Chapter 18: Men of Faith (Part 2: Religious Upheaval)
In the late 18th Century, increasing religious freedom led to violent rioting in London and Birmingham. The Quakers, meanwhile, kicked a gun manufacturer out of their denomination. And without knowing it, Enlightenment thinkers started to develop a brand-new religion – a religion that most of the world believes in today.
Sources for this episode include:
Galton, Samuel. “Address to Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting, 1795.” 1795. The Galton Papers. Birmingham City Archives. ref MS 3101/B/16/2. https://theironroom.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/ms-3101-b-16-21.pdf
Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. HarperColins. 2015.
Maddison, R. E. W., and Francis R. Maddison. “Joseph Priestley and the Birmingham Riots.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, vol. 12, no. 1, 1956, pp. 98–113.
Pailin, David A. and Frank Edward Manuel. “Deism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Deism
Priestley, Joseph. An Appeal to the Public, on the Subject of The Riots in Birmingham. J. Thompson. 1791.
“Protestant Association.” Whitehall Evening Post, 1 Jun 1780. Accessed via https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/newspaper-report-of-the-gordon-riots-1780#
Religious Society of Friends, Warwickshire Monthly Meeting, minute book, minute 3, 19 Aug 1796.
Satia, Priya. Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Penguin Press. 2018.
Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage. 1966.
To the nonconformists – the descendants of those viscerally anti-Catholic Puritans – the rise in religious liberty in the 18th Century was a welcomed blessing. Ever since 1689, they could legally observe their faith outside the official Anglican Church of England. And in the aftermath of the Great Awakening, there were many prominent denominations to choose from and to help build up.
But soon they would see the other side of religious freedom.
Great Britain was being stretched thin by the American Revolution. They had to send troops far across the ocean, to what they believed were still their colonies, as well as fight America’s new allies in France and Spain.
To meet the demands of this war, they had to start recruiting soldiers and sailors from outside England – including the Scottish Highlands and British-controlled Ireland.
But there was a problem. 80 years earlier, Parliament had passed the Popery Act of 1698, which put a bounty on the head of Roman Catholic priests and severely punished those who taught the Catholic faith to children. Many Highland Scots and most of the Irish (who the British sought to recruit) were Catholic – and they were not especially motivated to fight for a country which oppressed them.
So, in 1778, Parliament passed the Papists Act, lifting the burdens of this oppression for those Catholics who swore loyalty to the British King.
To many, it was a sensible policy adjustment. But to others – mostly nonconformists – it was a rekindling of the darkest days of the Reformation.
Among them was Lord George Gordon, a 28-year-old Member of Parliament who, in 1779, founded the Protestant Association.
Determined to repeal the Papists Act, the Association drew up a petition and decided to deliver it by marching on Parliament on June 2nd, 1780. A massive crowd of roughly 50,000 people showed up, waving flags and carrying banners reading “No Popery” – which they cried out as they walked from St. George’s Fields to Westminster.
According to newspaper accounts, it was an orderly demonstration with brocades and bagpipers. An onlooker noted they were “the better sort of tradesmen… well-dressed, decent sort of people… exceeding quiet and orderly and very civil.” Though another onlooker described them as fanatical Puritans, “such as they might be in the time of Cromwell… started out from their graves.”
Then they reached the Houses of Parliament. The House of Commons refused to debate the petition and the passive civility of the demonstrators turned into violent riot.
At some point, they went after the House of Lords, targeting peers who were suspected of having Catholic sympathies. They hurled insults at the Archbishop of York, screamed in the face of the Lord Chief Justice, blocked the carriage of Lord Stormont, stole the pocket watch of the Duke of Northumberland, tore up the gown of the Bishop of Litchfield, took the wheels off the carriage of the Bishop of Lincoln, and grabbed the Lord President of the Council, who they forcefully kicked in the legs.
Then they started to attack the embassies of Catholic nations and broke in and robbed the homes of wealthy suspected Catholics living in the city. It was described as “a groping desire to settle accounts with the rich, if only for a day.”
