The English Protestant Churches since 1770

Politics, Class and Society

by Kenneth Hylson-Smith (Author)
Monographs X, 440 Pages


This book aims to describe and analyse the political and social thinking, attitudes and actions of the English Protestant churches since the late eighteenth century. It focuses in particular on how they have responded to the plight of the least privileged members of society – individuals and groups marginalised or placed at a disadvantage as a consequence of their ethnicity or socioeconomic circumstances. These have been the nation’s underdogs, the most powerless of its inhabitants, and this book explores the involvement of the churches in attempting to create a fairer society, from the anti-slavery campaign to the present day.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The anti-slave trade and anti-slavery campaigns
  • Chapter 2: The churches and society in a revolutionary era: c.1770 to the 1830s
  • Chapter 3: The churches and continuing massive social change: 1832 to c.1870
  • Chapter 4: The churches, politics and society in the transition to the modern age: c.1870–1914
  • Chapter 5: Two World Wars and an unsettled interlude
  • Chapter 6: The modern age: 1945 to 2000
  • Chapter 7: New century, new possibilities
  • Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • Notes
  • Index

← viii | ix →


This book breaks new ground; it fills a gap. It attempts to describe, analyse and comment on the political and social thinking, attitudes and actions of all the English Protestant churches from about 1770 to the present day. No previous work in this field has had such a broad sweep. A special emphasis is given to how the churches have responded to the plight of the least privileged, most deprived members of society – to individuals and groups marginalised or placed at a disadvantage in comparison with most of the population as a consequence of their ethnic, economic or physical status and circumstances. Throughout the ages, these have been the nation’s underdogs; the least politically and socially empowered of its inhabitants. The book likewise embraces such people in other lands, in as far as the churches in England have found themselves challenged to widen their sphere of social concern and action beyond their own borders.

The main focus of attention is not, therefore, Anglican and Nonconformist internal, domestic, theological and ecclesiological matters, or external issues that have impinged on the faith; all of which have occupied so much of the time and energy of the churches and their leaders at various times, and all of which typically command attention in general histories of the churches in England during the last two-and-a-half centuries. Such matters do not come into the reckoning except when they relate to, and are relevant to, the main theme and concern of the book.

I am especially indebted to Christabel Scaife of Peter Lang for her invaluable combination of professional expertise, sensitivity and efficiency in steering this book through the various stages of preparation for publication. She has been instrumental in making a potentially somewhat fraught process into a pleasurable experience. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →


The modern phase in the political and social engagement of the Protestant churches in England began in the latter half, and more particularly in the last three decades, of the eighteenth century and the first part of the nineteenth century.1 It was during that critical time of economic, political and social revolution in Britain, Europe and North America that new political structures were forged, a new relationship of the churches to the political institutions of the country began to take shape, and a number of ‘human rights’ issues were taken up in a serious and sustained way by a small band of dedicated Christians. Causes were championed, and struggles for the righting of social wrongs were initiated and then seen through to completion that were to draw Christians into local and national politics in an unprecedented manner. Such crusades set in motion a long and honourable saga of valiant efforts on behalf of severely underprivileged men, women and children in the homeland and in far-off territories.

In the first two of the causes espoused, the anti-slave trade and anti-slavery movements, it was not so much the churches corporately that undertook vigorous and sustained campaigns, but a few resolute enthusiasts. This continued to be the pattern for the Church of England until the latter half of the nineteenth century. To the fore among the pioneer Christian philanthropists were Anglicans, Quakers, Independents (or Congregationalists) and Methodists. Subsequently, as the nineteenth century advanced, the same cluster of representative denominational members took a leading part in mammoth endeavours to help ease the plight of those suffering from poverty, poor health and other disabling conditions, and the adverse effects of industrialisation, urbanisation and ‘modernisation’. But it was still almost invariably individuals, or small coteries of active Christians, who spearheaded attempts to bring about change. The churches individually or in union tended to come into the frame, and then only tentatively, after the spadework had been done, and after the champions of reform had cultivated a favourable climate of public opinion. Not infrequently these ← 1 | 2 → pioneer Christians were like voices crying in the wilderness. They were often ignored or even despised and maligned, until their cause became more respectable and acceptable.

Although this overall configuration changed, at first gradually, and then to a more pronounced extent as the nineteenth century progressed and came to an end, much of the political involvement, and many of the movements to ameliorate or eliminate social ills were still largely the result of the thinking and action of outstanding charismatic men and women. In the course of the twentieth century, the churches as such began to be more involved in attempts to hammer out appropriate theologies, and to put such ideology into practice. The various ramifications of this process will be examined in some detail, as the church scene changed significantly throughout the late nineteenth century and during the first half of the twentieth century.

