Part One of "Religious Revival and the Transformation of English Sensibilities in the Early Ninteeenth Century"

In various works the distinguished French historian Élie Halévy stated his conviction that the Methodist movement of the eighteenth century had so transformed English society as to forestall the revolutionary paroxysm that took place across the Channel. Halévy's work has been much criticized and is accepted by few in its original form, [In 1970 Gertrude Himmelfarb opined that Halévy's thesis was assumed by most historians to have been refuted, but in fact never had been. She believed scholarly fashion had much to do with Halévy's eclipse. Himmelfarb, Victorian Minds, 292-299. Since the publication of her book another burst of Halévy studies has come on the scene, and it may be that the controversy is still not settled. Much of the new material is collected in Olsen, ed., Religion and Revolution . The present study is sympathetic to Halévy's assumption about the influence of religious ideas and movements on history, but does not speculate on the issue of revolution.] but it remains an organizing focus for much of the thinking about the influence of religion in England during this period.

Halévy's idea was largely lost on many historians who followed him, particularly in the interwar years when religious ideas routinely received short shrift from scholars.[Walter Arnstein says that as an undergraduate he was taught that the world, or at least its educated inhabitants, had been getting constantly more secular, a conclusion he had since come to doubt. He observes that E.L Woodward's book, The Age of Reform, 1815-1870 (1938) devotes only 26 of its 608 pages to religion, and a disproportionate number of them just to the Oxford Movement. Arnstein et al. "Recent Studies in Victorian Religion"] But it ought to be obvious to the most casual observation that England from some time in the late eighteenth century and increasingly in the nineteenth century was drenched in religious terminology and thinking. I can recall as a beginning graduate student going through the Official Records of the American Civil War and being amazed to find that routinely a regimental commander giving the order of the day to his officers would find it advisable to remind them of the Saviour's presence and to wish God's blessing upon them. That prepared me for the reading of English documents from the same generation. Desmond Bowen, in a review article dealing with religion in nineteenth-century English history, suggested not long ago that the 1980s marked a kind of watershed in the historiography of the period since "it is no longer philosophically unrespectable to believe in God...." [Bowen, 507] (Perhaps some day it will be no longer be philosophically unrespectable to let the documents tell us what they have to say without respect to current fashion.) Boyd Hilton, who has written one of the most remarkable recent books on this subject, reached a conclusion similar to Bowen's. He thinks the revival in the 1980s of evangelical and charismatic worship, the prevalence of catastrophism in various scientific fields, the spread of deadly new diseases which strike most heavily at those engaging in promiscuous behavior, "has led to cries for a return to abstinence and the so-called 'Victorian values'"[Hilton, The Age of Atonement, 373.]

Of course even if one is prepared to render due consideration to religious events and influences, that leaves plenty of room for differences of opinion on how to treat them. Are they merely the superstructure built on the more solid foundation of the social and economic relations of the society that erects them? Or are they independent variables that have a logic and causal nexus that can be identified and analyzed, thus making it possible to recognize religious factors as important causes of social change? The latter view is the one that animates the present study.

This issue has been addressed recently by British sociologist Christie Davies in an analysis of the moral character of British society. During the last half of the nineteenth century the crime rate declined markedly and so did the incidence of illegitimacy and drug and alcohol abuse. "It was a period of striking moral reform in personal behaviour which transformed Britain from being a violent, dishonest and addicted society into a peaceable, lawabiding, respectable and essentially moral realm...." But during the last generation or two that process reversed, and the prevalence of dysfunctional behavior has grown dramatically. Davies is aware of the statistical quirks that can skew the numbers, but the "U-curve" in immoral behavior remains clear. There seems to be no correlation with the usual materialist explanations--poverty, bad housing, urbanization and so on--and Davies shows how those explanations fall short. The correlation that remains is a surprise: attendance in Sunday school, an activity in which about three out of four children participated in 1888. As Sunday school attendance dropped in the present century the U-curve of crime commenced its long upward swing, one that does not yet appear to have reached its apogee [Davies, "Moralization and Demoralization," Ch. 1 of The Loss of Virtue, 3-9. Christie does not assign cause and effect on this matter, and is aware of how such phenomena can interact.] What evidence do we have that some such correlation explains changes in English society in the early nineteenth century, the period just prior to the downswing in social pathology of which Davies writes? What kind of evidence would persuade us? There is anecdotal material aplenty, but there are limitations to that approach: any anecdote we might care to adduce in support of an argument might have a counterpart that supports the opposite conclusion. Yet evidence that is questionable in the aggregate can be much more persuasive when seen close up, when there is less reason to suspect that unidentified extraneous factors might mislead us. I think the most persuasive reason we would have for believing that religious teaching and activity changed English society would be numerous studies showing how it actually happened in this parish, that village, the other neighborhood--if only such investigations were more common. Methodist historian Gordon Rupp is unhappy that so many noisy generalizations have been made which outrun the evidence, and he bemoans the paucity of the local studies on which such generalizations ought to be based [Rupp, Religion in England 1688-1791, 448.]

To illustrate what is needed one such study, focusing on the several regions of Ulster in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, concluded that evangelicalism became broadly established throughout the community, and was not confined by gender, social class or even religious denomination. Its had both popular and elite manifestations, and was very influential in establishing behavior patterns [ Hempton and Hill, Evangelical Protestantism]

Last modified 1998