By this point, the more respectable tradesmen who had taken part in the civil demonstration had quietly slinked away. They were replaced by an increasingly working-class crowd and some opportunistic common criminals.
They attacked the Bank of England, set buildings on fire, pickpocketed whoever they could find. They attacked the poor neighborhoods of Irish immigrants, taking breaks along the way to – apparently – drink excessive amounts of alcohol.
The rioting lasted five days. Finally, the Army came in and restored order. Nearly 300 rioters were shot dead, another 200 injured, another 400 arrested.
Part of the blame for these Gordon Riots – as they’re remembered today – lies with the Prime Minister, Lord North, who had not predicted the violent turn of demonstration and so had not mobilized peace officers ahead of time. Part of the blame obviously lies with Gordon himself.
But perhaps part of the blame was on the general failure to recognize the changing social order, the political and economic frustrations, and the growing restlessness of the working-class in these early years of the Industrial Revolution.
The tinder was there. Religion was merely the spark that lit the fire. And this wouldn’t be the only time.
This is the Industrial Revolutions
Chapter 18: Religious Upheaval
As the first Industrial Revolution progressed, ordinary people were increasingly finding themselves in the extraordinary position to remake their belief systems around a changing world order. And in that new world order, some faith groups had to start asking themselves some tough questions about what they stood for. Among them was the Religious Society of Friends: The Quakers.
Formed during the English Civil War, the Society of Friends was always a bit separate from the rest of the Puritans. They weren’t Calvinist. They weren’t anything, really, theologically. They believed that the light of God was inside every human being, and they had little patience for the organized structures of the Catholics, and the Anglicans, and the Calvinists. They preferred to hold leaderless meetings, in which they would sit quietly and let revelations come to them. As a result, they were sometimes persecuted by Anglicans and Calvinists alike. But, for the most part, they were a small group and generally ignored.
After the Act of Toleration of 1689, they were able, like other nonconformists, to participate freely in economic life while practicing their faith in their unique style. Many went into business. Barred from climbing the social ladder, though, they kept reinvesting their profits into their businesses, which tended to get quite big.
Abraham Darby, the iron innovator, was a Quaker. So were the button-maker John Taylor and his partner, Samuel Lloyd II, who founded Lloyd’s Bank. So was David Barclay, founder of Barclays Bank. So was William Allen, the pharmaceutical manufacturer. And Quakers built notable businesses in textiles, cookware, and food production.
And as the 18th Century went on, they became increasingly progressive when it came to social issues. Coming out of their meetings was a greater and greater support for the abolition of slavery. They grew more concerned about mental health. They had long been ahead of their time in regard to the role of women. And they also tended toward pacifism.
Samuel Galton Jr. was born in Birmingham in 1753. His mother came from the Barclay clan and his father was a gunsmith. As Birmingham manufactures, gun making had been in their family since the 1720s. Both sides of his family were staunch Quakers, and the Society of Friends did not necessarily see the manufacture of guns as incompatible with pacifism. With Great Britain frequently at war in the 18th Century, his family’s business pursuits gave Galton the foundation to grow a small empire in the first Industrial Revolution.
By the time of the French Revolution, the Galton family had become the largest arms manufacturer to the British military, as well as to the East India Company and many private, colonial interests. In Birmingham, the only factories larger than the Galtons’ were Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory (where he made toys) and his Soho Foundry (where he and James Watt made steam engines). And in the early 1790s, the actions of the French revolutionaries had pulled Great Britain into another war, and another economic opportunity for the Galtons.
But for some reason, this time was different for the Quakers. The manufacturing of firearms now started to feel a bit icky, perhaps because of how they were being assembled in processes of mass production.
It began in 1792, at a Birmingham Quakers meeting, when one of the members raised the question: Is it right for us to accept money from our fellow members who earn their wealth through the manufacture and trade of guns?
Then, in March 1795, the question came up at the Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting – and the Galtons, in particular, came up. The attendees decided approach the family about it.
