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A radical and necessary move for democracy

15 August 2014

On the anniversary of the Chartists' attending church, Steve Parish examines their demands, and asks what has changed

ONE hundred and seventy-five years ago this month, many clergy had their biggest ever congregations, when the Chartists came to church.

The Chartist movement of the late 1830s and '40s arose from the "People's Charter", promoted by a handful of MPs in 1838. Its demands included universal (male) suffrage, pay for MPs, and annual parliaments. This led to mass rallies - one of which was depicted in the Channel 4 series The Mill this month as more of a wild party - and the establishment of a national convention.

Chartism unified a host of disparate radical groups, but the movement had its own strands, including Temperance Chartism and Chartist Churches, with their own hymns, some of which have been recorded recently by Garth Hewitt under the title Liberty is Near (Features, 23 August and 4 October 2013).

The Established Church was generally unsympathetic: the votes of the bishops had helped to defeat the Reform Bill in 1831, and fear of violent revolution was acute. The Church was undergoing its own reforms, as the Ecclesiastical Commissioners got to grips with pluralities, absentee clergy, and bishops' stipends. Universal suffrage was not on the agenda.

The Chartist Circular was blunt: "State clergymen are paid to preach passive obedience as the means of salvation to the poor." As for Dissenting ministers, they were "uncompromising advocates of tyranny".

A contemporary political image was that of the upas tree, a source of poison for weapons in Java. The tree gained a legendary reputation for destroying all life for miles around. The Northern Star, a Chartist journal, attacked the Tories for their support for the Church: "They trumpet in our ears the glories of a State Church . . . planted in our land like the Upas in the desert . . . blasting and destroying all that comes within its pestiferous influence."

THE idea of a "sacred month" (a general strike) was promoted for August 1839, but came to nothing. Instead, Chartists attended their parish churches in large numbers, asking for a sermon on a suitable text.

In Ashton-under-Lyne, for example, they asked the Vicar, the Revd Mr Handforth, to preach on James 5.1-6: "Ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you." Instead, they got the Curate, the Revd Mr Bowden, who took as his text Mark 11.17: "My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves."

One local paper reported, on the following Saturday, that "No sooner had the rev. gentleman finished reading his text, than they got up to a man and peaceably walked out of the church."

In Cheltenham, the Revd Francis Close argued that, whatever the justice of the Chartist claims, "the misguided measures which you have adopted in furtherance of these objects are unscriptural, illegal, dangerous to the well-being of society, and, above all, that they are calculated in the highest degree to defeat the purposes you have in view!"

THE saddest recorded example of an ungracious response is that of the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Edward Stanley. Taking as his text the requested "A rich man shall hardly enter the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 19.23), he praised the benefits of technology, and mill-owners' employing 1000 workers at £20 a year - he was on £4000. He then declared: "It is the same God who maketh rich and maketh poor."

He said that if the rich "have fed the hungry and clothed the naked, and ministered to those who are sick and in prison - which, be it remembered, the rich alone can do - then we know that Christ shall say unto them, 'Come, ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.'"

He also managed to apply his text to the poor, saying that, if they lived for themselves alone, "without thinking of others", then "you, no less than the rich . . . shall hardly enter into the Kingdom of heaven."

Memories lingered, and when Bishop Stanley consecrated a church in a working-class area of Norwich a couple of years later, he was met with a demonstration, and a shower of stones and half-bricks. 

THINGS were changing, however. The Revd Walter Hook, as Vicar of Leeds, may have been the first to be known as a "working-man's vicar". In 1842, seven Chartists stood as churchwardens on a slate, and were elected.

He later recalled: "I said that though of course I should have been better pleased had Churchmen been elected, yet I should trust those who were appointed to act with fairness, and give me their candid support and I should do the same by them."

It was not quite a bias to the poor, but Robert Lowery, a miner and a missionary for Temperance Chartism, who in 1837 condemned the clergy as "time-serving tools and obsequious slaves", by 1856 was saying that "a new race of earnest men devoted to the duties of their office have sprung up." 

CHARTISM collapsed in the 1850s, partly as economic wealth increased. But, today, the rich still grow richer; and disparity of wealth - nationally and globally - is surely more scandalous now than then.

Other than annual parliaments, the demands of the Charter were all met by 1918. Perhaps annual parliaments might still be an idea, given the freedom that a fixed-term Parliament has given the Government to attack the poor. Rather than envy of the rich, the "politics of envy" now seems to mean that we are to envy the poor and their undeserved benefits.

Part of the background to Chartism was the denial of relief to the poor unless they entered the workhouse, which was intended as a deterrent to claiming relief to reduce costs. The "bedroom tax" may be its modern equivalent, but there is no uprising, perhaps because the poor are now "the few" not "the many".

Universal suffrage is now an accepted right, but, when most people are reasonably well off, it will not bring justice for the poor, especially when policies are designed to keep them on the move, and not voting.

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