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 Religious Vitality in Victorian London


W.M. Jacob


Oxford: University Press, 2021

Hardback. viii + 348 p. ISBN 978-0192897404. £75


Reviewed by Richard Hughes Gibson

The Victorian Web



At first glance, the title of the pastoral theologian W.M. Jacob’s new historical study, Religious Vitality in Victorian London, might not seem at all provocative. But the phrase “religious vitality” is a loaded one, as it has been a watchword for the last thirty-odd years among scholars, particularly sociologists of religion, who have sought to challenge the so-called “secularisation thesis”. In the middle of the twentieth century, secularisation theorists saw unmistakable signs that religious belief and practice were in terminal decline in the West due to the combined forces of urbanisation, industrialisation, and modernisation. Shifting populations and new ideas appeared to have dealt the old verities a fatal blow. However, subsequent studies—and many hard-to-miss public displays of religious fervor in recent decades—have clarified that the secularisation theorists spoke too soon, as even Peter Berger, the most prominent such theorist, has admitted.

Jacob’s book contributes to this reassessment by calling into question twentieth-century analyses of the Victorian period that fell in line with the assumptions of secularisation theorists. Jacob cites, for example, the writings of such noted historians of Kenneth Inglis, Owen Chadwick, Alan Gilbert, Basil Wiley, A.J. Cockshut, and Hugh McLeod, all of whom in one way or another portrayed the period as one of declining religiosity (the era of the “crisis of faith”) and many of whom pointed to the capital as the epicentre of heterodoxy, doubt, and irreligion. As Jacob shows, these historians were in fact following the Victorians’ own lead. Exactly because they were so concerned to promote the religious life of the whole population (a sign of vitality), some of the period’s foremost clerics, government officials, and philanthropists worried publicly about rising “infidelity”, particularly among the swelling ranks of the lower classes in the nation’s “world city”.

Victorian commentators and later historians seemed to have solid proof that religion was on the wane in the period, especially in the capital. They could point, for example, to the first and only national census of religious attendance—conducted on March 30, 1851—, which suggested that less than a quarter of London’s population went to church that Sunday. That figure was half of the national attendance rate (that, too, a worrying number to some), and seemed to offer a strong rebuttal to those who spoke easily of England as a “Christian nation”. High rates of attendance among Nonconformists in London, particularly Congregationalists, also struck a blow to the established church’s self-presentation as England’s representative religious body. Subsequent censuses of Londoners’ religious habits were made by the newspapers the British Weekly in 1886 and the Daily News in 1902-1903, and both recorded further declines in attendance. The latter, for example, found that although London’s total population had continued to grow, the actual number of church attendees had diminished (by about 150,000) since 1886.

Victorian writers debated how reliable the statistics were on all three occasions, and a number of subsequent studies have further assayed their usefulness (including claims that they overstated English church attendance). Jacob has his doubts about the accuracy of these numbers too, but his qualms relate less to the methods of data-gathering (the chief Victorian-era concern) than the tacit assumption that Sunday church attendance is the proper way to gauge the religious character of a nation or its largest city. “Religiosity,” Jacob argues, cannot be whittled down to head counts of the people in the pews on any given Sunday. It must encompass “people’s religious feelings, in the widest sense, the ways they were expressed, and the practices and activities which they inspired, among a diverse range of people, male and female, ordained and lay” [7]. Such a definition may seem overbroad, I admit, but Jacob rightly observes that a wider, more “diffusive” framework for thinking about religious feeling and its expression is required in this case because of the myriad ways that the Victorians interacted with religious traditions and institutions. The overwhelming majority of the population, in the capital and the countryside alike, still went to church to marry, baptise their children, and bury their dead, despite secular alternatives to the first and last being available in the period. The Victorians also bequeathed to us extensive records of “informal expressions of religiosity”—including mid-week mothers’ meetings, Sunday school participation, religiously-themed concerts, charitable organisations, and even (Jacob suggests) spiritualist séances. The popularity of these activities suggest that many adults and children were receiving religious care and instruction and having powerful spiritual experiences even if they were not regularly in attendance on the sabbath.

This more “informal” connection to the churches was especially true of working class Londoners. As Jacob points out, Horace Mann, the designer of the 1851 religious census, had assumed that “all ‘respectable’ people attended church, probably twice, on Sundays”; that the absentees consisted of “minor shopkeepers”, “Sunday traders”, and “the miserable denisens of courts and crowded alleys”; and “that absence from a place of worship on Census Sunday was evidence of a lack of religious belief” [40]. The census thus appeared to Mann and others at the time to demonstrate a religious crisis that was especially acute among the urban poor. That perspective, Jacob emphasises, shows a gross misunderstanding of working-class life in the city. Some jobs did not regularly provide for time off to attend hours-long church services. (Those in domestic service, for example, might be expected to put the house in order while their middle- and upper-classes employers went to church.) Sunday, moreover, was for many labourers the lone day off each week, making it the sole day in which to rest and to tend to household chores such as cleaning up and mending shoes and other articles of clothing. Even if they had the energy to make it to church, the physical space of the sanctuary could be forbidding. Most churches relied on pew-rents for income, sometimes leaving only a small area remaining for “non-renting” attendees. And in an age that venerated “respectability,” lacking suitable “Sunday best” clothing could be a deterrent to even stepping in the door. “For many of London’s poorest, in irregular employment”, Jacob concludes, “regular or frequent church attendance at worship was probably an unattainable goal” [310].

