Posted and annotated by Brenda S. Cox
Soon, my upcoming book, Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England will be available! It is available this weekend at the JASNA AGM, then on Oct. 20 will be available to everyone from Amazon! The Kindle version can be pre-ordered now and the print version will be available soon. This is part of a series of “bonus materials” for that book, which all of you readers can enjoy.
What were Church of England services like in Jane Austen’s England?
Robert Southey, a popular writer of Austen’s England, wrote Letters from England in 1807. He wrote it under the name Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, writing as if from the perspective of a Spanish Catholic. The next year, Jane Austen wrote that he “describes well, but is horribly anti-english. He deserves to be the foreigner he assumes” (Letters, 147, Oct. 1, 1808).
His letters give first-hand descriptions (though slanted from an imagined Catholic perspective) of the English church at the time. These excerpts are from Letters 19 and 20 in the third edition, volume 1, London: Longman, 1814, as reproduced by Project Gutenberg. [Words in brackets are my added explanatory notes, or page numbers from the original.] I have split his very long paragraphs and added subtitles (mostly from Southey’s headings at the beginning of each letter) for easier reading.
Note: This is for historical interest only; I am in no way endorsing the opinions expressed in these books. Southey himself was trying to express the prejudices and perspectives he imagined a Spanish Catholic might have. However, the observations on English society of the time are interesting in themselves.
English Church Service.—Banns of Marriage.—Inconvenience of having the Sermon a regular Part.—Sermons an Article of Trade.—Popular Preachers.—Private Chapels.
English Church Service
The ceremonies of the English Church Service are soon described. Imagine a church with one altar covered with crimson velvet, the Creed and the Decalogue [Ten Commandments] over it in golden letters, over these the Hebrew name of God, or the I.H.S. [abbreviation of the name of Christ in Greek] at the pleasure of the painter, and half a dozen winged heads about it, clumsily painted, or more clumsily carved: the nakedness of the other walls concealed by a gallery [balcony]; an organ over the door, and below it, immediately fronting the priest, a clock. Here [p. 201] also in some conspicuous place is a tablet to record in what year the church was repaired or beautified, and to perpetuate the names of the church-wardens at that time in letters of gold. Another tablet enumerates, but in faded lettering, and less conspicuous situation, all the benefactors to the parish; that is, all who have left alms to the poor, or fees to the minister for an anniversary sermon.
The gallery and the area of the church are divided into pews, as they are called, by handsome mahogany partitions, within which the rich sit on cushioned seats, and kneel on hassocks, while the poor stand in the aisle, and kneel upon the stones. These pews are usually freehold [privately owned], attached to houses in the parish. In towns a rent is exacted for them; and in private chapels, of which I shall speak hereafter, the whole income is derived from them, as in a theatre. The reading-desk of the priest is under the pulpit, and under it that of the clerk; there are no other assistants except the sexton and his wife, [p. 202] who open the pews, and expect a fee for accommodating a stranger with a seat.
The priest wears a surplice; the clerk is no otherwise distinguished from the laity than as he has a stronger voice than usual, reads worse than other people, that is, more like a boy at a village school, and more frequently speaks through the nose. The catholic church has no corresponding office; he is to the congregation what the leader of the band is to an orchestra.
Some part of the service is repeated by the clerk and the people after the priest; with others, as the psalms, and all the hymns, they proceed alternately verse by verse; the priest reads the scripture lessons and many of the prayers alone; he also reads the Litany, and the clerk and congregation make the petition at the end of every clause. There is nothing in the Liturgy to which a Catholic must necessarily object, except the absolution; and with respect to that, his objection would be to the sense in which it is taken, [p. 203] not to that which it was intended to convey.
After the first lesson [Bible reading] the organist relieves the priest by playing a tune, good or bad according to his own fancy. This is an interlude of modern interpolation, which would have shocked the Protestants in those days when their priests were more zealous and longer-winded.
At the end of what is properly called the morning service, though on the Sunday it is but the first part of three, a portion of the Psalms in vile verse, is given out by the clerk, and sung by the whole congregation: the organ seems to have been introduced in all opulent churches to hide the hideous discord of so many untuned and unmusical voices, and overpower it by a louder strain.
