The civil wars and constitutional dislocations of the mid-seventeenth century exercised an enduring influence over British politics and religion from which neither John Wesley nor his progenitors were exempt. Wesley's great grandfather (Bartholomew Westley) and grandfather (John Westley) were victims of the great ejection of nonconforming clergy in 1662; his father Samuel was an ex-Dissenter turned “high church” Anglican priest; and his mother Susanna, the daughter of an eminent Dissenting minister, also turned tables when she became a “high church” Anglican with thinly disguised Jacobite sympathies. Although both of John Wesley's parents were high church Tories, they fell out over William, Prince of Orange's legitimacy as king, which his father accepted and his mother rejected. The seriousness of their disagreement, which was anything but a mere marital spat, indicates how profoundly divided Anglicans were over their increasingly incompatible devotion to divine right monarchy on the one hand and their hostility to Roman Catholicism on the other. The Catholicism of the later Stuart monarchs forced Anglicans to make a most unwelcome choice, which could bifurcate consciences, friends, and families. In this way, the vicissitudes of the Stuart dynasty played out in family squabbles within the Wesley household - with its large number of children, variously estimated between seventeen and nineteen, the great majority female.
Secularisation theories have largely been abandoned by most of their erstwhile inventors as being inapplicable to most parts of the world except western Europe. Indeed all kinds of theories of historical inevitability have taken a fearful pounding in the half-century since the publication of Sir Isaiah Berlin's famous lecture on the subject at the London School of Economics in 1953. History without contingencies is like life without choice, but contingencies require explanatory frameworks. The purpose of this chapter is to advance an argument about the process of religious change in England from around 1700 which takes account of contingencies, but which seeks to establish analytical structures of more general application. The argument is that in England the rise of a more pluralistic religious society in the nineteenth century led to an increase in the social significance of religion (however that is to be measured) in the short run, but that the distinctive way in which it happened posed more serious problems for churches in the twentieth century. Ironically, the rise of a more voluntaristic and competitive religious environment in England helped erode some of the conditions that had nurtured its own development. What follows, therefore, is a tentative explanation of that story in England which is markedly different from the religious trajectories of other countries in the same period, including, for the sake of comparison, Ireland and the United States.
The subject of this book is religion and identity; not only national identity in the way that Professor Colley has dealt with it in her recent study of the Britons, but also regional and local identities. Within that framework my interest is in trying to penetrate to the heart of vigorous religious and political cultures, both elite and popular. My chronological boundaries, in the main, will be the long eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the interaction of religion and identity was a vital ingredient in the religious, social and political history of the British Isles, but I shall also say something about how that pattern was eroded in the twentieth century. Foolishly, perhaps, I intend to deal with all parts of these islands at some point in their history, and to try to bring to life a diverse and variegated spectrum of religious communities from Argyll to Armagh, from County Cornwall to County Clare, from the Welsh valleys to the Scottish highlands, and from Birmingham to Belfast. Much is based on my own research over the past decade, but much more is dependent on a great number of distinguished historians of the four nations and beyond whose work can only gain from being brought into a closer relationship with one another than has customarily been the case. I am glad to record my debt to them right at the beginning as well as in the conventional way through the notes, which, for the sake of accessibility, will be kept to a decent minimum. They nevertheless reflect, in a small way, the healthy state of the writing of religious history in these islands.
It has been unusually difficult for historians to offer satisfactory organising principles for the study of religion in British society in the long eighteenth century (c. 1689–1832). One reason for that is that many of the dominant historiographical traditions of the eighteenth-century Church had their origins in the period of constitutional revolution between 1828 and 1835 when the terms under which the Established Churches in Britain operated were forever altered. The ideologues of the early Oxford Movement and enthusiastic evangelicals had much in common in decrying both the theory and practice of Whig erastianism which in their view had spiritually impoverished the Church by subjecting it to political manipulation through lay-controlled patronage. Similarly, both Nonconformists and anticlerical radicals had a vested interest in exposing establishment defects, especially those occasioned by excessive wealth and pastoral neglect. Even those as ideologically far apart as Irish Catholics and utilitarian radicals regarded the episcopal Established Churches of the eighteenth century as bulwarks of unmerited privileges enjoyed by the few against the legitimate interests of the many. Hence many treatments of religion in this period are dominated by either attacks or defences of Established Churches in which moral judgements often take the place of realistic assessments of how churches could be expected to operate in an eighteenth-century setting.
An equally important historiographical problem to be aware of is that assessments of the Church of England in particular often depend on whether a date of c. 1740 is chosen as the start or the end of a period of study.
The complex relationship between religion and identity in the modern history of the British Isles is not reducible to tidy conceptual frameworks. Professor Robbins, in the most authoritative work on the subject so far, states that
churches have been, in some instances and at some periods vehicles for the cultivation of a ‘British’ identity corresponding to the political framework of Great Britain and Ireland. They have also been instrumental, in part at least, in perpetuating and recreating an English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh identity distinct from and perhaps in conflict with ‘British’ identity, both culturally and politically. Sometimes this role has been quite unconscious, but in other instances it has been explicit and deliberate.
