The Georgian Religious Experience

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Religious Controversy was Commonplace in Georgian Times

Thoughts for Writers of Historical Fiction

It’s always hard for a modern person to project him or herself back into the mindset of people from the past. Our experience can never be the same as theirs. Nowhere is this more obvious than in matters of religious belief and practices.

People in the eighteenth century took religious matters seriously. I don’t mean they all attended church services or even saw themselves as believers. Many did neither. My point is that the impact of religion on daily life in terms of education, moral teaching, laws and social customs, was far greater than it is today. It was not so many years before that the established church had held tight control over all laws and customs relating to marriage, sexual acts and personal relationships in general.

Our Georgian forebears were also far more knowledgeable than we are about the differences between the beliefs and practices of the many Christian denominations and sects. This is hardly surprising, since it seems likely only a few had ever had a serious conversation with anyone from a different religious tradition like Judaism or Islam. To most, religious questions came down to clashes between rival Christian groupings over the correct interpretation of the teachings of the Bible.[1]

If those of us who write historical fiction set in this period were truly aiming for authenticity, our books would make constant reference to all kinds of religious controversies of the day. They would also be unreadable by a modern, secular audience! Still, it’s as well to understand something of the religious feelings of the time. You never know when it might come in useful to add to the complexity of the plot or the tension in some key relationship.

In this post, I am going to try to make some sense of this complex pattern of beliefs and practices. Theological arguments are well beyond my expertise and interest, so I shall concentrate on the main distinctions only, leaving the differences within my groupings to another time. What this means in practice is showing the essential differences in belief and outlook between:

  • Orthodox Christians (Anglicans, Catholics and those close to them in matters of doctrine, such as Methodists and most other kinds of non-conformists). All these followed more or less the traditional Christian creeds.
  • Dissenters (Independents, Quakers, Unitarians, some Presbyterians and quasi-Christian Deists, like Thomas Jefferson). These rejected certain major traditional doctrines, such as the Trinity, original sin or the reality of hell.
  • Non-Christian Theists, Deists and advocates for ‘Natural Religion’. These groups rejected Christianity, but held on to belief in some kind of Creator.
  • Agnostics and Atheists.

I know these are huge categories and contain many important variants in each case, but I need to simplify enough to keep this post to a reasonable length. They will do to make the most important distinctions.

Tolerance and Intolerance

For most of us today, religious tolerance is a given. We have grown up with it, especially with regard to the many variations of Christianity. For our Georgian ancestors, tolerance in religious matters was still something only partially achieved and still insecure. The Anglican Church from Elizabeth I to the death of Charles I had been both monolithic and unquestioned in all matters of morality. Dissent existed, of course, but it was typically kept to a small minority, many of whom suffered persecution as a result. The Civil War changed that, as it did so much else. For a time, many variants on Christian belief existed, some more extreme than others. Charles II tried to return the Anglican Church to something akin to its earlier position, but his attempts were limited in their effectiveness. James II, eager to find a way to remove the many punitive laws from Catholics in the face of a hostile parliament, unwittingly opened the door to tolerance of all kinds. Despite the best efforts of so-called High Flying[2] churchmen afterwards, the genie was free. Dissent, non-conformity and all kinds of religious views spread across Britain.

The Day-to-day Importance of Religion

Today, we generally see religious belief as a matter of personal choice. This was not quite the same in the 1700s. Religion had long played a major part in the structure and government of the country. It was by religious beliefs and teachings that many moral and social standards were set and enforced. Party politics had some of its roots in religious differences too. Tories tended towards being conservative High Flyers, keen to re-establish a unified, powerful and truly national church as a way of preventing what they saw a a dangerous slide into republicanism and the consequent loss of their traditional privileges. Whigs tended more towards dissent, non-conformity and Latitudinarianism[3] in the church. They wanted parliament to set and enforce any necessary social or ethical standards, free from interference from the bishops of the Established Church.

High Flyers were thus the party of unquestioning loyalty to the Crown and its rights, the successors to the Cavaliers of the Civil War. During the reigns of George I and II, they were suspect as tainted by Jacobite views and a hankering to re-establish the Stuart succession. Many Dissenters and Latitudinarian Whigs saw themselves as successors to Cromwell’s Roundheads: the champions of parliamentary government, constitutional monarchy and freedom from arbitrary rule of any kind. Political battles were fought under religious symbols; religious disagreements slid into political fights. It was all very messy.

