4.5 The interaction of religion and society
Now read the previous extract again with the associated commentary which draws out the key points and their significance, particularly in helping to understand the interaction of religion and society at this time. Wilberforce’s style, although long-winded, is not difficult to follow, but it is important not to become bogged down in the detail.
Reasons are given as to why Christianity (or, rather, Wilberforce’s ‘real Christianity’) is in decline. Persecution, he suggests, is a stimulus to faith, but the current position of the Church is too comfortable. It has considerable civil privileges and links to ‘almost every family in the community’. (By ‘community’ here Wilberforce again appears to be thinking only of the ‘higher and middle classes’.) Commercial prosperity and general cultural progress give rise to greater materialism and a more relaxed morality, with the looser standards characteristic of the higher classes tending to diffuse downwards in the social scale. Although explicit disavowal of Christianity remains rare, it is losing its practical influence on society and morality, and outright rejection is likely to follow. Wilberforce then acknowledges that he is arguing from probabilities rather than actual observation, but claims that the reality fits the model he has presented.
In this passage Wilberforce unwittingly anticipated a key strand in the arguments of those historians and sociologists who have maintained that during the era of the Enlightenment there began an ongoing ‘secularisation’ of the western world, with the enforced retreat of religion from the centre to the margins of daily life. The ideological critique of traditional Christianity by Enlightenment thinkers is seen as important in this process, but greater emphasis is placed on the social changes associated with the Industrial Revolution. The difficulty for religion here was not, as Wilberforce thought, increased material prosperity as such so much as its consequences in terms of what has been called the ‘disenchantment’ of the world. This means that industrial and urban patterns of life became increasingly mechanized and predictable, leaving less room for supernatural belief. On the other hand, the short-term consequences of industrialisation for religion were often much more positive. Churches and, especially, Dissenting chapels had an important place in the social fabric of expanding towns, providing a source of meaning and community in contexts that could otherwise be very anonymous. Moreover, Christianity came to play an important role in shaping the values of the expanding middle class. Arguably, Wilberforce’s own writing and influence were a significant factor in ensuring that in Britain at least religion responded actively to the challenge presented by industrialisation rather than being overwhelmed by it.
Wilberforce briefly mentions the presence of explicit unbelief among the literary elite, encouraged by those who in his opinion should know better, but he sees this as a symptom rather than a cause of the wider trend. He sees recent events in France – clearly he has in mind the outright de-Christianisation of 1793–4 – as showing where such tolerance of ‘infidelity’ can lead. Significantly, though, his horror is not (unlike Burke’s) directed at the Revolution as such, but rather at this particular phase in its development. Indeed, in the footnote he implies that he does not see the Revolution itself as either a consequence or a cause of moral and spiritual decline.
Wilberforce now addresses the objection that the level of religious commitment he is advocating would produce a society so preoccupied with spiritual matters that it would neglect the practical necessities of daily life. In response he first affirms the priority of following God’s commands in order to prepare for heaven, but then proceeds to argue that the general prevalence of Christianity would in fact be socially useful. According to Wilberforce, who cites the authority of St Paul in his support, it is a ‘gross… error’ for Christians to withdraw from their secular duties. Granted that Christianity is opposed to excessive acquisitiveness or ambition, obedience to God and trust in his overruling providence actually encourages Christians to be diligent and constructive members of society. Moreover, a nation of such true Christians would be a peaceful and respected presence in international affairs, and would only fight wars in self-defence.
Again, we can relate Wilberforce’s comments here to a recurrent issue in the practice and study of religion: the tension between what are called ‘world-affirming’ and ‘world-denying’ perspectives. Throughout the history of Christianity there have been individuals and groups who have felt that obedience to God requires withdrawal from normal everyday life. These have included desert hermits in the early Church, monks and nuns in the Middle Ages and thereafter, and small groups on the more radical fringes of Protestantism. Calvinist views, such as those of Cowper and Newton, could tend to encourage a state of mind in which believers, seeing themselves as a chosen (‘elect’) minority, separated themselves from society. Wilberforce, however, despite his admiration for the authors of the Olney Hymns, was not a Calvinist. He emphatically aligned himself with those who stressed rather the obligation of Christians to be actively and constructively involved in mainstream society. His was an influential voice in setting the predominant direction of Evangelicalism (which certainly had some world-denying tendencies), and in contributing to the shaping of a nineteenth-century British culture in which secular and Christian outlooks were by no means wholly polarised.
Now read the rest of the extract from A Practical View As you read consider the following questions and make note of the answers.
Why, according to Wilberforce, is religion in general, and Christianity in particular, important for the well-being of society?
What does Wilberforce mean by ‘real Christianity’ (refer back if necessary to the earlier passages of the Practical View), and why is it a social necessity?
What does he think would be the consequences of a disappearance of religion, and how can these dangers be averted?
Even ‘false Religion’ (by which Wilberforce means religions other than Christianity) can safeguard good order and morality in society by providing perceived supernatural sanctions to support human law (‘jurisprudence’). Christianity, however, is much more effective, primarily because its teaching checks inherent human selfishness. Note that Wilberforce takes social inequality for granted. The rich are criticised not for possessing wealth but for using it in excessive showiness or frivolousness rather than in benevolence towards others. While the poor have understandable cause for resentment when the rich flaunt their wealth or the powerful behave oppressively, they are otherwise expected to accept their situation in a ‘diligent, humble, patient’ frame of mind, because it has been assigned to them by the providence of God. Their life in this world (‘the present state of things’) is merely a period of preparation for eternal life in heaven in which rich and poor will share alike.
For Wilberforce, ‘real Christianity’ requires assent to central Evangelical doctrines of inherent human sinfulness and deliverance from divine condemnation by the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the Cross. He is insistent that the social benefits of Christianity will only be realised if adherence to it is sincere. Mere traditional respect for an Established Church will be insufficient (another contrast between Wilberforce’s position and Burke’s). If the rich themselves no longer think Christianity true, they cannot expect to delude the poor into accepting it either. A rational and ethical view of life may appeal to the higher classes, but in order to win over the ‘lower orders’ religion needs to capture their emotions. (Although Wilberforce does not explicitly refer to Methodism, he must have been aware of its rapid growth in his own Yorkshire constituency at this very period and here he hints at a key reason for its appeal. More broadly he combines significant elements of a developing Romantic mindset by linking a consciousness of the presence of the ‘lower orders’ (an awareness of a ‘working class’ as such is not part of his vocabulary) to a recognition of the emotional and irrational aspects of human nature.)
The disappearance of religion would lead to the collapse of civil society. Given recent developments in France there can be no complacency about the dangers. These can be averted by a recognition that the root problems are moral (and spiritual) rather than political, and need to be addressed by people of status and influence setting a firm example of determined and uncompromising commitment to Evangelical Christianity. Wilberforce regards this as a matter of patriotism as well as of religion if the perceived moral poison arising in France is to be contained. The advance of true religion would bring substantial moral and political benefits quite apart from the providential blessing of God.