Religion and Morality in the 1950s and 1960s

We reported in the summer on the ongoing scholarly debate about ‘When was secularization?’ (in Britain) – see In particular, we noted the arguments of Professor Callum Brown for regarding the 1960s as the major tipping-point on the trajectory to a secular country.

Fresh insights on this debate are offered in a new and extremely fluent book by Nigel Yates, Love Now, Pay Later? Sex and Religion in the Fifties and Sixties (London: SPCK, 2010, x + 198pp, ISBN 978-0-281-05908-9, £16.99, paperback).

It is based upon a wide range of primary and secondary sources, including several archives. Especially skilful use is made of evidence from the theatre, cinema and television, while some discussions are enlivened by the author’s own reminiscences.

The central thesis of the book is that, while there were undoubtedly major changes in both the religious and moral climates between 1950 and 1970, ‘the popular image of the 1950s being the last decade of respectability before the rot set in during the 1960s’ is incorrect.

Rather, the process of transition was more continuous, slower and less dramatic than is often imagined. The so-called religious revival of the early 1950s was ‘very fragile’, while ‘the “swinging sixties” … really only touched a small proportion of the population of Britain, and most of them lived in London.’ The sexual revolution was also driven by the upper and middle classes and did not encompass the working classes and much of the provinces until the 1970s.

Five of the six substantive chapters focus on the dynamics of moral transformation, with Christianity in something of a bystander role. These sections are undoubtedly the volume’s strength. ‘The churches and religious attitudes’ are the subject of the first chapter, which includes a relatively brief and slightly disappointing discussion of patterns of religious affiliation and attendance. 

BRIN readers will naturally be most interested in the work’s quantitative content. This is mainly relegated to a six-page appendix comprising thirteen tables of church statistics, seven of them abstracted from Churches and Churchgoers by Robert Currie et al. (1977), three from Densil Morgan’s The Span of the Cross (1999), and two from Robin Gill’s The Myth of the Empty Church (1993) – all readily available monographs. Unfortunately, virtually no use is made in the text of other religious statistical sources, such as church attendance censuses, opinion polls and social surveys.

As the author anticipates in his preface, this book will unquestionably stimulate further debate on religion and morality in Britain during the fifties and the sixties. The University of Manchester, as BRIN’s parent body, will be contributing to this in a small way through a special theme issue of the Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library on Sixties Britain Reassessed, to be edited by Dr Matthew Grimley, Fellow of Merton College, Oxford. This issue is currently at the planning stage.

Sadly, this will be Nigel Yates’s last book, since he died of cancer on 15 January 2009, at a tragically early age. An archivist by initial profession, he became one of the country’s leading church historians, eventually holding a chair in ecclesiastical history at what is now the University of Wales, Trinity St David.

His prodigious publishing output was noted for its breadth and depth, covering English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and European church history from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. For an appreciation of the man and the scholar, see the obituary by Frances Knight (a former colleague) in the Church Times for 13 February 2009 at:

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