Tuesday 20 January 2015

Faith in Georgian England Part 3 – The Additional Factors Affecting Faith

It is my pleasure to welcome Regan Walker back to the salon with the last in a three part post regarding faith in Georgian England. Parts one and two were published on 6th and 13th January; I am sure you will find them as fascinating as I do!


Other factors should be considered because of how they influenced people’s view of God, particularly in the 19th century. During this time, new ideas in politics, philosophy, science and art all vied for people’s attention. Two in particular, the scientific discoveries of the time and the Industrial Revolution, may have had dramatic effect on the people’s faith. 

The Countess of Huntingdon's Chapel in Bath
The Countess of Huntingdon's Chapel in Bath
In 1781, while investigating what he and others believed to be a comet, William Herschel, an astronomer, discovered a new planet he named  “George’s star,” after King George III. (In 1850, after Herschel’s death, the name would be changed to Uranus.) This was the first planet discovered since ancient times. In 1816, Herschel was knighted, and in 1821 he became President of the Astronomical Society for his achievements. Herschel, a devout Christian, strongly believed that God’s universe was characterized by order and planning. His discovery of that order led him to conclude, “[T]he undevout astronomer must be mad.” 

Herschel’s discoveries caused his fellow scientists and theologians to reconsider their prior views of God and the possibility there were other creations in the universe. Not all views expressed were those of believers in God; however, one who was is illustrative of the prevailing attitude was Thomas Dick, a Scottish minister and science teacher. In his book The Sidereal Heavens, published in 1840, he said of Herschel’s discovery, 

To consider creation, therefore, in all its departments, as extending throughout regions of space illimitable to mortal view, and filled with intelligent existence, is nothing more than what comports with the idea of HIM who inhabiteth immensity, and whose perfections are boundless and past finding out. 
Dick’s statement is indicative of the view during the early 19th-century in which science was dominated by clergymen-scientists, men dedicated to their scientific work but still committed to their faith in God. Scientific discoveries were seen as entirely consistent with a belief in a Creator. 

Geologist William Buckland, mathematician Baden Powell and polymath William Whewell found little conflict in their roles as clergymen and men of science.

Another factor we should consider is the Industrial Revolution, which transformed English society during the 18th and 19th centuries and would certainly cause people to question the established order of things, including the church. 

During the 18th century, England's population nearly doubled. The industry most important in the rise of England as an industrial nation was cotton textiles. A series of inventions in the 18th century led to machines that could and did replace human laborers, and the use of new, mineral based materials that replaced those based on animal and vegetable material. The effect of machines replacing workers, particularly in the textile industry, was keenly felt in some parts of England. 

During the period 1811-1816, a group called “the Luddites” reacted by smashing thousands of machines developed for use in the textile industries in Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. Thus the Midlands became the center of much unrest. The poor, crippled by bad harvests and taxes and resentful at having no vote, rose up. At times, the clergy would even become involved. For example Hugh Wolstenholme, curate of Pentrich in Derbyshire, took a stand on the side of his parishioners and was critical of the government in the Rebellion of 1817. For his role, he had to flee to America. Interestingly, he attended Trinity College Cambridge when Charles Simeon was the rector. (My novel, Against the Wind, features the rebellion in the Midlands that took place in 1817, dubbed “the last revolution in England”.)

Against the Wind

As England changed from an agricultural to an industrial economy during the 19th century, the lives of the working class were disrupted and many people relocated from the countryside to the towns. In 1801, at the time of the first census, only about 20% of the population lived in towns. By 1851, the figure had risen to over 50%. New social relationships emerged with the growing working and middle classes. During this time of upheaval and relocation, though some individuals, like Charles Simeon, exercised great spiritual influence, the Church as a whole failed to grapple with the problems that resulted from the huge surge in population and the growth of industrial towns. Still, perhaps both the problems and the movement of people to the towns, where they might hear the message of the great preachers of the day, spurred them to examine their faith. One can only hope.

Selected Sources:

All Things Austen, An Encyclopedia of Austen’s World, Vols. I & II (articles on the Clergy and Religion) by Kirstin Olsen

Selina, Countess of Huntingdon by Faith Cook

The Bachelor Duke, 6th Duke of Devonshire 1790-1858 by James Lees-Milne

From The Victorian Web: 

About the Author

Bestselling author Regan Walker loved to write stories as a child, particularly those about adventure-loving girls, but by the time she got to college more serious pursuits took priority. One of her professors encouraged her to pursue the profession of law, which she did. Years of serving clients in private practice and several stints in high levels of government gave her a love of international travel and a feel for the demands of the “Crown” on its subjects. Hence her romance novels often involve a demanding sovereign who taps his subjects for “special assignments.” In each of her novels, there is always real history and real historic figures.

Regan lives in San Diego with her golden retriever, Link, whom she says inspires her every day to relax and smell the roses.


Find Regan Online

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Regan’s blog

Written content of this post copyright © Regan Walker, 2015.


Regan Walker said...

Hi, Catherine. Thanks so much for featuring my article on your blog. I hope others have found the subject as fascinating as I did.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, Regan!

Anne said...

Thank you for your three posts and the marvelous links!

Catherine Curzon said...

I'm glad you enjoyed them; it's been a fascinating series!

Regan Walker said...

You are most welcome, Anne. Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed them.