By this point, Samuel Galton Sr. was quite old and looking to step aside from the business anyway. But his son was in no mood for their denomination to disrupt the business. He addressed the meeting the next January, essentially arguing, “Um, if my business is so un-Quaker, why is this the first my family is hearing about it after 70 years?”
He went on, referring to scripture along the way, to defend himself, arguing that the manufacture of arms is a consequence of war, not a cause of it.
But if you want to talk about the business of war – he argued – well, it’s a business everyone is connected to. Isn’t it? Anyone who makes clothes or food for the army, anyone who makes parts for ships or provides horses, anyone who brews beer purchased by the military, and anyone who works as a supplier to any of those contractors, is equally guilty of supporting war. The entire economy of Great Britain is to some extent involved in the war effort.
But it was an argument made in vain. The next month, the meeting decided to stop accepting his money. “…we cannot admit his arguments as substantial and ‘tis matter of real concern to us that he should attempt to vindicate a practice which we conceive to be inconsistent with our religious principles, and this meeting directs the Preparative Meeting of Birmingham not to receive any further collection from him while he continues in the practice of fabricating and selling instruments of war as a testimony of our disunity therewith.”
Months of back-and-forth followed, but Galton was unwilling to give up his livelihood. Finally, in August, the meeting came to its final conclusion. “…in order for the clearing of our society from an imputation of a practice so inconsistent as that of fabricating instruments for the destruction of mankind, thinks it incumbent on us after the great labour that has been bestowed to declare him not in unity with friends, and herby disowns him as a member of our religious society.”
It would be another eight years before Galton retired from the gun trade, went into banking, and was readmitted as a Quaker.
The Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting seemed to sense, earlier than most, that the nature of warfare was changing. With the mass production of arms and the increasing quality of power in the arms used, war was transitioning from the unfortunate to the unimaginably horrific. And in the coming 19th and 20th Centuries, that transition would lead to (by far) the deadliest conflicts in the history of the world.
Now in addition to being an arms manufacturer and a Quaker, Galton was also a member of the Lunar Society in Birmingham. He was friends with Boulton, Watt, Darwin, and others, including a character I introduced you to in Chapter 16: A scientist by the name of Joseph Priestley. And a few years before Galton got kicked out of the Quakers, he saw his city burn. And Priestley was the reason why.
Joseph Priestley was born in Yorkshire in 1733 to a devout Congregationalist family. But as a teenager he had gotten sick and worried about what would happen if he died – that he had not had a sufficiently “born again” experience necessary for him to be part of those elect, predestined for heavenly salvation. He doubted God would exclude anyone from salvation, and when he expressed that doubt to his family minister, he was excluded from their church.
It was just as well. Priestley was beginning to fully embrace the rationalist spirit of the Enlightenment as he vigorously studied every subject he could – theology, language, history, political economy, and his favorite, natural philosophy. (What we would call the sciences.) After briefly trying his hand at trade in Lisbon, he returned to England where he pursued a career as a minister and teacher.
After completing his studies, he got a job at the new Warrington Academy, a nonconformist religious school down-river from Liverpool. As it turns out, Warrington was a hive of rationalist nonconformists – a perfect fit for Priestley. It was also while in Warrington he met and married his wife, Mary, a sister of our old friend, John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson.
Over the next 19 years they moved around England as Joseph got a number of different jobs that provided him an income as he went all-out Renaissance Man. He wrote essays on history, politics, and education. He produced massive reviews on the study of electricity. He studied the nature of light and conducted chemical experiments, including those that led to Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen and the invention of laughing gas. And he wrote major treatises on metaphysics.
He also became an increasingly controversial figure on religious topics. He wrote pamphlets in favor of full civil rights for nonconformists, so they could have opportunities to rise on the social ladder just like Anglicans – to study at the major universities, to serve as military officers, etc. He believed in disestablishing the Church of England as the official church of the state. And his doctrine of Philosophical Necessity held both absolute materialism (as opposed to idealism, in that longstanding debate of metaphysics) and absolute determinism. He did not believe that human beings had free will, but rather that God had set humanity on predetermined path toward perfection.