A second part follows, which is usually performed beside the altar, but this is at the option of the officiating priest; in this the congregation and their leader have little more to do than to cry Amen, except that they repeat the Nicene Creed; this part also is terminated by psalm-singing, [p. 204] during which the priest exchanges his white vestment for a black one, and ascends the pulpit.
He begins with a short prayer, of which the form is left to himself; then proceeds to the sermon. In old times the sermon was a serious thing, both for the preacher and the hearers; the more, the better, was the maxim in the days of fanaticism, and when the sands of one hour were run out the people heard with pleasure the invitation of the preacher to take another glass with him. But times are changed; the hour-glass has disappeared, the patience of a congregation is now understood to last twenty minutes, and in this instance short measure is preferred.
Immediately after the valediction the organ strikes up a loud peal, with much propriety, as it drowns the greetings and salutations which pass from one person to another. The Litany and the whole of the second part are omitted in the evening service.
Thus you perceive, that having apostatized and given up the essentials of religion, [p. 205] the schismatics have deprived divine service of its specific meaning and motive. It is no longer a sacrifice for the people. The congregation assemble to say prayers which might as well be said in their oratories, and to hear sermons which might more conveniently be read at home. Nothing is done which might not be done with the same propriety in a chamber as in a church, and by a layman as by a priest.
Banns of Marriage and Licenses
A curious legal form is observed in the midst of the service; the priest reads a list of all the persons in the parish who are about to be married. This is done three successive Sundays, that if any person should be acquainted with any existing impediment to the marriage, he may declare it in time. The better classes avoid this publicity by obtaining a license at easy expense. Those of high rank choose to be married at their own houses, a license for which can be obtained from only the primate.
In Scotland, where the schismatics [Presbyterians] [p. 206] succeeded in abolishing all the decencies as well as the ornaments of religion, this is the universal practice; the sacrament of marriage may be celebrated in any place, and by any person, in that country, and the whole funeral ceremony there consists in digging a hole, and putting the body into it!
Inconvenience of Having the Sermon a Regular Part
Of the service of this heretical church, such as it is, the sermon seems to be regarded as the most important part; children are required to remember the text [Bible passage], and it is as regular a thing for the English to praise the discourse when they are going out of church, as it is to talk of their health immediately before, and of the weather immediately afterwards. The founders of the schism did not foresee the inconvenience of always attaching this appendage to prayers and forms which the Fathers of the church indited and enacted under the grace of the Holy Spirit, and which even they had grace enough to leave uncorrupted, though not unmutilated.
To [p. 207] go through these forms and offer up these petitions requires in the priest nothing more than the commonest learning; it is, indeed, one of the manifold excellencies of the true church, that the service can neither be made better nor worse by him who performs it. But here, where a main part consists of composition merely human, which is designed to edify and instruct the people, more knowledge and more talents are necessary than it is reasonable to expect in every priest, or indeed possible to find. You may suppose that this inconvenience is easily remedied, that only those persons would be licensed to preach whom the bishop had approved as well qualified, and that all others would be enjoined to read the discourses of those schismatical [Dissenter] doctors whom their schismatical church had sanctioned. Something like this was at first intended, and a book of homilies set forth by authority. Happily these have become obsolete. I say happily, because, having been composed in the first years of the [p. 208] schism, they abound with calumnies against the [Catholic] faith.
The people now expect original composition from their priests, let their ability be what it may; it would be regarded as a confession of incapacity to take a book into the pulpit; and you may well suppose, if we in Spain have more preachers than are good, what it must be in a country where every priest is one.
Sermons an Article of Trade
The sermon is read, not recited, nor delivered extemporaneously; which is one main difference between the regular English clergy and the sectarians. It has become a branch of trade to supply the priests with discourses, and sermons may be bespoken upon any subject, at prices proportioned to the degree of merit required, which is according to the rank of the congregation to whom they are to be addressed. One clergyman of Cambridge [Simeon] has assisted his weaker brethren, by publishing outlines which they may fill up, and which he calls skeletons of sermons; another of higher [p. 209] rank, to accommodate them still further, prints discourses at full, in the written alphabet, so as to appear like manuscript to such of the congregation as may chance to see them. The manuscripts of a deceased clergyman are often advertised for sale, and it is usually added to the notice, that they are warranted original; that is, that no other copies have been sold, which might betray the secret.
