The Church and Religion
The Established, i.e. Anglican, church played a massively significant role during this period.
With some minor exceptions (Quakers and Jews), everybody was obliged to be baptised, married and buried in Church of England rites. Local welfare administration – the poor law – was organised on the basis of individual ecclesiastical parishes. Bishops sat in the House of Lords (Lords Spiritual). Many positions required being a member of the Church of England. The Monarch was the Head of the Church (many pointed out the irony of George IV, not famed for the piety and morality of his lifestyle, being head of the Church).
While individual clergymen might differ in their views, the general position of the Church of England was highly conservative: while the lines of the hymn ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, He made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate’, were not written until 1848, the mindset they embodied was flourishing in the Regency.
Appointments to benefices, i.e. positions as clergyman in parishes, paid out of tithes on local agriculture, were largely in the hands of individuals and institutions, and made on the basis of family interest and patronage. This meant that other factors than suitability for the position often influenced appointments, and some individuals might hold more than one benefice (since not all parishes actually provided a living). Clergyman counted as one of the genteel professions, considered suitable for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry. Those who had been educated for the church at one of the ancient universities and been ordained, but did not have the connections to advance them to a secure living might spend their lives acting as a curate, that is, the assistant to the incumbent of the parish, paid an often meagre stipend.
As with so many institutions of the period, the Church had not kept up with the massive social changes of the preceding century. The distribution and location of parishes no longer reflected the actual distribution and location of the population in the country. This eventually led to the creation of new parishes.
Besides the Established Church there were several groups of Protestant Dissenters who refused to accept its authority in matters of belief and practice: the Congregationalists or Independents and Presbyterians, who laid particular emphasis upon learning and founded numerous dissenting academies intended to educate their ministry, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and Methodists. Methodism or Wesleyanism was originally a movement within the Church of England. While it did have a formal ministry, it also had lay preachers and even admitted women preachers. Quakers (the Society of Friends) did not have a ministry at all: they were a relatively small group but influential beyond their numbers in humanitarian social reforms, which also applied to the Unitarians. Dissent during the eighteenth century had become associated with rational religion and the authority of the individual conscience.
There was a revival of a more emotional approach to religion during the eighteenth century. Methodism laid great emphasis on the personal conversion experience, and similar Evangelical movements took place both within the Church of England and the older dissenting congregations, in reaction against what were seen as dry formal teachings and rote practice. While this movement stressed individual spiritual renewal through the experience of personal grace there was also a strong engagement with saving souls and reforming society more generally. Their earnestness was found embarrassing, if not obnoxious, by those who took a more conventional attitude towards religion. However, the Evangelical movement played an important role in the campaigns for humanitarian reforms, alongside such activities as introducing the expurgated Family Shakspeare.
There had been a small Roman Catholic population (recusants) in England since the Reformation, subject to significant limitations on their rights. Their situation had been somewhat ameliorated in 1778 by the Catholic Relief Act, allowing Catholics to own property, inherit land, and join the army: a strong strain of virulent popular anti-Catholicism led to the Gordon Riots in 1780. Even so, Catholic clergy became able to operate in a less clandestine fashion. Numbers were swelled by French refugees from the anti-Catholicism of the Revolution, and the formation of the United Kingdom of England and Ireland in 1801. However, it took until 1829 for Catholic Emancipation to take place. The restrictions and penalties had always sat more lightly upon wealthy and well-born Catholics.
Jews had been allowed to return to England by Oliver Cromwell in 1656 and there were small but growing Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities in London: see this useful Community History: Jewish Communities at the Old Bailey Online site.
There were increasing numbers of freethinkers and atheists in England by the early nineteenth century in radical circles; but it was not really until around the middle of the century that formal organisations and journals came into existence. Individuals were occasionally prosecuted under the Blasphemy Laws for expressing anti-religious opinions or publishing works deemed irreligious, e.g. Shelley’s Queen Mab.
L.A. Hall, FRHistS