R. S. Thomas on wonderful people, and on Non-Conformity

(c) DACS and Sir Kyffin Williams; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationJ. B. Lethbridge’s interview with R. S. Thomas, published in the Anglo-Welsh Review, is a delightful compliment to a mid-morning strong cup of tea. Here are two enjoyable moments from Thomas:

‘I’m very conscious as an idea that there must be wonderful people in the world, but I don’t meet them’.

‘I’m sort of Non-Conformist without agreeing with the Non-Conformist way of worship. I find the average Non-Conformist place of worship so ugly. Not that the [Established] churches are much better, but the average Non-Conformist chapel is such a hideous place – I can’t worship. And yet I like the sort of freedom, their emphasis on the Bible as being the sort of direct word of God to the individual, that you don’t need a priest to come between you and God. I like their disassociation from the Establishment in England, the King and Queen and this sort of rubbish. I like it for that side. I don’t like the system of deacons … I dislike cathedrals on the whole, big places, because they are associated in my mind with English imperialism. I see these royal processions and the bishop in all his regalia and the Union Jack flying, you know, hanging in the corner. I look upon the Church of England as having betrayed Christianity by its acquiescence in war and this sort of thing’.

Christ and Controversy

The good folk over at Wipf and Stock have informed me that they have just released Alan Sell’s fascinating book Christ and Controversy: The Person of Christ in Nonconformist Thought and Ecclesial Experience, 1600–2000. Professor Sell’s name is no stranger here at PCaL. I was invited to pen a wee endorsement for the back cover (it’s SO much less work to get your name on the back cover of a book than it is to have is appear on the front). Here’s what I wrote:

This encyclopedic but accessible survey stands as witness to the church’s ongoing wrestle with an ancient question—’Who do you say that I am?’ It demonstrates Professor Sell’s acumen as a meticulous researcher, his contagious devotion to the nonconformist tradition, and his aptitude for bringing the dead back to life. With wit and sober-headedness, this bold and theologically-informed study records many christological enthusiasms and ecclesiological consequences that this perduring question has birthed—its invitation lingers still.

And the book’s description reads:

What may happen when Christians take doctrine seriously? One possible answer is that the shape of churchly life “on the ground” can be significantly altered. This pioneering study is both an account of the doctrine of the person of Christ as it has been expounded by the theologians of historic English and Welsh Nonconformity, and an attempt to show that while many Nonconformists held classical orthodox views of the doctrine between 1600 and 2000, others advocated alternative understandings of Christ’s person; hence the evolution of the ecclesial landscape as we have come to know it. The traditions here under review are those of Old Dissent: the Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians and their Unitarian heirs; and the Calvinistic and Arminian Methodist bodies that owe their origin to the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century.

Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction: A Review

Alan P.F. Sell, Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction (Studies in Christian History and Thought; Milton Keynes/Colorado Springs/Secunderabad: Paternoster, 2008). xvi+715pp.

In his book Defending and Declaring the Faith: Some Scottish Examples 1860–1920 (1987), Alan Sell had already demonstrated his ardour and gift for bringing the dead back to life, for turning strangers into friends, and for wading the small streams and largely-inaccessible rivers on the landscape of British ecclesiastical life. Now, over two decades later, Professor Sell, in Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction, turns his binoculars south to introduce readers to some other forgotten saints, to those whose writings are not the staple of general undergraduate courses. These are the second eleven (actually ten), if you like, of Nonconformist Dissent – drawn from among those who served the Church in the wake of the Toleration Act of 1689 after which there was ‘no longer one authority to which appeals on religious questions could be lodged’ (p. 54), and in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Evangelical Revival, and in the wakes of modern biblical criticism and theological liberalism. From the outset, Sell suggests that ‘we have not fully understood the Lockes and Barths of this world until we have investigated what the hinterland people made of them’ (p. 2).

Drawing upon letters, sermons, tracts and monographs, and with an eye on doctrinal controversies, the prevailing intellectual winds, and impressively alert to pastoral challenges, Sell has penned an encyclopaedic dictionary of rarely-mentioned theologians – Thomas Ridgley, Abraham Taylor (who ‘shot across the London sky like a volatile theological meteor’ (p. 41)), Samuel Chandler, George Payne, Richard Alliott, David Worthington Simon, T. Vincent Tymms, Walter Frederick Adeney, Robert S. Franks and Charles S. Duthie. Apart from Chandler, who was Presbyterian, and Tymms, who was Baptist, the rest were Congregationalists, and all but two (or perhaps three) were sons of the manse. Each chapter begins with a comprehensive biography of the chosen personality before turning to introduce and then engage with their thought, contribution and intellectual location. A familiar encore of themes appear over the period surveyed (1667 to 1981), including deism, miracles, apologetics, supernaturalism, Bible, Trinity, theism, Arianism, Calvinism, Unitarianism, Roman Catholicism, theological method, the eternal generation of the Son, kenotic christology, divine impassibility, natural theology, ecclesiology and pastoral ministry, among others, suggesting that theological adjustments and time-lags, and the ongoing ‘construction through conversations’ (p. 1) conducted by hinterland theologians, significantly stimulated the philosophico-theological landscape, and bore significant fruit – for good and for ill – in the Church.

After a brief Introduction, the book is presented in five parts. In Part One, ‘In the Wake of Toleration’, and with colour and wit, Sell introduces us to Thomas Ridgley whose ‘greatest contribution lay in the field of theological education’ (p. 13), and to Abraham Taylor and his defence against John Gill’s charge of antinomianism, and his plunge into the debates over the doctrinal declension betrayed in eighteenth-century trinitarian controversies and, in particular, his dissatisfaction in these matters with fellow Congregationalist, Isaac Watts. (Taylor charged Watts with sponsoring Sabellianism and Socinianism, with teaching that Christ possessed a super-angelic spirit, and with displaying a lack of clarity over the nature of divine personhood, among other things). Sell also introduces us to Samuel Chandler, the ‘moderate Calvinist’ and ‘apostle of liberty of conscience and freedom of thought’ (p. 85) who also wrestled with John Gill (on the relationship between morality and the will of God) and with Anthony Collins, John Locke and Thomas Morgan (on deism), and with John Guyse (on what it means to preach Christ),who spoke at Watts’ internment, who (from 1732 to 1739) was a prime advocate of the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts that precluded Dissenters from holding state or civic office’ (p. 77) and whose greatest talents most conspicuously shone forth from the pulpit.