These shifts, however, are not resorted to by the more respectable clergy; it is not uncommon for these to enter into a commercial treaty with their friends of the profession, and exchange their compositions. But even with this reinforcement, the regular stock is usually but scanty; and if the memory of the parishioners be good enough to last two years, or perhaps half the time, they recognise their old acquaintance at their regular return [repeated sermons].
If, however, this custom be burthensome to one part of the clergy, they who have enough talents to support more vanity [p. 210] fail not to profit by it, and London is never without a certain number of popular preachers. I am not now speaking of those who are popular among the sectarians [Dissenters], or because they introduce sectarian doctrines into the church; but of that specific character among the regular English clergy, which is here denominated a popular preacher.
You may well imagine, that, as the tree is known by its fruits, I have not a Luis de Granada, nor an Antonio Vieyra, to describe. Thread-bare garments of religious poverty, eyes weakened by incessant tears of contrition, or of pious love, and cheeks withered by fasting and penitence, would have few charms for that part of the congregation for whom the popular preacher of London curls his forelock, studies gestures at his looking-glass, takes lessons from some stage-player in his chamber, and displays his white hand and white handkerchief in the pulpit.
The discourse is in character with the orator; nothing to rouse a slumbering conscience, [p. 211] nothing to alarm the soul at a sense of its danger, no difficulties expounded to confirm the wavering, no mighty truths enforced to rejoice the faithful,—to look for theology here would be seeking pears from the elm;—only a little smooth morality, such as Turk, Jew, or Infidel, may listen to without offence, sparkling with metaphors and similes, and rounded off with a text of scripture, a scrap of poetry, or, better than either, a quotation from Ossian [popular though spurious poet].—To have a clergy exempt from the frailties of human nature is impossible; but the true church has effectually secured hers from the vanities of the world: we may sometimes have to grieve, because the wolf has put on the shepherd’s cloak, but never can have need to blush at seeing the monkey in it.
These gentlemen have two ends in view, the main one is to make a fortune by marriage,—one of the evils this of a married [p. 212] clergy. It was formerly a doubt whether the red coat or the black one, the soldier or the priest, had the best chance with the ladies; if on the one side there was valour, there was learning on the other; but since volunteering has made scarlet so common, black carries the day;—cedunt arma togæ [arms (weapons) give way to togas].
The customs of England do not exclude the clergyman from any species of amusement; the popular preacher is to be seen at the theatre, and at the horse-race, bearing his part at the concert and the ball, making his court to old ladies at the card-table, and to young ones at the harpsichord: and in this way, if he does but steer clear of any flagrant crime or irregularity, (which is not always the case; for this order, in the heretical hierarchy, has had more than one Lucifer,) he generally succeeds in finding some widow, or waning spinster, with weightier charms than youth and beauty.
His other object is to obtain what is called a lectureship, in some wealthy parish; [p. 213] that is, to preach an evening sermon on Sundays, at a later hour than the regular service, for which the parishioners pay by subscription. As this is an addition to the established service, at the choice of the people, and supported by them at a voluntary expense, the appointment is in their hands as a thing distinct from the cure [the living]; it is decided by votes, and the election usually produces a contest, which is carried on with the same ardour, and leaves behind it the same sort of dissension among friends and neighbours, as a contested election for parliament.
But the height of the popular preacher’s ambition is to obtain a chapel of his own, in which he rents out pews and single seats by the year; and here he does not trust wholly to his own oratorical accomplishments; he will have a finer-tuned organ than his neighbour, singers better trained, double doors, and stoves of the newest construction, to keep it comfortably warm. I met one of these chapel-proprietors in company; self-complacency, [p. 214] good humour, and habitual assentation to every body he met with, had wrinkled his face into a perpetual smile. He said he had lately been expending all his ready money in religious purposes; this he afterwards explained as meaning that he had been fitting up his chapel; “and I shall think myself very badly off,” he added, “if it does not bring me in fifty per cent.”
