The State of the Field: New Directions in the Social History of Religion, 1700-1900

by Jeremy Gregory

The ‘Faith in the Town’ project held its second workshop on the afternoons of 14 and 15 January. The aim of the workshop was to place some of the emerging findings and early conclusions of the project within a wider timeframe, to situate our project alongside the on-going work of others in the broader field, and to gain feedback on our findings so far.

An upside of having a virtual workshop meant that we attracted over 60 participants, drawn from all over the world (with two from Australia joining us heroically in the early hours of their morning). The nine papers – grouped thematically on Epistolary Narrative and Family and the Body; Histories of Childhood and Care; Language and Textual Analysis; and Civic, Sociable, and Religious Space – ranged chronologically from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries, and geographically from England to America. We concluded with a roundtable, which I led, with stimulating contributions from Katharine Massam (University of Divinity), Carmen Mangion (Birkbeck, University of London), and Laura McCormick Kilbride (University of Cambridge), leading to a general discussion drawing together the findings of the project and the workshop.

The period 1700 to 1900 presents us with a somewhat unchartered terrain for the social history of religion. Though challenged, the still-dominant model influencing social history of the period 1700 to 1900 has been one of ‘secularisation’, where religion became increasingly marginal in social, cultural and political history, although there are debates about when and why it occurred. In Alan Gilbert’s still influential 1976 Religion and Society in Industrial England; church, chapel and social change, 1740-1914, for example, the northern industrial towns which emerged rapidly in the century after 1740 were prime incubators of secularisation. This has meant that, with of course some notable exceptions (such as Davidoff and Hall’s Family Fortunes), social historians of this period have usually seen ‘religion’ as a discrete and declining force, worthy only of mention rather than the focus of research.

A sampler by Maria Wood, 1832: Gallery Oldham

Researching alongside this, but almost on parallel tram lines which have rarely connected, are those historians working in what in some places is still known as ‘Church history’ or ‘ecclesiastical history’. As these terms indicate, the focus for these historians has been on the Churches as institutions and organisations, on clergy, and on formal theology, where the laity were studied by and large as (passive) recipients of these. There has been a great deal of research in this vein over the last forty years but little of it has made much impact on the way that social history has been written.

One of the starting points for our ‘Faith in the Town’ project was to further the dialogue between social historians and historians of religion. While not of course eliminating or marginalising the role of clergy, we wanted to shift attention to the lay perspective, looking outside churches and meeting houses to find evidence of faith in the workplace and the home, attitudes to time and space, and on issues of identity. We also wanted to explore the relationship between faith, urbanisation and industrialisation head-on, by focusing precisely on those northern towns which lay at the heart of Gilbert’s analysis.

One of the emerging contributions of our ‘Faith in the Town’ project has been to explore some ‘new directions’ in the social history of religion, questioning what the social history of religion is, and what sources we might use to study it. In some ways, our methodology and our findings will not surprise social historians of religion in earlier periods, and to a certain extent our conclusions suggest that some of the habits of mind, assumptions, and patterns of behaviour found between 1500 and 1700 continued well into the nineteenth century. But, we argue, this was more than persistence of older forms of belief and erstwhile types of activity. Rather, ‘faith’ could work with, and flourish in, the newer socio-economic and cultural contexts of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Twin handled patterned ceramic mug or loving cup, 1800-1850, Acc. 49.36: Gallery Oldham

To an extent that has even surprised us, our sources are much more imbued with lineaments of faith than we had assumed. Our northern towns were, and were frequently seen as, sites of opportunity for ‘Faith’, where religion both shaped, and was shaped by, patterns of sociability, work, domesticity, and business.  Historians of the Reformation have long studied the role of towns and cities as locales of religious activity in furthering (and sometimes hindering) the Reformation. Our ‘Faith in the Town’ project indicates how religion and faith continued to shape the lives of our urban dwellers well into the nineteenth century in ways which have yet been not properly appreciated.

Various issues and themes emerged in the workshop. One concerned source material, and how to read and interpret it. The project has investigated a wide range of material culture, including china and pottery, tapestries, prints and images, and household objects, and contributors to the workshop further showed how poetry and stained glass could reveal belief. We discussed how to interpret what might seem formulaic and conventional material and activity, evidenced for example in letters or routine acts of piety. These aren’t necessarily any less deeply held or significant than the religious pyrotechnics of overtly and obviously religious sources and behaviours.

One other area of debate surrounded issues of hermeneutics and theological literacy. Social historians of religion, of course, need to take the beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions of people in the past seriously, and on their own terms. This requires both an understanding of the theological distinctions and differences between religious groups as they existed in our period of study, and also imaginative empathy to understand the power of religion and faith to enable people to understand their lives and to interpret the world around them even when, and perhaps especially when, they don’t refer to it overtly.  

Image from the journal of Eliza Ann Morley, Borthwick Institute for Archives, MOU 5/3/1/1. Reproduced from the original in the Borthwick Institute, University of York.

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