In Part Two, ‘In the Wake of Enlightenment and Revival’, Sell considers the life and contribution of George Payne, a thinker who ‘set out to be “useful” but was perceived as “dangerous”’ (p. 123). Sell’s discussion here introduces us to the landscape of early-nineteenth century thinking on metaphysics and ethics, on moderate Calvinism, and on the Trinity. Sell turns next to the inexorable logician and winsome evangelist Richard Alliott, who was ‘among the first Congregationalists to notice Schleiermacher in print’ (p. 191) and who, while longing for the revival of the Church, insisted that there would be no revival until believers ‘experience within stronger faith in the presence and word of our God, in the finished work of Christ, [and] in the indwelling of the Spirit in our hearts’ (p. 200). But Alliot, who by 1860 held the Chair of Theology and Philosophy at Spring Hill College,  held no misconceptions that ‘piety by itself will not sustain a ministry’ and that ‘scholarship will render a preacher more effective’ (p. 203). Sell describes Alliot, who authored Psychology and Theology (1855), as ‘a theologian between the times’ in whom ‘classical theism’s cosmological-causal head came together with Romanticism’s heart, and the whole was undergirded by the Evangelical Revival’s concern for souls’ (p. 222).

Part Three is titled ‘In the Wake of Modern Biblical Criticism’. Here we are acquainted with David Worthington Simon, T. Vincent Tymms, and Walter Frederick Adeney. Describing Simon as ‘the most spiritually anguished, the slowest-burning, and the most pioneering scholar – and hence the most highly suspect – to fall with the confines of this book’ (p. 227), Sell recalls Simon’s study at Lancashire College and in Germany (a land to which he returned again), his oversight of the newly formed church at Birkenhead from 1855, and his call to serve as Resident Tutor and Professor of Theology at Spring Hill College, ‘an institution where at least relatively open theological enquiry was the order of the day’ (p. 236), and then, from 1883, as Principal of the Scottish Congregational Theological Hall in Edinburgh, and thereafter as Principal of Yorkshire United Independent College on Bradford (1893 until 1907). Alive to the changing intellectual environment, Simon, championing what Sell names as a ‘biblical-historical-pneumatic epistemology’ (p. 250), championed a marriage of both intellectual and spiritual depth, resisting attempts by some to divorce the historical and the spiritual and arguing that the soul’s relation to God is not independent of biblical facts. From Simon, Sell turns to Tymms, tracing the Baptist theologian’s journey from Regent’s Park College, to his pastorates at Berwick, Accrington and Clapton, to Vice-President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland, to President of the London Baptist Association, and to the Presidency of Rawdon College, Leeds. Sell reflects on Tymms’ widely-read book, The Mystery of God, and his embroilment in controversies over Bible translation, particularly as such affected the Indian mission field. He notes that Tymms distinguished himself by encouraging ‘original thought among his students rather than … prepar[ing] them for examinations’ (p. 311), and by his Forsyth-like witness to the centrality of Christ’s Cross which has ‘irradiated the world with light, and is filling the moral universe with songs of everlasting joy’ (p. 317). Tymms would press further still, insisting in his stimulating and judicious book The Christian Idea of Atonement, that ‘the cross is God’s definition of Himself’ (p. 340). Moreover, the cross is, Tymms insists, the only word of theodicy available to the Christian: ‘The cross is … precious because it reveals that God is not a mere passionless watcher of an agonising evolution, but is Himself a partaker of the universal travail, and has been constrained by love to take the chief labour on Himself’ (p. 345). Sell introduces us next to Adeney, Congregationalist minister turned Professor of Church History and New Testament, whose attention to the centrality of the cross fell some way short of Tymms’, but among whose enviable gifts included an ability to ‘write at varying degrees of technicality, and … a particular concern to reach ministers, people in the pews, and children’ (p. 366). He was one of those ‘believing biblical critics’, like Westcott, Hort, Peake and W.H. Bennett, who ‘harvested the fruits of modern biblical criticism in such a way that only the most suspicious conservative evangelicals’ (p. 410) would think to accuse him of undermining Scripture. No advocate of sentimental theology, Adeney championed the truth of God’s fatherly love – love expressed in the ‘essentially Christian’ (p. 399) doctrine of the Trinity – as ‘the source and spring of the Christian gospel’ (p. 395). Still, he warned that ‘speculation about God always plunges us into darkness’, an observation which draws the following comment from Sell: ‘It is, no doubt, an unsanctified thought, but one sometimes feels that some present-day theologians think that they know as much about the inner working of the Trinity as some older Calvinist divines thought they knew about God’s inscrutable will’ (p. 411).

‘In the Wake of Theological Liberalism’ is the equally-revealing title of Part Four, and the subjects here are Robert S. Franks and Charles S. Duthie. Again, Sell locates each personality in their biographical and intellectual context before turning to introduce and appraise their writings and thoughts. Sell highlights the former’s engagement with the thought of Kant, Abelard, Anselm, and Schleiermacher, and the latter’s engagement with Pascal, Barth, Thielicke, Ferré and Tillich. Of these last two named, Duthie’s introducing of their thought to both Church and students (he spent 30 years of his life training ministers) was ‘not because [he agreed] with all the main positions they occupy but because [he felt] deeply that they are concerned to fashion a living theology for our own time, a theology which is faithful to the “given” Gospel in terms of man’s predicament today’ (p. 521). In calling the Church to its evangelistic task, Duthie suggested that we not only read Tillich with Barth in hand, but also the reverse.

