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The historiography of religion in modern Britain has been dominated in recent years by controversy over the sociological theory of secularization. This review of the literature on secularization in modern Britain traces its apparent persuasiveness in part to assumptions about religious decline and renewal which are central to Christian soteriology. Recognition of the nature of secularization theory discloses a monolithic notion of religion itself. Closer attention to the complexity of religious experience may yield an account of religion more attuned to the contours of social change in modern Britain.


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King's College, Cambridge CB2


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1 Buckley, M. J., At the origins of modern atheism (New Haven, CT, 1987); Berman, D., A history of atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (London, 1988); Hunter, M. and Wootton, D., eds., Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment (Oxford, 1992).

2 The careers of many of the early nineteenth-century radical orators demonstrate a telling intersection of religious heterodoxy and radical political views: see for example Taylor, Robert and Carlile, Richard, in E. Royle, Victorian infidels: the origins of the British secularist movement, 1791–1866 (Manchester, 1974), pp. 3843. But there were certainly others whose political radicalism sat quite easily beside Christian orthodoxy: cf. Lyon, E. Groth, Politicians in the pulpit: Christian radicalism in Britain from the fall of the Bastille to the disintegration of Chartism (Aldershot, 1999); see also some of the case studies in Larsen, T., Crisis of doubt: honest faith in nineteenth-century England (Oxford, 2006).

3 The OED gives the first usage of the word ‘secularization’ in the sociological sense in 1863, in an essay by E. A. Bond in the Fine Arts Quarterly on the history of art; Lecky, W. H., two years later, used it in his History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism (2 vols., London, 1865), i, in the phrase ‘that general secularisation of the European intellect’. Religiously motivated sociological surveys would include most famously Mearns, A. S., The bitter cry of outcast London (London, 1883), and its successor volume, ‘Light and shade’: pictures of London life (London, 1885); Booth, W., In darkest England and the way out (London, 1890); and the Religious influences volumes of Booth, C., Life and labour of the people in London (9 vols., London, 1892–7).

4 Brown, C. G., The death of Christian Britain: understanding secularisation 1800–2000 (London, 2001; new edn, 2009), p. 30.

5 Cf. Symondson, A., ed., The Victorian crisis of faith (London, 1970); Jay, E., Faith and doubt in Victorian Britain (London, 1986); Helmstadter, R. J. and Lightmann, B., eds., Victorian faith in crisis: essays on continuity and change in nineteenth-century religious belief (London, 1990); and, for a corrective, Larsen, Crisis of doubt.

6 Wickham, E. R., Church and people in an industrial city (London: 1957), p. 14; idem, Encounter with modern society (London, 1964), p. 35.

7 Cf. Inglis, K. S., Churches and the working classes in Victorian England (London, 1963), pp. 326–7.

8 Wickham, Church and people, p. 151.

9 See the summary presented in Chadwick, Owen, The Victorian church, i (London, 1966), pp. 363–6; also Coleman, B. I., The Church of England in the mid-nineteenth century: a social geography (London, 1980).

10 Inglis, K. S., ‘Patterns of religious worship in 1851’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 11 (1960), pp. 7486; Pickering, William, ‘The 1851 religious census: a useless experiment?’, British Journal of Sociology, 18 (1967), pp. 382407; Thompson, David, ‘The 1851 religious census: problems and possibilities’, Victorian Studies, 11 (1967), pp. 8797.

11 The ‘classic’ account came to be regarded as Wilson, B. R., Religion in secular society: a sociological comment (London, 1966), but even the theologians had caught the mood: Cox, H., The secular city: secularization and urbanization in theological perspective (London, 1966), and Altizer, T., ed., Towards a new Christianity: readings in the death of God (New York, NY, 1967), though see Cox's own admission that he was wrong in idem, Fire from heaven: the rise of Pentecostal spirituality and the reshaping of religion in the twenty-first century (London, 1996), pp. xvxvii.

12 Currie, R., Gilbert, A. D., and Horsley, L., Churches and churchgoers: patterns of church growth in the British Isles since 1700 (Oxford, 1977).

