|John Wesley Preaching by Alfred William Hunt|
Beneath the form and ritual of religious life in Georgian England, one is tempted to ask, where were the hearts and minds of the people? Of what did their faith consist? When I took on this task it seemed daunting. The only evidence I could provide of what was in their hearts was to be found in the actions that resulted from their faith (or the lack of it). I approach this issue hoping to shed light on what was happening to the church in England that influenced the people, both rich and poor, in matters of faith.
The 18th Century
The early 18th century was an age of reason. The churches in England, such as they were, lacked vitality, perhaps in part due to the action of the government. I speak in general terms, of course, as there have always been exceptions. But from what I’ve read, there was little enthusiasm for spiritual matters, perhaps as a reaction to the excesses of the 17th century. People were content with things as they were, and those few who attended church did so out of habit and social custom. The aristocracy was expected to provide a good example by attending church and some did, but perhaps only a few times a year on major church holidays. There were parishes where the poor had no church at all and wanted for spiritual leadership.
In the middle of the century, a change swept England. It began with a few who desired to grow closer to God. In 1729, a small group of men at Oxford began gathering under the direction of a man named John Wesley to observe the fasts and festivals of the church, take Communion, and visit the sick and prisoners. Wesley had made his love of God the central focus of his life. His efforts, and those of others, led to what became known as The Great Awakening, a movement that also swept Europe and the American colonies. It was to have great consequence.
The “Awakening” produced powerful preachers who encouraged a personal faith in God and a need for salvation. Pulling away from the ritual and ceremony that brought people to church out of habit, the Awakening made Christianity intensely personal by fostering a deep sense of spiritual conviction and redemption, and by encouraging introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality.
John Wesley, his brother, Charles, and George Whitefield—all ordained in the Anglican Church of England—had been missionaries in America. In 1738, they returned home disillusioned and discouraged. They began attending prayer meetings on Aldersgate Street in London, searching for answers. And they found them. During that time, all three had conversion experiences.
As John Wesley wrote, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins." (Journal of John Wesley, May 24, 1738.)
A year later, John Wesley and George Whitefield began preaching the gospel outdoors to large gatherings. Wesley considered the whole of England his parish, preaching to as many as 20,000 at one time in London. Thousands who had previously thought little of religion were converted. Although not his intention, Wesley’s message led to a new movement that would ultimately separate from the Church of England, called the Methodists.
From the very start, the Methodists were concerned with personal holiness and emphasized the need for salvation and forgiveness of sin. Those who criticized them, such as the Duchess of Buckingham, complained of being held accountable for sin “as the common wretches”. Wesley’s mission was to England’s poor, the unlearned and the neglected. He had little time for the aristocratic rich, finding them idle, trivial, extravagant and lacking in social responsibility.
One of the converts at this time, however, was the Countess of Huntingdon, who for the next forty years was deeply involved with the leaders of the Methodist movement. The countess was born into aristocracy as Selina Shirley, both sides of her family being descended from royalty. Selina married Theophilus Hastings, the Earl of Huntingdon, in 1728.
The countess found the social life of the aristocracy empty. After she converted to the Christian faith in 1739, she was determined to use her energies and wealth for the cause of the gospel. Within a short time she was identifying herself with the Wesley brothers and other Methodist preachers in the Church of England. This reflected great courage on her part because these itinerant preachers were despised by most of the aristocracy.
To reach her friends, the countess brought the leading preachers of the day into her home. A number of noble and influential people came to faith in this way. All of them were most likely members of the Church of England. When her husband died in 1746, the countess threw herself into her work with even greater zeal. By the time of her death, she had built sixty-four chapels, or “preaching places”, including one in Bath.
It is interesting to note that in 1748, John Newton, the slave ship captain and later author of the hymn Amazing Grace, was converted to Christianity during a storm at sea. Afterward, he became an enthusiastic disciple of George Whitefield and then an Evangelical lay preacher.
In 1757, he applied to be an ordained priest in the Church of England, though it took seven years for that to happen, owing to his lack of credentials. Meanwhile, in his frustration, he also applied to the Methodists, Presbyterians and Independents, which suggests he could have found a spiritual home with any of them. Newton’s newfound faith in God made a distinct difference in his life and the hymn for which he is famous testifies to this change (“I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see”).
The Clapham Group:
At the end of the 18th century, a group of wealthy Evangelicals came together, most of them living in the village of Clapham southwest of London. They were members of the Anglican Church but also Evangelicals. Their aim was to end slavery and cruel sports and to support prison reform and foreign missions.
The Clapham Group had some illustrious members: William Wilberforce, friend of both John Newton and Prime Minister William Pitt, and the statesman who successfully ended the slave trade; Charles Simeon, rector at Cambridge; Granville Sharp, a lawyer and founder of the St. George’s Bay Company, a forerunner of the Sierra Leone Company; Zachary Macaulay, estate manager and Governor of Sierra Leone (a homeland for emancipated slaves); John Shore, Lord Teignmouth, formerly Governor-General of India; James Stephen, lawyer, Wilberforce’s brother-in-law and author of the Slave Trade Act of 1807; Charles Grant, Chairman of the East India Company; and Hannah More, poet and playwright, who produced tracts for the group.
