Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park says the clergy “has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.”
This is probably Jane Austen’s own view on the importance of the clergy and the church. They are responsible for religion, morals (inner principles), and manners (outward behavior).
The Evangelical movement within Austen’s Church of England sought to reform the manners of England. They were led by William Wilberforce and others, later called the “Clapham Sect.” Wilberforce said, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” He did not mean the rules of politeness. “Manners” meant moral behavior, how people act, what they consider right and good, and what is wrong and unacceptable.
This, perhaps, is one of the things Austen herself liked about the Evangelical movement when she told her niece, “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason & Feeling must be happiest and safest.” (Letter to Fanny Knight, Nov. 18, 1814).
What was wrong with English manners?
Since manners meant moral behavior, many things. We see examples even in Austen’s novels:
- Adultery: At least in upper class London society, adultery was acceptable, as long as it was discreet, according to Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. Of course for the top echelons, like the Prince Regent and his set, it did not even have to be discreet. Both the Prince and his wife were known for sexual immorality.
- Disdain for religion: Religion was discounted and even ridiculed. When Edmund calls adultery sin, Mary Crawford says she will next hear of him as a missionary or a Methodist preacher (Methodists were considered low-class and overly emotional).
- Gambling: Widely prevalent, gambling bankrupted people. In Pride and Prejudice, Wickham’s gambling drives him deep into debt.
- Drunkenness: In Northanger Abbey, John Thorpe describes excessive drinking as a normal practice at Oxford University. Members of Parliament might even show up drunk to sessions of Parliament!
- Extravagance: Men like Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion lost fortunes through extravagance, pride, and ostentation.
Goodness, the sort of goodness we see in Austen characters like Fanny Price and Mr. Knightley, was not at all fashionable, at least not in the cities. Many in the church wanted to change that.
How did the Evangelicals set out to change the manners of their society?
- Winning the “great and powerful”: Evangelicals believed strongly that it was most important to change the manners of the upper classes, and that the middle and lower classes, who always wanted to imitate their “betters,” would follow suit. Therefore they were careful not to offend the upper classes. They avoided any criticism of the structure of society and the privileges of the wealthy.
- Winsomeness: Wilberforce and others were joyful, witty, winsome, and fun to be around. They socialized with their wealthy peers, and shared some of their amusements. However, they clearly rejected what they thought ungodly and harmful. Wilberforce, for example, gave up gambling for high stakes early on, after he won money from some friends who couldn’t afford to lose. He realized he was harming his friends by gambling with them.
- Using their positions in society: John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”) encouraged Wilberforce to stay in his position in Parliament when he became an Evangelical Christian. Wilberforce was able to do extensive good there. Others in Parliament, in business, and in the nobility similarly used their positions to influence others towards both faith and good works.
- Making use of the existing system: The church at the time was run on the basis of patronage, where certain people chose the clergymen for each parish. Some wealthy Evangelicals began to buy up the rights to choose the ministers for various churches. They put Evangelical clergymen in key parishes where they could preach the gospel as Evangelicals understood it.
- Literature: Wilberforce wrote a very popular book confronting the religious shallowness of his society. Hannah More wrote many widely-read books, starting with Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society. She wrote extensively on the need to know God and to live a moral life. Hannah More sold far more than Jane Austen did in her time period! More also wrote a popular series of tracts for the poorer classes. (In one of her letters Austen refers to More’s only novel, which Austen did not expect to like. More’s novel was very didactic, more teaching than plot.)
- Voluntary Organizations: Evangelicals started or were involved in dozens of organizations working towards an amazing array of good causes. These societies helped the poor, supported world missions, distributed Bibles, supported Sunday Schools, worked to improve the conditions of the boys who cleaned chimneys, rescued girls from prostitution, encouraged people to keep the Sabbath, worked for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, and much, much more. Many of these societies had local branches all over the country, and most were headed by wealthy and influential people. Thus, besides being able to do much good, many people became involved in the movement and were influenced themselves.
- Evangelism: Many of these societies, in one way or another, called people to spiritual conversion or some kind of turning to God.
- Education for the Poor: Sunday Schools educated the poor, who had to work the other six days of the week. The main focus was reading and religion: reading the Bible, learning the catechism, singing Psalms and sometimes hymns. Some added practical skills, adult classes, writing and other subjects. Learning to read gave poor people many more opportunities in society. Sunday Schools were sponsored and taught by all varieties of Anglicans and Dissenters, clergy and lay people. They spread all over the country and influenced the faith of both students and teachers.
