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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 April 2014

Abstract

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.

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Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies 2014 

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30 Whitehead, W. B., The Dangers of the Church, as Connected with the Prevalence of an Excessive Spirit of Reform: A Sermon, Preached in the Parish Church of Crewkerne, Somerset, on Wednesday, May 25, 1831, at the Triennial Visitation of the Right Hon. the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells (Bath, 1831), 7Google Scholar. See Bebbington, David, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, 1989), 79CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the view that “Satan is here at work, to shake the confidence of undiscriminating minds in the truth of Christianity,” see “Christian Retrospect,” Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine 10 (November 1831): 791; Greenwood, T., The Latest Heresy; or, Modern Pretensions to the Miraculous Gifts of Healing and of Tongues, Condemned by Reason and Scripture (London, 1832)Google Scholar. D'Arblay, Apostolic Gift of Tongues, 10, blamed the “spirit of innovation”: “like the Athenians of old, men are always panting for something new.”

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33 Prorogation of Parliament: Second Address of the Council of the Birmingham Political Union. Birmingham, October 21, 1831 (Birmingham, 1831). For “God is our Guide,” see The Times, 9 May 1832. For religion and the Birmingham Political Union, see Lyon, Elizabeth Groth, Politicians in the Pulpit: Christian Radicalism in Britain from the Fall of the Bastille to the Disintegration of Chartism (Aldershot, 1999), 81124Google Scholar. See also Yeo, E., “Christianity in Chartist Struggle,” in The People's Charter: Democratic Agitation in Early Victorian Britain, ed. Roberts, Stephen (London, 2003), 6493Google Scholar; Fraser, W. Hamish, Chartism in Scotland (London, 2010), 8294Google Scholar.

34 [Unknown artist] “A Memento of the Great Public Question of Reform” (1832), National Portrait Gallery, London, D10854; Benjamin Robert Haydon, “The Meeting of the Unions on Newhall Hill, Birmingham, 16 May 1832,” Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1937P370.

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37 LoPatin, Political Unions, 12; Pentland, Radicalism, Reform and National Identity, 114, 141–43.

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.

40 Blomfield, 11 April 1832, Parliamentary Debates, 3rd ser., vol. 12 (1832), cols. 267–71.

41 “View of Public Affairs,” Christian Observer 31, no. 4 (April 1831): 244–45; “View of Public Affairs,” Christian Observer 31, no. 6 (June 1831): 384.

42 Record, 3 March 1831.

43 For Blandford, see Fisher, House of Commons, 7:237–41.

44 “Parliamentary Reform,” Fraser's Magazine 3, no. 15 (April 1831): 275.

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48 Gibson, Church, State and Society, 106. David Robinson, “The Ministry's Plan of Reform,” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 29, no. 180 (May 1831): 798–99. The 1829 Franchise Act had reduced the county electorate in Ireland by 82 percent and the borough electorate by 90 percent. S. Farrell, “Ireland,” in Fisher, House of Commons, 1:171.

49 Anon, Remarks on the Anti-Protestant and Democratic Tendency of the Reform Bill (Bristol, 1831), 2022Google Scholar. Gascoyne's amendment, protesting against the reduction of seats in England, is invariably described as a pretext for the bill's defeat. Yet it was treated by evangelical journals as a crucial safeguard for “the preservation of religious and civil liberty.” “Register of Events,” Christian Guardian (May 1831): 199.

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51 Baptist Magazine (April 1831): 154–55; Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine (July 1831): 526, 529. For Methodist constitutional conservatism, see Clark, English Society, 284–300.

52 “Strictures on Some Political Allusions at Recent Anniversary Meetings,” by “ALPHA,” Congregational Magazine 8, no. 7 (July 1831): 405–08; “A Defence of the Political Conduct of Dissenters,” by “BETA,” Congregational Magazine 8, no. 9 (September 1831): 531–34; see also “Ought a Christian to be a Politician?” by “A.Z.,” Congregational Magazine 9, no. 7 (July 1832): 421–24.

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54 LoPatin, Political Unions, 58–61.

55 Record, 5 October 1831.

56 11 April 1832, Parliamentary Debates, 3rd ser., vol. 12 (1832), col. 282.

57 26 July 1832, Parliamentary Debates, 3rd ser., vol. 14 (1832), cols. 761–62.

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59 Marsh, Herbert, A Charge, Delivered to the Clergy of the Diocese of Peterborough, in July, 1831 (London, 1831), 7Google Scholar. Marsh, who translated German biblical criticism, studied the Koran, supported Baptist missionary work, and promoted Welsh-speaking clergy, illustrates Arthur Burns's insistence that critics of reform were not necessarily reactionaries. A. Burns, “English ‘Church Reform’ Revisited, 1780–1840,” in Burns and Innes, Rethinking the Age of Reform, 136–57; R. K. Forrest, “Marsh, Herbert (1757–1839),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

60 Addison, Joseph, The Sure Fruits of Genuine Christianity, displayed in Two Sermons, Applicable to the Present Times, preached in St Mary's Church, Melcombe-Regis, on the 12th and 19th of February, 1832 (Weymouth, 1832), 1011Google Scholar.

