Here is a term paper on the ‘Evangelical Movement in Britain’ especially written for school and college students.
Its leaders are usually identified as the ‘Evangelicals’, chief of whom was William Wilberforce, friend of the younger Pitt, whose special cause was the abolition of slavery. But it is better to think of the movement in a broader context than is evoked by the term Evangelical, which specifically denotes a man of quasi-Calvinist religious views.
At its widest, it can be regarded as the sum of efforts to make the existing ‘Establishment’ more worthy of its position. It did not wish, like the reforming movements so far mentioned, to overthrow or at least greatly enlarge the ‘Establishment’.
Its central aim, so far as institutions were concerned, was not political reform, but the reform of the Church of England, to make it better capable of fulfilling its function as the Established Church of mini steering to the whole people, thereby bringing nearer the moral ‘reformation’ of the country at large.
It had before it the ideal of the parish system that in every village and every district of a town there should be resident clergymen, who should be:
. . . the Friends and Benefactors of the Community—the Promoters and Guardians of Piety, Decorum, and Good Order—the liberal, intelligent, and instructive associates of the Rich—the humble, candid, compassionate and charitable teachers of the Poor—the public and accredited Voice of the Church; to instruct the ignorant, reclaim the guilty, exhort the erring, confirm the wavering, and console the afflicted;—to diffuse and extend that knowledge of the Lord, which is the only true wisdom; and proclaim those Good Tidings, which are ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth, Peace, Goodwill towards Men’.
To attain this ideal, it would be necessary to increase the number of clergy and educate them better, to create new parishes and build new churches, to redistribute and perhaps augment the wealth of the Church, to enforce residence and abolish pluralism, and virtually to create a national system of education for the poor.
The movement, like Methodism, was partly a response to the social changes of the late eighteenth century and partly a protest against complacency and abuses within the Church. It was as much a lay as a clerical movement. The parish, it was hoped, would be blessed with a benevolent and godly squire, who would support the clergyman morally and financially, also dispense charity, and provide wholesome amenities such as better cottages for his employees and perhaps some sort of club facilities.
Further, Sunday should be better observed, the clergy should desist from hunting and other pursuits considered unbecoming to their cloth, and laymen should institute the practice of family prayers in their households. A main motive of the stricter Evangelicals was fear for the established political and social system.
‘Nothing is more certain’, wrote Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate, in 1829, ‘than that religion is the basis upon which civil government rests … And it is necessary that this religion be established for the security of the state, and for the welfare of the people.’ ‘The best Christian’, said a preacher in 1820 ‘was the most loyal subject.’
A famous sermon of 1793 had been entitled ‘The Wisdom and Goodness of God in having made both Rich and Poor’. But there was more to the movement than this. Whereas many churchmen and laymen of the upper classes doubted the wisdom of educating the poor at all, the zeal of the Evangelicals for establishing schools was great and genuine; since 1780 Sunday schools had been set up all over the country, and two societies to promote popular education, less directly under Evangelical influence, had been founded in the years before Waterloo, the British and Foreign Schools Society, a joint Anglican and Nonconformist organization founded in 1807, and the National Society of 1811, a purely Anglican body.
In 1831 it was calculated that nearly half a million children were being educated—or, as the writers pleasantly phrased it, ‘were educating’—in Sunday schools. In 1819 it was reported that in other schools there were over 600,000 children. By 1831 the figure was supposed to be 1,000,000 just for schools ‘acting on the same principle’ as the National Society, that is, using the ‘monitorial system’, under which, in the absence of enough adult teachers, the first set of pupils taught had to pass on to other children what they had learned. It is presumed that, against all odds, illiteracy was declining as a result of this educational effort.
So important and pervasive was the influence of ‘Evangelical’ feeling throughout, and in all denominations, that it is worth quoting a long extract to show what it involved. The writer is describing the ‘Various Means of Doing Good Bodily and Spiritually’ recommended by a late eighteenth-century Evangelical, Dr. Stonehouse.
The means of doing good spiritually……… included promoting schools and religious societies, helping the really talented to get on, the encouragement of private and family prayer and Bible-reading, and visiting the sick ‘and comforting or admonishing them’; ‘talking seriously and affably with children and servants, at any time or place, when a proper opportunity offers’; and ‘dispersing printed or written slips of paper, against particular sins, as Sabbath-breaking, swearing etc. in order to be given away occasionally, or enclosed in a letter, or put into a book, or drop in any part of the house, where the reproved would be likely to meet with it …’
The means of doing good bodily were even more comprehensive and practical, and…. illustrate very well the kind of activities which their sense of social responsibility was more and more to press upon the well-to-do.
