Christian Chartism was one of the more unlikely variants of the Chartist cause. Even so, at one point there were dozens of Christian Chartist churches in existence.
There was no shortage of clergymen willing to preach on the evils of Chartism. Nor, for that matter, in an otherwise overwhelmingly Christian era, was there a shortage of convinced atheists in the Chartist ranks – among them William Lovett, original author of the Six Points of the Charter, and the secularist G J Holyoake, who was later to play a prominent role in the co-operative movement.
On a more visceral level, rioters in the Staffordshire potteries during the 1842 general strike were quick to pull down or set ablaze the houses of clergymen as well as of employers and justices of the peace. Among those transported to Australia at this time, by far the largest group were charged with such offences.
But if Chartism evoked little sympathy within the establishment of the Church of England, and sometimes provoked the outright hostility both of the Roman Catholic church and of Methodists, it attracted considerable support among other non-conformist clergy, many of whom lived lives little different to those of the working class men and women to whom they ministered.
Richard Brown, in his 1997 book Chartism says that at least 40 clergymen sympathised actively with the Chartist movement, among them the Unitarian minister Henry Solly of Yeovil, the Baptist Thomas Davies of Merthyr Tydfil, and the Congregationalist Alexander Duncanson.
Others included Joseph Rayner Stephens, who, according to R G Gammage was sacked from the Wesleyan ministry for his active campaigning for factory reform – but who continued to preach unimpeded despite his dismissal thanks to his working class congregation, who duly erected three chapels for him in Salford. In 1839, Stephens was to be sent to prison for 18 months, despite largely recanting his earlier radical principles in open court. Brown also mentions Benjamin Rushton, who was both minister and handloom weaver in the West Riding; William Thornton, a wool-comber; and John Ashton, who spent time variously as a blacksmith, teacher and dealer in tea and coffee.
More prominently, William Hill for some years combined his position as editor of Feargus O’Connor’s Northern Star with the ministry of Swedenborgian chapel in Hull. Thomas Cooper, the leading Leicester physical force Chartist (whose travels through the Staffordshire potteries at the height of the 1842 general strike and on to the Chartist conference then taking place in Manchester did much to swing the Chartists behind the strike) first abandoned his Christianity for the cause of radical reform, and then just as swiftly returned to Christianity – in the middle of a public lecture. And when Joseph Barker was expelled from the Methodist New Connection in 1841, 29 churches went with him, many becoming Chartist in spirit if not in name.
The Christian-Chartist connection was perhaps strongest among the Scottish Chartists. In his 1970 book The Chartist Movement in Scotland , Alexander Wilson lists no fewer than 29 Christian Chartist churches north of the border, peaking in 1840 and 1841 before a rapid decline set in. The impetus to establish such Chartist churches came in large part from the hostile response of the existing dissenting clergy of the United Secession Church and the Relief Synod (nothing better being expected of the established Church). Wilson says that in February 1839 the Glasgow Universal Suffrage Association petitioned 83 clergymen seeking their support – and received one sympathetic reply. Roman Catholics who became involved with Chartism, meanwhile, had to reckon with expulsion from Catholic societies – as happened to Con Murray, a leading figure in the O’Connorite wing of the movement.
The idea of Christian Chartist churches may have originated with James Moir (left), who warned as early as April 1839 that if the churches did not adapt to Chartism, then Chartism may found its own religious denomination. Chartists in Hamilton set up an independent church in May 1839, boasting regular attendances of 80 to 100 worshippers, to be followed by those of Paisley. John Roger, president of the Bridgeton Radicals reported the success of his group’s religious ventures to the Glasgow Universal Suffrage Association on 24 September that year, recommending that the organisation open its hall on Sundays for public worship. Malcolm McFarlane, a cabinet-maker and vice-president of the Glasgow association, was among the first preachers. The association now set up a religious worship committee, one of whose members, Thomas Mair, reported on 22 October that though the “a considerable amount of money” had been collected, just three of the six committee members had yet officiated.