Then, in 1774, he was approached by one Theophilus Lindsey, an ex-vicar who (the year before) had resigned from the Church of England due to doctrinal issues he had with the Book of Common Prayer. Lindsay was looking to establish a new, nonconformist denomination, one based on rationalism, with superstitions replaced by real world observations and reason.
For some time now, there had been a growing movement in Enlightenment circles in England – likely having been imported with the Polish Socinians who had fled the Thirty Years War nearly a century earlier: Unitarianism.
The belief that God is a trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has always made a few Christians raise their eyebrows – going back to the First Century AD. During the height of the Protestant Reformation, the Unitarian school of thought spread across Central Europe, holding the belief that God was one – not made of three parts. When it made its way to England, this non-Trinitarian view picked up some believers, including Sir Isaac Newton.
But because it flew in the face of 17 centuries of established doctrine across all of the Christian world, most English men and women who believed in a non-Trinitarian Christology usually kept it to themselves. Unitarians were not included in the Act of Toleration, meaning their nonconformity with the Church of England would be treated just as harshly as that of the Catholics.
But Lindsey found himself gradually accepting this Unitarian view and wanted his church to be inviting to others who held it. And so, even though the legality of such a church was very much dubious, he and Priestley set one up on Essex Street in London, along with the philosopher Richard Price.
The new Unitarian denomination became the perfect fit for the unafraid Enlightenment thinker, and it attracted many industrialists of that mold – including Josiah Wedgwood and Samuel and Hannah Greg of the Quarry Bank Mill, who you may remember from Chapter 5.
And with Enlightenment era ideals like reason and liberty so central to these early Unitarians, they tended to be among the most left-leaning Whigs of the day. Privately, many of them had supported the American cause in that War of Independence. And by the late 1780s and early 1790s, they had become cheerleaders for the Revolution in France, which sought to overturn the ancient tyrannies and superstitions of Europe’s past. And to some of the more radical among them, that included things like monarchy and state-sponsored religion.
By that point, Priestley and his wife had settled in Birmingham, where Priestley – like many Unitarians in the city – joined the Lunar Society. Now, Birmingham had a long history of pro-monarchy Anglican riots that targeted nonconformists, Methodists, and Catholics – it was something the city became, like, known for.
So here you have a new, capitalist bourgeoises – with increasing control over the lives of the industrial working-class and increasing importance compared to the traditional aristocracy – with very outlandish theological ideas and very radical politics, in a city known for rioting against people with those views. What could be coming next?
In July 1791, a banquet was held at the Royal Hotel in Birmingham to celebrate the second anniversary of Bastille Day, inviting all “friends of freedom” to attend. Organizers said it would commemorate “emancipation of twenty-six millions of people from the yoke of despotism, and restored the blessings of equal government to a truly great and enlightened nation.” Oh, I should mention that most of the English working-class of these days also hated the French.
Priestley did not attend the banquet. He had been convinced not to go by friends who worried it would attract protests. It did.
A hostile crowd of 60 or 70 protesters – likely organized by the city’s aristocratic officials – hissed at guests as they arrived at the banquet. The guests ate dinner and then left early, around 5 or 6 PM, hoping it would encourage the protesters to disperse and not to riot. It didn’t work.
By 8 PM the crowd had grown to about 250 in number and became violent. First, they smashed the windows of the hotel, shouting “Church and King!” and “No popery!” Where they got the idea that any of this had anything to do with Catholicism is unclear. From there they marched to the new Unitarian meeting house of Priestley’s, smashing the pews and taking them out to burn in the streets.
Then they moved on to attack Priestley’s house about a mile outside the city. He and his friends escaped before they arrived. The rioters tore his trees down, stole all his booze – which they drank on the spot – tore up his books, and smashed his scientific instruments, before setting the house on fire. Priestley lost more than £4,000 worth of property in the riot – more than three quarters of a million dollars today.
