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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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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...

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