The Irreligiosity of the English: A Brief History

In his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn‘ (1941), George Orwell wrote of the English that:

the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities.

Looking at the history of religion in England after the medieval period, this is a pretty accurate summary. This post will look at the state of church attendance and religious belief in England from the seventeenth century to the present day. The clearest conclusion that emerges is that irreligiosity has long been a defining characteristic of the English people.

Christopher Hill, writing in Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution (1997) notes the following of church attendance in seventeenth century England:

Although church attendance was mandatory up to the year 1650 when it was abolished, the Anglican Episcopalian Church was never all embracing. There is evidence to show that the very poor, rogues, vagabonds, masterless men, and beggars did not ever attend. In some instances parish relief had to be withheld in order to get the poor to attend…

In 1657 compulsory church attendance was restored but its ineffectiveness was evident after 1660 with the existence of de facto sects in the towns. The Anglican or state church drew its congregation for the most part from the privileged 3 percent of the population or those with incomes of more than 100 pounds per year, such as peers, bishops, baronets, knights, esquires, gentlemen, greater and lesser office holders, merchants, traders and lawyers.

So, the church was largely the preserve of the upper class and new middle classes. The popular beliefs of the general population can be ascertained from books of the time intended to critique them. A tract warning against ‘Unlearned Physitians’ (1605) refers to ‘charmes, witchcraft, magnifical incantations, and sorcerie’ and the use of ‘characters, circles, figure-castings, exorcismes, conjurations’, as well as the use of ‘certaine amulets of gold and silver, stamped under an appropriate and selected constellation of the planets, with some magical character’.

Bishop Joseph Hall, writing of the ‘superstitious man’ in his Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608) states that:

old wives and starres are his counsellors: his night spell is his guard, and charms his physicians. He wears Paracelsian characters for the toothache; and a little hallowed wax is his antidote for all evils.

William Ramesay, writing in his The Character of a Quack Astrologer (1673) reports:

He offers, for five pieces, to give you home with you a talisman against flies; a sigil to make you fortunate at gaming; and a spell that shall as certainly preserve you from being rob’d for the future; a sympathetical powder for the violent pains of the tooth-ach.

So, while the English were still attending church in large numbers, compared with today, the ‘common people’ were clearly putting their faith in things well outside its teachings.

The eighteenth century saw an overall decline in formal religious observance. As to what the general population actually believed, it seems likely that the English religious worldview of the majority was still based on folk religion and folk magic. Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares (1725) sought to document and critique ‘a few of that vast Number of Ceremonies and Opinions which are held by the Common People’. Bourne states of ‘the ignorant Part of the World’ (the ‘common people’ of England), ‘as to the opinions they hold, they are almost all superstitious’. Bourne contends that they follow ‘idle traditions… more than the Word of God; and have more dependance upon the lucky omens of the other than his providence, more dread of their unlucky ones, than his wrath and punishment’.

In his essay ‘Churchianity versus Christianity’ (1868), the English Baptist preacher C. H. Spurgeon distinguished between biblical Christianity based on salvation and ‘Churchianity’, in which simply attending church is what defines religiosity, and stated: ‘Whenever Churchianity has ruled, revelry and wantonness have been winked at, so long as saints’ days, sacraments, and priests have been regarded’. That this was the situation in rural parishes of the eighteenth century is suggested by accounts of the time. Henry Bourne describes the festivities associated with the anniversary of the dedication of the community’s church to its tutelary saint as follows:

[T]he inhabitants deck themselves in their gaudiest clothes, and have open doors and splendid entertainments, for the reception and treating of their relations and friends, who visit them on that occasion from every neighbouring town. The morning is spent for the most part at church, though not as that morning was wont to be spent, not in commemorating the saint or martyr, or in gratefully remembering the builder and endower. The remaining part of the day is spent in eating and drinking. Thus also they spend a day or two afterwards, in all sorts of rural pastimes and exercises, such as dancing on the green, wrestling, cudgelling, &c.

So, for many who did attend church, their real interests lay more in the revelry associated with religious festivals than in the teachings and rituals of the church, just as Christmas, Easter, Shrove Tuesday, and so on, are today more associated with eating and drinking than with religious devotion.

