Ecclesiastical challenges to state authority in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England

Kevin Hughes M.A. (Dec 2014)  Re-edited May 2022

Towards the end of the eighteenth century the death-knell sounded for the frivolous times of sexual and financial excess and indulgence synonymous with Georgian England. Evangelicalism led the change in Britain’s moral and social compass, advocating a more compassionate Christianity. The humanitarian elements of Evangelicalism transcended politics and amalgamated it with philanthropy, fighting slavery, child labour, lack of education and animal cruelty. Catherine Hall (1990) points out the simplicity of Evangelical views, ‘to reform manners and morals’ within the family unit.[1] Popular Evangelical writers such as Hannah More, created an unwitting challenge to authority at the turn of the century. On one hand she preached obedience to the authorities in her written work, but paradoxically put the family unit at the heart of her quest for moral regeneration, deploring excessive drinking, sexual corruption and over indulgence. It could be argued that this paradox developed because it was Britain’s plutocratic aristocracy that was underpinning familial breakdown by corrupt and immoral behaviour, demonstrated by the dichotomy of Britain’s non-meritocratic state. Britain’s ruling class set a poor example of how to behave.

As a reform movement within the Anglican Church Evangelicalism and its sin, guilt and redemption philosophy originally appealed to those with power and money, wanting to reform the Church from within and attack a wider social moral degeneracy and decay. The Evangelical influence on the lower and middle classes was to illustrate and enforce the corrupt and degenerate behaviour of the upper echelons of the social elite. A long term paradigm of Aristotelian deference was replaced with an element of questioning and challenge of the fabric and qualification of the ruling class. Hannah More and Victorian poet William Cowper outlined how a man was made not from what he had but how he acted and cared for his family.  This was a challenge to authority and the masculinity of the gentry and aristocracy. The philistine and sentient actions of the ruling classes could be seen as a contributory factor in their eventual downfall.

Whilst Wesleyan Methodists were known for their non-aggressive, anti-reform, politically conservative ideals, most still taught that Christ died for all of humanity, not just for certain classes of people. This theological Arminianism view was at odds with pre-1832 Reform Act and Britain’s autocratic ‘democracy’. Wesleyan Methodism adopted most of the beliefs of Arminianism. What started as an ecclesiastically driven moral guide turned into a spotlight of debased, debauched, depraved and decayed political aristocracy, demonstrating the desperate need for male suffrage.


[1] C. Hall, ‘The Sweet Delights of Home’ in A History of Private Life, P. Aires & G. Duby (eds.) (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990), 55.