1. By giving to the poor bread, coals, shoes, stockings, linen, coats, or gowns, which may be bought much cheaper than they can buy them.
2. By paying their house-rent or part of it.
3. By sending them wine, herb teas, or spoon meats, when sick, and sometimes proper dinners on their recovery, suitable to their weak state.
4. By paying their apothecary’s bill, or part of it.
5. By giving rakes, prongs, or spades, to day labourers, or some implements of their trade to poor industrious workmen.
6. By seldom giving money, unless to those who live at a distance, and then we should be well assured that their case is truly stated, and that we cannot relieve them by any other method.
7. By subscribing to an Infirmary, where we may procure that relief for some real objects of compassion, which they cannot obtain elsewhere; and without which, perhaps, they must perish, or remain hopeless of any cure, and burdens to society.
8. By discouraging idleness in man, woman, or child; and by contriving work for those who are unemployed.
9. By defending the poor against oppression; especially such of them as are too often most grievously oppressed by hard-hearted parish officers, who have the power over them.
The condescension is nauseating now; yet not only the attitude, but also the word itself, was adopted then without irony. That is not to say that all recipients of crumbs from great men’s tables were willing to take up the corresponding attitude of grateful and uncritical ‘deference’ to their superiors, at least in their hearts.
But most people paid lip-service to the twin concepts. And, however objectionable the spirit of this ‘doing good’ may seem, it undoubtedly produced some un-objectionable results. Even education in Sunday schools and National Schools was bound to enlighten minds more than no education at all. Among the well- to-do, the achievement was remarkable.
The eighteenth century aristocracy had been notoriously libertine and free-thinking; by the middle of the nineteenth century many of the great lords were sincerely religious, perhaps teaching in Sunday schools themselves, certainly conducting family prayers, while those who were less sincere were still regular church-goers and generous benefactors to good causes, and made some attempt to conceal the fact when they took a mistress.
With increased stuffiness there certainly came increased responsibility. The process was the upper-class counterpart of the development of moderate working-class organizations, to which the same spirit contributed, but commonly under Methodist rather than Anglican auspices.
Although for many the movement was especially concerned with reforming, and so strengthening, the Church of England, it should not be supposed that much emphasis was laid on theological differences between denominations. In fact, until the 1830s, there was little interest in these matters.
Evangelicals acknowledged a debt to Methodism. There was often ready cooperation between reformers inside and outside the Established Church. Further, Evangelicals worked with Radicals, even free- thinking Radicals. They had many aims in common: the enforcement of order, economy in public expenditure, encouragement of individual self-reliance in economic affairs, elimination of abuses in the Church and elsewhere.
And there was more similarity between the beliefs of pious reformers and secularist Radicals than might be expected. This was a reforming Bishop’s definition of Christianity – ‘no other than The Union of Pure Devotion with Universal Benevolence’. ‘Happily’, wrote Bentham, ‘the dictates of religion seem to approach nearer and nearer to a coincidence with those of utility every day.’
Though strict Evangelicals held strict doctrines, and though fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible were usual, little was heard of the authority of the Catholic Church, and theological writing was often simple-mindedly rationalist and mechanistic. Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, began with the naivest of comparisons between the human individual and a pocket-watch.
The Church was often spoken of as though it were merely the most important of public utilities. Again, interest in the Church as a spiritual body, with a life of its own, was not evident until the 1830s.
Reformers of these various persuasions also collaborated in humanitarian causes. One of the characteristic developments of the eighteenth century was a greater concern for helpless living things: animals, children, prisoners, emigrants and slaves. This impulse tended to cut across progressive economic attitudes when it was a question of employing children in factories.
But, though the working conditions of children in factories were shocking, this was less of a novelty than that many disinterested people should care about it and try to improve matters.
By 1832 the first statutes had been passed to regulate the treatment of animals (1822), protect children working in cotton factories (1802, 1819), safeguard emigrants (1803 and others), and abolish the slave trade so far as Britain was involved in it (1807). More effective than Acts of Parliament, opinion was making the traditional violent sports ever less respectable.
Many of these measures were promoted by private Members. But the Tory Ministers of these years showed some degree of sympathy with this reforming movement, especially in relation to the Church.
Lord Liverpool’s ecclesiastical appointments, though seldom specifically Evangelical, were much less influenced than those of previous Prime Ministers by political and party considerations, the whims of the Sovereign, and the aristocratic connexions of the candidates. As well as granting money for church-building, his Government had passed an Act in 1813 to raise curates’ stipends.