Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Anglican Volunteerism, Ecclesiastical Politics, and the Bath Church Missionary Association Controversy, 1817-1818

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Anglican Volunteerism, Ecclesiastical Politics, and the Bath Church Missionary Association Controversy, 1817-1818

Article excerpt

On 1 December 1817, during ceremonies held to inaugurate a local association of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) at Bath, the Reverend Josiah Pratt1 prepared to deliver a speech on behalf of the society to an audience in the town hall that included Henry Ryder, bishop of Gloucester. Before Pratt could deliver his speech, however, the proceedings were interrupted when Josiah Thomas, archdeacon of Bath, suddenly rose to deliver a speech of his own to protest the formation of a CMS auxiliary association in Bath. After his address he quickly left the podium and the meeting. Thomas was a staunch critic of the evangelical wing of the church, with which the CMS was affiliated, and his protest was partly based on his belief that a Bath CMS auxiliary was unnecessary because the church already had established missionary agencies in the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). The attack of the "irate Archdeacon," as one historian called Thomas, unleashed a propaganda war that produced at least twenty pamphlets.2

Overall, the Bath CMS controversy highlighted several important issues, including the appropriate place of voluntary societies within the church and the nature and extent of lower class involvement in such organizations during the tumultuous years following the defeat of Napoleonic France. Ecclesiastical politics also played a role in the episode, demonstrating how evangelical missionary and other charitable projects were perceived as threats by more orthodox churchmen who viewed older organizations such as the SPG and the SPCK as the only legitimate Anglican societies. Finally, for the evangelical leaders of the CMS, the controversy and the publicity it generated played a major role in promoting a more vigorous missionary spirit in Great Britain and in helping to overcome the society's initial difficulties.

The CMS, the organization that Thomas so vigorously criticized in 1817, was founded by Anglican evangelicals in 1799, at the end of a decade which saw the creation of new foreign missionary societies by both Baptists and Congregationalists.3 Anglican evangelicals responded with their own society to improve upon earlier missionary efforts made by the SPG. Since the older SPG failed to keep pace with the rapid expansion of the empire, the CMS, reflecting shifting imperial interests after the American Revolution, targeted Asia and Africa as spheres of operation. The evangelicals sought to renew a missionary spirit in the Church of England that was on the decline towards the end of the eighteenth century.4

By 1800 there were a significant number of Anglicans who could be called "evangelical." One scholar has estimated that by the opening of the nineteenth century, between three hundred and five hundred Anglican ministers could be identified as evangelicals. This group of ministers evolved into a distinct party within the church and sought nothing less than an internal revitalization of Anglican spirituality. Closely associated with those clerics were prominent laymen who mainly came from the middle and upper classes in English society. In part, it was this combination of clerical and influential lay interests that distinguished this "second" evangelical movement from earlier awakenings in the 1740s.5 By the time of the Bath CMS controversy, the evangelical wing of the church had become especially prominent at Cambridge University, where many evangelical ministers were trained under the tutelage of the noted evangelical theologian, Charles Simeon. In addition, evangelicals had made their way into Parliament where they evolved into an effective political pressure group.

Theologically, evangelicals sought a middle position between a stagnant church hierarchy on the one hand, and "enthusiastic" Methodists on the other: "Evangelical clergymen struggled between the Scylla of an intolerant and inept ecclesiastical structure and the Charybdis of disorderly enthusiasts who threatened some of the most solid features of the parochial system. …

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