The Church of England in Industrialising Society. The Lancashire Parish of Whalley in the Eighteenth Century
Woodbridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2003, ISBN: 9781843830146; 240pp.; Price: £60.00
Kings College London
Date accessed: 29 November, 2023
In the essentially voluntary world of religious practice that was brought into being by the Toleration Act of 1689, the Church of England was compelled to compete for the allegiance of its members. The situation that prevailed in the parish of Whalley at the beginning of the nineteenth century suggests that the eighteenth century Church of England lacked both the competence and the resources to rise to this challenge in the industrialising areas of Northern England (p. 198).
Thus concludes this fascinating survey of Anglican life in the north-east Lancashire parish of Whalley. Such a conclusion fixes Dr Snape’s work firmly in the context of the debate between ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ historians of the eighteenth-century Church of England that was characteristic of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The persistence of the preoccupation with issues of success and failure measured against essentially Victorian benchmarks has recently been criticised by Mark Goldie as leaving the study of the Hanoverian church ‘overcast by what must be the longest shadow in modern historiography’.(1) If this is the case with Michael Snape’s study of Whalley, it is important to recognise that this is not entirely the responsibility of the author. The book is based on a Birmingham University PhD thesis completed in 1994, when the questions it raises were fresh ones; and had the author not been the victim of lengthy delays with an earlier publisher, it would have constituted a timely and provocative contribution to a very live debate. Moreover, belated though its appearance may have been, there is still much to be gained from a careful reading of this text.
As befits a contribution to a hard-fought debate, The Church of England in Industrialising Society is overtly polemical in intention. Snape suggests that ‘optimistic’ historians of the Hanoverian church ‘have followed the lead of nineteenth-century sociologists and of contemporary churchmen who were reluctant to look too hard at the underlying causes of their own pastoral problems’ (p 198). In a thoroughgoing attempt to refurbish the ‘pessimistic’ case, he instead chooses to highlight the critique offered by later Hanoverian Evangelicals from both inside and outside the church. Here Snape has the advantage of possessing, in the work of the Evangelical topographer and vicar of Whalley, Thomas Dunham Whitaker, a locally focussed example of such a critique. Indeed, much of the book might be considered as a commentary on parts of Whitaker’s great work, An History of the Original Parish of Whalley and Honor of Clitheroe (Blackburn, 1801), and, in particular, on Whitaker’s criticism of earlier generations of clergy ‘too often contemptible for their poverty among the rich, their ignorance among the refined, and their bad morals among the devout; so that for the want of a well-informed, respectable and respected ministry, a country antecedently superstitious and stupid has never been thoroughly evangelised to the present day’ (p. 136).(2)
An introduction sets the scene by sketching in both the terms of debate and the social, economic and demographic context in which the church had to work. Whalley, probably the largest parish in England, contained at the start of the eighteenth century 71 distinct townships under the care of a mother church and 17 chapels. Stimulated by the growth of textile manufactures, Snape estimates that the population doubled between 1720 and 1778, and had more than trebled by 1801. This presented a considerable challenge to the church, which was reflected in the growth, after the middle of the century, of alternatives to the establishment – especially Baptists and Methodists.
The first chapter examines the issue of popular attachment to the church, arguing that patterns of practice and the services provided by the clergy were powerfully shaped by the preferences of the laity. This was bad news for practices like the teaching of catechism and public baptism in church which were not well supported. A range of other indicators of popular adherence to Anglicanism is considered. These include parish feasts, rush bearings, bell-ringing, and Church and King riots, all of which were flourishing in the mid century, but most of which were in decline or becoming detached from the church by its end. The difficulty of raising Church Rates is noted, and the resort to private subscriptions for schemes to increase seating is analysed, concluding that the primary motive was the provision of seats for the well-to-do rather than an altruistic desire to increase accommodation for the poor. Popular attachment to the church was on the wane by the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the remainder of the book sets out to discover why. It is refreshing that Snape’s first resort on this quest is not an investigation of ecclesiastical structures but of the relationship between the church and folk Christianity. The people of Whalley, he argues, inhabited a universe rich in invocations of the supernatural, which the clergy tended to regard as superstitious but which the people saw as entirely compatible with their Christian allegiance. This ‘discrepancy between the tenets of Anglican orthodoxy and the needs and aspirations of ordinary Anglicans’ tended to put the church at a disadvantage in competition with rivals, especially Methodists and Roman Catholics, who were more prepared to confront popular supernaturalism on its own terms. This is an important conclusion which confirms an existing body of work on folk religion.(3) It is also suggestive of the potential difficulties that the spread of certain kinds of Enlightenment rationalism may have introduced into the relationship between clergy and people.
