• Cross checks 09 January 2017 | View comments

  • 2nd January 2017 | By David Jolley

    When Ros Watson and I went to the study day on ageing, faith and spirituality at Luther King House in November, one of the key speakers was Janet Eccles who shared findings from her PhD which investigated faith and spirituality amongst older women. Her impetus came in part from Callum Brown’s work.

    Callum Brown is now professor of Recent European History at the University of Glasgow but was Reader in History and co-director of the Scottish Oral History Centre at the University of Srathclyde when he wrote ‘The death of Christian Britain’ 2001. Janet Eccles take from this was the view that the decline in numbers of practising Christians has followed a loss of piety amongst women. This is not a view that she felt comfortable with and her study was designed to investigate the hypothesis. She did this by interviewing 38 women church goers in South Cumbria, comparing their faith stance with that of 32 women who had ceased to attend church. Whatever her interpretation of her findings, she had pointed me to Callum Brown’s work.

    ‘The death of Christian Britain’ (sub headed ‘Understanding Secularisation 1800 to 2000] is an intense, scholarly book. Ideas flow in excited multiples line after line, so much so that there were times where I thought the author must have thought disorder, with pressure of thought. Every statement is carefully referenced. Some themes are explored or expounded repeatedly as if to drive them home.

    I found the early pages hypnotically gripping, opening for me an understanding of where things have come from and how they have come to be that you might think I would have sought before. I might have, but I had not. Sometimes there is economy in accepting the givens and moving on to use them, rather than diverting time and energy to taking everything back to basics. Life at home, and stories and teaching from the bible assumed a common (shared] interest in matters spiritual and religious, an interest I have assumed to be shared between people of all eras, all ages, gender, education, wealth and class. Certainly texts from biblical times do not identify large numbers of people outside a faith framework, though differing frameworks (beliefs] are clearly recognised and seen as competitive.

    Callum Brown picks up the England before the Industrial Revolution and portrays it as an innocent rural economy with people of all levels engaged with the natural world, and with a faith. There is a suggestion that this latter, usually associated with churchgoing, might be imposed rather than spontaneous. Attendance at church was expected by the landowner, who had often sponsored the building of the church and its maintenance. Absences would be noted and might be followed by disciplinary or punitive responses, even though the master might himself be somewhere other than his pew.

    Callum Brown explains that social science suggests that religion fulfils ‘roles’ or ‘functions’ 

    • Institutional Christianity. Church attendance, worship and rites
    • Intellectual Christianity. Ideas and beliefs of individuals and society
    • Functional Christianity. Roles in government, education and welfare
    • Diffusive Christianity. Outreach amongst the people

    Beyond these Callum Brown introduces the concept of ‘Discursive Christianity’. This is personal, defining an individual and their drawing upon Christianity as practised in the fashions of the time, as presented by the churches or the media or local groups, family, or the individual themselves.

    This is something I recognise and feel at home with. It maps to my personal experience and confirms continuity with individuals and populations across the ages.

    Yet Callum Brown describes the loss of Christian belief and practice amongst industrialised city people, suggesting that this vision of continuity does not stand up to examination. Although he contests ‘the myth of the unholy city’ he quotes many who were concerned about the loss of moral standards and religious affiliation in London and other big cities. The established church, the Church of England, found itself in difficulty as it was perceived to be out of touch with ordinary people and essentially a control mechanism of the ruling classes and bosses. Alternative understandings were emerging and alternative ‘nonconformist’ movements, notably the Methodists grew in strength and influence.

    These new movements approached ordinary working people in a systematic way, summarised by Callum Brown as the ‘Salvation Economy’, giving rise to the ‘Salvation Industry’. This sought to make contact with individuals and to save souls for Christ from ‘the lapsed masses’. In its extreme this adopted ‘The Aggressive System’ which used Sunday Schools, the printing and distribution of tracts and the identification of Mission Districts where people would be visited in their own homes to share the word and bring them to knowledge and commitment. Up to this time men had been seen and mentioned as key individuals, with women barely receiving a mention or consideration. In the rescue of souls, women and men were seen as equally important and this shift in emphasis became confirmed and extended.

