Dr Gareth Atkins’ new book examines the political and social impact of Evangelicalism around the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Just how did William Wilberforce and his Evangelical contemporaries win so much influence? Dr Atkins reveals how neither public opinion nor the Establishment could be swayed by religious reformism alone.
First, a confession. When I began research for Converting Britannia I had only the vaguest idea of a subject and no idea whatsoever what I might find. To my supervisor’s credit he wasn’t fazed – at least, not perceptibly so – and gradually we developed a project: the politics of establishment Evangelicalism in the so-called ‘Age of Wilberforce’.
Two problems quickly crystallized. The first was that the heroic myths peddled in older biographies and replicated in popular retellings narrowed the perspective unrealistically. By mid century, Evangelicalism was tremendously powerful politically and culturally. But in the decades either side of 1800 it tended to be viewed chiefly in terms of a small band of like-minded luminaries battling against the odds: the group known to contemporaries as the ‘Saints’ and to posterity as the ‘Clapham Sect’. ‘A nation was blind’, claimed the strapline to Michael Apted’s 2007 Wilberforce biopic Amazing Grace, ‘until one man made them see.’ It’s a gripping tale, but it isn’t good history.
Second, and linked to this, was my growing awareness of a prevailing amnesia about how the evangelical world actually worked. ‘Clapham Sect’ itself is a later coining, and a misleading one: it tends to include figures who never lived there, and to exclude those whose piety was unquestionable but whose faces did not fit. And it wraps that world in a warm, fuzzy, domestic aura. Add to this the anachronistic idea that, then as now, ‘religion’ and ‘morals’ occupied a private, personal space, somehow walled off from the public sphere, and it is easy to see why Evangelical politics have been neglected.
Converting Britannia makes, then, what ought to be an obvious point: that Wilberforce and co. were men and women of their time. In a world where patronage, politicking and backstairs influence mattered, they had a shrewd appreciation of existing levers of power and how one might gain access to them. The Evangelical networks it charts were cemented by social contact and intermarriage and lubricated – or perhaps driven – by ambition. They ranged far beyond the predictable lines of Clapham and the House of Commons, spanning the Church, universities, armed forces and imperial officialdom, connecting London and the regions with Europe and the world.
Central to my argument is the fact that this would have been cheerfully acknowledged by Evangelicals themselves. While the biographies crafted by their children in the 1830s and 40s carefully crafted a lofty tale of moral statesmanship, I discovered early on in my research that their unpublished correspondence, diaries and personal papers are littered with references to place-finding and clientage. They pursued this tenaciously, often measuring their success in terms of appointments and influence, and talking openly about this in terms that later generations would have found deeply cynical.
In laying all this bare I seek neither to condemn nor condone. Rather, I have become more and more convinced that to pigeonhole Evangelicals as ‘reformers’ or ‘reactionaries’ – both of which labels are still frequently ascribed to them – is not just anachronistic; it radically underestimates their ambitions. They sought to capture the commanding heights of late-Hanoverian Britain and to transform it from the top down. In many senses they succeeded. This book seeks to show how.
GARETH ATKINS is a Bye-Fellow at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge.