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From Religion to Revolution: Theologies of Secularisation in the British Student Christian Movement, 1963–1973

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2015

Lincoln College, Oxford E-mail:


The collapse of the British Student Christian Movement in the long 1960s is conventionally ascribed to its mimicking of student radicalism at a time of increasing secularisation. Yet analysis of the SCM's rhetoric demonstrates that in the early 1960s the movement imagined a religious crisis when student Christianity was still strong. By embracing a theological vision of ‘secularisation’, which demanded the deliberate transposition of Christian eschatologies into secular form, the SCM embarked on an early, original and influential journey into political radicalism. In this way, the SCM made a significant contribution to British student radicalism in the late 1960s.

Research Article
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1 For overviews see Boyd, Kenneth, The witness of the Student Christian Movement, London 2007, 99103Google Scholar, and McLeod, Hugh, The religious crisis of the 1960s, Oxford 2007, 211–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 General Council minutes, 14–18 Sept. 1964, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, Special Collections, SCM papers (hereinafter cited as SCM), M70, para. 9753ff.; ‘The political stance of the SCM’, SCM, A386, points 5–6.

3 Boyd, Witness of the SCM, 117–19.

4 See the remarks on ordinands in ‘Hot and bothered: the rise of evangelicalism is shaking up the established Church’, The Economist, 10 Mar. 2012, and McLeod, Religious crisis, 207–12.

5 See McLeod, Religious crisis, 212.

6 Steve Bruce, Firm in the faith, Aldershot 1984, 91.

7 Preston, Ronald, ‘The collapse of the SCM’, Theology lxxxix (1986), 431–40 at pp. 435–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 Carmichael, E. D. H., ‘The collapse of the SCM’, Theology xc (1987), 126–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Boyd, Witness of the SCM, 184.

9 The central example is Hoefferle, Caroline, British student activism in the long sixties, New York 2013Google Scholar. Minor examples, since confessedly partial treatments, include Fowler, David, Youth culture in modern Britain, c.1920–c.1970, Basingstoke 2008, 144–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ellis, Sylvia, ‘A demonstration of British good sense? British student protest during the Vietnam war’, in de Groot, Gerard (ed.), Student protest: the sixties and after, London 1998, 5469Google Scholar; and Thomas, Nick, ‘Challenging the myths of the sixties: the case of student protest in Britain’, Twentieth Century British History xiii (2002), 277–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Lin Chun acknowledges the existence of ‘revolutionary Christian thought’, but does not explore its role: The British New Left, Edinburgh 1993, p. xiii.

10 Brewitt-Taylor, Sam, ‘The invention of a “secular society”? Christianity and the sudden appearance of secularisation discourses in the British national media, 1961–64’, Twentieth Century British History xxiv (2013), 327–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. p. 331.

11 For the necessity of a hermeneutic of suspicion regarding master narratives of secularisation see Martin, David, On secularization: towards a revised general theory, Aldershot 2005, 126–8Google Scholar.

12 Annual report, 1964–5, SCM, B1, 17. (Italic in the original.)

13 McLeod, Religious crisis, 38.

14 Hoefferle, Student activism, 53, 68–9, 205.

15 Ibid. 70–1, 107.


16 Annual report, 1962–3, SCM, B1, 9; Edwards, David, Movements into tomorrow: a sketch of the British SCM, London 1960, 50Google Scholar. The figures given in McLeod, Religious crisis, 211, exclude training colleges.

17 MacLeod, George, ‘The defence estimates’, House of Lords Debates, cccxxxix. 828, 1 Mar. 1973Google Scholar.

18 Thomas, ‘Student protest’, 283.

19 Boyd, Witness of the SCM, 97, 169.

20 See Carmichael, ‘Collapse of the SCM’, 127.

21 ‘SCM may lose charity status’, The Guardian, 2 Aug. 1972, 8.

22 Fowler, Youth culture, 162.

23 Hoefferle, Student activism, 106.

24 Letter to members of the Haslemere Group, 30 Apr. 1969, SCM, B1.

25 Crosstalk, 10 Apr. 1969, SCM, A402, 1.

26 Fred Halliday, ‘Dialectics of Christmas’, Black Dwarf (Christmas 1969), 2.

27 David Martin, Tracts against the times, Guildford 1973, 9, 64, 174.

28 Green, Simon, The passing of Protestant England: secularisation and social change, c. 1920–1960, Cambridge 2010, 56CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Brewitt-Taylor, ‘Secular society?’, 334–5.

30 Brown, Callum, The death of Christian Britain: understanding secularization, 1800–2000, London 2009, 188Google Scholar.

