I’m drowning in revisions and about to go under, so I’ll grab a question from our readers to expound upon today. The question I chose is obviously a favorite of mine—religion—but we’re coming out it from a different angle today. I hope Gretchen Fucio isn’t too disappointed that it took me six months to answer, but she’s due a Patricia Rice book of her choice.
“… would anyone feel comfortable blogging about the religious beliefs of the time? How likely were our heroes and heroines to attend church? What percentage of families in English society were Catholic? Jewish? What were the restrictions on education, military service, marriage, etc. for those who were not C of E? Did such restrictions apply to other Protestant groups? “
I’ll happily take on any topic, be it touchy or not. I won’t guarantee I’ll get it right, but I love to share my point of view. Of course, my prevailing opinion is that base human nature isn’t desperately different now than in the past, and that history never strays too far from the people who make it—which is why we’re doomed to repeat ourselves. It’s the shallow societal factors that are most noticeably different from one era to another.
Also, bear in mind that I can’t speak of all of the 1700s or 1800s as if they’re the same. Compare the 1960s to the 2000s and you’ll see the difficulty of comparing 1760 to 1810. While human nature may remain unchanged, laws and culture are constantly evolving. Methodism emerged as a huge factor of
change during that time.
Very much in general—the 1700s were not a time of strict religious belief in England. The Church of England had become a political arm of the government, and as such, people treated it with the same indifference as they treated Parliament. The church was rather a thing one did because everyone else did it. In general. As I said, people are people and we’re all different. The “Catholic” problem became a political problem, and the law simply banned anyone of any religion other than C of E from political office. It would probably take two blogs to explain how a religion became politics and not a matter of faith, and I’m not up to the dialog. As the century waned, more and more politicians attempted to change this policy, but too many were invested in it for change to come easily. By 1793, Catholics and Dissenters were allowed to vote but still could not sit in Parliament.
I did a quick Google and searched through my texts but couldn’t find any statistics on the numbers of people in each religion at this time. The numbers of Quakers were dwindling, probably because they found the United States a more suitable alternative for their middle-class morals and lifestyles. England was Catholic until ‘Enery the Aighth came along, so even by the 1700s, it would be hard to measure who was publicly Catholic and who was privately Catholic. Since the overall percentage of Jews in the world was minimal compared to other religions, they would be a very small percentage of the English population as well.
The interesting story during this period is John Wesley (that’s his picture above) and his evangelical organization and all the groups that developed from his original theories. Essentially, until John Wesley recognized the poor as needing spiritual support, they had been left out of religious life. They couldn’t read the Bible or the C of E prayer book. They couldn’t afford to dress up and see and be seen on Sundays. The church treated them with pragmatism, as a burden on society that had to be fed and taught, not as humans who needed to know that God was in their lives.
John Wesley started out as a thoroughly conservative C of E Tory, and so he taught his followers. But what he gave them was spiritual support and self respect and means of pulling themselves out of poverty. The C of E, unfortunately, being of political nature, lived in fear of large gatherings of the poor and downtrodden, so conflict was inevitable. Eventually, the Methodists were forced to break away. All the different evangelical churches that formed during this time could be roughly compared to our current squabbling Southern Baptists, I suppose. But in this case, because they began with miners and laborers, the evangelical churches did not often include the wealthy.
So if one is writing about England around 1800, it would be necessary to have your aristocrats acknowledge the vicar’s presence in society, have your respectable town folk attend church on Sunday or people wondering why, and your slum folk still working for pennies as if it’s any day of the week. Out in the hinterlands, the laborers will be gathering in the fields to listen to itinerant preachers. In general. Then as now, a drunken rake, no matter how aristocratic, is unlikely to sit inside a church, and a pious starving seamstress might easily take comfort in the vast beauty of the cathedral.
But what might be interesting is to parallel how the immoral Georgians evolved into the pious Victorians over a space of a century or so. Did the evangelicals force aristocrats to recognize their immorality? (or their mortality?) Did the gradual separation of church and state produce a different religious outlook? Or did people just get more nervous and uptight with the political and religious conservatism of the new queen compared to the old kings? Anyone want to take a whack at it? Or the more learned among us, speak up!
And to justify the time I spend on here–remember, MYSTIC RIDER is on the shelves now. The religion I spoke of above was English–in the setting for RIDER, the French Catholic church had been disbanded
and only patriotic priests allowed to preach, so that’s an entirely different set of circumstances!