The other day I visited a Welsh mining museum . The lady showing us around was describing the poor working conditions in the early 1800s, 10 hours a day underground, plus a long walk to work and back. She then said, “they worked like this six days a week, then had to go to church on Sunday. It was a grim life.”
I immediately thought, “HAD to go to church?” What version of history was this? She made it sound that early nineteenth-century Britain had full churches; full of people who really did not want to be there. The truth was rather different.
In Medieval times people sometimes got fined if they missed church, but given the services were in Latin, not much participation would have been required. Generally, the ruling was applied to the influential and wealthy, with the poor noticeable by their absence. These laws were eventually dropped.
A law was brought back in 1559, making attendance at the now Protestant national church compulsory. But this was done to counter the remaining illegal Catholic services rather than any desire to fill up churches. Dropped in Commonwealth times, it was restored in 1657, mainly to stamp out nonconformity. But it failed to have much impact.
By the early 1700s, the established church was in a desperate state, with run-down buildings, poor attendance, clergy absent for weeks on end, and many holding deist beliefs rather than the church’s official doctrines . The non-conformists, though predominantly orthodox in belief, had withdrawn into a shell after being legalised.
One Anglican, Bishop Butler, had noted:
It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted, by many persons, that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is, now at length, discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly they treat it, as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained, but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals, for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world. 
Christianity was a laughing stock, people ignored the church, moral behaviour owed little to Christian teaching, and the church leadership had lost sight of the doctrines of salvation and mission. You had to be brave to go to church in that climate. A bit like now!
What changed this situation was a series of revivals from 1735 onwards. They first occurred amongst the Anglicans, who formed religious societies, the Methodists as they were nicknamed. This movement gave steady growth in church attendance to the end of the century, but nothing dramatic, see the graphs in .
However, in the early 1800s, with more revivals across most denominations, church attendance increased much faster than the population, making church attendance a significant fraction of the population. Thus, church attendance became a respectable pursuit. Church held its ground until the twentieth century. Then, as most people know, it started its slow decline .
So in the period the lady at the mining museum was telling us about, revival was common, but church attendance was less so. There would have been a number who did not go to church worship – they would have had Sunday free. Those who did go went because they WANTED to, not because they had to. These people had been converted to Christ in revival, born of the Spirit, and saved from their sins. It was these convictions that drove them to church. Far from being grim, it was a joy!
What this lady was repeating was a piece of modern-day historical revision where a secular age has reinterpreted past religious observance in non-spiritual terms. Of course, she did not originate the viewpoint but was merely repeating what is now the standard secular narrative.
Rewriting history is what always happens when a new ideology takes hold in society and replaces the declining one. People’s identity is partly determined by past events. With a new ideology, the old past becomes an embarrassment and must be revised to support the new identity and ridicule the old one.
An outdated embarrassment describes the situation for Christianity in the West. However, many people still believe it as a faith, but it is yesterday’s ideology as far as the wider society is concerned. The void it has left in society is ripe for a new ideology, in this case, one that is atheistic, man-centred and secular. The unbeliever cannot understand spiritual things, such as revival, conversion and the work of the Holy Spirit; such things are foolishness to them:
But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.1 Corinthians 2:14.
So neither can we expect society, with its new ideology, to understand church history. So I place no blame on the lady at the mining museum. She is a product of our current culture.
What is this new ideology? How can its competition with the church for the heart of society be modelled? Is the church, as currently formed, up for the challenge? That is another blog, or two.
Notes and References
- Dolaucothi Gold Mine, Carmarthenshire.
- J.C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, Banner of Truth Trust.
- Bishop Butler, The Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed. Quoted from the advertisement prefixed to the first edition. Also quoted in J.C. Ryle .
- The rise of the Presbyterian Church of Wales (Calvinist Methodists) is in the blog: Church Decline Caused by Lack of Revival, The rise of the Wesleyan branch of Methodism is in the blog: Institutionalism and Church Decline.