The so-called Blagdon controversy was a pre-emptive strike by some high churchmen against the growing evangelical movement, represented by the writer and philanthropist Hannah More (1745-1833) and her friends in the Clapham sect. For this reason it is a significant moment in the history of the late Georgian Church of England.
In October 1789, partly at the instigation of William Wilberforce, Hannah More and her sister Martha (Patty) (1750-1819) founded a Sunday school at Cheddar near her home at Wrington in Somerset. Other Sunday schools, adult schools and women's friendly societies soon followed. Sunday schools were a newly fashionable form of philanthropy for both anglicans and dissenters. The inter-denominational Sunday School Society had been set up in 1785, and by 1789 41,000 pupils were attending its schools. Women were prominent in the venture from the start, and Sarah Trimmer's school in Brentford received the accolade of a visit from Queen Charlotte. In spite of this royal support, Sunday schools were controversial institutions. Critics believed that, by teaching reading, they gave the poor ideas above their station and unfitted them for their lowly occupations. However, their defenders, who included Hannah More's friend, Beilby Porteus, bishop of London (1731-1809), argued that the schools would produce a generation instructed in both the christian religion and the necessity of political obedience, and until the loyalist panic of the late 1790s, his arguments were steadily gaining ground.
In sounding out a local parish about the possibility of setting up a school, More had first to find a suitable building. As will be shown, where the local farmers were hostile, this could cause her great difficulty. The school in Cheddar, housed in an unused ox-house, which she rented for six and a half guineas a year, was typical of the type of accommodation provided in the early days. The curriculum was worked out by trial and error. The More sisters taught selected passages from the Bible and the Prayer Book, and also used books provided by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. In addition they wrote their own Questions and answers for the Mendip and Sunday schools,which were more explicitly evangelical than the official anglican catechism.
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