The use by British crowds of victorious admirals to articulate patriotic and libertarian ideas during the wars of the long eighteenth century is well known. But conflict also posed awkward questions about masculinity and issues surrounding it. Was military prowess compatible with politeness, with religiosity? During the 1790s, the fight to the death with revolutionary France made such questions hard to ignore, being compounded by the fact that Britain's most celebrated leader – Nelson – was not a paragon of virtue. This article shows how evangelicals sought to resolve these tensions by advancing a different set of ideals founded on piety and professionalism: by finding heroes of their own. This has crucial consequences for our understanding of how they and the ideas they championed became so prominent in late Hanoverian public life. In contradistinction to recent work suggesting that they exploited causes that were already popular – moral reform, antislavery – this article shows how they advanced a powerful providential narrative in which Christian heroes and godly policy were what made Britain great, a narrative whose veracity was ‘proven’ by wartime successes, especially in the navy, and which would remain highly influential well into the nineteenth century.
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