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Bonds of Union

Isabelle Bour
Antoine Mioche

The national churches and the Union in nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland

Stewart J. Brown

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1Among the most committed supporters of union in nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland were the established Churches. These were the Churches “by law established,” the Churches that were supported by the State to provide religious and moral instruction to the diverse peoples making up the United Kingdom. The established Churches—the United Church of England and Ireland, and the Church of Scotland—were, for a great many inhabitants, guardians of the faith, representatives of national identity, defenders of the social order, and expressions of the highest aspirations of the State. Through their parish organisation, they helped to shape local communities and inculcate social morality. Their church buildings, many of them dating from the early medieval period, represented continuities between past, present and future generations. The churchyards, funereal monuments, and parish records, preserved collective memories of the past. The established Churches were active in the provision of education and poor relief. It was in the parish church that most people went through the rites of passage—baptism, first communion, marriage and burial—that gave a social definition to individual lives. From parish pulpits, the clergy called for prayers for the monarchy and the State, and announced fast days in times of national emergency. Parish church bells rang out national victories. In rural parishes, the poet Robert Southey observed in the Quarterly Review in 1820, most inhabitants looked upon the parish church as the focal point of their lives:

They are familiar from their childhood with the sound of the church bell, in all its varied imports of joy and sorrow: the sight of the font and the altar brings with it to them hallowed and tender recollections, and their family graves are in the green and quiet church-yard, where they themselves know that they shall one day find room as well as rest. (Southey, “New Churches” 558)

2During the first three decades of the nineteenth century, the State looked to the established Churches to take a leading role in the work of consolidating the Union by forming, through religious and moral instruction, the diverse peoples and cultures of Britain and Ireland into a single Christian nation-state. The established Churches were to be bulwarks against the spirit of revolution and republicanism. After this project of Christian nation-building drew to a close in the 1830s, many politicians continued to view the established Churches as major forces for national unity. Conservative leaders, from Sir Robert Peel to Lord Salisbury, were warm supporters of the established Churches. “I mean to support,” Peel had proclaimed at a public meeting in Glasgow on 13 January 1837, “the National Establishment which connects Protestantism with the State in the three countries [of England, Ireland and Scotland]” (Kitson Clark 328). Indeed, Church defence became one of the leading principles of nineteenth-century Conservatism.

3This chapter will explore the established Churches as expressions of unity within the United Kingdom of the nineteenth century. It will do so by considering three portrayals of the nature and role of an established Church, drawn from different points in the century. The first is The Book of the Church by Robert Southey, the Romantic English poet. Published in 1824, Southey’s work appeared at a time when the State, shaken by the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, was investing heavily in the established Churches, and looking to them as major forces for the consolidation of the Union and the expression of a conservative Christian national identity. The second portrayal is that of Thomas Chalmers, the evangelical Scottish clergyman and political economist. Chalmers’s Lectures on the Establishment and Extension of National Churches were delivered in 1838. His defence of the established Churches was directed to the social and political unrest growing out of the overcrowding and extreme poverty in the rapidly expanding industrial cities. For him, only the established Churches could unite the social classes and preserve a sense of community against the forces of industrial capitalism. The third portrayal is a lecture on “The Church of England,” delivered in London in 1876 by Matthew Arnold, the poet, educationalist, biblical critic and essayist. The lecture was directed to a mid-Victorian State that was divided into competing Christian denominations, troubled by the challenges of biblical scholarship, and challenged by nationalist movements on the “Celtic fringe.” For Arnold, the established Churches had the potential to provide the State with a renewed sense of moral purpose rooted in the essentially ethical doctrine of the kingdom of God. For all three of these thinkers and their supporters, the established Churches had the potential to be powerful forces for national unity.

4The established Churches of the United Kingdom were Protestant Churches, which had been recognised as branches of the true Church by the monarchical State in England, Ireland and Scotland at the Reformation and had been authorised to provide religious instruction and religious observances to the inhabitants of those kingdoms. The established Churches expressed the religious aspect of the State. They solemnised State festivals and ceremonials, including coronations; they kept fast days and offered prayers for the State and its rulers. They brought a religious sanction to the existing social hierarchy and political order. They fostered learning and were patrons of the arts.

5There were two established Churches in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The largest of these was the United Church of England and Ireland. It was episcopal in organisation, its doctrine was defined by the Thirty-nine Articles of Faith, and its worship followed the solemn cadences and rich language of the Book of Common Prayer. The United Church had been formed in 1801 by the Act of Union that joined Great Britain and Ireland. Along with the parliamentary union, that Act had joined the established Church of England and established Church of Ireland into one body, which was to bind the peoples of England, Wales and Ireland together in shared beliefs, worship and morals. The second, much smaller religious establishment, was the Church of Scotland. This was the Church of the historic Scottish kingdom, and it reflected the different historical course taken by the Reformation there. The Church of Scotland was Presbyterian in organisation, with government by a hierarchy of ecclesiastical courts rather than bishops. It had a strict Calvinist doctrine, which was closely defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith, and a simple, austere form of worship shaped by the Westminster Directory. Despite these differences in doctrine and organisation, the two established Churches represented a common idea of an alliance between Church and State. Both ministered to the inhabitants through a parish system, dividing the whole country into small territorial districts, each with its parish church and parish clergyman.

