Historians have identified three Great Awakenings—notable surges of religious vitality—in American history. The first occurred in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, the second in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, the third in the period following World War II. The term “Great Awakening” is loose and contested. Critics of the religious revival of the 1950s, for example—the names Peter Berger and Martin Marty come to mind—saw it as largely superficial and lacking in theological bite. Some observers of the current religious scene report glimpses of a Fourth Great Awakening, while others see only a secularist wasteland.
But whether or not current religious movements are powerful enough to make their way into the history books is of less moment than the question of whether they can have much of an effect on the way people actually live in their society. Does a renewal of religious conviction make much difference in the quality of life in a given society? Some of the most disquieting trends in America have taken place just when religious life, by some measures, has flourished. Widespread divorce, sexual antinomianism, rampant crime and bulging prisons, the belief amply demonstrated by polls that there is no such thing as a universal standard of moral behavior, and general boorishness and discourtesy—all coexist and grow along with the flourishing of religious activity. Moreover, some of the statistics show little difference in the indices of social pathology among people with a religious commitment compared to those without one. Is religion irrelevant to behavior, at least on the macro level? If so, contingently or necessarily irrelevant? Is it possible for private worship and associated activities to have much effect on the way society goes about its business? Or, to use the terminology associated with the Editor–in–Chief of this journal, must the public square remain forever naked despite the personal convictions of the inhabitants?
Gerhard Lenski, a sociologist of religion who has studied this issue, concludes that it is a mistake to measure the influence of religious associations on society exclusively by their success or failure in bringing about the institutional changes they advocate. He thinks that far more important than those organized campaigns are the “daily actions of thousands (or millions) of group members whose personalities have been influenced by their lifelong exposure” to religious influences. The Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield once remarked that the importance of Christianity in the history of the West cannot really be understood very well by the historian who draws his information exclusively from documents. It lies rather in the constant preaching to the multitudes—often illiterate multitudes—of love and humility week after week, so that the way people feel, think, and behave is vastly different than it otherwise would have been. Butterfield concluded that this phenomenon has tended “greatly to alter the quality of life and the very texture of human history.”
These cultural traits have powerful effects on the direction and force of a society. Who, for example, could calculate the magnitude of the effects of the replacement of honor as an ideal by humility? A slight that might be taken as sufficient to require a duel can be forgiven by a man who newly thinks such affronts are best met by love. There is also a strong cultural force in repentance as a theologically sanctioned and socially accepted requirement because it permits the turning away from destructive behavior to a new beginning. When such acts are multiplied by the millions it cannot help but bring about large–scale change, the sort that the historian can only despair of trying to track and quantify.
Is that just a theory, or can it be substantiated by concrete historical events? As a test case, consider the society that occupied England for most of the nineteenth century. The stereotypes have become so embedded in our consciousness that the mere utterance of “Victorian” is enough to evoke for most educated people disagreeable images: not only smoky factories and ugly buildings and furnishings, but a kind of pervasive moral squalor. Contempt drips from the pens of many analysts, both contemporary and modern. H. G. Wells, a product of the late Victorian period called it “slovenly and wasteful,” with its contemptible dwellings, railways, furnishings, art, and literature. Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians showed the eminences to be ridiculous characters, not to be taken seriously, however seriously they seemed to take everything, especially themselves. A recent volume published by the Oxford University Press speaks of the “special place” that the Victorian age has in the present culture. “More than any other era it awakens in us our capacities to feel hostile toward a past way of life, to perceive the past as alien, unenlightened, and silly.”
Examples could be multiplied, but they seem to consist of two main complaints: the Victorian age for most of these critics was too capitalist and too religious. The critics focus, often tendentiously, on individual biographies and on institutional, aesthetic, and economic issues, less on cultural manifestations—the moral and interpersonal factors that determine the quality of life—that to Lenski and Butterfield were the essence of the thing.
