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The English Protestant Churches since 1770

Politics, Class and Society

Kenneth Hylson-Smith

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.

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Chapter 2: The churches and society in a revolutionary era: c.1770 to the 1830s


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The churches and society in a revolutionary era: c.1770 to the 1830s

A new age begins

The generation about which I wish to speak was, I make no doubt, the most important single generation in the modern history not merely of English religion but of the whole Christian world … The great crisis of the French Revolution altered for ever the terms on which religious establishments must work, and in so doing it intensified everywhere a long-felt need for private action in the world of religion.1

The churches in England were ill prepared for the rapid, epoch-making series of political, demographic, industrial, agricultural and social revolutions of the period from about 1770 to the 1830s. This is hardly surprising. What took place was dramatic and unpredictable both in content and in its transformational power. In the course of less than seventy years every aspect of life was cast into the melting pot. The world was changed beyond recognition, and the English churches were suddenly called upon to re-evaluate their roles and functions in society, and to respond to the transmutation in appropriate ways.

The French Revolution began in May 1789. It was of far greater importance in England than even the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. The high sounding and revolutionary sentiments expressed in the American Declaration of Independence were given tangible form and meaning in France. The French revolutionaries were acting on such ‘self-evident’ principles,...

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