Preachers included both regular clergy – Rev Mr Calder and Rev Mr Percy, among them, and lay preachers. These included such popular preachers as Andrew Cassels of Partick, William Tait of Auchinearn, Charles McEwan of Gorbals, and Arthur O’Neill of Maryhill. O’Neill was a former theology student and was the youngest member of the Central Committee for Scotland. He was to become the most influential figure in Christian Chartism.
As time went on it became necessary to establish rules governing such matters as baptism and marriage, as well as questions of doctrine, and a new denomination, calling itself “the Christian Church” was founded. On 1 March 1840 at Glasgow, three sermons were preached, three baptisms held and 65 new members enrolled at the Mechanics Hall, Tontine Place.
With upwards of 20 congregations now established, a number of Chartists found themselves in regular employment as preachers, among them John McCrae, William Thomasan and Abram Duncan, all of whom had been delegates to the 1839 Chartist convention. Thomasan, McCrae and most of the other pastors also acted as school masters to the children of Chartist, and schools were established at Alexandria, Arbroath, Greenock, Gorbals, Strathaven and Hamilton.
After 1841, however, decline set in and the Christian Chartist movement gradually came to an end in Scotland.
South of the border, Christian Chartism was slower to emerge, although the O’Neill came south from Glasgow and made some impression on the Birmingham Chartists, being appointed pastor of the Birmingham Chartist Church that opened on 27 December 1840 at Newhall Street. In Manchester, meanwhile, O’Neill’s success was paralleled by that of James Scholefield, and in Halifax by Benjamin Rushton . Other important preachers included Henry Vincent, whose arrest in Wales sparked – or at least provided a rationale for – the Newport Rebellion. Vincent was a regular preacher at the Christian Chartist church at Birmingham, and an occasional visitor to the church at Birmingham.
Christian Chartists were generally on the “moral force” wing of the movement, but this did not necessarily prevent them falling foul of the authorities, and Stephens was not alone in facing prosecution. In August 1843, O’Neill, long an advocate of an alliance with the middle class reformers of the Complete Suffrage Union was sent to prison for one year for using seditious language. He emerged proclaiming himself “still a Chartist”, but by 1846 the Chartist Church had been dissolved and two years later O’Neill along with other former Christian Chartists joined middle class radicals in the Reform League, which supported Joseph Hume MP and his “Little Charter” campaign for household suffrage.
O’Neill’s sermons: “blasphemy and radical doctrine”
A Wesleyan minister, “who was no friend to Chartism”, described O’Neill’s preaching methods as follows:
“O’Neill called himself a Christian Chartist and always began his discourse with a text, after the manner of a sermon; and some of our people went to hear him just to observe the proceedings and were shocked beyond description: there was unmeasured abuse of Her Majesty and the Constitution, about the public expenditure and complete radical doctrines of all kinds. They have a hymn-book of their own and affect to be a denomination of Christians. This is the way they gained converts here, by the name. There were very few political Chartists here, but Christian Chartist was a name that took. It is almost blasphemy to prostitute the name of Christian to such purposes.”
Source: Parliamentary Papers, 1843, xiii p.cxxxii; cited in The Chartist Movement, Mark Hovell, Manchester University Press, 1918.
Christian Chartist churches in Scotland
Alloa, Anderston, Arbroath, Bridgeton, Campsie, Cupar, Darvel, Dundee, Eaglesham, Glasgow (two), Greenock, Gorbals, Hamilton, Inverleven, Johnstone, Kilbarchan, Kilmarnock, Lanark, Leith, Linlithgow, Newburgh, Newmilns, Partick, Paisley, Pollockshaws, Shettleston, St Ninians, vale of Leven
Source: The Chartist Movement in Scotland, by Alexander Wilson
Doing God’s work with the devil’s tools
The ambiguous relationship between Chartism and Christianity found a voice in Politics for the People.
Published by middle-class Christian reformers during 1848, it looked with horror at the Kennington Common rally that preceded the presentation of the third and final Chartist petition to Parliament, and at “monster meetings” in general.