6In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom parliament provided unprecedented levels of investment in the established Churches. This was in part in response to the influence of the French Revolution and the spread of democratic and republican ideas among the labouring orders. It was also a response to the explosive growth of religious dissent from about 1790, as large numbers—perhaps a quarter of the population of England, Scotland and Wales—gave up their adherence to the established Church, with all its traditional communal associations, and found their way into dissenting meeting houses, often ministered to by semi-literate preachers. For supporters of the established order, the spread of democratic ideas and the growth of religious dissent were closely related. Both represented a rejection of the established order, and a willingness to embrace revolutionary change. Following the Act of Union of 1801, and especially from about 1809, parliament began making new grants of public money to the established Churches, in order to raise the incomes of parish clergy, build new churches and provide more schools in connection with the Churches. The aim was to strengthen the parish ministry and the educational mission of the Churches, as a means of diminishing the spirit of democracy and dissent among the common people. The amounts were substantial. Between 1809 and 1824, parliament provided new grants of some £3,600,000 to the United Church of England and Ireland, and some £350,000 to the Church of Scotland (Brown, National Churches 62-74). Never before in its history had the State provided so much direct financial assistance to the established Churches.

7The State grants stimulated additional private giving to the established Churches, and as a result of this combined public and private investment, hundreds of new churches and schools in connection with the establishment were built and endowed. Along with the financial grants, parliament also enacted reforms directed toward improving clerical discipline and pastoral care. There were improvements in the quality of recruits to the clergy, as the best and the brightest young men looked to careers in the Church, and the clergy embraced a new sense of mission. There was a new religious seriousness in the universities, and a renewed scholarly interest in liturgy and ecclesiastical history. The new commitment to the established Church found a special expression in Ireland, where the majority of the population was Roman Catholic. Along with largescale church and school building, there was, from the early 1820s, a renewed effort to bring the Irish majority into the established Protestant Church through what became known as the “New Reformation” movement (Brown, “New Reformation Movement”). There seemed a real possibility that the United Church of England and Ireland would achieve significant numbers of converts in Ireland, and become a real force for consolidating the Union.

  • 1 For a recent biography, see Storey.
  • 2 R. Southey to G. C. Bedford 15 April 1821 (C. C. Southey 65).

8One of the leading supporters of the revival in the English branch of the United Church of England and Ireland was Robert Southey (1774-1843), poet, essayist and historian.1 In the 1790s, the young Southey had welcomed the French Revolution, embraced republican ideas, and planned to establish a communistic society on the banks of the Sesquehanna in North America. He had become for a time a Unitarian dissenter. However, by 1810, he had rejected democracy and dissent, returned to the established Church of England and become a staunch defender of the monarchy and the traditional social hierarchy. In 1813, he was appointed poet laureate. Like his friend, the poet William Wordsworth, Southey embraced the new spirit within the established Church. While Wordsworth celebrated the revival of the Church with a collection of 102 sonnets, the Ecclesiastical Sketches, published in 1822, Southey extolled the role of the established Church in forming an English national indentity.2

  • 3 See Gilley; Pym.

9Southey’s The Book of the Church appeared in two volumes early in 1824.3 It provided a narrative history of the Church of England, from its beginnings in Roman Britain up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Southey believed that the constitution of Church and State in England had at last been firmly secured. For Southey, the story of the established Church of England was inseparable from that of the English nation. The justification of the work was expressed in its opening sentence. “Manifold as are the blessings for which Englishmen are beholden to the institutions of their country, there is no part of those institutions from which they derive more important advantages than from its Church Establishment, none by which the temporal condition of all ranks has been so materially improved.” (I: 2) The national Church had largely defined the development of the English people. It had in the fullness of time raised the English people above the superstition and cruelty of ancient paganism, and liberated them from the tyranny of medieval monarchs and the idolatry of medieval Romanism. It had shaped a distinctive English civilisation based on freedom under the law and on the reciprocal duties of rulers and subjects. The Church of England represented the middle way, the via media, between what Southey viewed as the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church and the anarchy of dissent, between the spirit of the sixteenth-century Marian burning of heretics and the spirit of the seventeenth-century Puritan “incendiaries.” The heroes of Southey’s narrative included, on the one hand, Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley and the other victims of the Marian persecutions, and on the other hand, William Laud, who fell victim to Puritan persecution. Southey struck hard blows against both Catholics and Puritans, against both “Romish Priests” and “Calvinized Clergy.” They were enemies of the nation, the one representing domination by a foreign power, the other representing a separatism that would undermine national unity (Gilley 419).