Irreverence of the English towards the Virgin Mary and the Saints.—Want of Ceremonies in their Church.—Festival Dainties.—Traces of Catholicism in their Language and Oaths.—Disbelief of Purgatory.—Fatal Consequences of this Error.—Supposed Advantages of the Schism examined.—Clergy not so numerous as formerly.
Irreverence of the English towards the Virgin Mary and the Saints
The religion of the English approaches more nearly than I had supposed, in its doctrines, to the true faith; so nearly indeed, in some instances, that it would puzzle these heretics [Anglicans] to explain the difference, or to account for it where it exists. With respect to the holiest sacrament [Communion], they admit that the body and blood of [p. 216] Christ is verily and indeed taken, and yet they deny the real presence. They give absolution regularly in their church service, upon a public and general confession, which is equivalent to no confession at all [Catholics give absolution after private individual confession to a priest].
They accredit the miracles of the first two or three centuries, and no others; as if miracles were not just as well authenticated, and just as necessary, in succeeding ages, or, as if it were possible to say. Thus far shalt thou believe, and no further. They profess to believe in the communion of saints, though in fact they believe not in the saints; and they say that the Holy Catholic Church subsisted in the Waldenses and Albigenses, for to these miserable wretches they trace the origin of the great schism [the Protestant Reformation]. It is as extraordinary as it is lamentable, to see how they have reduced every thing to a mere caput mortuum [death’s head, or worthless remains].
Lack of Ceremonies in their Church
One of the things which most indicates their blindness, is their total want of all reverence for Mary, the most pure. Believing [p. 217] her to be indeed the immaculate mother of God, they honour her with no festivals, no service, not a single prayer; nor have they the slightest feeling of adoration or love for a being so infinitely lovely and adorable. The most obscure saint in the calendar has more respect in Spain, than is shown here to the most holy Virgin! St Joseph is never mentioned, nor thought of; they scarcely seem to know that such a person ever existed.
The Apostles are just so far noticed that no business is transacted at the public offices upon their festivals, and this is all; no procession is made, nobody goes to church; in fact, nobody remembers that the day is a festival, except the clerks, who find it a holyday [holiday]; for these words are not synonymous in England. Holyday means nothing more here than a day of cessation from business, and a school-boy’s vacation. The very meaning of the word is forgotten.
Nothing can be conceived more cold [p. 218] and unimpassioned and uninteresting than all the forms of this false Church. No vestments except the surplice and the cassock, the one all white, the other all black, to which the Bishops add nothing but lawn sleeves. Only a single altar, and that almost naked, without one taper, and without the great and adorable Mystery. Rarely a picture, no images, the few which the persecutors [Protestant reformers] left in the niches of the old cathedrals are mutilated; no lamps, no crucifix, not even a cross to be seen.
If it were not for the Creed and the Ten Commandments which are usually written over the altar, one of these heretical places of worship might as soon be taken for a mosque as for a church. The service is equally bald; no genuflections, no crossings, no incense, no elevation; and their music, when they have any, is so monstrous, that it seems as if the Father of Heresy had perverted their ears as well as their hearts.
Festival Dainties [Holiday Foods]
[p. 219] The Church festivals, however, are not entirely unobserved; though the English will not pray, they will eat; and, accordingly, they have particular dainties for all the great holydays. On Shrove Tuesday they eat what they call pancakes, which are a sort of wafer fried or made smaller and thicker with currants or apples, in which case they are called fritters. For Mid Lent Sunday they have huge plum-cakes, crusted with sugar like snow; for Good Friday, hot bunns marked with a cross for breakfast; the only relic of religion remaining among all their customs. These bunns will keep for ever without becoming mouldy, by virtue of the holy sign impressed upon them. I have also been credibly informed, that in the province of Herefordshire a pious woman annually makes two upon this day, the crumbs of which are a sovereign remedy for diarrhœa. People come far and near for this precious medicine, which has never been known to fail; yet even miracles produce no effect. [p. 220] On the feast of St Michael the Archangel, every body must eat goose for dinner; and on the Nativity, turkey, with what they call Christmas pies. They have the cakes again on the festival of the Kings.