Orthodoxy

The orthodox religious position, for our purposes, covers all those who accepted the traditional teachings and views of the Western church, dating back to the Middle Ages and beyond. In this sense, the differences that caused the Reformation were internal and theological.

The Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Calvinists and even the Methodists and Baptists taught much the same kind of Christianity. In particular, they believed that God had revealed His requirements for achieving salvation through the Bible (and the teachings of the church, in the case of Catholics). They accepted traditional teachings and interpretations of sacred texts, for the most part, and difficult doctrines like the Trinity and original sin. An organised church was necessary to make sure that these revealed laws were interpreted and applied correctly to matters of daily life.

Dissenters

What I am calling Dissenters covers all those groups who accepted the bulk of Christian teachings, but ‘dissented’ from one or more important aspects of orthodoxy.

Most of these groups rejected the need for a formal church with ordained clergy and hierarchy. For them, it was enough to have the Bible as God’s teaching. Each man could read it for himself and reach his own conclusions on its precise meaning. ‘Priestcraft’ had, in their view, arisen as a way of subjecting ordinary people to the arbitrary demands of the church and its ministers. Some also denied the concept of punishment after death, seeing this too as invented by priests to frighten people into submission. An all-loving God, they argued, would condemn no one to everlasting torment. All would be saved.

In a similar way, Dissenters often saw the doctrine of Original Sin as little more than a means of ensuring people would be rendered dependent on church sacraments for their salvation. Since this doctrine originated with St. Augustine, several centuries after the time of Christ, they felt they had logic on their side. Jesus taught us how best to live. He did not exist to act as some kind of willing sacrifice to atone for a ‘sin’ committed by Adam alone, but visited on everyone else since then.

The other main area of dissent lay with the doctrine of the Trinity. This was rejected by Unitarians, most Quakers and many Independents. They pointed out that it appeared nowhere in the Bible and was contrary to common sense. One God meant what it said. Many Dissenters also denied the divinity of Christ, generally seeing him as only an inspired prophet and teacher. Thomas Jefferson, for example, the third president of the United States of America[4], produced his own version of the New Testament, removing all references to Christ’s divinity, the miracles and anything else that smacked to him of superstition.

Non-Christian Deists, Theists and Natural Religion

As a result of the scientific discoveries of Newton and the philosophical views of people like John Locke, reason and logic were seen by many as providing the only safe guides to understanding the world. Anything contrary to reason or observation – anything that contradicted what were coming to be seen as the unbreakable laws of nature – was inherently suspect.

That caused a huge problem for so-called revealed religions. Much Christian teaching depends on the acceptance of the supernatural and a God who intervenes directly in this world via miracles, ignoring nature’s laws in doing so.

Not surprisingly, a good many Georgians found this too much to swallow. Most did not go so far as to deny the existence of God, but they relegated Him to roles that did not involve flouting the laws of Nature. Deists or Theists accepted the notion of the universe being created by God – they could see no other way it could have happened – but assumed that He had set the whole thing in motion, then withdrawn from any further involvement. A few accepted some kind of on-going action via Providence, but in a way that seems to me to differ very little from our concept of luck.

Other thinkers were impressed both by the regularity and order of Nature’s laws on the one hand, and the human conscience as a guide to moral and ethical problems. For them, religion was best seen as a purely natural phenomenon: the expression of an ordered universe in which laws were clear-cut and man’s conscience was set within him by that same Nature to act as a guide. Indeed, so powerful did the idea of this rational Natural Religion become that some people used it as a template against which to measure Christianity and strip away what they saw as unnecessary accretions and superstitions. Others went the whole way and equated God and Nature as two names for the same thing, becoming Pantheists in the process.

Agnostics and Atheists

By definition, atheists see no need for any god, either as creator of the universe or teacher of correct behaviour. With no supernatural element allowed, heaven, hell, sin, punishment and life after death also disappear.

Atheists certainly existed in Georgian times. The difficulty is knowing how many there were. As in parts of America today, the term ‘atheist’ was used as a generalised term of abuse for those whose approach to religion was disliked. It was not always a specific description of personal unbelief. It was almost routine in the 1700s for churchmen and believers of every kind to describe their opponents as atheists, whether they professed such a viewpoint openly or not.

