Religious Crisis of the 1960s: The Debate Continues

Hard on the heels of Love Now, Pay Later? (SPCK, 2010), a major reappraisal by Nigel Yates of religion and morality in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s (see our earlier post at, in which the author both explicitly and implicitly qualifies Callum Brown’s claims for the importance of the 1960s in Britain’s transition to a secular society, Brown himself has returned to the fray.

However, Brown’s ‘What was the Religious Crisis of the 1960s?’, Journal of Religious History, Vol. 34, No. 4, December 2010, pp. 468-79 is less a riposte to the book by Yates (which, presumably, he had not seen at the time of writing) than to Hugh McLeod’s The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2007), which Brown concedes is ‘sophisticated and cogently-argued’ and, in many respects, ‘highly persuasive’.

Using McLeod’s book as his starting-point, Brown ‘explores the issues that divide scholars’ in debating the religious crisis of the 1960s: ‘the origin and length of the crisis (was it revolution or evolution?); was it generated more by developments within the Christian churches or by developments without them; and what was the relative importance of liberal Christianity versus conservative Christianity in the development and legacy of the crisis?’

In each of these three respects, Brown puts clear water between himself and McLeod to restate his earlier argument (to be found in such works as The Death of Christian Britain, second edition, Routledge, 2009 and Religion and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain, Pearson, 2006) that ‘secularisation of the period should be regarded as mostly a sudden and shocking event, based on external threats, and reflected in the churches dividing between liberals and conservatives in ways that were to become ever more militant as the century wore on.’

Brown’s case is partly, yet selectively, supported by the use of statistics, about church membership, churchgoing and the rites of passage in particular (especially pp. 471-2). But his evidence base is overwhelmingly qualitative, although Brown does nod towards the fact that ‘demography is an underdeveloped area for historians examining dechristianisation in the 1950-1975 period’. We are still lacking any kind of systematic analysis of the quantitative sources of religious change in Britain during the 1960s, including national sample surveys which became plentiful at that time.

Another new book, to be published by Cambridge University Press in December, will take issue with Brown’s suggestion of a religious revival in the 1950s, which further accentuated his claims for a religious crisis in the following decade. Simon Green’s The Passing of Protestant England: Secularisation and Social Change, c. 1920–1960 partly comprises the author’s reworked collected essays. They include chapter 7, ‘Was there an English Religious Revival in the 1950s?’, which first appeared in Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society in 2006, and which dismissed as ‘brief delusions’ and ‘false hopes’ any such revival in the 1950s.

In addition to their respective books, Brown and McLeod have also written several essays and articles on the religious crisis of the 1960s. Another contributor to the debate is Gerald Parsons, ‘How the Times they were a-Changing: Exploring the Context of Religious Transformation in Britain in the 1960s’, Religion in History, ed. John Wolffe (Manchester University Press, 2004), pp. 161-89. For an account of one seemingly trend-bucking denomination, see Ian Randall, ‘Baptist Revival and Renewal in the 1960s’, Studies in Church History, Vol. 44, 2008, pp. 341-53.

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