After 562 pages, Sell still has more to say, and the book’s final part is a 71-page conclusion wherein Sell retraces the landscape he has just surveyed, recapitulates key themes, offers suggestions about contemporary practice, and recalls that the voices of hinterland theologians – past and present – are ‘frequently constructive, occasionally provocative, and variously stimulating. They have pertinent observations to share on our current theological agenda, and they challenge us by reminding us of some themes which we may have been inclined to overlook’ (p. 635).

Readers already familiar with Professor Sell’s writing will know that he is a meticulous researcher whose reading is extensive, whose commitment to ecumenism is exemplary, whose love for, and devotion to, the Nonconformist tradition is contagious, who is not shy of noting error and distortion of the Gospel when and where he sees it, whose acumen for critically-identifying contemporary theological trends is cultivated and well coached, and whose writing betrays not a few hours of pastorally-informed reflection. While Hinterland Theology could certainly have done with a more meticulous proof-reader, with this hefty tome Sell has given us a rich resource. That he decided to take the trouble to write this book leaves the Church in his debt. This volume will be of interest to historians, theologians, philosophers, and a must-read for those with a particular interest in British Nonconformity.


‘Victorian Nonconformity’: A Review

David Bebbington, Victorian Nonconformity (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007). 61 pages. ISBN: 978-1-84227-338-8.

‘Victorian Nonconformity has commonly received a bad press. Chapel-goers have been seen as narrow and censorious, contemptuous of what makes life worth living and critical of those who want to live life to the full’ (p. 1). So begins a soon-to-be-released (probably June) book by David Bebbington. The volume will be a new addition to Paternoster’s excellent Studies in Christian History and Thought series, and is the revised edition of Professor Bebbington‘s Victorian Nonconformity, an essay first published in 1992 by Headstart History. Professor Bebbington was kind enough to send me a copy, and after reading it I am very excited about giving it a plug here.

The volume comprises six chapters, an index and some (annotated) suggestions for further reading.

In Chapter 1, ‘Identity and Division’, Professor Bebbington begins by recalling how the mainstream literary tradition has treated Nonconformity with ‘a remarkable lack of sympathy’. Additionally, research on the period of Victoria’s reign has been ‘too much swayed by stereotypes’ (p. 1). He names Arnold and Dickens as among those who helped prop up the inaccurate stereotypes, and who were completely oblivious to the fact that ‘Victorian Nonconformity was an attempt to create a Christian counter-culture’ (p. 2). After recounting his now-famous thesis that there were four main features of Evangelical religion (conversion, activism, a love for the Bible, and a concentration in doctrine on the atoning death of Christ on the cross), Professor Bebbington proceeds to note that not all Nonconformists, however, were Evangelical, citing among the chief exceptions the Swedenborgians, Theosophists, Christadelphians, Labour Churches and the Unitarians – ‘the elite of Nonconformity’ (p. 3) – to whom he directs the most attention, not least because (I suspect) the Unitarians ‘were remarkable in being anti-Evangelical and yet at the heart of historic Dissent’ (p. 4).

Professor Bebbington turns in Chapter 2 (‘Diversity and Co-operation’) to Dissents’ origins in the seventeenth century, through the eighteenth century’s Age of Reason, its growth in the nineteenth century (the subject of Chapter 3) and its decline at the beginning of last century. He notes that in the nineteenth century a group called ‘Independents’ had begun to draw attention because to their distinguishing belief that each fellowship of believers should be independent of all external control, whether by bishops or presbyteries. ‘Increasingly, as they co-operated in area associations for the spread of the gospel, they began to prefer the word ‘Congregationalists’. There was no change of principle, but the emphasis was now on the responsibility of the members of the congregation, gathered in church meeting, to govern themselves … Manufacturers and shopkeepers dominated most Congregational chapels, often being elected to positions of lay leadership as deacons, but skilled working men and their families were also well represented’ (pp. 7-8). Professor Bebbington also notes that as the century wore on, the teaching of its ministers broadened, but rarely went beyond the boundaries of Evangelical belief. Victorian Congregationalists aspired to be thinking Evangelicals (p. 8). He offers similar observations about Baptists who, while maintaining independent, self-governing communities, also had regional associations and a national Union. Also, partly because of Spurgeon’s influence on church planting, Baptists maintained their dynamism more than most other Nonconformists up to the end of the century and beyond. Observations from the Quakers and Methodism (both those who followed John Wesley and also Calvinistic Methodists) are also offered in this chapter, the latter of whom were both ‘the strongest denomination in Nonconformity’ (p. 11) and were ‘noted among Nonconformists for their enthusiasm’ (p. 10). Professor Bebbington observes that the great variety within Nonconformity also made for fierce interdenominational rivalries.

Each body knew that it was in a competitive market for souls and acted accordingly. Denominations would try to outdo each other in the interminable quest for recruits, money and eligible chapel sites. There could even be wrangles within the same denomination as when, in 1882, the First Cambridge Primitive Methodist Circuit fell out with the Second Cambridge Primitive Methodist Circuit over ten shillings collected in the village of Waterbeach. (p. 15)

And this ripper that made me laugh:

Rivalry often reached a high pitch of intensity in Wales, where Baptists claimed to be unlike other denominations in having been founded by Christ on the banks of the river Jordan, and distributed tracts offering £100 prizes to anyone producing a Bible verse that vindicated infant baptism. (p. 15)

Despite these rivalries, ‘sectarian disputes within Nonconformity were moderated by the existence of an established church from which they all alike dissented. Generally the Church of England, with all its appearance of grand pretensions and sinister sacerdotalism, was the preferred target for their criticisms’ (p. 16). Among Nonconformists, old disputes between Calvinist and Arminians had died down, and greater co-operation increasingly ensued, evident in the development of theological training colleges, and personal connections between folk of different communions ‘whether in the form of the translocal family networks that tied together the elite of Nonconformity or the bonds of friendship between man and man who worked together in the same trade’ (p. 16). One result of such co-operation was that ‘interdenominational transfer became a commonplace … Chapel was chapel, whatever its formal label’ (pp. 16, 17).

