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!