I recently came across an interesting essay by Helen Andrews (maiden name: Helen Rittelmeyer) at First Things from back in August. The essay compares today’s progressive Social Justice Warrior types with 19th century British moralists in the public sphere. It’s an interesting enough and certainly rather timely comparison in its own right, but as a traditionalist Protestant Christian, I was more interested simply in learning about their effect on British politics, for its own sake.
There indeed was a time in recent history when Christians were as systematic as today’s progressives in deploying public shame against the private actions of private persons. It was a specific moment, with a beginning and an end, and a name—the Nonconformist Conscience. The name was thought necessary precisely because such a deliberate, programmatic, and privacy-invading shame campaign was seen at the time as an anomaly in the modern history of Christianity in the English-speaking world.
The term “Nonconformist Conscience” arose in Britain in 1890 to refer to the non-Anglican Protestants (mainly Methodist, Baptist, and Congregationalist) who pressured Prime Minister Gladstone into disavowing Charles Parnell when the latter was named in the divorce suit of his lover and her husband. The same faction had earlier derailed the parliamentary career of Charles Dilke, another divorce co-respondent. Having established a precedent for adulterers, the Nonconformists proceeded to assist in the toppling of Liberal prime minister Lord Rosebery, whose well-known fondness for horse racing made him in their eyes scarcely better than a casino operator in his relation to the sin of gambling.
With such scalps in hand, many Nonconformists dared to hope that an elevated moral standard could be permanently established if they kept their dudgeon high. “Rational Christians can already see that debauchees, drunkards, and gamblers are utterly unfit to make the laws of England,” declared Rev. Hugh Prices Hughes. “We must agitate for the rigid exclusion of such enemies of mankind. . . . When we have cleansed Parliament of their polluting presence the task of cleansing minor public bodies will be comparatively easy.”
One did not have to be a PM or a PM-in-waiting to fall foul of the Conscience. Small fry were also fair game. A Welsh backbencher named Tom Ellis shared a platform at a public meeting with Dilke in 1891 and shortly afterward received a letter from the editor of a Nonconformist weekly informing him that, in the absence of a very good explanation, the magazine would be “publicly condemning you.” To his relief, Ellis narrowly persuaded the editor that no one had told him in advance that Dilke would be present.
Down at the local level, a Manchester alderman whom the city council selected to serve as Lord Mayor found himself pilloried by local Nonconformists who did not want to see a brewer and tavern owner in that office. This was a bridge too far for one Mancunian, James A. Newbold, who wrote a short book in the alderman’s defense, The Nonconformist Conscience a Persecuting Force. (This followed the publication four years earlier of the splendidly titled anonymous polemic The Nonconformist Conscience Considered as a Social Evil and a Mischief-Monger, by One Who Has Had It.)
Parnell was one thing, Newbold argued, but once you start going after upstanding aldermen who have violated no law and none of the Ten Commandments, where will it end? He combed the Nonconformist press and found two schools of thought on this question. The first, as expressed by one Rev. J. Kirk Maconachie, suggested that “a line may properly be drawn between the reasonable supply of a reasonable demand and the anti-social practice of persistently thrusting a dangerous trade upon places that do not want it.”
Newbold scoffed at this pretense of restraint: “‘Persistently thrusting’ is a phrase the hollowness of which has already been fully exposed. It simply means applying for a license. . . . The word ‘dangerous’ is a pure appeal to prejudice. To call it a recognised trade would have been more relevant.” He thought the Quaker doctor Vipont Brown had put the Nonconformist position more honestly: “The question has often been asked, ‘Where are you going to stop?’ The true answer is, we are not going to stop. This is only the beginning, not the end.” Brown hoped that eventually public office would be off-limits to all “who take advantage in any way of their fellow-men.”
Where was everyone else while the Nonconformists were staging this offensive? Standing on the sidelines goggling at their sternness, mostly. The divorce decree in the Parnell case came down on a Monday; by the following Sunday, Gladstone had been convinced that he had to go. But even as late as Wednesday he was telling his subordinates not to be too quick to disavow a valuable ally: “We must be passive, must watch and wait.” Home Rule was like a ship, one English columnist wrote, and as its captain Parnell should be allowed to steer it into port before withdrawing from politics. After all, was not history filled with “statesmen whose private lives would not bear the inquisition of Mr Hugh Price Hughes”? The Catholic hierarchy, for its part, withheld condemnation until after Parnell’s fate was decided.
The heyday of the Nonconformist Conscience coincided with perhaps the most famous spasm of Victorian moral outrage, the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde. In that case the chorus of obloquy encompassed the majority of Britons regardless of denomination, it is true. But the essential point of the Wilde tragedy was that he sued the Marquess, not the other way around. There would have been no court case at all if Wilde had not stubbornly (and falsely) insisted on legally establishing his innocence of Queensberry’s charge. Had he not courted ruin so determinedly, he would not have met ruin at all, and respectable England would have been content to see him escape it. Certainly they refrained from hounding countless others whose private lives were known or suspected to be as vulnerable as Wilde’s.