As already indicated, Chapter 3, entitled ‘Development and Expansion’ (by far the longest chapter), traces the growth of Nonconformity throughout the Victorian era: ‘The chapels were ordinarily pulsating with life, drawing in fresh recruits and setting up new daughter congregations’ (p. 18). Such church plants were not however always amicable: ‘multiplication was often a result of division. There were schisms over finer points of doctrine or practice, over clashes between strong personalities and, at least on occasion, over industrial tensions’ (p. 19). Such growth is attributed to a number of factors, not least to Nonconformity’s ‘deep roots in the Victorian countryside’ and to Nonconformist structures proving ‘sufficiently adaptable to cope with urbanisation’ (p. 20). The author notes:

Those who moved into towns from the neighbouring countryside tended to maintain their existing religious practice. Furthermore the problem of the cities was far more acute for the Church of England, since there its traditional rural props of custom and deference were knocked away. Nonconformists could acquire adequate sites and run up cheap buildings much more easily. Consequently they did well, especially in some of the fastest growing urban areas: in 1851 at Bradford they achieved a 65% share of the churchgoing population, and in Stoke-on-Trent the Methodists by themselves secured a clear majority of attenders. It is true that the chapels made least impact in the nine largest cities, but even in London in 1902-03 Nonconformist worshippers outnumbered Anglicans. (pp. 20-1)

Professor Bebbington attributes the flourishing of chapel religion in the large Victorian towns to an appeal to the industrial society that was being forged therein for the first time in history. An increasing number of church attendees were being from among the skilled manual working population, even though semi-skilled and unskilled workers both remained under-represented. ‘Chapel was valued by some precisely because it was a place where diligent young men could catch the eye of an employer and so gain more desirable situations. Although workpeople readily found a place in Nonconformity, it attracted them partly because it could act as a vehicle for embourgeoisement’ (p. 22). The author notes a growing number of male attendees who now represented the majority of adults attending many Nonconformist morning services, even though men remained much less likely than women to take the step of formal admission to membership and throw themselves into involvement in the regular activities of the chapel which remained ‘disproportionately a female affair’ (p. 25) – with the obvious exception of church leadership positions. He writes:

Methodism gave [women] considerable scope, particularly in the cottage meetings that were still in vogue in the early Victorian years. There women could assume matriarchal roles as spiritual mentors, and later women could still hold office as Methodist class leaders. Female preaching, though far from unknown, was on the decline among Victorian Methodists; and the women itinerant preachers of the early Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians had all but disappeared, a casualty of the respectable doctrine of ‘separate spheres’, according to which women should confine themselves to the home. Congregationalists and Baptists, for the same reason, initially never chose women as deacons to manage chapel affairs even though the practice had been allowed in the previous century. It was a matter for debate in the two denominations whether a woman should be allowed a vote in the church meeting. Although female revivalist preachers sometimes found their way into Congregational and Baptist pulpits in the 1860s, women were not accepted as regular ministers among them. It was the Quakers who recognised women as properly accredited ministers, commissioning female members of their leading families to go on continental or transatlantic preaching tours that could take them away from home for years at a time. In the other main denominations female vocations could be worked out only through orders of deaconesses, uniformed ladies looking much like nurses, that were formed around 1890. Yet it was generally appreciated, as The Baptist Magazine put it in 1844, that there was ‘a special duty of females to promote the advancement of Messiah’s reign’. Women, Bible in hand, did most of the district visiting on behalf of the chapels. They went into hospitals, infirmaries, workhouses, asylums and prisons; they cared for the needs of vagrants, navvies, soldiers, sailors and prostitutes. They organised sewing circles to make clothes for the poor and ran bazaars-in the nineteenth century an exclusively female venture-to raise money for missions at home and abroad. In all these activities, and also in the weekly women’s meetings that proliferated in the later Victorian years, they found fulfilment. Although it was said of a mid-century minister’s wife in the Methodist New Connexion that ‘conversations on dress she regarded as contemptible littleness’, it may be supposed that exactly such staples of female sociability normally drew them together. Chapel was a place where women could enjoy each other’s company. (pp. 25-6)

Children too formed friendships through chapel life. Professor Bebbington notes that between 36% and 43% of attenders at Nonconformist morning services in London in 1902 were fifteen years old or younger – ‘about the same proportion as among the Anglicans’ (p. 26). He also notes the increase in efforts at education and, relatedly, the flourishing of denominational magazines and newspapers. At the same, evangelistic zeal – sometimes named ‘aggressive work’ and complete with Cottage meetings, tract distributions, soap-box sermons, and portable open-air harmoniums – continued to grow both at home in Britain and abroad: ‘Members of all the Evangelical denominations did not wait for people to straggle in through the chapel doors, but went out in order to proclaim the gospel’ (p. 29). Indeed, ‘There was much experimenting with fresh methods because the more enthusiastic leaders were never satisfied with the results of the older ways. Nonconformity grew because that was the fixed resolve of many of its members’ (p. 30). Increasingly, Victorian Nonconformists were also increasingly aware that human beings have bodies as well as souls, an awareness that birthed significant philanthropic effort and busied chapel life with various forms of social concern. The author draws our attention to the work of a number of individuals and organisations: the Unitarian Mary Carpenter, who ‘took up successively the causes of Ragged Schools for destitute children, juvenile delinquents, convicts, girls’ education and female suffrage … the Congregational minister Andrew Reed [who] championed the cause of mentally handicapped children, founding the unfortunately named Asylum for Idiots, the great Baptist preacher C. H. Spurgeon [who] established an orphanage and the Wesleyan minister T. B. Stephenson [who] launched a children’s home’ (p. 34). Not a few of those helped found their way into chapel pews. Professor Bebbington also notes the ‘unenviable lot of the ordinary working minister’, many of whom lived in abject poverty, and most of whom were so pressurised by pastoral responsibilities that they had no time for outside activities, whether denominational administration, public affairs or publication. Oh, the good ol’ days! He notes the importance of preaching, more appreciated in Wales than anywhere else in Britain. One single gathering of a Baptist association in 1843 in Wales consisted of forty-three sermons, and in England sermons were probably the most popular form of reading at mid-century. Congregations, he notes, continued to tolerate sermons of immense length (up to an hour and a half by a Methodist New Connexion lay preacher: gotta watch those lay preachers! They tend to waffle like some bloggers I know); the normal Nonconformist sermon, however, was a measly ½ hour. ‘Dissenters bowed in prayer for a minute or two on entering their pews, kept silence after the benediction for about half a minute before leaving, and in between listened to sermons of only moderate worth ‘without any indications of restlessness or contempt’ (p. 37). Oh, the good ol’ days … or a typical Sunday at St Andrews Free Church! The chapter concludes with a fascinating examination of Nonconformist liturgy and of church architecture – a testimony to non-conformist adaptability.

