Movements in Victorian Christianity

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Chartists on Kennington Common

Tractarians, Chartists, Darwinists and Fundamentalists 1.Tractarians/ Oxford Movement   The Oxford Movement was an affiliation of High Church Anglicans, most of which were members of the University of Oxford, who sought to demonstrate that the Church of England was a direct descendant of the Christian church established by the Apostles. It was also known as the Tractarian Movement after its series of publications, Tracts for the Times (18331841); the Tractarians were also called Puseyites (usually disparagingly) after one of their leaders, Edward Bouverie Pusey, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Christ Church, Oxford. Other prominent Tractarians included John Henry Newman, a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford and vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, John Keble, Archdeacon Henry Edward Manning, Richard Hurrell Froude, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Wilberforce, Isaac Williams and Sir William Palmer  

2. Chartists,

Chartism was a movement for political and social reform in the United Kingdom during the mid-19th century. It takes its name from the People’s Charter of 1838, which stipulated the six main aims of the movement. It was possibly the first mass working class movement in the world.

Chartism followed earlier Radical movements, such as the Birmingham Political Union which demanded a widening of the franchise, and came after the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which gave the vote to a section of the male middle classes, but not to the “working class” which was then emerging from artisan and labouring classes. Many Radicals made speeches on the “betrayal” of the working class and the “sacrificing” of their “interests” by the “misconduct” of the government, in conjunction with this model. D.C. Moore, however, cites that the enfranchisement is better understood with a five tier model consisting of Upper, Upper and Lower Middle and Upper and Lower Working classes. Using this model, The Upper and Upper Middle classes had gained the vote after the Reform Act 1832, and it was the lower middle and upper working classes that joined the Chartist movement. The Lower working class, Moore states, were not educated sufficiently to see any interest in, and thus involve themselves with, the movement.Chartism included a wide range of organizations. Hence it can be seen as not so much a movement as an era in popular politics in Britain. Dorothy Thompson described the theme of her book The Chartists as the time when “thousands of working people considered that their problems could be solved by the political organization of the country.”In 1838, six Members of Parliament and six working men, including William Lovett, (from the London Working Men’s Association, set up in 1836) formed a committee, which then published the People’s Charter, containing the following objectives:

  • Universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21
  • Equal-sized electoral districts
  • Voting by secret ballot
  • An end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament
  • Pay for members of Parliament
  • Annual election of Parliament