The determination to analyse the church from the point of view of its parishioners, which is one of the most valuable features of Snape’s work, also shapes the two central chapters of the book. These consider the church’s role in philanthropy and education and in the regulation of morality. In relation to the former, Snape charts a gradual change, in line with general trends in eighteenth-century philanthropy, away from short-term relief to benefactions aimed at longer-term improvement. Older charities declined over the century as a consequence of inflation and poor management, while the vagaries of charitable endowment left some chapelries much less well off than others. The tendency to appropriate charitable endowments to supplement poor relief further alienated the poor. All of these were damaging developments for a church previously seen as the guarantor of communal charity. The area did see an expansion, backed by the church, in charity school provision – especially in the second half of the century. However, a combination of expense and curricular conservatism limited the impact of charity schools, while the resources poured into them probably hampered the introduction of Sunday schools. These, in contrast to the general pattern in the region as a whole, did not begin to take off in Whalley until towards the end of the eighteenth century. The analysis of the role of the church in regulating morality, especially via the church courts, also reveals a story of decline. The courts’ functions were gradually narrowed by the intrusion of Statute Law, their sanctions fell into disrepute, and changing popular attitudes to sexual mores eroded the moral consensus which made ecclesiastical justice operable. This was not a linear process and either national crises, like the American Revolution, or dynamic episcopal leadership, like that offered by Samuel Peploe, might have produced a revival. The process was inexorable, nonetheless, and the withdrawal of lay support ultimately spelled the end for a system which had given the institutional church a central role in the life of the community.
The final two chapters begin to shift the focus a little away from the point of view of the parishioners (though this remains a vital consideration) and on to an analysis of the capacity of the clergy to respond to the situation with which they were faced. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, most of the livings within the parish were of small value but nevertheless maintained a mainly resident clergy. The rest of the century saw an improvement in the value of the livings via the mechanisms created by Queen Anne’s Bounty, but this had two disadvantages. First, the augmentation of the livings occurred via a scheme that resulted in much of the patronage of the rectory falling into private hands, and second, the better paid incumbents of the second half of the century had a greater tendency to non-residence. Neither arrangement proved to be satisfactory. In the earlier period, Whalley’s curates were largely local and undistinguished. Although this had advantages in reducing the social distance between clergy and people, the participation of clergy in a common recreational culture centred on the alehouse, for example, created many opportunities for delinquency. At the same time, their marginal social position left them open to the pressure and even malice of their neighbours. Of the 96 clergy who served in the parish of Whalley between 1689 and 1789 at least 11 or 11.5 per cent were the subject of serious complaint or prosecution – most of these cases occurring before 1750. This cannot have helped the cause of the church, and while the more respectable clergy of the second half of the century may have been less vulnerable in this respect, their greater degree of non-residence and seduction by polite culture tended to make them less than ideal pastors for a parish like Whalley. A brief conclusion introduces material from an episcopal visitation of 1804 to demonstrate a further deterioration in popular adherence to Anglicanism as represented in church attendance and attempts to assess the significance of the findings presented in the book as a whole. These, Snape argues, are significant in two respects: they qualify the optimistic revisionist literature on the eighteenth-century church and, by introducing the consideration of new issues little touched upon by optimists, they call for a much more gloomy verdict on the performance of the church as a whole.
Snape certainly deserves a good deal of credit for addressing a range of new issues in a novel and often engaging manner. However, a few reservations remain about both the methodology and the conclusions of the work. First, the author has an occasional tendency to give a rather minimalist account of alternative views. For example, in describing on his final page a more optimistic account of eighteenth century Anglicanism in northern England, he suggests that its ‘claims’ rest ‘on a limited range of evidence, which comprises the regularity of religious services, the popularity of some of the local clergy and a high incidence of church-building work.’ In fact, in the case of the example cited, the conclusions rest not just on the regularity of religious services, but their development in the face of demographic expansion, not just on the popularity of local clergy but on evidence of high rates of residence and devoted pastoral care, not just on a high rate of church-building work but on the nature of its financing and its effect on the accommodation of the poor. They rest too on examples of pastoral innovation in areas such as catechising and the introduction of Sunday schools and also on sustained and active popular involvement with the church via, for example, the provision of music. (This latter issue is surprisingly absent from Snape’s work given the appearance especially of southern parts of the parish in other published work on the subject.)(4) Such an approach is understandable given the demands of space and a desire to point up the novelty of one’s own conclusions, but the construction of straw men is unlikely to advance the debate.