In Chapter 4, our attention is turned to an evaluation of what he considers ‘perhaps the most stimulating academic debate relating to Nonconformity in Victoria’s reign’ (p. 42). ‘The Helmstadter Thesis’ is the contention of RJ Helmstadter that the chapels passed through an epoch of confident individualism from the 1830s to the 1880s before turning at the end of the century towards new attitudes that undermined their optimism and even their viability (p. 42). After outlining the thesis itself, Professor Bebbington concludes that the argument regarding the prevalence of individualism ‘can be taken much too far, for it neglects several deeply rooted features of Nonconformist life’ (p. 46). He suggest that it ignores too much the centrality of the family in chapel affairs, and the ‘domestic ideology’ that informed family, commercial and social life more generally. He reminds that ‘the values of chapel members …were moulded by their family responsibilities and their obligations at work. Their outlook on the world, rather than being narrowly individualistic, was coloured by a powerful communal sense’ (p. 47). Professor Bebbington also suggests that Helmstadter’s thesis fails to account for the large-scale industrial and political movements that were associated with Nonconformity – ‘the spirit of mutuality’ and trade unionism. He also identifies the call by Nonconformists to national righteousness, a growing sense of responsibility for the corporate life of England and of subsequent increased incursions into the public domain. ‘In all these spheres’, he writes, ‘the public stance of Nonconformity was shaped far less by beliefs about the supremacy of personal liberty than by other considerations-theological principle, zeal for public righteousness and straightforward patriotism. The socio-political outlook of the chapels was never simply individualistic’ (p. 48). This is partly because, he continues, ‘the underlying religious attitudes did not so dwell on the individual as to eclipse the community. Despite what has already been said, Evangelicalism was itself ambiguous: it called for souls to be saved one by one, and yet held up standards of a just society that could often be imposed only at the expense of individual freedom’ (p. 48). The other factor that informed this outlook was the fact that Congregationalists and Baptists shared a conviction of churchmanship according to which ‘executive responsibility might lie with minister and deacons but ultimate earthly authority rested with the members gathered in Church Meeting, was a powerful inducement to co-operative action blending individuals, families and classes’ (p. 49).

Chapter 5 outlines the challenges that attended Nonconformity in the final decades of the nineteenth century, a period also marked by ‘significant changes of ethos in the chapels’ (p. 51). While careful not to exaggerate the changes and to emphasise the high degree of continuity (not least in confidence, optimism and evangelistic effort), Professor Bebbington notes that ‘ministers, especially in inner-city areas, began to notice thinning congregations. The drift to the suburbs, for all its benefits to the new chapels built on the fringe of the growing cities, did great harm to the older ones left in the centre’ (p. 51). He also identifies the social trends of the time as unpropitious for Nonconformity, noting the rising tide of class consciousness that drew working men to Independent Labour meetings during chapel hours, and ‘alternative leisure activities -organised sport and the music hall being chief’ (p. 52).

Inititally, the chapels struggled nobly to respond. But eventually – some of them – instead of shunning these taboos, harnessed and exploited them. He cites how progressive Wesleyans actually promoted football clubs under chapel auspices, which is how Aston Villa started. He records that in Birmingham between 1871 and 1884 about 21% of cricket clubs and 25% of football clubs had religious affiliations, and many of them were Nonconformist.

Likewise, the challenges posed by Darwinism and biblical criticism were almost painlessly assimilated by Nonconformists, particularly by her ministers, ‘What did sway Evangelical Nonconformists’, Professor Bebbington recalls, ‘particularly in Congregationalism, was the literary temper shaped by Thomas Carlyle, Goethe and the English Romantic poets that found its natural home among the Unitarians. Its leading Congregational champion was James Baldwin Brown, whose Divine Life in Man (1859) stressed the liberal themes of the Fatherhood of God, the freedom of human nature and the imperative to righteousness’ (pp. 54-5).

Theological challenges were also posed by a decline in the belief in hell, and – more significantly – a usurping of the central place of the cross in the scheme of theology for that of incarnation. ‘The process of doctrinal erosion continued, gathering momentum in the opening years of the twentieth century. The convictions of many Nonconformists were becoming more blurred … Church discipline for moral or doctrinal offences became rarer and less public, a matter of pastoral guidance rather than formal excommunication. Candidates for the ministry were less willing to acknowledge a definite conversion experience’ (pp. 55-6).