Rather than assessing the Victorian age backwards, try to approach it as it came into being—from the preceding centuries. The restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 brought with it revulsion against the excesses of the Puritan regime that had expired with Oliver Cromwell; but it also ushered in the very different excesses of the court of Charles II. The new king was concerned enough to be rid of Puritan influences that he had Cromwell’s body ripped from the grave for public exhibition, but he was even more anxious to rid himself of the bother of having real, live Puritans, and he contrived to have them excluded from the ministry of the Church of England. After the next reign was brought to a hasty conclusion by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William and Mary evicted from their livings staunch Anglo–Catholic clergymen who could not find it in their conscience to switch allegiances away from the deposed James II. Thus in the course of a generation both wings of the Church of England were lost. An historian reports the results:
The “moderate,” “reasonable” men, the time–servers, self–seekers, and pluralists—these all were left: but the wings of faith were gone. Had the “National” Church studied how best to extinguish all spiritual fire within the realm and to crush all crusading initiative, she could have devised no better plan than these two tragic expulsions.
The results were not long in coming, and analyses of the Anglican Church from the late seventeenth through much of the next century were mostly dismal. Perhaps the low point came in the 1730s, when Bishop Butler, in the preface to his famous Analogy of Religion, summed up the situation in this way:
It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted, by many persons, that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is, not at length, discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly they treat it, as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained, but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals, for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world.
That was the decade, however, in which John and Charles Wesley discovered what had eluded them until then: the transformative power of real Christian faith as opposed to the nominal adherence that seemed to be the destiny of much of the Georgian era. Out of that came the Methodist “classes”—small groups of believers meeting together for Bible study, discussion, prayer, and mutual encouragement and accountability. Along with the spread of these groups in myriad mining, fishing, and textile towns, scattered Anglican parishes came to life, when clergymen caught the meaning of the gospel in personal ways, experienced the conversion that came to be the hallmark of the evangelical movement, and preached Christian faith centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile the Dissenting churches, mainly the Baptist and Congregationalist, having descended into a funk similar to that of the Church of England, caught some of the same vision, and by the end of the century were for the most part firmly in the evangelical camp. If the state of technology had permitted it, a moving graphic of the growth of what the period called “experimental religion” would have shown widely dispersed dots appearing early in the century, gradually thickening on the map, until by the end of the century there were influential concentrations of evangelicals all over England. Societies to extend mission and to do good works sprang up all over the nation, and publications at all levels—from tracts intended for near–illiterates to collections of sermons to journals full of historical, political, and theological reasoning—began appearing, supplemented by newspapers and pamphlets.
A number of politically minded evangelicals under the leadership of William Wilberforce settled in the town of Clapham, south of London, and engaged in highly visible activism. To this group belongs much of the credit for the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807 after two decades of intense labor, and the total abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833 within a few days of Wilberforce’s death—the end of a struggle that had lasted half a century. Among the other projects of the evangelicals was the enactment of factory and mine legislation to mitigate the harshness of life in the enterprises that came out of the industrial revolution, especially for women and children. Charitable work abounded both through societies and by individual initiative. It was also a great age of joyful and abundant giving for myriad good works. Some of the leaders of the Clapham group gave away more than half their incomes.
There were two later movements within the Church of England that broadened the stream of renewed Christianity begun by the evangelicals. At Rugby school the newly appointed headmaster Thomas Arnold determined to break with the brutality and paganism that marked the public schools in order to make the place a training ground for Christian gentlemen. Arnold had been much influenced by the theological and philosophical ideas of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and both Coleridge and Arnold are usually considered to be early leaders of the Broad Church. But in fact they were very different from the Broad Church figures who appeared on the scene after mid–century, clergymen like Benjamin Jowett of Oxford and Arthur Stanley, Dean of Westminster, whose connections with historic Christian thought seemed tenuous to many critics. Within a few years even Arnold’s adversaries at Oxford were remarking on the serious Christians that were appearing at the universities from Rugby.
