Skip to content

Free Churches and Society : The Nonconformist Contribution to Social Welfare 1800-2010 by Paul H. Ballard, Lesley Husselbee

June 21, 2016

FCASMany of the key improvements to social conditions in the United Kingdom have been made by Christians. Most of us would be able to think of such key Anglican figures as William Wilberforce, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury or Dr Thomas Barnardo, but lesser known contributions were made behind the scenes by significant members of the Non-Conformist Churches. This book traces the Free Church contribution to society from 1800 to the present day. It looks at the work of campaigners, co-operative societies, philanthropists and politicians, and traces the ways in which conditions in slums, education, and industry were improved, including work with women and with black and ethnic minorities.

This is one of the most interesting and provocative books I’ve read this year.

Now that governments want to use churches to plug gaps in the welfare state, this book shows that some of the things now seen as government initiatives had their origins in the work of Free Church pioneers

The name of R. W. Dale crops up frequently throughout this book. I read his book on the atonement as an undergraduate and was impressed by how forward-thinking it was. Decades later, I saw his name on the foundation of Carrs Lane United Reformed Church in Birmingham where I was booked in for a conference. He’d been minister there, at its previous building. Little did I know, then, of his considerable achievements.

In ‘The Free Churches and their Nation’, Stephen Orchard shows how the free churches had different views about community and participation from the established church. Oddly, however, unless I have missed something, he includes Quakers and Unitarians as ‘free churches’ but not the Salvation Army.

In ‘Congregations and Community’, Robert Pope treaces the defelopment of the social gospel. To start with, churches offered an alternative society, catering for educational and cultural as well as religious needs and Christians helped the poor as a means of evangelising them. With the liberal theology of people like Harnack, service to the poor became an end in itself. I didn’t realise that the Congregationalists saw themselves as more middle-class, appealing to businessmen, that the other free churches.

In ‘Conscience and Politics’, David Bebbington explains that the nonconformists were excluded from politics until various acts gave them a voice. They supported the Whigs/Liberals because they wanted parliamentary reform and later allied themselves with the Labour party.

In ‘Providers and Protagonists in the Nation’s Education’, Stephen Orchard, who has done so much for Religious Education, outlines the massive contribution made by free church people to the education system that we have inherited. I am privileged to have known two of them – Roy Niblett and John Hull. Much of this chapter is familiar to those of us who studied the history of education in our PGCEs but modern teachers will know nothing of this.

In ‘Industry, Philanthropy and Christian Citizenship: Pioneers in Paternalism; Clyde Binfield evaluates the work of great men like Titus Salt and his model village. It wasn’t just anglo-catholics who were paternalists. I learned that Crossley and Porters Grammar School in Halifax, where a former headmaster of mine had been head, was founded as an orphanage (though paupers and Roman Catholics weren’t welcome there.)

It is ‘Slums and Salvation’ by  Peter Catterall that the Salvation Army gets mentioned and then there is the realisation that congregations move out of urban priority areas and move their chapels so that there is little Christian presence in the inner city. (Whereas the Church of England prided itself with maintaining such a presence, the moving of resources away to suburbia is now happening too.) We also get more up to date stuff like the Oasis Trust, the Sheffield Urban Theology Unit and the work of Pastor Nims Obunge.

In ‘Campaigners and co-operative societies’,  David Thompson notes that the founder of the Howard league for Penal Reform had a brilliant analysis of problems but no real solution and also neglected his son.

In ‘The Welfare State and Beyond: the Reshaping of Community Work’,  Lesley Husselbee harks back to the Thatcher assertion that there is no such thing as society by showing how the churches worked with communities, even if they weren’t aware of the base communities of Liberation Theology.

In ‘Living out of History’,  Paul Ballard brings us up to date and suggests some ways ahead.


