by Kate Gibson
Eighteenth-century sociability has often been seen as anathema to piety: it was a distraction from worship and a gateway to the immorality of card playing and drinking. However, recent research by historians Carys Brown, Naomi Pullin and Amanda Herbert suggests that conversation and visiting could be considered as aids to piety, by encouraging individuals to debate and reflect on religious doctrine and to share their struggles with their faith and receive encouragement. In northern towns, which were seen by many as a hotbed of social sins, individuals’ close proximity with those of different religions meant that everyday sociability was often the cause of conversion.
Many individuals refer to religious conversations with workmates, colleagues or friends as the beginning of conversion or encouragement to greater piety. Leeds bricklayer Benjamin Woolley (1796-1866) ‘got acquainted with a few Methodists, & though he did not leave the [Anglican] Church, he often mixed with friends not connected with the establishments. He began to meet in Band… attended cottage prayer meetings, & finally went to meet in class at Johnny Briggs Cottage’. The edifying obituary of Nancy Clowes (1775-1796), a Stockport factory worker, records that she first came into contact with ‘two young women who feared God’ when she was placed in the same workroom. ‘Nancy was much affected by their conversation, and would often weep. When they proposed for a few of them to meet, for singing and prayer, she gladly embraced this opportunity of waiting upon God with them.’ Overhearing and joining in conversation, outside of formal religious space, was the key to Nancy’s religious awakening. Kendal Quaker Thomas Rebanks related that ‘Two Strangers… Baptists by profession’ were encouraged to attend Quaker meetings after they ‘became intimate’ friends with their neighbours.
Faith Gray, the daughter of a York hatter, became exposed to the Methodist leanings of clergyman William Richardson when she met him at tea parties at her Aunt Mortimer’s house. On these occasions, the party sang hymns, exchanged books, discussed biblical passages and debated theological topics such as ‘the Witness of the spirit and perfection’ or ‘causes of declension’. Faith always referred to these occasions through the language of sociability: she ‘Drank tea’, had ‘an interesting conversation’ or a ‘profitable evening’. These were lay-led occasions which were not overly didactic, although usually in the presence of a clergyman. Gradually, Faith converted her whole family; in March 1776, three years after she first attended Aunt Mortimer’s parties, her siblings drank tea there, by May 1776 she recorded in her diary ‘Mr Richardson drank Tea with us the first time’, and, finally one week later ‘My Father & Mother at Belfries Church, all my Brothers & Sisters there too. I admired the goodness of God in thus removing prejudices.’ The family never left the established church, but the invitation to Mr Richardson to drink tea at their home signalled their decision to attend one particular church and adopt the evangelicalism of its clergyman.
Nonconformist clergy and lay preachers certainly recognised social occasions as a tool in the fight for believers. Catholic priest Thomas Penswick, stationed at Chester in April 1798, wrote that he had been advised by fellow priests ‘to form acquaintances with the Gentlemen of the town & this they say is the way to conciliate the minds of the Protestants & effect conversions.’ The biography of lay Methodist preacher Henry Longden, formerly a Sheffield razor-maker, stated that ‘In his visits to dinner or tea… his rule was to pray in every house, and to direct all his words to their edification… In large and mixed companies’ he endeavoured to ‘manage the conversation as that it shall not tend to injury rather than to improvement, and he could not endure the desultory chit-chat which is so frequently introduced, and which he called “murdering time”. To prevent these evils, he would call forth into exercise the talents and graces of some of those present; or he would introduce a leading topic of conversation, which would tend to general improvement’.
Social conversion may have been particularly significant for Methodism prior to the movement’s secession from the Church of England as it could expose individuals to alternative views without requiring a formal commitment. The Methodist emphasis on classes and prayer meetings outside of Sunday worship may have been especially attractive. The obituary of Faith Gray’s cousin Frances Pawson, a Methodist convert who died aged 72 in 1809, stated that ‘it was their Classes and other opportunities which attracted her, and suited a turn of mind that was peculiarly social’. But, the emphasis on social conversion was not confined to Methodists: as we have seen, it was employed by Quakers and Catholics. Anglicans also perceived visits as a way to inculcate good religious habits in their less pious friends. Cloth manufacturer Thomas Brancker berated himself for not attending to family prayers when his wife’s parents, the Wrights, came to stay. Although they attended double duty at St Paul’s one Sunday in June 1825, he stated ‘This evening we have not had our usual family prayers, for which I am really ashamed; we have certainly done wrong. They [the Wrights] are not accustomed to have them at home, but it might have put them into the good habit’. Literary scholar Jon Mee has found that evangelical Anglicans such as Hannah More and William Wilberforce encouraged their followers not to hide their piety in the service of appearing polite, but to use mixed company as an opportunity for conversion. The fact that gatherings in domestic households continued to have religious significance for those involved long after the Toleration Act suggests that religious sociability developed not only in response to the lack of sanctioned nonconformist meeting places, but was recognised as a useful and fulfilling religious practice in itself. Sociability was the gateway to more organised group worship and full conversion, particularly by exposing individuals to other denominations without needing to formally leave or join a church.
Carys Brown, ‘ Religious Coexistence and Sociability in England after the Toleration Act, c. 1689-c. 1750’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of Cambridge, 2018)
Amanda E. Herbert, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (London, 2014)
Jon Mee, Conversable Worlds: Literature, Contention, and Community, 1762 to 1830 (Oxford, 2011)
Naomi Pullin, Female Friends and the Making of Transatlantic Quakerism, 1650-1750 (Cambridge, 2018)
Heritage Quay, Huddersfield: WHS/12774 – Manuscript account by Jabez Wooley of the life of Benjamin Woolley, f.3r
Stockport: Extracts from the Memoir Book of the Stockport Sunday School (Manchester: J. Cleave, 1811), pp. 9-10, 13
Kendal Archive Centre: WDHCW/3/1/8, Thomas Rebanks to James Wilson at Darlington, from Kendal, 25 Feb 1759
York Explore: GRF/5/1, Diary of Faith Gray, 1764-1810, pp. 25-8, 31, 33-4
Durham University Special Collections (Ushaw College Library): UC/P13/2/163, Thomas Penswick in Chester, to Thomas Eyre, 9 April 1798
Henry Longden, The Life of Mr Henry Longden, (late of Sheffield), Compiled from his own Memoirs, from his Diary, and his Letters (Liverpool, 1813).
WYAS (Leeds): WYL1963, Diary of Thomas Brancker, vol. 2, Sunday 12 June 1825.