The riot continued into the next day, when the rioters stormed the local jail and freed the prisoners, who joined in in all the fun. As it continued into a third day, they burned down houses of other Birminghamers, including bankers and nonconformist preachers. When they showed up at Samuel Galton Jr.’s house – where Priestley was secretly hiding – the arms manufacturer bribed the rioters to leave his home in-tact, giving them money and beer to go away.
On the fourth day, the army finally showed up and the mob dispersed. Priestley, facing financial ruin, fought for restitution from the government. He wrote an appeal to the public later that year, warning them “without any form of trial whatever, without any intimation of your crime, or of your danger, your houses and all your property may be destroyed, and you may not have the good fortune to escape with life, as I have done.” He lashed out at those who attacked him on account of his religious views, charging them with “religious bigotry.”
With the situation in France becoming more extreme and war with Britain on the horizon – and with the Tory government and the King unsympathetic to the plight of Unitarians – Priestley decided to leave England. He settled in the back country of Pennsylvania, where he seems to have gone a little crazy. He believed the French Revolution was shortly going to bring on the second coming of Christ. He also attacked the Adams Administration, which was also preparing for the possibility of war with France, which ran Priestley afoul of both the Alien and Sedition Acts. From there he faded into obscurity.
The intersections of class and religious denomination in the Priestley Riots are illustrative of the growing tensions between the burgeoning bourgeoisie and the increasingly vexed Proletariat. But the adoption of Unitarianism by the Enlightened middle-class also reflects a shift in religious attitudes taking place in the Age of Industrialization. And perhaps it is not a new denomination we should recognize here, but an entirely new religion. A religion that almost everyone in the world believes in today.
When Lindsey, Priestley, and Price established the Unitarian denomination, they were not the first who sought to replace the supernatural with the rational in their belief system. This had been a growing religious philosophy for decades – a religious philosophy called Deism.
Generally speaking, Deists believed that there was one God – a creator of the world – but that He didn’t intervene directly with the world. They were skeptical toward claims of revelations and traditional church orthodoxies. They wanted to replace those methods of understanding God with science and reason. When the Unitarian denomination came along, it was a good fit for them.
Many Deists also joined another kind of society – a secretive, fraternal organization – the Freemasons. I’m not going to go into the Freemasons too deeply, but I will note that – like the Deists and Unitarians – they were generally treated as suspect by the established religious orders of the time. In many countries, they still are today.
They were all wrapped up in the spirit of the Enlightenment – a period that is often oversimplified. There are so many Enlightenment thinkers we know about today who came out of France, Britain, and the United States, as well as a few who came from elsewhere. But they were far from a majority of the population. They were especially intelligent, and they were from socio-economic backgrounds that allowed them the freedom to explore things like philosophy, religion, science, and so forth. And plenty of Enlightenment thinkers – like Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke – were relatively conservative.
It was a very small number of people who broke the mold. But the reason we should remember them is because they were pioneers, whose ideas were instrumental in shaping the new world order – the order that made a globalized, industrialized world possible.
They were the founders of a new, universal religion.
At least that’s according to Yuval Noah Harari, the author I’ve mentioned a few times before on this podcast.
To explain, we need to go waaaay back to Chapter 1. In order for human beings to cooperate and build complex societies, they need to establish certain myths that bind them together. The three principle categories of myth are political power (or another word for it might be law), money (the standardized means of trade between economic specialists), and, of course, religion.
The law only works because we all agree to follow it – and if anyone doesn’t, the rest of us all agree to punish them. Money only works because we all agree to accept it. When it comes to religions, maybe those myths are right, maybe they’re wrong, but that’s not the point here. They bind the community together on shared principles. Religious pluralism, in this sense, is a dangerous thing. Unless, that is, you have another, unifying religion.
Harari defines religion as “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.” So there’s two parts to this definition: (1) that there is an order of things outside our control, and (2) that this order should dictate our moral and behavioral standards.
Note that this definition includes no mention of God or gods. That’s theism, and theism is an important component of many religions, serving as the superhuman order. But it’s not necessary for a religion. The broad and diverse tradition of Buddhism, for example, only a few texts bother with any discussion of gods.