The 1851 religious census clearly revealed these assumptions to be false. In England only half the population attended church and only half of the attendance was within the Church of England. This raised questions for all professing Christians, who assumed that attendance at public worship ought to be universal. The Church of England saw its historic position eroded by other denominations and wondered how to bring the unchurched half of the population into the fold. The Free Churches saw that if they could claim the unchurched for themselves they would be entitled to demand disestablishment of the Church of England, which many of them saw as desirable. This fuelled the enthusiasm for Home Mission, which shared many characteristics with Overseas Mission. The provision of education, simple health care, employment, financial subsidy and shelter were all part of mission at home as much as abroad. In particular, foreign mission had highlighted arguments about millenni­alism. What was God’s purpose- in history and why was world evangelism necessary? The millennium was understood as the thousand-year reign of the saints on earth before the end of all things. If you took an apocalyptic view, that the sudden appearance of Christ in judgement would precede the millennium (pre-millennial adventism), then as long as you were faith­fully engaged in the work of mission at the coming of Christ you had nothing to fear. If you judged that Christians needed to work to bring in the millennium as a necessary preliminary to the coming of Christ (post-millennial adventism) then there was every incentive to strive to bring in the Kingdom of God by human endeavour. Groups such as the Plymouth Brethren were not active in their local communities because they were pre-millennialists. Radical social change would happen when Christ came. The main Free Church denominations were largely post-millennialists in their thinking and committed to changing the world around them so that Christ might indeed come again.

Migration brought plurality to the British religious scene over and above Christian diversity. In the nineteenth century, Jewish migrants established local communities, to which specific Christian missions, backed by educational and welfare services, were addressed. In the twentieth century other major world faiths, such as Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism, became evident in urban areas, where their places of worship were found in old chapels or, increasingly, purpose-built centres. The Free Churches nationally encouraged local contacts between faith groups based on mutual tolerance, rather than attempts at conversion. This may reflect the tradition dating back to the eighteenth century of licensing religious difference rather than attempting to impose uniformity. It is noticeable that successive governments have extended to the various communities of faith recognition comparable to that given to Free Churches. At the local community level one may find instances of community services traditionally provided by Free Churches now dependent on co-operation with people of other faiths.

A renewed Christian orthodoxy, however, began to challenge Liberal Theology as intellectually inadequate with a concern for systematic doctrine, closely argued. Perhaps the most influential theologian of the twentieth century was the Swiss Karl Barth (1886-1968). Although Barth claimed to be returning to the beginnings of the Reformed tradition his experience of Nazism in Germany and of Soviet Communism led him to a rejection of links between the Church and State, rather than to see them as comple­mentary to each other. This view was especially influential among Baptists and Congregationalists. The effect on church life was to turn the attention of churches towards their inner life rather than towards the community around them. Of the Free Churches it was the Methodists who remained more committed to community initiatives — in their policy for central missions, for instance.

Another factor which needs to be taken into account is the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century. Although it takes as its text ‘that they may all be one, so that the world may believe’, the mission of the Church is often lost in the small print of trying to resolve denominational differences. In the 1980s there was a moment when it seemed that the main Protestant denominations in England might unite. Similar moments came and went in Wales and Scotland. In place of these national reconciliations between denominations a form of local ecumenism has grown up, strong in some localities, weak in others. Mutual service to the community, be it after-school clubs, counselling services or Christian Aid collection, to name a few examples, is often carried out through these local structures. Again, this means that a distinctive Free Church approach may not be evident today.

From the late nineteenth century onwards Christians sought to work with psychological insights, choosing those which marched most easily with Christian thought, for instance, Jung rather than Freud. In practical terms this meant the development of Christian psychotherapy as part of the mission of the Church. Free Churches were active in this. The Presbyterian minister, John Gray,’ was the founder of the Marriage Guidance Council (now known as Relate) and Methodists, such as Bill Kyle who founded the Westminster Pastoral Foundation, in particular were associated with the development of counselling services, such as the Richmond Fellowship.

there has been a growth of independent congregations, not allied to the old Free Church denominations. Some of these are black-led churches; most of them have a much younger age-profile than is common in traditional denominations. They, too, take the international agenda seriously but these congregations are also often engaged in local community work, such as the creation of credit unions or provision of street pastors at night.

