The Church in Victorian England
|The modern multiplicity of Protestant denominations can be
traced, in large part, to the events of the Victorian period. The industrial revolution is
synonymous with the rise of the middle class who grew both wealthy and powerful through
the expanding capitalist trade market. This new class, the nouveau riche, had need of a
system of morals and conduct that incorporated both Christian and business values. The
desire to synchronize Christian values with the middle class work ethic led to the
formation of a variety of new sects of Protestant faith in England. The Church of England,
primarily espousing an aristocratic set of values, was abandoned by the bourgeoise in
favor of the new tenets of Protestant belief, designated the Nonconformists or Dissenters.
The principal Nonconformist denominations of nineteenth century England were: Methodist,
Baptist, Congregationalist, Unitarian, and Quaker (Laver118).
In many large cities and towns, new church buildings were being erected in order to meet the demands of the various denominations within the rapidly growing urban populations: "This 'Nonconformity of soaring spires, 'in Dr. Binfield's telling phrase proclaimed to the world that the era of Anglican monopoly had come to an end" (Sellers 14). The increase in the number of churches within urban regions is a direct result of industrialization: "As the century progressed, more and more chapels were built in towns and fewer in the countryside" (Sellers 51). Charles Dickens also comments on the multiplicity of churches in London, in his novel, DOMBEY AND SON: "But so far was this city church languishing for the company of other churches, that spires were clustered round it . . . It would have been hard to count them fromfrom its steeple-top, they were so many. In almost every yard and blind-place near, there was a church . . . There were twenty churches close together clamouring for people to come in" (888). The architectural style of places of worship also changed in order to provide for the increased population of church members and to demonstrate the affluence and success of the Dissenters.
Prior generations had chiefly conducted religious worship within the family or in small churches or meeting houses. The growing urban churches differed not only in form but in preaching style as well, for "The family has given place here to the massed congregation, and this technique of massed congregations appealed to Dissent . . . Preaching gradually developed, in the new large town, out of a pattern of patient and formal exposition into the pattern of red-hot religious exhortation and dramatic religious demagogy" (Routley 168-9). Laver claims that " for the vast majority of religious people in the nineteenth century the fear of hell was an ever present reality" (119). Charles Dickens's description of Carker's death in DOMBEY AND SON has elements of the fire and brimstone sermons popular during the Victorian era: Carker "felt the earth tremble--knew in a moment the rush was come--uttered a shriek--looked round--saw the red eyes, bleared and dim, in the daylight, close upon him . . . and [it] licked his stream of life up with its fiery heat . . ." (875). The red eyes and fiery heat of the train that ends Carker's life are also characteristic of the Christian notion of hell and the demonic. Carker had prospered through immoral values and shady business transactions, thus, he is doomed to death and damnation.
The various Protestant sects typically associated salvation and financial prosperity with church attendance and the fulfillment of civic duties. The nineteenth century is marked by its belief in social reform and the individual's responsibility for the common good. The modern age has inherited these philanthropical notions as well as the numerous Protestant denominations from the Victorian period.
Dickens, Charles. DOMBEY AND SON. London: Penguin, 1985.
Laver, James. MANNERS AND MORALS IN THE AGE OF OPTIMISM: 1848-1914. New
York: Harper and Row, 1966.
Routley, Erik. ENGLISH RELIGIOUS DISSENT. London: Cambridge UP, 1960.
Sellers, Ian. NINETEENTH CENTURY NONCONFORMITY. Foundations of Modern
History. London: Edward Arnold, 1977.
by Laura Gilliam