[Part Nine of "Religious Revival and the Transformation of English Sensibilities in the Early Ninteeenth Century" © Herbert Schlossberg]

Analyses of the influence of evangelicalism commonly emphasize the changes it made in public morality. [For example, Hilton, Age of Atonement, 219: "For the way in which evangelicals made an impact out of all proportion to their numbers was by establishing a moral hegemony over public life."] There was in fact a marked change in standards of morality, which could easily be misinterpreted by the young or the superficial. But a long-lived and perceptive observer like the radical Francis Place, friend of the Mills and Bentham, who remembered the bad old days understood what had happened:

The progress made in refinement of manners and morals seems to have gone on simultaneously with the imprrovement in arts, manufactures and commerce. It moved slowly at first, but has been constantly increasing in velocity. Some say we have refined away all our simplicity and have become artificial, hypocritical, and on the whole worse than we were half a century ago. This is a common belief, but it is a false one, we are a much better people than we were then, better instructed, more sincere and kind-hearted, less gross and brutal, and have fewer of the concomitant vices of a less civilized state. [Quoted in George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century, 18. For more material on this see Toynbee, The Industrial Revolution, 120f.]

To cite a very different kind of witness, Bishop Blomfield of London said almost the same thing in 1854, the year Place died [Gash, Reaction and Reconstruction, 117]. The evangelicals also noticed what was happening, and just as Blomfield attributed the improvement to the efforts of the clergy, so they saw in the improvement the fruit of their own efforts. Wilberforce wrote to Hannah More about:

the greatly improved state of society in this country since I came into life, and of the hopeful promises of future good, which this moral advancement holds out too us. Every where schools; and schools in which religious instruction is attended to — I met fresh traces, my dear friend, of the blessed effects of your writings. [Wilberforce to More, January 8, 1824 in Wilberforce and Wilberforce, Life of Wilberforce 5:211.]

The Hammonds, who generally had a rather negative view of the influence of religion, nevertheless with a dogged kind of honesty reported what elsewhere they seemed to disbelieve: "Wesley and his disciples converted whole districts...from a life of dissipation and plunder to devout and orderly habits" [Hammond, Age of the Chartists, 238.] During the period 1849-51 the Morning Chronicle, in an effort to increase circulation, sent visitors throughout the English countryside to give the readers first-hand reports of the state of the realm. Much of this material was truly appalling, with people sunk in physical, spiritual, and moral depths, sometimes little more than bestial. The series evoked an outcry among the public and the politicians. But from time to time a correspondent would come upon a little mining or industrial town that was very different. In one such town in the mining district of Northumberland, for example, the dwellings were comfortable, the furniture good and the linen clean, the people well dressed and happy in appearance. In the houses of this town the "stock of books is generally very small, but there is almost always a large folio Bible to be found, often accompanied by a few Methodist tracts...." In one of the pottery districts in which the workers appeared clean and respectable, unlike those in neighboring towns, there was a plethora of Old Testament names among the population — "Moseses, Jacobs, Seths, Joshuas, Daniels, and Enochs, meet you at every turn." [Razzell and Wainwright, Victorian Working Class, 226, 248.]

An old Methodist story from the Durham mining villages relates a recent convert whose life was turned around by his conversion. During a grilling about miracles by his mates, he reminded them of the state of his family life before his conversion. If Jesus could turn beer into provisions for his family, why should he not be able to turn water into wine? [McLeod, Religion and the People, 40.] A recent study of the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham finds the anarchic and undiciplined pitman flocking to Primitive Methodism, which provided them with an ethos, a spirit of cohesion and a kind of collective rebirth that mirrored their individual conversions. They resolved the paradox between otherworldliness and activism in a way that gave due recognition to the inner and outer dimensions of their faith [Colls, Pitmen of the Northern Coalfield, chs. 8-12.] When R.W. Church, disciple of Newman who remained with the established Church and later became dean of St. Paul's, left Oxford to take up a parish at Whatley, it used to be said in the town that "a man durstn't any longer beat his wife, else the parson would be down on him." And Church was a frequent cause for the cessation of drunken brawls [Church, Life and Letters of Dean Church, 140.]

Moreover, it was not only believers that absorbed the lessons of Christian morality. Henry Wilberforce wrote in 1838 that many people who were not religious followed the example given by those who were, and were inclined to see that their children and servants do the same. [Hugh McLeod, Religion and the People of Western Europe, p. 108.] No doubt, this is part of the reason for the charge of hypocrisy leveled so often against the Victorians. Even an arch-rationalist like James Mill did not reject religious faith for rational reasons but, as his son reported, for moral reasons. He could not accept that a world created by a good and powerful God could have such evil — the old theodicy problem [Mill, Autobiography, 42.]

By the middle of the century, the revolution in morality was being recognized by those who deplored it. The historian Lecky complained that religious thought in his day was "all in one direction--toward the identification of the Bible and conscience" [History, 1:350]. J.M. Robertson, going over the same ground as Lecky, identified the evangelical and Tractarian movements as a "fanatical" reaction to what he considered to be the more beneficent rationalism of the eighteenth century [Robertson, History of Freethought, 1: 163f]. One of Robertson's complaints against the religious revival was that it greeted every innovation as the first white people greeted the ritualist cannibals of Tahiti. "Cannibals, it is now known, are not specially 'bad' people" (164).] Later on the Fabian socialist movement looked at the moral revolution, and particularly that wrought by the evangelicals through the Society for the Reformation of Manners, as a kind of oppression of the poor, accomplished while protecting the vices of the rich [See, for example, Hammond, Village Labourer, 222f. For a contrary analysis see Harvey, Britain in the Early Nineteenth Century, 106ff] — this in spite of the impassioned writing to the contrary by More, Wilberforce and others.

This close correspondence between religion and morality tends to obscure the fact that the main actors in the play deplored the substitution of morality for religion. We have seen that Arnold considered moralism a plague to be avoided. Wilberforce devoted a whole section of the Practical View to exactly that point, as well as sprinkling it throughout other parts of the book [Wilberforce, A Practical View, 246-272]. And the Tractarian writings are full of demands for the recovery of the full scope of Christian teaching and practice and would not countenance a shallow moralism.

Still, it's hard to speak with any certainty about the boundaries between morality and religion. As the century wore on, the English people became increasingly more conscious of of moral responsibilities; they also became increasingly religious, at least the more culturally influencial. For a given person the religion might be a factor causative of the morality; for another person without religious faith the increasingly accepted ethos might be sufficient to insure an outward conformity with religiously based moral standards; for yet another religion could be a purely formal matter in a self-deceptive way, much as the evangelicals, Tractarians and Arnoldians all denounced. In all these cases the religious transformation of the period caused observable and documentable changes in the way people lived, and that is the thesis of this study.


Victorian Web Overview Religion Introduction Bibliography

Content last modified 1998