III. RELIGION

The government and the intelligentsia of England had by this time reached a gentlemen’s agreement about religion. The deistic attack upon the orthodox creed had subsided as the skeptics came to realize that they had nothing to put in its place as an aid to individual morality and public peace. William Godwin, Robert Owen, Jeremy Bentham, and James Mill were surviving examples of unbelief, but they made no propaganda thereof; Tom Paine was an exception. The English aristocracy, which had found some charm in the young Voltaire, was now carefully conspicuous in Sabbath observance. “It was a wonder to the lower orders throughout all parts of England,” noted the Annual Register in 1798, “to see the avenues to the churches filled with carriages” on Sundays.15John Stuart Mill remarked in 1838:

There is, in the English mind, both in speculation and in practice, a highly salutary shrinking from all extremes…. Quieta non movere [not to disturb the quiet] was the favourite doctrine of those times; … therefore, on condition of not making too much noise about religion, or taking it too much in earnest, the Church was supported even by philosophers as a bulwark against fanaticism, a sedative to the religious spirit, to prevent this from disturbing the harmony of society or the tranquillity of the state. The clergy of the Establishment thought they had a good bargain on these terms, and kept its conditions very faithfully.16

The Established Church was officially the “United Church of England and Ireland.” Though it accepted the Thirty-nine Articles of the Calvinist creed, it kept many features of the Catholic ritual. It had archbishops and bishops, but these usually married, and they were appointed by the Crown. Local parsons were generally chosen by the local squires, and helped them in maintaining social order. The Anglican clergy acknowledged the king as their head and ruler, and depended upon the state to collect from all families in England the tithe that supported the Church. Burke described Britain as a Christian Commonwealth in which Church and state were “one and the same thing, being different integral parts of the same whole”; and John Wilson Croker called Westminster Abbey “a part of the British Constitution.”17 The relationship resembled that between the Catholic Church and the government of France under Louis XIV, except that there was almost no persecution for heresy.*

The dissenting sects—Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Independents, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Unitarians—were allowed to preach their doctrines on one condition: that they declare themselves Christians.19 Some Dissenters sat in the House of Lords. Methodist preachers gathered great audiences by their frightening eloquence. The oppressed workers of the towns, losing earthly hopes, returned to their childhood faith, and with such ardor that when revolutionary ideas swept over the Channel from France, they resisted all efforts to make them revolt. In 1792 the leaders of Wesleyan Methodism required of each adherent an oath of loyalty and obedience to the king.20

Within the Established Church itself the influence of Methodism inspired an “Evangelical Movement”: many of the younger clergy and laity resolved to revitalize the Anglican creed by taking the Gospel to heart, and devoting themselves to simple living, piety, charity, and church reform. One of them, William Wilberforce, led the English campaign against slavery; another, Hannah More, spread a fresh Christian fervor by her lectures, books, and Sunday schools.

Two religious groups remained outside the circle of full toleration: Catholics and Jews. English Protestants had not forgotten Guy Fawkes and his attempt to blow up the Parliament (1605), nor the flirtations of Stuart kings —Charleses I and II, James II—with Catholic powers, mistresses, and ideas; they tended to look upon a Catholic as one who had given his allegiance to a foreign potentate (the popes were temporal sovereigns as rulers of the Papal States), and they wondered how a Catholic would behave in a conflict between a Roman pontiff and a British king.

There were some sixty thousand Catholics in the England of 1800. Most of them were of Irish origin, but some were indigenous descendants of pre-Reformation British Catholics. The laws against them had by this time been much relaxed. Various enactments between 1774 and 1793 had restored to them the right to own land, to hold their own services, and to transmit their faith through their own schools; and a specially worded oath enabled them to swear allegiance to the king and the government without repudiating the pope. However, they could not vote, and could not be elected to Parliament.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century the movement for the full emancipation of English Catholics seemed on the verge of success. Prominent Protestants—Wesley, Canning, Wilberforce, Lord Grey—supported it. The French Revolution aroused in England a reaction against Voltaire and the Enlightenment, and some sympathy for a religion so opposed by the revolutionary government. After 1792 the French émigrés, including Catholic priests and monks, received a warm welcome, and financial aid, from the British state; the exiles were allowed to establish monasteries and seminaries. The notion that a Church so weakened and despoiled could be a danger to England now seemed absurd, and in a war against France that Church could be a valuable ally. In 1800 Pitt introduced a bill for the emancipation of Catholics in England. The Tories and the High Church Anglicans opposed it, and George III stood resolutely with them. Pitt withdrew his motion, and resigned. Catholic emancipation in England had to wait till 1829.

Still tardier (1858) was the removal of civil disabilities from the Jews in England. They numbered some 26,000 in 1800: most of them in London, some in the provincial cities, almost none in the countryside. The long war interrupted further immigration, and allowed the English Jews to adjust themselves to British ways, and to break down some racial barriers. The law still barred them from the franchise, and from major offices, by requiring an oath “on the faith of a Christian,” and taking of the sacrament according to the rites of the Established Church. Otherwise they were free, and might worship unhindered in their homes and synagogues. Several prominent Jews accepted conversion to Christianity—Sampson Gideon the banker, David Ricardo the economist, Isaac Disraeli the author. The last, besides fathering the incomparable Benjamin, published anonymously and casually, between 1791 and 1834, Curiosities of Literature, which can still please an educated and leisured mind.

The long experience of the Jews in banking, and their family connections across frontiers, enabled them to come to the aid of the British government in the Seven Years’ War and the long duel with France. The brothers Benjamin and Abraham Goldsmid helped Pitt to break the ring of extortionate brokers who had monopolized the transactions in Treasury issues. In 1810 Nathan Rothschild (1777–1836) established in London a branch of the firm that his father, Meyer Amschel Rothschild, had founded in Frankfurt-am-Main. Nathan seems to have been the ablest of the financial geniuses who distinguished the family through several centuries and in many states. He became the favorite intermediary of the British government in its financial relations with foreign powers; it was he or his agents who transmitted from England to Austria and Prussia the subsidies that enabled them to fight Napoleon; and he played a leading role in the industrial and commercial expansion of England after 1815.21

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