The Blagdon controversy is the name given to the dispute between
Hannah More, the conduct-book writer and prominent Evangelical,
and Thomas Bere, the curate of Blagdon, a village in the
Mendip hills in Somerset, where she had set up a Sunday school in 1795.
It began quietly as a purely local affair in 1799, blazed into national
notoriety in 1801, and petered out in the summer of 1802. It was the most
problematic episode in More's career, seriously jeopardising her reputation
as a loyalist. According to M. G. Jones, her most substantial
biographer, the controversy centred on two issues: ‘ whether the lower
orders should be educated, and if so, by whom?’, and ‘Was Miss More a
Methodist? Were her schools Methodist schools? Had she established
them with or without the consent of the clergy in whose parishes the
schools were set up?’ To Ford K. Brown the controversy ‘was at first
simply a dispute between a country parson and Mrs Hannah More over
the alleged “Methodism” of the teacher of one of her schools”. However,
‘taken up by the London journals, it roused national interest when the
Orthodox party saw it correctly as a symbol of Evangelical aggression’.
Brown's analysis is part of his controversial thesis in which the Evangelicals
are portrayed as an almost Leninist vanguard movement, intent on a
fundamental revolution in Church and Nation. More recently, however,
attention has focused on the gender issues behind the controversy. Viewed
from this perspective, More has been seen as the embodiment of a
revisionist female ideology, replacing the accommodating female ideal
with an activist model: hence the virulent chauvinism of her opponents'
attacks. Though the gender aspect of the controversy will be briefly
mentioned, and its importance acknowledged, this article focuses on the
theological and ecclesiological factors which, with the partial exception of
Brown's tendentious account, have been neglected in previous studies.
These are the light thrown on the inadequacies of diocesan structures; the
particular problems of the Mendip parishes; the issues dividing
Evangelicals and High Churchmen; the tensions between the Church and
Methodism; the rival, but overlapping, agendas of Evangelical Sunday
school pioneers and itinerant Methodist preachers; and ultra-loyalist
fears of a cultural attack waged by William Wilberforce and his associates,
interpreted as a front for ‘Jacobinism’. Three questions are posed about
the controversy, all of which centre around Evangelical–High Church
relationships. What aspects of More's work in the Mendips particularly
disturbed some High Churchmen? Why, given these facts, did other High
Church clergy rally to her defence? Why did her opponents retreat in the
spring and early summer of 1802?