[Part Two of "Religious Revival and the Transformation of English Sensibilities in the Early Ninteeenth Century" © Herbert Schlossberg]
efore Christie Davies' U-curve of anti-social behavior began its descent to relative rectitude it had reached a very high level indeed. Stories of the moral disfunction to which all classes were prone in the eighteenth century are too plentiful to need much elaboration here. The upper classes took their cue from a frivolous and immoral court. Marital fidelity was openly mocked, and associations such as the Hell Fire Club and the Medmenham Brotherhood parodied Christian faith. License was common also at the lowest levels of society. [There is considerable material on this in Whiteley, Wesley's England.] Along with general dissolution and brutality the legal system was extremely punitive, with the death penalty being exacted for numerous paltry offenses.
Religious life had reached a correspondingly low state, although of course pockets of genuine piety remained scattered throughout the realm. But in regions distant from civilization, tiny country hamlets could be hotbeds of the old paganism, far from not only the church but also the chapel. Folklore studies limn a picture of a countryside full of magic and fairies and great fears of the supernatural over which people had no control. [McLeod, "Recent Studies in Victorian Religious History," 249. McLeod cites the work of Obelkevich.]
As we might expect the state of the church, both establishment and dissenting, was about as low as that of the society at large. Halévy put it this way: "An Established Church apathetic, skeptical, lifeless; sects weakened by rationalism, unorganized, their missionary spirit extinct. This was English Protestantism in the eighteenth century." [ Halévy, England in 1815, vol. 1 of A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, 410f.] The power to fill vicarages belonged to various persons as property rights; only a minority of clergy could be placed by the bishops. Multiple offices were common, and thus spiritual duties were undertaken on behalf of absentee vicars by underpaid and overworked curates, if at all. It was a thoroughly corrupt system, and it gave rise to endless stories of clergymen who would ride to the hounds by day and gamble away the night. Boswell confided to William Wilberforce that Dr. Johnson had never been intimately acquainted with even one religious clergyman. [Wilberforce, The Life of Wilberforce, 5: 339. Johnson presumably was referring only to parsons not in the reform movement, since he was a good friend of both the Wesley brothers.
Wilberforce was not convinced things were quite that bad, perhaps because he remained loyal to the Church in a period of great weakness when many were defecting to Dissent; he told Boswell that Johnson's failure to meet a good parson might have something to do with his method of choosing companions!] The old religious societies that had originally been intended to bring some life into the church eventually hardened and themselves begged for reform. The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge by the 1780s was blackballing leaders of the new Evangelical movement in the Anglican church, who solved such problems by starting their own societies.
I am adopting the definition of evangelicalism found in a recent book by Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 2f:
There are the four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a partiular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Still, any definition should not be taken as erecting an impenetrable fence around the evangelicals. As Bebbington makes clear in an accompanying passage, often the only thing separating the evangelicals from others is a shift of emphasis. In this paper I follow the common practice of using Evangelical to refer to those within the Anglican Church, and the lower-case evangelical to refer either to dissenters or to the movement in general. The Methodists represent a special case, being Anglicans up to a point (for convenience, I would say up to the death of John Wesley in 1791, although that event did not bring a sharp break) and dissenters thereafter.
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