Rescuing the Eighteenth-Century Church of England from the Enormous Condescension of Posterity

by Emily Rutherford

I think I’ve found the biggest gap in the secondary literature of all time. As long ago as 1860, the Oxford priest and historian Mark Pattison noticed that historians tended to overlook the Church of England in the eighteenth century. English Reformation, Civil War, Restoration, Glorious Revolution? Fine. Victorian evangelicalism? Fine. Eighteenth-century Dissenters, such as Methodists, Baptists, and Quakers? Fine. Catholic emancipation at the turn of the nineteenth century, followed by the Oxford Movement? Fine. But the yawning chasm of scholarship on the eighteenth-century established church is so wide that even the stacks of excellent seminary libraries skip neatly from 1688 to about 1830, with just a handful of books in between.

This is peculiar, given that other eras in the Church of England’s history have been extensively treated by confessional and secular historians alike. Why did it happen? I have a couple hypotheses. The first is that the eighteenth-century established church is not so sexy: as a church-published general history of Christianity in the British Isles puts it, “the main defining characteristic of the Church of England in the 18th century” was that the Church was a “via media,” defining itself in opposition to the two radical poles of Methodism and Deism. It stood for the establishment, for following the authorized forms of worship set out in the Book of Common Prayer and prescribed by law, and for a moderate-conservative form of politics that supported the monarchy, the state, and the social order. As such, the established church was neglected by a generation of social historians who focused on class conflict as constitutive of the early Industrial Revolution: EP Thompson famously portrayed the effects of Methodism on the formation of working-class consciousness as negative in The Making of the English Working Class, but he didn’t even bother with the established church. The established church, the literature suggested until quite recently, pertained to bishops, Oxford theologians, and Parliament, while Methodism was the ordinary people’s Christianity.

It looks to me as if this started to change when historians began to push back against the conflictual picture Thompson and others had painted of eighteenth-century society and suggest instead that there was much more unity and support for the establishment. In 1985, J.C.D. Clark wrote English Society 1688-1832: Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice During the Ancien Regime, a controversial conservative revision of the left-wing social history which stressed continuity in the social order over the “long eighteenth century” and the strength of the monarchy and aristocracy. He emphasized the role of the established church in constituting a “confessional state”: a polity that didn’t make distinctions between religious and secular realms. Later, Linda Colley’s Britons took a different approach to the same problem. Focusing on culture rather than high politics, she nevertheless argued that over the course of the eighteenth century a unified British national identity formed that was founded in large part on a shared Protestantism. In their different ways, both Colley and Clark called historians’ attention to religion as a central aspect of how eighteenth-century Britain should be understood—though in Clark’s focus on high politics and Colley’s invocation of a common Protestantism that obscures the intensity of conflict among Anglicans and Dissenters and the status of the Church in Scotland, both leave much unsaid. Were laypeople actually attending the parish churches that existed in every community in England? How did they worship? In what ways did the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer factor in their lives? What was the role of clergy in local communities? How significant a threat did Dissent really pose to the day-to-day operations of the established church? When and how did notions of internal, individual belief develop? Answering these questions offers a route to taking the church seriously as a social and cultural presence, and to negotiating the relationship between large-scale pan-European intellectual-historical themes (secularization, Enlightenment) and the ways that people who were not part of the Republic of Letters might have thought and reasoned about the same issues.

The single historian who has made steps in recent years in this direction is Carolyn Steedman, whose extraordinary 2007 book Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age is written also against Thompson’s resistance towards taking religion seriously as a social force. Very unlike Clark’s or Colley’s work, though, Steedman’s book is a microhistory of one eighteenth-century West Yorkshire clergyman with a massive archive, and her central question is how it is that this priest—against the notions of morality we might expect him to hold—continued to employ and support a female domestic servant who became pregnant out of wedlock, and came to love and care for her child. Steedman’s sparkling, moving prose ranges across the importance of the Yorkshire landscape, changes in work and social structure, institutional and theological aspects of the Church, and what it is that this clergyman, John Murgatroyd, might really have believed about doctrinal issues or the more elusive experience of God’s grace. Ultimately, Steedman suggests that Murgatroyd’s diaries, sermons, notes, and library show that the Enlightenment had come to West Yorkshire—but that it was a much more Anglican Enlightenment, with a much closer relationship to God, than one might expect.

In some ways, Steedman doesn’t know how to handle religion any better than Thompson. She admits that she can only guess at what it might be like to believe in God, and I wonder if in her speculation about the affective lives about John Murgatroyd and Phoebe Beatson, she writes the familiar, sympathetic characters she would like them to be, rather than long-dead individuals whose ways of looking at the world might in some ways be incommensurable with our own. As beautiful and compelling as her account is, too, and as important a move it makes in connecting Enlightenment sentiment so closely to established religion, there is still a certain chasm between her work and that of scholars writing from a present-day Church perspective who see an essential continuity between eighteenth-century theology and liturgy and their own—and an experience of faith that does not necessarily have to be explained to the reader.

This is a chasm that has to be traversed, a gap that has to be filled. Before the 1830 repeal of the Test Acts, when the Church of England really did define the terms of civic life, it needs to be an essential aspect of how all historians, not only those writing from a Church perspective, understand the past. Moreover, as Steedman suggests, intellectual history looks rather different when it turns to the thoughts, beliefs, and experiences of those who are not philosophers, writers, or even diocesan bishops. Steedman tells us that John Murgatroyd had an unconventional and largely autodidactic education, that he read and reacted to theology, philosophy, and classical learning but not always in the most up-to-date or predictable ways. There must be many others like him, troubling the extent to which it is possible to offer a single narrative about either secularization or the “confessional state.”

[Correction: Stuart Jones pointed out on Twitter that Pattison actually drew attention to the dearth of work on the eighteenth-century church in 1860, not in the 1880s as I originally wrote.]

4 comments

  1. This post is not just accurate but strangely prophetic. Gabriel is on the way, to bring about a peaceful historiographical millennium. There’s been a great revival in the intellectual history of 17th century Anglicanism, led by stupor mundi, Jean-Louis Quantin, with The Church of England and Christian Antiquity (2009), and soon to be carried further by Dmitri Levitin with Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science (forthcoming from CUP in 2015) and Nick Hardy with his work on criticism in 17th century England (forthcoming in the Oxford-Warburg series). For something closer to what you have in mind, try Bill Bulman’s wonderful Anglican Enlightenment (also forthcoming from CUP in 2015). We’re getting serious about religion–Anglican religion–and as you say, it’s long past time.

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  2. I would also heartily recommend the work of Brent Sirota on the early eighteenth century Church of England, on which he has written many articles and a book, “The Christian Monitors: The Church of England and the Age of Benevolence, 1680-1730” with Yale UP.

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  3. Thanks for these recommendations for further reading! Tony, Bulman’s work sounds like it’s particularly up my alley – I look forward to its publication!

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