Scholarly editions of eighteenth-century visitation returns illustrate the decline in church attendance clearly. For example, The Visitation Records of Archdeacon Joseph Plymley, 1792-1838 show that ‘the average congregation at the best attended service in 19 Anglican parish churches in the Archdeaconry of Salop [Diocese of Lichfield] in 1792-94 was equivalent to 26% of the population.’

This widespread irreligiosity was to decrease slightly in the nineteenth century. ‘The Victorian age was self-consciously religious’, writes Richard Brown, and the ‘prosperity, political liberties and Empire’ of the time were seen to be ‘rooted in Christian and Protestant faith’.

The Religious Census of 1851 gives a revealing insight into the religious landscape of mid-nineteenth century England. Writing in 1853, Horace Mann, who had been in charge of organising the survey, concluded:

It must be apparent that a sadly formidable portion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion. Nor is it difficult to indicate to what particular class of the community this portion in the main belongs. The middle classes have augmented rather than diminished that devotional sentiment and strictness of attention to religious services by which, for several centuries, they have so eminently been distinguished. With the upper class, too, the subject of religion has obtained of late a marked degree of notice, and a regular church-attendance is now ranked amongst the recognized proprieties of life.

The working classes (at least 80% of the entire English population at that time), however, made up an ‘absolutely insignificant… portion of the congregations’, wrote Mann, and were ‘as utter strangers to religious ordinances as the people of a heathen nation’.

This was a time in which middle class values of ‘hard work’ and in particular social respectability were ascendant. The middle classes read etiquette manuals and placed great value on ‘doing the right thing’ and on conservative morality and public displays of virtue. They sought to distance themselves from the lower classes: some simply blamed the poor for their misfortune, while others set about spreading conservative values through attempts at outreach, in movements such as those opposed to drinking and gambling:

The temperance movement was led by middle-class social reformers and philanthropists who wanted to manage an unruly working class. They tried to convince working men to spend their wages on clothes, food, and middle-class comforts such as furniture and watches, rather than on beer or spirits…

The temperance campaigns against drunkenness were a symptom of larger middle class ideals, such as a distaste for mobs and their entertainments, the taking of recreation with one’s family, participation in religion, and the ideology of thrift with its stress on individual self-respect, personal moral and physical effort, and prudence.

This was ultimately to end in failure.

There were deeper structural problems within the Church of England that the church failed to recognise and so it began to blame the infidelity of the working classes rather than their own conservatism. The evangelical emphasis on industry, sobriety and thrift appealed to the upwardly mobile middle-classes but had little resonance among working people while its social conservatism simply alienated them. Relief offered by frequently condescending district visitors was frequently resented by the poor who in turn resented the poor’s ingratitude. Yet despite the immense amount of activity and effort the Victorian church poured into philanthropy, second in cost and manpower only to church building, it did little to encourage the working-classes to attend church.

In the end, the middle class revival itself proved to be short-lived, and by 1900, churches ‘were losing their hold on the respectable middle-classes as well’.

Beyond the cities, the beliefs of the rural working English had changed little from previous centuries. ‘White witches’ or ‘cunning folk’ held more sway with the people than the clergy and were consulted for all manner of problems. Writing of rural Devonians, Sarah Hewett stated that ‘in cases of sickness, distress, or adversity, persons at the present time (A.D. 1898) make long expensive journeys to consult the white witch, and to gain relief by her (or his) aid’. Likewise, John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson’s 1867 book on Lancashire Folk-Lore refers to the ‘Lancashire witches’ carrying out divination rituals. Spells, magical charms, incantations, potions, folk cures, and all manner of superstitions characterised rural English belief, rather than orthodox Christianity and the teachings of the church, although by the end of the century, these beliefs were also on the wane. Some of them still linger on today in the form of popular superstitions.

The continuing decline in formal religious observance throughout the twentieth century is well documented. Even in the conservative atmosphere of post-war Britain, where ‘the social role of the church was confirmatory rather than controversial’, ‘a majority in the nation remained largely indifferent to what was going on in the churches’.