    Analyses of who was committed to Christianity and who was not, mostly via church attendances, pointed to a predominance of women amongst believer, practitioners and an absence or rarity of the poorer classes. The Salvation Industry was designed to seek out the poor, perhaps more than the rich and the woman of a household might be its most effective agent. Individual stories and testimony repeatedly described situations with the man of the house inclined to drink and debauchery, but kept near the straight and narrow by his good woman.

    This is the basis of Callum Brown’s vision of Christianity sustained by the piety of women. Piety is not an everyday word for most of us. Chambers defines it as ‘dutifulness, devoutness.’ It requires strength of mind and a determination to look beyond the lure of day to day pleasures and politically or contemporary culturally accepted norms.

    That seems to be a virtuous characteristic, though the adjective ‘pious’ carries for me the possible taint of hypocrisy. Professing religion’ or ‘showing, having, or resulting from piety’ says Chambers. So sometimes flaunting other worldliness and so far detached as to be of little use to the world and its people. That is probably not quite what we are thinking about.

    Callum Brown sees what he calls ‘the piety’ of women fragment and fail from the 1960s onwards and with this the commitment of British Society to its religion, Christianity. This radical interpretation of the fact of religious decline contrasts with the alternative proposition of a progressive shift to secularity associated with greater knowledge, education and the dominance of science through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

    Although he is critical of approaches which rely entirely on statistics of church attendance, Callum Brown uses them to substantiate his view that religious belief and practice held strong through to the 1950s due the combination of factors outlined here, but relying especially on the women of families to maintain this commitment. There was not a slow progressive decline in keeping with the secularist argument. There has been a precipitous decline from the 1960s in association with very many societal changes, amongst which the changing status and greater self-sufficiency of women are certainly significant.

    Browsing the autumn issue of the Blackcountryman magazine, I came to Eric Pritchard’s paper, ‘The history of the Lye and Lye Waste. Fact and fiction’. Lye is a township between Dudley and Stourbridge and might be considered the centre of the original Black Country, famed for producing steel in conditions of smoke and filth from the late 1800s. The Waste was an area of land situated a distance from the town itself and where newcomers, lacking funds but looking for work, might settle. Pritchard quotes Sir Cedric Hardwick on his visit to the Waste.

    ‘I saw hell, or perhaps the closest approximation that existed in those days. In slums and noisome alleys where the sun never seemed to shine, I saw families of twelve to fourteen souls living in a single room that was kitchen, bedroom and factory combined …’

    In 1829 the Reverend James, a Unitarian Minister, wrote. ‘This very populous hamlet had no place of worship of any description ….. Its inhabitants had become proverbial for their ignorance and profaneness and their incivility to the passing stranger’.

    Yet in 1841 R.H. Home, who visited the Waste for the Royal Commission for the Employment of Children, was moved to report.

    ‘In these squalid and filthy localities, where the majority of the working classes are in the most degraded condition, …. I discovered the moral condition of great numbers of these children to be equal to the best I had met with in any other place.’

    ‘These are the children of the church and chapel goers, many of whom go to the schools and can read.’

    Pritchard’s own research revealed that much of the religious activity at and around the Waste came from nonconformists. ‘A wide resect for religion existed ever before churches and chapels were built.’

    By 1851 three local Methodist Chapels attracted summed congregations of 81will 0, Congregationalist 100 and Church of England 228. 

    This meshes well with Callum Brown’s summary of matters in demonstrating the nonconformist Christians at work within a very deprived working class community. It also confirms the eagerness of some to respond and to find benefit in the worship and lifestyle encouraged by these home missions. 

    I am grateful to Janet Eccles for encourage me to forage around in these previously unknown places. I am fascinated and grateful for these glimpses of fairly recent history which are very relevant for me personally. There is much to be learned here which gives belief and expectation that fears for the death of Christianity and other faiths are ill founded. The lessons of this past can give a lead to plans for a stronger and healthier future for the world we see evolving, with all the benefits and unknowns of increased longevity and valuation of everyone as equals. This is not an issue of material wealth but something rather more elusive but recognised and sought by almost everyone.

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