And this is the point, which modern progressives are reluctant to accept: Christianity has always recognized certain limiting factors in its application of shame. And one needn’t go all the way back to the woman taken in adultery to find evidence of this. Devout Englishmen balked at the Nonconformist Conscience for many reasons. It smacked of mob justice; it circumvented the democratic process; it eroded the sanctuary of private life; it claimed a righteousness which humble sinners had no business claiming; it took no account of mercy. It also implied a certain insecurity of belief: If God will deal with sinners in his own way and in his own time, then surely he does not need an imperfectly informed public acting as vice cop for total strangers. These limiting principles have not always prevailed—mercy and justice contend without cease—but they have served as a brake.
In the end, the blow that defeated the Nonconformist Conscience was self-inflicted: By concentrating on politics, Nonconformity weakened the religious commitment that had been the source of its strength in the first place. As David Bebbington explains in his history of the Conscience, secularization
began to contribute to the sapping of the religious vitality of Nonconformity. Week-night services were abandoned in favour of political demonstrations; ministers were even known to ignore preaching engagements for the sake of speaking for the Liberal party. Some commentators began to connect declining membership after 1906 with politicization.
This is a principle well known to all churches, and indeed to every group with higher commitments: Politicization is a solvent and a distraction.
My views regarding this tendency are slightly mixed, though in the main I do think it negative, taken too far – as they did. I certainly wish that political life could be free of men of poor character like adulterers, but on the other hand, no man is perfect, and if we look at the record in Scripture, especially the Old Testament, we see that God used murderers (Moses), fornicators and adulterers (Samson, David, Solomon if you count his multiple wives and concubines), liars and deceivers (Jacob), and others to carry out His purposes, and it is therefore clear to me that the Nonconformists were trying to hold politicians to a standard higher than God’s; God is clearly more forgiving than they were, in my opinion. And as we see, they didn’t stop with just adulterers, divorcees, and drunkards, but eventually ended up deciding that brewers and tavern owners (who surely aren’t, by virtue of such professions, automatically wicked, the consumption of alcohol not being a sin in and of itself) weren’t fit for public office. Indeed, they admitted that there was no end to how far they would go, in their zeal; it was other Christians who called for moderation and restraint, in applying moral principles to the question of who should be allowed to hold office.
I have labelled this a Puritanical political impulse in my title, with a deliberately capitalized ‘P’, not of course in the leftist sense of bashing any opposition to progressive sexual morality (i.e. lack thereof) as ‘puritanical’, but because it is clearly analogous to the sort of inflexible moral absolutism of the original Puritans, who had similar sorts of views (though not as regards alcoholic beverages, in the exact same way; that attitude was a later development, more common amongst Methodists and Baptists, etc. But I digress.). They made laws that went beyond what Scripture condemned, banning people from sitting under apple trees on the Sabbath, having police arrest them for doing so, even for walking anywhere other than between home and church on the Sabbath. The Nonconformists were clearly their ideological descendents. As of course, in many regards, are modern progressives (though unlike many reactionaries, I don’t blame the original Puritans for the actions of their deformed, secularized offspring, but that’s a separate discussion I won’t go into here), as Andrews ably demonstrates in her essay (see the whole thing, not just the above excerpts).
Andrews didn’t go further in her account, but we know what happened as politicization of churches proceeded apace: the Social Gospel churches ended up abandoning the Gospel entirely, becoming the mushy, moderate, progressive mainline liberal Protestants of today, and some left that behind entirely for secular leftism, initially in some cases keeping the form of religion by setting up such alternatives as ‘labour temples’ (see here and here), but mostly simply leaving behind the outward appearance of any form of religion, altogether. Meanwhile, the mainline Protestant churches are a hollow shell of what they used to be, in numbers and influence, ironically, even as their poisonous progressive ideology has gone mainstream, in the society at large.
We see echoes today of the Nonconformist deterioration in many evangelical churches that uncritically endorse neo-con political parties, and increasingly seem to place far more emphasis on politics than on personal salvation and religious community life, downplaying doctrinal distinctives of their respective traditions, watering them down in favour of a lowest-common denominator, evangelical ‘brand’. And as we in the Christian manosphere know, increasingly bending over backwards to cater to feminine imperatives, and bashing men, etc. And, at the same time, just as with the mainlines, increasingly tilting ever more leftward, on and on.
It’s one thing to strive for high ideals in terms of the character of those we elect to office, and of course we must stand up for traditional morality, over and against the progs, but we should be wary of being absolutists, like the Puritans and the Nonconformists of yesteryear, and the SJW progs of today. Grace and mercy and peace, not making mountains out of molehills, and not demanding absolute conformity to impossibly high standards for political office-bearers, and not trying to be holier than God, all have their place.
As Chris says, “Do not be them” and “Do not be like them”.