There was a small number of enterprising Dissenters who recognized that duties did extend beyond the ecclesiastical community into the wider society. Thomas Gouge, prior to his ejection from St Sepulchre’s, London, in 1662, had from his own pocket funded a scheme to purchase raw materials for flax and hemp spinning and then to pay workers for their yarn. The work ceased after Black Bartholomew’s Day and Gouge retired to Wales to concentrate his efforts on schemes of education. The Unitarian Thomas Firmin built barns to store corn and coals which he sold to the poor at cost price in times of economic hardship. In 1676 he built a warehouse which at one time employed 1,700 of the poor in the manufacture of linen. He undertook similar experiments in Ipswich and also lobbied the authorities to take up the scheme. The existence of such examples is far more significant than either the number of them or their apparent success. It highlights the way in which Christian believers were challenged not to transform society but to exercise their duties in the situation in which providence had placed them. It was at least the recog­nition that those who had much also had a great responsibility towards those who had less or even nothing at all.

A goose club enabled families to save for Christmas, while a cinematograph was installed in the church offering the opportunity for the public airing of films of an edifying and educational nature. Perhaps more radically, a Labour Bureau was established which, in 1906, enabled fifty men and women to find temporary work, while the church also provided clothing for the needy.

A ‘Coal Club’ was established as a savings account and means of provision during the winter months, a -Cripples’ Parlour’ provided education for the children, a ‘Dorcas Guild’ made clothes for the poor, while a Benevolent Society provided ‘help among the sick and poor who live in the parish and immediate neighbourhood’

Bloomsbury Baptist Chapel in London’s West End engaged in social work from its incorporation in 1848. It was said, within two years, that `the whole neighbourhood felt the influence of the new church, which poured forth help for all manner of benevolent and educational work’.77 A Cheap Clothing Society was established through which the women of the church provided cloth for the poor and in 1852 alone it was recorded that 928 items were sold!’ The church also distributed poor relief to the sick, primarily in the form of fuel and clothing. Medical advice and medicines were also available. As with the Methodists noted above, these Baptists were not political except in the widest of terms. They responded to a growing sense of service and a conviction that the proclamation of the gospel had to be accomplished by practical help or else any attempt to reach the poor was doomed to failure. As a result, the church’s social work was in reality a support for its pastoral work, for ‘no relief is given it personal visitation’ and the visitors employed by the church were `to combine Christian counsel with the temporal relief afforded’.

John Fielden, a Unitarian cotton master in Todmorden in Lancashire, who, unlike co-religionists such as Greg, was a leader of the ten hours movement. Nonconformists were even more strikingly divided over the enforcement of Sunday rest. Evangelical Nonconformists, Congregational, Baptist and Methodist, believed with few exceptions that it was the duty of the State to ensure that work and recreation stopped in order to honour the Lord’s Day, which was interpreted in the light of Old Testament teaching about the observance of the Sabbath. Part of their aim was to ensure a day of rest for the working population when there was no break on Saturday. Such Nonconformists campaigned to end Sunday trains, to stop Sunday mail deliveries and to keep museums and art galleries closed on Sundays. Most Unitarians, however, interpreted the Bible as encouraging higher cultural influences and not requiring respect for Old Testament Sabbath regulations. They therefore pressed for the removal of restrictions on Sunday recreation, eventually, in 1875, forming the Sunday Society with that object. Here was a clash of social policies grounded on differing theologies.