At Oxford itself, another group appeared in the early 1830s that called for a renewed appreciation for the historical nature of the Church, looking for inspiration to the theology and traditions of the early Christian centuries. Under the leadership of John Henry Newman and a few colleagues they issued “Tracts” that were actually sophisticated theological documents and called for an end to laxity and to the complacency of a Church willing to be dominated by political leaders, many of whom did not even pretend to be loyal to it. The movement lasted only for about seven years before its miscalculations destroyed its base at Oxford. But the “Tractarian” influence continued for decades in parishes all around England after the Oxford center had withered.
This brief sketch of the main elements of the religious revival leaves out the most important part of it. The ignorant became readers, writers, and leaders; the indigent began working and learning to excel at their work; housewives raised their children to be good family people, citizens, and neighbors; paupers and drunks began to earn a living, to save and invest and send their children to the universities and their grandchildren to the House of Commons. An often brutal society in which a woman walking alone on the street could expect to be at least verbally molested, in which the highways were unsafe for the unarmed, in which political corruption was common, in which sexual promiscuity was the norm, had by the early years of the new century become kinder, more loving, and—dare we say it?—more Christian.
Francis Place, a radical follower of Jeremy Bentham, rose out of poverty as a poor tailor to prosperity as a clothing merchant. He intensely disliked the growing practice of Christianity in the nation, but he noticed that along with it came a dramatic change in the way people were living. Looking back from his old age, he reflected on the difference between the present climate and when he was growing up in the 1780s:>The circumstances which it will be seen I have mentioned relative to the ignorance, the immorality, the grossness, the obscenity, the drunkenness, the dirtiness and depravity of the middling and even of a large portion of the better sort of tradesmen, the artisans, and the journeymen tradesmen of London in the days of my youth, may excite a suspicion that the picture I have drawn is a caricature, the parts of which are out of keeping and have no symmetry as a whole.
When Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the 1830s and observed the contrast that Place was talking about, he concluded that a great revolution had taken place in England and was still in process, but a revolution very different from those of his native France. He was particularly struck by the fact that the nobility of England were fully engaged in the reconstitution of religious and moral living that was taking over the country. Consider his account of a luncheon at the Earl of Radnor’s house on May 27, 1835:Before coming to table Lord Radnor went to his study; Lady Radnor and his daughters went there too; after a moment eleven or twelve women and eight or ten men–servants came in. . . . These twenty people took their places round the room and knelt down looking towards the wall. Near the fireplace Lord and Lady Radnor and Lady Louisa knelt down too, and Lord Radnor read a prayer aloud, the servants giving the responses. This sort of little service lasted six or eight minutes, after which the male and female servants got up and went out in the same order to resume their work.Of course, if that is all that had happened, just a little ceremony superimposed upon the same set of habits and relationships, it would have had little meaning. But Tocqueville observed that the culture had changed in profound ways that were symbolized by such ceremonies, and that is why he called the changes revolutionary. And Tocqueville described Lord Radnor, because of his political affiliations, as a radical. Everywhere Tocqueville traveled in England he saw this sort of devotional exercise, which he knew very well he would not have seen a half–century earlier.
It was a feature of this particular religious renewal that for the most part it rejected the view that serious Christianity concerned only the individual, not the society. Although most of the major actors in the drama believed in the doctrines of Adam Smith and therefore in the efficacy and justice of free markets (the doctrine was then called “political economy”), they were anything but individualists, a charge that has often been made. They banded together in huge numbers to form societies for helping the poor, evangelizing among an amazingly diverse array of groups, reforming morals, suppressing vice, improving the lot of prisoners, rescuing prostitutes from their economic distress and therefore their bondage, distributing religious literature, and promoting foreign missions.
The number and variety of these societies will probably never be exhaustively catalogued, nor any accurate estimate be made of the multitudes who supported them with their labor and money. By 1814 the Bible society alone had more than 100,000 members and unnumbered auxiliary organizations in almost every English county. A decade later there were more than 850 auxiliaries and 500 ladies’ groups. In Manchester, Methodists formed the Strangers’ Friend Society which, in an interesting twist on the meaning of charity, served the poor of any denomination except Methodists. Their motto was, “As we are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord.”
