerful preacher in her own right. His book In Darkest England advocated overseas colonies as the ultimate solution to Britain's acute social problems.

Booth's remedy for social problems: the
farm colony and emigration.
Cornell University

Sunday schools and ragged schools were another way of reaching the working classes. Millions of children attended Sunday schools, with the 1890s being the peak decade of attendance.


  1. Though Victorian intellectuals agonised over religious doubt, the period is now seen as the last great age of faith in Britain. ‘Measured in terms of active membership of worshipping bodies, the British people constituted a rather more religious society in the Edwardian period than they had done a century before.’ José Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914 (1994)
  2. The changes brought about by industrialisation and the growth of the working classes brought new challenges to the churches, and they all tried to respond to the new situation. 
  3. The period saw major changes in church practices and architecture.

No comments:

Post a Comment