10The intermingled history of the English Church and nation revealed for Southey the hand of providence. God had provided the English people with a national Church that would unify and elevate them. This Church was therefore a birthright to be preserved and venerated. “It has rescued us,” he maintained, “first from heathenism, then from papal idolatry and superstition; it has saved us from temporal as well as spiritual despotism. We owe to it our moral and intellectual character as a nation; much of our private happiness, much of our public strength” (Book of the Church II: 528). It was through the Church that the nation-state derived its form and its purpose. The Church and the State would stand or fall together. “Whatever should weaken it,” he observed with reference to the Church, “would in the same degree injure the commonweal; whatever should overthrow it, would in sure and immediate consequence bring down the goodly fabric of that Constitution, whereof it is a constituent and necessary part.” (II: 528) There was also an authoritarian aspect. In Southey’s conservative version of the providential alliance of Church and State, Protestant dissenters and Roman Catholics alike were viewed as being outside the constitution. They should be tolerated. But to grant them active rights within the State would be dangerous to the national interest. Implied within Southey’s work was opposition to any moves to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts directed against Dissenters, or to grant Roman Catholics full emancipation within the political system.

11Southey’s portrayal of Church and nation was a significant expression of the ideas that informed the massive State investment in the established Churches in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when many looked to the establishments to consolidate the Union of 1801. His vision reflected the Restoration ethos then prevailing across most of Europe in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars—the ethos of the Holy Alliance and of the efforts to reunite throne and altar. Southey’s was a romantic conservative vision of history, with an emphasis on national unity. His identification of Church and English national identity found considerable favour in nineteenthcentury England, and The Book of the Church went through eight editions by 1870 (Gilley 432). While Britain remained outside the Holy Alliance and increasingly withdrew from Continental alliances from the early 1820s, there was none the less significant support within Britain for a Christian conservatism that was not greatly dissimilar to that of Frederick William III in Prussia or Alexander I in Russia.

12The difficulty with Southey’s effort to identify English national identity with the English Church was that it had little to say about the Christian history of Scotland and Ireland, or at least little good to say. The Book of the Church identified Presbyterianism, and by implication the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, with the Puritan rebels of the seventeenth century, those who had martyred William Laud and King Charles I, and who sought to destroy the episcopacy and Anglicanism of the English Church. Further, it portrayed Roman Catholicism, the faith of the large majority of the Irish people, as a religion based on superstition and promoting tyranny. It was not clear how, according to Southey’s principles, the Anglican Church of England could co-exist within the same State alongside established Presbyterianism in Scotland or majority Roman Catholicism in Ireland. The United Kingdom, it seemed, must either disgorge these Puritan and Roman Catholic elements, or the State would remain divided and unstable.

13By the late 1820s, it was becoming clear that the United Kingdom would not disgorge the Puritans and Catholics. The New Reformation campaign in the 1820s failed to convert significant numbers of Irish Catholics to the established United Church of England and Ireland. Despite the activities of local Irish branches of the Bible Society, the creation of hundreds of schools in connection with the established Church, the building of hundreds of new churches, and the formation of a national Reformation Society, the New Reformation could not achieve a breakthrough. On the contrary, the missionary efforts by the established Church in Ireland aroused widespread resentment among Irish Catholics. This in turn contributed to a popular movement for full Catholic Emancipation under the leadership of the Irish Catholic barrister, Daniel O’Connell, and his Catholic Association. Faced with massive protests among the Irish Catholic majority—and with the threat of violence should peaceful protest prove unavailing—parliament acted to conciliate both Protestant Dissenters and Roman Catholics. Parliament repealed the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and enacted Catholic Emancipation in 1829, granting Protestant Dissenters and Roman Catholics virtually full civil rights within the United Kingdom State. This was soon followed in 1832 with the reform of parliament, and in 1834-35 with the reform of municipal government in Scotland and England. The United Kingdom became more pluralist and parliament became more representative of the different religious bodies existing within its borders. Southey’s close identification of the State with the Church of England became less viable as a programme for the future of the United Kingdom, however attractive it remained as a source of pride and identity among many English conservatives.

14The political environment was fundamentally changed by the reform legislation of 1828-35. The prospect of consolidating the historic kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland into a United Kingdom through the religious and moral influence of the established Churches was no longer a realistic one. There were, meanwhile, other challenges to the unity and well-being of the United Kingdom. These were associated with the rapid growth of manufacturing industry and of large towns and cities. By the 1830s, the industrial revolution in Britain was well advanced, and bringing with it serious problems of urban slums and overcrowding, pockets of extreme deprivation, often atrocious conditions for labour, and widespread perceptions of exploitation among the working classes. To the old divisions of nationality and religion were now added new ones based on social class. The class conflict in the 1830s found expression in attacks upon the established Churches. For many labouring people, especially in the crowded industrial cities, the established Churches were wealthy and corrupt institutions, which existed largely to defend the privileged position of the upper social classes and to keep the common people docile and content with their subordinate position in society. The established Churches were highly visible symbols of what many viewed as an oppressive social order, and many labouring people called for an end to their status and endowments. During the agitation for parliamentary reform, for example, there were violent attacks on individual clergymen and the burning of bishops in effigy, while a working-class mob looted and burned the episcopal palace and library in Bristol.

