Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 April 2000
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?
I wish to thank the members of the Modern Religious History Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and the Modern History Seminar, University of Cambridge, for the opportunity to deliver a version of this paper, and to benefit from their comments and criticisms.