Traces of Catholicism in their Language and Oaths
Some traces of Catholicism may occasionally be observed in their language. Their words Christmas and Candlemas show that there was once a time when they were in the right way. The five wounds are corrupted into a passionate exclamation, of which, they who use it know not the awful meaning.
There is another instance so shocking as well as ridiculous that I almost tremble to write it. The word for swine in this language differs little in its pronunciation from the word Pix [round container for carrying the consecrated bread of Communion]; it is well known how infamous these people have at all times been for the practice of swearing: they have retained an oath by this sacred vessel, and yet so completely forgotten even the meaning of the word, that they say, Please the Pigs, instead of the Pix.
They also still preserve [p. 221] in their oaths the names of some Pagan Divinities whom their fathers worshipped, and of whom perhaps no other traces remain. The Deuce is one, the Lord-Harry another: there is also the Living Jingo, Gor, and Goles. The Pagan Goths had no such idols; so probably these were adored by the Celtic inhabitants of the island.
With us every thing is calculated to remind us of religion. We cannot go abroad without seeing some representation of Purgatory, some cross which marks a station, an image of Mary the most pure, or a crucifix,—without meeting priest, or monk, or friar, a brotherhood busy in their work of charity, or the most holy Sacrament under its canopy borne to redeem and sanctify the dying sinner. In your chamber the bells of the church or convent reach your ear, or the voice of one begging alms for the souls, or the chaunt of the priests in procession. Your babe’s first plaything is his nurse’s rosary. [p. 222] The festivals of the Church cannot pass unnoticed, because they regulate the economy of your table; and they cannot be neglected without reproof from the confessor, who is as a father to every individual in the family.
There is nothing of all this in England. The clergy here are as little distinguished from the laity in their dress as in their lives; they are confined to black, indeed, but with no distinction of make, and black is a fashionable colour; the only difference is, that they wear no tail, though their heads are ornamented with as much care as if they had never been exhorted to renounce the vanities of the world. Here are no vespers to unite a whole kingdom at one time in one feeling of devotion; if the bells are heard, it is because bell-ringing is the popular music.
Disbelief of Purgatory and its Consequences
As for Purgatory, it is well known that all the heretics reject it: by some inconceivable absurdity they believe that sin may deserve eternal punishment, and yet cannot deserve any thing short thereof,—as if there [p. 223] were no degrees of criminality. In like manner they deny all degrees of merit, confining the benefit of every man’s good works to himself; confounding thus all distinctions of piety; or, to speak more truly, denying that there is any merit in good works; that is, that good works can be good; and thus they take away all motive for goodness.
Oh how fatal is this error to the living and to the dead! An Englishman has as little to do with religion in his death as in his life. No tapers are lighted, no altar prepared, no sacrifice performed, no confession made, no absolution given, no unction administered; the priest rarely attends; it is sufficient to have the doctor and the nurse by the sick bed; so the body be attended, the soul may shift for itself. Every thing ends with the funeral; they think prayers for the dead of no avail: and in this, alas! they are unwittingly right, for it is to be feared their dead are in the place from whence there is no redemption.
[p. 224] All the ties which connect us with the World of Spirits are cut off by this tremendous heresy. If prayers for the dead were of no further avail than as the consolation of the living, their advantage would even then be incalculable; for, what consolation can be equal to the belief that we are by our own earnest expressions of piety alleviating the sufferings of our departed friends, and accelerating the commencement of their eternal happiness! Such a belief rouses us from the languor of sorrow to the performance of this active duty, the performance of which brings with it its own reward: we know that they for whom we mourn and intercede are sensible of these proofs of love, and that from every separate prayer thus directed they derive more real and inestimable benefit, than any services, however essential, could possibly impart to the living. And what a motive is this for us to train up our children in the ways of righteousness, that they in their turn may intercede [p. 225] for us when we stand most in need of intercession! Alas! the accursed Luther and his accomplices seem to have barred up every avenue to Heaven.
Supposed Advantages of the Schism [the Reformation]
They, however, boast of the advantages obtained by the Schism, which they think proper to call the Reformation. The three points on which they especially congratulate themselves are, the privilege of having the Scriptures in their own tongue; of the cup for the congregation, and of the marriage of the clergy. As for the first, it is altogether imaginary: the church does not prohibit its members from translating the Bible, it only enjoins that they translate from the approved version of the Vulgate, lest any errors should creep in from ignorance of the sacred language, or misconception, or misrepresentation; and the wisdom of this injunction has been sufficiently evinced.
The privilege of the cup might be thought of little importance to a people who think so lightly of the Eucharist; but as they have preserved so [p. 226] few sacraments, they are right to make the most of what they have.
The marriage of the clergy has the effect of introducing poverty among them, and rendering it, instead of a voluntary virtue, the punishment of an heretical custom. Most of the inferior clergy are miserably poor: nothing, indeed, can be conceived more deplorable than the situation of those among them who have large families. They are debarred by their profession from adding to their scanty stipends by any kind of labour; and the people, knowing nothing of religious poverty, regard poverty at all times more as a crime than a misfortune, and would despise an apostle if he came to them in rags.
Clergy Not So Numerous as Formerly
During the last generation, it was the ambition of those persons in the lower ranks of society who were just above the peasantry, to make one of their sons a clergyman, if they fancied he had a talent for learning. But times have changed, and the situation of a clergyman who has [p. 227] no family interest [connections to get him a living] is too unpromising to be any longer an object of envy. They who would have adventured in the church formerly, now become commercial adventurers: in consequence, commerce is now far more overstocked with adventurers than ever the church has been, and men are starving as clerks instead of as curates.
I have heard that the master of one of the free grammar-schools, who, twenty years ago, used to be seeking what they call curacies for his scholars, and had always many more expectants than he could supply with churches, has now applications for five curates, and cannot find one to accept the situation. On the contrary, a person in this great city advertised lately for a clerk; the salary was by no means large, nor was the situation in other respects particularly desirable, yet he had no fewer than ninety applicants.
Other Excerpts from Southey’s Letters, Volume I
Inside of an English Church (from Letter 4)
By the time we had breakfasted the bells for divine service were ringing, and I took the opportunity to step into one of their churches. The office is performed in a desk immediately under the pulpit, not at the altar: there were no lights burning, nor any church vessels, nor ornaments to be seen. Monuments are fixed against the walls and pillars, and I thought there was a damp and unwholesome smell, perhaps because I involuntarily expected the frankincense. They have an abominable custom of partitioning their churches into divisions which they call pews, and which are private property; so that the wealthy sit at their ease, or kneel upon cushions, while the poor stand during the whole service in the aisle.
Poor Laws (from Letter 26)
With us charity is a religious duty, with the English it is an affair of law. We support the poor by alms; in England a tax is levied to keep them from starving, and, enormous as the amount of this tax is, it is scarcely sufficient for the purpose. This evil began immediately upon the dissolution of the monasteries. They who were accustomed to receive food at the convent door, where they could ask it without shame because it was given as an act of piety, had then none to look up to for bread. A system of parish taxation was soon therefore established, and new laws from time to time enacted to redress new grievances, the evil still outgrowing the remedy, till the poor-laws have become the disgrace of the statutes, and it is supposed that at this day a tenth part of the whole population of England receive regular parish pay. (This letter continues, extensively discussing the pitfalls of the poor laws, the parish system, and the workhouse.)
Other Letters of Potential Interest
In Volume 1, 3rd ed., 1814
- Chimney sweeps and climbing boys, Letter 13
- Dissenters, Letter 29
- English Catholics, Letters 12 and 28
- Dr. Dodd’s forgery and punishment, and Samuel Johnson, Letter 22
- St. Paul’s Cathedral, Letters 7 and 27
- Westminster Abbey, Letter 23
In Volume 2, 3rd ed., 1814 (also includes factories and industrialization):
- Crime and punishment, Letter 39
- Illness and medical treatment, Letter 50
- Methodists, Evangelicals, and abolishing tithes, Letter 53
- Oxford University, Letters 32 and 33
In Volume 3, 3rd ed., 1814:
- Bible, Letter 54
- Bull Baiting, Letter 67
- Jews, Letter 58
- Quakers, Letter 57
- Society for the Suppression of Vice, Letter 67
I remind you that I am not endorsing these opinions, but they are for historical interest. There is lots of rich material in Southey’s Letters about Austen’s age, including much more than religion.