13 Gilbert, A. D., Religion and society in industrial England: church, chapel and social change, 1740–1914 (London, 1976), p. 142.

14 Thompson, E. P., The making of the English working class (London, 1963), p. 411.

15 E.g. Joyce, P., Work, society and politics: the culture of the factory in later Victorian England (London, 1980); Laqueur, T. W., Religion and respectability: Sunday Schools and working-class culture, 1780–1850 (New Haven, CT, 1976).

16 J. Hart, ‘Religion and social control in the mid-nineteenth century’, in Donajgrodzki, A. P., ed., Social control in nineteenth-century Britain (London, 1977).

17 Lee, R., Rural society and the Anglican clergy, 1815–1914: encountering and managing the poor (Woodbridge, 2006); idem, The Church of England and the Durham coalfield: clergymen, capitalists and colliers (Woodbridge, 2007).

18 Lee, , Rural society and the Anglican clergy, p. ix.

19 Ibid., p. 56.

20 Cox, J., The English churches in a secular society: Lambeth, 1870–1930 (Oxford, 1982).

21 McLeod, D. H., ‘New perspectives on Victorian working-class religion: the oral evidence’, Oral History, 14 (1986), pp. 3149; Williams, S. C., Religious belief and popular culture in Southwark, c. 1880–1939 (Oxford, 1999).

22 Brown, C. G., ‘Did urbanization secularize Britain?’, Urban History Yearbook (1988), pp. 111.

23 Snell, K. D. M. and Ell, P. S., Rival Jerusalems: the geography of Victorian religion (Cambridge, 2000).

24 Smith, M. A., Religion in industrial society: Oldham and Saddleworth, 1740–1865 (Oxford, 1994; rev. edn, 2007).

25 McLeod, D. H., Class and religion in the late Victorian City (London, 1974); Cox, The English churches in a secular society; Green, S. J. D., Religion in the age of decline: organization and experience in industrial Yorkshire, 1870–1920 (Cambridge, 1996); Williams, Religious belief.

26 See particularly ch. 3, ‘The salvation economy’, in Brown, The death of Christian Britain.

27 Brown, ‘Did urbanization secularize Britain?’, was one of the first contemporary historians to speak of the ‘massive institutional revival’ of the churches in Victorian Britain: p. 8.

28 A generation of British students was schooled in the ‘crisis’ perspective by the immensely readable Chadwick, W. O., The secularization of the European mind in the nineteenth century (Cambridge, 1975); but see, for example, Atkin, N. and Tallett, F., Priests, prelates and people: a history of European Catholicism since 1750 (Oxford, 2003), esp. pp. 110–20, for a brief account of the post-Napoleonic religious revival in France.

29 The most impressive evidence undoubtedly remains the national church membership series, and rites of passage figures, recorded exhaustively in Currie, Gilbert, and Horsley, Churches and churchgoers.

30 Walford, R. A., The growth of ‘New London’ in suburban Middlesex (1918–1945) and the response of the Church of England (Lewiston, NY, and Lampeter, 2007); see, for example, the table on electoral rolls at pp. 425–6.

31 McLeod, Hugh, The religious crisis of the 1960s (Oxford, 2007), p. 1; Yates, Nigel, Love now, pay later? Sex and religion in the fifties and sixties (London, 2010).

32 See for example Bruce, S., God is dead: secularization in the West (Oxford, 2002), but also Secularization: In defence of an unfashionable theory (Oxford, 2011).

33 Green, S. J. D., The passing of Protestant England: secularisation and social change, c. 1920–1960 (Cambridge, 2011), pp. 412. Notwithstanding this – or perhaps because of it – Green's analysis of the complexity of religious belief and practice, and of the impossibility of bracketing off religious history from other aspects of historical understanding, is an immensely sophisticated and rich contribution to the scholarship. Much of what follows here is anticipated in Green's study, which, however, was read after my first draft was written.