The Sunday question was one of those that agitated the localities. It was in their home towns, rather than in national politics, that most Nonconformists made their mark. Apart from serving on local councils, they often acted energetically in the range of voluntary organizations that were a feature of nineteenth-century society. Those who were businessmen often sat on chambers of commerce; others who sprang from the working people held office in trade unions. Many founded or sustained schools, especially the institutions of the British and Foreign School Society that were frequently associated with particular chapels. They supported Mechanics’ Institutes, which provided evening lectures for the population at large, libraries, museums and art galleries. Their philanthropy extended to orphanages, hospitals, maternity homes, convalescent homes, asylums, almshouses, zoos and parks. They were also prominent in distinctively Christian organizations such as Sunday School Unions, the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Young Men’s Christian Association. The prevailing motivation was expressed by T. C. Taylor, a Congregational deacon who became MP for Batley, when he remarked, ‘I was trained up … in the doctrine that “None of us liveth to himself”, and that our whole life should be a means of helping those less fortunate than ourselves.”

The peace campaign also appeared to be a counterpart of free trade, which required the abolition of war for effective commercial relations between different lands, and the reduction of public spending, which entailed as one of its leading priorities a decrease of expenditure on the armed forces.

The spread of this opinion was one of the effects of the period of the nonconformist Conscience. Previously Nonconformists had generally relied on voluntary action, believing that people need to be helped in person. The temperance movement, however, had induced many to reconsider. Its members continued to accept, as it was often said, that it is impossible to make people moral by act of parliament, but they realized that legislation limiting access to strong drink could make it harder to be immoral. They began to believe that national and local authorities had a part to play in advancing public welfare. The power of the State could close down brothels and limit gambling. By supporting this action Nonconformists supposed that they were extending rather than restricting their idea of liberty. Perhaps only when people were rescued from temptations could they enjoy true freedom. To help them to realize their potential through better housing and industrial conditions might also enhance their freedom even though the agency was the State.

The rise of the Labour Party in the early twentieth century owed even more to the Free Churches. Methodists were particularly strong in the trade union movement that was the seedbed of Labour. At least half the attenders at the conference of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain in 1890 were local preachers. When, in 1908, the miners’ MPs in the Commons trans­ferred from the Liberal to the Labour whip, it was a crucial step in shifting the party allegiance of many in the chapels.

The rise of Labour, however, troubled many of the more prosperous members of the chapels. They feared that socialism of a more full-blooded kind would lead to heavier taxes, threats to property and even revolution. Because of Lloyd George’s electoral alliance with the Conservatives in 1918, many of these well-to-do Liberals found themselves voting for Conservative candidates and never lost the habit.

Although members of the Free Churches were much more politically divided than in the past, certain causes continued to drive them into politics. The quest for peace was prominent among these issues. After the First World War, when hopes of world peace rested on the League of Nations, many chapels formed branches of the League of Nations Union. Divisions gradually emerged between those who, like the Quakers, held that war was an absolute wrong in which Christians should never engage and those who believed that, though an appalling calamity, the use of force was an essential reserve power in international affairs. This tension between between pure pacifists and conditional pacifists was acutely felt in the Free Church denominations during the 1930s as some declared that the outlawing of war was the only way to avoid another bloodbath like the First World War and others warned that the power-mad dictators of the continent could be contained only by being prepared to resist them. The Methodist Peace Fellowship, committed to the pacifist position, had enrolled as many as 5,000 members by the spring of 1940, many since the outbreak of war. Yet the great majority of Methodists believed the struggle against Hitler was justified. As the Cold War emerged in later years, there was again vigorous debate between the sections of opinion holding that either Communism or nuclear destruction was the greater threat. Agitation against Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was strong in the 1950s and again in the 1980s, but did not command a majority in any denomination until in 1983 the United Reformed Church adopted a resolution urging that Britain should renounce the use of the bomb unilaterally.