The concluding chapter witnesses to the drift in the direction of Rome, including its High Anglican form, in the early twentieth century. It was a century in which Victorian Nonconformists bequeathed a remarkable legacy, notably in areas of Christian ethics, piety, and political involvement. Nonconformity’s numerical decline witnessed at the beginning of the century was countered with a new reinvigoration from Pentecostalists and charismatics, so that by 1985-89 it was once more the Free Churches that were increasing while Anglicanism and Catholicism knew declining numbers. Professor Bebbington concludes by suggesting that some of Nonconformity’s success in the 1980’s can be attributed to a rediscovery of some of the formulas from their Victorian days.

Between 1837 and 1901 most of Nonconformity had a buoyancy that sprang from Evangelical belief; its denominational diversity allowed it to cater for different areas and social groups; it enjoyed advantages arising from its environment but relied chiefly on its own strategy of mission to achieve growth; and it maintained a delicate balance between a robust individualism and a well developed corporate sense. The chapels tried to embody the loftiest aspirations in a concrete pattern of social life that, for all its flaws and follies, gave fulfilment to millions. Victorian Nonconformity formed a vibrant Christian counter-culture. (p. 58)

David Bebbington packs a lot into 61 pages of what is therefore an extraordinary introduction to the field. In fact, it is the best introductory survey of its type I know. The republication of this volume is exciting. Very few are as well placed and informed to pen such a volume; and all who venture into its pages will be well served. Well researched. Well written. Highly recommended!

‘Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century’: A Review

Alan P. F. Sell and Anthony R. Cross (eds.), Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2003). x + 398 pages. ISBN: 978 1 84227 221 3. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

This book, edited by Alan Sell and Anthony Cross, is another worthy addition to what is an excellent series of Studies in Christian History and Thought, a series comprising monographs, revised dissertations, and collections of papers which explore the church’s witness through history. The series includes some important contributions to scholarship, among which is David Wright’s Infant Baptism In Historical Perspective, Byung Ho Moon’s Christ the Mediator of the Law: Calvin’s Christological Understanding of the Law as the Rule of Living and Life-giving, and David Bebbington’s brilliant 1998 Didsbury Lectures, Holiness In Nineteenth-Century England.

Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century is a collection of papers presented at the second conference of The Association of Denominational Historical Societies and Cognate Libraries, held at Westhill College, Birmingham, in July 2000. The result is twelve papers from scholars representing a number of Nonconformist traditions which invite reflection on Nonconformist contributions to biblical studies, theology, worship, evangelism, spirituality, and ecumenism during the twentieth century.

Sell’s own contribution, ‘The Theological Contribution of Protestant Nonconformists in the Twentieth Century: Some Soundings’, is an embryonic version of his 2006 Didsbury Lectures, published as Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century and reviewed here (I wish I’d noticed this before I was near the end of the chapter, although it was great to read over this material again). He again reminds us that Nonconformists are nothing if not diverse. Employing Dale’s summary on the question of the final fate of the impenitent, Sell writes:

The twentieth century provided Nonconformist theologians with both inner-family and external stimuli to theological endeavour. As the century opened the Wesleyans were earnestly debating the question of eternal life. The particular question at issue was the final fate of the impenitent. Discussion of this topic had been rumbling on at least since the eighteenth century, and R.W. Dale had specified the options in 1877. There are, he said, those who cannot make up their minds on the subject: ‘They cannot warn men against eternal condemnation, because they are not sure that any man will be eternally condemned.’ There are those who hold that the impenitent are to be condemned to suffering, whilst hoping that ‘there may be some transcendent manifestation of the Divine grace in reserve, of which as yet we have no hint.’ There are those who believe that the Christ who came to seek and to save the lost will persist in this effort even though, because of the invincibility of human freedom, it cannot be affirmed that all will in fact be saved. There are those who believe that God’s love cannot finally be thwarted, and hence all will finally be saved; those who hold that the impenitent will nevertheless enjoy an eternal life on a lower plane than the saved; and those who deny that the impenitent can finally be restored. (p. 36)

While all the studies are certainly erudite and deserving of comment, I wish here to identify a few for special mention. Norman Wallwork’s piece, ‘Developments in Liturgy and Worship in Twentieth-Century Protestant Nonconformity’ is a helpful survey of the general issues and particular contributions that concern Nonconformist worship. The contributions of Unitarians, Free Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, the United Reformed Church, Congregational Federation, Baptists and are all attended too with care, and the Quakers, Methodists, Independent Methodists and Salvation Army are also considered. Wallwork writes:

Of all the Free Churches the Unitarians were the most given to textual revision of the Book of Common Prayer [no surprises here], but their demise included their destruction of the Trinitarian theology which undergirded the Anglican tradition. However, Martineau’s love of good liturgical language passed over into all the Free Churches not least into Congregationalism. The Free Church Catholic and ritualistic revival under Lloyd Thomas and Orchard was short-lived, but the prayers in Orchard’s Divine Service furnished other service books for over fifty years. The movement for liturgical renewal which hit the Free Churches in the 1960’s and created the Joint Liturgical Group produced some fine liturgical texts and created new service books centred on classical eucharistic texts, an increase in the frequency of communion, a shift to morning all-age celebrations, and a much greater emphasis on the Christian year. In the end, only the Methodists and the United Reformed Church would place a eucharistic rite in the hands of their congregations. In all the traditions worship leaders and preachers turned to a variety of available resources, often without the approval of any recognizable magisterium. The memory of revival songs from the Sankey and Moody era helped to secure a place for lively and spontaneous worship revived among the Free Churches, as in Anglicanism, by a new wave of charismatic prayer and praise and the new tradition of heavy ‘biblical teaching’ in Sunday worship. This movement had its strongest support among the Baptists and many of the original ‘Plymouth’ Brethren congregations who now renamed themselves ‘Evangelical Churches’. The influence of the High Genevan school of the English Reformed tradition was still seen in the liturgical texts of the United Reformed Church but much of its worship was dominated by the twin calls to inclusive all-age worship and to be relevant and engaged in issues of local and international justice. Several babies went out with the bath water. (pp. 130-1)

Other essays I particularly valued were David Bebbington’s, ‘Evangelism and Spirituality in Twentieth-Century Protestant Nonconformity’, and ‘Protestant Nonconformist Attitudes towards the First World War’, by Alan Ruston. Ruston, who is editor of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, surveys how WWI witnessed Nonconformist churches becoming increasingly part of the establishment, particularly in attitude. They became, he writes, ‘an integral element within the political machine in almost the same terms as the established church. But flying into the sun in this way burnt their wings and like Icarus they fell to the sea. They did not drown like Icarus but the weakness engendered by the war remained with them for the rest of the century’ (p. 240). Ruston’s contribution to this volume is a powerful reminder of how voluntaryist assumptions about church, state and society inform Nonconformist contributions to religious, social and political life.