15In this new political atmosphere, many continued to look to the established Churches as forces of unity and bulwarks of the social order. The established Churches remained influential institutions, and they continued to benefit from the reforms of the first part of the century and the recruitment of men of talent and commitment into the ranks of the clergy. It was perhaps significant that Britain’s foremost defender of the established Churches in the 1830s was not, like Southey, an English intellectual, but was rather a rough-hewn minister of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) had been born in a small fishing village in eastern Fife, and had spent the first part of his life as a parish minister in the Church of Scotland, first in the rural Scottish Lowlands and then in industrialising Glasgow. An evangelical in his piety, Chalmers had also been educated in the thought of the later Scottish Enlightenment. As a parish minister, he had been deeply impressed by the stark contrasts between communal life in the traditional rural parish and the social conditions in the rapidly growing urban districts, with their class divisions and extremes of poverty. He directed his attention to the problems of urban poverty and the serious study of political economy. His first major work, The Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns, appeared in three volumes between 1819 and 1823. It provided a model for an aggressive urban parish ministry aimed at creating close-knit Christian communities, of the sort that existed in many rural parishes, in the crowded and divided industrial towns and cities. He became convinced that only the established Churches could preserve the social fabric of the United Kingdom against the divisive forces unleashed by the industrial revolution. In the mid-1830s, Chalmers, who was now professor of divinity at the University of Edinburgh, organised and led a national campaign in Scotland to raise private donations for building hundreds of new churches and schools in connection with the Church of Scotland. This “church extension campaign” was directed in particular at the new urban districts and was aimed at diminishing class tensions and achieving a renewed social influence for the established Church (Brown, Thomas Chalmers 211-66).

16In the spring of 1838, Chalmers travelled to London to present a series of public lectures aimed at convincing parliament to provide new grants of public money for building additional established churches, not only in Scotland, but throughout the United Kingdom. Published later that same year, his Lectures on the Establishment and Extension of National Churches became one of the most influential defences of the established Churches to appear in the nineteenth century. Where Southey had appealed to history in asserting a unity of Church and nation, Chalmers appealed largely to political economy in arguing that only an established Church could preserve a sense of community against the divisive forces of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.

17For Chalmers, an established Church was essentially a sophisticated irrigation system, which provided what he described as “ducts of conveyance” to carrying a biblical Christianity to all the country’s inhabitants (Chalmers, Lectures 191). A religious establishment, he continued, was shaped by two fundamental principles—the principle of territoriality and the principle of aggression. First, by the principle of territoriality, the Church divided a country up into small territorial districts. Each district was provided with a clergyman whose main responsibility was to bring Christian instruction and cultivation to the inhabitants of that district. Second, by the principle of aggression, the district clergyman was not to rely upon the attractions of Christianity to draw people to his ministry. Rather, he was to go forth aggressively into his district, visiting people regularly in their homes, becoming familiar with their individual character and needs, bringing them religious instruction where they lived, and persuading them to attend public worship. The aim of this aggressive, territorial ministry was to organise the whole country into closely-knit communities, in which they would find unity in shared Christian values. This was the parish system, and it formed the foundation of any Church establishment.

18In order to carry its aggressive, territorial ministry to the whole country, Chalmers maintained, the established Church required the legal status and financial support that could only be provided by the State. A purely voluntary system, by which there was no connection of Church and State and religion was left to the free choice of individuals, would not prove effective in bringing Christian teachings to the population at large. Such a voluntary system, he argued, was essentially a system of free trade in religion, which relied on the attractions of religion to bring people to pay to support their own worship, according to the same principles that governed the economic markets. However, he continued, free trade in religion would not be effective because there was no inherent human taste for Christian teachings, no natural demand for Christianity, such as there was for such commodities as wine or cheese. On the contrary, the more a person was steeped in ignorance, irreligion or vice, the more content he or she was to remain in that condition. Therefore Christianity had to be brought to people by an established Church, backed up by the authority and resources of the State. Further, such an established Church could bring Christianity to the poorest inhabitants, those who simply could not afford to pay anything towards the support of a parish minister under a system of free trade in religion. The widespread working class hostility towards the established Churches in the 1830s was, Chalmers insisted, misguided. For an established Church was in truth the “poor man’s Church” and the established clergy had a special mission not only to bring Christianity to the poor, but also to serve as their supporters. “We are,” he proclaimed of his fellow established clergymen, “the tribunes of the people, the representatives of that class to whom the law has given no other representatives of their own,—of the unfranchised multitude, who are without a vote, and without a voice in the House of Commons” (Lectures 280). Only an established Church, he insisted, could overcome the growing class divisions and restore a sense of national unity; only an established Church could preserve the state from the revolutionary violence that was taking hold in the urban slums. “Unless the emollients of Christian kindness and Christian instruction,” he asserted, “be brought to bear on the turbulence of the popular mind, a smouldering fire, which now lies at the bottom of the social and political edifice, will at length burst forth, and explode it into fragments” (281-82).

19Chalmers saw no difficulty in the State supporting different Protestant Churches in the different nations making up the United Kingdom. He insisted that an established Church had to be Protestant, as he believed that only Protestant Churches taught a true biblical Christianity. He further insisted that an established Church had to be committed to take the gospel to all the inhabitants. But beyond this, the State should content itself with establishing the particular form of Church organisation that was most acceptable to the majority of inhabitants in a nation. The State, moreover, should not interfere in the internal governance of the established Church. It should provide support to the established Church, but otherwise grant the Church full independence in matters of doctrine, discipline and organisation.

