Politics and Social Reform in Britain and Ireland

Eugenio Biagini

in The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume III

Published in print May 2017 | ISBN: 9780199683710
Published online May 2017 | e-ISBN: 9780191823923 | DOI:

Series: Oxford History Of Dissenting Traditions

Politics and Social Reform in Britain and Ireland

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Dissenters in the long nineteenth century believed that they were on the right side of history. This chapter argues that the involvement of evangelical Nonconformists in politics was primarily driven by a coherent worldview derived from a Congregationalist understanding of salvation and the gathered nature of the church. That favoured a preference for voluntarism and a commitment to religious equality for all. Although Whig governments responded to the rising electoral clout of Dissenters after 1832 by meeting Dissenting grievances, both they and the Conservatives retained an Erastian approach to church–state relations. This led to tension with both those Dissenters who favoured full separation between church and state, and with Evangelical Churchmen in Scotland, who affirmed the principle of an Established Church, but refused government interference in ministerial appointments. In 1843 this issue resulted in the Disruption of the Church of Scotland and the formation of a large Dissenting body north of the border, the Free Church. Dissenting militancy after mid-century was fostered by the numerical rise of Dissent, especially in cities, the foundation of influential liberal papers often edited by Dissenters such as Edward Miall, and the rise of municipal reforming movements in the Midlands headed by figures such as Joseph Chamberlain. Industrialization also boosted Dissenting political capacity by encouraging both employer paternalism and trades unionism, whose leaders and rank and file were Nonconformists. Ireland constituted an exception to this pattern. The rise of sectarianism owed less to Irish peculiarities than to the presence and concentration of a large Catholic population, such as also fostered anti-Catholicism in Britain, in for instance Lancashire. The politics of the Ultramontane Catholic Church combined with the experience of agrarian violence and sectarian strife to dispose Irish Protestant Dissenters against Home Rule. The 1906 election was the apogee of Dissent’s political power, installing a Presbyterian Prime Minister in Campbell-Bannerman who would give way in due course to the Congregationalist H.H. Asquith, but also ushering in conflicts over Ireland. Under Gladstone, the Liberal party and its Nonconformist supporters had been identified with the championship of oppressed nationalities. Even though Chamberlain and other leading Dissenting liberals such as Isabella Tod resisted the extension of that approach to Ireland after 1886, preferring local government reform to Home Rule, most Dissenting voters had remained loyal to Gladstone. Thanks to succeeding Unionist governments’ aggressive foreign policy, embrace of tariff reform, and 1902 Education Act, Dissenting voters had been keen to return to a Liberal government in 1906. That government’s collision with the House of Lords and loss of seats in the two elections of 1910 made it reliant on the Irish National Party and provoked the introduction in 1912 of a third Home Rule Bill. The paramilitary resistance of Ulster Dissenters to the Bill was far from unanimous but nonetheless drove a wedge between British Nonconformists who had concluded that religion was a private matter and would do business with Irish Constitutional Nationalists and Ulster Nonconformists, who had adopted what looked like a bigoted insistence that religion was a public affair and that the Union was their only preservative against ‘Rome Rule’. The declaration of war in 1914 and the consequent suspension of the election due in 1915 means it is impossible to know how Nonconformists might have dealt with this crisis. It was the end of an era.

Keywords: Henry Herbert Asquith; Henry Campbell-Bannerman; Joseph Chamberlain; Home Rule; Ireland; Irish Constitutional Nationalists; Edward Miall; Isabella Tod; 1902 Education Act; 1912 Third Home Rule Bill

Chapter.  9900 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Christian Theology

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