Tuesday 25 April 2023

Worship in Victorian Scotland

What was church worship like in Victorian Scotland?

I’ve already covered a little about the Great Disruption to churches in Scotland (1843) in a post earlier this April, partly explaining why it caused such a ripple across the landscape.

Therefore, this post will be more about the effect on the population due to industrialisation and how the established ‘parish’ structure of worship was in decline, mainly in the major cities and towns in Scotland.

When more and more people moved to the cities in the late 1700s, and during the first quarter of the 1800s, to work in the larger factories, many of them became ‘unchurched’. Those who came from the more traditional country parishes had been used to the system of almost compulsory attendance for Sunday worship at the local parish church. Therefore, when away from the parochial ‘prying eyes’, many of those factory workers became estranged from established religion, no doubt for varying reasons.

The established Church of Scotland was concerned about this estrangement and determined to do something to pull back the straying flock now living in the cities. For many of those poor factory workers, I’m sure that the awful conditions they were living and working in meant Sunday was not a day of rest for them, and possibly church attendance was the last thing on their mind. Around this time, the established church was dominated by the Evangelicals and the more Moderate groups.

Gorbals Parish Church, Glasgow

By 1810, Gorbals Parish Church was opened, on the south bank of the River Clyde. At this point in time, the River Clyde looked vastly different from today, as is seen from Stockwell Bridge in the painting below. [William Simpson 1823-1899. Sketch from sometime during the mid-1840s] Before the 1840s, the Gorbals area had been a relatively affluent one. 

Gorbals Parish Church
-sketched approximately 1845

Behind the church image you see above, by the mid-1840s, the first tenement-block housing of the Gorbals was being thrown up as fast as possible, to accommodate the many immigrants who were still flocking to Glasgow to find work. The name Gorbals, a century later, became synonymous with extreme poverty in those tenements originally built in the 1840s, and which by the end of the 1940s were rat-infested slums.

Whether the housing was substandard, or not, the inhabitants of the areas in the larger cities across Scotland had increasingly more and more churches to choose from, built generally at the end of every other street.

St. Stephen's Church, Edinburgh, was opened in 1828 (built to a design by reputable architect, Wm. Henry Playfair). Though built in a relatively affluent part of Edinburgh New Town, the first minister William Muir operated an evening school for the illiterate in the vaulted basement. Through education, it was deemed a way of improving the lot of the workers and, it was hoped, would be a vehicle for those 'unfortunate non-worshippers' to return to regular church attendance.

St. Stephen's Church
Edinburgh New Town

Religious enthusiasts like Thomas Chalmers promoted attendance and regular worship. Chalmers began as a more moderate figure but developed into an evangelist. Essentially, evangelist doctrine allowed people to become ‘born again’, via a personal conversion, whereby lapsed worshippers could redeem themselves by re-adopting the authority of the Bible.  

Thomas Chalmers
National Gallery Collection

The Moderates in the established Church of Scotland were more concerned with religious Christian conduct and personal discipline in society, rather than a more encompassing adherence to an individual statement of faith or creed.

In 1851, the British Government organised a Census which included religion. The results showed that some 60% of the population in Scotland considered themselves regular worshippers. The established Church of Scotland rated 19.9%; Free Church 19.2%; the United Presbyterian Church 11.7%; and ‘others’ 10.1%.

This result led to lots of societies springing up to reclaim the lost souls who had given themselves to the demon drink, and other devilish pursuits. Temperance Societies; Home Missions; Sunday Schools; Bible Societies and Improvement Classes all sprang up to encourage better adherence to religious practice, and promoted a more Christian daily discipline. Many publications; posters; and broadsheets began to circulate, many of them declaiming the evils of demon drink and the depravities it led to. On the other hand, posters also encouraged those sinners to repent, to redeem their souls and join this or that movement which would see them renounce all the bad and embrace the good. 

During the 1950s, I can vaguely remember my maiden aunt, who stayed with my grandfather, telling me about her aunts who were in the society below- The Independent Order of Rechabites. The sons and daughters of Recab, was a 'friendly society' which promoted 'teetotalism', the abstinence from alcohol. 

Some of the 10.1% of ‘others’ (or as part of the 40% of non- worshippers?), in the 1851 Census of Religion in Scotland, could be attributed to the increasing conscription to societies like the Masonic Lodge; Templar Societies; Freemasons; Orange Lodge and other similar groups which were expanding. They each had a doctrine of their own which their attendees adhered to.

Other churches and movements like the Roman Catholic Church, Episcopalians, Baptists; Congregationalist; Methodists, Salvation Army were all active in drawing in members, and some had their own temperance societies.

By the second half of the 1800s, the re-introduction of music during a church service - mainly in the form of hymn singing - altered the styles of worship in the established Church of Scotland, and in some of the other protestant denominations. Impressive, often very large, pipe-organs were installed even in smaller churches to help keep the worshippers in tune and to bring a sense of awe into the building. Worship became much more participatory, more inclusive than just repeating prayers.

During my own early childhood, I knew some people who attended my aunt's local church regularly, just for the opportunity to hear the incredible organ it had, and to sing the hymns. [MacGregor Memorial on on Crossloan Rd/Craigton Road, Govan]. My aunt lived directly across the road from the MascGregor Memorial and was a regular church attendee, but my grandfather was not.

Born in 1874, my grandfather's own parents had been very strict Sunday worshippers, attending church every Sunday morning and evening, with long bible readings in between during the afternoon. Grampa was quite dogmatic about being an atheist, but never attempted to prevent my aunt from attending her worship.

My Aunt Nan took me as a pre-five year old across the road on a Sunday morning to the 'Kindergarten' Sunday School, when my older sister and I stayed with Nana and Grampa most weekends. The end of the church buildings you see below, towards the bottom right on the photo, was one of the halls tacked on. In the mid-1950s,  it was rare for the 'youngest class' to be taken into the actual church. I vaguely remember only being taken in at Christmas, Easter and at Harvest time but the organ music was awesome, and I use that word in the correct sense. The sound of it playing had shivers running down my back and even now, when I hear organ recitals, that sense of awe returns, even though I am not religious in any sense at all now. Should I want to recreate that feeling, all I need do is reach for my collection of George Frideric Handel's music and I'm back there. 

MacGregor Memorial, Church of Scotland

Back to the 'other' categories that appeared in the 1851 Census of Religion. 

Judaism was rare in Scotland before the late 1800s. But by Queen Victoria's death in 1901, some synagogues had been built in Scotland and an influx of refugees from mainly Eastern Europe had swelled the Jewish community.

Like Judaism, followers of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism were very rare in the mid-Victorian era in Scotland. It would take almost a century for those numbers to increase when people began to settle in Scotland from India and Pakistan and from places that had been part of the British Empire. 

In the Religion part of the Census of 2001, Scotland, 65.1% claimed to be of the Christian faith.

In the 2011 Census, Scotland, those professing to be of the Christian faith had dropped to 53.8%. Approximately 37% declared they were of no religion. Others were of minority religions like Islam; Hinduism; Sikhism.

The results of the 2021 Census for religion are not available to me, but I believe that the numbers of those claiming to be Christian will have dropped below that 50% mark, though actual church attendance across Scotland shows that regular worship to be much less than that. Established Christian churches have amalgamated, due to low attendance and lack of funds, some ministers covering wider areas and holding Sunday services less frequently.

Would the Victorian evangelists approve of what worship is like today? I'll leave you to decide the answer to that one.

Till next time...Enjoy whatever you happen to be reading.

SlĂ inte!






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