20Chalmers’s Lectures on the Establishment and Extension of National Churches were delivered in a hall in London “crowded to suffocation” with members of England’s governing elite, including royal princes, aristocrats and leading politicians. Within a year, eight thousand copies had been sold (Hanna 37-46). The published lectures would exercise a profound influence on thought regarding the nature of an established Church and its role in creating a sense of community in an industrialising society. In his portrayal of an established Church as the Church of the poor and dispossessed, committed to restoring a sense of mutual responsibility among people of different social classes, he went far towards reviving popular support for the established Churches. His ideal of an aggressive, territorial home mission would have a profound influence on the established Churches during the mid and late nineteenth century (Brown, “Thomas Chalmers”). However, he failed in the main purpose of his lectures—that is, he failed to convince parliament to provide new public funds for building additional established churches and schools. The more representative, post-1832 reformed parliament declined to risk the opposition of Dissenters and Catholics by providing more resources for the established Churches. Further, in the same year that he was delivering his Lectures, Chalmers’s own Church of Scotland was becoming embroiled in a bitter dispute with the State over the role of lay patronage in the appointment of ministers. The State proved unwilling to grant the Church of Scotland the level of independence, in either the appointment of ministers or the disciplining of individual ministers, that Chalmers and his supporters believed was essential to a Christian Church. As a result, five years after he presented his celebrated lectures in defence of established Churches, Chalmers led nearly a third of the clergy and perhaps half the lay membership out of the established Church of Scotland, at the Disruption of 1843. Chalmers’s lectures had provided an image of popular, socially committed, and largely independent established Churches, restoring unity in the different national societies of the United Kingdom. The State, however, had been unwilling to share sovereignty with such national Churches, and Chalmers’s Church ideal, for all its influence, could not be achieved.

21In the mid-nineteenth century, the established Churches remained committed to strengthening the social and political union within the United Kingdom. They continued to support the monarchy and the union of the three ancient kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland; they sought through their parish system to reconcile the divisions of industrial society. However, they no longer enjoyed the same support from the State that they had known in the first quarter of the century. Following the constitutional changes of 1828-32, the State ceased investing heavily in the established Churches of the three ancient kingdoms as a means of consolidating the United Kingdom around shared religious and moral values. Southey’s romantic conservative vision of the established Church became more a nostalgic longing for an idealised past than a practical programme for an industrialising, urbanising society. The efforts of Chalmers and his supporters to revive State investment in the extension of the established Churches in the 1830s had not been successful. They had failed to gain political support for their vision of the established Churches as popular institutions with the potential to unite the social classes in industrial society, and by 1843, Chalmers was outside the established Church of Scotland. The established Churches remained well-endowed and influential institutions in the mid-Victorian years. But they no longer had the same power and authority that they had known earlier in the century.

22In England, the religious census of 1851 revealed that half the population did not attend any church on the census Sunday, while of those who did, only about half attended the established Church. The established Church was especially weak in the industrialising towns and cities, where Chalmers had warned it must gain the adherence of the working classes if the State were to be spared revolutionary upheaval (Chadwick, Victorian Church, Part One 363-69; Inglis). Outside England, on the “Celtic fringe” of the United Kingdom, the established Churches were still weaker. In Ireland, the established Church retained the adherence of less than 10% of the population, and Irish nationalist opinion, which was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, viewed the minority Protestant establishment as an alien English institution and an affront to national pride. Disestablishment became one of the leading goals of the National Association founded in 1864 in Dublin (Norman 142-72). According to the religious census of 1851, the established Church in Scotland held the allegiance of only about a third of the church-going population, while in Wales, the established Church retained less than a quarter of all church-goers.

23There were renewed calls for disestablishment from those who objected to the claims of the established Churches to represent the religion of the United Kingdom. In 1865, the Liberation Society, the British organisation of militant Protestant Dissent, allied with the National Association of Ireland to campaign for the disestablishment of the established Church in Ireland. The Liberal government of William Gladstone gave its support to Irish disestablishment as a matter of justice to the Irish Catholic majority and a means of conciliating Irish nationalist opinion. In 1869, following a short, sharp political struggle, parliament disestablished and disendowed the Irish Church, with effect from 1871 (Bell 70-157; Norman 282-385). The Liberation Society now increased its activities in England, and motions for the disestablishment of the Church of England were brought before parliament in 1871, 1872 and 1873 (Machin 40-52; Mackintosh 242-49; Skeats and Miall 629-35). In 1872, Dissenters launched a political campaign for disestablishment in Scotland, and by 1874, the two major non-established Churches in Scotland—the Free Church and the United Presbyterians—had given their support to the Scottish disestablishment campaign. They soon gained the support of the Scottish Liberal Party (Carnegie Simpson 248-82). In Wales, a national disestablishment campaign began in earnest in 1862, and a Welsh disestablishment motion was introduced in parliament in 1870 (Morgan, Freedom or Sacrilege 8; Bell 223). For their opponents, the established Churches were bastions of privilege and symbols of an unjust and oppressive social order. All connection of Church and State, they insisted, must be ended, in the interest of religious liberty and equality.

