The battle hymns of the public

by
04 October 2013

The recent discovery of what is believed to be the only existing copy of The National Chartist Hymn Book suggests that the UK version of the civil-rights movement could also be the forerunner of liberation theology. Jemima Thackray investigates

 

Heart and voice: Dr Michael Sanders with the tiny hymn-book

Heart and voice: Dr Michael Sanders with the tiny hymn-book

IN THE back room of Todmorden Public Library, in West Yorkshire, the historian Michael Sanders was rooting through three big, dusty boxes looking for something important. He had received a tip-off from a local historian about a certain document that, if found, would radically shake up his field of academic research.

"In the best traditions of TV and film-making," Dr Sanders, a senior lecturer in 19th-century writing at the University of Manchester, says, "there was nothing useful in the first box, and nothing in the second box. I got down to the penultimate item in the third and final one - a cigar-box lid." Nestling inside was a tiny, fragile pamphlet: what is believed to be the only surviving copy of The National Chartist Hymn Book.

Chartism was a national movement for political reform which began in the late 1830s, drawing most of its support from working class artisans such as shoe-makers and weavers. But, unlike previous radical movements, which were of-ten associated with atheism, Chartism was strongly linked with Christianity.

Historians know that their mass-meetings began with hymns, sung from one of the three official Chartist hymn-books, but, until Dr Sanders's discovery, not a single copy of one of these documents had been found.
 

THE story of this small hymn-book's revival continued when the singer-songwriter Canon Garth Hewitt saw its picture in the Church Times (News, 14 January 2011), and asked Dr Sanders to send him the lyrics. "They were very interesting - poetic - and so strong in their campaigning," Canon Hewitt says, explaining why he then felt inspired to set them to music for his latest album "Liberty is Near!" (Feature, 23 August).

"It was also the time of the Occupy movement," he says. "Having an office close to St Paul's Cathedral, I used to wander among the demonstrators, and listen to some of the comments. Many reflected what I would call a biblical attitude of justice: challenging our community, and especially our economic system, to be for the benefit of the 99 per cent, and not just the one per cent."

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In creating the album, he wrote original music for some of the hymns, and chose to set several of the others to existing Christian tunes such as Amazing Grace and Toplady - a creative decision that was fitting because, as Dr Sanders says, during the 19th century hymn-singing was a more spontaneous affair: "Congregations possessed a repertoire of tunes from which they would select one appropriate to the metrical form of a given hymn."
 

THE Chartists may have used conventional melodies, but their words are far from meditations on the crucifixion, the nativity, or heaven and hell, or any other traditional theme of Victorian hymnody. Instead, they are political rallying cries written by working-class men calling urgently for social justice.

Several of them even refer directly to the Charter, the list of six demands from which the movement took its name. They were: universal male suffrage; the secret ballot; equal electoral constituencies; the abolition of property qualification for MPs; payment of MPs, to enable poor men to stand; and annual elections.

One of the hymns contains a very different incitement from the conventional call for Christian believers to spread the gospel:

Sons of Poverty assemble. . .
Swell your ranks, augment your numbers,
Spread the Charter far and wide!

These lines also hint at the crucial Chartist tactic of organising large gatherings in public places. In 1839, for example, 7000 iron-workers marched from the Welsh valleys into Newport, resulting in the deaths of at least 22 Chartists at the hands of government soldiers, in the bloodiest encounter between civilians and the army for the past two centuries.

The Chartists also used non-violent methods, and were famous for their mass petitions presented to Parliament, comprising millions of signatures. The petition of 1842, for example, had been signed by 3,317,752 people.

This was more than three times the size of the electorate at the time, a voting body made up of only the privileged classes - most of whom believed that the Chartist demands could bring down civilisation itself.

The very MPs who continually managed to repel the Chartists' demands are identified in the acerbic lines of one hymn:

How long shall babes of tender years
Be doomed to toil for lazy Peers-
The locusts of our land.

THE Chartist hymns were not only bold in condemning those who perpetrated injustice: they were also explicit about its consequences for ordinary working people. The same hymn speaks of the "unceasing toil with galling chains . . . for Moloch reigns", where the allusion to a Hebrew king who demanded child sacrifice refers to the child exploitation in factories during the 1800s.

It was terrible hardships such as these that compelled so many working men to join the Chartists and fight for equality - men such as Richard Pilling, an uneducated Lancashire weaver who became one of the movement's leaders. Arrested after the 1843 General Strike, the impassioned speech he made at his trial shows just how much his suffering was a spur to action: 

I am somewhere about 43 years of age. I was asked last night if I were not 60. Suppose, gentleman of the jury, that any of you had a wife and six helpless children depending on your exertions, and suppose that one reduction after another took place in our wages until the remaining portion scarcely proved sufficient to provide. . . that your sorrowful wife saw her dear children dying almost for want of the common necessities of life. How would you feel? I was 20 years among the handloom weavers and ten years in the factory, and yet the longer and harder I have worked, the poorer and poorer I have become until at last I am nearly exhausted.

