Derby Unitarians

Religion and the Rise of Labour

"Religion and the Rise of Labour" by Dr. Leonard Smith, Principal of the Unitarian College, Manchester.

- A Review by George Cope.

This is a very interesting book which David Burton suggested I might review. The author starts off with an overview of the work of various historians who have examined the relationship between religion and Labour. Wearmouth's study (in Leonard's opinion) overstates the Methodist contribution to the rise of Labour, Mayor's study of Congregationalism relies heavily on the religious press of those days. Jones' study (much praised by this author) covered the Established and Nonconformist churches' attitudes towards Labour and notes the adoption of a non-political 'social unionism' by most Nonconformist denominations as an attempt to divert people away from Socialism. (Social unionism centred more on improving life in the here-and-now rather than over-concern for the after-life). A study by Robert Moore of some mining villages offered a yardstick for testing some of the more general studies; it concluded that Methodists tended to inhibit the growth of class consciousness and to reduce class conflict. Local conditions and personalities, class-structure, whether an area was touched by industrial development, or rural, all had a part to play in attitudes towards the new organisations of the working-class as expressed in their support for Labour.

The setting of this book is roughly the years 1830 - 1914, when Nonconformists were largely allied to the Liberal Party. The Congregationalists and the Unitarians were more involved than the Methodists in the 1890s in the socialist organisations, especially in the Fabian Society.
Some issues of the period which would often split congregations - (1) The poverty of working-class people, and the concern that many workers did not attend church, gave rise to organisations such as the Domestic Mission Societies founded, by Unitarians in the 1830s. Nonconformists had a tradition of evangelism, seeing the saving of souls for the after-life as being more important than improving their material conditions. (As my friend, Ken, is wont to say: "Some people are so heavenly minded they are not an earthly bit of use!"). Unitarians were more middle-class than other Nonconformists and saw no reason to oppose a competitive system which had brought them great wealth. John Trevor, the Unitarian who founded the Labour Church in 1891, described Unitarianism as one of the most backward religious forces of his day - very good in supporting religious freedom, but not in supporting economic freedom. In 1892, Trevor published a Labour Church Hymn-book which seems to have been used also at Independent Labour Party branches! Some Labour Churches, recognising the need for ritual, adopted ceremonies for births, marriages, and deaths, and also used some of the churches' vocabulary for their new "religion of socialism": 'evangelism', the 'New Jerusalem', etc. A hymn, reading, and a prayer often started ILP meetings - a nod in the direction of Sunday observance!
(2) Temperance of the early Labour people was in keeping with nonconformity but later became a problem as Labour came to abandon it. (3) The Boer War; imperialistically-minded Nonconformists backed the war, others, and Labour, opposed it.
(4) Labour meetings took place on Sunday afternoons so hindering Nonconformist ministers from attending even if they were supportive. (5) Labour candidate Robert Blatchford's preaching of atheism. (6) The American Henry George's views on a single-tax on land and land nationalisation.
(7) Campbell's "New Theology", which brought social issues into theology.
(8) Auguste Comte's "Positivism" which strove for a non-theological 'religion of humanity'.
(9) Class-structure. Where, for instance, coal-owners and their workers were part of the same congregation, relationships could be strained when industrial disputes were taking place.
Thus the period was a maelstrom of conflicting ideas and interests! James Martineau, philosopher and Tory, resigned from membership of his chapel because of the preaching of its Unitarian Minister and mathematical economist, Philip Wickstead, who espoused socialist ideas.

The Pleasant Sunday Afternoon movement of the Congregationalists may have been instrumental in moving working-class men in the direction of socialism. Many Labour MPs in the 1906 Parliament acknowledged their indebtedness to the Bible and books by Bunyan, Shakespeare, Dickens, etc., many of which had been provided by the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon movement. This movement, after 1885, spread to Derby, Nottingham, and Leicester.

A chapter towards the end of the book looks more closely at four churches of different denominations. One is the Free Christian Church (Unitarian) Crewe. This chapel had few members before moving to Beech Street, Crewe. Through its Minister, Mellor, giving support to railway employees intimidated by the Tory Railway Company, it saw a growth in numbers to about 300 and an enlargement of the premises was considered. Unfortunately, one of the chapel's benefactors withdrew his support and the chapel experienced great financial difficulties and went into decline. Its activities had helped launch an ILP branch, but at the cost of its own demise. Later, Unitarians attempted a come-back with a 'safer' person at its head.
This book gives an interesting glimpse of the struggles of earlier generations - their problems and hopes. The struggle goes on!

- George Cope