The essence of the problem is that the British Isles is a religious patchwork quilt of immense complexity in which national, cultural, economic and denominational boundaries rarely achieve an exact correlation one with another. Moreover, the pattern alters over time and according to historical circumstances. Only in Ireland, it seems, is there a clear division, based on Reformation polarities, between an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic state and the rest of the British archipelago. This division, according to the Dutch geographer M. W. Heslinga, is essentially religious and represents the real frontier of the British Isles. The fact that there is a political border approximating to this division gives the argument a greater degree of plausibility. There is need for care, however, even in this apparently self-evident division. Not only is there a substantial Roman Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, but there has been a considerable Irish Catholic migration to other parts of Britain.
Thus far our analysis has consisted of a religious tour of the British Isles in the modern period with a number of stopping off points on the way. These have included the investigation of elite and popular Anglicanism at the peak of the Church of England's influence in the long eighteenth century; the spectacular rise of evangelical Nonconformity, particularly Methodism, in the period of the French and industrial revolutions, which increased religious pluralism, but also contributed to the relatively ordered transitions of British society in the nineteenth century; the rise of evangelical Nonconformity in Wales and its relationship to Welsh identity and Liberal politics; the attempts to realise the old sixteenth-century ideal of the godly commonwealth in Scotland and the unwillingness of the British State to fund this ideal; the rise of the Irish Catholic nation as the most conspicuously successful fusion of faith and identity anywhere in the British Isles; the role of religion in creating an Ulster Protestant world-view in opposition to a vigorous Catholic nationalism which has led to one of the most intractable problems of the modern world; and the growth of religious pluralism in urban Britain, and its consequences for national homogeneity, social class and popular belief and practice. Above all, the aim has been an attempt to bring to life the cultural power of living religious traditions and to explore the ways in which religion has interacted with other frameworks within which people in Britain and Ireland sought to express meaning and identity. What has been done so far has been relatively straightforward.
To understand the nature of Victorian civilization it is necessary to understand Victorian cities – visually, through their forms and formlessness; socially, through their structures and the chronology of their processes of change, planned and unplanned; symbolically, in literature and the arts, through their features and images; together for the light they throw on the process of urbanization; separately and comparatively in order to understand particularity and the sense of place. The world of Victorian cities was fragmented, intricate, eclectic and messy.
A city's religion accents and is accented by the interaction of its topography, its economy, its culture and its politics.
Such pleas for a variegated and conceptually flexible approach to the world of nineteenth-century cities are as relevant now as when they were first penned and need to be applied to religion in the city as much as to any other aspect of urban life. Indeed the sheer eclecticism of religious life in modern cities seems to defy analytical categories and broad generalisations. No sooner has one set of views established an ascendancy than they are challenged by fresh work based on different methodological frameworks and focusing often on different kinds of city. The nineteenth-century city seems to set up the kinds of problems for historians that post-modernists have identified for the entire historical enterprise. But, in the spirit of the introductory quotation from Asa Briggs, my limited ambition in this chapter is to open up a number of different ways of looking at religion and identity in nineteenth-century British cities.
The same processes of rapid social change and the growth of evangelical religion that transformed the religious landscape in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made an even more dramatic impact on the religious history of Scotland and Wales. Indeed, so profound was the impact of religious change in this period that it helped shape the cultural and national identities of both countries. The aim of this chapter is to explore the complex relationship between evangelical enthusiasm and national identity by investigating the rise of Nonconformist Liberalism in Wales and the attempts to realise the historic ideal of the godly commonwealth in Scotland. In each country evangelical enthusiasm contributed both to the expression of national distinctiveness and to a shared British Protestant nationalism. This is no easy tale to tell because religion was inextricably bound up with unprecedented social and economic changes and with the consequent distribution of wealth and power in the Celtic peripheries of the British State. As Professor Robbins stated in his presidential address to the Ecclesiastical History Society ‘modern British history, perhaps more than the history of any other European state, discloses a complex interrelationship between political attitudes, ecclesiastical allegiances and cultural traditions. The Christian religion in the British Isles, in its divided condition, has in turn been deeply involved in the cultural and political divisions of modern Britain and Ireland.’ Nowhere was this more patently true than in Wales and Scotland in the period of the industrial revolution.
By the mid-Victorian period it seemed that there were two particularly noteworthy features of the religious landscape in Wales. The first was the strength of evangelical Nonconformity.
The religious geography of eighteenth-century Ireland was largely the product of land confiscations, population migrations and the colonising policies of Tudor and Stuart monarchs. In the seventeenth century nowhere else in Europe (with the possible exception of Bohemia where the entire Protestant gentry class was expropriated) experienced such a dramatic inward population movement or such an upheaval in the religious composition of its landowning elite. In 1600 more than 80 per cent of Irish land was owned by Roman Catholics, but by 1700 this proportion had fallen to around 14 per cent and was still falling. Nowhere was the impact of such changes more evident than in the ancient province of Ulster which received large numbers of Anglican and Presbyterian settlers. Religion, land ownership and ethnic identity were thus at the centre of profound divisions in Ulster society, which by the eighteenth century had a luxuriant tradition of historical conflict upon which to draw. The fact that the Church of Ireland was the Established Church of a landed minority, that Ulster Presbyterianism was virtually a state within a state, and that Roman Catholicism was the creed of a defeated race ensured that the province's religious life would have more than its fair share of turbulence. To some extent this was eased in the first half of the eighteenth century by the relative stability of Hanoverian rule and by the fact that each of the major religious denominations ministered to pre-assigned communities and only occasionally attempted any kind of controversial proselytism.
Nevertheless, as the high immigration statistics show, social, economic and religious grievances were never far from the surface.
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