Chartism and the churches (with special reference to Lancashire): an account of the churches and social reform in the Chartist period
McLellan, N. J.
This account of the Churches and Social Reform in the Chartist period had its inception in war -time London. The spirit of reform was in the air. The Beveridge Report had caught the imagination of the public and, by reading either the official publication, or the very full summaries which appeared in the Press, thousands of people has become familiar with its declared intention of eliminating poverty, disease and ignorance zrom the life of the community. Inevitably, in countless discussion groups the question was put: "What part are the Churches destined to play in movements seeking to implement these proposals ?" There was much in the situation to remind the careful observer of the period of the Chartist agitation. The greatest similarity in the two periods is that they were bridging periods between two different orders. The Chartist period was a period of social awakening between the heartless economics first developed in the eighteenth century and the inevitable measures of reform in the middle of last century. The period of the Beveridge Report was one in which it was evident that the dissemination of knowledge, the increased control over the powers of nature, and a widespread realisation that no civilised nation could afford to have any of its citizens living brutishly-or unhealthily, had outmoded the pre-war economic theories.In such a situation it seemed worthwhile to begin a study of the attitude of the Churches to Chartism, an aspect of the movement which, with one notable exception, has been almost cornpletely ignored by historians. The exception is the account of "Chartism and the Churches ", produced for the Columbia University Series in History, Law, and Economics in 1916, by Harold U. Faulkner. Excellent as this account is, one essay could not be expected to do more than map out the field and indicate the main lines which could. be followed most profitably by later research students.The present writer's 'original intention was to give an account of Chartism and the Churches within the County of 'Lancashire. Almost immediately, however, it became apparent that the geographical distribution of Chartism tells us very little; the movement can only be understood in its moral, social, and spiritual significance if it is seen against the background or life in the whole country during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Chartist period was one of expansion; communications were rapidly improving, and the scope of the spoken arid. written word was being widened. Ideas, then, would 'be disseminated much more readily than would have been the case, say, in 1800; this would almost. certainly militate against the localisation of particular modes of thought or action within any particular geographical area. Yet equally important is the fact that it is quite impossible to write a satisfactory account of any aspect of Chartism without giving great weight to the activities of the Chartists in Lancashire; for although the movement was actually inaugurated at a meeting of the London Working Men's Association, it received its strongest support from, and achieved its greatest success among, the toiling masses of the industrial towns of Lancashire.Chartism existed as an organised expression of working-class discontent from 1837 to 1852, but no indication of its origin, purpose, and achievements could be given if that period were studied in isolation. It arose out of the events which marked the development of an industrial community (luring, and in the years immediately succeeding, the Napoleonic Wars. The economic dislocation which produced such a degree of poverty and hunger as to predispose the workers to revolutionary ideas, was in a very real sense an outcome of the great Continental 'Wars. The Working Classes has placed great hopes in the Reform Act of 1832 and these had not been realised; they had fought for Sadler's Bill - the Ten Hours Bill - and they had lost the campaign, for the limitation of hours was not in fact achieved until 1847. The New Parliament of which they had expected such great things, had, in passing the Poor Law Âmenament Act of 1834, raised over their old age and their periods of unemployment the grim spectre of the workhouse. These events contained the seeds of Chartism, and something must be said of the agitation for Factory Reform, and Education, and the revolt against the New Poor Law, if its character as a mass agitation is to be understood and the reasons for its apparent failure to be appreciated. These parallel movements also won the greatest support from the Lancashire workers, but they cannot be studied unless Lancashire is seen in the setting of the whole country.Similar difficulties at once became evident when the attitude of religious bodies to social questions came under review. In the case of the Anglican and Wesleyan Churches with their highly centralised organisations, the policies of the Lancashire Churches were in a large measure determined by the decisions of leaders and conferences meeting in many parts of the country, and legislating for all the Churches of their communion. In the case of the Wesleyan Church, it seemed essential to make clear how the reactionary character of Conference decisions led to schisms, and how Methodism expressed its message through the medium of groups and denominations which had seceded from the parent body. The Baptist and Congregational theories of church government were more elastic and a larger measure of local autonomy in their Churches was allowed; it was therefore possible for these organisations to adapt themselves to purely local conditions, and, in their case, the impact of social reform on religion can be estimated within their own areas. The Roman Catholic Church in Lancashire, with its large influx of Irish immigrants during the Chartist era, presents highly intricate social and economic problems which call for a separate and exhaustive study. In this work only the main outlines of such problems have been indicated.If the treatment of the subject had been confined to its narrowest limitations, it would have been possible to state in two or three paragraphs that the Churches as organisations, and the vast majority of their members, ignored the Chartist aspirations for reform and condemned the tactics adopted by the Chartists. Such a picture would be false and misleading. Many people in the Churches sympathised with the aims of the Chartists, felt a sense of concern and responsibility for the hunger and discontent of which Chartism was the outcome, but were repelled by the element of violence in the campaign and by the revolutionary nature of the points in the Charter. Such people gave their support to other contemporary social reform movements and occasionally found themselves swept into Chartist activity. The classic case, of this kind, in Lancashire, was Joseph Rayner Stephens, to whom a separate chapter has been devoted, and whose life-story has still to be written with any degree of accuracy. In this way even the Wesleyan Church -- fiercest of all denominations in its opposition to Chartism -- fiercest of all denominations in its opposition to Chartism - produced some notable Chartist leaders.