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
"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."
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:
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
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
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:
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:
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
"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."
hymn states this plainly:
Crushed by oppression's heavy load,
In slavery and want we groan,- That such should be the will of
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
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:
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