34 McLeod, D. H. and Ustorf, W., The decline of Christendom in Western Europe, 1750–2000 (Cambridge, 2003); but also see Larsen, T., ‘Dechristendomization as an alternative to secularization: theology, history, and sociology in conversation’, Pro Ecclesia, 15 (2006), pp. 320–37.

35 An early critique of the use of the returns was Pickering, ‘The 1851 religious census’. Publication of the detailed returns is enabling useful county by county comparisons. There are too many editions to list here, but a valuable if somewhat uneven coupling is, for example, Watts, M., ed., Religion in Victorian Nottinghamshire: the religious census of 1851 (Nottingham, 1988), and Tranter, M., ed., The Derbyshire returns to the 1851 religious census (Chesterfield: Derbyshire Record Society, xxiii, 1995).

36 See McLeod, ‘New perspectives’, and Williams, Religious belief, drawing on the archive of oral material at Essex University. Stephen Parker, in a short study of church life in Birmingham during the Second World War, nevertheless used some fresh oral material, and this suggests that there is more to be made of oral evidence for the post-1945 situation: Parker, S. E., Faith on the home front: aspects of church life and popular religion in Birmingham, 1939–1945 (Bern, 2005).

37 Probably most historians would lay the emphasis on Marx rather than Feuerbach, but the first move in this strategy of interpretation was really made by Feuerbach. Amongst various works on Feuerbach, the one I have found most useful is Harvey, V. A., Feuerbach and the interpretation of history (Cambridge, 1995).

38 The theological and philosophical fragility of such views was exposed forcefully in Milbank, J., Theology and social theory: beyond secular reason (Oxford, 1990), and also, more recently, inter alia, in Taylor, C., A secular age (Cambridge, MA, and London, 2007).

39 Ward, W. R., The Protestant evangelical awakening (Cambridge, 1992); and also Faith and faction (London,1993), esp. chs. 5 and 10; see also J. D. Walsh, ‘The origins of the evangelical revival’, in G. V. Bennett and J. D. Walsh, eds., Essays in modern English church history (London, 1966), and especially pp. 148–53.

40 This is a point tellingly made by Dominic Erdozain, in a study of the transformation of the language of sin deployed by evangelical preachers in the course of the nineteenth century, as they seemingly ‘secularized’ sin into a series of social abuses such as the vice of drink: idem, ‘The secularisation of sin in the nineteenth century’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 62 (2011), pp. 59–88. His argument parallels mine, but is by no means identical.

41 Italics inserted.

42 Wilberforce, W., A practical view of the prevailing religious system (9th edn, London, 1797), p. ii.

43 The original quotation came from a long letter to an unnamed clerical correspondent, dated 19 Aug. 1785, ‘On the church’, quoted and edited by Robert Southey in his Life of Wesley (London, 1820; 1889 edn, London), p. 516; Max Weber quoted it in turn from Southey in The Protestant ethic and the spirit of Capitalism (English trans., London, 1930; London, 1976 edn), p. 174, whence it has appeared in numerous anthologies and websites.

44 Cf. Milbank, Theology and social theory, p. 139: ‘Secular reason claims that there is a “social” vantage point from which it can locate and survey “religious” phenomena. But it has turned out that assumptions about the nature of religion themselves help to define the perspective of this social vantage.’

45 See Finney, C., Lectures on revivals of religion (London, 1835); also McLoughlin, W. G., Modern revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York, NY, 1959).

46 Cf. Harding, S. F., The book of Jerry Falwell: fundamentalist language and politics (Princeton, NJ, 2000).

47 Bruce, S., ‘Secularisation, church and popular religion’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 62 (2011), pp. 543–61.

48 Brown, The death of Christian Britain, pp. 30–4.

49 Jenkins, Tim, Religion in English everyday life (New York, NY, 1999).

50 Laudable, though now somewhat dated, attempts at this include Obelkevich, J., Religion and rural society: South Lindsey, 1825–1875 (Oxford, 1976), and Urdank, A. M., Religion and society in a Cotswold Vale: Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, 1780–1865 (Berkeley, CA, 1990).

