Saturday, September 10, 2022

Industrial Britannia: Church Decline and Response

Industrial Revolution: Christianity to Olympianity

The Industrial Revolution was in reality the first phase of a technological revolution still with us. With it a previously Christian society and culture became an increasingly Olympian one. 

Urban growth and church decline

One consequence of the technological revolution: the explosive growth of large urban cities at the expense of small rural villages.

One consequence of that: a decline in the number of working- and marginal-class people participating in churches. Why? As villagers they enjoyed a far closer relationship to God’s good creation. Their absence from Sunday worship was far more conspicuous to pastors and fellow church members. Their participation in the church community could be far more helpful and meaningful.

Immigrants from rural villages usually found places to stay in the urban areas of fastest growth. These often lacked much of everything including established church communities.

If there was an existing church community nearby, members didn’t necessarily welcome poor and unemployed newcomers. In those days, churches often raised money to meet expenses by renting out pews. Newcomers usually couldn’t afford to. Members of existing urban churches could be middle class and, with Pluto, might scorn workers and fear drifters.

A practical response: more buildings

A drive to reach the poor by constructing more church buildings took place between 1821 and 1851. The established English Church built 2,500. Various Nonconformist groups built even more. These were largely Neo-Gothic for three reasons. The brick used to build them was inexpensive. English culture had entered a Romantic period which exalted the medieval and revived the Gothic style to evoke it. This celebration of the medieval period also idealized a highly structured of society and subtly taught workers and drifters the lesson that society’s betters know what’s best for them.

This concern to reach workers and drifters had two causes. One was a sincere desire to save them from Hell in the next life. Another was a prudent desire to keep them from rebelling in this life. In 1848, after all, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had published their manifesto of the Communist Party encouraging them to do just that.

An official and well-publicized count of those attending Christian worship in England was taken on Sunday, March 30, 1851—the year of the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” held at the Crystal Palace in London. This count revealed that just over 40% of English inhabitants attended even this much-anticipated opportunity to worship on Sunday. Most of these worshipers, however, were members of the middle class. There were an adequate number of buildings coupled with adequate cause for concern about workers and marginal people among the middle class. Nonetheless there remained an inadequate interest among workers and drifters themselves. For them, middle-class congregations simply bore too little witness to Jesus, bricks and anxiety notwithstanding.

Intellectual responses to working-class alienation

With publication of The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels informed workers that history was nothing but unending class struggle. They needed to resist upper-class rulers and middle-class managers and the narcotic of religion they peddled. 

Some Christian attempts were made to refute this on a conceptual level. To begin with, biblical passages were quoted to justify poverty: people were poor either because of their own shortcomings or as punishment for their sins.

A different attempt was made by Christians such as Anglican theologian F. D. Maurice (1805-72). He helped start Christian Socialism in Britannia. 

A more meaningful response: the Salvation Army (1865)

William Booth (1829-1912): beginnings

William Booth first became a Methodist at the age of 15 (1844). His best friend Will Sansom wanted his company in preaching. William joined Will in taking the Good News of Jesus to marginal people in the streets. Their cooperation sadly ended four years later when Will died of tuberculosis.

Contrast with conventional churches

All the methods of evangelism which William developed, he created to meet the needs of sinners in slums. These sinners were too often ignored or insulted by churches proclaiming the name of Jesus but not his love. In conscious contrast to them, William called his evangelists “Hallelujah Lasses,” sent out brass bands, and relied on evangelists who were workers or had been drifters themselves. He didn’t avoid the rough sections of town—he sought them out. He sang songs with edifying words set to popular tunes not old stale hymns. He held meetings in local diners or theaters rather than asking his listeners to come to unfamiliar church buildings. 


Still, not everyone was happy to see him and his colleagues. Too frequently, people would assault evangelists and damage buildings being used by the Army. 

Help for those suffering

William wasn’t only about preaching the Good News. He liked practicing it too. Sin pained him, but so did the suffering caused sinners by the slums in which they lived. His Army continues to provide food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless as well as the Good News of Jesus Christ for the lost.

Copyright © 2022 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.