The Nonconformist Origins of
Christian Socialism in Britain
Above: My Gulliver grandparents.
Below: A Family evicted for supporting the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union
I grew up on the outskirts of Birmingham as the son of a Baptist minister who had been a draughtsman in a Black Country steelworks before the Second World War. My mother was the daughter of a Warwickshire collier whose own grandfather, Vinson Gulliver, had helped Joseph Arch, the Methodist lay-preacher to establish the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union in the early 1870s. This was the first union of unskilled workers, and their strike found support from the Nonconformist British Quarterly Review, which in 1872 expressed the view that…
… the movement which commenced a few months since in Warwickshire, and which is spreading gradually over the whole agricultural region of south and mid-England, is not unlike the first of those upheavals which occurred five centuries ago. Like that, it is an attempt to escape from… an intolerable and hopeless bondage, with the difference that… the present is an attempt to exact better terms for manual labour. Just as the poor priests of Wycliffe’s training were the agents… by whom communications were made between the various disaffected regions, so on the present occasion the ministers or preachers of those humbler sects, whose religious impulses are energetic, and perhaps sensational, have been found the national leaders of a struggle after social emancipation. A religious revival has constantly been accompanied by an attempt to better the material conditions of those who are the objects of the impulse… A generation ago the agricultural labourer strove to arrest the operation of changes which oppressed him… by machine breaking and rick burning. Now the agricultural labourer has adopted the machinery of a trade union and a strike, and has conducted his agitation in a strictly peaceful and law-abiding manner.
Above: Rev Arthur J Chandler, during his ministry at Wednesbury, 1940s.
Although my father was from a working-class ‘Tory’ background, like many born in Birmingham and the Black Country in Edwardian times, he understood the Baptist emphasis on a ‘social gospel’ and encouraged me in my radical views. I learnt from him that ‘the truth is never found in extremes’, a mantra which has stayed with me ever since. I heard him preach many sermons in which he referred to Dr John Clifford, the prominent Baptist leader and President of the Christian Socialist League. This was the successor organisation to the Christian Socialist Society which took over the management of the Christian Socialist magazine from the Land Reform Union. Clifford (1836-1923) was a member of the Fabian Society as well as a liberal evangelical minister in Paddington from 1858. In a tract published by the Fabians, Socialism and the Teaching of Christ (1897), Clifford wrote of the Collectivist Gospel as having at least four distinguishing merits, in that…
while it does not change human nature, It destroys many of the evils of modern society because it sets everybody alike to his share of the work, and gives to him his share of reward;
it ennobles the struggle of life, leaving man free for the finer toils of intellect and heart: free ’to seek first the kingdom of God and his justice’, so that .. exists ’not for the sake of life, but of a good life’… in keeping with ’the mind of Christ’;
it offers a better environment for the development of the teaching of Jesus concerning wealth and the ideals of labour and brotherhood,..
it fosters a higher ideal of human and social worth and well-being through a more Christian conception of industry; one in which every man is a worker, and each worker does not toil for himself exclusively, but for all the necessities, comforts and privileges he shares with all members of the community.
Clifford set this new ideal of life and labour against what he called the hard individualism of late Victorian society. It was this individualism that he saw as partial, hollow, unreal and disastrous, fostering the serfdom of one class and the indolence of another. It had created, on the one hand, a large class of submissive, silent… slaves undergoing grinding toil and continuous anxiety, and on the other a smaller class suffering debasing indolence. It spawned hatred and ill-will on the one hand, and scorn and contempt on the other. This was at odds with the common ideal in both the soul of Collectivism and the revelation of the brotherhood of man in Christ Jesus. Evidence for the early role of Christian Socialists in the move towards an independent politics can be found in that, as early as March 1895, a ‘Christian Socialist’ candidate fighting alone against the Liberal candidate for East Bristol missed election by only 183 votes in a total poll of over seven thousand. The Welsh Religious Revival of 1904-5 also helped promote the rise of Labour politics, first in the Liberal Party, but then in the development of a separate party.
John Briggs & Ian Sellers (1973), Victorian Nonconformity: Documents of Modern History. London: Edward Arnold.
Henry Pelling (1965), Origins of the Labour Party. Oxford: OUP.
John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem. London: Scorpion Publications.