When these demands were first published in May 1838, they received a lukewarm response from Northern Star’s Feargus O’Connor and other Radicals, being seen as too moderate (Thompson, 1984, p.58). But it soon became clear that the charter had struck a chord among common people. Dorothy Thompson quotes John Bates as saying:There were [radical] associations all over the county, but there was a great lack of cohesion. One wanted the ballot, another manhood suffrage and so on… The radicals were without unity of aim and method, and there was but little hope of accomplishing anything. When, however, the Peoples Charter was drawn up… clearly defining the urgent demands of the working class, we felt we had a real bond of union; and so transformed our Radical Association into local Chartist centres….The movement organized a convention of 50 to facilitate the presentation of the petition. This met in London from February 1839 until May, when it moved to Birmingham. Though they took pains to keep within the law, the more radical activists were able to see it as the embryo of an alternative parliament (John Charlton, The Chartists p. 19). The convention called for a number of “ulterior measures” which ranged from calling on their supporters to withdraw their money from saving banks to a call for a sacred month, in effect a general strike. Meetings were held around the country and in June 1839 a large petition was presented to the House of Commons. Parliament, by a large majority, voted not to even hear the petitioners.When the petition was refused, many advocated force as the only means of attaining their aims. Several outbreaks of violence ensued, leading to several arrests and trials. One of the leaders of the movement, John Frost, on trial for treason, claimed in his defense that he had toured Wales urging people not to break the law, although he was himself guilty of using language that some might interpret as being a call to arms. Frost’s attitudes and stance, often seen as ambivalent, led another Chartist to describe Frost as putting ‘a sword in my hand and a rope around my neck’. Nevertheless, Frost had placed himself in the vanguard of the Chartist movement by 1839. When another prominent member, Henry Vincent, was arrested in the summer of 1839 for making inflammatory speeches, the die was cast.Instead of the carefully plotted military rising that some had suspected, Frost led a column of marchers to the Westgate Hotel, Newport, where he initiated a confrontation. Some have suggested that the roots of this confrontation lay in Frost’s frequent personal conflicts with various members of the local establishment; others, that Chartist leaders were expecting the Chartists to seize the town, preventing the mail reaching London and triggering a national uprising: it is generally acknowledged that Frost and other Chartist leaders did not agree on the course of action adopted.The result was a disaster in political and military terms. The hotel was occupied not only by the representatives of the town’s merchant classes and the local squirearchy, but by soldiers. A brief, violent, and bloody battle ensued. Shots were fired by both sides, although most contemporaries agree that the soldiers holding the building had vastly superior firepower. The Chartists did manage to enter the building temporarily, but were forced to retreat in disarray: twenty were killed, another fifty wounded.Testimonies exist from contemporaries, such as the Yorkshire Chartist Ben Wilson, that Newport was to have been the signal for a national uprising. Instead Chartism slipped into a period of internal division and acrimonious debate as to the way forward.In early May 1842, a further petition, of over three million signatures, was submitted, which was again rejected by parliament. The Northern Star commented on the rejection:Three and half millions have quietly, orderly, soberly, peaceably but firmly asked of their rulers to do justice; and their rulers have turned a deaf ear to that protest. Three and a half millions of people have asked permission to detail their wrongs, and enforce their claims for RIGHT, and the ‘House’ has resolved they should not be heard! Three and a half millions of the slave-class have holden out the olive branch of peace to the enfranchised and privileged classes and sought for a firm and compact union, on the principle of EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW; and the enfranchised and privileged have refused to enter into a treaty! The same class is to be a slave class still. The mark and brand of inferiority is not to be removed. The assumption of inferiority is still to be maintained. The people are not to be free.The depression of 18411842 led to a wave of strikes in which Chartist activists were in the forefront, and demands for the charter were included alongside economic demands. In 1842, workers went on strike in the Midlands, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and parts of Scotland in favour of Chartist principles. These industrial disputes were collectively known as the Plug Plot; as in many cases, protesters removed the plugs from steam boilers to prevent their use. Although the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, advocated a non-interventionalist policy, the Duke of Wellington insisted on the deployment of troops to deal with the strikers. Several Chartist leaders, including Feargus O’Connor, George Julian Harney, and Thomas Cooper were arrested, along with nearly 1,500 others. 79 people were sentenced, with sentences ranging from 7 to 21 years.Despite this second set of arrests, Chartist activity continued. Beginning in 1843, O’Connor suggested that the land contained the solution to workers’ problems. This idea evolved into the Chartist Co-Operative Land Company, later called the National Land Company. Workers would buy shares in the company, and the company would use those funds to purchase estates that would be subdivided into 2, 3, and 4 acre (8,000, 12,400 and 16,000 m²) lots. Between 1844 and 1848, five estates were purchased, subdivided, and built on, and then settled by lucky shareholders, who were chosen by lot. Unfortunately for O’Connor, in 1848 a Select Committee was appointed to investigate the financial viability of the scheme, and it was ordered to shut down. Cottages built by the Chartist Land Company are still standing and inhabited today in Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and on the outskirts of London. Rosedene, a Chartist cottage in Dodford, Worcestershire, is owned and maintained by the National Trust, and is open to visitors by appointment.The Chartists also stood in general elections, from the election of 1841 to the election of 1859, and O’Connor was elected in the general election of 1847. Harney stood for Election against Lord Palmerston in Tiverton, Devon in 1847.On 10 April 1848, Feargus O’Connor organised a mass meeting on Kennington Common, which would form a procession to present another petition to Parliament. The number of attendees varies depending on the source (O’Connor estimated 300,000; the government, 15,000; The Sunday Observer suggested 50,000 was more accurate). According to John Charlton the government was well aware that the Chartists had no intention of staging an uprising as they had established an extensive network of spies. The government did however organize a very large show of force, as 8,000 soldiers were in London that day, along with 150,000 special constables. In any case, the meeting was peaceful. However the military had threatened to intervene if the Chartists made any attempt to cross the Thames.In a separate incident, rioters in Manchester attempted to storm the hated workhouse. A pitched battle resulted with Chartists fighting the police, eventually the mob was broken up, but rioters roamed the streets of Manchester for three days.The original plan of the Chartists, if the petition was ignored, was to create a separate national assembly and press the Queen to dissolve parliament until the charter was introduced into law. However the Chartists were plagued with indecision, and the national assembly eventually dissolved itself claiming lack of support.The petition O’Connor presented to Parliament was claimed to have only 1,957,496 signatures – far short of the 5,706,000 he had stated and many of which were discovered to be forgeries (some of the false signatories included Queen Victoria). However, O’Connor argued that many people were illiterate, and did not know how to write their own signatures, and so had to copy someone elses. Despite this, O’Connor has been accused of destroying the credibility of Chartism, but the movement continued strongly for some months afterwards before it petered out.Although the Chartist movement itself petered out, its aims were taken on by others. Middle class parliamentary Radicals continued to press for universal franchise, and were joined by some supporters of the Anti-Corn Law League, with John Bright and the Reform League agitating in the country for change. The parliamentary Radicals joined with the Whigs and anti-protectionist Tory Peelites to form the Liberal Party by 1859. Eventually the Liberal William Ewart Gladstone introduced a modest bill for parliamentary reform which was defeated by both Tories and reform Liberals, forcing the government to resign. The new Tory government decided to take the credit for the reform. As a minority government they had to accept radical amendments, and Benjamin Disraeli‘s Reform Act of 1867 almost doubled the electorate, giving the vote even to working men. In addition, the secret ballot was introduced, through the Ballot Act of 1872. Only the last of the Chartist aims – annual Parliaments – now remains unfulfilled, although the difficulty and feasibility in implementing such a measure means that it is very unlikely to be fulfilled.Chartism was also an important influence in the British colonies. In 1854 Chartist demands were put forward by the miners at the Eureka Stockade on the gold fields at Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. Within one year of the military crushing of the Eureka revolt, all the demands, except annual parliaments, had been met.