31 Martin, David, A sociology of English religion, London 1965, 43Google ScholarPubMed.

32 Cf. David Goodhew, ‘The rise of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, 1910–1971’, this Journal liv (2003), 62–88 at p. 63; McLeod, Religious crisis, 37–8; and Black, Paul, ‘The religious scene: belief and practice in the universities’, Dublin Review cdlxxxiv (1960), 105–25 at pp. 111–13Google Scholar.

33 Mackie, Steven, A survey of Christianity in the universities, London 1962, 3940Google Scholar.

34 Brothers, Joan, ‘Religion in the universities: the findings of some recent surveys’, Archives des sciences sociales des religions xviii (1964), 7182 at pp. 73–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McLeod, Religious crisis, 38.

35 Brothers, ‘Religion in the universities’, 77, 72, 80.

36 This is calculated from data in Mackie, Survey of Christianity, 37–8, 17.

37 Annual report, 1962–3, SCM, B1, 9.

38 ‘VIPs – and satire – add spice to congress’, The Guardian, 2 Jan. 1963, 4.

39 Mackie, Survey of Christianity, 26.


41 College reports, 1960–1, SCM, C57.

42 Mackie, Survey of Christianity, 26.

43 Author's calculations based on data collected from college reports, 1960–1, SCM, C57.


45 Annual report, 1949–50, SCM, B1, 10.

46 Mackie, Survey of Christianity, 14, 28; cf. Preston, ‘Collapse of the SCM’, 433–5.

47 Pace, for example, the wider approach taken in Davie, Grace, Believing without belonging: religion in Britain since 1945, Oxford 1994, 33–4Google Scholar.

48 Peart-Binns, John, Ambrose Reeves, London 1973, 274Google Scholar.

49 General Council minutes, 16 June 1962, SCM, A300b, para. 9519ff.

50 Memorandum sent by Ambrose Reeves shortly after the April 1963 General Council meeting, ibid.


51 ‘SCM wants more non-Christians to be members’, Church Times, 11 Apr. 1963, 1.

52 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and papers from prison, trans. Reginald Fuller, London 1953.

53 Edwards, David, ‘Radicalism for Christians’, New Society, 30 May 1963, 68Google ScholarPubMed; John Robinson, Honest to God, London 1963, 36.

54 Bonhoeffer, Letters, 30 Apr., 16 July 1944, pp. 22, 162–4. It should be noted that this 1960s understanding of Bonhoeffer is controversial: Floyd, Wayne, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’, in Ford, David (ed.), The modern theologians: an introduction to Christian theology since 1918, Oxford 2005, 4361 at p. 43Google Scholar.

55 See Robinson, John, The new reformation?, London 1965, 52Google Scholar.

56 Bonhoeffer, Letters, 30 Apr. 1944, pp. 122–3; (‘Outline for a book’), p. 180.

57 West, Charles, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer the theologian’, Student Movement lvi (1954), 27–9Google Scholar.

58 Adler, Elizabeth, ‘Secularisation’, The Student World lvi (1963), 13 at p. 1Google Scholar.

59 ‘A brave new world’, Student Movement (Winter 1960), 4–5.

60 Bliss, Kathleen, ‘The Christian message to men without religion’, The Student World liv (1961), 111–25 at pp. 117–18Google Scholar.

61 General Council minutes, 16 June 1962, SCM, A300b, para. 9519ff.

62 Programme secretary's report on 1963 Bristol congress, SCM, A355.

63 ‘Meeting world on own terms’, The Guardian, 5 Jan. 1963, 3.

64 Brewitt-Taylor, ‘Invention of a “secular society”?’, 338–41.

65 Bliss, ‘Men without religion’, 117.

66 Student Movement (Winter 1960), 2.

67 Ambrose Reeves to General Council, Feb. 1963, SCM, A300b.


69 Reeves to Irish secretary, 31 Oct. 1962, SCM, A362.

70 General Council minutes, 14–18 Sept. 1964, SCM, M70, para. 9753.

71 Ibid. para. 9727ff.


72 Ibid. para. 9753.


73 Ibid. para. 9755.


74 See the mid-1960s assessments summarised in Martin, Sociology of English religion, 128–9.

75 Hoefferle, Student activism, 53.

76 For a first-hand account see David Martin, The education of David Martin, London 1963, 146ff.

77 Hoefferle, Student activism, 58.

78 Lippiatt, Graham, ‘Red guard versus old guard? The influence of the Young Liberal movement on the Liberal Party in the 1960s and 1970s’, Journal of Liberal History lxviii (2010), 3740 at p. 38Google Scholar.