51 Parry, J. P., Democracy and religion: Gladstone and the Liberal party, 1867–1875 (Cambridge, 1986); Biagini, E., Liberty, retrenchment and reform: popular liberalism in the age of Gladstone, 1860–1880 (Cambridge, 1992); Matthew, H. C. G., Gladstone, 1809–1874 (Oxford, 1986), and idem, Gladstone, 1875–1898 (Oxford, 1995); Bebbington, D., The mind of Gladstone: religion, Homer, and politics (Oxford, 2004). From a quite different stable, but equally alert to the central importance of religion in British modern history is Cowling, M., Religion and public doctrine in modern England (3 vols., Cambridge, 1980–2001). It is of course also impossible not to mention the influence of Jonathan Clark's work, covering largely an earlier period but with significant implications for the nineteenth century: English society, 1660–1832: religion, ideology and politics during the Ancien Regime (2nd edn, Cambridge, 2000). A brief general account of Victorian political thought which, influenced partly by some of these studies, does place religion at the centre is Jones, H. S., Victorian political thought (Basingstoke, 2000).

52 A fascinating fusion of literary criticism, theology, and legal history which certainly points the way to further studies is Schramm, J.-M., Testimony and advocacy in Victorian law, literature and theology (Cambridge, 2000). The relationship of religion and municipal culture was central to Morris, J. N., Religion and urban change: Croydon, 1840–1914 (Woodbridge, 1992), even if it remained somewhat too indebted to an older interpretation of secularization; influential behind the reading of municipal culture offered there was Cannadine, D., ‘The transformation of civic ritual in modern Britain: the Colchester oyster feast’, Past and Present, 94 (1982), pp. 107–30.

53 Garnett, J., Grimley, M., Harris, A., Whyte, W., and Williams, S., eds., Redefining Christian Britain: post-1945 perspectives (London, 2006); Katznelson, I. and Jones, G. Stedman, eds., Religion and the political imagination (Cambridge, 2010).

54 B. Martin, ‘Dark materials? Philip Pullman and children's literature’, in Garnett et al., eds., Redefining Christian Britain, p. 187.

55 Buckley, At the origins of modern atheism.

56 Young, B. W., Religion and enlightenment in eighteenth-century England: theological debate from Locke to Burke (Oxford, 1998); Lash, N., The beginning and the end of ‘religion.’ (Cambridge, 1996).

57 The most influential formulation remains Smith, W. Cantwell, The meaning and end of religion: a new approach to the religious traditions of mankind (New York, NY, 1963).

58 Such simplistic categories ironically make it more, rather than less, difficult to understand in their own terms how ‘popular’ believers see themselves. This is exactly the point made, for example, by Elizabeth Brusco in her description of the way in which Colombian evangelicals do not see themselves as religious, but as people following a particular way of life; their use of ‘religion’ is almost always pejorative, and refers to the practices followed by Catholics: Brusco, E., The reformation of machismo: evangelical conversion and gender in Colombia (Austin, TX, 1995), pp. 1920. The distinction implied here between ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ echoes the polemic of Karl Barth against ‘religion’: for an introduction, see Gorringe, T., Karl Barth: against hegemony (Oxford, 1999), pp. 41–3, or J. A. Di Noia, OP, ‘Religion and the religions’, in Webster, J., ed., The Cambridge companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 243–57.

59 Williams, Religious belief, p. 13.

60 See his assertion that ‘man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’. Cultural analysis was therefore about ‘sorting out the structures of signification’: Geertz, C., The interpretation of cultures (New York, NY, 1973), pp. 5, 9. Geertz's assertion that the symbolic system of a society provides a densely textured map or model of its underlying relationships placed religious ritual as one amongst a range of cultural artefacts that included language, art and literature.

61 Ibid., p. 125. The whole of the essay from which this quotation is taken is vital as a source for Geertz's understanding of religion: ‘Religion as a cultural system’, pp. 87–125.

