Evangelicalism and social class

Here is the second installment of my notes of David Smith’s address at the Reaching the Unreached conference in which he provides an historical reflection on the social location of evangelicalism in the 21st century under the title ‘How Did We Get Here? Class, Culture and the Gospel’. If you want to pursue the themes in these notes then a warmly recommend David’s book, Transforming the World? The Social Impact of British Evangelicalism purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

The nineteenth century saw enormous changes in the nature of British cities and society. Glasgow is a good example of this.  In the 18th century it was a small town clustered around its cathedral. Its population had not changed much for centuries. The cathedral was Reformed so Glasgow might be said to represent a holy commonwealth as envisioned by the Reformers. Within decades that city was completely overwhelmed. It became the workshop of the world, the second city of empire. Its population was swelled by huge numbers of immigrants from depopulated highlands and devastated Ireland. It was this cheap labour that made the industrial revolution possible. But it resulted in increasing social division. Glasgow was divided between a west end (leafy and middle-class) and an east end (down wind from the effluent of the factories, comprising working class slums). The same was true in London, Karl Marx and William Booth both arrived in London in the same year and both were shocked by the condition of the working class. Indeed, both likened it to Dante’s description of the circles of hell.

The same century saw the rise of evangelicalism with massive church growth and a huge programme of new church building.

How are these two things related to each other? In other words, how did emergent evangelicalism respond to the poverty of the industrial poor? The answer is complex.

On the one hand, in the city of Glasgow the new west end was the key location for the building of new churches (many now converted into nightclubs). In the nineteenth century they were filled with the emergent middle class.

In 1840s the Chartists (demanding fundamental human rights and social justice) organised a series of demonstrations in churches. They asked vicars to preach on texts from James. They rarely got the sermons they requested. In most cases they did not get beyond the door. In one case they were refused entry by armed police. In Manchester a vicar provoked a walk out by chartists by taking as his text, ‘My house is a house or prayer but you have made it a den of thieves.’

Smith argues that working class movements became more radical and more humanist by the negative response of evangelicals to the Chartists. In the early days the Chartists were inspired by Christ, but the establishment also used Christianity to defend the status quo. So the working class became much more radical and sometimes Marxist. In 1855 Karl Marx was in Hyde Park to witness another huge Chartist demonstration. Marx was delighted to see the response of the crowd to a woman returning from church. As she passed she held out a prayer book from her carriage. The crowd responded by telling her to give it to her horses to read.

Yet the same period witnessed preachers inspired by the Scriptures developing a powerful prophetic approach to contemporary problems. They recognised a distressing similarity between the contemporary church and the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3). They recognised the corrosive power of money. Examples include:

  • Charles H. Spurgeon, the London preacher who reached working class people, planted churches in slums and founded an orphanage
  • William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army who wrote Darkest England and the Way Out
  • Thomas Guthrie, the Edinburgh minister and founder of the Ragged Schools
  • Norman Macleod, the Scottish preacher who earned the name ‘Caraid nan Gaidheal’ (Friend of the Gaels) for his advocacy of famine relief in the Highlands

But they are included a host of other preachers whose names we don not know because they buried themselves in situations of great social need.

These preachers began to impact middle-class Christianity by the end of the 19th century. In Glasgow it was recognised that the cholera epidemics were caused by the lack of clean water in the slums. A scheme was devised to bring clean water, but it was strongly resisted by middle-class rate players who resented paying for improvements among the poor. But evangelicals spoke up for the scheme and evangelical lay people entered local politics to see it enacted. The result was an extraordinary scheme to this day.

It was not just middle-class Christians who brought about change. It was working-class Christians who retained a living relationship with Christ and who pursued social justice inspired by the gospel. An example is Kier Hardie, a founder of the Independent Labour Party and the first Labour MP. Hardy grew up in poverty. As a young man he got a job with an evangelical firm. One day he arrived a few minutes late because he had been nursing his sick brother. He was summoned up to appear before the family who owned the firm. While they dined on a sumptuous breakfast, they lectured him on his lateness. Two weeks later he was again late again because he was nursing his brother. This time was summarily sacked. But Hardy did not turn from the gospel, but to the gospel, reading the Gospels and finding inspiration for the pursuit of justice. Later in his career Hardy confronted Overton, a millionaire Christian who paid his workers small wages and refused to allow them Sunday off (despite being an active member of the Lord’s Day Observance Society). Hardy challenged him as a fellow brother.

‘The impression has gained currency that to be a Christian and more especially an evangelical you have to be a traditionalist and a proponent of the status quo.’ Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Westminster Conference, 1975

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3 thoughts on “Evangelicalism and social class

  1. Lewis in ‘Lighten their Darkness’ also makes the following points from the 19th century

    i) evangelicals were concerned about the working class as a whole that they were not being reached with the gospel – their top people were concerned about it – Spurgeon, Wilberforce etc saw this as a major issue and mobilised the church and resources (back to Melvin’s point about a fund) to address it …

    ii) so there was a recognition that something needed to be done about it which dealt with the anti church mentality in some of those recently coming to the cities (due to pew rents and upper class domination) and also the class bias against them of the middle classes etc who were in the churches.

    iii) the result of this was a fudge we have never really recovered from …

    in the age of the explosion of the parachurch (the 1800s) we saw firstly organisations like the London City Mission and the Scripture Readers Association tasked to reach the working classes

    and ..

    the development of the mission hall movement – seperate churches for the working classes

    and so we now look on what we have today ie … some parachurch orgs reaching out (when surely it should be the churches), or a few keeners running youth works with little actually to do with the main church, or plans to set up churches for certain sorts of people, but overall limited confrontation of the conservative evangelicals with the truth that churches should have all sorts of people in – I’m currently going through Luke and he is obsessed with all sorts of people coming into the kingdom …

    ironically pre industrialisation everyone was in church together … for certain periods because they had to go, with it being against the law not to


  2. Sorry I posted this and then thought I seem to be making Lewis responsible for my wacky ideas – he of course provides the history – the implications – right or wrong are mine …


  3. Thanks Tim for your notes. You must have incredible note taking abilities!
    I couldn’t be at the conference, so am very glad of being able to read your notes. If you ever hear of mp3’s being posted, please let us know.

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