What motivated them? William Wilberforce’s views here are helpful.
In his book, “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity,” published in 1798, he speaks of a “true Christian” as one discharging a debt of gratitude to God for the grace he has received. Likely his views mirrored those of his fellow Clapham Group members when he said,
They are not their own: their bodily and mental faculties, their natural and acquired endowments, their substance, their authority, their time, their influence, all these they consider. . . to be consecrated to the honor of God and employed in His service.
The Clapham Group certainly put their faith into action. One of their primary concerns was foreign missions, taking seriously Christ’s command to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Among their achievements were the following: the Religious Tract Society founded in 1799; the Society for Missions to Africa and the East (now the Church Missionary Society) founded in 1799; and the British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in 1804. The latter circulated Bibles in England and abroad (likely the King James version). With funding from the Clapham group, Hannah More established twelve schools by 1800 where reading, the Bible and the catechism were taught to local children.
Against this background, we emerge into Regency England (1811-1820). During this period, the religious landscape consisted of the Anglican Church, which occupied the predominant ground, and those considered “Dissenters,” a general term that included non-conformist Protestants, Presbyterians (identified with the Scots), Baptists, Jews, Roman Catholics and Quakers
The Protestants moved toward the Methodist and Evangelical belief in a personal God and the need for salvation. The Roman Catholics, governed by the Pope in Rome, though discriminated against, were too strong to be suppressed and persisted, eventually regaining the ability to become Members of Parliament and hold public office with The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. (Ironically, the Prince Regent opposed Catholic Emancipation even though Maria Fitzherbert, a twice-widowed Roman Catholic, was arguably the love of his life.)
There were many incentives to being a part of the Church of England because it was government controlled: Only Anglicans could attend Oxford or receive degrees from Cambridge. Except for the Jews and Quakers (the latter obtaining freedom of worship in 1813), all marriages and baptisms had to take place in the Anglican Church and the ceremony had to be conducted by an Anglican minister. All citizens, no matter their faith, paid taxes to maintain the parish churches, and non-Anglicans were prevented from taking many government and military posts.
According to Henry Wakeman in An Introduction to the History of the Church of England, by the time George III died in 1820, despite all that occurred in the 18th century, with a few exceptions, the Church of England was not materially different than it was when George III came to the throne in 1760.
The bishops were still amiable scholars who lived in dignified ease apart from their clergy, attended the king’s levee regularly, voted steadily in Parliament for the party of the minister who had appointed them, entertained the country gentry when Parliament was not sitting, wrote learned books on points of classical scholarship, and occasionally were seen driving in state through the muddy country roads on their way to the chief towns of their dioceses to hold a confirmation. Of spiritual leadership they had but little idea. (Wakeman at 457)
Jane Austen wrote about the world of the Anglican clergy, which she knew well, her father being the Reverend George Austen, a pastor who encouraged his daughter in her love of reading and writing. (In addition to her novels, Jane Austen composed evening prayers for her father's services.) Two of her brothers were members of the Anglican clergy.
It was a culture in which faith often influenced one’s livelihood. Some of Austen’s characters (i.e., Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram) were clergy in need of parsonages. It was an acceptable occupation for a younger son. Large landowners and peers owned many of the church appointments and could appoint them.
Of the Anglican clergy, Wakeman said (at 459, 461),
The bulk of the English clergy then as ever were educated, refined, generous, God-fearing men, who lived lives of simple piety and plain duty, respected by their people for the friendly help and wise counsel and open purse which were ever at the disposal of the poor.
A few of them hunted, shot, fished and drank or gambled during the week like their friends in the army or at the bar, and mumbled through a perfunctory service in church on Sundays unterrified by the thought of archdeacon or bishop. Some of them, where there was no residence in the parish, lived an idle and often vicious life at a neighbouring town, and only visited their parishes when they rode over on Sundays to conduct the necessary services.
[With few exceptions] the clergy held and taught a negative and cold Protestantism deadening to the imagination, studiously repressive to the emotions, and based on principles which found little sanction either in reason or in history. The laity willingly accepted it, as it made so little demand upon their conscience, so little claim upon their life.
Wakeman also recognized the indifference of the Church of England to the “tearing away” of the followers of Whitefield and Wesley:
An earnest revival of personal religion had deeply affected some sections of English society. Yet…the Church of England reared her impassive front…sublime in her apathy, unchanged and apparently unchangeable….
Unlike some Anglicans, who may have attended church merely out of duty or habit, Jane Austen was more than a nominal church member. From the prayers she wrote, she seems to have been a devout believer who accepted the Anglican faith as it was, though she disliked hypocrisy and that may be reflected in some of her clergyman characters.