A veritable army was marching through England doing good, or at least trying to do good. The church visitors were the unofficial and unpaid social workers of the nation. Many clergymen had what amounted to relief agencies in the parishes, with (mainly) women taking turns visiting the sick and needy. The big national societies had local chapters making a difference in the condition of neighborhoods, towns, and hamlets. Food, clothing, and medical care, training for productive work, rescue from prostitution, and education through the ragged schools were among the wares carried in the volunteers’ kits.
As in the case of the national societies, most of this activity was conducted by evangelicals, but their example was taken up by others as well. Even after the young men at Clapham married and began raising families in the late 1790s, they continued to give away large sums of money for these purposes. Evangelicals of all economic classes emphasized the obligation to provide generously for the needy, and when the Tractarian movement metamorphosed into Ritualism, it took root mainly in poor parishes desperate for material as well as spiritual help. One angry woman, writing to the American Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing, complained that Hannah More, by writing Cœlebs in Search of a Wife, had made devoting two evenings a week to visiting the poor “a fashion and a rage.” Cœlebs was published in 1809, and the first ladies’ auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society appeared two years later, swelling the ranks of the visitors. This activity lasted decades and took innumerable forms. The Manchester Town Mission had fifty–two full–time workers visiting houses, urging attendance at public worship, and telling parents about the importance of securing an education for their children. Their operating funds came largely from voluntary donations from working class districts. Ellen Ranyard, an evangelical born in 1810, trained a corps of followers to help poor women manage their households, teaching them to cook, clean, and do needlework. She enrolled a group of poor women to train as itinerant nurses, and so increase the effectiveness of the other women making their rounds. She called these women “Bible nurses.” Workers like Mrs. Ranyard became an example to others, and similar efforts were made by Quakers, Jews, Catholics, and others.
With the surge of piety and of literacy (largely through Sunday schools staffed by volunteer workers) the society was marked by an enormous appetite for Bible reading and Bible instruction. Informal study groups were active among churchmen and dissenters alike, and the printing presses were kept busy churning out Bibles and other literature for them. Autobiographical writings from the period suggest that after the Bible the two books having the most formative effect on Englishmen were Pilgrim’s Progress and Paradise Lost, themselves based on the Bible. Collections of sermons were staples among the booksellers. Some of the literature was either given away or sold at heavily subsidized prices, but there was also a thriving market–driven trade in religious books.
The interdenominational Colportage Association recruited and trained sellers of Christian literature who saw this task as a calling fully as worthy to be followed as preaching and teaching. Free and subsidized tracts and colportage distribution still left an enormous unserved market—those who could not or would not pay for expensive books, but demanded more than tracts. The lending libraries filled the vacuum. Circulating libraries had existed from the latter half of the eighteenth century, but with a greatly expanded reading public they became much more important in the next century. Hannah More’s Cœlebs in Search of a Wife, which went to thirty editions by the time of her death in 1834, was written explicitly for them.
C. E. Mudie (from 1842) and W. H. Smith (1858) became the largest distributors of books in the kingdom, and were in effect the arbiters of what the reading public would have available. Both were evangelicals. Mudie was a dissenter who occasionally preached and wrote hymns, and Smith considered becoming a clergyman. They judged books not only from a business perspective but also from the standpoint of their religious faith, avoiding what they considered indecency or blasphemy. Mudie affected the book purchasers’ reading habits, as well as the borrowers’, because of his influence over the decisions of publishers. Considering whether to publish a new novel, the publishing offices would resound with the crucial question: “What will Mudie say?”
If the religious revival turned ordinary people toward what seemed to be an older, or traditional notion of moral behavior, it also affected people who wished to reform radically some of the basic institutions of the society. The Chartist leaders who sought political reform to improve the conditions of workers included among their number preachers and also legions of Bible readers, and Chartist chapels dotted the English countryside in the 1840s. Tocqueville became acquainted with many of the radical leaders and noted how different they were from their French counterparts—much more respectful of property and of religion as well, including a great number of what he called “enthusiastic sectarians,” which is to say evangelical dissenters.
