The Decline of Nonconformity at a time of dominance

Appendix 3: The ‘decline’ of Nonconformist churches in a time of Evangelical Dominance? A few perspectives examined.


This study has been an attempt to look at the significant events of the period 1880 to 1920 through the life and work of Nicoll. It was a time of controversy and theological flux and a time of slow drift or decline amongst the Nonconformists. The problem was that many contemporary Nonconformists believed they were riding the crest of a wave of popularity and growth that would carry them even further in power and influence. D.W. Bebbington points out that, Evangelicals “were still concerned above all with the cultivation of vital Christianity”[1] and this was in spite of “the salience of evangelicalism in England [being] often obscured by its relative weakness in the established church. The Evangelical party in the Church of England was no longer, as in the first half of the [19th Century] century, advancing relative to other types of churchmanship”.[2] Bebbington noted that on the world stage there was considerable growth and vitality amongst Evangelical Christian groups: there were new and vibrant groups, such as the Brethren, the Churches of Christ, the Salvation Army, as well as a growing number of Black churches, which would indicate vitality and a position of dominance.[3] However, “there were nevertheless signs that evangelical hegemony was insecure … many of the anxieties of the more conservative began to focus on attitudes to the Bible. The advances of higher criticism among Christian scholars, particularly rapid during the decade from 1885, provoked growing alarm”.[4] It is that degree of ‘growing alarm’, particularly as the situation unfolded in Britain, which has caused the ideas of ‘decline’ to develop in the minds of many historians.

Historians, theologians and sociologists have also debated the idea of the ‘decline of religion’, and for some the problem is a failure to agree about the definition of ‘religion’ that is used.  That is, should it be an exclusive and institutional use of the word, or an inclusive and all-embracing use?  However, in this study, the term ‘decline of religion’ is taken as indicating a loss of status, influence and credibility that befell that part of the Christian Church known as the Evangelical Nonconformists. This ‘decline’ may also be explained as an aspect of secularisation, but again, there are very different viewpoints. What follows represents a selection of such viewpoints:

First, was there a decline in the number of adherents during this period? This is controverted by a number of studies. Robin Gill challenged the idea of a sudden decline or loss of numbers before the 1930s.[5] He has pointed out that there were too many churches that had never been full and that church attendances during the Edwardian era were often higher than at times during the Victorian period.  This was a useful exercise, and highlighted the fact that the statistical evidence points to a ‘patchy’ overall pattern with considerable variation between areas. However, Hugh McLeod noted that between the British Weekly survey [census] of 1886 and that of the Daily News in 1902, “Church attendance in the metropolis fell considerably further in seventeen years than it had in the previous thirty-five.  In Inner London, the drop was from 28.5 per cent to 22 per cent.  Both Anglicans and Nonconformists were losing ground, but the Anglicans suffered the biggest losses”.[6] McLeod goes on to differentiate the Nonconformists, “The period 1870-1914 was in some ways a golden age of English Dissent. Yet numerical decline was already beginning. The peak of numbers in relation to population probably came in the later 1880s, though decline only became a major issue around 1910, when numbers began to fall absolutely”.[7]

The years 1904 to 1906 saw a relative surge in the recruitment, these were the years of the Welsh Revival and there was some growth and much activity. In fact, many Nonconformist Churches believed that ‘the ball was at their feet’, and that rallies and special efforts gave the encouraging impression of dynamic growth and great future possibilities. Jeffrey Cox was also convinced that there was an overall decline: “The real decline of churchgoing and its associated piety appears to have begun in the 1880s. The churches were growing until about 1850, and may have been holding their own until the 1880s, although that is an informed guess. In the 1880s, a decline of churchgoing and a decline in real but not absolute levels of church membership began.  Just after the turn of the century the decline in churchgoing accelerated, and in 1906, 1907, and 1908 every single Nonconformist denomination began to shrink. The general decline of England’s Protestant churches has continued throughout the century”.[8] There seems to be good reason to speak of a slow decline in adherents, but it was noticeable.


