which goes a long way to explaining why the group soon went into rapid decline.4 Voluntary religion in England and Wales displayed an enormous variety.
What the great majority of these apparently miscellaneous groupings possessed in common was evangelicalism. The Unitarians wholly rejected evangelical doctrine, sections of the Quakers resisted it and the unorthodox sects dismissed it. Nearly all the others, however, embraced a form of teaching derived from the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century. First among its characteristics was a devotion to the Bible. Some Primitive Methodists in a remote village, for example, stuckpins in the family Bible to mark the promises of God until there were two or three thousand pins in the volume.5 Equally important was the attachment of evangelicals to the cross of Christ as the fulcrum of their theology and the core of their spirituality. It was typical that the 'infinite value of the atonement' was the consolation of a Congregational minister dying in 1852.6 A third characteristic of evangelical religion was its insistence on the need for conversion. Thus in 1859 a Bible Christian reached 'a happy day when the peace of God first became his blest possession'.7 Although there was no unanimity on whether a datable experience was imperative, there was agreement that a change of life was essential. And a fourth feature of the evangelical movement was its activism. 'Brethren', Spurgeon urged the ministerial students he trained, 'do something; do something; do something. While committees waste their time over resolutions, do something.'8 The energy of evangelicals frequently spilled over into organised philanthropy and social reform, but there was eagerness above all to spread the gospel. An evangelicalism displaying these four characteristics - emphases on Bible, cross, conversion and activism - united the great bulk of Nonconformists, partly superseding the formal confessional boundaries.9
How is the growth of the style of voluntary religion represented by evangelical Nonconformity to be explained? In the first place there were favourable social circumstances. It was at one time supposed that the urban industrial society being created during the nineteenth century was unreceptive
4 Jerrome, John Sirgood's way.
5 Stephenson, J[ohn], The man of faith and fire: or the life and work of the Rev. G. Warner (London: Robert Bryant, 1995), p. 184.
6 Christian Witness, 1852, p. 256.
7 W J. Mitchell, Brief biographical sketches of Bible Christian ministers and laymen, 2 vols. (Jersey: Beresford Press, 1906), vol. 1, p. 42.
8 C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to my students (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1954), p. 217.
9 Bebbington, Evangelicalism in modern Britain, ch. 1.
Was this article helpful?