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62 Quoted in Berens, The Christian's Duty, 10.

63 Thomas Macaulay, 2 March 1831, Parliamentary Debates, 3rd ser., vol. 2 (1830–31), col. 1204. See also Francis Jeffrey, 4 March 1831, Parliamentary Debates, 3rd ser., vol. 3 (1831), col. 77.

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67 Record, 31 March 1831 and 7 October 1831.

68 Record, 31 March 1831.

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73 Berens, The Christian's Duty, 12.

74 Preston, Dignity and Use, 4, 15.

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.

76 Preston, Dignity and Use, 5, 15.

77 For example: Ephesians 6:5; 1 Peter 2:18; Hebrews 13:17; Proverbs 24:21; and Romans 13:1–2.

78 Addison, The Sure Fruits, 39. The reference is presumably to Matthew 17:24–27.

79 Record, 10 November 1831 and 9 January 1832.

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88 Champnes, Awful Signs of the Times, 17.

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92 Pretyman, Richard, Precentor of Lincoln, A Sermon Preached in the Cathedral Church of Lincoln (London, 1832), 56Google Scholar, 8, 10. Whitehead, Dangers of the Church, 10. Pretyman's father was the former bishop of Winchester and High Church theologian Sir George Pretyman Tomline.

93 Sir Charles Wetherell, 6 July 1831, Parliamentary Debates, 3rd ser., vol. 4 (1831), col. 865.

94 “Sermons on Various Subjects and Occasions,” British Critic 11, no. 22 (April 1832): 447.

95 Hutton, “This Day Is a Day of Trouble,” 10. See also Berens, Christian's Duty in Turbulent Times, 8; Anon, A Plain Sermon on the Presence of God's Judgements in the Land (London, 1831), 14Google Scholar; Irons, Jehovah's Controversy, 9.

96 Thompson, Henry, A Word to the Labouring Classes on the Tumults at Bristol (London, 1831), 5Google Scholar.

97 For an iconic representation, see William James Müller's 1831 canvas, “The Burning of the Bishop's Palace,” Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, M4122.

98 J. Eagles, “The Art of Government Made Easy: A Discovery of the Only True Principle, in a Letter from Satan to the Whigs,” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 31, no. 193 (April 1832): 665–72.

99 “Satan—Reformer,” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 31, no. 193 (April 1832): 597.

100 Thompson, A Word, 10–11.

101 Hutton, “This Day Is a Day of Trouble, 3–5; Cattermole, Moral Causes, 28.

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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106 Seeley, R. B., Essays on the Church, by a Layman (London, 1834), 255Google Scholar.

107 “View of Public Affairs,” Christian Observer 31, no. 12 (December 1831): 773; “Preface,” Christian Observer 32 (1832): iv.

108 Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle 10 (July 1832): 308–09.

109 “The Reform Ministry and the Reformed Parliament,” British Critic 14, no. 28 (October 1833): 451–54.

110 See Cragoe, M., “The Great Reform Act and the Modernization of British Politics: The Impact of Conservative Associations, 1835–1841,” Journal of British Studies 47, no. 3 (July 2008): 581603CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Newbould, I., “Sir Robert Peel and the Conservative Party, 1832–1841: A Study in Failure?English Historical Review 98, no. 3 (July 1983): 552–54Google Scholar. 149 A total of Conservatives voted against the third reading of the Maynooth bill, 148 in favor.

111 Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event, 2nd ed. (London, 1790), 146Google Scholar.

112 See in particular Keble, John, National Apostasy Considered in a Sermon, Preached at St Mary's, Oxford, on July 14, 1833 (London, 1833)Google Scholar.

113 Nockles, Oxford Movement.

114 Quoted in Clark, English Society, 559.

115 Frank Turner, in his brilliant study of Newman, identifies evangelicalism, not liberalism, as “the Tractarian enemy.” Turner, John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion (New Haven, 2002), 23Google Scholar. The relative importance of these foes to Newman lies beyond the scope of this article, but Tractarianism was a diverse movement whose views were not reducible to those of Newman. For the links between evangelicalism and early Tractarianism, see Herring, G., What Was the Oxford Movement? (London, 2002)Google Scholar.

116 Clark, English Society, 514, 548.

117 For example, Close, Francis, The Chartists' Visit to the Parish Church: A Sermon (London, 1839)Google Scholar and The Female Chartists' Visit to the Parish Church: A Sermon (London, 1839)Google Scholar.

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