All Commentary
Thursday, August 1, 1968

The Rise and Fall of England: 6. The Moral Base

Dr. Carson, Professor of History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania, will be remembered for his earlier FREEMAN series, The Fateful Turn, The American Tradition, and The Flight from Reality.

There was more to England’s rise to greatness and leadership of civilization than the establishment of liberty. It has been made clear that this rise was preceded and accompanied by the laying of polit­ical foundations for liberty — by the separation and counterbalanc­ing of power, by substantive limi­tations on power, by the wide­spread veneration of and intellec­tual support for liberty, and by legal efforts to secure liberty and property. But liberty only releases the energies of a people; it does not direct and control them to positive ends of achievement. Edmund Burke pointed out regarding the supposed establishment of liberty in France during the French Revolution that if people are to be free to do as they please, “we ought to see what it will please them to do before we risk congratulations….”

Of course, Burke knew that lib­erty does not consist in simply do­ing what one pleases. It is only possible when men are constrained to behave in ways that will not intrude upon the equal liberty of others as well. But his point is well taken, even so. Liberty is only conducive to greatness when a people are under the sway of a noble vision of the purpose of life, when they are motivated to the constructive employment of their faculties, when they are inwardly constrained to peaceful pursuits, and when they generally abide of their own will by certain high principles. In short, liberty pro­vides the opportunity, but positive achievement proceeds from an ethos, an ethic, a morality, a reli­gious or spiritual base.

So it was for the English, at any rate. In the broadest sense, the ethos which gave meaning to the lives of Englishmen, impelled them to their accomplishments, and provided the moral code for individuals to control themselves came from Christianity. Christi­anity is an unusual fusion of Old and New Testament teachings. From the Old Testament particu­larly comes the high moral code for conduct conducive to peaceful living in this world. The Decalogue reduces this code to a few simple commandments. The last five of these command a strong and ex­plicit respect for life and property:

You shall not kill.

You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet….1

The New Testament goes be­yond these to place great emphasis upon inward purity of heart, of motive, and of desire. Both Old and New Testament show man as inherently bent to sinfulness, as naturally alienated from God, as prone to serving the things of this world rather than doing the will of God. Both evoke in sensi­tive souls a sense of tension be­tween man as he is and man as he should be — a tension in the broadest sense between This World and the Next. The Counsel of Per­fection, taught by Christ, revealed such an exacting level of behavior as good and virtuous that living up to it would be entirely beyond the natural capacities of man.

Norms of Christian Living

Christianity not only revealed and held up perfect and impecca­ble norms for human conduct but also offered a means of redemption for sinful man. More, Salvation was not only made available but also almost irresistibly attractive — a pearl beyond price. This is not the place to enter upon a discussion of the mysteries of religion, how­ever, even if the writer were com­petent to do so. The bearing of these matters upon history is great, nonetheless. The fact is that Christianity, in providing a way for the redemption of indi­viduals, did not remove the ten­sion between This World and the Next; if anything, for the very sensitive it heightened it. A man still had to live out his years in this Vale of Tears. He still had to inhabit the flesh, be subject to its temptations and resist them, live in relationships with other men, and live in an abiding con­sciousness of how far from the ways of God are the ways of the world. The gift of salvation car­ried with it the freely incurred obligation to observe the moral norms.

There developed within Christi­anity, then, a particular attitude toward this world. It was, in the traditional language, a snare, a delusion, a place of temptation, at war with the spirit, temporary, destined for destruction, and so on. What posture a Christian was to take toward this world was a matter that engaged the intellects of the greatest thinkers and the heroic efforts at exemplification of many of the saints. The positions taken ranged all the way from the rare one of pantheism to complete rejection of, say, a Simeon of Stylites.

There have been, however, two main postures taken by Christians toward this world, that of Roman Catholics and that of Protestants. England was under the sway of Roman Catholicism for nearly a thousand years, from the Synod of Whit by in 664 until the Act of Supremacy in 1534. England’s time of greatness and world leadership came under the Protestant im­petus, but the importance of this will be clearer by examining first the Catholic posture toward this world.

Catholic Practices

Actually, there are two postures implicit in Catholic practice re­garding this world. There is one for those of a strong religious bent — for the unusually sensitive souls — and another for the gen­erality of men. The generality of men must perforce live in the way of the world, and they will do so, in any case. They must marry and give in marriage, go into the mar­ketplace and trade, produce and consume, make war and maintain law and order, use that force and those means necessary to keep things running. Since they live and participate in the way of the world, they are subject to the great temptations there and are likely ever and again to fall into grievously sinful actions and hab­its. For such men to be redeemed they must benefit from unearned Grace. On the other hand, those of deep and abiding religious in­clinations may withdraw from the world— spiritually —to live in con­vents and monasteries. They re­nounce the world to live unto God. By living apart from the rest of the world, by living under rigorous discipline and observing a regular order of devotion, these may be able even to store up Grace that may benefit the generality of men. The social import of all this is that those of a deeply religious and devout nature were set apart for religious devotion rather than directing their energies toward this world, so to speak.

The Church of England

Very shortly after the break with the Roman church, the mon­asteries and nunneries were sup­pressed in England. Their lands and properties were taken from them, and they had to seek other means of livelihood and to make themselves useful in the world. The Church of England was soon set on its course which it has gen­erally tried to follow throughout its history, a course which would provide a middle way between that of the Roman Catholic on the one hand and that of other Protestants on the other. Like other Protestants, Anglicans would allow their clergy to marry and would have a reduction of the sacraments. Like the Roman Cath­olics, they would continue the prac­tice of episcopal succession and be governed by an hierarchy, among other things. Like any compro­mise, however, it did not entirely satisfy a considerable number of people.

