Book Review: Visionary Religion and Radicalism in Early Industrial England: From Southcott to Socialism

By Stubenrauch, Joseph | Church History, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Book Review: Visionary Religion and Radicalism in Early Industrial England: From Southcott to Socialism


Stubenrauch, Joseph, Church History


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Visionary Religion and Radicalism in Early Industrial England: From Southcott to Socialism . By Philip Lockley . New York : Oxford University Press , 2013. xvi + 298 pp. $125 cloth.

Book Reviews and Notes

In this compelling, archive-driven work, Philip Lockley challenges the dominant interpretations of Southcottian millenarianism. He takes particular aim at E. P. Thompson's dismissal of the movement's followers as "deluded" (vii). The book argues that paying attention to Southcottians' religious experiences and theology between 1815 and 1840 overturns many of historians' assumptions about the relationship between popular religion, radical politics, and agency.

Lockley reveals that the two main strands of Southcottianism separately developed a theology of engagement with the political and social realms. Both sought to transform the world. The supposed despair of millenarian religion did not sabotage personal agency and politics. Rather, Southcottian theology came to encourage believers to use human action to improve the world and to participate in social radicalism. Lockley rejects the notion that there was a transition from religious to secular attitudes in politics. Instead, Southcottians' engagement with the world stemmed from their theology. Their actions and motivations are comprehensible only in terms of their own lived religious experience.

Lockley builds on Phyllis Mack's Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008) to understand how divine and human agency could be understood as inter-relating rather than mutually exclusive concepts. In turn, this prompts him to propose a new heuristic framework for categorizing millennial beliefs. Instead of a simplistic divide between passive premillennialism and active postmillennialism, Lockley emphasizes how believers expected the millennium to come about (evolutionary vs. disruptive) and how they believed that they gained this knowledge about future events (interpretative vs. revelatory). A believer's position on the spectrums between these points shaped their attitude toward human or divine agency. Thus, premillennialists who anticipated an evolutionary chronology might embrace human agency instead of passivity.

In addition to Southcottian archives, including an until now inaccessible collection of manuscript and rare printed materials, the book makes use of a creative range of sources such as Home Office spy reports, radical journals, and private correspondence. These sources lead Lockley to assert that the most influential interpretations of Southcottianism by E. P. Thompson, Barbara Taylor, and Iain McCalman are not supported by the evidence of Southcottians themselves. Thoroughly revisionist, the book "challenges components of every other study of Southcottianism" (15).

These corrections include insights about the divisions within the movement after Joanna Southcott's death and the geographical spread of its adherents. Through a careful reexamination of membership rolls and the discovery of a major error in their previous interpretation, Lockley also suggests that the movement did not appeal to women in any distinctive way. Outside of a few southern communities, the gender ratio in Southcottianism mirrored that found among Methodists, Congregationalists, and Baptists.

The book also argues that Southcottians were not necessarily poverty-stricken victims of the industrial revolution. The movement certainly included poor textile workers, but also attracted aristocrats, merchants, and families with capital and employees. Southcottianism survived in communities across decades and among families of means, countering the notion that millenarian beliefs flourished only temporarily during economic crises. …

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