Second, there is sometimes an apparent tendency to reductionism – perhaps especially when assessing the attitudes of the middle-class and gentry supporters of the church. Snape is surely right, for example, to draw our attention to the potentially self-interested dimension of schemes for re-pewing churches, which could be an expression of a desire on the part of the local middling-sort to see their social status properly reflected in church. However, even if we were to conclude this was the primary motivation, it does not follow that it was the only one. In 1788, Thomas Whitaker, acting in the character of a local gentleman, entirely rebuilt the dilapidated chapel at Holme, with the aid of some subscribers and at a personal cost of £470. Since he had previously acquired the advowson and was to present himself to the curacy when it became vacant in 1797 (5), it is possible that Whitaker’s motives, like those of other subscribers to church-building and seating schemes in the parish, were mixed, but it is implausible to suggest that a desire to improve church accommodation for the inhabitants of his chapelry did not form part of the mixture.
A similar problem arises from the extensive use made of material relating to legal disputes and court cases. This material is certainly well deployed and adds substantially to the novelty of the work, as well as giving a certain picaresque quality to the narrative. However, the reader is not always clear that the author has fully allowed for the fact that such material generally reflects the pathology of parochial life rather than its normal condition. That some parishioners were prepared to go to law to assert proprietorial rights over pews, for example, is predictable given the complex of eighteenth-century attitudes to property and social status. Such incidents do not, however, provide a straightforward indication of general attitudes to the use of pews, especially when their owners were absent. Similarly, it is certainly appropriate to discuss in detail the 11.5 per cent of Whalley clergy who were the subject of serious complaint by their parishioners, but we discover comparatively little about the 88.5 per cent who were not. Again, this is entirely understandable, given the nature of the available source material on these clergy, but it will influence the weight attached to the conclusions drawn.
Both these methodological problems are compounded by a further one – that in this work at least, Snape tends largely to steer clear of a systematic presentation of potentially quantifiable evidence which might have allowed a more rigorous assessment of the significance of the illustrative material which he includes. To take the issue of seating as an example again, it would have greatly assisted an evaluation of the ‘progress’ of the church in eighteenth-century Whalley, had the author been able to make an estimate of the extent to which church accommodation increased over the period, what the balance between free and appropriated seating might have been and whether and at what level rents were charged for appropriated seats. We know from studies elsewhere that neither appropriation nor seat rents necessarily excluded the poor (6) and, clearly, disputes over proprietorial rights would be more or less significant according to the adequacy of seating provision elsewhere in church. It is entirely possible that the absence of this material simply indicates a lack of evidence, but it would have been useful to have had the author’s reflections on this point. A second example is the issue of the deployment of the clergy. As noted above, the issue of clerical residence is important to Snape’s argument especially in relation to the state of the church after 1750. However, the lack of a systematic presentation of the changing deployment of Whalley’s resident clergy and the arrangements made to cover cases of non-residence over the whole period makes it difficult to evaluate the significance of the examples he provides (p. 145).
Finally, the overall argument of the work is somewhat vitiated by the rather slender evidence for any substantial disaffection to the church in the eighteenth century. The main evidence cited for such disaffection comes from replies to bishop Porteus’s visitation queries of 1778 concerning church attendance. Snape twice notes that these indicate a significant number of non-attenders in the parish (pp. 24, 194) and he refers to five visitation returns to support this conclusion. Four of these are quoted, three make reference to the size of the problem, two use descriptive terminology:
‘a few of ye lowest order’ and ‘few in number’, one makes an estimate of the actual number of non-attenders: ‘may be about twelve’. This last example is from the small chapelry of Downham whose population is given by Snape as 428 in 1778. If, on this basis, one conservatively estimated the eligible Anglican churchgoing population of the chapelry at, say, 240, that would give a figure for regular non-attendance of 5 per cent. It is rather difficult to see why it should be more significant that the glass was 5 per cent empty than that it was 95 per cent full at Downham. Moreover, Snape’s attempt to use this material as evidence for decline is unsustainable given that there are no comparable figures for the beginning of the century – they might be evidence of a growth in attendance for all the reader can tell. When we move into the early nineteenth century and compare the 1778 returns with similar estimates made in 1804, the results are patchy but there does seem to be evidence of a worsened, though stabilised, situation in some chapelries. That, however, might appear to fit better with the picture of an adequate or even ‘successful’ establishment, overwhelmed late in the century by a series of large-scale changes, especially in demography, which is familiar from other studies, rather than Snape’s picture of a church suffering from a progressive disease whose major symptoms should have become visible rather earlier than this chronology allows.
