A History of Religion in Britain: Practice and Belief from Pre-Roman Times to the Present

Written by Sheridan Gilley and W.J. Sheils (eds) Reviewed By C.J. Clement

This carefully arranged collection of 26 essays by leading British scholars surveys nearly two millenia of religious history—it is a large book! Each essay is of similar length and can be read by an interested amateur in a single sitting. Each neatly dovetails into its successor as each seeks to answer the same question, namely to what extent were religious belief and practice altered by institutional reform and social revolution.

As the title makes clear, the subject is religion in general—and indeed the first topic is religious pluralism in Roman Britain, while the concluding essays portray the pluralistic character of the contemporary scene. Of the 20 or so pieces in between, all but one focus on Christianity. The book is divided into four sections: Part I, entitled ‘Conversion and Christendom’, takes the reader from Roman Britain to the close of the Middle Ages; Part II, ‘Reform, Revival and Enlightenment’, surveys the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; Part III, ‘Industrialisation, Empire and Identity’, extends into the early decades of the present century; while the recurring themes of Part IV—‘Modern Britain’—are ecumenism, secularization and pluralism. The collection is completed with a useful chronological table, detailed bibliographies for each essay, and an index.

The enormous variety of topics comprehended within this single volume makes for fascinating reading. For example, on page 406 C. Peter Williams concludes his dissertation on ‘Mission and Empire, 1800–1940’ with a 1936 quotation from Lesslie Newbigin regarding the overbearing attitude of European missionaries towards Indian Christians—and then on page 407 we are taken back to the 1728 trial of Thomas Woolston for blasphemy in Edward Royle’s ‘Secularists and Rationalists, 1800–1940’. For the non-specialist, Glanmor Williams’s ‘Medieval Wales and the Reformation’, followed by Michael Lynch on ‘Religious Life in Medieval Scotland’, comprise a pair of satisfying informative contributions.

The editors are to be congratulated on both the clarity of format and the consistently lucid quality of the content. Every essay contains much to provoke thought and stimulate appreciation for the breadth of Britain’s religious heritage. For example, Michael Mullett argues in ‘Radical Sects and Dissenting Churches, 1600–1750’ that ‘the widespread sectarian demand for “believers’ baptism”—the logical outcome of Separatism—signalled the repudiation of the concept of a Christian society’ (p. 199). Edward Norman on ‘Church and State since 1800’ asserts that ‘The rise of the modern [collectivist] State in practice disestablished the Church’, and then he refers to the 19th-century Dissenters’ ‘ideological innocence’ in campaigning for the disestablishment of the Church of England (p. 286).

In the two concluding essays Paul Badham and Alan Gilbert make sobering assessments of religion in post-modern Britain. From statistics furnished by the 1989 Church Census, Professor Badham forecasts that ‘a privatized view of religion may well become increasingly dominant’ (p. 498), while Principal Gilbert prophesies increasing secularization and the ‘gradual eclipse of Christianity by non-Christian traditions’ (p. 521). Even more disquieting for the evangelical Christian reader, the word ‘Islam’ features prominently throughout the final pages.

Here, then, is a valuable collection of introductory essays—exactly the sort of reference work a student should consult after the dictionaries. As such it deserves a place in the reference section of every sixth-form college and university library. However, one is left wondering why there are no pieces on religious life in Ulster (two of the contributors teach at Queen’s University). Has political propaganda already succeeded in detaching the Province from Britain in the mind of the religious historian? Professor Ward gives a ‘racy’ account of the Evangelical Revival in 18th-century Wales, Scotland and England and refers to the impact of Irish Catholicism on Britain after the Union in 1800 (p. 251)—yet there is not a single essay on Ireland. Most mysterious!

In their Preface the editors apologize for the delay in completion of the project—but this compendium is replete with good things. It was well worth waiting for!

C.J. Clement

Glasgow Bible College