Religion and Society in England 1850-1914

Religion and Society in England 1850-1914 / Religion in the Age of Decline: Organisation and Experience in Industrial Yorkshire, 1870-1920

Mullin, Robert Bruce

Religion and Society in England 1850-1914. By Hugh McLeod. Social History in Perspective. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. viii + 267 pp. $18.95 (paper).

Religion in the Age of Decline: Organisation and Experience in Industrial Yorkshire, 1870-1920. By S. J. D. Green. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. xv + 426 pp. $69.95 (cloth).

One of the long standing chestnuts in the popular historical imagination is the Victorian crisis of faith, and the resulting triumph of a secularized English society. The alleged causes were urbanization, industrialization, and the advance of new forms of knowledge, and the assumed period of this change was the end of the nineteenth century. This account is peopled by persons like Leslie Stephen and T. H. Huxley. But over the last two decades scholars have increasingly challenged the dating, the causes, and even the reality of this phenomenon. These two volumes are reflective of this new scholarly thrust.

These volumes share much in common. Both steer clear of the standard pictures of intellectual and ecclesiastical historians and argue for a picture of religious life from the bottom up, focusing upon everyday laypersons and not simply clerics and intellectuals. Their focus is on the religious life and culture of the late nineteenth century, with its Sunday schools, mutual aid societies, and still-distinguishable Sabbath observances. Both also set forth a picture of English society still strongly marked by Christian influences. These, they note, were not always for the most elevated of motives. Each writer, for example, takes delight in recounting that the popularity of Sunday afternoon Sunday schools in large part rested upon the fact that this time allowed for parents to have their conjugal relations undisturbed!

But they are different books with different agendas. McLeod’s volume is a broad synthetic survey resting on a surfeit of secondary literature and a number of oral history projects that attempted to record lay religious practices and beliefs in late nineteenth century Britain. His work centers on three interrelated questions: 1) the class make-up of the Victorian religious boom, 2) whether Victorian religion was an agent of social control or a force for reform and social criticism, and 3) why this religious boom came to an end. The picture he draws is a mixed one. Tie argues that although religious affiliation did increase as one’s social position advanced, a large percentage of working class persons were at least tangentially connected with religious communities and that family hymn singing and other Sunday rituals continued to be popular. Regarding his final question, McLeod argues that although a high degree of religious consensus did decline between 1850 and 1914 it had not yet completely broken down. To explain the decline he appeals to the principle of “privatization” rather than secularization. Bv the early twentieth century the rise of the Labour Part, had shifted British political life from a significantly religious axis (Anglican Tories versus Non-Conformist Liberals) to an economic axis. Furthermore, for a variety of reasons, urban and rural elites were far less conscientious in keeping up religious observances, and he suggests this had a domino effect in both curtailing financial resources and limiting candidates for the ministry.

Green’s study (which is “loosely based” on his Oxford D. Phil. Thesis) is a more restricted, but in some ways a more pointed work. He focuses upon church life in three industrial towns in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His study is also more sociological in nature, and his use of technical terms is at times off-putting, but like McLeod he looks at religious life during these years. As he notes in 1870, there was a recognition that “all was not well with God’s work, but all was not lost either” (p. 21). In his account of how the differing denominations responded to this challenge he has an insightful account of the great Victorian boom in church building, as well as the question of church finances. His conclusion, however, was despite these labors by 1920 there was a collapse of the Victorian ideal of a unified Christian society.

These are works of general history-Green’s including a wide variety of denominations, and McLeod’s including Jews and secularists to boot. As such, they are at times frustrating to the student of Anglicanism. Specialists in late Victorian Anglican theology will perhaps balk at some of the easy generalizations McLeod offers in his chapter “The Religious Crisis”. Likewise many might argue for a more sympathetic picture of the Ritualists than the one offered by Green. But taken together the works provide a healthy tonic to denominational parochialism.

There is however an interesting methodological difference bet veen these two volumes on the question of the importance of church attendance in determining the religious nature of a society. McLeod seems to follow the trend of the new social historians and to downplay church attendance as a criterion for gauging religiosity. Green is not so sure. Indeed in his Conclusion, reflecting upon the continuing dechristianization of twentieth-century England, he argues for an interconnection between declining church attendance and the loss of a Christian culture. His thought-provoking words demand quotation: “Conventional wisdom and common sense suggest that people stopped going to church because they no longer believed what the churches taught. Perhaps the causal mechanism was really closer to the opposite: they stopped believing because they stopped going” (pp. 389-390).

Both of these books should be read both by church historians and church leaders.


North Carolina State University Raleigh, North Carolina

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Winter 1998

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved