The Dissenters - Vol. 2

The Dissenters - Vol. 2

The Dissenters - Vol. 2

The Dissenters - Vol. 2

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

I must begin this, the second volume of The Dissenters, with an apology for the length of time it has taken to reach the public. My excuse is simple: I have tried to apply the same research techniques to the first half of the nineteenth century that I applied to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the vast quantity of material available has all but overwhelmed me. The two major sources for plotting the numerical strength and geographic distribution of Dissent are the list compiled by Dr John Evans between 1715 and 1718, and now in Dr Williams's Library, and the religious census of 1851 conducted by Horace Mann. Whereas the Evans manuscript lists some 1,100 Dissenting congregations scattered among 52 counties, the published report of the 1851 religious census reveals the existence of nearly 20,000 Nonconformist congregations dispersed throughout 624 registration districts. This published report has provided the basis for many of the calculations and for the maps in this volume, but is itself merely the digest of the original manuscript returns in the Public Record Office. I have examined these original returns for Nottinghamshire and for a selection of other districts, but the exploration of all 19,478 would be beyond the capacity of a single historian. A crucial source for an understanding of the social and economic status of Dissent are the non-parochial birth and baptismal registers for the period before 1837 which are also lodged in the Public Record Office. But whereas only some hundred or so Dissenting registers have survived from the early eighteenth century, and few of these contain evidence of the occupations of the fathers who had their children baptized in Dissenting meeting-houses, nearly 4,000 have survived from the first four decades of the nineteenth century, and nearly half of these provide evidence of parental occupation. All the registers in the Public Record Office for the period covered by this book have been examined; in addition registers in seventeen County Record Offices have been researched for the post-1837 period; and all the information derived from these registers has been analysed to determine the social structure of the chapels concerned. Finally there is the most . . .

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