24For their defenders, the established Churches of the 1870s continued to represent the idea of a religious aspect to the State. Their defenders viewed them as providing higher spiritual and moral ideals, which helped to elevate politics above the mere adjudication of conflicts between interests and social classes. Established Churches formed a national culture, in which individual interests were subsumed within enduring values. One of the leading defenders of the established Church ideal in the 1870s was, perhaps ironically, not a clergyman, or even an orthodox Christian, but was rather a champion of the idea of a national, unifying ethical culture. Matthew Arnold (1822-88) was a poet, educator and man of letters. He was the son of the celebrated liberal Anglican headmaster of Rugby, Thomas Arnold, who in the early 1830s had developed a plan for a comprehensive national religious establishment, aimed at drawing Dissenters back into the national Church (T. Arnold). Matthew Arnold was an urbane, cosmopolitan figure, an inspector of schools and a one-time professor of poetry at Oxford University, who was well-connected in literary and political circles. He was a regular worshipper in the Church of England, and preferred a high Anglican ritualist form of worship (Honan 352). In the late 1860s and early 1870s, he published a series of essays, in which he criticised the dogmatism of Protestant Dissenters, and advocated an inclusive Christianity with an emphasis on ethical teachings. His writings on the Bible aroused considerable controversy and raised doubts about whether he was a Christian believer. In St Paul and Protestantism (1870), for example, he maintained that Paul’s teachings were essentially ethical, and argued that the doctrinal emphasis on original sin and predestination had been produced by later commentators (20-33). The true Christian Church, he further maintained, was based on ethical teachings, and not doctrinal opinions (72-107).

25On 22 February 1876, Arnold presented a public lecture on “The Church of England” at Sion College, an educational and meeting centre for the London-area clergy. He was, as he admitted to the audience in his introductory remarks, an unusual choice for a speaker on such a theme and at such a place. His published writings, especially those on the Bible, were regarded by many as suspect, even dangerous to the Christian faith. Some viewed him as an unbeliever; for others, he was “one of the worst enemies the Church has” (“Church of England” 64). He denied that he was either. He was, he insisted, his father’s son and a warm friend of the established Church. He appeared before them to fulfil a long-standing personal aspiration—to offer a defence of the idea of an established Church for the modern world. The established Church, he believed, had the potential to define an ethical culture that could unite the nation and provide it with a higher mission.

26For Arnold, an established Church was “a great national society for the promotion of what is commonly called goodness.” It existed for the high purpose of teaching people to do their moral duty. Its moral teachings should be rooted in biblical precepts, which, he insisted, “were the only means which are really and truly effectual for the object” (65). It should be “a city set upon a hill,” representing moral ideals that drew the collective mind upwards and elevated the whole nation (69). In saying that its moral ideal should be based on the Bible, however, Arnold did not mean the Bible as it was commonly understood—that is, a set of doctrines about original sin, election and justification. Rather, he meant the original teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as these teachings were being rediscovered through the work of modern biblical scholars. In particular, Arnold believed that an established Church should base its message on Jesus’s teachings about the coming kingdom of God. What Jesus had proclaimed during his time on earth was “the ideal of popular hope and longing, an immense renovation and transformation of things.” When Jesus Christ spoke of the coming of the kingdom of God, he had meant a moral transformation of this world; he had meant “a kingdom here on earth, not in some other world unseen” (76). He had meant the coming of a culture of righteousness here on earth.

27After Jesus had died in humiliation, Arnold argued, his disillusioned followers had changed Jesus’s message of the kingdom, to make it refer to a heavenly kingdom, which would be a place of eternal reward for his followers, those elected to salvation. This became the gospel that the Church communicated through the centuries. The Church taught the common people to accept inequality and oppression in this world, to defer to existing social hierarchies and traditional authorities, in the hope of future reward in a heavenly kingdom. The Church became over time “a stronghold of stolid deference to the illusions of the aristocratic and propertied classes” (73). But this, insisted Arnold, was not what Jesus had taught. He had proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God on earth, a gospel of social liberation in this world. What was needed in the United Kingdom was a new Reformation, to strip away the centuries of corruption from Christianity and restore the original teachings of Christ.

  • 4 For these connections of religion, ethics and culture in Arnold’s mature thought, see Trilling 265 (...)

28This, Arnold maintained, should be the mission of the established Church—to restore and proclaim Jesus’s message of the coming kingdom of God on earth. In the ideal of the kingdom of God, the established Church would find the foundation for a new social gospel. This was a message that would attract the working classes, now largely alienated from the Church. It would provide the basis for an ethical culture of co-operation and mutual responsibility, a culture that would unite the social classes and the different nationalities of the United Kingdom.4 Arnold believed that an established Church, striving to achieve this righteous kingdom on earth, would also eventually regain the allegiance of the religious dissenters—perhaps not of the present generation, so much immersed in their envy of the established Church and so entrenched in their own opinions—but of the next generation of dissenters. In the future, Arnold maintained,

[i]t will be acknowledged that the Church is a society for the promotion of goodness; that such a society is the stronger for being national, and ought to be national; that to make its operations, therefore, more effectual, all good men ought to unite in it, and that the objections of the Protestant Dissenters to uniting in it are trivial. (83)