Some professions, like the medical profession, were thought to harbour an especially large number of atheists, but again it is hard to see what basis there was for such a statement. I suspect the reality was that there were far fewer committed atheists in the 1700s that the believers claimed, but probably rather more that hovered somewhere between agnosticism[5] and atheism than the pious liked to admit.

Summary

While we may exclude religious detail from our fiction, we should not exclude it from our thoughts about the past altogether. The Regency Rakes beloved of many writers offended far more against religious teachings than civil laws or even social norms.

Disapproval of adultery, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality and riotous living stemmed primarily from religious teachings translated into law or custom. Indeed, it was the general Georgian ambivalence towards any firm religious viewpoints that allowed the upper classes as much latitude in their modes of life as they had. Most Georgians probably attended some kind of religious service on a Sunday, if only as a sign of respectability. How many truly believed in detail in the doctrines of the church they attended, or tried to act upon them, is far less certain. Like today, nominal Christianity is usually just that: belief in name only, without any significant influence on daily behaviour.


  1. Most people learned to read via the Bible, so knew it intimately and considered themselves well-informed about what was written in it.  ↩
  2. High Flyers were those who wished to see the Anglican Church’s influence and status returned to its dominant position under Charles I.  ↩
  3. Latitudinarians were those member of the Anglican Church who favoured a more relaxed, tolerant and all-encompassing response to religious variety.  ↩
  4. Despite the views of today’s Religious Right in that country, the facts show clearly that the USA was not founded on specifically Christian principles. Many of the Founding Fathers had beliefs that were decidedly heretical or barely Christian at all; and the separation of church and state was designed to prevent any sect from using the coercive powers of the state to enforce their own beliefs on the rest. Most of the colonists had fled to America precisely to get away from situations like that.  ↩
  5. Using that term in its proper sense of those who refuse to come to any final decision on religious beliefs, due to lack of firm evidence.  ↩

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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2 Responses to The Georgian Religious Experience

  1. Very nice summary. I don’t write Christian fiction, but I always try to include some sort of religious angle in my historical romance novels. It’s usually more subtext than plotline, but to do any less would be inauthentic. E.g., the novel I have at the publisher right now, starts out in France at the beginning of the Revolution. How could I possibly ignore religion for that? For the most part though, I stick to 18th C American settings, where (I believe) rakish behavior would be a little more frowned upon. The… um…personal histories of my heroes reflects that.

    Question for you if your expertise extends to religious conflicts in American during the reigns of the Kings George. I know there was suppression of Catholicism, e.g., in many colonies you could practice it, but not hold public office if you were Catholic. Jews are always fighting an uphill battle, so that’s a given. But, was there any backlash against other religions? I’m always surprised how generally accepted Deism seems to be. Given the role the Evangelical preachers played in igniting fervor for the revolution, I would have expected more of a conflict between the two groups. Or, maybe they both just had bigger fish to fry.

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    • I’m not an expert in this field – or any other – but my own reading suggests that all kinds of Dissent, and certainly Deism, were much frowned upon by at least one segment of the established church in England: the so-called High-Flyers or conservative Anglicans. Nevertheless, in England they could never manage to enforce their view after King James II, trying to free Catholics from suppression, declared tolerance for most religious groupings (but not Unitarians, who had to wait nearly another 100 years to be freed from any legal constraints).

      What also helped Dissenters was that the Anglican Church was divided into the High-Flyers, very vocal but always a minority, and the easy-going Latitudinarians. The latter disliked anything that smacked of the kinds of religious persecution associated with Papists, as well as including a large and growing Evangelical wing who weren’t too far from Dissenters themselves.

      America was always going to be even more accepting, in part because the Colonies had in some cases been founded by people seeking to escape all religious persecution; in part through the freelance, entrepreneurial basis upon which groups of colonists had been attracted to certain states; and in part because the pro-British tendency of the Anglican Church, with King George III as its head, was a more important target. However, I would be careful about assuming that tolerance of Enlightenment ideas like Deism persisted long. The burst of evangelical fervour associated with The Great Awakening quickly produced its own types of bigotry and repression. Even today, many Americans believe their country was founded as a Christian nation. That is far from being the case, as even a cursory reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will show; to say nothing of the writings of many of the Founding Fathers themselves.

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