Despite these reservations, this remains an extremely valuable work which, if we extract it from the framework of the debate over success and failure, is richly suggestive of interpretative possibilities. We might, for example, see the long eighteenth century not so much in terms of progress or decline but of transformation. On the one hand, as Snape himself notes, we see the gradual working out of the consequences of the Toleration Act as the church was transformed from being at least partially a coercive structure into almost entirely a pastoral one. On the other, we see the gradual evolution and the complex interplay at parochial level and of at least three different models of Anglicanism. One was incarnated by the clergy – evolving over the century from a condition that was, at least potentially, stronger on affection than respect into one characterised by rising wealth and respectability, with all the potential dangers inherent in such a position. The idiosyncrasy of the Whalley clergy is particularly suggestive of the value of investigating and comparing local clerical cultures. A second was a popular model of the church combining a minimalist understanding of the activity incumbent on a loyal supporter of the establishment with a robust supernaturalism that sometimes clashed with the more secularised attitudes of the clergy. It might even be worth exploring the possibility that the more widespread neglect of churchgoing detected by the clergy in the early nineteenth century was, at least in part, a further development of this popular minimalism. Other studies have certainly demonstrated that by the nineteenth century there was a considerable body of opinion that saw no necessary connection between regular churchgoing and being a good Christian. Finally, there was the most potentially disruptive model of all – that represented by the Methodists. The arrival and steady growth of Methodism may have threatened the easy-going relationship between popular and clerical Anglicanism in the middle of the century. It certainly represented a critique of low expectations and standards and a disruption of communal norms that could provoke a violent response. It was a particularly vital form of lay Anglicanism, nonetheless, and to regard its growth in the eighteenth century as an indicator of Anglican weakness would be perverse. There was no stable equilibrium in the relationship of these three models. Most obviously, in the 1790s the Methodists began the long process of disengagement from the establishment, which, though far from complete in 1804, may account for some of the panic expressed by clergy responding to the bishop’s visitation. Ironically, this change was taking place at just the time that evangelicalism was assuming a position from which it might have an impact on the clerical model of Anglicanism with the arrival of Whitaker as curate of Holme in 1797 and then as vicar of Whalley in 1809. That, however, would be another story – taking us beyond the chronological scope of this thought-provoking study.
- M. Goldie, ‘Voluntary Anglicans’, Historical Journal, 46 (2003), 977–990, at. p. 988.Back to (1)
- Thomas Dunham Whitaker, An History of the Original Parish of Whalley and Honor of Clitheroe (1801; 4th edn., 2 vols., 1872–6), i. 207.Back to (2)
- See S. Williams, Religious Belief and Popular Culture in Southwark c.1880–1939 (1999); and M. Smith, Religion in Industrial Society (1994) pp. 262-8.Back to (3)
- See, for example, R. Elbourne, Music and Tradition in Early Industrial Lancashire 1780–1840 (Woodbridge, 1980).Back to (4)
- Whitaker, i. xiv.Back to (5)
- See, for example, Smith, pp. 34–40.Back to (6)
In order to place the present discussion in context, it must be emphasised that The Church of England in Industrialising Society: the Lancashire Parish of Whalley in the Eighteenth Century delivers a very different verdict on the Church of England in industrialising Lancashire from that which was reached by Dr Smith in Religion in Industrial Society: Oldham and Saddleworth 1740–1865, that ‘more optimistic account of eighteenth century Anglicanism in northern England’ to which he alludes and which largely informs his review. Religion in Industrial Society traces the vitality of religious life in nineteenth-century Oldham and Saddleworth to certain robust virtues possessed by the Church of England in that locality in the period 1730–1830. However, Smith’s perspective is somewhat undermined by the partial scope of his research for the period prior to 1800. In stressing the extent of local church building, the activities of local musical societies and the commitment and activism of the local (often evangelical) clergy in this period, Smith drew primarily on parish and personal papers and on nineteenth-century statistics relating to church accommodation. However, he did little more than scratch the surface of the rich archival material held by Chester Record Office for the period up to 1800. Consequently, a number of key issues are not examined in Religion in Industrial Society. Smith’s book makes no attempt to investigate the role of the church courts in local society or the place of religion in local politics, notwithstanding the bitter politico-religious climate of early- and mid-eighteenth-century Lancashire. Furthermore, it dispenses with any discussion of tithing practices, the structures of church patronage or the role and fate of parochial charities. The book also admits to having little to offer with reference to what the inhabitants of Oldham and Saddleworth actually believed at this time and how far their beliefs corresponded with Anglican orthodoxy. (1) Finally, and despite the importance of this evidence for his conclusions, Smith offered no data as to prevailing patterns of church attendance at any point during the eighteenth century. The earliest visitation material to which he refers dates from 1778 but seems to yield nothing under this head. In fact, this information remained ‘rather sketchy’ as late as the mid-1820s. (2) Fairly stated, Smith’s research engaged only partially with the structures, law and culture of eighteenth-century Anglicanism. Nevertheless, and on the basis of the other evidence he marshalled, Smith pronounced that ‘Judged by almost any standards, the “unreformed” Establishment of Oldham and Saddleworth was an impressive institution’. (3) Apart from the different geographical settings and chronology of our studies, the scope of our inquiries and the very different range of sources used to inform them accounts for why our emphases and conclusions are so radically different.