29Writing to his sister two days after his lecture, Arnold observed that he had carried the mainly clerical audience at Sion College with him; many who had “come to curse, remained to bless.” His success was demonstrated in the heated discussion that had followed the address. Piers Claughton, the former Bishop of Colombo, Ceylon, stood up to protest that Arnold was fundamentally wrong to say that Christ’s original gospel had been to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. This was a false doctrine, and the Church must not seek to form national Christian culture on such a basis. Christ’s kingdom, Claughton insisted, was a spiritual kingdom and not one of this world. However, as Arnold explained to his sister, “clergyman on clergyman... turned upon Claughton and said they agreed with me far more than they did with him.” Even the high church clergymen who were present, including the Anglican clergyman and controversialist, Malcolm MacColl, could find little to criticise and much to support in Arnold’s portrayal of the established Church (“Matthew Arnold to Frances Whately”; Chadwick, Victorian Church, Part Two 272-73). It was a telling moment. Arnold had expressed at Sion College an idea that would increasingly shape the mission of the established Churches in the United Kingdom in the last quarter of the nineteenth century—the idea of the kingdom of God on earth. For Arnold, the role of the established Church should be to promote practical social ethics and social unity. An established Church, Arnold insisted, should not exist to preserve the social hierarchy and the privileges of the elite, no matter how long those privileges had been enshrined in history. It should not be “an appendage to the Barbarians”—it must not be “an institution devoted above all to the landed gentry, but also to the propertied and satisfied classes generally” (“Church of England” 71). Rather, an established Church should align itself with the progressive forces in society, and in particular the working classes, in working for a more just society and the dissemination of a unifying culture.

  • 5 [M. Arnold], “The Church of England”, Macmillan’s Magazine, vol. 33 (April 1876): 481-94.

30The social gospel, with its emphasis on the kingdom of God on earth and an ethical culture, and its playing down of doctrinal definitions, increasingly defined the identity of the established Churches of England and Scotland. Arnold was not the first to express such ideas. There were a number of figures in the 1870s calling for the established Churches to embrace a social gospel, including A. P. Stanley, Benjamin Jowett, Arnold Toynbee and Stewart Headlam in the Church of England, and John Tulloch and John Caird in the Church of Scotland. But Arnold’s influence as an interpreter of modern culture helped to ensure that these ideas reached a wide public outside the established Churches. His lecture on “The Church of England” was published in Macmillan’s Magazine in April 1876,5 and in 1877 it appeared in Arnold’s volume of Last Essays on Church and Religion.

31The established Churches were increasingly active in the social mission after 1877. The Church of England and the Church of Scotland found a common cause in the social gospel and this proved more compelling than their ecclesiastical and social differences. The most energetic and activist of the established clergy took up pastoral work in the urban slums. Through the activities of the Guild of St Matthew, formed in 1877, the Settlement movement which emerged in 1884, or the Christian Social Union, founded in 1889, the established Churches took the lead in Christian social engagement. In England and Scotland, the established Churches found new strength as national institutions. Many dissenters also embraced this emphasis on a Christian social ethic. As they did so, their opposition to the established Churches, which had been so strong earlier in the century, became less and less pronounced. Arnold proved largely correct in his prediction that the younger generation of dissenters would not share to the same degree their fathers’commitment to disestablishment. Support for disestablishment waned in England in the early 1880s and in Scotland in the later 1880s, as dissenting leaders such as the Methodist preacher and journalist, Hugh Price Hughes, sought to direct dissenting energies to movements for social improvement (Machin 117-18; Drummond and Bulloch 113-25; D. Price Hughes 483-84, 491-92; H. Price Hughes 53-64). Even in Wales, where dissenters formed the vast majority of the population, the disestablishment fervour began to wane in the 1890s, as the spread of industrialisation and the growth of the labour movement in South Wales focused national attention on social questions (Morgan, Rebirth 59-89; Davies 147-68; Bell 242-46). Parliament would eventually disestablish the established Church in Wales in 1919, but by this date there was little enthusiasm for the act among the Welsh.

32The established Churches retained considerable influence within the United Kingdom through the nineteenth century. While the Church in Ireland was disestablished, elsewhere the established Churches survived throughout the nineteenth century, and even experienced a recovery of influence in the last decades of the century. For many, the established Churches remained powerful expressions of unity within the United Kingdom against the divisive forces of economic individualism, nationalism, and class conflict. We have considered three significant nineteenth-century defenders of the established Churches. For the early nineteenth-century romantic conservative, Robert Southey, the established Churches were expressions of the historical development of the people, linking the past and present generations. They shaped the history and represented the unity of the people. To be sure, his account was on the Church of England and its influence on the history of the English people, and his Book of the Church had little to say to the peoples of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. That said, his work was influential in England, and it expressed the mood of the first quarter of the century, with the hopes of consolidating the United Kingdom through the influence of the established Churches.