In 1959 the Methodist Church issued a compendium of its conference resolutions on a variety of questions. Their most eloquent spokesman on such matters was Donald Soper, long Superintendent of the West London Mission that Hugh Price Hughes had established. Soper was known as an outdoor speaker, famously dealing adroitly with hecklers at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. Alongside a commitment to pacifism, he developed a powerful critique of capitalism as a system based on greed. He acted as the conscience of the Labour movement, recalling his party colleagues to points of socialist principle, and in 1965 was created a peer so that the House of Lords became his soap-box. He also lent his support to various causes, serving, for example, as president of Shelter, the national campaign for the homeless. Soper was the leading Christian socialist of his generation…. The moral landscape of Britain was remoulded by a cultural earthquake in the 1960s. The received norms of social life were challenged by new ways, some of them favoured by authority and others thrown up by the vibrant counter-culture. In some respects Free Church opinion endorsed change. In 1961, for example, the Methodist Church was the first religious body to call for the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private. It was a sensitive matter because four years earlier the Conservative government had refused to implement the Wolfenden Report that made this recommendation on the grounds that it was ahead of public opinion. The Methodists also supported the relaxation of the law against abortion in 1967 and the Free Churches, unlike the Church of England, generally acquiesced in the liberalization of the grounds for divorce two years later.

One of the unintended consequences of the Act of Uniformity of 1662 was to divert hundreds of Nonconformist ministers into what we would now call ‘teaching’. They did this in various ways. There was nothing corre­sponding to a modern system of schooling. Rich landowners educated their children at home. So some ejected ministers supplied private tuition in those families who were sympathetic to their cause. The better-off trades people and farmers might send their boys to a grammar school. Posts in grammar schools were open only to conforming clergy. When Nonconformists opened private schools in competition with them the response was often a prose­cution. After schooling the pupils of such Nonconformists might progress to a Dissenting Academy, which was a substitute form of higher education for those who would not conform. It was essential to be a communicant member of the Church of England in order even to attend Oxford or to graduate at Cambridge. The alternative was to go to a Scottish university, since the legislation covered only England and Wales.

The Scottish Presbyterian, Adam Smith, in his all-encompassing Wealth of Nations, was one of those arguing the case for universal education.’ It was, he maintained, in the interests of the State to subsidize schools. Smith had grown up with a system of parish schools across Scotland, so he believed it was possible to offer education on a wider basis. He had ideas for the curriculum. Obviously, from his point of view, children needed basic literacy and numeracy. If one added to this knowledge of geometry and mechanics it would make people more serviceable to the needs of employers. He had a citizenship agenda also. Cultivating patriotism and discipline would make people more able to serve in the militia and thus reduce the need for a large standing army.

Mechanics Institutes and public libraries supported a form of education characteristic of the nineteenth century above all others, that of autodidactic learning. Various people were celebrated for raising themselves by their own boot straps, perhaps none more than David Livingstone, the Scottish Congregationalist who became a national hero. Self-help was a brated virtue, peculiarly suited to the Free Church ethos. Many people e members of such churches precisely because they were not prepared to guided by the established authorities but wished to learn for themselves take their own decisions. The missionary linguists, who started from scratch to devise an orthography for a local language, were those in the chinch context who mirrored technical innovators like George Stephenson, who overcame the limits of their education. In chapels around the country people were challenged to extend their capacities and their horizons. They were not free of the class system but they were offered the means of social mobility by winning the approbation of their peers, who in the outside world might be their social betters.

As the nineteenth century went by the government grant to the school societies increased. The training of teachers also concerned government. Student bursaries were created, together with direct grants to teacher training colleges such as the BFSS’s Borough Road. By the 1860s it was evident that the limits of the existing provision were being reached. Even determined voluntarists such as Edward Baines, now an MP and a member of a parlia­mentary committee of enquiry on education, reluctantly accepted that a new framework, underwritten by government money, was needed. A National Education League was formed in 1869 by the more radical Liberals, to promote ‘A system that shall secure the education of every child in England and Wales’.14 It was centred in Birmingham and its leaders included the Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain, a Unitarian, and R. W. Dale, minister of Carrs Lane Congregational Church. The League wanted to see schools run by local authorities, supported by government grant and local rates, so that the pupils paid no fees, and unsectarian, which effectively meant that none of them were to be controlled by the Church of England. Critics said that the League wished to go further and secularize education altogether.