For clarity’s sake, I will accept Smith’s summary of my chapters as accurate and fair and will deal with his other comments as they arise. In his introductory remarks, Smith places my book in the wider context of ‘the debate between “optimistic” and “pessimistic” historians of the eighteenth-century Church of England that was characteristic of the late 1980s and early 1990s’. Whilst I acknowledge that my book was subject to prolonged delays in publication, I am not at all persuaded that time has been called on this long-running debate. Whilst the emphasis may have shifted to a more dispassionate mapping of the fortunes of the established church in the various corners of England and Wales (a movement symbolised by Jeremy Gregory and Jeffrey Chamberlain’s collection of essays The National Church in Local Perspective: the Church of England and the Regions, 1660–1800 the debate is very much present in this collection. (4) In any case, the question of the Church of England’s performance at a local level remains vital in accounting for the evident weakening of its overall position in English and Welsh society from the 1790s. Although the debate between the ‘optimistic’ majority and ‘pessimistic’ minority may seem to bedevil the historiography of the eighteenth-century church, their often bruising dialogue (of which this exchange is inevitably a part) has been crucial in locating the strengths and weaknesses of the Church of England on the ground. Furthermore, and despite impressions to the contrary, historians are not necessarily in thrall to ‘essentially Victorian benchmarks’ in assessing the performance of the established church in the eighteenth century. The Church of England’s ‘performance indicators’ (e.g. the state of local schools and parish charities, levels of church attendance and participation in Holy Communion, the condition of parish churches and chapels, the growth or decline of dissentient minorities etc.) were quite clear to contemporaries and they were embodied in visitation inquiries from their period. In the light of this fact, the clergy of the parish of Whalley at the turn of the nineteenth century did not need to share the pastoral standards and concerns of later Evangelicals or Tractarians in order to apprehend that much was amiss in their huge and populous parish.
Let us move on to address Dr Smith’s reservations. Clearly, he is concerned that my book renders a ‘minimalist account’ of alternative points of view, by which he seems to mean those advanced in Religion in Industrial Society. Leaving aside the universal constraints of restrictions and priorities imposed by publishers’ word limits, I would emphasise that the example which he cites occurs in the concluding paragraph of my book and that the issues which I mention there are discussed more fully in earlier chapters (pp. 5, 36, 39–40, 163, 173). At this point, Smith also raises the question of church music, alluding to ‘popular involvement with the church’ via ‘the provision of music’, a subject which was omitted from my book for the reason that there is no local evidence for it. However, I must acknowledge my debt to him in pointing out Roger Elbourne’s study Music and Tradition in Early Industrial Lancashire. Elbourne’s book focuses on the activities of a musical society in Rossendale, one known as the Larks of Dean. However, far from being linked with the Church of England, this society was founded by a Baptist minister around the middle of the eighteenth century and was chiefly composed of local Baptists who ‘gloried in their Nonconformist principles and simple Gospel faith’. (5) In the light of this (and two fleeting allusions to musical performances in Burnley and Haslingden chapels during the first quarter of the nineteenth century) I see no reason to reconsider my view as to the waning state of popular Anglicanism in the parish of Whalley towards the end of the eighteenth century. In fact, Elbourne’s book would seem to confirm the enterprise and initiative of the church’s Dissenting rivals.
Dr Smith also takes issue with what he describes as ‘an apparent tendency to reductionism’, a tendency which seems to be present in my appraisals of ‘the middle-class and gentry supporters of the church’. Here, Smith rather presupposes the existence of a good measure of disinterested generosity among them. Once again, however, this is far from evident in the local sources. As my study demonstrates, certain gestures of public-spiritedness (such as the casting and hanging of new bells) were severely hampered by the complexities of raising church rates in Whalley’s multi-settlement chapelries. However, and quite apart from the delicacy and intricacies of the rating system, it does not appear that many of the better sort actually aspired to be disinterested patrons of ecclesiastical building projects. It may be, of course, that their priorities lay elsewhere, such as in supporting local grammar and charity schools. Nevertheless, even here their support was less than munificent, with one subscription for Padiham school in the mid-eighteenth century even complaining ‘That Charity in this Country was as Cold as the Climate’ (p. 90). Furthermore, the changing nature and patterns of contemporary philanthropy (which were evident nationally as well as locally), the rising costs of poor relief in the parish and even the needs of local commerce may well have meant that church extension was accorded a low priority. In the chapelry of Colne, for example, where population more than trebled between 1720 and 1800, the principal inhabitants were more inclined to invest in a new workhouse and in a new market hall than to enlarge or adorn their church for public benefit (p. 40). Similarly, although the chapel of Padiham was rebuilt in the 1760s, this was done, as Thomas Whitaker sourly noted, ‘with an attention to economy not very laudable among so opulent a body of parishioners’. (6) Smith’s example of the rebuilding of the chapel at Holme in 1788 does little to alter this picture. In fact, in the absence of any information to show who the subscribers to this project were or how many were involved, it is not evident that this was a local initiative. (7) What is much clearer, however, is that on the basis of the evidence available we cannot assert that local members of the gentry or of the middling sort were conspicuously generous or self-sacrificing in their attitudes to the fabric and fittings of local chapels.
