Academic journal article The Historian

The Reformation of Manners Societies, the Monarchy, and the English State, 1696-1714

Academic journal article The Historian

The Reformation of Manners Societies, the Monarchy, and the English State, 1696-1714

Article excerpt

ON 2 JULY 1711, MATTHEW CLARKE, an Independent minister, preached at Salters-Hall in London before the Societies for Reformation of Manners. (1) He told his audience of the many difficulties they faced in the task of moral reform, saying "[y]ou row against wind and tide; and wrestle not only with flesh and blood, but principalities and powers, against spiritual wickedness in high places." (2) Clarke expressed a fairly common sentiment in the literature of the movement. The members of the Manners Societies were well aware that they lacked support from many people in the country. Their own literature made it clear that they regarded themselves as social outsiders. Many historians have furthered that perception and regarded them as political outsiders as well. The societies, often associated with opposition politics, were seen, by both contemporaries and historians, as working against the court and the monarchy. (3) In 1698 the Secretary of State, James Vernon, acting on orders from King William Ill, ordered that the societies be closely monitored. (4) The attitudes expressed in Reformation of Manners sermons during the height of the movement reveal that Vernon and William had little to fear from the reformers. While the Societies' members thought that they and their goals transcended the political conflicts of the period, they nonetheless maintained a symbiotic relationship with both the government and the monarchy. Focusing primarily on Reformation of Manners sermons from the period 1696 to 1714, this study will demonstrate that the Societies, far from viewing the king and his court as adversaries, relied on royal support to justify their endeavors and saw themselves as buttressing the authority and position of the monarch and the state.

The Revolution of 1689 was not simply a political or constitutional event. It also included a religious component that extended beyond the ecclesiastical. (5) Prior to the Glorious Revolution many future moral reformers believed that immorality and vice had triumphed. Catholicism was linked not only with tyrannical government but also moral decay. Reformers felt that the excesses of the Jacobean court had trickled down to the rest of society. Following the ascension of William III and Mary II, this same amalgam of Low-Churchmen, nonconformists, and urban middle class came to believe that for the political and constitutional revolution of 1689 to succeed a reformation of manners was necessary. (6) The Reformation of Manners Societies arose shortly after the revolution out of this belief. They aimed to affect a moral and spiritual reformation in both public and private life and to enforce laws against vice and dissolute behavior. Those involved were not interested in reform so much as reformation; they wanted to restore practices and behaviors that had been lost in the previous reigns. They were deeply concerned by a perceived rise in swearing, drinking, gambling, Sabbath breaking, and sexual promiscuity. Their concern was not with forms of politeness, but with moral behavior, the decline of which they saw as posing a threat to the state and social order. (7) The manners societies viewed the decline in moral behavior as posing a direct and real threat to the security of the state. Religiously inclusive, these societies consisted primarily of Low-Church Anglicans and Presbyterians, along with some Independents. The membership did not seem to regard their doctrinal differences as important. (8) Alan Hunt developed a broad definition for moral regulation projects, which fits the manners societies. According to Hunt, such projects were generally initiated from below, by those who were "not holders of institutional power." (9) Margaret Hunt described the societies as a movement that was primarily conceived, directed, and executed by the "middling sort," primarily the urban commercial class. While other classes were involved, it appealed most powerfully to the emerging middle class whose own values, whether cultural or religious, were reflected in it. …

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