On the positive side it may be said that the Free Church insistence on non-denominational worship and religious instruction paved the way for modern ideas of religious education. The politicians of the 1980s were happy to use the notion of ‘other denominations’ to incorporate world faiths into the curriculum. A larger question remains from the controversies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How can a local school, publicly funded, be representative of common values and social attitudes? The board schools after 1870 and council schools after 1902 were still run by the middle classes, whose children were in private education, on behalf of the poor. It cannot be said that they were community schools except in a geographical sense.

In 1905 few London Congregational ministers were better known than Horton and his words were strikingly to the point. They were a clarion call for the new century:

Why should we not frankly say: The housing question is our question; healthy conditions in workshops and factories are our concern; a living wage, reasonable hours of labour, provision of work for the unemployed, harmonious relations between landlord and tenant, between capital and labour, between master and employee, are our interest? These things touch us because they touch Christ.”

Charles Berry (1852­1899), who liked to call himself a ‘Broad Evangelical’.79 ‘The great theme of his preaching was the Fatherhood of God which he conceived to be the central and essential attribute of deity.’8° Fatherhood bred brotherhood and brotherhood had implications for church relations. Yet he declared: ‘I am a Churchman, I am a High Churchman, I am a Catholic Churchman’,” and his Chairman’s address to the Congregational Union in May 1896 stated: ‘Congregationalists are churchmen, as opposed to individualists. We are living members of an organism, not loose atoms wandering in eternal isolation… Churchmanship is the natural, the protective, the educational, concomitant of discipleship.’

Not all shared these enthusiasms. A Bolton trade union official told Lever in 1919 that ‘No man of an independent turn of mind can breathe for long the atmosphere of Port Sunlight. That might be news to your Lordship, but we have tried it. The profit-sharing system not only enslaves and degrades the workers, it tends to make them servile and sycophant.’ A Congregational minister who had been ‘quartered’ there told Angus Watson that at times he felt ‘intended to be an advertisement for “Sunlight Soap” more than for the Kingdom of God’.

For years the movement had instead been in the opposite direction. By 1858 the Wesleyan A. C. Whitby was noting that ‘The tendency of dissent is to deal with the middle classes, and when the middle classes forsake a given neighbourhood the Chapel is removed as the seat-holders are gone’. The Nonconformist presence in Victorian cities became increasingly marked by the contrast between thriving suburban temples and the struggling causes left in impoverished inner-city areas, deprived of their main financial supporters…..where social problems are acutest, there are fewest to solve them; where Christian worship, teaching and philanthropy should be most beautiful, they are weak and unattractive

J. Rowland reported subsequently on how chapel respectability could obstruct mission work: ‘a set of men are got hold of and devoted, and they become so respectable that they get into almost a different social grade. The difficulty then is to serve the class originally sought.

as C. Ensor Walters — who succeeded as Superintendent of WLM on Hughes’ death in 1902 — put it, `Soup kitchens, wood-chopping and cheap lodging houses will not of themselves solve the social problem.’

He was not alone in this view. In 1922, two years after the Communist Party was founded, one of its organizers complained to the Methodist Times that ‘ministers and missioners not only preach acceptance of things as they are, but actually minimise the normal effect of bad conditions by providing temporary work and meals for the unemployed’

the speed with which slavery was abolished in 1833 may have given a misleading impression of the success of such campaigning, since the importance of the West Indies to the British economy was declining, and there had been evidence that the Caribbean colonies were continuing to import slaves despite the Act of 1807. Arguably therefore slavery might have been abolished anyway — and the Act of 1833 also provided a seven-year transitional period, in which conditions for the indentured labourers actually deteriorated. More significantly, the Anti-Slavery movement there­after was split — with one part feeling that their work was done, and the other that the next task was to abolish slavery throughout the world. The latter was doubtless a noble ideal, but the means to achieve it were never thoroughly thought through. The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1839, and supported by such prominent Quaker radicals as Joseph Sturge, became a typical Nonconformist pressure group, which cheered itself up over the failure to achieve its primary objective by empha­sizing little advances here and there.’