Second, was there a decline in the quality of religion on offer as far as one can measure such a thing?[9] The differing viewpoints that have been suggested will often have more to say about later writers’ perceptions and as such, it is impossible to put any generally accepted value-judgement on what Nicoll’s generation achieved. There are those who believe that Nicoll’s generation of liberals did a good job in adapting Christian thought to the challenges of the new age. A.C. Cheyne, who was known as an admirer of the liberal evangelical school,[10] linked the Nonconformists with the Free Church generation in Scotland: “I wouldn’t say that the Free Church leaders – men like Robert Rainy – ‘contributed to the decline in the Christian faith’. Far otherwise! But of course a good deal depends on the angle from which one views them”.[11] The argument was that they sought to bring intellectual credibility and scholarly soundness to the Christian faith, beleaguered by the forces of the modern age. However, the facts are that Christianity lost its position in society and the liberal interpretations did not succeed in holding back the tide of secularism, disenchantment and unbelief.  Some would go so far as to say that the approaches to the problems by Nicoll’s generation made matters worse. Michael Watts asked a basic question about church going in Britain as compared with the United States; why were the two countries so different when the Christian communities in each were faced by the same difficulties? “The answer seems to be that the American churches, to a far greater extent than English churches, have held on to the doctrines that produced the upsurge in popular religion in both countries in the first half of the nineteenth century”.[12]


Michael Watts develops his reasons for the decline in church membership. First that the churches failed to recruit new adherents to replace those they were losing. The younger generations would not accept the message as former generations had done. Second that, “the timing of the decline in church and chapel-going does suggest that the theory of evolution and higher criticism may have played their part in blunting the churches’ message”.[13] Third, Watts states that there was a rejection of the orthodox doctrine of eternal punishment. Watts holds that this was a major reason for the Nonconformist success in recruitment before 1850, but that thereafter “that doctrine was regarded with increasing distaste by a growing number of ministers and laymen”.[14] Watts then states that, “The liberal, optimistic version of Christianity ... was destroyed in the holocaust that began in 1914. And the hopes of liberal Christians, that by updating their religion they would come to terms with the intellectual and social challenges of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were doomed to disappointment. Liberal Christianity did not fill the churches it helped to empty them.”[15] Watts even re-examined the Downgrade controversy of 1887-8, and stated that, although his personal sympathies were with John Clifford [who took the same opposing view of Spurgeon as Nicoll], “I have to confess that both in his interpretation of history, and in his prognosis for the future, it was Spurgeon, not Clifford who was right”.[16]


R.J. Helmstadter made his contribution to the reasons for the decline of Nonconformity. He identifies a synthesis of social and cultural circumstances, which, in the early nineteenth century, accounted for the successful growth of Nonconformity. However, from the 1880’s this synthesis was crumbling, Nonconformity lost its cohesive culture and this led to decline.  Helmstadter gives several reasons for this loss of cohesion:

First, “Progressive democracy and assertive individualism of Evangelical theology had been central to the Nonconformist synthesis [accounting for their success in the years before 1850]. During the last twenty years of the nineteenth century that theology came to seem old-fashioned and outworn among the rising generation ... they reorientated their theological emphases so radically that they effectively rejected their Evangelical inheritance”.[17] Second, changes in the intellectual and ethical climate meant, “Men began to doubt that an all-merciful God would consign a portion of mankind to everlasting pain and torture ... to doubt the supreme significance of the cross and to place more importance on Christ’s life than on his atoning death”.[18] Third, the growing respectability of biblical criticism weakened the message of the Church: “No sophisticated Nonconformist searched the Bible any more for texts that would prove Christ died for all men and that all who truly believed in Him would win everlasting peace. Biblical criticism was, in fact, accepted among Free Churchmen with very little struggle ... no serious organised efforts were made to stem the tide of fashionable new ideas, which swept away the old Evangelical Verities [even Spurgeon protested but did not organise] ...from the 1880s, ... Nonconformists began to reject their distinctive culture as provincial and narrow. Their leaders drew them towards assimilation into the mainstream of English society”.[19] Fourth, affluence and education also weakened Nonconformist distinctives: “Peculiarities of chapel culture became embarrassments ... the more successful Free Church ministers, by the end of the century, modelled their behaviour generally on that of the upper middle classes”.[20]

Significantly, Helmstadter concluded that, “Nonconformist leaders were men of action rather than discrimination, fighters rather than thinkers ... in spite of their active press and increasingly efficient central organisation, gradually [Free churchmen] faded into a religiously indifferent social landscape”.[21] It is interesting that Helmstadter’s comments resonate with much of Nicoll’s personal contribution to the scene. Certainly Nicoll’s ‘hand-to-mouth’ constant demand for ‘fresh copy’ to keep his papers, not only surviving, but also fresh and stimulating, meant that he was never able to take stock of how matters were really developing. It must be remembered that Helmstadter, like this present study, had the benefit of a considerable period of hindsight.