In the most recent period, from the end of the Second World War onwards, the political and social picture has been massively altered. There has been a transformation in social norms and social mores; a notable democratisation of political institutions locally and nationally; a marked decline in church and chapel attendance; and a much-accelerated process of ‘secularisation’. There has been the emergence of the so-called Welfare State; and the assumption of responsibility for matters of social wellbeing by local authorities, central government and social agencies of all types, whereby the roles that had previously been reckoned as largely coming within the purview of the churches were to a great degree taken out of their hands. And, within the churches, separately as denominations and inter-denominationally, there have been such traumatic developments as new forms of church governance, severe financial problems, mergers and the demand for new roles for clergy, ministers and lay people in the light of rapidly changing circumstances. It all amounts to vastly altered attitudes concerning the political and social roles of churches and individual Christians in society; and a basic redefinition of their legitimate place in such affairs.

It needs to be stressed from the outset that despite the focus on the churches, politics and society, the author is of the firm opinion that evangelism, pastoral work and the political and social thinking and action of ← 2 | 3 → Christians, and of the churches corporately, should always be undertaken in concert. The need for personal, saving, faith in the atoning work of Christ, and then for growth in spiritual maturity, was, is, and always will be, of paramount importance; but it is not the main or, for the most part, even a subsidiary matter for comment in this study. This should not be interpreted in any way as a view that the churches should give priority to their role in politics and society or as agents for promoting social justice at any time. Their function as upholders of what they view as matters of social fairness, righteousness and wellbeing for all is immensely important. Indeed, it is critical if the churches are to be true to their calling. But such undertakings should not assume centre stage at the expense of evangelism and pastoral care in their traditional forms.

The present study will reveal countless examples of distortion, where one of the two aforementioned fundamental functions of the churches has been pursued at the expense of the other; to do so is to warp the faith. On the other hand, this study throws up many examples of the two aspects of the Christian faith being rightly and healthily combined. ← 3 | 4 →

← 4 | 5 →


The anti-slave trade and anti-slavery campaigns

Slavery has had a long and inglorious history. It has been all too common from time immemorial, and has tarnished most regions of the world at some time. Some forms of it have been more benign than others. But in every case the dominant feature, and the core element has been the control exercised by one group of people over the lives of others, which invariably has been so great that the subservient victims have been totally, or almost totally, deprived of freedom and personal rights. This was so with the ancient Egyptians, the kingdom of the Persian Xerxes, the Greek and Roman civilisations, and the Celts and Saxons dwelling in the northern fringes of the Roman Empire.

A review of the sad and sordid story of slavery from the fifteenth century to the eighteenth century, with special reference to the part played in it by England is desirable in order to set the scene for the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century campaigns first for the abolition of the slave trade, and then for the ending of slavery itself in British territories. These crusades were rooted in, and coloured by, what went before, and such a survey will make them more comprehensible.

Slavery from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries

For the first thousand years of the Christian era, slavery was an accepted part of European life, and this was only brought to an end around the eleventh century when it was substituted by the system of serfdom. Indeed, long-established and pervasive slavery persisted in southern Europe and North Africa throughout the Middle Ages. ← 5 | 6 →

As long as Christians held sway in Spain, they used Muslim slaves; and then, after the conquest of the country by the Moors, the victors in their turn enslaved a countless number of Christians. Throughout all these centuries, slavery also persisted as a common aspect of life in the Arab territories, with supplies coming largely from West Africa.

Thus, by the fifteenth century, the scene was set for the tentative beginnings of the Atlantic chattel slavery trade. By ‘the time that the European conquests in the New World came to generate their own demand for slaves, the European states initially involved, Portugal and Spain, could not only draw on a heritage in which slavery was accepted, but had recently developed their own independent access to the lands which supplied slaves.’1 The pre-history, and the entrenched disposition of Europeans to accept slavery as a fact of life, made the introduction of the new form of slavery a practice which rapidly took root, sprang up and increased in volume. Although by 1450 or so slaves were numbered among the items of trade from the south, and were being sold in Portugal, and possibly elsewhere in Europe, it was probably the Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus who initiated the transatlantic slave trade.2 At first it was in a west to east direction, with Caribbean natives being sent for sale in Europe.3

