Religion and Society in England, 1790-1850

Religion and Society in England, 1790-1850

Religion and Society in England, 1790-1850

Religion and Society in England, 1790-1850

Excerpt

The generation overshadowed by the French Revolution was the most important generation in the modern history not only of English religion, but of most of the Christian world. For the Revolution altered for ever the terms on which religious establishments, the chief device on which the nations of the West had relied for christianising the people, must work. Of course for a generation or more the vitality of the churches had been undermined by the same forces which were everywhere sapping the Ancien Régime, the whole institutional complex of which the religious establishments were part. Every approach to this problem had its embarrassments. In France, Germany and. Austria lay governments had shown a disposition to reorder their churches' affairs for them, a process the full hazards of which were realised only when the revolutionary assemblies in France embarked on a well-intentioned programme of bringing their national church up to date. Private action, the obvious alternative, raised difficulties of another kind; yet to those right through the Protestant world who pinned their faith to religious awakening, keeping alive the cycle of conviction of sin and assurance of salvation, there was no option but to use private channels of propaganda and devotion.

If this was true in Germany, it was still more true in England where the nub of the situation consisted in the weakness of public authority, the dispersion of power. The English state had been too weak to put down dissent, too weak to allow its clergy to play at politics in their Convocation, too weak to root the Anglican establishment in the American colonies, far too weak to overhaul a Church still largely medieval in its administrative forms, and incapable of generating policy. Here private societies must necessarily be the bearer of religious revival; more or less informal itinerancies must pick up those who fell through the old net of . . .

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