God in Regency England ~ by Regan Walker
My purpose in writing this article is to supply Regency authors with a deeper understanding of what was in the heart of the men and women living at that time and how their view of God affected their lives. I begin with the century before this period and the time following the slim slice of history that was the Regency in order to understand the sweeping changes that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries that bracket the Regency.
The full article, including a list sources and articles and books of interest, is available to Beau Monde members at the TBM File Library, which is part of the myRWA site. (Member login is required.)
The 18th Century:
The early 18th century in England was an age of reason, and the churches, such as they were, lacked vitality, in part due to the action of the government. There was little enthusiasm for spiritual matters. People were content with things as they were and those few who attended church often did so out of habit or social custom.
In the middle of the century, a change swept England when a small group of men at Oxford began gathering under the direction of John Wesley. Their efforts led to what is called The Great Awakening, a Christian movement that also swept Europe and the American colonies. This movement produced powerful preachers who gave listeners a sense of their need for a personal faith in God for salvation from sin. Pulling away from the ritual and ceremony that brought people to church out of habit or social custom, the Great Awakening made Christianity intensely personal to the average person by fostering a deep sense of spiritual conviction and redemption, and by encouraging introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality.
In 1739, John Wesley and George Whitefield began preaching the gospel outdoors to large gatherings. Wesley took the whole of England as his parish, preaching to as many as 20,000 in London. Thousands, who had previously thought little of religion, were converted. Although not his intention, Wesley’s message led to a new movement that would ultimately separate from the Church of England called the Methodists. Despite the focus of the Methodists on the poor and working classes, one of the converts at this time was the Countess of Huntingdon, who for 40 years was deeply involved with the leaders of the Methodist movement. By her death in 1791, she had been largely responsible for the construction of 64 chapels all over Britain.
At the end of the 18th century, a group of wealthy Anglican Evangelicals came together, most of them living in the village of Clapham southwest of London, to campaign for an end to slavery and cruel sports, prison reform and foreign missions. Dubbed “the saints,” these influential men and women put their faith into action.
Regency England (and the 19th Century)
Against this background, we emerge a decade later into Regency England (1811-1820, extending to 1837 if we consider the larger “Regency Era,” ending when Queen Victoria succeeded William IV). During this period, the religious landscape consisted of the Anglican Church of England, which occupied the predominant ground (though the Evangelicals continued to dominate the Church in the first half of the 19th century), and those considered “Dissenters,” a general term that included non-conformist Protestants, Presbyterians (identified with the Scots), Baptists, Jews, Roman Catholics and Quakers. The Protestants moved toward the Methodist and Evangelical perspective, and a personal conversion experience. The Roman Catholics, governed by the Pope in Rome, though discriminated against, were too strong to be suppressed and persisted, eventually regaining the ability to become Members of Parliament and hold public office with The Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829.
There were many incentives to be a part of the Church of England because it was government controlled and sponsored. According to Henry Wakeman in An Introduction to the History of the Church of England, by the time George III died in 1820, despite all that occurred in the 18th century with the Evangelical and Methodist revivals, with a few exceptions (some discussed in this article), the Church of England was not materially different than it was when George III came to the throne in 1760.
Jane Austen wrote about the world of the Anglican clergy. Her father, Reverend George Austen, was a pastor who encouraged his daughter in her love of reading and writing. (In addition to her novels, Jane Austen composed evening prayers for her father’s services.) She also had other relatives, including two of her brothers, who were among the Anglican clergy. It was a culture in which faith often influenced one’s livelihood. Some of Austen’s characters (i.e., Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram) were clergy in need of parsonages.
Of the Anglican clergy, Wakeman said,
The bulk of the English clergy then as ever were educated, refined, generous, God-fearing men, who lived lives of simple piety and plain duty, respected by their people for the friendly help and wise counsel and open purse which were ever at the disposal of the poor.
[With few exceptions] the clergy held and taught a negative and cold Protestantism deadening to the imagination, studiously repressive to the emotions, and based on principles which found little sanction either in reason or in history. The laity willingly accepted it, as it made so little demand upon their conscience, so little claim upon their life. (Wakeman at 461)
Wakeman recognized the indifference of the Church of England to the “tearing away” of the followers of Whitefield and Wesley: “An earnest revival of personal religion had deeply affected some sections of English society. Yet…the Church of England reared her impassive front…sublime in her apathy, unchanged and apparently unchangeable….”
Unlike some Anglicans, who may have attended church only out of duty or habit, Jane Austen was more than a nominal church member. From the prayers she wrote, she seems to have been a devout believer who accepted the Anglican faith as it was, though she disliked hypocrisy and that may be reflected in some of her clergyman characters. (The full article explores more of her views.)
Austen was critical of the Prince Regent, understandably so. Unlike his parents George III and Queen Charlotte, the Prince Regent lived a decadent life, indulging in his personal pleasure devoid of any evidence of a strong faith, or indeed any faith at all, though he was nominally the head of the Church of England. As a result of the tax burden from the wars in France and the Prince’s opulent lifestyle that was crushing the poor and working classes, the resentment for the Prince grew more strident as time went on. Jane Austen disliked him intensely, principally because of his treatment of his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, and she was not pleased when it was “suggested” she dedicate her novel Emma to him in 1816, though she did so for marketing reasons.
In at least some parts of the Church of England during the Regency, spiritual change was afoot continuing from the movements in the 18th century. In such places, the Church of England looked more like the Protestant Evangelicals. For example, Charles Simeon, rector of Trinity Church, Cambridge for 54 years (1782-1836), and a member of the Clapham group, was a great Bible expositor, who taught a risen Savior and salvation through grace, sounding very much like Wesley and Whitefield decades earlier. That was no mean feat given the opposition he faced in Cambridge. The universities were bastions of the established Church of England and seedbeds of rationalism, neither of which made them sympathetic to a rector of strong religious fervor.
One effect of the Methodist and Evangelical influences, begun in the 18th century and continued in the Regency, was the growth in foreign missions, as Christians went to other parts of the world to spread the “good news.” There were many English men and women whose newfound faith compelled them to accept the challenge for the cause of the gospel. Missionary societies, initially viewed with disfavor by the established church, gained in prominence in the 19th century.
Charles Simeon was one of those clergymen in the Church of England who was interested in missions and spreading the Bible’s message around the world. He took a special interest in India and sent his former assistants as chaplains with the British East India Company. Henry Martyn may be the most famous of those assistants. He served in India and Persia from 1806 until his death in 1812, and during those few years, translated the New Testament into Persian, Urdu and Judaeo-Persic. Other factors discussed in the article are scientific discoveries and the Industrial Revolution.
This article was written by Regan Walker. Learn more about Regan and her books at her website, http://www.reganwalkerauthor.com/.