Friday, November 17, 2006

Religion in the eighteenth century

Voltaire saw religious liberty as characteristic of England.
‘Everyone is permitted to serve God in whatever way he thinks proper.’
Strictly speaking, this was not the case. The 1698 Blasphemy Act made denying the doctrine of the Trinity, the truth of Christianity, or the authority of Scripture punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. (For the notorious case of Thomas Aikenhead in Scotland, see here. For the case of the Chevalier de la Barre in France, see here, if you read French.)

In England the Blasphemy Law was rarely invoked. Since the Toleration Act of 1689 the Church of England had lost its powers to compel church attendance. Even before 1689 it had never provided a truly national religion. England (to a lesser extent Scotland) was a religiously diverse country. The Church of England was itself divided with bitter conflicts between Whigs and high Tories. The parish structure was proving inadequate in an age of population growth and incipient industrialization. New, disorderly settlements, such as the Kingswood colliery near Bristol, were not amenable to clerical control.

The 27 Anglican dioceses differed in size and wealth. Rochester had fewer than 150 parishes, Lincoln over 1500. Sodor and Man was the smallest (no seat in the Lords). There were great variations in episcopal income. Bishops were increasingly aristocratic; the fathers of over 20% of George III’s bishops were connected with the peerage. But it was also a career open to talent (Potter, Gibson, Warburton, Hurd). The annual Parliamentary session kept the bishops in London for a considerable time each year.

Anglican public worship was uniform: matins, ante-communion, sermon; evensong in the afternoon. There was great regional variation over the practice of ‘double duty’. Very few parishes fell below the canonical minimum of three communion services a year.

The parish churches we see today are the result of Victorian alterations: the raised steps leading to the altar in the east end of the church, the candles on the altar, the pews. Eighteenth-century churches had boxed pews that were rented out and opened by a pew-opener. The pulpit is likely to have been three-decker.

An age of negligence?
The historiography of the 18th century church has been dominated by anachronistic Victorian criticisms (Evangelical and Tractarian) that it was corrupt, materialistic and spiritually moribund. This was essentially a criticism of latitudinarian Whig bishops like Benjamin Hoadley (1676-1761) who insisted that the Church was subordinate to the state and never visited his diocese of Bangor in the six years he was bishop. But modern scholarship has found much evidence of conscientious Episcopal administration. The evidence of visitation returns suggests that the Church was more successful in maintaining frequent services than its critics claimed.
Clergy were now almost entirely graduates, and Queen Anne’s Bounty relieved much clerical poverty. But pluralism and non-residence were constant problems and were an open invitation to Dissenters and anti-clericals to attack the Church. Few new churches were built, but many galleries were put in.

Voluntary religious activity was a remarkable feature of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (founded 1698) printed Christian literature and promoted and co-ordinated the operation of hundreds of local charity schools. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (founded 1701) promoted overseas missions. The volume of religious publications remained high. On average nearly 100 sermons a year went into print during the first half of the 18th century. The hymns of Isaac Watts were widely sung (though hymn singing was not an official part of Anglican worship until the 1820s).

Personal religious attitudes are harder to quantify. But diaries, the contents of libraries and periodicals, literature painting and music show the evidence of Christian belief. Endowments of churches and schools are another form of evidence. There was still a large demand for religious chapbooks and ‘godly broadsides’. Popular superstition remained high – represented by almanacs and fortune tellers. John Wesley continued to believe in witches.

However, much of the higher reaches of the Church and the university of Cambridge in particular were dominated by latitudinarian or even deist thinking – a stress on natural rather than supernatural religion and reason rather then ‘enthusiasm’. Much of this was a reaction to the ‘fanaticism’ of the 17th century. This could lead to heresy or unbelief, but the commonest reaction was blandness.

There was no coherent alternative to Christianity. The scepticism of Gibbon and Hume was not representative. Bernard Mandeville was very secular in his thinking and John Wilkes notoriously anti-religious, but it is hard to know how widespread such attitudes were.

The Dissenting denominations were Presbyterians, Independents, Baptists and Quakers. The Toleration Act gave freedom of worship to all but Unitarians, but required them to register their places of worship and ensure that only officially licensed preachers conducted Sunday services. In spite of these difficulties between 1689 and 1710 nearly 4,000 Dissenting chapels and meeting houses were licensed though their numbers were probably stagnant.

Because the Church of England dominated the countryside and the universities, Dissenting chapels were found predominantly in urban areas and were frequented by the middling sort. The sacramental tests acted as a barrier to the more lucrative and prestigious public offices, though after 1745 the passage of a series of annual Indemnity Acts increased the difficulty of prosecuting non-Anglican office-holders under the Test Acts, and Presbyterian businessmen effectively dominated several towns.

Case study: Bristol, which next to London had the largest Dissenting community in London, is a good example of this. The Dissenters, including many Baptists, were involved in local government from the highest to the lowest offices. Between 1754-84, 11 members of Lewins Mead Presbyterian chapel held the office of mayor, thus tying up the post for more than a third of the period. The unusually high occupational status of the Bristol Dissenters is confirmed by their dominance in local politics. Dissenters held one of the two sheriff’s seats for 15 of these 30 years and between 1771 and 1776 they did so without a break.

Dissenters could therefore vote and stand for Parliament, but only 25 Dissenting MPs have been identified between 1715 and 1760. The Lords was even more of an Anglican preserve. It was not possible for Dissenters to matriculate at Oxford and Cambridge, as this required subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Among Dissenting grievances was the fact that besides supporting their own chapels and meeting-houses, they had to pay local church fees - rates and tithes. Following Hardwicke’s Marriage Act (1753) they could only be lawfully married in a parish church by a clergyman of the Church of England, yet they might be denied right of burial in a local churchyard.
Presbyterianism gave birth to what became virtually a separate Unitarian movement.

Roman Catholics
Catholics were just 1% of the population (at most 60-80,000 people), clustered geographically in Lancashire, Staffordshire, the north-east,West Sussex and London, under the authority of a vicar apostolic. Until the Irish immigration at the end of the century, they were expanding at a slower rate than the population as a whole. Catholics had to pay a double rate of land tax, and faced numerous restrictions on residence and travel. Yet enforcement was always patchy. Until the Catholic Relief Acts of 1778 and 1791 (scroll down) penal laws made it difficult for Catholics to worship openly (and keep within the law) and to inherit property. With the relaxing of the law, life became easier. In 1792 Winchester Catholics erected an elaborate Gothic church.

Catholics were at pains to stress their loyalty to the Crown. From 1766 (the year of the Old Pretender’s death) the vicars apostolic ordered their clergy to pray for the King.