LIKE Parliament, the Church of England is also subject to criticism in the hymn book. Chartism, though Christian in spirit, was robustly anti-clerical, and was opposed to Anglicanism as the official state religion. The Anglican clergy were important local political figures, often serving as magistrates, and were therefore regarded as colluding with a system of oppression. One hymn makes the Chartists' feelings clear:

For priests and lords and kings
To let their passions loose,-
And heedless of our sufferings,
Devour what we produce!

By way of protest, large numbers of Chartists were known to assemble at Anglican churches on Sunday mornings, having often sent a suggested sermon text to the vicar in advance, such as "The worker deserves his wages" (1 Timothy 5. 18), or others that presented the social gospel. Not only were these gatherings intended to assert the Chartists' moral authority: they were also attempts to reclaim the Church on behalf of the people they felt it should represent.

The very fact that hymn-singing was such an important part of Chartist meetings suggests that they were partially underpinned by an anti-Anglican mindset, because, in the mid-1800s, the Established Church was still very suspicious of such a democratic form of worship, which required the congregation and priest to say words at the same time. Hymns were not an authorised part of the liturgy.

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Not only was the hierarchy of the Church compromised, but hymn-singing was also perceived to arouse dangerous levels of emotion. In contrast, singing was an integral part of Nonconformist worship, and, indeed, there was a close relationship between Chartism and dissenting Protestant groups such as the Baptists and Methodists, although no official alliance was ever made.
 

ANY Chartist leaders were also lay preachers. One such was Abram Hanson, a shoemaker from the village of Elland, near Halifax, who is reported to have discovered his lay-preaching vocation after having a vivid dream about Oliver Cromwell. Waking up, inspired, he announced to his wife: "I just found out that the Charter is to be gotten by preaching and praying!"

At the same time, he declared that his message would not be "Christ and a crust, passive obedience and non-resistance. Let the people keep from those churches and chapels. Let them go to those men who preach Christ and a full belly, Christ and a well-clothed back, Christ and a good house to live in, Christ and universal suffrage."

It is clear from Hanson's vigour that he believed, as many Chartists did, that God was on their side. The hymns are full of lines such as, "God is our guide! our cause is just!" Dr Sanders concludes that "the overriding and oft-repeated message of the hymnbook is that Chartism is consistent with God's will."

Furthermore, although the Chartists never took any official theological positions, so as not to cause division among the movement (the only membership requirement was to subscribe to the six demands of the Charter), it seems as if the movement developed a theology of its own, that motivated much of their campaigning, and can be seen in the hymns.

One idea that comes through particularly strongly is the part played by God in creation, and the belief that a just God would have created a world that had plenty to go around.

"The National Chartist Hymn Book contends that the world, as made by God, comes with a guarantee of an ample sufficiency for every human being," Dr Sanders says. "Starvation and want are not the result of Malthusian natural checks to population growth, but the consequence of economic and political mismanagement [by the privileged classes].

"In the same way that God created a world of natural abundance, he also created human beings free. Political oppression, tyranny, and slavery are all represented as essentially anti-Christian."

One hymn states this plainly:
Crushed by oppression's heavy load,
In slavery and want we groan,- That such should be the will of God
We count it blasphemy to own!

THIS radical rhetoric in the hymns has led some scholars, such as the Professor of Social and Cultural History at Strathyclyde University, Eileen Yeo, to argue that Chartism was a precursor to certain forms of liberation theology, which began developing in South America during the 1950s.

While it is inspiring, there is also a pathos in looking back at the Chartist confidence that God would assure their victory, as history tells us that the movement had all but disintegrated by the second half of the 19th century, without having accomplished any of its reforms.

The failure of Chartism (and the perceived failure of God to come to its rescue) may perhaps have contributed to the increasing secularisation of the years that followed. A Chartist poet, Thomas Cooper, recalls in his autobiography how he once overheard a telling conversation between two starving stocking-makers: "'Let us be patient a little longer, lad. Surely, God Almighty will help us soon.'

"'Talk no more about thy Goddle Mighty!' was the sneering rejoinder.

"'There isn't one. If there was one, he wouldn't let us suffer as we do.'"

We now know that the optimism of Chartism, and its faith in God's ultimate justice, was eventually justified. Five out of the six points of the Charter are integral to our democracy today, partly because later movements for political reform were able to learn from the successes and failures of the Chartist experience. As one of the hymns (which Canon Hewitt has aptly named "God of the poor" on his new album) expresses:

Yet not in vain Thy children call
On Thee, if Thou art Lord of all.

A digitised version of The National Chartist Hymn Book can be found at: http://bit.ly/tZpOcW.

Liberty is Near! by Garth Hewitt costs £12.99, and is available at www.garthhewitt.org (and from the CT Bookshop: £11.69).

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