Those who identify themselves with the Nonconformist family, and those with an interest in (particularly early) Twentieth Century theology and history would be well served by reading this book.

Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century: A Review

Alan P.F. Sell, Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006). 239 pages. ISBN: 9781842274712. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

Readers already familiar with Professor Alan P. F. Sell’s writing will know that he is a meticulous researcher whose reading is extensive (much of the material cited is now well out of print), whose commitment to ecumenism is exemplary, whose love for, and devotion to, the nonconformist tradition is contagious, whose acumen for critically identifying contemporary theological trends is cultivated and well coached, whose affection for PT Forsyth – and the centrality of the Cross in Forsyth’s thought – is laudable, whose writing betrays not a few hours of pastorally-informed reflection, and whose ability to get to the heart of things with an elegant economy of words makes not a few of his readers (including me) jealous. If all these accolades are accurate, then this published set of Alan Sell’s 2006 Didsbury Lectures is classic Sell, and Nazarene Theological College is to be congratulated for extending the invitation to Professor Sell to give these four distinguished lectures; furthermore, Paternoster are to be saluted for continuing to publish the series of which these lectures form a part. Certainly, here Sell deservedly joins the ranks of some distinguished scholars.

Despite significant works by historians Clyde Binfield, Dale Johnson, David Bebbington, Mark Hopkins, and Jim Gordon, and the wonderful 4-volume series of Protestant Nonconformist Texts, Paternoster’s Studies in Evangelical History and Thought series, and numerous other works by Sell himself, it could still be argued that too little ink has been spilt in recent years exploring the enormously rich contribution that nonconformist theologians have made, and continue to make, to theological conversation and Church life. Sell’s book needs to be considered as one of many – and one of the best – that continue to fill a gap in this area.

Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century is broad in its scope, offering a well-textured balance of historical contextualisation, theological grappling, contemporary application, and anecdotal stories. Areas of divine providence, the New Theology (associated with RJ Campbell), baptism, Feminist Theology, Natural Theology, Process Theology, Calvinism, God’s Fatherhood, merely-Incarnational theology, the reception of Karl Barth into British theological conversation, and contemporary theological education all fall under Sell’s discerning gaze.

In the first lecture, Sell provides an erudite survey, a ‘bird’s-eye-view of the landscape’ (p. 38) of Protestant Nonconformist theology in the twentieth century, particular the century’s first half. The historical terrain, theological motifs, and ecclesiological realities, and their ongoing relevance for understanding and informing contemporary theological thought, debate and practice are all well covered in this chapter, which sets the tone for the remaining three.

Sell then turns in Lecture Two to the ‘doctrinal peaks’ of Christology (pp. 41–66), Pneumatology (pp. 66–71), the Trinity (pp. 71–84), and confessions of faith (pp. 84–89), attending fruitfully to each within their historical context while harnessing contributions from an enormous range of nonconformist theologians. Resisting the temptation to here rehearse multiple citations, I will offer just this one:

‘No Nonconformist theologian did more in the last two decades of the twentieth century to place the Trinity in the centre of theological debate than Colin Gunton. So all-embracing is his Trinitarian vision (an analogy might be drawn with the centrality of the Cross in the writings of P.T. Forsyth) that it is difficult to place him in a study of this kind’. (p. 81)

In the third chapter, Sell turns to discuss one of his great passions: ecumenism. Herein he seeks to address a number of questions: How did the mainline Nonconformist traditions understand themselves in the twentieth century? How did they reach out to one another and to more distant communions during the so-called ‘ecumenical century’? Is their traditional witness as Free Churchpeople still required, or even viable? Sell provides an at times provocative discussion on the relationship between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism (pp. 91–96), wherein he cites favourably the Congregationalist historian Bernard Lord Manning: ‘Protestantism … is not the opposite of medieval Catholicism: it is simply an improved kind of catholicism. Protestantism is not a negative thing. It is a positive re-statement of catholic truth’ (p. 93). True catholicity, Sell argues, is not found in a book, nor in a church, but in that true authority over book, Church and conscience – Jesus Christ, and the effectual word of his Cross, ‘to which the conscience owes its life’ (P.T. Forsyth, Rome, Reform and Reaction, 136). It is not here only that Sell walks abreast with Forsyth.

Professor Sell then accents the many published nonconformist studies on ecclesiology. It is a breathtaking reminder of the central place that ecclesiology has played in informing nonconformist theology, from John Oman to R. Newton Flew to Lesslie Newbigin and Daniel Strange. He notes that while all these contributors were not singing the same part, and ‘occasionally a faintly discordant note was struck’, they were ‘clearly singing in the same choir’ (p. 99), which is a fresh reminder of the breadth within the tradition. In more than one way were these theologians non-conformists.