The developing science of political economy sought a solution to the problem of poverty that recognized the ‘laws’ of supply and demand. In such a system indiscriminate poor relief was regarded as a cause of low wages for labourers and a drag on the industrious because of the burden of the poor rates. The biblical doctrine of Providence had been extended by eighteenth-century theologians to justify the political and economic status quo, and Philip Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745) influenced many Anglican evangelicals to follow suit.

Thus the pessimistic conclusions of Thomas Malthus about the conse­quences of uninhibited population growth led to the development of the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor, and the policy conclusion that poor relief should be confined to those who entered the parish workhouse — the principle of ‘less eligibility’. This policy was eventually enacted by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, one of the first reforms of the new Whig government. (This illustrates the tendency, which has since become universal, to call any change of policy, regardl of its consequences for good or ill, a ‘reform’.)

Baines had made his own way by self-help, rather like John Howard a century before. In 1843 he offered a vigorous defence of the social, tional and religious state of the manufacturing districts in two letters Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, in which he took particular exception the description of the areas given by Lord Ashley when introducing his ories Bill in the House of Commons earlier in the year. Pointing out official statistics showed that the situation was worse in Westminster in Leeds, Baines argued that Ashley had deliberately and misleadingly collected the worst examples of degradation, at one point even confusing evidence from Sheffield and Leeds. The essence of his argument was that the factory system improved the lot of the workers by comparison with the position of those in agriculture, and that the voluntary system of providing schools had given sufficient accommodation for the population. In other words, industrialization was beneficial to the labouring poor. From some points of view this was all shadow-boxing. Ashley had originally been motivated by hatred of manufacturers, before he became convinced that there was a genuine problem, to which he devoted the rest of his life; and Baines’ antipathy to the landed interest led to mutual recriminations rather than any effective attempt to understand or tackle the problems of poverty.’ In fact, the idea that outdoor relief disappeared after 1834 is a myth propa­gated by those historians who never bothered to examine the local evidence but naively believed that Acts of Parliament achieve their objectives.

There was no uniform feeling among Dissenters about the question of poverty in the early nineteenth century. The traditional organized groups in the Old Dissent — the Dissenting Deputies and the Dissenting Ministers — were based in London to secure easy access to parliament, and not really in touch with provincial opinion at all. Their principal concern in the early nineteenth century was to secure basic civil rights for Nonconformists, in which they had partial success by the 1830s. But attitudes towards the New Poor Law were divided, as the discussion of Baines illustrates, with manufacturers generally in favour regardless of denominational allegiance. Some Nonconformist MPs tried on several occasions unsuccessfully to secure legislation for minimum wages in various industries, but other Nonconformists were opposed to this. Similarly attitudes towards trades unionism in the first half of the century were very much divided, with several leading Quaker and Congregationalist manufacturers taking a strong line against any workers found belonging to a trade union. The `Tolpuddle Martyrs’ — six agricultural labourers, who were sentenced to transportation in 1834 for belonging to a union — attracted no support from the Wesleyan Conference, even though four of them were Wesleyan members, including two local preachers. Nor did the Conference take any part in trying to secure their return, which was eventually achieved. Although Michael Watts has demonstrated that there were more working-class Nonconformists than has often been supposed, even among Congregationalists and Wesleyans. the dominant Nonconformist voice on social policy was in favour of laissez faire.”

One shift, which began before the First World War but continued afterwards, was the rather loose collection of ideas summed up in the phrase `social gospel’. The term seems to have been coined by the Anglican, Brooke Foss Westcott, preaching at Lightfoot’s consecration as Bishop of Durham in 1877…. The addresses given by Williams were essentially a development of Dale’s `civic gospel’ in Birmingham with a socialist tinge, in that his principal examples were of public services that could have the profit element taken out of them by being put in the hands of local councils.

Return to the home page



Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: