Some Historical Religious Statistics

Although much of BRIN’s focus, and probably the majority of our reader interest, lies in the area of contemporary British religious statistics, we continue to delve into historical data and will periodically feature them in our posts. Here are three such stories.

1851 Religious Census

The 1851 religious census is one of the most important statistical sources for nineteenth-century Britain. It is also unique – the only time that Government has attempted to survey accommodation and attendance at all places of worship in Britain (the 2001 and 2011 censuses, by contrast, were of religious profession in connection with the household schedules of the decennial population census). Genealogist Chris Paton has a brief account of ‘The 1851 Religious Census’ in the current issue (No. 33, October 2012, pp. 42-5) of Your Family History magazine. Although this is fairly basic, several useful URLs are cited, one leading to the digitized edition of the original manuscript returns for each church or chapel in 1851, arranged by the 623 English and Welsh registration districts, and held at The National Archives (TNA) as Home Office Papers 129. TNA has now made all these documents available for free download as part of its Digital Microfilm Project. This will be an especially useful resource for the one-half of English counties whose returns have yet to be the subject of a modern printed scholarly edition (Wales has already been fully covered in this regard). To access the digital images, go to:

Religion and the First World War

Publicity is already beginning to crank up to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. As part of a series of essays exploring how particular micro-periods in modern British history have impacted upon Britain’s secularization trajectory, Clive Field has been examining the impact of the Great War on religious belonging on the home front, measured in terms of ‘membership‘ of organized religion and attendance at its worship services. This is a neglected area of research, compared to recent scholarly attention on ‘trench religion’, the beliefs and practices of the fighting men (often as reflected in reports from their chaplains). Field’s investigations are by no means complete, but here are some preliminary findings.

Adult ‘membership’ of faith bodies in Britain at the end of the war in 1918 was probably around 8,010,000, comprising 2,330,000 Anglican communicants, 3,740,000 members of the Free Churches and sects, and estimates of the adult share of the Roman Catholic and non-Christian communities (1,726,000 and 214,000 respectively). Omitted from these figures are non-communicating adult worshippers of the Anglican Churches (in England, Wales, and Scotland) and non-member adherents of the Free Churches, as well as children and young people (including Sunday scholars). The total of 8,010,000 equates to around 29% of the estimated adult civilian population of Britain in 1918 (compared with 27% of the whole adult population in 1914). Despite the minimal net change, the underlying picture was more complex. Anglican communicants fell by 6% between 1914 and 1917, before rising in 1918, the upward trend being maintained in the immediate post-war years. Free Church membership rose by 1% during the war, but this was largely due to the Scottish and Welsh Presbyterians, the Salvation Army, and to several of the smaller and newer sectarian groups. Some of the ‘historic’ denominations, particularly Methodists and Baptists, contracted, although there was a brief recovery between 1921 and 1927. The Roman Catholic population (including children) rose by 3% from 1914 to 1918 and the Jewish community by 7%, while British Islam’s fortunes were swelled by a substantial immigration of Muslim labour from the British Empire during the war (to work as seamen, in munitions, chemicals, and unskilled shore jobs allied to shipping).

In all Christian traditions church attendance surged for a few weeks at the outset of the conflict, as people identified with the justness of Britain’s cause and sought solace in and guidance from the Churches. Churchgoers also disproportionately voluntarily enlisted in the armed forces, fusing religion and patriotism. However, as the war dragged on, and the military casualties and domestic sacrifices mounted, regular attendance by Protestants fell away (Roman Catholic mass attendance seems to have kept up, partly because of the large presence of Belgian war refugees, who were overwhelmingly Catholic). It perhaps did not do so catastrophically (for it had not been a majority practice in 1914) but certainly significantly (especially for men and children, albeit the falling birth-rate affected the latter). The decline was partly a continuation of pre-war trends yet doubtless in larger measure because of the various practical impacts of the war on society, which channelled human and other resources away from religious organizations and disrupted their work. Of these, the absence of more than one million regularly churchgoing men on active service was perhaps the single key factor. There was also some disillusionment with the Churches for failing to prevent or shorten the war, and a search for alternative forms of spiritual expression, not least Spiritualism.

Long-Living Methodists Revisited

One of the most widely-read posts on BRIN to date has been that about ‘Long-Living Methodists’, on 24 June 2010, in which Clive Field summarized the then available evidence about the apparently greater longevity of Methodists compared with other groups. He has recently returned to the subject in far greater depth in ‘Demography and the Decline of British Methodism: III. Mortality’, Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, Vol. 58, No. 6, October 2012, pp. 247-63.

This new article presents the findings about mean ages of death of persons buried in Methodist cemeteries in West Yorkshire and Cornwall between 1821 and 2000; of laity whose deaths were reported in the family announcement columns of the Methodist Recorder in 1938 and 2007-11; and of male Methodist ministers dying between 1851 and 1930, in 1932-36 and 2007-11. The analysis suggests that mean ages of death seem to have been lower in the general population of England and Wales than for Methodists, and for both sexes. The principal explanation for this apparently greater longevity of Methodists over non-Methodists is almost certainly differential class mortality, mean age of death being conditioned by occupational status and all the socio-economic circumstances associated with it. Methodism’s increasing concentration in Registrar General classes II and III (intermediate non-manual, skilled non-manual and skilled manual workers) must have helped to drive up the mean ages of death of Methodists relative to society as a whole. However, many Methodists have claimed that there were also religious forces at play, with their reputation for modest and prudential living and the avoidance of excess having clear health dividends, in their opinion. The Methodist Church’s longstanding commitment to the temperance cause is the most obvious and best-known manifestation of such behaviour, albeit the proportion of total abstainers among Methodist members probably never exceeded one-half, and Methodism’s contribution to the potentially more important (in health terms) non-smoking movement was relatively weak.

The same article also reviews Methodist mortality in terms of church membership data. These are examined from three different perspectives, all pointing to the fact that death has become an increasingly important feature of the numerical decline of British Methodism. The trend emerged around the time of the First World War but has been very pronounced since the 1970s. The Methodist mortality rate is now almost three times the national average. As mentioned above, this is not because Methodist life expentancy is falling, or lower than normal. The mortality rate is rising because Methodists are progressively ageing, and thus moving into cohorts which are more likely to die, making their population pyramid top-heavy. It also arises from the fact that Methodism is much less successful at recruiting new members – whether from the ‘outside world’, other denominations or retaining its own children – to compensate for its losses through death. At one level, therefore, Methodism is literally ‘dying out’.

But this is not the complete demographic picture, as the two earlier articles in the same journal make clear (‘I. Nutiality’ in Vol. 58, No. 4, February 2012, pp. 175-89, and ‘II. Fertility’ in Vol. 58, No. 5, May 2012, pp. 200-15). The reduced fertility of Methodist families during the twentieth century was a factor in inhibiting the Methodist Church from sustaining its numbers. Although a very high proportion of Methodists have married, there has been some tendency, again for prudential reasons, to defer the actual age of marriage, thus potentially impacting fertility. Moreover, from the period after the First World War (and officially sanctioned by the Methodist Church since the later 1930s) Methodists have been increasingly practising birth control, more so in the beginning than other denominations. This reproductive aspect of institutional decline, coupled with weakening transmission of the faith from parents to children, is undoubtedly worthy of further investigation, both in the Methodist and more general contexts.

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  1. Pingback: Did we ever really do God at Christmas? | Flip Chart Fairy Tales

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