David Bebbington has summarised Helmstadter’s case for seeing a decline in the Nonconformist Churches as from a position of strength (‘Nonconformity’s Victorian heyday’) when its “religious, social and political convictions were mutually reinforcing since they all posited the primacy of the individual conscience. The prevailing religious opinions were evangelical, insisting that a person must personally undergo the crisis of conversion in order to enter a life of faith. The predominant social views, those of the businessmen who shaped Nonconformist life, laid stress on individual effort as the remedy for poverty and the key to progress. In politics, the chapels championed the freedom of the individual and their members’ right to obey conscience without penalty. The synthesis of these attitudes crumbled when, in the 1880s, it was challenged by biblical criticism, the social gospel and collectivism in politics”.[22] Bebbington in large measure accepted much of Helmstadter’s assessment, but also challenged it: First, “The prevalence of individualism can be taken too far for it neglects several deeply rooted features of Nonconformist life … it ignores the centrality of the family in chapel affairs. ... Their outlook on the world, rather than being narrowly individualistic, was coloured by a powerful communal sense”.[23] This was undoubtedly true for families, in some areas of the country, but the opening up of educational opportunities, not least in the opening and growth of university education. Together with the increased pressure on individuals to make their own choices, meant that the communal solidarity of Nonconformity was subjected to unstoppable pressures. Certainly, Nicoll was aware of this pressure, and sought to help his readers hold on to and at the same time embrace and ‘Christianise’ the changes brought by modern living. Second, Bebbington pointed out that there was a ‘spirit of mutuality’, a desire to act as responsible members of the larger society in their call from their faith to be ‘salt and light’. “The public stance of Nonconformity was shaped far less by beliefs about the supremacy of personal liberty than by other considerations – theological principal, zeal for public righteousness and straightforward patriotism. The socio-political outlook of the chapels was never simply individualistic”.[24] Certainly, the early seeds of the Trade Union Movement were found in chapel life, but the fact that there were many achievements resulting from political pressure contributed to an increasing frustration with the old Liberal Party, and an increasing doubt about the relevance to many of the church and led to an increased radicalism in politics. This, in turn contributed to the growth and formation of socialism and the Labour Party, which for many replaced the societal expression of the ‘spirit of mutuality’ found in the chapels.

Third, Bebbington accepted that “The last two decades of the nineteenth century, the stage at which Nonconformist membership began to fall relative to population, were also marked by significant changes of ethos in the chapels”.[25] In addition, he is correct in writing, “It would be wrong to exaggerate the sharpness of the turn, for there was a high degree of continuity with what had passed before. In particular, there was still much confidence, optimism and in many chapels, zeal for the salvation of souls”.[26] This was certainly true in the first decade of the Twentieth Century following the Welsh Revival, and the agitation over the Education Act of 1902, which were factors leading to the Landslide win of the Liberals at the polls in 1906. Nonconformity could do rallies well, and ‘crusades’ were their scene. The truth was that the activity tended to gloss-over the basic erosion of the confidence in the Faith and the lack of sustained growth amongst the younger generations. Nicoll was aware of a great need here and his ‘League of Young Worshippers’[27] was an attempt to meet the challenge head on.

Other areas that contributed to the thinning of congregations were noted by Bebbington, such as; there was a “drift to the suburbs” and significantly, “The reduction of rural immigration to the cities.” The development of Education and cultural sophistication meant that, “The attractions of Nonconformist congregations for working classes were diminishing.” There was the challenge from, “Alternative leisure activities – organised sport and the music hall being chief – were now widely available.” Mention was made of “Intellectual conditions also posed a serious challenge to Nonconformity, though not in the way that it is often supposed”.[28] However, Bebbington then states that, “Darwinism was almost painlessly assimilated by Nonconformist ministers … likewise higher criticism of the Bible created little disturbance in Nonconformity, being accepted late, in the 1890s, but then remarkably smoothly”. This appears an over simplification, for certainly a majority of ministers and others that were college educated people seemed to accept the new views easily. Nicoll was one of them and provided one of the main channels for disseminating the new order, but even he knew that Henry Drummond’s advocacy of Evolution was not universally accepted, for his friend James Denney, highlighted the problems in Drummond’s argument. As to higher criticism, this was a sustained problem covered in the Expositor and at times in the British Weekly, particularly, in the year following Spurgeon’s death by a prolonged series, ‘Are there errors in the Bible’?[29] 

The truth seems nearer to the view that these intellectual and theological questions were handled by ‘experts’ with specialised knowledge, and that this demoralised, confused and undermined the grip and relevance of the evangelical faith in the lives of new generations.[30] When they read of how the Scriptures where being undermined, altered and set aside and had witnessed what had happened to an individual like Spurgeon, there was a loss of encouragement to propagate the Gospel. The younger generation[31] looked for something that they thought more credible and relevant to their modern outlook.