Both the triangular Atlantic slave trade, involving slave transportation from the West coast of Africa to the Caribbean, and the conveyance of various goods from the Caribbean to Europe, and the Caribbean and North American plantation system for which it provided labour, were initiated in earnest in the sixteenth century. They were ghastly twins. Together, they were to evolve into the most horrific, prolonged and obscene example of inhumanity and injustice that has ever been perpetrated by the British nation. An immeasurable amount of suffering and countless agonising deaths, throughout three centuries were a consequence of greed and insensitivity on a gigantic scale. It amounted to one of the most ignoble and dishonourable examples of extended institutional cruelty and callousness ever to have besmirched the history of any country. Some ‘9–15 million Africans were forcibly transported from their continent to the Americas over several centuries. In fact, the Transatlantic Slave Trade still remains one of the largest forced movements of human beings the world has ever witnessed.’4 And it all revolved around the ← 6 | 7 → tobacco industry on mainland North America, and the discovery in the early sixteenth century that sugar cane could be as readily grown in the Caribbean as any indigenous crop.

The English involvement in this despicable trafficking in human beings began in the sixteenth century. Although the Portuguese have the dubious distinction of having set the trade in motion in the fifteenth century, England was one of the first nations to exploit it on a large scale, and the country that reaped the most benefits from it.

It was in 1555 that the mariner John Lok arrived back from West Africa with a cargo of black slaves. Seven years later, in 1562, John Hawkins launched out on his career as the first English slave-trader.5 With a fleet of three ships and just 100 men, with funds from London speculators and tacit royal support, he successfully captured 300 Africans in Sierra Leone, and sold them in Hispaniola. In exchange for his human cargo, he returned to England with his three ships plus two others full of ‘hides, ginger, sugars, and some quantities of pearles [sic]’; and he arrived back in triumph, ‘with prosperous successe [sic] and much gaine [sic] to himself and the aforesayde [sic] adventurers’.6

The love of gain, and the lure of future unimaginable profits far outweighed any qualms of conscience that may have been felt by those who condoned the slave trade. There may have been ignorance concerning the motives of the buccaneers involved and unawareness of the treatment that was meted out to those who were the unhappy victims of the trade; or there was widespread and convenient deafness and blindness. Thus, Queen Elizabeth I, while ‘approving Hawkins’s expedition, expressed the pious hope that the slaves would not be carried off without their free consent, a thing “which would be detestable and call down the vengeance of Heaven upon the undertakers”.’7

Others followed the example set by Hawkins. Landmarks in this sordid trade include the first slaves to be sold in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619; the British settlement in Barbados in 1625 and Jamaica in 1655, which soon became the nodal points of the trans-Atlantic trading in slaves; and the foundation in 1672 of the Royal African Company to control the British slave trade. ← 7 | 8 →

From about the middle of the seventeenth century the Dutch, the French, the Danes, the Swedes and the Brandenburgers also joined in the slave business as their own transatlantic empires became established and grew. In such a situation, ‘there was much legal, quasi-legal or illegal carrying of slaves to the colonies of one nation by the slavers of another.’8 As time went on, it was the British who were most persistent and successful in providing this service for foreigners, as well as for the entrepreneurs of their own country.

By the end of the seventeenth century the coastal areas of West Africa were littered with European slave forts. They were the centres for that part of the triangular slave trade operation, and it was in them that European agents met up with countless African kings and chiefs in order to negotiate prices and agree on numbers of slaves to be captured and sold. European weapons were supplied to such kingdoms as Dahomey (what became Benin) and Oyo (modern-day Nigeria), which enabled their rulers to attack neighbouring kingdoms, and to enslave their people. There were some African monarchs who refused to participate in the slave trade, but there were sufficient co-operators to make it highly lucrative for all the parties involved.

For the second staging post of the three cornered trade, it was the Caribbean that increasingly became the greatest consumer of African labour. Initially, in their settlement of the region, Europeans had shared the manual tasks with Africans. But, African manpower became ever more readily available and, apparently, cheap to acquire, and as these tropical colonies flourished more and more, so their populations became overwhelmingly Afro-American. It was not long before ‘the white master and slave owning class found itself greatly outnumbered by Africans and their Creole descendents whose sole rationale in life was to labour for their white owners. It was soon apparent that this was a labour force which required a careful and minute regulation and there hence evolved complex social and legal institutions – supported by fearful punishments – to subdue and marshal the alien and alienated black populations.’9

