By Michael R. Watts
English and Welsh society in the nineteenth century was profoundly influenced by religion. For millions of people, religion determined their choice of marriage partner, conditioned the upbringing of their children and moulded their family life. Religion pervaded education and literature, inspired poetry, stimulated music, motivated philanthropy, moderated industrial strife, and decided political loyalties. The driving religious force which dominated the early nineteenth century was Evangelical Christianity. While a substantial minority of Anglicans subscribed to it, its main influence was mediated through the channels of the Bapitists, the Congregationalists, and the Methodists: otherwise known as Dissenters or Nonconformists. They are the subject of this book, the second part of the comprehensive study of Dissent in England and Wales. The first volume dealt with the period between the Reformation and French Revolution; this volume takes the study into the nineteenth century, examining Dissent in the years from 1791 to 1869. Michael Watts shows how the influence of Nonconformism extended beyond the confines of the ministers of religion and travelling evangelicals. He argues that whilst the appeal of rational Dissent was often to the prosperous, the well-educated, and the cultured, Evangelical Nonconformity found its main support among the poor, the ignorant, and the unsophisticated where its influence on working-class men and women was almost as great as that of the population explosion, the industrial revolution, and possibly that of its great rival, the public house. The followers of Evangelical Dissent, vastly outnumbered those of Owenism, Socialism, or even Chartism. This impressive synthesis combines smoothly written narrative with shrewd analysis, and clearly demonstrates that no-one can fully understand the history of the nineteenth century, without a thorough knowledge of Nonconformism.