T.C. Smout examined the problem of the decline in Church going and its causes.[32] He listed many of the concerns already mentioned, and wrote of particular issues that contributed to the Church failing to hold the interest of the working classes:

  • The negative effect of pew rents
  • The long working hours of the workers
  •  The growth of leisure pursuits such as football, cycling, modern literature and even socialism
  • The loss of the secular aspects of Church life
  • Workers finding ministers hostile or incomprehensible
  • Industrialisation and migration had weakened the old idea of community
  • The changed position and outlook of the artisan
  • The working class felt themselves excluded from positions of influence in the Churches
  • By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the Church had lost its intellectual compulsiveness: “Men began to notice the faltering tones of the Church, wavering between the old dogmas of the conservatives, which became increasingly unbelievable in the light of science and scholarship, and the new doubts and silences of the liberals, which lacked all compulsive power”.[33]

Smout concluded: “We must not exaggerate the degree of decline that had set in at the end of the Victorian age: the decline was slow, and even in 1940 not as marked as in most European countries. People at first sensed it rather than saw it, and many hoped it was a temporary phase, a passing weakness which more vigorous mission, more lively services, a new church here and there, would soon dissipate. Only gradually did they come to sense that the change was permanent and apparently irrevocable”.[34]


When Hugh McLeod studied the reasons for the decline amongst Nonconformists, he noted that, “There were several factors contributing to this mood of religious uncertainty. None was in itself decisive, but all of them contributed to an atmosphere in which many people … felt that Christian faith rested on less secure foundations than it had thirty or fifty years earlier”.[35] McLeod noticed some of the reasons for this ‘mood of uncertainty’, he noticed some falling of church attendances,[36] but for him ‘doubt’ attacked and undermined the health of the Churches. He identified three main clusters of sources of such doubt; first, there were those related to the reliability of the Bible; a second cluster of problems related to science and the third cluster of doubts related to the morality of Christian doctrines. “Most important here was the doctrine of hell – the everlasting punishment of the wicked”.[37]

McLeod also comments on the adverse implications of ‘The Leisure Revolution’, in which he examines growth of sport (football) and entertainment, with their own ‘stars’ that eclipsed the Church’s performers.  His analysis of ‘The Decline of Paternalism’ and ‘The Marginalisation of the Churches’ demonstrated Nicoll's awareness of the scope of the problem.  Perhaps his most helpful comments concerned his approach to the causes for the decline of the Churches.  He sees a matrix of causations that link together to bring about the decline.  He suggests that many previous studies of the problem, “Have been vitiated by an insistence on identifying some master-factor, which provides the key to the crisis: my argument is that no such key exists, and indeed that there was not one crisis, but a series of crises, that were only loosely related to one another”.[38] However even in this matrix, some strands (rather than ‘master-factor’) are seen as having more significance and importance. Significantly, McLeod stated, “I would agree with those historians who have identified the period 1890-1914 as the one in which there was a general consciousness of religious crisis, but I would also agree with those who argue that the roots of the crisis lie in an earlier period. … this crisis had at least three partly independent dimensions: the growth of unbelief or doubt, mainly after about 1860; the decline in church membership and attendance, mainly after about 1890; and a weakening of the social  role of religion, which was a much more gradual and long-drawn-out process, affecting different areas of life at different times”.[39]


Callum Brown has stated, “From the end of the 1880s a crisis in evangelicalism threatened the urban churches. This crisis was not unique to Scotland. Its urban shape found in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee has been widely documented in London, Reading, Sheffield, Halifax and other cities south of the border, and many of the themes – such as changing leisure habits, the rise of socialism and labour movement. … from within the churches, evangelical certainty was dissolving because of the cumulative effect of liberalisation of … standards … and most crucially because of the inexorable advance of biblical criticism”.[40] More recently Brown has re-looked at the problem of ‘decline’ and stressed the real decline in the Churches of Britain was much later, in fact in the 1960s and that the main cause of the change was the position and attitude of women in society at large as well as in the Church.[41] Interestingly he sees Nicoll and the British Weekly as mirroring the changes in women’s perception of their roles in society and so contributory to the on-going changes in society, but Brown’s longer time-span has emphasised other and seismic changes and even greater problems of the decline of dynamic Christianity and the ministry of the Church.

