David M Thompson

Any consideration of social thought in the Protestant churches in the nineteenth century immediately raises the question of whose thought is under discussion. The traditional Protestant confessions of faith usually contained some reference to the church's relationship to civil authority, marriage and the obligations of the moral law. But they did not touch on forms of government or questions of poverty. Most Protestant churches did not claim to teach on these matters, unlike the papacy. For established churches there was a question of whether they could take a position different from that of the state, and if so, by what procedure this could be expressed; for non-established churches, whilst it was easier, at least in principle, to challenge positions taken by the civil government, the procedure for doing so still had to be clear. Thus in Great Britain, whilst the various Methodist Conferences had a clear procedure for expressing their mind, they also all had a 'no politics' rule, which was a self-denying ordinance in this area; the Congregational and Baptist Unions, on the other hand, felt freer to pass resolutions on such matters, but they did not bind local congregations. The alternative strategy is to consider the thought of individual theologians or groups within the churches. Here it is easier to find clearly articulated positions; it is more difficult to estimate how representative such views might be of the broader Protestant constituency.

Two issues were inherited from the eighteenth century. The first was the question of slavery, particularly in the United Kingdom. Here evangelical Christians were to the fore in campaigning against the slave trade and later slavery itself. The second was the French Revolution and democracy. Established Protestant churches showed little sympathy for the Revolution, but among Nonconformists there was more support for radical politics. However, once again this was a minority movement rather than formal support. Jabez Bunting's famous remark that 'Methodism is as much opposed to democracy as it is to sin'27 may not have been typical of many working-class Methodists but it did represent the leadership's view. The new issue in the nineteenth century was industrialisation, and more particularly the question of poverty, although this may be better articulated as a consequence of rapid population growth and urban expansion, which strained traditional structures ofworkshop labour and poor relief to breaking point.

27 T. P. Bunting and G. S. Rowe, The life offabez Bunting (London: Longman, 1887), p. 472.

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