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Nature and Modernity: J. C. Atkinson and Rural Ministry in England c. 1850–1900

  • William Sheils (a1)


The impact of industrialization and urbanization in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the Churches’ responses to it, in terms of meeting pastoral needs and devotional impulses, has produced an extensive literature since Owen Chadwick’s magisterial study of forty years ago. Much of that has focussed on the social mission of the Church, but the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species and the rapid transformation of parts of the physical landscape following industrialization and urbanization in the later nineteenth century also raised issues about humanity’s relationship to the natural world and in particular, for the purposes of this paper, the English countryside. Questions about that relationship have become even more pressing as industrialization has made a global impact and our use — and abuse — of the world’s natural resources threaten to deplete those life-giving assets upon which our future depends: clean air and clean water. Historians have much to contribute to the debate and the publication of The Oxford Handbook to Religion and Ecology in 2006 indicates the contemporary importance of the theme to theologians also.



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1 Chadwick, Owen, The Victorian Church, 2 vols (London, 1966,1970). More recently, Knight, Frances, The Nineteenth-Century Church and English Society (Cambridge, 1995) has provided a fresh survey of the Established Church. Green, S. J. D., Religion in the Age of Decline: Organisation and Experience in Industrial Yorkshire 1870–1920 (Cambridge, 1996) examines urban England at this time; the best study of rural England remains Obelkevich, J., Religion and Rural Society: South Lindsey, 1825–1875 (Oxford, 1976); Bebbington, D. W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, 1989) is the best survey of that tradition.

2 Williams, Raymond, The Country and the City (London, 1973), esp. 22158, 297315 ; Short, B., ‘Images and Realities in the English Rural Community: An Introduction’, in idem, ed., The English Rural Community: Image and Analysis (Cambridge, 1992), 118.

3 Gottlieb, R. S., ed., The Oxford Handbook to Religion and Ecology (London, 2006).

4 Atkinson, J. C., Forty Years in a Moorland Parish, 2nd edn (London, 1891). The third edition contained a memoir of Atkinson by his publisher, Macmillan, George : ‘A Memoir’, in Forty Years, 3rd edn (London, 1907), viixxvi.

5 See my article in ODNB [online edn, 2007],’Atkinson,John Christopher’ (1814-1900)‘, <>, accessed 10 July 2008.

6 Chadwick, , Victorian Church, 2: 151217.

7 Ibid. 151.

8 Ibid. 181.

9 Atkinson, J. C., The History of Cleveland: Ancient and Modern, 2 vols (Barrow-in-Furness, 1872–77), 1: 27879.

10 ODNB; Atkinson, J. C., Repentance: A Sermon (London, 1847).

11 Atkinson, J. C., A Sermon Preached at York Minster before the Judges of Assize, 9 March 1851 (York, 1851).

12 Atkinson, J. C., ed.,Cartularhim Abbathiae de Whiteby, 2 vols, Surtees Society 69, 72 (1879); idem, ed., Cartularium Abbathiae de Rievalle, Surtees Society 83 (1889); idem, ed., North Riding Quarter Sessions Records, 5 vols (London 1883–86); idem, History of Cleveland, dedication. For Middlesbrough, see Lillie, W., A History of Middlesbrough (London, 1968).

13 Atkinson, J. C., Sketches in Natural History: With an Essay on Reason and Instinct (London, 1861), 336.

14 Stainsby, M., More than an Ordinary Man: Life and Society in the Upper Esk Valley, 1830–1910 (Helmsley, 2006), 1722.

15 Yonge, Charlotte, The Daisy Chain (London, 1856); Evans, R.W., The Bishopric of Souls (London, 1844), a popular pastoral text reprinted five times within thirty years. For Evans, see ODNB.

16 Hammond, J. C., The Parson in the Victorian Parish (London, 1977), 13251 ; Haig, A., The Victorian Clergy (London, 1984), 28283.

17 Atkinson, , Forty Years, 4245 , Stainsby, , More than an Ordinary Man, 6669.

18 Stainsby, , More than an Ordinary Man, 121 ; Obelkevich, , Religion and Rural Society, 16872 . For the problems of the church in rural society more generally, see A. Digby, , ‘Social Institutions’, in Collins, E.J.T., ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales, 8 vols (Cambridge, 2000), 7/2: 146686.

19 For Jefferies, and Rawnsley, , see ODNB and accompanying bibliographies. Rawnsley was a founder of the National Trust.

20 The phrase is taken from Lowerson, John, ‘The Mystical Geography of the English’, in Short, ed., English Rural Community, 15274, esp. 15262 . It was coined by Terence Ranger in his study of African Christianity:’Taking Hold of the Land’, P&P no. 117 (1987), 158–94.

21 Atkinson, , Forty Years, preface, xi, 34883 ; for the importance of visiting, see Obelkevich, , Religion and Rural Society, 164.

22 Atkinson, , Forty Years, 34950.

23 Ibid. 368.

24 Ibid. 370.

25 Ibid. 348–82.

26 See, in this volume, Atherstone, Andrew, ‘Frances Ridley Havergal’s Theology of Nature’, 31932 ; Smith, Mark, ‘The Mountain and the Flower: The Power and Potential of Nature in the World of Victorian Evangelicalism’, 30718 . For the influence of Wordsworth on the Evangelicals, see Bebbington, , Evangelicalism, 8081.

27 Heaney, Seamus, Preoccupations: Selected Prose Writings 1968–78 (New York, 1980), 68 ; for walking and culture generally, see Wallace, A. D., Walking, Literature and English Culture: The Origins and Uses of Peripatetic in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1993), esp. 16699.

28 Allen, D. Elliston, The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History (London, 1976), demonstrates the extensive publication on natural history by clergymen, mostly of the Church of England; Atkinson, J. C., Walks, Talks, Travels and Exploits of two School-boys (London, 1859); idem, British Birds’ Eggs and Nests, Popularly Described (London, 1861). These were popular books with further editions, some of them capitalizing on Atkinson’s fame after the publication of Forty Years.

29 See Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James, Darwin (London, 1991), 48599 , for the immediate row; for overviews of the topic, Moore, James, The Post Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870–1900 (Cambridge, 1979); Brooke, J. Hedley, ‘Darwin and Victorian Christianity’, in Hodge, J. and Radick, G., eds, The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (Cambridge, 2003), 192213 . For Darwin’s relations with his own rector, see, in this volume, White, Paul, ‘Darwin’s Church’, 33352.

30 Atkinson, , Sketches , in which he refers to several articles published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research as well as standard theological works such as Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion, which had been reprinted several times in mid-century, and David Livingstone’s Missionary Journeys, published in 1857. See also the letter he wrote towards the end of the century, quoted below at 382.

31 Atkinson, , Sketches, 164.

32 Ibid. 174–75.

33 Ibid. 254–55.

34 Ibid. 192–93.

35 Ibid. 196.

36 Chadwick, , Victorian Church, 2: 7597 ; for a reference to the Colenso case being discussed at Danby, see Atkinson, , Forty Years, 1617.

37 Whitby, Whitby Museum, Literary and Philosophical Society, Atkinson papers, press cuttings.

38 Atkinson, , History of Cleveland, 1: 244.

39 Bebbington, , Evangelicalism, 14243.

40 For Maurice’s career, see ODNB.

41 See Morris, J., F. D. Maurice and the Crisis of Christian Authority (Oxford, 2005), 13061, esp. 15358 , for the appeal of his ‘universal Christian society’ to those of conservative views.

42 Eastwood, D., ‘Robert Southey and the Intellectual Origins of Romantic Conservatism’, EHR 104 (1989), 30831.

43 Sheils, W. J., ‘Church, Community and Culture in Rural England, 1850–1900: J. C. Atkinson and the Parish of Danby’, in Christianity and Community in the West: Essays for John Bossy, ed. Ditchfield, Simon (Aldershot, 2001), 26077.

44 Ashton, J., ‘Beyond Survivalism: Regional Folklorists in Late-Victorian England’, Folklore 108 (1997), 1923.

45 Atkinson, , Forty Years, 11115 ; quotation at 113.

46 Ibid. 69–72; for the establishment view, see Gomme, G. L., Ethnology in Folklore (London, 1892), esp. 19293 . Dorson, R. M., The British Folklorists (London, 1968), 266315 , shows that those who espoused this ‘evolutionary’ approach to folklore were losing their dominant position after 1891.

47 Atkinson, , Forty Years, 7678 ; Wilson, J. M., Essays and Addresses: An Attempt to Treat some Religious Questions in a Scientific Spirit (London, 1887).

48 Atkinson, , Forty Years, 7980 . For general discussion of this topic, see Winter, A., Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (Chicago, IL, 1985); Oppenheim, J., The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in Britain, 1850–1914 (Cambridge, 1985).

49 Sharpe, J. A., Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550—1750 (London, 1996), 27677, 283 ; Bushaway, B., ‘Tacit, Unsuspected but still Implicit Faith: Alternative Belief in Nineteenth-Century England’, in Harriss, T., ed., Popular Culture in England, c. 1500–1850 (Basingstoke, 1985), 189215 ; Davies, O., Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951 (Manchester, 1999), 23, 190.

50 eg. O’Leary, J. G., ed., A Countryman on the Moors (London, 1967); Burns, T.J., Canon Atkinson and His Country (Guiseley, 1986).

51 Atkinson, , Forty Years, 22526, 233.

52 Ibid. 352–53, 360–62, 370–71.

53 Ibid. 224.

54 Stainsby, , More than an Ordinary Man, 6370.

55 Atkinson, , Forty Years, 2829, 212.

56 Ibid. 26–31.

57 Ibid. 11, 19–27; Obelkevich, , Religion and Rural Society, 37.

58 Stainsby, , More than an Ordinary Man, 5458 ; Sheils, , ‘Church, Community and Culture’, 26568 ; Green, , Religion in the Age of Decline, 182200.

59 York, Borthwick Institute,V 1894/Ret. Danby.

60 Digby, , ‘Social Institutions’, 1470–71 ; Haig, , Victorian Clergy, 28796 ; Freeman, M., Social Investigation and Rural England, 1870–1914 (Wbodbridge, 2003), 62, 6768, 13358.

61 Atkinson, Forty Years, 15; cf. Obelkevich, , Religion and Rural Society, 33031 . But see Brown, C., The Death of Christian Britain (London, 2001), 4955 , for the vigour of cheap religious publications at this time. Atkinson himself started a parish magazine.

62 Atkinson, , Sketches, 295323.

63 York, Borthwick Institute,V 1894/Ret. Danby.

64 See Knight, , Nineteenth-Century Church, 150 , for an earlier example of this sense of failure; Haig, , Victorian Clergy, 28389 , for examples from northern upland parishes such as Danby.

65 Recent studies of religion in industrial England have challenged the long-term interpretation of secularization: Smith, M., Religion in Industrial Society: Oldham and Saddleworth 1740–1865 (Oxford, 1993), 274 ; Green, , Religion in the Age of Decline, 38083 , demonstrates the vitality of voluntary, or associational, religion in the later nineteenth century, an argument also developed nationally in Brown, Death of Christian Britain, 9—13.

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Nature and Modernity: J. C. Atkinson and Rural Ministry in England c. 1850–1900

  • William Sheils (a1)


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