Thursday, 17 March 2016

Evangelical Dissent in Bury St Edmunds in the 19th century: Part 1 The Early Years

‘I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason & Feeling, must be happiest & safest.’ (Jane Austen, Letters, 1814)

Dinah Morris preaching on the common, 1861 (E. H. Corbould, RCIN 451114), illustrating George Elliott's Adam Bede.
Evangelical dissent was largely represented by the non-conformist denominations and, in particular, the Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists. All three were well represented in Bury St Edmunds. These denominations expanded phenomenally during the early decades of the 19th century though their popular appeal varied considerably from place to place.  

Evangelicalism was particularly attractive to people living “in the countryside, the industrial villages, and the small and medium-sized towns of England and Wales where either language, the absence of landlord influence, the presence of trade and industry, or its own antiquated parochial structure undermined the influence of the Church of England, but where large-scale urbanization had not yet rendered Christianity either psychologically unnecessary or socially irrelevant.” (Michael Watts)

The popular appeal of Evangelical Dissent in the boom years of the early 19th century was the result of a number of interconnecting social and personal factors: the prospect of engaging with a new way of life; the consolation of religious beliefs that answered pressing problems to do with hell-fire and redemption; the possibility of adopting new social identities and active roles, especially for the young and for women; the attractions of Sunday Schools which taught religious discipline and basic literacy; the entertainment value of inspiring sermons and the singing of hymns; and finally, the opportunities for the aspirational to embrace respectability and to achieve self-improvement in the new purpose-built chapels.

A significant part of the appeal of Dissent lay in the fact that it provided ‘a way of life’ that was arguably not open to people within the established church.  Brown provides an eloquent analysis of the relationship between the Church of England and the Evangelicals: “… Evangelicalism broke the mental chains of the ancient regime in Britain.  If pre-industrial religiosity stressed individual faith within the context of obedience to church and state, modern evangelicalism laid stress on faith in the context of the individual as a ‘free moral agent.’” Furthermore, it has been argued that the Church of England failed to adapt itself to new demographic changes, leaving the population open to the evangelising techniques of the Nonconformists, though it has also been suggested that Dissent flourished where the ground had already been prepared by the Church of England.  This is certainly true of Methodism which was, to some degree, parasitical upon existing Anglican culture.  Thus, in London, “where the Church of England had failed to sow, the Nonconformists were unable to reap.”

In rural areas, in particular, worshippers seemed happy at certain times to attend both Church and Chapel and it has been suggested that in Suffolk up to a third of parishioners wandered between church and chapel in 1851.  The phenomenon of ‘floating worshippers’ was not peculiar to Suffolk.  
Anthony Trollope described it, from an Anglican perspective, when he noted that ‘in most parishes there are some who think it well to let the parson know that they are independent and do not care for him, though they profess to be of his flock’.  A curate in Lincolnshire was told by a member of his congregation, ‘We comes to church in the morning to please you, Sir, and goes to the chapel at night to save our souls.  There may not have been fundamental theological differences between the established church and many of the Dissenting denominations but it was apparent to many that the Anglican Church with its formal liturgy, lacklustre sermons and absence of lay participation lacked the excitement, the avid fervour, and the opportunities for involvement provided by the chapels. Callum Brown has claimed that “from 1800, Evangelicalism arrived as the new moral order in British society.” In particular, Methodism was able to restructure popular piety as a primary and newly dominant Christian ‘salvation’ economy.  Furthermore, he surprisingly emphasises Evangelicalism’s link with the Enlightenment because it made religion a ‘rational’ matter of study through the plethora of records and statistics that the churches produced: “numbers started to represent a new power for the churches…” 

EP Thompson has reminded us that the Evangelical preachers’ emphasis on ‘hell-fire’ seems rather paradoxical when many working people were turning to religion as a ‘consolation’.  But a belief in Hell was widespread, and fear was an important factor in the appeal of the Evangelicals: “fear of disease, fear of judgement, and fear above all of eternal punishment in the torments of hell.”  Subsequently, Methodists found many converts among communities of miners and fishermen where constant danger and the risk of sudden death was ever present.  The avoidance of hell-fire was the raison d’etre of Evangelical preaching among superstitious and unsophisticated communities.  There is some evidence that Evangelical versions of Christianity had greatest appeal among people in ‘backward’ rural communities.  In such communities there was a widespread belief in the devil as an active agent who interfered in ‘the affairs of men’.  John Wesley, himself, had never doubted the existence of witches and ghosts. 

Watts has explored the psychology of ‘evangelical conversion’ by analysing the ‘memoirs’ of prominent preachers, but E. P. Thompson has stressed the ‘impermanence’ of Methodist conversion.  It is an interesting fact that membership of chapels seldom exceeded five years on average, suggesting that ‘conversion’ was a rite of passage for most recruits rather than a life-long commitment.  The conversion experience was not necessarily foremost in the minds of members.  In times of economic disruption families may have been drawn to take shelter in the warmth and comparative security of Evangelical meetings perhaps ignoring much of the associated piety and ‘bible thumping’ and “the stringency of a sectarian discipline.”

It is notable that more women than men were drawn towards Evangelical puritanism in which “piety was conceived as an overwhelmingly feminine trait” and where Evangelicalism imbued women with ‘a sense of spiritual equality’”  In the ‘conversion memoirs’ the mother is often seen as pious in contrast with a frequently dissipated father.  Chapel appealed, it is argued, because it provided an escape from the home which in industrial areas was renowned for domestic violence.  However, the male officers of the chapels laid down strict parameters within which women recruits were allowed to function.  It was thought that females might ‘be useful in leading classes, visiting the afflicted, teaching the young, and exhibiting lovely examples of domestic piety’, but they were not to be ‘introduced into stations of authority and publicity.’  Despite these restrictions, records show that there were always more women members then men in the main dissenting chapels:

1751-1825         Wesleyans                    57.2% female
1801-50             Baptists                        64.6%
1801-50             Congregationalists        59.8%

In Bedfordshire women were to make up two-thirds of Wesleyan membership in the 1820s. The level of female employment seems to have been a key factor: “By 1851 southern Bedfordshire had the highest rate of adult females economically active anywhere in England, many of them employed in the straw plait industry” which “allowed larger numbers of women to take on the financial commitment of Methodist membership.”    Women, moreover, were attracted by the possibility of ‘doing things’ within the Evangelical movement: fund-raising, sewing groups, prayer meetings, bible classes, medical missions, gospel temperance societies, the distribution of tracts and the teaching of Sunday school pupils. With the increasing employment of children in industry the Sunday school was the only place they could receive some elementary education. They became hugely popular, even among parents who did not attend chapel on a regular basis, and they probably instilled a discipline and sense of decorum that their children may not have gained otherwise.

Lavenham Methodist Chapel Sunday School dinner
Bury & Norwich Post, Wednesday, June 01, 1825

The Wesleyans tended to stress the religious functions of the school, whereas the Primitives saw the educational potential for increased literacy and emphasised the 3Rs.

This was one of a number of different, if finely-tuned, viewpoints that separated the Primitives from the Wesleyans.  Conservative Wesleyan attitudes may have driven would-be female preachers into the welcoming arms of the Primitive Methodists who declared that “the woman shall have full liberty to exercise her talents in persuading sinners to fly to Christ.”  By 1818, 20% of Primitive Methodist preachers were women.  Prospective women recruits, especially young spinsters or widows, may well have been attracted by the appearance of positive female role-models occupying positions of relative authority.  Certainly, women preachers possessed a novelty value and drew the curious to hear Methodist evangelists.

The variety of preaching available from Methodist pulpits was certainly one of the major reasons for the appeal of Evangelical Dissent.  Contemporaries commented that the Primitive Methodists only needed a ‘friendly barn and a zealous preacher’ to do well.  Often known as Ranters, they ignored ecclesiastical boundaries, preached in the fields and on the moors, claimed to have effected miraculous cures, and produced shakings, fits, and hysteria among many of their converts.  Open-air events were highly attractive to young people especially, and they were often held to compete with the activities of other denominations.  Rivalry between different denominations and sects may well have provided an added piquancy at these events.

The Primitive Methodists also encouraged ‘family visiting from house to house’ which must have been appealing to young people in search of partners or just conversational conviviality.  Moreover, the missionary enthusiasm of both the Primitives and the Wesleyans was appealing to the working classes because they offered drama, music and fellowship to people who had little access to other forms of entertainment.  Chapel-goers must have been very committed to go pre-dawn carol singing on Christmas Day in Bury St Edmunds two hundred years ago:

 Bury & Norwich Post, 1 Jan. 1817

The Baptists too, enjoyed singing in their services and were often accompanied by amateur musicians.  They thoroughly enjoyed hymns with ‘rollicking tunes’ played on fiddles and trombones.  The popular appeal of Dissent was closely allied to this love of music, and “the hymn became the basis of a widespread diffusive Christianity, spreading out from the church to the fair, the workplace, the street, the home.”  But despite the attractions of hymn-singing it would seem that listening to sermons was of even greater popular appeal.

A Primitive Methodist preacher needed no formal training. He just had to show “evidence of conversion, a passion to save souls, and an ability to communicate the essence of the Gospel message to men and women of his own class, and usually of his own locality, in simple, direct English…”  In Baptist chapels the sermon was the high point in the service often reaching a pitch of spiritual exultation.  “Shaky grammar did not lessen the impact of such sermons, which were all the more effective because ministers were close to the people.”  Although the Primitives’ preaching possessed immediacy and accessibility, it was the denominations that possessed articulate, well-trained professional preachers that attracted most followers. 

Evangelicalism not only provided a ‘moral package’ but a ‘course in self-improvement’ for the working man. Evangelicalism was particularly popular among the new working classes in the industrial villages where “groups of men came together to organise chapel committees, start savings schemes, rent a room for worship, build a church, and acquire a minister or join a Methodist circuit.”  In these ways, the prospect of self-realization and also ‘respectability’ offered by all the dissenting communities was a key part of their popularity. The chapel congregation often took on the characteristics of a club where the boundaries of belief defined ‘belonging’ and ‘exclusion’.  And like a ‘club’ members “could enjoy reciprocal rights of membership wherever he or she might go in the country, finding a welcome for Sunday worship and like-minded people with whom to socialise and make contacts.”  What was on offer was a democratic and harmonious society which attracted people with bourgeois sensibilities as well as plebeian ones. 

A plebeian Primitive Methodism flourished in Norfolk in the 1830s at a time of considerable rural discontent.  Methodism appealed to oppressed farm labourers, and new leaders emerged from the ranks of the local preachers who worked hard to improve the conditions of agricultural workers.  This was the point emphasised by E.P. Thompson: workers “obtained recognition, perhaps for their sobriety, or chastity, or piety” and their chapel roles were easily transferred to those of trade union official or leadership of other working class organisations. To this day unions are still organised in ‘chapels’ and talk of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. 

Primitive Methodism has often been regarded as challenging bourgeois values but it was as much a vehicle for embracing respectability as the Wesleyans. 

“In the chapels the labourers learned self-respect, self-government, self-reliance and organisation; here men learned to speak, to read, to write, to lead their fellows.  Often a soporific rather than a stimulus, often overlaid with too much piety, yet from many of these village chapels there shone a light amid the squalor, helplessness and illiteracy of the village that did much to illumine the minds and hearts of the labourers.” (Reg Groves)

In 1811 there was the potential for Methodism to become a serious political force but its role as an alternative, anti-Establishment voice was gradually supressed.  In some parts of the country the growth of Methodism in the early 19th century owed more to an aspiration to better oneself than to protest against the ruling classes.  In Bury St Edmunds, the trustees of the local Wesleyan Chapel were largely drawn from the aspiring artisan class.  A deed of 1819 lists their occupations: tailor, shoemaker (3), machine maker, Excise officer (also preacher), brick-maker, baker and hawker. “Methodism appealed to craftsmen and tradesmen for economic as well as spiritual reasons. Drunkenness, immorality and swearing, at whatever level of industry was bad for business.”

Aspiration and respectability are key concepts in understanding the popular appeal of Evangelical Dissent.  The Nonconformists’ “spacious and elegant” chapels provided their congregations with ‘status by association’ and the fanfare of their opening was frequently reported in the local press:

Bury&Norwich Post, Suffolk, 11Dec 1811

John Betjeman regarded the 19th century chapels as the “true architecture of the people”.  They were paid for through local fund-raising, constructed by local builders and carpenters out of local materials, decorated by local ironmongers and seamstresses, polished and cleaned by humble caretakers and chapel ladies: “not since medieval days had the people clubbed together to adorn a place of worship.”  Moreover, as the 19th century progressed the small insignificant meeting-houses moved from their inauspicious locations in side-streets and alleyways to prominent positions in squares and main streets. New chapels were often elegant, self-confident public buildings, “designed to invite the attention of the passer-by and attract their attendance.”

Class distinctions were not entirely absent in the new Methodist chapels; seating and pews were a structural illustration of social relationships within the congregation.  ‘Spiritual snobbishness’ among the Wesleyans may well have appealed to upwardly-mobile potential recruits. The benevolent societies set up by the Methodists could also reflect class distinctions.  The rules of the Bury St Edmunds Methodist Friendly Society of 1819 mention two classes of benefit: to obtain 1st class benefits a member had to be earning a guinea a week, to receive 2nd class benefits a member must earn at least 16 shillings a week.  These could be afforded by the artisan classes but would certainly have excluded labourers who seldom earned more than twelve shillings a week.

Membership of the Bury Wesleyan Circuit peaked in 1825 with 325 members and by 1851 consisted of just 207 members.  Nationally, it has been estimated that Wesleyan Methodism was embraced by only 8.6% of the nation.  However, the combined forces of Evangelical Dissent were numerically impressive – 24% of people were attending their services in 1851.  Numbers waxed and waned but it is indisputable that the evangelical dissenters not only radically transformed the lives of individuals but completely reshaped the religious landscape of the early 19th century.



Suffolk Records Office, (Bury), EE 500/51/70, Rules of the Friendly Society of the Methodist Chapel, St Mary’s Square, 18 Jan. 1819

Royal Collection Trust

Newspapers and magazines:

Suffolk Record Office, (Bury), Bury and Norwich Post 1800-1900

Books and articles:

Bebbington, D., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, Routledge, 1988
Brown, Cullum, The Death of Christian Britain, Routledge, 2009
Brown, Richard, Church and State in Modern Britain 1700-1850,Routledge, 1991
ClarkJ. C. D., English Society 1660-1832, Cambridge, 2000
Elliott, George, Adam Bede, John Blackwood, 1859
Gilbert, A. D., Religion and Society in Industrial England, Longman, 1976
Groves, Reg., Sharpen the Sickle! The history of the farm workers’ union, Porcupine Press, 1959
Hatcher, S., Primitive Methodists, in Wesley Historical Society (East Anglian District), 108, Summer 2007
Le Faye, D, (ed.), Jane Austen’s Letters, OUP, 1995
Lewis, P., (ed.), Our Chapel, Beamish Open Air Museum, 1991, 31
McLeod, H., Religion and Society in England 1850 – 1914, Macmillan, 1996
Rodell, Jonathan, The Rise of Methodism: a study of Bedfordshire 1736-1851, Boydell, 2014
Thompson, E. P., The Making of the Working Class, Penguin, 1968
Timmins, T.C B. (ed.), Suffolk Returns from the Census of Religious Worship, 1851, Boydell, 1997

Trollope, A., The Vicar of Bullhampton, London, 1870 
Virgoe, N. and Williamson, T. (eds.), Religious Dissent in East Anglia, UEA, 1993
Watts, M., The Dissenters, Vol. II, Oxford, 1995

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