3.  Darwin controversy, The publication in 1859 of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, as is well known, dealt a heavy blow to theologically based views of the world, and generated a powerful adverse reaction. Though religion at that time was of less real social consequence in Britain than in most or all European states, its ruling class paid lip service to a religious ideology and conducted its social and political life with deference to religious forms and customs.Darwin’s work removed once and for all the intellectual underpinnings of those religious forms. Though it would be mistaken to classify Darwin himself as an atheist, or even an agnostic (and whether he was or not is beside the point), his explanation of the development of organic life showed that there was no longer any need—as there previously had been—to postulate a complex and all-powerful creator to explain the complexity of life, since this complexity had developed from extremely simple origins through the process of natural selection. As Richard Dawkins put it in his book The Blind Watchmaker, it was possible, after Darwin, to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. The immediate response to Darwin of Britain’s ruling intellectual and social elite was to condemn his work, on purely religious grounds. The most famous salvo in the lengthy battle which ensued was Benjamin Disraeli’s assertion in a speech made in 1864. ‘What is the question now placed before society with a glib assurance the most astounding? The question is this—Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels.’ But by the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, the ever-increasing chorus of scientific assent to his work made it clear that he must somehow be subsumed into respectable intellectual culture. So, while princes of the church solemnly asserted that his work in no way compromised the claims of religion, his family’s wishes for a quiet burial were overridden and he was accorded the honour of a funeral in Westminster Abbey, with all the trimmings. Thus the British ruling class attempted to neutralise some of the consequences of Darwin’s work, and it was left to the Soviet Union, in its foundation of the State Darwin Museum in Moscow, to afford him a celebration more fitting to his memory. But his work could never quite be tailored into complete respectability: the curious history of the reception of Darwinism over the past century and a half is a reflection of the fact that the implications of Darwin’s work are profoundly at odds with the theological undercurrent which maintains a definite though weakening grip on the intellectual life of the West. Some features of this history may be briefly mentioned. First of all, biological scientists continue to work within the paradigms established by Darwin, since these have not yet in any essential sense been shown to be obsolete: every serious biologist is, if you like, a Darwinist. The horrified reaction to his work of the ‘respectable’ intelligentsia of Darwin’s day is mirrored in the present-day creationists. Like their predecessors, they are both serious enough about religion, and sufficiently aware of scientific criteria of evidence, objectivity and truth, to want to maintain a marriage between science and religion; though the separation caused by the publication of the Origin has bitten so deep that the creationists are now forced into remarkable intellectual subterfuges and contortions to maintain even a pretence of credibility in their rejection of all that Darwin stands for. The response to the implications of Darwin’s work by serious scientists has been mixed. There is no lack of defenders of his work, and plenty of attempts to translate Darwin’s insights, illegitimately, to social and political spheres (which has given rise to such pseudo-sciences as Social Darwinism). There have, on the other hand, been attacks on Darwin’s work by scientists, often working within another scientific discipline, which demonstrate an elementary misunderstanding of the mechanism of natural selection as Darwin described it. Such is the assertion by the physicist Fred Hoyle that natural selection is equivalent to a tornado whipping through a scrap yard and managing to assemble a Boeing 747. The almost obsessive tendency to belittle Darwin is strikingly illustrated in the American biologist Steven J Gould, who at various stages in his career has taken to arguing that—well, yes, Darwin was a very fine scientist, but he did get it wrong in a few important respects: such is Gould’s theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, which is actually less revolutionary and far less damaging to Darwin’s conclusions than first appeared. Gould is simply the top scientific brick in a widespread tendency to downgrade the importance of Darwin’s work, or to ridicule those (such as Richard Dawkins) who have thought and written about the implications of Darwin’s work from a strictly materialist and rigorously scientific viewpoint.

4. Fundamentalism This originally referred to a movement in North American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism (see below, “History”), stressing that the Bible is literally inerrant, not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record. This original “fundamentalism” holds as essential to Christian faith five fundamental doctrines:

  1. the inerrancy of the Bible,
  2. the Virgin birth,
  3. physical resurrection,
  4. atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and
  5. the Second Coming.

The term is now used much more widely, both to refer to fundamentalists of other faiths, particularly Islam, and to refer to anyone who believes that unvarying principles must apply to all people or every situation. In addition, it is often used as an emotive, pejorative term. One of the crucial questions is, to what extent is “fundamentalist” a subjective judgment?Because it is a current issue going to the heart of the stresses of modernity, truly impartial historical perspective is hard to obtain; and more original research is desperately needed, so at this point a proper encyclopedic article is hard to write.As “fundamentalism” seems to be currently quite a subjective term, one promising approach is to investigate (or at least make explicit as a basis for further debate) the premises or criteria on which the judgment is based.In its broadest usage in general terms, it denotes strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles; or, in the words of the American Heritage Dictionary: “a usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.”However, in particular instances this broad definition becomes untenable because it would categorize even some radically liberal religious leaders as “fundamentalist”, e.g. John Shelby Spong : Bishop Spong’s Christianity could be classified as fundamentalist as it is “characterized by a return to fundamental principles”, but these are radically historical and not traditional principles; he suggests “rigid adherence to those principles”, for example, in the title of his book “Here I Stand”. Based on the view that the Bible is not literally “Word of God”, he shows willingness to interpret it in more intuitive than rational ways. Such radical theologians also do not typically show the intolerance associated with the normal use of “fundamentalist”.Since this is not what is normally meant by “Fundamentalism”, the broad definition must not be specific enough. To begin with, “radicalist” and “fundamentalist” need to be distinguished using consistent, non-arbitrary general criteria.Towards a more specific, generally workable definition, the following criteria have been proposed:

  • The particular movement or view is modern, i.e. emerging since the early twentieth century.
  • Some or all of the beliefs or practices adhered to as “fundamental”, though traditional, are commonly evaluated by modern scholars as not actually original historically in the teachings of the particular religion’s founder or early phase(s) of the religious tradition.
  • From this conflict between tradition and historical analysis, fundamentalism typically becomes anti-historical (Karen Armstrong), opposed in principle and in general to the application of historical or textual criticism to religion.
  • The adherence to traditional views or practices as “fundamental”, deprived of rational credibility by modern scholarship, is therefore based primarily on traditional authority.
  • Fundamentalism is often, but not always, associated with Biblical literalism, the view that the traditional religious scripture in question is absolutely inerrant, and epistemologically an emphasis on Divine Revelation as the only ultimately reliable source of knowledge.
  • In a conflict between arguments from authority and rationality, fundamentalism typically chooses the side of authority.
  • Fundamentalism may be associated with the modernist increased emphasis on the authority of personal experience, especially in religion [Sharf 1998]; both modern shifts in religious authority structure might have the same causes, but alternatively they might just be consequential.
  • In fundamentalism, the concept of “faith” is such that it is set in an antagonistic relationship with reason.
  • “Fundamentalist” has especially come to refer to any religious enclave that intentionally resists identification with the larger religious group in which it originally arose, on the basis that fundamental principles upon which the larger religious group is supposedly founded have become corrupt or displaced by alternative principles hostile to its identity.
  • Fundamentalists typically feel alienated in modern society, oppressed by the cultural hegemony of secular values, and they feel their very existence and personal autonomy is continuously subject to the gravest challenges. These seem to be symptoms of identity crisis (psychology), as defined by psychologist Erik Erikson. This sense of conflict is usually incomprehensible to other moderns who are at ease with modern secularism (who are not necessarily un-religious but are comfortable with the modern privatization of religion).

Karen Armstrong, a religious scholar who writes for a popular audience, says in The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism that her aim in writing the book was to help to shed light on the motivation of fundamentalists and help others to begin to understand and sympathize with them, in order to help relieve or even resolve the violence and terror primarily associated with “fundamentalism” in popular perception and the media.Often groups described as fundamentalist strongly object to it because of the negative connotations it carries, or because it implies a similarity between themselves and other groups which they find objectionable. 

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2 Responses to Movements in Victorian Christianity

  1. Zack says:

    I happened across your website today and noticed you discussed the Oxford Movement. Recently, we at Logos Bible Software are publishing electronic editions of a number of works from the Oxford Movement. You can see what we offer here: http://www.logos.com/products/details/2940 . The Logos editions will be fully searchable, and all references and footnotes will operate as hotspots, immediately presenting the cited information whenever the cursor rolls over them. All this and more make these esteemed works even more useful for study. And you can help us see these products get the attention they deserve! Contact me for more info: zrock [at] logos [dot] com.

  2. kenbaker says:

    Thanks for that Zack
    I’ll check through and pass on the word.
    Cheers

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