62 Asad, T., Genealogies of religion: discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, MD, 1993), p. 30.

63 Ibid., pp. 33–5. As Asad argues, ironically Geertz's very approach to religion as social symbol was itself a product of the religious history of the West, which had come to see religion as essentially a matter of symbolic meanings connected to general social order, and with generic functions of its own which could not be identified or confused with ‘any of its particular historical and cultural forms’: ibid., p. 42.

64 Cf. Joel Robbins's discussion of the rapid rise of Charismatic Christianity amongst the Urapmin people of Papua New Guinea, in Becoming sinners: Christianity and moral torment in a Papua New Guinea society (Berkeley, CA, 2004), and Webb Keane's exploration of the relationship of Calvinism, conversion, and sociality amongst the island of Sumba in Indonesia, in Christian moderns: freedom and fetish in the mission encounter (Berkeley, CA, 2007).

65 Baldwin, J. F., ‘The varieties of liturgical experience’, Studia Liturgica, 32 (2002), pp. 114. The works to which he refers are an essay by Hoffman, , ‘How ritual means: ritual circumcision in rabbinic culture and today’, Studia Liturgica, 23 (1993), pp. 7897, and Doty's, W. G.Mythography (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1986).

66 Schleiermacher, F. D. E., The Christian faith (Edinburgh, 1928); see R. M. Adams, ‘Faith and religious knowledge’, in J. Marina, ed., The Cambridge companion to Friedrich Schleiermacher (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 35–51.

67 The abiding difficulty of James's position in specifying the content of religious experience is underlined in Lash, N., Easter in ordinary: reflections on human experience and the knowledge of God (London, 1988), pp. 7183.

68 Entry for 16 Apr. 1870, Easter Eve, in W. Plomer, ed., Kilvert's diary, 1870–1879 (London, 1944), p. 26.

69 Entry for 2 Dec. 1866, in M. Smith and S. Taylor, Evangelicalism in the Church of England (Woodbridge, 2004), p. 209.

70 Williams, Religious belief, p. 131.

71 Lockhart, J. G., Cosmo Gordon Lang (London, 1949), p. 72.

72 John Betjeman, letter of 25 Mar. 1939 to Roy Harrod: Wilson, A. N., Betjeman (London, 2006), pp. 131–2.

73 Elie Halévy, The birth of Methodism in England, trans. Bernard Semmel from articles in French published in 1906 (Chicago, IL, 1971); see also Halévy, E., A history of the English people in 1815 (new edn, London, 1987); Thompson, The making of the English working class; Wearmouth, R. F., Methodism and the working-class movements of England, 1800–1850 (London, 1937); Semmel, B., The Methodist revolution (London, 1974); John Walsh, ‘Elie Halévy and the birth of Methodism’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 25 (1975), pp. 1–20.

74 See for example, Toon, P., Evangelical theology, 1833–1856: a response to Tractarianism (London, 1979); Nockles, P., The Oxford Movement in context: Anglican high churchmanship, 1760–1857 (Cambridge, 1994); Turner, F., John Henry Newman: the challenge to evangelical religion (New Haven, CT, 2002).

75 Colley, L., Britons: forging the nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, CT, 1992). Something of the fruitfulness of this recent area of enquiry can be gleaned from the broad time-frame surveyed by historians such as Wolffe, J., God and greater Britain: religion and national life in Britain, 1843–1945 (London, 1994); Claydon, Tony and McBride, I., eds., Protestantism and national identity: Britain and Ireland, c. 1650 – c. 1850 (Cambridge, 1998): Pope, R., ed., Religion and national identity: Wales and Scotland, c. 1700–2000 (Cardiff, 2001).

76 See, for example, Thompson, K., Bureaucracy and church reform: the organizational response of the Church of England to social change, 1800–1965 (Oxford, 1970); Brown, K. D., A social history of the nonconformist ministry in England and Wales, 1800–1930 (Oxford, 1988); Burns, R. A., The diocesan revival in the Church of England, c. 1800–1870 (Oxford, 1999).


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