Charles Booth, Charity Control, and the London Churches, 1897-1903

By Brydon, Thomas R. C. | The Historian, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Charles Booth, Charity Control, and the London Churches, 1897-1903


Brydon, Thomas R. C., The Historian


INTRODUCTION

BY 1897, CHARLES BOOTH, a Liverpool shipping magnate, philanthropist, and social scientist, had spent a considerable amount of money and more than a decade of his life studying the poor of late Victorian London. His investigators had compiled their notes into nine detailed volumes devoted to conditions of poverty and the current state of London-based industries. (1) After all this--after interviews with employers, unionists, laborers, teachers, clergymen, councillors, vestrymen, ministers, doctors, priests, and Poor Law Guardians--Booth found himself, in the final years of the survey and amid the social wreckage of Blackfriars Road, asking this question: "What role can religion play in these conditions?" (2)

Over the next six years, Booth and his team collected 1,800 interviews with a wide range of London's religious and secular leaders. He mined the team's unpublished notebooks to produce the seven volumes that made up the "Religious Influences" series (published 1902-03). Many historians have dismissed these as a relevant historical source. W. S. F. Pickering calls them "useless," Owen Chadwick rules them out as "impressionistic," and Ross McKibbin finds them "redundant to most of the questions the historian might ask." (3) A close reading of these interviews, however, tells us as much about church charity as it does about religion. Most importantly, they tell us that there was much less conflict in the late nineteenth-century debate over "charity organization" than historians have suggested. Charles Booth and his investigators found not only clergymen but also women and working people enthusiastically engaged in the strict allocation of charity. Their interviews help us correct overoptimistic assessments of a wide range of contemporary actors, from Christian Socialists to social scientists. Disguising often ruthless charity work in a new incarnationalist theology, High and Anglo-Catholic clergy strove to limit charity to their most deserving cases, while "old-fashioned" Low clergymen, Nonconformists, women, and working people worked equally hard to make the charity organization campaign a success.

Christians of all kinds placed their faith in a kind of New Christianity in this period. London's High and Anglo-Catholic clergymen stood out most prominently in this respect--men controversial not only for their abandonment (in ritual, dress, and architecture) of Evangelicalism's aesthetic blandness, but also for the exotic and ambivalently masculine picture they presented to London parishes. (4) A new language of human fellowship based in Christ's incarnation had brought them into a closer relationship with the city's poor. Late in June 1907, Arthur Stanton of St. Alban's, Holborn, explained the meaning of this "new love" for the poor. To his 700 listeners--all of them workingmen holding a town hall meeting in his honor--Stanton proclaimed a brotherhood between himself and those before him, a love between them. "God has given me the love of my fellow men," Stanton said, and the men burst into applause. "Amor vincit omnia," Stanton cried, "love conquers everything--and the one verse in God's holy word that I pick out, which I should like to be written over my grave is this: 'God hath made of one blood all nations of men.'" The men roared their applause. "Those words lie at the bottom of all credal and social difficulties and differences to unite all men together. It is a blood and a heart that make men one ..." (5)

Boyd Hilton and Cheryl Walsh tell us that High and ritualist clergymen such as Stanton were symptomatic of a theological shift in the Anglican Church. Around the 1850s, Anglican thought had moved from an insensitive era of Christian antipauperism--what Hilton called the "Age of Atonement"--to a more socially responsible "Age of Incarnation." (6) In the 1830s and the 1840s, atonement-centered thought had emphasized the divine nature of sinful men suffering through poverty (or any other hardship) in order to achieve economic and spiritual salvation.

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