The 1960s saw an attempt by the church to revive itself by adapting to the significant cultural shifts that were occurring. Liberal theology became the order of the day, affecting ‘intellectual, organizational, and liturgical’ areas. It was hoped that:

All might still be well if the churches could shake off their image of belonging essentially to the past; instead they must present themselves as modern, up to date, and, above all, relevant… The churches looked to the secular world for a lead and borrowed, in some cases rather uncritically, both its ideas and forms of expression.

This liberalisation and engagement with a new world did not win many converts, however. The liberal clique still has a significant hold over the Church of England and, as Philip North, a Church of England bishop, has argued:

The Church’s agenda is being set not by the poor, but by academia, the moneyed elites, and certain sections of the secular media. It is their preoccupations that dictate the terms of the Church’s debate, and that pose the questions that it expends its energy on answering.

The church remains an elite institution, and thoroughly middle class in orientation. The Talking Jesus survey of 2015, for example, estimated that 81 per cent of practising Christians had a university degree. The authors of A Church For The Poor (2017), reports the Church Times, have found that the ‘truly working-class are woefully under-represented in British churches’ and ‘cite sermons that disparage Sun readers, and social-media postings by Christians who argued for an IQ test before people could vote in the EU referendum’. According to Philip North, ‘all too often, middle-class clergy squirm nervously during Remem­brance Sunday, and excise any hymns that hint of nationalism’.

The one apparent ‘growth area’ in the Church of England in recent years can be found in the evangelical movement centred on the Alpha course and urban churches such as the famous Holy Trinity Brompton: ‘the slickest, richest and fastest-growing division the church has ever seen’, according to The Spectator. The extent and nature of such growth, however, is in reality arguably still very limited:

Critics say attendance figures at new churches rarely represent genuine new growth, but are largely due to “sheep stealing” – poaching existing members of other congregations – and attracting students looking for a new place to worship after leaving their “home church”. They also claim that the congregations of church plants do not reflect the demographics of their inner-city locations, but are overwhelmingly white, middle-class young professionals.

In reality, as The Telegraph reported in 2016, ‘Britain has become a nation of Christmas-only churchgoers, according to new figures showing a boom in attendance at festive services while Sunday congregations slump to an all-time low’. Even then, we are only talking about around 9% of the population.

The actual beliefs of the unchurched English masses arguably hark back to the kind of popular folk religion that existed in pre-modern and pre-industrial society. According to polling data, nearly two thirds claim to believe in magic; 45% say it is highly likely that witches, vampires, and demons are secretly living and working alongside us in everyday life, and three in ten say they are certain one of these creatures has put a spell or curse on them; around 20% believe that a work colleague has put a curse on them and 13% admitted to trying to curse a colleague; British people are more likely to believe in ghosts than a creator God; and more people may believe in life after death than God. Astonishingly, 44% of British people apparently claim to have seen a fairy.

A 2016 YouGov survey that found more people believing in ghosts than a creator God turned up interesting results amongst those who identified as Christians:

[T]he new YouGov figures suggest that Britain’s “Christian” majority does not hold conventionally Christian beliefs, and that less commonly discussed folk beliefs are often more deeply entrenched than Christian doctrine.

The idea of ‘luck’, good and bad, still has a significant place within popular belief as well. Researchers have discovered that houses with the number 13 on the door sell for £6,500 less than their neighbours and that almost a third less houses are bought on the thirteenth day of the month compared to the monthly average. Some councils have banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. The BBC reports:

Such has been the local aversion to “unlucky” houses [in Worcestershire] that the district council, Wyre Forest, has in recent years banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. Local councillor Stephen Clee resolutely defends the policy.

“We have to listen to what the people say,” he says. “The local community were saying to us, ‘we don’t like living at number 13, so can we do something about it?'”

Wyre Forest is not alone in this – 13 is not used for new houses in authorities ranging from Herefordshire to Lewes in Sussex. West Wiltshire has also introduced a ban…

The English have never been a particularly religious people; in fact, quite the opposite. The church may still provide the formal reference point for ‘English religion’, but hardly anyone goes there. We are more likely to place our faith in a pair of lucky socks (36%) than attend church (1.4%). Irreligiosity has long been a defining feature of the English and likely always will be.

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