In Europe, and more especially in England, which became the third and final leg of the triangular trading arrangement, the slave trade appeared as an inexhaustible source of wealth and prosperity; and slavery was widely ← 8 | 9 → viewed as indispensable for the flourishing and hugely profitable West Indian and North American trading estates. In England, cities such as Bristol and Liverpool were especially enriched by the profits from the slave trade. And the immense wealth generated helped to transform them as civic centres, with magnificent buildings, and a thriving social and intellectual life. The merchants made a public display of their munificence by constructing superb Georgian houses and, to modern eyes perhaps inconsistently and even hypocritically, by giving lavish financial support to a range of philanthropic works. But this was not anomalous behaviour to contemporaries, who regarded slave trading as a respectable enterprise. Some, who troubled to reflect on the matter, held to the belief that the curse of Ham, as depicted in Genesis 9:25, provided an explanation for the servility of the black people. Noah was perceived as having cursed his son Ham for not averting his gaze when his father lay naked, with the consequence that Ham became a slave to his two brothers. To a measureless host of beneficiaries from the transatlantic chattel slavery trade, as indeed to the majority of subsequent European explorers and conquerors of Africa, a link was made between Ham and Africans to suggest that their enslavement or subjugation was biblically endorsed.

The whole transatlantic slavery business rested on an insatiable European, and especially English, home demand for sugar which had become the main crop produced. The ‘Atlantic slave trade in the first half of the seventeenth century was still small in scale, involving the transporting of about eight thousand slaves a year across the Atlantic. It was the surge in European demand for sugar which transformed slavery and the slave trade from the scale of small enterprise to that of a massive industry.’10 This culinary demand reached a pinnacle in the eighteenth century. The increase in consumption was rapid and staggering, from 4lb per head in 1700–1709, to triple this by 1780–1789, and 18lb by 1800–1809. By 1800, the consumption was twenty-five times what it had been in the mid-seventeenth century. Almost all levels of society shared in this lust for sugar. It was relished in the drinking of tea; it was profusely used in the rich plates of the middling sort; and there was the sugar used so liberally in the more sumptuous fare of the upper strata of society. There was also its abundant use throughout almost all social classes in ← 9 | 10 → the making of bread, porridge, treacle and the wide range of puddings, for which the British became famous. To satisfy all these wants entailed the use of extraordinary amounts of what was almost universally regarded as an essential substance in order to satisfy a rich daily diet. And it was not just sugar that was increasingly in demand. Coffee and chocolate also ‘became part of the staple diet in London, Paris and Madrid’. And, as the market in these tasty delights expanded, ‘so the plantations boomed. For the owners this meant profits akin to finding goldmines, but for the slaves it meant that whatever trace of normality or family life they had previously been allowed disappeared into barrack-style accommodation and the endless grind of mass production.’11

By the dawn of the eighteenth century, there was an unprecedented increase in the number of slaves being transported from Africa to the Americas. To the escalating demand for sugar, tobacco and coffee was added the Brazilian gold rush that began in the late 1690s, with perhaps 150,000 slaves carried to Brazil in the first decade of the succeeding century. With the already expanding North American and West Indies entrepreneurial business being thus supplemented by such a bonanza for the speculators, the transatlantic slave trade as a whole grew enormously in the course of the eighteenth century, and Britain assumed the leading place in it. During the 1720s British ships carried well in excess of 100,000 slaves to the Americas, and in the following decade this soared to around 170,000, thereby overtaking the volume of the Portuguese trade. In the 1740s the British figure reached a staggering 200,000.

By 1783, William Pitt estimated that the profits from the West Indian enterprises accounted for 80 per cent of the total British overseas trade. And in the 1780s slave traders carried a colossal total of three-quarters of a million manacled human beings across the Atlantic, with about 325,000 being carried in British ships. The trade had reached such a magnitude, and such a level of maltreatment and injustice that it cried aloud for condemnation and remedy. Voices of protest were urgently needed, and the churches were faced with a situation that almost obliged them to speak out and take remedial action. ← 10 | 11 →

Intermittent, muted and selective protests

In Britain, as in the rest of Europe, ‘the seventeenth century, otherwise so productive of political ideas, had little critical to say of the slave trade.’12 In the sixteenth century, Sir Thomas More had considered slavery to be reasonable, and this view was endorsed a century later by Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, urged the slave-owners of the West Indies to regard slaves as part of a Christian brotherhood. He denounced slavery in Barbados, and in general appealed to slave-owners to set slaves free after certain years of servitude. But, at the same time, he owned slaves in Pennsylvania, as did his disciple William Penn, the founder of the colony.


X, 440
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
English Protestant churches Political attitudes Social attitudes
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. X, 440 pp.

Biographical notes

Kenneth Hylson-Smith (Author)

Kenneth Hylson-Smith is a former Bursar and Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford, who holds doctorates from the University of Leicester and King’s College London. His previous publications include The Churches in England from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II (in three volumes, 1996–1998), Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation (in three volumes, 1999–2001), Evangelicals in the Church of England, 1734–1984 (2000), High Churchmanship in the Church of England (2000) and Bath Abbey: A History (2003).


Title: The English Protestant Churches since 1770