II Communities


In the wake of the Restoration of the British monarchy, the four statutes of the Clarendon Code (1661-1665), along with the Corporation Act (1661) and the Test Acts (1673 and 1678), barred non-Anglicans from holding any civil, military, religious or educational positions of power. This excluded them, for example, from Parliament, the state-funded established Church, from graduation from Cambridge University and even admission to Oxford University. Non-Anglicans included not only Roman Catholics and the small Sephardic Jewish population, who built their first synagogue (Bevis Marks) in Aidgate in 1701, but also Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and some smaller groupings including émigré Huguenots.1 These Acts effectively used religious conviction to eliminate any challenge, from huge sectors of the population, to the restored monarchy and the institutions supporting it. Oxford graduates were still obliged to submit to the 39 Articles of the Church of England until the 1850s.

The Act of Uniformity forced around 2,500 Puritan priests out of the Anglican church, in the so-called Great Ejection. The crisis uprooted and further radicalised many of the best minds of their generation, helping to make the idea of a unified ‘Dissenting’ community concrete, and in turn stimulating the establishment of alternative educational institutions, at first often organised covertly.2 This amounted to a revolution in British educational practice, and pagan Greek and Roman authors often loomed large on Dissenting curricula, at precisely the time when the discipline of‘Classics’ was being created.

After the Glorious Revolution, the providers of educational programmes amongst Nonconformists and Dissenters found new ways around many of the disabilities placed upon them.3 There were of course limits to the impact of the ‘Toleration Act’ (1689), since it fully protected only Trinitarian Protestant Nonconformists, excluding Unitarians, Catholics, deists and atheists and leaving Dissenters forced, if they wanted to hold civil office, to take communion within the Established Church.4 Yet it did legalise important Dissenting activities, including not only conducting rituals such as communion and baptism, but also the building of chapels, meeting houses, schools and colleges.’

The impact of most of the Dissenting academies and the schools which fed them has been overlooked. Penelope Wilson has called it ‘a hidden educational tradition’, which was ‘largely independent of the grammar school and university model’.6 In these institutions, many of Britain’s greatest and most progressive thinkers, writers, politicians and educationalists were instructed. They were also the places where many Britons across the lower end of the class spectrum were offered a new form of liberal education, which was centred around the study of Greek, Hebrew and Latin, even if the curriculum also extended to the sciences, geography, history (both ancient and modern), mathematics and metaphysics.

There was wide variety in the academies and schools set up by Dissenters. The variety was not limited to terms and denominations, but extended to classbased and geographical constituencies, in England as well as Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Presbyterians and (from their emergence in the mid-18th century) Dissenting Methodists were numerous in the industrial and mining hamlets of the north of England, while the miners, farm labourers and seamen of the south west were often Baptists. East Anglia, home of the British textile and clothing industry, was home to many Congregationalists.

Dissenting communities as a whole consisted overwhelmingly of the working and lower-middle classes, so it was within these communities that the sons (and sometimes daughters) of labourers, miners, skilled and unskilled tradesmen, as well as merchants, teachers and—of course—religious leaders were educated. The experience could be empowering, but in the newly industrial era of the mid-18th century the culture of Protestant Dissent, and especially Methodism, had a complex relationship with the working classes. The alternative vision of Christianity emerged simultaneously with industrial capitalism. In The Making of the English Working Class (1968), E.P. Thompson famously argued that Dissenting religion in the period performed a double service as the religion of both the industrial bourgeoisie and wide sections of the proletariat. In a chapter entitled ‘The transforming power of the cross’—a passionate indictment of Industrial-Age Methodism—he shows how the virtues inculcated by that religion (discipline, frugality, honesty and hard graft) were necessary ideological accompaniments to the evolving new mode of production.7

On the other hand, Christopher Hill stressed in The World Turned Upside Down (1972) that it was in the 18th-century Dissenting academies that the embers of the radical and sceptical enquiry, progressive in religious, scientific and political terms, were stoked.8 These embers, doused by the Restoration, flared up in support of the French Revolution and the social progress which that event seemed to offer Britain in the 1790s, as we shall see in Chapter 13, only to be extinguished thereafter. The educational systems which Nonconformist protagonists put in place, both in the formal sphere of schools and academies, and informally in tutorials, evening classes and Sunday schools, often provided sustainable paths frompoverty towards the acquisition of educational, cultural and economic capital, not to mention spiritual nourishment, where there might otherwise have been none.

In the schools of Dissenters, different books were used from those in the hands of public- and grammar-school boys. The growing trade in educational publishing through the later 18th and 19th centuries was driven by and supplied new editions of these books. The success of such publications, based on new pedagogical techniques, meant that they were stocked even in Anglican institutions’ libraries.9 In short, the education provided by Dissenting establishments was more energetic and relevant to the contemporary world than that delivered in the establishments from which the teachers and pupils had, by virtue of their faith, been excluded. Most of these schools and academies were also open institutions in the sense that, unlike their Anglican competitors, they enforced no requirement of doctrinal allegiance. Thus, Nonconformists of any denomination and level of piety were educated alongside one another, and even alongside children from Anglican families. They sometimes offered the highest quality and most affordable education locally, although they did not tend to last very long as institutions.10

This chapter introduces several individuals, some of whom are well known, others entirely obscure. For each one of them whose names we know, there were tens, sometimes hundreds, who sat in the same forms, thumbed the same dictionaries and fed on the same information, but are now forgotten. These men and women—and in this chapter they are nearly all men—were extraordinary, but they did not always seem so to their peers. The evidence is too vast and incomplete to make an exhaustive survey possible, and not all the classically influenced individuals featured here are working-class. The Nonconformists whose names are remembered are often lower-middle-class radicals, but they interacted at deep personal and institutional levels with the working poor whom they aimed to edify and educate and who are the primary focus of our book. The number of individuals discussed in other chapters who were introduced to classical civilisation and history only through the agency of Nonconformist educational initiatives is testimony to their importance at the very lowest level of the socio-economic scale.

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