With a newly sharpened pencil, this internationally known scholar of ecumenical studies turns our attention to ‘an abiding issue of global significance’ (p. 136): that of the historic episcopate. After noting that nonconformists are not simply Protestants but ‘Free Church people’, and as such have played significant roles in various ecumenical councils, he witily suggests that ‘the question for us now is whether there is any theological topic distinctive of Free Churches as a whole and not of one denomination only, on which the Nonconformists of England might be expected to speak with a united voice? Living alongside the only remaining Anglican established Church as they do, the obvious candidate is the establishment question’ (p. 136). Sell recalls that nonconformists have not been those who have denied the necessity of the state recognition of religion; ‘it was, after all, the state which accorded religious toleration’ (p. 137). Nonconformists have well understood the appropriateness of proper Church-state relations, but have (rightfully) questioned the very principal of a national church. Again, he cites Forsyth: ‘What we protest against is not the abuses but the existence, the principle, of a national church’. The very existence of a state church denies the Church’s catholicity. Again, Forsyth: ‘However Establishment may seem to work at a given time, the thing is wrong … For my own part, any doubt of the truth of our Nonconformist principles would mean doubt of the truth of what is most distinctive in Christianity itself – free faith, free action, and free giving, as the response of men who have been moved and changed and controlled by the free gift of God and grace in Jesus Christ’ (P.T. Forsyth, The Charter of the Church, 32). A state church is, as Congregationalist John Whale once noted, a ‘contradiction in terms’ (p. 139). Rightly suspicious of attempts towards dialogue in the past that were based on purely pragmatic principles, Sell looks hopefully towards the future, and towards those Anglicans and Free Church folk who are currently engaged in discussion about issues of establishment. He pleads: ‘May their outlook be ecumenical and their thoughts in the first place be theological’ (p. 144).

The final chapter, entitled ‘Rivers, Rivulets – and Encroaching Desert?’, turns our attention to eschatology, the atonement, and a collection of other themes that Sell identifies as important for understanding nonconformist theology, but have largely been overlooked in the preceeding chapters. He recollects that debates concerning the final fate of the impenitence were hotly contested, not least by Unitarians. Sell’s focus here is mainly on notions of universalism, annihilationism and the possibility of post-mortem probation. The discussion is fascinating, revealing again that there really is nothing new under the sun. I will limit myself here to one quotation. Sell introduces us to Sydney H. Mellone, Principal of Manchester Unitarian College, and his 1916 work Eternal Life Here and Hereafter. Mellone writes,

The assertion, sometimes made, that Universalism means in effect ‘it does not matter what we do, for we shall be all right in the end’ is unworthy of discussion. Universalism rests on the same foundation on which rests our belief in the eternity of goodness and truth in God … The ethical motive of belief in immortality means that compensation and retribution, to be real, must be redemptive. The religious motive means that final communion with God is the destiny of every soul, and not alone of those who know in this present by living experience what such communion is. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. (cited on p. 150.)

The chapter, and the book, concludes with Sell offering some hard hitting words as he critically reflects on the demise of the Church’s vocabulary, the integrity-eroding effects of political correctness on inter-faith dialogue, the revival of interest in the Trinity during the last 30 years, the side-lining of the atonement in the Church’s proclamation, the necessity for theologians to not merely speak ‘from faith to faith’ but to commend the faith to others, and the current state of theological education, particularly in England. On the latter, and in the same manner as his champion PT Forsyth, Sell argues that the Church desperately needs a more thoroughly trained clergy than it is currently receiving.

As a devoted churchman who served two pastorates in the United Kingdom from 1959 to 1968, and who has served internationally as a theological educator since, and so not unaware of the practical and financial hurdles that pastoral ministry candidates, their churches and their colleges are often forced to jump, Sell urges churches to take steps to ‘ensure that their younger candidates at least receive a full and rigorous academic course. If this means fewer visits to hospitals and prisons during a candidate’s college years, so be it; required in-service training for licensed probationers prior to ordination is not impossible to provide, and it is never more readily received than by those at the pastoral “coal face”.’ He continues,

I see no viable substitute for practitioners’ having a solid grounding in the Bible, a thorough acquaintance with the history of Christian thought (which is broader than historical theology, but includes both it and the linguistic competence to read salient texts), and sufficient philosophical-analytical skills to probe presuppositions, analyse arguments and avoid the writing of incoherent gobbledegook. None of this is achieved without real time and effort; and the churches would do well to encourage in all possible ways those ministerial candidates whose gifts take them in these directions, and whose academic lungs can withstand prolonged immersion in extensive and sometimes choppy waters (p. 191).

At times throughout the book, Sell makes claims that invite clarification and further comment. For example, he states that ‘there is a common defining essence underlying all genuine religious phenomena’ (p. 37). Does he have something like Otto’s notion of holiness in mind here [which I have written on here, here, here, here and here], or Feuerbach, or something else? I would have liked Sell to unpack this just a little. But this is really an insignificant squabble. More disappointing is the fact that Sell spills comparatively little ink on the second half of the century to which the title of his book flags. Apart from infrequent and brief discussions of the contributions of Paul Fiddes and Colin Gunton, by and large the lectures are heavily weighted towards the century’s first half which, to be fair, is by far where most of the material published by twentieth century nonconformist was birthed. As a consequence, the albeit scarcity of significant contributions from within Pentecostalism, the Brethren, Black churches, and independent evangelical churches are all but ignored. (This says more about the dearthly state of more recent nonconformist scholarship in England than it does about Sell’s treatment of the material.) Congregationalist, which receives the most attention, Baptist, Methodist and Unitarian contributions are, however, well represented. Some readers may also be disappointed that Sell limits his discussion to the nonconformist scene in England and, to some extent, in Wales. While a book that seriously took in any more would expand the book’s length considerably (and I think in this case with little profit), perhaps the title of the book could have been more revelatory here. That said, the book is no poorer for that.

The volume includes a helpful list of biographical references of some of the major personalities discussed in the lectures, as well as an impressive bibliography. Those concerned with the life and theological contribution of the nonconformist family specifically, and those interested in the shape that theology took in twentieth-century Britain more generally (and may be taking in this century) will be prodigiously served by reading this book. An encyclopedic, but accessible, study!