The breadth and direction of Dr Smith’s engagement with eighteenth-century sources is most evident from his comments on my use of church court material. This evidence, he asserts, is more likely to reflect ‘the pathology of parochial life rather than its normal condition’. Again, however, this tends to assume the underlying tranquillity of contemporary parish life. Despite this assumption, it would probably be more realistic to acknowledge that communal life in eighteenth-century England was inevitably charged with tensions relating to personal rights, standing and reputation, only some of which issued in disputes which came before the ecclesiastical courts (such cases were, as I emphasise, almost prohibitively expensive for the private litigant). Smith’s further insistence that disputes over appropriated seating in churches were not necessarily indicative of ‘general attitudes to the use of pews, especially when their owners were absent’ is rather beguiling. This argument is drawn from an inconclusive point made in Religion in Industrial Society. Here, Smith claims that pew owners were disposed to take a relaxed and generous view of the use of their seats by the poor. However, the evidence he cites in support of this claim concerns seating in relatively new and commodious chapels and dates from the 1820s. Furthermore, its strength is rather diluted by his later admission that, even in such a setting, these attitudes could be conspicuously absent as late as the 1840s. (8) However, Smith clearly assumes that significant numbers of pew owners in the parish of Whalley would have been inclined to generosity. Whilst this is entirely speculative, it also runs against the grain of a large body of evidence which shows that the naves of Whalley’s ancient churches were very much contested space. Whereas seats were effectively purchased by individuals in the new chapels of Oldham and Saddleworth, in the much older chapels of Whalley ownership of seats was vested in specific properties and complicated by important and emotive questions of customary right, or (as it could be legally interpreted) on the rights bestowed by at least forty years’ usage (p. 103). Because Whalley saw only one new church built in this period, it seems inevitable that church seating would prove to be a more contentious and problematic issue in the medieval and Tudor fabrics of the parish of Whalley than it was in the Georgian chapels of Oldham and Saddleworth.
After raising these caveats, Smith presents a rather strange argument, namely that I have attached disproportionate weight to the clergymen who found themselves in serious trouble with their parishioners (and with the ecclesiastical authorities) in the period of this study. Whilst he is right to note that the eleven individuals in question made their mark on the historical record to a greater extent than many of their peers, Smith fails to register my point that a previous study of the eighteenth-century Church of England in the whole of Lancashire identified only two cases of ‘truly notorious’ clergy. (9) Furthermore, Smith’s point that 88.5 per cent of the parochial clergy appeared to behave themselves is vitiated by the provisional nature of the figures on which this statistic is based and, more importantly, by his failure to grasp the significance of clerical scandal at this time. As I state quite explicitly, the eleven cases I identify are a minimum estimate – further scrutiny of a whole tranche of visitation court records may well throw up additional examples (p. 184). Furthermore, it seems odd to argue that disproportionate weight has been attached to these individuals when (as today’s Catholic Church knows to its cost) cases of clerical misconduct exert a disproportionate impact by their very nature. In a recent study of the Church of England in post-Restoration Wiltshire, Donald Spaeth emphasised the damaging consequences of clerical misbehaviour for relations between the clergy and the laity at this time (The Church in an Age of Danger: Parsons and Parishioners, 1660–1740, Cambridge, 2000). However, contemporary bishops of Chester were also acutely aware of the high standards of behaviour which were imposed upon the Anglican clergy by the Prayer Book ordinals, by canon law and by lay expectation. Not only was adherence to these standards repeatedly urged upon the clergy in their visitation charges but the anxiety of the diocesan authorities is reflected in the telling sentence passed by the bishop’s court upon one of Whalley’s worst clerical delinquents, his adultery being described as ‘true Publick & Notorious in and throughout the Chapelry of Colne… and other places adjacent' (p. 187).
