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God and the Great Reform Act: Preaching against Reform, 1831–32

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 April 2014


The struggle for the “Great” Reform Act was one of the most serious crises of the nineteenth century, stirring controversy not only in Parliament and the political unions but in churches and chapels across the country. For many of its supporters, reform was a holy cause; for its opponents, it was a “Satanic” measure. This article seeks to reestablish reform as a religious controversy, paying special attention to the religious press and to the hundreds of sermons preached by the Anglican clergy. Anglicans mobilized an array of scriptural authorities against the reform bill, contributing directly to the rising temperature of debate. This was a “Constitution in Church and State,” and the church possessed both an authority and an audience that few institutions could match. Restoring it to the center of debate helps us to understand what was at stake in the reform bill and why it aroused such bitter passions.

Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies 2014 

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38 “The Recent Political Crisis,” Monthly Repository 6, no. 66 (June 1832): 397. St. John of Patmos saw the apocalyptic visions of the book of Revelation.

39 Maltby voted for the second reading of the Reform Bill on 7 October 1831, while Bathurst gave his proxy to a reformer. Blomfield was absent in October but spoke in favor of reform on 11 April 1832. The following bishops voted for the second reading of the amended bill on 13 April 1832: George Law (Bath and Wells), John Sumner (Chester), Maltby (Chichester), Henry Ryder (Lichfield and Coventry), John Kaye (Lincoln), Edward Copleston (Llandaff), Blomfield (London), Robert Carr (Worcester), and Edward Venables-Vernon-Harcourt (archbishop of York). Edmund Knox (Killaloe), Bathurst (Norwich), and John Jenkinson (St. David's) gave their proxies to reformers.

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75 Russell, for example, thought man a “creature of passion and of imagination,” capable of unbounded “rapacity and ambition.” But, in his view, this made reform more urgent in order to restore the disciplinary authority of government. Parry, Jonathan, The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain (New Haven, 1993), 134Google Scholar.

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102 Feilden, Sin, the Cause of Suffering, 21.

103 Quoted in D'Arblay, Apostolic Gift of Tongues.

104 Quoted in Zangerl, “Social Composition,” 113. Socinians denied the Trinity and, in some cases, the divinity of Christ; but the term more commonly served as a shorthand for theological heterodoxy.

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114 Quoted in Clark, English Society, 559.

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