Politicians in the Pulpit: Christian Radicalism in Britain from the Fall of the Bastille to the Disintegration of Chartism

By Burns, Arthur | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Politicians in the Pulpit: Christian Radicalism in Britain from the Fall of the Bastille to the Disintegration of Chartism


Burns, Arthur, Anglican and Episcopal History


EILEEN GROTH LYON. Politicians in the Pulpit: Christian Radicalism in Britain from the Fall of the Bastille to the Disintegration of Chartism.

Aldershot and Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing, 1999. Pp. χ + 280, bibliography, index. $84.95.

Thanks to an efflorescence of interest in the role of religious beliefs in shaping both politics and political thought during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we now know much about the religious dimension of British high political traditions, and there has been a lively debate concerning the dynamics of the relationship between, in particular, heterodox religious dissent and political radicalism. Dr. Groth Lyon has nevertheless identified an important and neglected dimension of this subject. Politicians in the Pulpit explores the ways in which political radicalism could be informed by non-radical religion-indeed even by a religion nurtured within the established church and in apparent conformity with all its doctrinal formularies-notably through appeals to scriptural authority. If students of trade union history and of Methodist politics long ago recognized this, not only does Groth Lyon valuably redirect attention to its significance over a much wider field, but she attempts to construct a more comprehensive and coherent account of its salience in radicalism by identifying a distinctive "Christian radical" tradition.

Groth Lyon begins her analysis in the 179Os-perhaps regrettably so given the emphasis recently attached to religious dimensions to the British debate on the American crisis in the 178Os. She argues, contra Robert Hole, that rather than becoming more secular, the articulation of radicalism in the era of the French Revolution made "increasingly powerful use of religious argument." Radicals responded to conservative appropriations of religion in defense of the status quo with a critique of the claim that biblical authority underpinned non-resistance, and a determined emphasis on the egalitarian dimension of Christ's teaching. During the French Wars, Groth Lyon suggests that the Christian radical tradition nevertheless found it difficult to compete with the prevailing conservative tradition of exegesis and the Paineite strand within radicalism. In the era of Peterloo, however, as the established church found itself increasingly vulnerable to attack as part of the nexus of "old corruption," Christian radicals came into their own, not only in offering a critique of the clergy's relationship to the state, but in championing the cause of Jesus Christ the Only Radical Reformer. Groth Lyon goes on to chart the Christian radical contribution to the campaign for parliamentary reform as a call for Godgiven rights, trade-union activism, the ten-hours movement for factory reform, and opposition to the new poor law of 1834. Her account concludes with an examination of radicalism in the period of the Chartist movement, a movement, she argues, "always as much religious as political" (192), a claim illustrated in a discussion of radical rhetoric, the appropriation of actual chapels and churches and Methodist models of large-scale meetings, and the formation of Chartist churches.

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