Nowhere, however, is Smith’s nineteenth-century approach to the eighteenth-century church clearer than in his preoccupation with church accommodation and in his desire to see statistics for church seating, that ‘potentially quantifiable evidence’ which, he argues, would have added greater rigour to this study. In terms of his own work, Smith accords the provision of seating a very high priority. However, providing seats and filling them are very different propositions and, even if such statistics could be extrapolated from contemporary seating plans (which, significantly, indicate the ownership of pews rather than their capacity) it would not alter the fact that Smith’s perspective is much too partial. Whilst there certainly seems to have been pressure on church accommodation in the parish of Whalley during the eighteenth century, this was only one of the more obvious signs that the Church of England was losing its grip. Another indicator was the church’s evident failure to educate a growing population. To this can be added its failure to sustain traditional models of charity, its failure to inoculate its adherents against the errors of ‘superstition’, its failure to provide an adequate supply of competent clergy, its failure to secure the laity’s cooperation with its correction courts and, finally, its failure to sustain rush-bearings, parish feasts and other communal demonstrations of attachment to the established church.
All of these long-term trends are spelled out in the conclusion of my book, which highlights the deteriorating situation in the parish as revealed by the episcopal visitations of 1778 and 1804, the most complete sets of visitation data available for the parish in this period. My conclusion, it must be emphasised, presents a picture of long-term and aggregate decline. However, Smith queries the value of non-attendance figures as evidence for the church’s worsening plight, singling out the case of the chapelry of Downham (Whalley’s smallest and least populous chapelry) in 1778. In Downham’s case, Smith argues, its element of habitual non-attenders was numerically insignificant. Furthermore, and in the absence of evidence for earlier years, he posits that church attendance at Downham may well have improved over the course of the century. However, this is to ignore his own point as to the imprecision of these figures. For example, the number in question may well refer to householders, which could mean that the overall number of habitual non-attenders was several times greater. However one might speculate upon the mathematics, the number of those who appeared to disregard religion was significant enough to draw comment. More significant still is the fact that these were ‘the most wretched’ of Downham’s inhabitants, a theme which runs through the returns of 1778 for the parish as a whole. The suggestion that, in the absence of earlier figures, church attendance at Downham may have increased has to be judged against what we do know about the chapelry at this time. As my study shows, charitable doles had fallen into abeyance (a common pattern which must account in part for the widespread alienation of the very poor), the church’s power to regulate public morality through its correction courts had evaporated and the inhabitants of Downham took so much pride in the fabric of their church that, ‘in Order to keep off Expence from themselves’ they would suffer ‘any Person, from any Place, who will pay two Shillings extra for Burial Fees, to be buried in the Chapel’ notwithstanding the damage inflicted on its fabric (pp. 77, 97–132, 136). Smith is, however, clearly anxious to tug at the strand of evidence relating to non-attendance figures and he asserts that there is an absence of data to indicate ‘substantial disaffection to the church’ prior to 1804, an argument which renders my argument ‘unsustainable’. Here I would simply point him to the further evidence supplied by the growth of Methodism in the parish prior to 1778.
Whilst Smith is right to argue that eighteenth-century Methodism can be viewed as ‘a particularly vital form of lay Anglicanism’, such an interpretation is highly problematic and is open to major qualification. Methodism was a diverse and amorphous movement, it appealed to Dissenters as well as to Anglicans and there were clear and longstanding differences among the various Methodist connexions as to their relations with the established church. Clearly, Methodism in the parish of Whalley did not spring from the bosom of the Church of England. Far from being nurtured by a local Venn, Walker or Newton, the evidence indicates that the relationship between popular evangelicalism and the clergy in the parish of Whalley was generally (although not invariably) oppositional. Whilst the Methodists of Downham attended the services of the Church of England in 1804, their brethren in Churchkirk were gaining recruits by virtue of ‘their constant Strain of abusing the Minister of the established Church and the Government’ (p. 196). However, ever since its advent in the parish, Methodism had posed problems for the church, not least because it had been planted and cultivated by highly exceptionable outsiders. Besides John Wesley himself, these included William Grimshaw (the controversial curate of Haworth), John Bennet (a Presbyterian), William Darney (a Scottish Presbyterian) and Benjamin Ingham (a clergyman and crypto-Moravian who defected from the Church of England in 1749). Due to the incursions of Methodist itinerants, the chapelries of the Forest of Pendle were convulsed by anti-Methodist rioting in 1748, riots which led to the registration of some Methodist meetings under the Toleration Act. (10) With Methodism’s separatist colours in evidence from an early date, the parish clergy (who had condoned and even led the riots of 1748) almost invariably disdained any association with Methodism, abhorring its appeal to popular superstition as well as its sectarian tendencies. Whilst Methodists were harassed in Padiham as late as 1777 (p. 34), it was ironic that the only curate who evinced a positive disposition towards Methodism prior to 1778 was an alcoholic (p. 173). Despite his evangelical leanings, even Thomas Whitaker placed obedience and conformity to the Church of England above all else, condemning ‘the sin of schism’ and anything which savoured of ‘self-will and separation’ (11). In view of this evidence, and however ‘perverse’ this may seem to Smith, it would be absurd to argue that the existence of hundreds of Methodists in the parish by 1778 was indicative of the hidden merits of the Church of England.