- Cooperation: Many of the voluntary organizations included both Dissenters and Anglicans, building unity among Christians in the country. (There were many evangelical Christians in both groups; capital-E Evangelicals refers to the specific movement within the Anglican Church at this time.)
- Using their money to do good: Wealthy Evangelicals gave enormous amounts of money to all of these causes. Some completely depleted large fortunes through their generosity.
What blind spots did they have?
Each generation has its blind spots*, or what later generations would consider blind spots. Christians of Austen’s day saw their society as part of the Great Chain of Being (an idea from Greek philosophy adapted by Christians). They thought each person had a fixed place in society and it was their role to stay in that place, submissively doing the best they could there.
Therefore, much of their teaching to the poor and attempts to aid the poor encouraged submission and contentment in their place in society. Reform of political institutions was avoided, although from a modern perspective it was much needed.
This stance helped the Evangelicals to win favor with the wealthy classes, who were afraid of social upheaval. It may have helped England avoid a chaotic, bloody revolution like the French Revolution. Change did come, but more gradually.
Some radicals criticized the Evangelicals, saying that they were willing to help the slaves, but not the downtrodden of their own society. In their own view, however, Evangelicals were helping the downtrodden in many valuable ways, but not through major political reform. And of course freeing the slaves was in itself a huge accomplishment. While Wilberforce, an Evangelical, led the campaign for abolition, many, many others across the country were involved.
What mistakes did they make?
- Injustice: They began with attempts to enforce laws against various “vices.” However, these laws were enforced against the poor and not the rich, so they probably made more enemies than friends.
- Pride: Their leaders, such as John Newton, warned against pride, and Wilberforce is known for his humility. But some had too strong an attitude of “we’re right and everyone else is wrong,” especially in the following generations.
- Replacing inward transformation with outward works: The Evangelicals began with a very strong conviction that sin in the heart was the basic cause of all the problems they saw in society. Their goal was to address that sin and bring people to faith in Christ’s forgiveness and His sacrifice to pay for their sin. They believed this would result in many outward changes and good works. However, it appears that over time, especially in the Victorian age, the emphasis came to be more on outward forms of godliness rather than on a redeemed and joyful heart.
What were the results?
In a letter to a friend in 2014, Jane Austen described England as “a Religious Nation, a Nation in spite of much Evil improving in Religion” (Letter to Martha Lloyd, Sept. 2, 1814). Mansfield Park, written around the same time, discusses changing roles of the clergy, which might be one factor she is referring to. Austen may have also recognized that Evangelicals in the church were doing many good works, as well as awakening the rest of the clergy to the need to become more “serious” about religion.
The Victorian Age (1837-1901): The Evangelicals did bring some form of goodness into fashion. There were other historical factors, but their efforts seem to have contributed to the Victorian Age, in which morality was now expected and rewarded, while immorality was hidden and suppressed (and voluntary organizations for doing good were widespread). The Victorians had their own blind spots, of course, such as self-righteousness, perhaps. But the blatant immorality of the Regency was no longer tolerated.
Of course, there were many other positive results of their campaigns: abolition of the slave trade and then slavery in the British Empire; establishment of the Bible Society which spread around the world; the growth of missions; and the education of the poor, which did eventually contribute to major social changes in Britain.
In our world today, how do Christians try to make a difference in society? What goals do you think Christian churches should have? Are there any strategies used by these earlier Evangelicals that might be adapted to use today, or that are already in use? Are there any similar pitfalls that we need to avoid, or get out of? What blind spots do you think we have today?
[Note: I would love to hear reactions and comments on this, as it is a major theme of the book I’m writing, Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England.)
Recommended for Further Reading
Transforming a Nation: How England Turned Back to God in the Eighteenth Century, by Steven G. Dyer
The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Transformed Britain, by Stephen Tomkins
Fathers of the Victorians: The Age of Wilberforce, by Ford K. Brown
Evangelicals in the Church of England 1734-1984, by Kenneth Hylson-Smith
Jane Austen’s Anglicanism by Laura Mooneyham White explains the “Great Chain of Being.”
Newton quote is from the sermon “On a Decline in the Spiritual Life” from The Works of John Newton Volume IV.
*Blind spots: To give examples from other ages, of what appear to us today to be blind spots in the church: Most Christians of the pre-Civil War American South couldn’t see the evils of slavery. Reformers such as Martin Luther didn’t see anti-Semitism as wrong. Catholics of the Inquisition didn’t see the dangers of forcing people into external conformity. The Crusaders didn’t recognize that Jesus did not spread the gospel by force. Today we doubtless have other blind spots, where we accept unbiblical cultural assumptions without questioning them.