THE extraordinary vitality of religious life in Victorian London is well illustrated by the range of activities flourishing at St Mary Magdalene’s, Paddington, in 1898. The list of what was going on seems endless: Bands of Hope, Bible Classes, and a burial club; debating clubs and a penitentiary for “fallen women”; free breakfasts and half-penny dinners; cricket and swimming clubs; an embroidery guild and a library; day schools and Sunday schools. There was even a “goose club”, whatever that was.
Alas, many historians of Victorian religion have failed to notice the significance of what was happening in St Mary Magdalene’s, as in countless other churches and chapels across London. Consequently, a narrative of religion in persistent decline throughout the late Victorian period has come to control both the scholarly and popular understanding of faith and life in the big city.
In Religious Vitality in Victorian London, Jacob offers an alternative narrative. So far from taking flight from the manifold challenges of the period, the Church responded with immense energy and tenacity of purpose, demonstrating a capacity for change not always associated with institutional religion. The evidence demonstrates that, in 19th-century London, the Church, far from failing, was ministering — and ministering not ineffectively — to the physical, material, and spiritual needs of those, especially the poor, whom it was there to serve. Especially the poor. Jacob shows that the Church in London was committed to a “preferential option for the poor” a century before that maxim was coined — even though the well-off maintained a strict social distance from the destitute.
This magnificent study is the fruit of extensive research. To that its multiple footnotes and vast bibliography bear witness. It will not be the last word on religion in Victorian London, but it will surely become the standard work on the subject for years to come.
Jacob begins with a wide-ranging account of the changing social, economic, political, and intellectual conditions providing the context of Victorian London’s religious life. Succeeding chapters, each a substantial scholarly monograph, focus on different aspects of the religious life of what had become “the epitome of a modern world city’’. Between 1837 and 1901, Jacob argues, the Church of England was revitalised. (The tireless Bishop Blomfield emerges as a hugely impressive figure.) Roman Catholicism in London punched far above its modest weight in numbers. The building of the colossal neo-classical pile of Brompton Oratory went ahead in the 1880s, despite the fierce objections of the Vicar of the adjacent Holy Trinity, Brompton, which, then as now, it overshadowed.
Religiously motivated movements for the moral and spiritual improvement of Londoners abounded throughout the period, some with names as long as their aims were lofty. “The London Society for the Protection of Young Females from Juvenile Prostitution” was one such.
Jacob provides an insightful account of the rise of Nonconformity in Victorian London. Subsequent chapters — on women and religion, on religion and social action, on religion and education — are rich in fresh perceptions and arresting detail. A chapter examining “new religious groups” offers vivid cameo studies of groups that contributed to the vibrancy of religious life in the capital, the Salvation Army being the most influential of these, the Catholic Apostolic Church the strangest.
Jacob maintains that — contrary to what they taught us, and by any reckoning other than that which merely tots up the numbers of those sitting under sermons on Sundays — religion in London thrived during Victoria’s reign.
He has surely made his case.
The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney, in east London.
Religious Vitality in Victorian London
W. M. Jacob