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Home arrow Political science arrow British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913


I am anxious that you may not mistake where your real supporters will lie. Believe me that they will be found amongst those who are pronounced Christian men and women.[1] —Dr Harry Grattan Guinness, 1904

Understanding the Movement’s Dimensions

The people of the movement brought life to the CRA’s structures. The reformers presented themselves as the representatives of a popular wave of enthusiasm among the population of England, Wales, and Scotland, which numbered 37 million in the 1901 census. Millions saw the newspapers that carried Congo articles and editorials, hundreds of thousands attended Congo meetings, pamphlets went out by the tens of thousands each year and people bought many thousands of copies of each of Morel’s books.[2] More important were the people who devoted time and money to the cause: speakers at meetings, Executive Committee members, and donors.

At the movement’s periphery were the people who agreed with what they learned about the Congo but did nothing: readers of newspapers and periodicals with an interest in foreign affairs and Protestant churchgoers who heard about the Congo from the pulpit. Although they formed the largest component of a broadly pro-reform public opinion, their unwillingness to join any organized activity limited their impact.

People who attended Congo meetings had a greater effect. Hundreds of resolutions passed at public meetings flooded the Foreign Office with copies to local MPs, showing that support for reform reached far beyond newspaper editors and CRA activists. This led Grey to say in Parliament, “No external question for at least thirty years has moved the country so strongly and so vehemently.”[3]

Estimating the number who attended meetings requires both science and art. The database of 1,590 recorded UK Congo meetings (at this writing) gives attendance figures for 90 large meetings totaling 158,000-175,000. The 1,500

recorded meetings that did not report attendance were likely smaller. A sampling of seating capacity, where available, in these venues runs from a few dozen in a drawing room through churches and halls holding a few hundred to larger locations with capacities of 1,000-2,000. Baptist churches, the most common venue, on average had 60-100 parishioners.[4] Estimating average attendance at 100-300 people seems reasonable.

Estimating unrecorded meetings is more challenging and depends on how complete the records are. Morel wrote in October 1906 that the Organ did not include all the meeting notices he had received that month, but he caught up and announced that he would acknowledge every resolution, though he might miss one “here and there.”[5] Evidence suggests that half to three-quarters of the meetings appeared in the Organ. For example, the Liverpool auxiliary sponsored 21 meetings in 1906 of which Morel recorded half.[6] Also, Morel claimed 400 meetings for the three months ending 31 January 1907, but listed 317 specific meetings.[7] Searches of 73 newspapers in the electronic British Newspaper Archive found only a few dozen meetings Morel missed. Unreported meetings seem to have been less numerous than the ones we know of. Assuming 100-300 average attendance and 1,000-1,500 unrecorded meetings, total meeting attendance from 1903-13 ranged from 400,000 to 1,100,000. Col. Stopford’s claim that 7 million people attended a Congo meeting was unwarranted.[8]

Some meetings were huge, with thousands gathering in the largest halls in major cities, such as 1909’s Albert Hall demonstration. More numerous were the 76 town’s meetings, which had a semi-official character as recording the consensus view of the inhabitants. Town’s meetings were a regular part of British civic life, called by the mayor to meet parliamentary requirements for topics such as capital spending or in response to a petition about social or humanitarian issues. Most numerous were smaller meetings organized by local worthies, ministers, private citizens, or organizations, occurring primarily in churches, which often charged no rent, or in small lecture halls, YMCA meeting rooms, schools, clubs, and homes.

Press accounts sometimes identified the prominent men and women who showed support by taking seats on the platform. A typical town’s meeting platform would include the mayor and his wife, aldermen and councilors, local MPs, titled individuals, and local clergymen. Beyond the platform, there is little information about the makeup of the audience. Public meetings held at churches would have attracted people from the community as well as parishioners. Morel favored town’s meetings and large public demonstrations because they reached a broader constituency. Mayors observed that their town’s meetings drew people irrespective of religious belief or political affiliation, and one noted that his meeting brought together the middle and working classes.[9] With free admission except for the best seats, there was no barrier to working- class participation.

In some venues working-class men made up the entire audience. The Organ reported Congo meetings for 19 Bible Study and Adult School groups. Twenty- six recorded meetings appeared under the sponsorship of Pleasant Sunday Afternoon (PSA) brotherhoods, nonsectarian groups that met in churches after Sunday services for working men skeptical of organized religion but supportive of a generic Christian approach to current issues.[10] Conveniently, F.B. Meyer became President of the newly formed national PSA association in 1907. A few labor organizations sponsored Congo meetings and/or resolutions, among them the Trades Council of West Hartlepool, Derby Trades Council, and National Union of Women Workers.[11] Trade union support fell far short of Morel’s original goals, which if successful would have let the CRA claim millions of supporters via the unions.[12]

Those who only attended meetings were not really adherents; they made no sacrifice for the cause. In this age before radio, television, and wide film distribution, public meetings were a form of diversion and recreation for many people.[13]

Organizing or speaking at local meetings, a more active form of support, engaged Committee members from the central CRA and auxiliaries, missionaries, political figures, writers, parish clergy, religious leaders, and Africa hands. Speaker names appear for 930 meetings in Britain, not counting purely local figures. John and Alice Harris, simultaneously CRA activists and former missionaries, appeared most frequently, with John named 406 times and Alice 221. Morel was the next most frequent speaker at 135 meetings. BMS missionary J.R.M. Stephens spoke 117 times, followed by Guinness at 76. Another 18 CBM and BMS missionaries spoke 84 times. The names of 38 other clergy appear as speakers at 76 meetings, but hundreds of pastors spoke at meetings in their own churches or preached on Congo Sundays.

  • [1] Guinness to Morel, 2 Feb 1904, F4/3:87-8.
  • [2] John M. McEwen, “The National Press during the First World War,” Journal ofContemporary History 17, no. 3 (July 1982): 466-7.
  • [3] 184 Parl. Deb. (4th ser.) (1908), 1871.
  • [4] Whittaker’s Almanac, 1912; Hazell’s Annual, 1911.
  • [5] Organ, December 1906, 28.
  • [6] Organ, April 1907, 20.
  • [7] Morel to Channing, 31 January 1907, F10/15:76.
  • [8] Stopford memo, 30 July 1908, F4/9:134.
  • [9] Baxxforth (Mayor of Huddersfield) to Morel, 15 April 1907, F4/24.
  • [10] Whittaker’s Almanac, 1912; Daily News Year Book, 1912.
  • [11] Organ, February 1907, 29; Organ, June 1907, 14; Organ, December 1906, 22-7.
  • [12] Morel to Emmott, 10 March 1904, F10/10:464.
  • [13] Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of theEnglish Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 428.
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