79 Hoefferle, Student activism, 58, 68, 153.

80 Half-yearly report on London, Dec. 1963, SCM, A344.

81 Reeves to branch presidents, 24 Sept. 1964, SCM, A327.

82 Boyd, Witness of the SCM, 101.

83 David Head, ‘A question of SCM’, unpubl. paper, 1968, SCM, A377.

84 Bristol term cards, SCM, A360.

85 Charles Taylor, A secular age, London 2007, 476.

86 Bristol half-yearly report, Dec. 1963; Cambridge half-yearly report, Dec. 1963, SCM, A344.

87 Irish secretary to Reeves, 26 Oct. 1962, SCM, A363.

88 Midlands annual report, May 1966, SCM, A344, 2.

89 Annual college reports, SCM, C57, C65. Most SCM branches ceased collecting membership lists after the introduction of the ‘openness policy’, and so average meeting attendance became the de facto measure of branch size. These are used here as the 1966 figures. Even taking this into account, the declines are still very large for such a short period of time.

90 Calculated from college reports, 1966–7, SCM, C65.

91 London half-yearly report, Dec. 1965, SCM, A344.

92 Edinburgh half-yearly report, May 1966, ibid.


93 See, for example, Goodhew, ‘Rise of the CICCU’, 83. The number of IVF travelling secretaries nearly doubled between 1968 and 1978: Douglas Johnson, Contending for the faith: a history of the Evangelical movement in the universities and colleges, Leicester 1979, 338.

94 Report on the Manchester field, 11 Dec. 1964, SCM, A344.

95 Carmichael, ‘Collapse of the SCM’, 127.

96 Liverpool report, Sept.–Dec. 1963, SCM, A344.

97 Reeves to branch presidents, 24 Sept. 1964, SCM, A327.

98 College reports, 1966–7, questionnaire sent out by Durham SCM, SCM, C65,7.

99 Sheila Rowbotham, Promise of a dream, New York 2001, esp. pp. 145, 160–2, 177, 202.

100 Marwick, Arthur, The sixties: cultural revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c. 1958–c.1974, Oxford 1998, 640Google Scholar.

101 Figures calculated from annual report, 1962–3, SCM, B1, 9.

102 Emergency letter from General Council, Sept. 1965, SCM, A357; handwritten abstract of SCM financial results.

103 SCM income and expenditure account, 1 June 1964–31 May 1965, ibid.


104 National appeal survey; letter to Ambrose Reeves, 5 Apr. 1965, ibid.


105 Barclay, Oliver, Evangelicalism in Britain, 1935–1995, Leicester 1997, 91Google Scholar.

106 Report of ‘finance and purpose’ committee appointed, Feb. 1965, SCM, A327.

107 Boyd, Witness of the SCM, 101.

108 ‘Political stance of the SCM’, SCM, A386, point 6.

109 Lehtonen, Risto, Story of a storm: the ecumenical student movement in the turmoil of revolution, Grand Rapids 1998, 169Google Scholar.

110 Cf. David Martin, The religious and the secular, London 1969, 24ff.

111 Breakthrough (Autumn 1964), front cover; Rev. xxi. 1.

112 Boyd, Witness of the SCM, 113.

113 Laurence Bright, ‘Humanism’, Breakthrough (May 1966), 7.

114 Transcript of conference sermon, 13 Apr. 1969, SCM, A402.

115 Whyte, B., ‘The necessity for a socialist revolution’, in Stirling, Salters (ed.), Reflections on student protest, London 1969, 4959 at p. 59Google Scholar.

116 Conway, Martin, The undivided vision: students explore a worldly Christianity, London 1966, 49Google Scholar.

117 David Head, ‘The SCM and politics’, unpubl. paper, Dec. 1970, SCM, A387; cf. Rev. xxii. 2.

118 Annual report, 1975–6, SCM, B1, front cover.

119 ‘Revolution’, Breakthrough (Autumn 1964), 19–21 at p. 21.

120 David Head, ‘Openness’, Breakthrough (May 1966), 17–19.

121 Boyd, Witness of the SCM, 113.

122 Cambridge annual report, 1965–6, SCM, A360.

123 David Head, ‘SCM policy and staffing’, Feb. 1969, SCM, A387.

124 Chun, British New Left, 87–8; Marwick, Cultural revolution, 632.

125 Thomas, ‘Student protest’, 296.

126 Hoefferle, Student activism, 74ff., 83ff., 135ff.

127 Ibid. 104.


128 Tariq Ali, ‘For a revolutionary journal …’, Black Dwarf, 1 June 1969, 2; cf. Hoefferle, Student activism, 98–9.

129 See, for examples, Burns, Arthur, ‘Beyond the “red vicar”: community and Christian socialism in Thaxted, 1910–84’, History Workshop Journal lxxv (2013), 101–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Kenneth Leech, ‘Has rebellion a theology?’, Prism (Nov. 1962), 22–8.