Austen also had views on the Evangelicals. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, written on January 24, 1809, she admitted, "I do not like the Evangelicals." Like many Anglicans, she likely felt faith was to be unemotional and demonstrated in observances of certain services, prayers and moral teachings. The demonstrative preaching and strong message of the Evangelicals, particularly their enthusiasm and fervor, might not appeal to a girl raised in an Anglican minister’s home. Then, too, she had experience with certain Evangelicals, notably her cousin Edward Cooper, who she said in a letter to her sister, wrote “cruel letters of comfort”.
However, as Austen grew older, there is some indication of a softening in her thinking. On November 18, 1814, in a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, Austen wrote, “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason & Feeling, must be happiest & safest.”
Perhaps as Austen viewed the decadence of the Regency period (particularly the social life in London), the indulgences of the monarch, George the Prince Regent, and the lackluster faith of some who adhered to the Church of England only out of habit, she found value in the sincerity of those who espoused a more evangelical message. It was, after all, the Evangelicals led by William Wilberforce, allied with the Quakers, who became the champions of the anti-slavery movement, resulting in the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807. Among Jane Austen's favorite writers were those who were passionately anti-slavery, such as William Cowper, Doctor Johnson and Thomas Clarkson.
Austen was critical of the Prince Regent, too, and understandably so. Unlike his parents, George III and Queen Charlotte, the Prince Regent lived a decadent life, indulging in his personal pleasure and devoid of any evidence of a personal faith, though he was nominally the head of the Church of England. As a result of the tax burden from the wars in France and the Prince’s opulent lifestyle that was crushing the poor and working classes, the resentment for the Prince grew more strident as time went on. Jane Austen disliked him intensely, principally because of his treatment of his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick (as seen in Jane’s letter to Martha Lloyd of February 16, 1813).
However, in at least some parts of the Church of England during the Regency era, spiritual change was afoot. In such instances, the Church of England looked more like the Protestant Evangelicals. For example, Charles Simeon, rector of Trinity Church, Cambridge from 1782 to 1836, and a member of the Clapham group, was a great Bible expositor, who taught a risen Savior and salvation through grace, sounding very much like Wesley and Whitefield decades earlier. That was no mean feat given the opposition he faced at Cambridge. The universities were bastions of the established Church of England and seedbeds of rationalism, neither of which made them sympathetic to a rector of strong religious faith.
Because of their stance on moral issues, the Evangelicals of the day were viewed by some as troublemakers who didn’t want anyone to have any fun. Notwithstanding such views, there were those in the aristocracy, including William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who became Evangelicals though they never left the Anglican Church. And such faith produced change. Upon his conversion, the duke gave up his long time mistress.
Scientific Discovery and the Industrial Revolution:
Other factors influenced people’s view of God, particularly in the 19th century. New ideas in politics, philosophy, science and art all vied for people’s attention. Two in particular, the scientific discoveries of the time and the Industrial Revolution, may have had dramatic effect on the people’s faith.
In 1781, while investigating what he and others believed to be a comet, William Herschel, an astronomer, discovered a new planet he named “George’s star,” after King George III. (In 1850, after Herschel’s death, the name would be changed to Uranus.) This was the first planet discovered since ancient times. Herschel, a devout Christian, strongly believed that God’s universe was characterized by order and planning. His discovery of that order led him to conclude, “The undevout astronomer must be mad.”
Herschel’s discoveries caused his fellow scientists and theologians to reconsider their prior views of God and the possibility there were other creations in the universe. Not all views expressed were those of believers; however, one who is illustrative of the prevailing attitude was Thomas Dick, a Scottish minister and science teacher. In his book The Sidereal Heavens, published in 1840, he said of Herschel’s discovery,
To consider creation, therefore, in all its departments, as extending throughout regions of space illimitable to mortal view, and filled with intelligent existence, is nothing more than what comports with the idea of HIM who inhabiteth immensity, and whose perfections are boundless and past finding out.
Dick’s statement is indicative of the view during the early 19th-century when science was dominated by clergymen, men dedicated to their scientific work but still committed to their faith in God. Scientific discoveries were seen as entirely consistent with a belief in a Creator.
The other factor is the Industrial Revolution, which transformed English society and would certainly cause people to question the established order of things, including the church.
During the 18th century, England's population nearly doubled. The industry most important in the rise of England as an industrial nation was cotton textiles. A series of inventions led to machines that replaced human laborers. The effect of machines replacing workers, particularly in the textile industry, was keenly felt in some parts of England and Scotland. The lives of the working class were unalterably disrupted and many people relocated from the countryside to the towns in an attempt to feed their families.
In 1801, at the time of the first census, only about 20% of the population lived in towns. By 1851, the figure had risen to over 50%. New social relationships emerged with the growing working and middle classes. During this time of upheaval and relocation, though some individuals, like Charles Simeon, exercised great spiritual influence, the church as a whole failed to grapple with the problems that resulted from the huge surge in population and the growth of industrial towns. Still, perhaps the problems that led people to move to the larger cities resulted in their hearing the message of the great preachers of the day. Having heard, they might have been spurred to examine their faith, even to believe.