At the same time, Jacob shows that the plight of the poor was among the utmost concerns of wealthy Victorians of all religious stripes—Anglican, Nonconformist, Roman Catholic, and Jewish. Religious convictions led the rich to give enormous sums to London-based philanthropic projects, funding manifold building campaigns, Sunday schools (among other kinds of educational institutions), hospitals, city missions, and various kinds of temporary and longer-term financial help for those in need. Jacob stresses that these initiatives were often financed and directed by women, some of whom became national figures as result of their efforts. Octavia Hill, for example, was a leading figure in The Society for Organising Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendacity (later the “Charity Organisation Society” or “COS”). Believing that “Christian duty […] required an effort to know those needing help and extending sympathy to them”, Hill argued that charity workers needed to enter into the experience of the poor by making personal visits to the recipients of aid and that “the key to changing poor people’s behaviour lay in changing habits.” Her methods, Jacob explains, “provided the origins of professional social casework”.

On Jacob’s telling, there was a religious crisis in Victorian London, but it was not rapidly declining “religiosity” among the poor (or the rich for that matter). The crisis was the urban environment itself. Across the chapters of the book, the reader observes one eminent Victorian after another—bishops and preachers, lords and prime ministers, scholars and proto-social workers like Hill—confronting the problem of maintaining communal religious life on such a vast scale. The question that everyone was asking was this: how could churches, clergy, and the laity fulfill their religious responsibilities—to worship together, to pass the faith on to the young, to care for the poor and the sick—amidst such an enormous and constantly shifting population? Traditionally, those duties had been fulfilled by the local parish, presided over by a clergyman who had been enjoined to the care of all of the souls within the parish limits. London was simply too big and too religiously diverse to be served by such a system; it required, and inspired, new ways of addressing religious obligations and callings, and Jacob rightly argues that the new and often well-financed schemes—in education, housing, preaching, medicine, etc.—constitute so many signs of religious vitality.

Jacob would turn us away from the census reports in order to recognise that no place or period in English history can rival Victorian London for its industry in building and expanding churches, setting up soup kitchens, and attempting to spread the Word. It was a world in which even bishops hit the streets. At midcentury, Archibald Tait, Anglican Bishop of London, to cite an especially notable example, preached “to emigrants at the docks, gypsies at Kensington Potteries, omnibusmen at night in their depot at Islington, railwaymen from a locomotive, and costermongers at Covent Garden” [84]. The denominations, moreover, quickly learned from each other’s tactics. In the latter half of the century, the Church of England responded to declining state support by “adopting and adapting the Nonconformist’s associational model of financing”, becoming in the process “London’s most successful fundraising organisation” [96]. Anglican churches, moreover, gradually began to reflect the multiplicity of parties within the Church of England (Tractarian and evangelical, in particular), with the result that by the century’s end many Anglicans chose which church to attend by consulting not the parish map but their “theological, liturgical, and aesthetic tastes”—just as their Nonconformist neighbours did [99]. Expanded public transport, Jacob notes, was a vehicle for this change, as it allowed worshippers to join with the “likeminded” on Sundays. In the 1850s, Roman Catholics, meanwhile, began to “emulate Protestant methods” in their response to Catholic slums, introducing “ragged schools, self-help societies, and bread and soup charities, to withstand ‘leakage’ from the Irish Catholic community” [153]. Victorian London, Jacob would show us, was a unique religious space, requiring experimentation, imitation, competition, and collaboration (especially for social reform). No denomination emerged from the period unchanged.

By pulling so many pieces together in a fresh manner, Jacob earns the right to conclude that there was no vast crisis of faith among Victorian Londoners due to urbanisation, industrialisation, or “intellectual doubt prompted by historical or literary scholarship, or the ‘rise of science.’ […] The great majority of people had a broadly Christian approach to life” [310]. Yet the book is, ultimately, more than just a challenge to the old declinist account of religion’s hold on Victorian London. Jacob endeavours to show that Victorian Londoners’ religiosity was active and beneficent, and he lays a strong emphasis on the way in which religious organisation and activities created a space for women to hold positions of authority and to make meaningful social contributions. Religiosity raised awareness about “how the other half lived” (to borrow the Victorian-era New Yorker Jacob Riis’ phrase), thereby promoting reform in fields such as education, housing, medical care, and poor relief. In attempting to understand and to organise collective efforts to ameliorate the plight of the poor, Victorian religious organisations prepared the way for several major initiatives of the twentieth-century state, including “universal free education, subsidised housing for the very poor, old age pensions, and health insurance” [312]. In the preface, Jacob notes that the “evidence of church and chapel buildings” first alerted him to the “immense initiative and energy” of religious communities in Victorian London [vii]. Those words are a good reminder that Victorian religious trends are not simply a matter of interest to specialists. For those religious energies have left innumerable traces, subtle and conspicuous, in the built environment that millions of people continue to inhabit. London, the city that appeared to some leading Victorians the hotbed of “infidelity”, now stands as a principal witness to the vitality of Victorian religious life.



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