33In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the Church of Scotland clergyman and Edinburgh University professor, Thomas Chalmers, provided a new ideal for the established Churches in Britain’s industrialising society. They were now to be popular bodies, “poor man’s Churches,” which would combine a commitment to improving the condition of the labouring classes with efforts to rebuild communal responsibility among all social orders, especially in the new urban environment. Although Chalmers’s own Church of Scotland was broken up in 1843, his vision of a socially-committed, communally-oriented established Church continued to exercise influence throughout the nineteenth century. Finally, in the last quarter of the century, Matthew Arnold sought to express the mission of an established Church in a democratic age, in which a new biblical and historical scholarship was undermining the foundations of doctrinal orthodoxy. For Arnold, the established Church would find its biblical basis in Christ’s original teachings of the kingdom of God, which Arnold portrayed as a culture of righteousness and cooperation, for which all people should strive. The mission of an established Church in a democratic society should not be to impose doctrines upon people from above, but rather to promote an ethical culture among people of different classes, interests and national backgrounds. His vision of the established Church stripped the Church of much of its doctrinal content, in the interest of making it a force for unity in a liberal, pluralist society. This rejection of dogma did not appeal to more conservative Christians, but as the discussion at Sion College in February 1876 indicated, Arnold’s emphasis on the ethical message of the kingdom of God did have a broad appeal.

34The established Churches were committed to the promotion of unity within the United Kingdom throughout the nineteenth century. They saw it as their mission to bring religious and moral instruction to all the inhabitants residing within the United Kingdom, and to unify people in communities based on shared moral values. They sought to avoid connecting themselves with any particular social interest, social class, or nationality, but claimed to be committed to the general spiritual welfare of all inhabitants of these islands. Throughout the century, they were among the most consistent supporters of the union of the varied nationalities making up the nineteenth-century United Kingdom. Despite the challenges to their authority from dissenters and Roman Catholics, from workingclass opponents and secular-minded critics, the established Churches proved remarkably effective in adapting to the changing circumstances of the emerging political and social democracy. While the failures of established religion in Ireland and Wales must be acknowledged, it must also be recognised that in much of Britain, the established Churches of England and of Scotland retained considerable influence as forces for union well into the twentieth century.



Arnold Matthew, “The Church of England”, Super 8 63-86.

—, Last Essays on Church and Religion, London, Smith, Elder and Co., 1877.

—, “Matthew Arnold to Frances Whately, 24 February 1876.” Russell 127-28.

—, St Paul and Protestantism (1870), Super 6 1-127.

Arnold Thomas, Principles of Church Reform, London, B. Fellowes, 1833.

Bell P. M. H., Disestablishment in Ireland and Wales, London, SPCK, 1969.

Brown S. J., The National Churches of England, Ireland and Scotland 1801-1846, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2001.

—, “The New Reformation Movement in the Church of Ireland, 1801-29”, Brown and Miller, ed. 180-208.

—, “Thomas Chalmers and the Communal Ideal in Victorian Scotland”, Smout 61-80.

—, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth in Scotland, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1982.

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Chadwick Owen, The Victorian Church, Part One, 1829-1859, 3rd ed. London, A. & C. Black, 1971.

—, The Victorian Church, Part Two, 1860-1901, 2nd ed. London, A. & C. Black, 1972.

Chalmers Thomas, The Collected Works of Thomas Chalmers, Vol. 17. Glasgow, Collins, 1835-42.

—, Lectures on the Establishment and Extension of National Churches (1838), Chalmers 187-356.

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Drummond A. L. and James Bulloch. The Church in Late Victorian Scotland 1874-1900, Edinburgh, St Andrew P, 1978.

Gilleys., “Nationality and Liberty, Protestant and Catholic: Robert Southey’s Book of the Church”, Mews 409-32.

Hanna William, Memoirs of Dr Chalmers, Vol. IV. Edinburgh, Thomas Constable, 1849-52.

Honan Park, Matthew Arnold: A Life, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981.

Hughes Hugh Price, Social Christianity, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1889.

Hughes Dorothea Price, The Life of Hugh Price Hughes, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1905.

Inglis K. S., “Patterns of Worship in 1851”, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 11 (1960): 74-86.

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Machin G. I. T., Politics and the Churches in Great Britain 1869 to 1921, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1987.

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—, Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1981.

Norman E. R., The Catholic Church and Ireland in the Age of Rebellion 1859-1873, London, Longmans, 1965.

Pym David, “The Ideas of Church and State in the Thought of Three Principal Lake Poets: Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth”, Durham University Journal 83 (1991): 19-26.

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—, “New Churches”, Quarterly Review 23 (July 1820): 549-91.

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1 For a recent biography, see Storey.

2 R. Southey to G. C. Bedford 15 April 1821 (C. C. Southey 65).

3 See Gilley; Pym.

4 For these connections of religion, ethics and culture in Arnold’s mature thought, see Trilling 265-71.

5 [M. Arnold], “The Church of England”, Macmillan’s Magazine, vol. 33 (April 1876): 481-94.


University of Edinburgh
Professor of Ecclesiastical History and former Dean of the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. His books include Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth in Scotland and The National Churches of England, Ireland and Scotland, 1801-1846. He is currently completing a book on religion, politics and society in Britain and Ireland, 1815-1914, and co-editing the volume on “Enlightenment, Awakening and Revolution, 1660-1815” of the forthcoming Cambridge History of Christianity

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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