To this end, Buddhism does not prohibit the practice of another religion. In East Asia, many people practice Buddhism in addition to Taoism, Confucianism, and often times a traditional folk religion of animist or polytheist characteristics.
Even in the West, the believers in a monotheist religion often times believe in non-monotheist traditions. As Harari puts it, “The average Christian believes in a monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and [even] in animist ghosts.” In Islam, meanwhile – a firmly monotheist faith – the Quran affirms the existence of the animist “Jinn” (what we, in the West, would call “genies”). This overlapping of religious traditions is what scholars call “syncretism.”
The most successful religions are those which are universal and missionary. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism all allow anyone to join, and (in fact) encourage people to join. To at least some extent, they allowed converts to hold on to some of their old or traditional beliefs.
What the Enlightenment thinkers were doing was establishing a new such religion: Humanism, the worship of humanity. You could be a nonconformist or an Anglican or a Catholic or a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist, or even an atheist AND be a Humanist. And to this end, a new myth for Humanism was developed: the myth of human rights.
Like, what is a right? Is it found in nature? No, not really. Is it something we just made up? No – at least we don’t believe so. It has some superhuman origin. And our respect for that concept dictates our modern moral and behavioral standards.
Hence, human rights are a myth – and whether the myth is true (or not) is not the point. And – if you accept Harari’s definition of religion – then Humanism is a religion, albeit, one that’s not super-concerned about theism.
In this religion, human life is considered sacred. Before the advent of Humanism, Romans loved seeing gladiators hack each other to death in the arena, and Medieval Christians saw nothing wrong with hanging, drawing, and quartering someone for his crimes. But thanks to the Humanist 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, these would now be considered “cruel and unusual” forms of punishment.
Harari notes that even though the Humanist religion is becoming universal, it still has distinct sects. The most important of which are liberal humanism – which prioritizes the liberty of individual human beings and their consciences – and socialist humanism – which seeks equality between human beings, because when the rich are privileged over the poor (for example) then we are valuing money more than humanity.
The history of the Industrial Revolutions has, in a nutshell, been about reconciling these two sects and simultaneously achieving their sometimes-contradictory values.
“Anyone who has read a novel by Charles Dickens knows that the liberal regimes of 19th Century Europe gave priority to individual freedom even if it meant throwing insolvent poor families in prison and giving orphans little choice but to join schools for pick-pockets. Anyone who has read a novel by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn knows how Communism’s egalitarian ideal produced brutal tyrannies that tried to control every aspect of daily life.”
But I can just imagine a neo-liberal and a socialist arguing in front of a Medieval peasant from Europe or India or China. “Nothing is more important than the right of freedom!” shouts the neo-liberal. “No, nothing is more important than our fundamental equality!” shouts the socialist.
“What the Hell are you two talking about?” the peasant interjects. “There’s no right to freedom. We’re not all equal. The strong get to rule and everyone else has a moral obligation to serve and obey!” The neo-liberal and socialist look at him in bewilderment, never having felt closer to each other as they do right now.
Even within the liberal sect, there are major disputes over how to apply doctrine. Take abortion, for example. Do we follow the doctrine that demands we protect human life? Or do we follow the other doctrine that demands we protect liberty of conscience for the individual carrying said life?
We are still working out the kinks of this new religion of ours.
But because of industrialization and globalization we have needed this new religion. We need this new set of values, based on a superhuman order, to cooperate on a global scale – a scale made possible by our modern means of transportation and communication, our technologies.
One of the prophets of this new religion – one of those Enlightenment-era pioneers I was telling you about – was an American Renaissance Man, likely a Freemason, often associated with Deism, who considered himself a Unitarian: Thomas Jefferson. And one of the things he is best known for is writing one of the fundamental pieces of Humanist scripture: The Declaration of Independence – next time, it’s the American Revolution.
I am saying next time rather than next week because I am going to take a week off to focus on some administrative work for the podcast, important for the long-term sustainability of it. I apologize for the disruption of the weekly schedule.
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