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Converting Britannia: Evangelicals and British public life, 1770-1840, by Gareth Atkins

11 September 2020

William Jacob looks at the effort to evangelise British public life

TO DISCOVER why and how Evangelicalism became prominent and influential in the Church of England and in British culture, this is a book to read. It is both refreshingly readable, and scholarly, shedding much new light on the development of Evangelicalism. The well-known heroes of the second generation of Evangelical Anglicans, William Wilberforce and Charles Simeon, are set in their wider religious, social, and political context.

Dr Atkins shows how Evangelicalism was both a grass-roots movement, and had privileged access to the corridors of power. Evangelicals pursued a vision of Britain’s global destiny by efficiently, even ruthlessly, networking in the great national institutions — the universities, the financial hub of the City of London, the Royal Navy, the East India Company, which established the British Empire in India, and the Colonial Office, in developing British colonial interest in Australasia and Africa. Atkins shows how they excelled in exploiting and developing traditional systems of patronage and lobbying to advance their protégés to places of influence, in the service of the gospel. He shows how they placed their people in the universities, and so in parishes, and also in politics, the legal profession, banking, great merchant companies, the Royal Navy, and colonial appointments.

A modest example was a poverty-stricken young Irishman, Patrick Brunty, who, arriving at St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1802, was taken up by Charles Simeon’s curate, Henry Martyn, who introduced him to the Evangelical great and good. Through their influence, he progressed via several Evangelical curacies to be perpetual curate of Howarth in Yorkshire, and father of the Brontë sisters. Evangelicals could also be ruthless in removing or silencing anyone who dissented from or challenged their vision.

Evangelical publicists were adept at engaging with new media of communication in printing and publishing, for distributing Bibles and tracts. Innovative approaches were also adopted to fund-raising and the formation of public opinion, including pioneering pressure groups. This not only attracted large increases in philanthropic-giving to advance their causes, notably the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Church Missionary Society, but also had a significant influence on 19th-century political strategies. Dr Atkins demonstrates how the world-engaging strategies of well-connected early-19th-century Evangelical clergy and laity changed the Church of England, creating a Church within a Church, and also changed the British world.

At £65, sadly, this may not be a book to buy, but encourage your public library to buy it. It ought to be in the library of every theological college and course.


The Ven. Dr William Jacob is a former Archdeacon of Charing Cross.


Converting Britannia: Evangelicals and British public life, 1770-1840
Gareth Atkins 
Boydell Press £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50

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