‘such… a drunken Town I never before witnessed’: Piety and the Festival Calendar

by Kate Gibson

Some branches of Protestantism, such as Protestant dissent or Anglican Methodism, have often been characterised as having a sceptical view of concepts of holy time, and rejecting the older liturgical calendar of feasts and festivals as a hypocritical and popish superstition.  Many Protestant nonconformists and evangelicals argued that all times were equally sacred, and therefore that true piety lay in diligent daily practices of faith, not in occasional outbreaks of piety. Work on North American Protestant piety, by James Walsh and Leigh E. Schmidt, suggests that the reality may have been more complex, though. Schmidt argues that American evangelical Methodists did not entirely reject the concept of holy time and the liturgical calendar, but rather reappropriated it by substituting their own rituals and celebrations, which helped engender a sense of community and self-definition. New Year Watch Nights, in which the faithful gathered in chapels to pray together and mark the passing of the year, were particularly developed as a pointed alternative to impious festivities. This was also the case in Northern English towns, where for some groups, particularly Methodists, there was a pleasure in marking feast days in order to display their abstention from activities such as drinking. On a trip to Manchester on New Year’s Day 1828, hardware seller John Shaw, who had been brought up Presbyterian, married a Methodist and occasionally worshipped at a Congregational church, assured his wife that he had safely navigated ‘drunken folks’ and sought refuge in a Methodist Chapel, where he stayed for a missionary meeting ‘wch lasted till half past ten o’clock’. Shaw’s account indicates the perhaps polarised observance of feast days in Northern towns in the early nineteenth century when nonconformity was growing fast. Although Shaw depicted Manchester as ‘such… a drunken Town I never before witnessed being New Years day all the low orders devote that day to begging New Years Gifts’, he found that the Methodist Chapel was ‘lighted up’ and ‘quite cramed’ with people. Here we see two very different, but co-existing ways of celebrating the New Year; the older tradition of begging gifts alongside evangelical communal worship. Both groups marked the calendar by an absence from work – Shaw noted, after all, that ‘all the Shops’ were shut – but with very different senses of religious significance.

George Cruikshank, ‘January – New Year’s Eve’, etching in The Comic Almanack (1838), © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

These new incarnations were moments of religious and social significance that were not that far removed from the spirit of older festivals, particularly in their communal nature and the accompanying sense of witnessing divine power. Watch Nights, for example, can be interpreted as updated versions of older practices of fast and vigil before major festivals, such as those recommended in the Book of Common Prayer, and ultimately deriving from exhortations in the Bible and Protestant devotional literature that the pious practise spiritual discipline by staying awake, or ‘watchful’. Watch Nights were considered spiritually sustaining; it was the annual highlight for an anonymous Methodist diarist from Sheffield, who wrote at 1.30am on 1 January 1785 ‘Blessed be God he has Brought me to the Conclusion of another year and this has been a Good day to my Soul. we have had a Watch Night it was a Good time to me O Lord I praise thee that we concluded the year that is now Past and began the Present year in Prayer’. He emphasised the communal prayer and supporting solidarity of the Watch Night, stating that ‘I have this day along with his People Enterd into a Covenant with my God’, to improve his piety. Watch Night provided spiritual refreshment and motivation that would ideally sustain one’s faith until the next communal celebration. For the anonymous diarist, Watch Nights provided an intense, but temporary, burst of piety. On 16 January he reported being ‘troubled with Wandering thoughts this Morning at Preaching … I do not find that nearness in Prayer that I had on new Years day and a few days after’.

Other festivals, such as Whit and Christmas, were also appropriated and reworked by nonconformist groups. The journal of Methodist preacher R. Battersby indicates the similar combination of festivity and piety that marked Whitsun in 1821. On Whit Saturday he travelled to Oldham and ‘met with friends from Liverpool, Sheffield, Bolton &c exceeding comfortall [sic] and hapy to see one another’. On Whitsun the group got up early to attend a 6am sermon, at which ‘The congregation was good consisting chiefly of very hearty serious men and many full grown women very excellent singing’. This was followed by several more sermons, the last of which was ‘an awakening Sermon’ in Oldham market place, preached to ‘a very crowded congregation’. Battersby’s account dwelt most on the communal nature of the holiday; he enjoyed being in a crowd and gained sustenance and joy from meeting his friends. Holidays were an opportunity to hear visiting preachers, multiple sermons in one day, and to participate in a denominationally exclusive sociability that reflected the emphasis on spiritual friendship as a support to piety within many churches. Communal worship was considered helpful to both individual faith and the prosperity of a church, by invoking divine blessing. When Methodist stonemason John Nelson was invited to preach at Leeds at Christmas 1742, his coreligionists ‘advised me not to go till we had a day of fasting and prayer’. He went the day after ‘we humbled ourselves before the Lord’.

Anon., ‘The Rev. Mr Whitfield preaching at Leeds, 1749‘, © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Nonconformists use of particular days as designated times for prayer and reflection on God’s goodness and their own progress, is very similar to the function ascribed to holy days in High Church Anglican texts such as Nelson’s Fasts and Festivals, which argued that holy days were an opportunity for Christians ‘to humble themselves before God with Fasting and Prayer: Frequently to admire and adore the infinite Wisdom and Goodness of God in the Mysteries of our Redemption’. This suggests not only considerable similarity between denominations, but also a continuation of much older rhythms of piety. The temporal utility of feast and fast days – of allowing coordinated worship, a sense of support and inspiration from communal festivity, and acting as reminders of obligations to God – remained amongst nonconformists who placed a high value on communal worship and sociable piety, as well as on the relationship between faith and divine providence.


David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (1989)

Alec Ryrie, ‘Sleeping, Waking and Dreaming in Protestant Piety’, in Jessica Martin and Alec Ryrie (eds), Private and Domestic Devotion in Early Modern Britain (Farnham, 2012), pp. 73-92

Leigh E. Schmidt, ‘Time, Celebration and the Christian Year in Eighteenth-Century Evangelicalism’, in Mark A. Noll, David. W Bebbington and George A. Rawlyk (eds), Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles and Beyond, 1700-1990 (Oxford, 1994), pp. 90-109

James P. Walsh, ‘Holy Time and Sacred Space in Puritan New England’, American Quarterly, 32 (1980), pp. 78-95

Cadbury Research Library: Shaw/28, John Shaw, to Elizabeth Shaw, 6 Jan. 1828.

Sheffield City Archives: MD5716/18/1, Diary of an unknown Methodist, 1-2 Jan., 16 Jan. 1785.

Lancashire Archives: DDX 167/1, Journal of R. Battersby, ff. 1v-2v.

University of Huddersfield Archives, Heritage Quay: WHS/423, John Nelson, The Journal of Mr John Nelson, preacher of the Gospel…written by himself (London: J. Mason, n.d.).

Robert Nelson, A Companion for the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England: With Collects and Prayers for each Solemnity (London, 1744, 18th edn)

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