The radical writer Harriet Martineau was more affected by the religious revival than she ever acknowledged. Her modern biographer believes that she did not realize how indebted her thinking was to the religious doctrines that she consciously rejected. Her intense interest in the Bible as a child developed into theological pursuits, and although they did not persist, the residue of the beliefs never left her, and her criticisms of the Church of England seem little different from the standard dissenting line. An old history of socialism says that in order to understand the radical William Godwin (1756–1836) “it must always be borne in mind that he was essentially a Calvinist preacher. His materialism is inverted Calvinist theology.” That is to say, the radical content was transmitted with the moral intensity of the evangelical environment. Robert Taylor, a notorious former clergyman, delivered spell–binding radical sermons at the Blackfriars Rotunda in London, a center of militant causes. Professing himself to be an unbeliever, he preached his gospel with all the zest and emotional power of the most fervid evangelical preacher in the kingdom. He was not alone.
The pre–Victorian period we have been considering was a remarkable one because it seemed to belie the oft–repeated historicist admonition that we cannot turn back the clock. We hear this mainly from progressives who decry the resisting of trends that seem to be dominant, and who wish to continue what has been set in motion. But the impulse behind the remark is a conservative one; it wishes to preserve the trend against those who would change it. People who were setting the new agenda in the eighteenth century ended up creating a very different society in the nineteenth. Wesley and Whitefield, Venn of Huddersfield and Walker of Truro, were conscious of recreating in tiny villages or in isolated parishes the promise of a gospel that had atrophied from neglect and self–interest. As the movement spread, it coalesced around academic leaders in Cambridge and then political leaders in Clapham; it spawned publications and societies almost beyond numbering; it attracted the allegiance of many millions of people who accepted its claims upon them.
And then it attracted the attention of people who were critical of its shortcomings, who trained a new generation in Rugby and other public schools, in Oxford, and from there a thousand parishes. It fragmented into competing and often antagonistic schools among both Anglicans and Dissenters, but the fragments were sparks, setting fires as they were scattered throughout the land. There were many differences among the fragments, but they were united on a few main principles. They were one in their rejection of the laxity and shallowness that dominated eighteenth–century English religion and society, the Christ–less conjunction of moralism with a deep and pervasive immorality. They all sought the recovery of the gospel that had animated the early Church, and they all believed in the seriousness of religious profession and the conduct that flowed from it.
In this remarkable renewal of vital Christianity, for all the limitations of its participants and consequent shortcomings of the movement, the tincture of vital religion spread throughout the society, giving to it the coloration of a revived Christianity. This new society, a product of a silent revolution from within its own resources, its own history and traditions, was far from perfect, but it freed the slaves, taught the ignorant, brought spiritual light where there was darkness, turned the drunk and indigent into useful citizens and effective parents, and ameliorated the harsh conditions brought about by industrialization, internal migration, and rapid population growth. It was a revolution that succeeded in making almost all things better. There are not many like that.
The lamentations about contemporary American society—indeed of Western societies in general—seem little different from those heard in the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth. The empty religiosity coexisting with open contempt for the Christian heritage of the nation, the widespread hypocrisy, the general lawlessness, and the political corruption were similar. Change the time–specific terminology and examples in William Wilberforce’s Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians (1797) and you might think it was written two centuries later.
Yet there seemed to be remarkably little hand–wringing in Wilberforce and his merry band of anti–slavers. Full of hope, they did their duty to God and men as they were given light, braved the setbacks, and did not seem amazed at their great successes. It was as if they believed that God was ultimately in charge and they had only to be faithful to their charges. There is no reason that that experience could not be repeated today, despite the widespread pessimism. After all, it was only two years from the time Bishop Butler announced to the world that Great Britain had decided that Christianity was fictitious that John Wesley found spiritual life in Christ and the renewal of the entire society began its course.
Herbert Schlossberg is a Senior Research Associate at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. This essay is based on his new book, The Silent Revolution and the Making of Victorian England (Ohio State University Press).