Just a month after the Kennington Common rally and the presentation of the third Chartist Petition to Parliament, Politics for the People , in its issue of 13 May 1848 declared: “Monster meetings and processions… as one most hateful shape of tyranny, we will not have. It matters little whether there be a law forbidding them or not; the greatest law of all, the public safety and well-being, demand that they shall not take place, because it is not right that they should.”
The same article concluded: “There is practical atheism in the cry for Monster Meetings.”
Nor did these middle class reformers approve much of the intellectual company kept by Chartists. “Parson Lot” declared in the same issue that in pursuit of information about Chartist activities he had entered a bookshop stocking Chartist books and newspapers. “Now, as a book as well as a man, may be known by his companions, I looked round the shop to see what was the general sort of stock there – and, behold, there was hardly anything but ‘Flash Songsters,’ and the ‘Swell’s Guide,’ and ‘Tales of Horror,’ and dirty milksop French novels.”
And he was more horrified still to find that Chartist newspaper he bought there advertised, “the same French dirt which lay on the counter: Voltaire’s Tales, Tom Paine, and by way of a finish, ‘The Devil’s Pulpit’!”
The Chartists, he concluded, were “trying to do God’s work with the devil’s tools”.
The list of contributors to Politics for the People below is drawn from a reprint published by Augustus M Kelley in 1971, which took it in turn from Charles E Raven’s Christian Socialism 1848-1854 of 1920.
H Bellenden Ker (“Dodman”)
One law for the rich, and one for the poor
M I Brickdale (“B”)
The saving of the oak
Special constables or national guards
The working man’s appeal
My own age
The rightful governor
After me the deluge
Nothing possible here by parliamentary eloquence
Rev. C S Fanshawe (“A staunch supporter”) Radicalism of the penny politics Prof. W A Guy Sanitary reform: health and property I, II and III Mobs and their raw material Repeal of the union (letter) The case of the journeyman bakers The labourer’s friend A Helps Aphorisms I, II, III, IV and V
Rev C Kingsley (“Parson Lot”)
The National Gallery I and II Letters to the Chartists I, II and III Old and new – a parable Old saws new set: I – a Greek fable II – England for the English III – the golden goose The British Museum Letters to landlords I and II
J M Ludlow (“John Townsend” or “JT”)
The suffrage I, II, III, IV, V and VI
Universal suffrage not universal representation
Chapters in recent history:
I The reign of Louis Philippe
II The fall of Louis Philippe
III What good has Louis Philippe done?
I The Tory
II The Conservative
III The Whig
IV The Radical
Some experiences with domestic creatures. Canary birds by a townsman
Rights and duties
Case of the journeymen bakers
Repeal of the Union
Conseils de Prudhommes or Industrial Tribunals
The ballot I and II
Warnings of the late Paris insurrection
Qualification and payment of Members and duration of Parliaments
The principle of obedience to the law
Electoral districts and the representation of minorities
The principle of the Poor Laws
The sovereignty of the law
The law of public meetings in England and France
The colonial system
The great partnership
The laws of the birthright of the people
We want leaders
D Macmillan (“XYZ”)
To the editor
C B Mansfield (“Will Willow-Wren”)
Politics of the fields I and II
Rev F D Maurice (“A clergyman”)
Dialogues in the Penny Boats
II The universities and the working men
Liberty – a dialogue
Equality – a dialogue
Mr Lovett’s address to the middle classes
Rough notes of lectures on modern history
A word on emigration – Lord Ashley’s motion
Recollections and confessions of William Milward
To the reader
Is there any hope for education in England I, II, III, IV
More last words
Hon S G Osborne
Same Gorze’s country letters
A countryman’s opinion of the six points of the Charter
What may be done for the people? (letter)
Moral force Chartism I, II, III, IV
Rev A P Stanley (“S) Lamartine – by an admirer
Evils of protection
Rev R C Trench
Hints in hexameters
A French model republic
Most Rev R Whateley
A dialogue on the subject of repeal