Finally, Smith suggests that comparison of the visitation returns of 1778 and 1804 could show that, far from being a casualty of its long-term ailments, the Church of England was simply ‘overwhelmed late in the century by a series of large-scale changes, especially in demography’. Whilst this conclusion may sound reassuringly familiar to Smith, it does not stand close scrutiny. The decline of parochial charities and the demise of the correction courts was well advanced long before Bishop Porteus’s visitation of 1778 and the surge in population which characterised the last quarter of the eighteenth century (p. 10). Rush-bearing at the parish church ceased in the 1770s, the deficiencies of the local clergy were so long-term as to be historic and Methodism had prospered since the 1740s, its growth defying the strident opposition of the clergy. In view of all this, the visitation returns of 1778 and 1804 seem to reflect not so much ‘an adequate or even “successful” establishment’ being swamped by a growing population, but inevitable and accelerating defections from an institution which had become increasingly marginal to the lives of many of its members.
These will not be the last salvoes to be fired at each other by ‘pessimistic’ and ‘optimistic’ historians of the eighteenth-century Church of England. Whilst it is clear that Smith thinks I take an unduly negative view of that institution, I would regard his perspective as veering towards the Panglossian. However, besides questions of interpretation of evidence, it is clear that our evidential bases are very different and that we treat the eighteenth century in contrasting ways. Whereas Smith has sought to identify the roots of a vigorous nineteenth-century religious culture in selected highlights of eighteenth-century church life, I have sought to view it more broadly and in the context of its own time. Rather than peer at the eighteenth-century church from the perspective and statistical fastnesses of the succeeding century, I would emphasise the profound extent to which its role and structures in post-Toleration England were shaped and encumbered by the inheritance of previous centuries.
As Mark Goldie has stressed in a recent review article, eighteenth-century England was indeed ‘a world of voluntary Anglicans’. In the light of this fact, and reflecting the upbeat mood of the prevailing historiography, Goldie called for renewed study of the SPCK, the SRM, the Sunday school movement and other manifestations of voluntary and associational endeavour on behalf of the Church of England. (12) This manifesto will, of course, have ‘optimists’ champing at the bit. However, Goldie’s optimism led him to overlook a vital aspect of this picture; one, indeed, which fuelled a great deal of this endeavour. After the Toleration Act, Anglicans were free to detach themselves from vital aspects of church life and even to disengage from it altogether. Whilst often holding fast to beliefs which the Church of England had long found objectionable, they could stay away from church on the Sabbath and flout the church’s correction courts with growing impunity. More subtly, they could regard the parish church and its parish charities as less central to communal life and as less deserving of their moral and material support. As my study demonstrates, in the large, ill-served and somewhat ramshackle parish of Whalley, the Church of England showed that it was ill equipped to teach, regulate, relieve and even entertain a rapidly growing population over the course of the eighteenth century. In the changed circumstances of post-Toleration England, this meant that an increasing number of its parishioners would come to regard the church with apathy or seek the fellowship of its more dynamic local rivals.
1. M. Smith, Religion in Industrial Society: Oldham and Saddleworth 1740–1865 (Oxford, 1994), p. 4.
2. Smith, p. 61.
3. Smith, p. 62.
4. See especially William Gibson, ‘“A happy fertile soil which bringeth forth abundantly”: the diocese of Winchester, 1689–1800’ and Donald Spaeth ‘“The enemy within”: the failure of reform in the diocese of Salisbury in the eighteenth century’ in The National Church in Local Perspective: the Church of England and the Regions, 1660–1800, ed. J. Gregory and J. S. Chamberlain (Woodbridge, 2003), 99–119; 121–44.
5. R. Elbourne, Music and Tradition in Early Industrial Lancashire 1780–1840 (Woodbridge, 1980), pp. 116–17.
6. T. D. Whitaker, An History of the Original Parish of Whalley and Honor of Clitheroe (2 vols., 1872–6), ii, 151.
7. Whitaker, i, xiv.
8. Smith, pp. 37–8, 72.
9. J. Albers, ‘“Seeds of Contention”: society, politics and the Church of England in Lancashire, 1689-1790’ (Yale PhD, 1988), 264–5.
10. M. Snape, ‘Anti-Methodism in Eighteenth-Century England: the Pendle Forest Riots of 1748’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 49 (1998), 257–81.
11. Whitaker, ii, 251 footnote.
12. M. Goldie, ‘Voluntary Anglicans’, Historical Journal, 46 (2003), 989–90.