Religion in the 19th century

Throughout the Victorian age, religion was a dominant force in the lives of many. However, there was a growing seam of doubt.

The Protestant church of England was very powerful

  • The parson dominated the village. Until 1836 he received a tithe from villagers.
  • Social life for ordinary people revolved around choir and Sunday School outings.
  • Many employers insisted that their employees go to church.
  • Most people were members of the Anglican or Presbyterian Church, although there were some Catholics and increasing numbers of Non-conformists for example, Quakers and Methodists.
  • Until 1829, anybody holding public office had to make a public oath denying Catholic doctrines, which meant that Catholics could not be civil servants, Justices of the Peace or judges.

Religion still had a great influence over people's lives

William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce

  • After 1738, when John Wesley founded the Methodist Church, there were many other enthusiastic 'revivals' in the 19th century when communities 'revived' religious fervour.
  • Religion inspired reformers such as William Wilberforce and Dr Barnardo.
  • After 1833, 'High Churchmen' restored the churches, decorated them with flowers and candles, and held services with lots of colourful ritual.
  • On Census Day, 30 March 1851, 7 million people - that's 40 per cent of the population - went to church.
  • In 1865, William Booth formed the Salvation Army, and set up hostels and a scheme to help the unemployed. By 1900, the Salvation Army had served 27 million meals and lodged 11 million homeless people.
  • By 1900, a tenth of adults had 'signed the pledge' to abstain from alcohol.
  • By 1900, there were more than 60,000 missionaries from Britain working overseas.
  • The Victorian era is famous for being prim and proper, even though there was a seedy 'underworld' of prostitution, drugs and crime in the 'wrong' parts of town.
  • The book Das Leben Jesu (1835), by the German theologian David Strauss, which denied the miracles of Jesus, damaged the faith of many Victorians.
  • Karl Marx, who wrote the Communist Manifesto described religion as "the opiate of the masses" ie a trick to keep the poor in their place.
  • Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) seemed to disprove creation (the belief that God created the world and that it had started with Adam and Eve), and substituted the new idea of 'evolution'.