130 ‘The Gospel of revolution’, New Christian, 12 Dec. 1968, 1; John Robinson, ‘Not radical enough?’, in John Robinson, Christian freedom in a permissive society, London 1970, 232–40 at p. 239. For the 1959 example see Robinson, John, On being Church in the world, Harmondsworth 1969, 1329Google Scholar, esp. pp. 19–21.

131 Lehtonen, Story of a storm, 67, 72–3, 106.

132 Annual report, 1967–8, SCM, B1, 2.

133 ‘Hopes and expectations for the Berlin consultation’, 29 Oct. 1968, SCM, A386.

134 SCM in Cambridge, ‘The theology of revolution: followup’, SCM, A360.

135 ‘Political stance of the SCM’, ibid. point 2.


136 SCM in Cambridge, Newsletter, no. 1, Michaelmas 1969, ibid.


137 Berrigan, Daniel, ‘The mark of the beast’, and Viv Broughton, ‘Preface’, in Kee, Alistair (ed.), Seeds of liberation: spiritual dimensions to political struggle, London 1973, 715Google Scholar at pp. 9–10, pp. vii–viii at p. viii.

138 Taylor, Secular age, 475–6.

139 SCM in Cambridge, annual report, 1968–9, SCM, A360.

140 SCM in Cambridge, financial statement, 1968–9, and treasurer's report, 1967–8, ibid.


141 ‘Aide-memoire on the first meeting … held at the Ivanhoe Hotel, London, 10 June 1966’, SCM, A377, 8; Edwards, David, The futures of Christianity, London 1987, 416Google Scholar.

142 College reports, 1967–8, SCM, C65.

143 SCM branches in the south and west, 6 Oct. 1970, SCM, A407.

144 ‘SCM policy and staffing’, distributed by David Head, Feb. 1969, SCM, A387, 3, pace Bruce, Firm in the faith, 91.

145 Cambridge SCM newsletter, Easter term 1969, SCM, A360.

146 Cf. Rowbotham, Promise of a dream, 231.

147 ‘Springboks facing chaos’, The Guardian, 11 Sept. 1969, 11; David Head, ‘Springboks rugby tour’, Church Times, 28 Nov. 1969, 12. For the response see ‘Springboks & students’, Church Times, 5 Dec. 1969, 14.

148 ‘SCM may lose charity status’, The Guardian, 2 Aug. 1972, 8.

149 Steve Bruce, ‘The Student Christian Movement and the Inter-Varsity Fellowship: a sociological study of the two student movements’, unpubl. PhD diss. Stirling 1980, 320–2:, accessed 23 Jan. 2014.

150 Bruce, Firm in the faith, 77; Boyd, Witness of the SCM, 114.

151 Hoefferle, Student activism, 99.

152 For a popular overview see Sandbrook, Dominic, Seasons in the sun: the battle for Britain, 1974–1979, London 2011Google Scholar, 88.

153 ‘The first fourteen months: Wick Court’, SCM, A432.

154 Cf. Sandbrook, Dominic, State of emergency: the way we were: Britain, 1970–1974, London 2010, 182–4Google Scholar, 177–9.

155 Annual report, 1975–6, SCM, B1, 4.

156 Boyd, Witness of the SCM, 119; Bruce, ‘SCM and IVF’, 334–7.

157 SCM website, ‘Our vision and values’:, accessed 23 Jan. 2014.

158 Boyd, Witness of the SCM, 133.

159 Ibid. ‘Faith in action project’:, accessed 31 Jan. 2014.


160 Boyd, Witness of the SCM, 134.

161 Cf. Rev. xxi. 22.

162 Bruce, Firm in the faith, 78.

163 Pace Brown, Death of Christian Britain, 176.

164 This question remains largely unexplored in the British case, although see Holger Nehring, ‘“The long, long night is over”: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, “generation”, and the politics of religion (1957–1964)’, in Jane Garnett and others, Redefining Christian Britain: post-1945 perspectives, London 2007, 138–47 at pp. 139–40. For American examples see Chappell, David, Stone of hope: prophetic religion and the death of Jim Crow, London 2004CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Rossinow, Doug, The politics of authenticity: liberalism, Christianity and the New Left in America, New York 1998Google Scholar.

165 Cf. Martin, On secularization, 174.

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