[1] Bebbington, D.W.: Dominance of Evangelicalism, op cit 235

[2] Ibid 237

[3] “So powerful were evangelical currents that they spilled over into other brands of churchmanship”. Ibid 238

[4] Ibid 240-3

[5] Gill, R.: The Myth of the Empty Church (London: 1993) 41

[6] McLeod, Hugh: Religion and Society in England 1850-1914 (Macmillan Press Ltd, London 1996) 171

[7] McLeod, Hugh: ‘Dissent and the peculiarities of the English, c1870-1914’ in Culture and the Nonconformist Tradition, Edited Jane Shaw & Alan Kreider (University of Wales Press, Cardiff 1999) 135-6

[8] Cox, J.: The English Churches in a Secular Society (University Press, Oxford 1982) 272-3 [also Koss: op cit 90]. “According to the statistics, which David Caird, the Secretary of the Liberation Society, compiled for successive editions of the Free Church Year Book, the aggregate of Free Church [Nonconformists] communicants fell by some 27,000 from 1906 to 1907 and by a further 37,000 in the years between 1907 and 1910. As the war approached, the decline in chapel membership was slowed, but not the decline in Sunday scholars.”

[9] This may be more a matter of the degree of ‘sophistication’ or the ‘mindset’ of those who professed intellectual and emotional difficulties over some of the basic beliefs of Christianity.

[10] A.C. Cheyne wrote of his admiration for the liberal view in his writings in his 'Introduction ' to the republication of John Tulloch’s 1885, Movements of Religious Thought in Britain in the Nineteenth Century (Leicester University Press, 1971). Furthermore, this is the ‘subtext’ of his influential book, The Transforming of the Kirk (1983).

[11] A.C. Cheyne, unpublished letter to the author: February 8 1999

[12] Watts, M: Why did the English stop going to Church? (Dr. William’s Trust, London 1995) 13

[13] Ibid 9

[14] Ibid 10

[15] Ibid 11

[16] Ibid 14

[17] Helmstadter, R.H.: ‘The Nonconformist Conscience’: Religion in Victorian Britain, Edited G. Parsons     (Manchester: Open University & Manchester University Press, 1988) 83

[18] Ibid 83

[19] Ibid 86

[20] Ibid 87

[21] Ibid 94-5

[22] Bebbington, D.W.: Victorian Nonconformity (Headstart History, Bangor 1992) 59

[23] Ibid, 64-6

[24] Ibid, 68

[25] Ibid, 71

[26] Ibid, 71

[27] Nicoll: ‘For the Church: a League of Worshipping Children’, British Weekly, April 27 1911 [This was sustained throughout the year, see June 1; Sept 21; etc]

[28] Bebbington, D.W.: Victorian Nonconformity, op cit: et al 71 –77

[29] ‘Are there errors in the Bible?’ British Weekly, Sep 21 – Dec 28 1893. [The question also concerned the question of ‘Inerrancy of the Bible’]. Nicoll allowed John Clifford to end the discussion for the liberal camp.

[30] “The critical approach to the Bible, which stressed the difficulties inherent in deciding what the Bible did say … it erected a new kind of priesthood, since the educated minister in the pulpit who had made an academic study of the Bible was once again able to claim privileged knowledge that was not available to members of his congregation.” McLeod, Hugh: Religion and Society, op cit 192-3

[31] “The younger generation increasingly saw no reason to identify with the despised Dissenters … the chapels were losing their grip on those who should have replenished the pews and given leadership in the post – Victorian period.” Bebbington, D.W.: Victorian Nonconformity, op cit 79

[32] T.C. Smout wrote with Scotland specifically in mind, but many of his comments were true for other areas of Britain.

[33] Smout, T.C.: A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950 (Fontana press, London 1997, originally published by William Collins & Sons 1986) 195

[34] Ibid 206

[35] McLeod, H.: Religion and Society, op cit 181

[36] Ibid 173-4,  “The decline in church membership remained partly concealed until the years 1907-14, when total membership of the largest Nonconformist denominations showed a continuous (though not dramatic) drop.”

[37] McLeod, H.: Religion and Society, op cit 182-3

[38] Ibid 222

[39] Ibid 222-3

[40] Brown, Callum G.: Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707 (Edinburgh University Press 1997) 124-5

[41] Brown, Callum G.: The Death of Christian Britain (Routledge, London 2001)

Extra pages to WRN
Webpage icon Religious Newspapers in the Nineteenth Century
Webpage icon Part 6: Inventory of British Weekly leading articles (1919-1923)
Webpage icon Part 5: Inventory of British Weekly leading articles (1914-1918)
Webpage icon Part 4: Inventory of British Weekly leading articles (1909-1913)
Webpage icon Part 3: Inventory of leading articles of the British Weekly (1901-1908)
Webpage icon Part 2: Inventory of British Weekly leading articles (1896-1900)
Webpage icon An Inventory of the leading articles from the British Weekly (1886-1895)
Webpage icon W.R. Nicoll's main published books
Webpage icon Biographical studies on Sir William R. Nicoll