Mainly, the Anglican church did not satisfy those with unusual re­ligious zeal. It largely denied the monastic outlet for those of such an inclination and did not replace this with any great moral fervor directed toward life in this world. It is not to deny that the Anglican church has provided religious sol­ace to its communicants, nor to deny that it has numbered among its clergy men of great intellect and religious steadfastness, to point up what was largely lacking from its make-up. The truth is, however, that the Anglican church has not generally played up the tension between This World and the Next. It has obviously been a support of the powers that be in This World. It has discouraged any great degree of zeal which might disturb existing arrange­ments or lead to transformations.

Evangelical Protestantism

The moral base and animating drive from Christianity which was so important for England’s rise and greatness came mainly from evangelical Protestantism, then, even to an influence on the Angli­can church itself. There were two great waves of evangelical Protes­tant fervor to sweep over England, accompanied by several rivulets. The first of these was brought by the Puritans, the second by John Wesley and Methodism. The Puri­tan impact reached its peak in the middle of the seventeenth century. The second wave came in the lat­ter part of the eighteenth century and continued on into the nine­teenth century until it could be said that the evangelical Protes­tant outlook held sway in England.

The contrast between the Puri­tan attitude toward this world and that of Roman Catholics is great indeed. The Puritans were capable of the most vivid language to de­scribe the sinfulness of this world. To their spokesmen, this world was indeed a snare and delusion, and the Christian a pilgrim and a stranger in it. On every hand, man was beset by temptations which he was unable of himself to overcome. Life was conceived as a great struggle between the commands to righteousness of God and the bent of man to pursue his own fleshly way. Yet the Puritan did not in the least approve of efforts to withdraw from the world. That we should live out our time in the midst of the temp­tations of this world was a part of the plan of God for man. To withdraw would be to run away. Christians were called instead, they held, to plunge into the af­fairs of this world with zeal, to show forth the character of their faith by the performance of their tasks here.

One historian of English Puri­tanism has described their atti­tude toward life in this world in the following fashion:

… The preachers endeavored by precept and example to show how the elect, while living according to the code of saintliness, must use their gifts and opportunities in this life. The Puritan code was much more than a table of prohibitions. It was the program of an active, not a monastic or contemplative, life…. The saint had no reason to fear the world or run away from it. Rather he must go forth into it and do the will of God there.2

The Puritan Posture

The Puritan posture toward this world comes out clearly in the doc­trine of The Calling. To Roman Catholics, the clergy, monks, and nuns were supposed to have a spe­cial calling or vocation. To the Puritans, by contrast, all those chosen by God (elected) were called to whatever their earthly undertakings might be. John Cot­ton, an English Puritan who mi­grated to America, set forth this doctrine very explicitly. He said, “First: faith draws the heart of a Christian to live in some war­rantable calling. As soon as ever a man begins to look towards God and the ways of His grace, he will not rest till he finds out some war­rantable calling and employment.”

He makes it clear that a warrant­able calling may be any lawful em­ployment so long as it serves the public as well as the individual involved and that it be such an undertaking as an individual is led to by his talents, interest, and the counsel of others. Cotton sums up his message in this way:

It is an use of instruction to every Christian soul that desires to walk by faith in his calling: if thou wouldst live a lively life and have thy soul and body prosper in thy calling, labor then to get into a good calling and therein live to the good of others. Take up no calling but that thou hast understanding in, and never take it unless thou mayest have it by lawful and just means. And when thou hast it, serve God in thy calling, and do it with cheer­fulness and faithfulness and an heavenly mind. And in difficulties and dangers, cast thy cares and fears upon God, and see if he will not bear them for thee; and frame thy heart to this heavenly modera­tion in all successes to sanctify God’s name. And if the hour and power of darkness come, that thou beest to resign up thy calling, let it be enough that conscience may witness to thee that thou hast not sought thyself nor this world, but hast wrought the Lord’s works. Thou mayest then have comfort in it, both before God and men.3

The Puritan, then, was supposed to go about the affairs of the workaday world with a zeal en­livened by his religious faith. He was to show forth the character of his faith by the quality of his work. The virtues he particularly admired were such as might well lead to success in an earthly call­ing: industry, sobriety, diligence, honesty, and steadfastness. Puri­tans did, indeed, throw them­selves into the affairs of the workaday world with an almost unprecedented zeal, for the pur­pose, in purest doctrine, of glori­fying God and keeping themselves pure against the Day of Judg­ment, though many of them may well have become enamored of the means and forgotten the end.

After the Restoration

The great age of the Puritans was the seventeenth century. In England their ranks numbered such stalwarts as John Milton, Oliver Cromwell, Edmund Spen­ser, John Bunyan, among others. The Puritan experiments during the Interregnum (1649-1660), however, left a bad taste for their faith in the mouths of many Eng­lishmen, and the following of the Puritan faith waned after that. Puritans were never again to oc­cupy so prominent a position among the English. With their de­cline came also a decline generally of the nonconformist or evan­gelical Protestant appeal for a good many years.

Historians are generally agreed, too, that there was a general let­down in morality after the Res­toration (1660) and extending well into the eighteenth century. In the first half or so of the eight­eenth century the upper classes were reputed to be much given to wine drinking and gaming. “They tell me,” George III once said to Lord Chancellor Northington, “that you love a glass of wine.” The reply was, “Those who have informed your Majesty have done me a great injustice; they should have said a bottle.” Gout was a common disease, reputed to be the result of drinking huge quantities of cheap port. Gin could be had cheaply, and many of the poor drowned their sorrows in it, ac­cording to report. Industry and sobriety were not yet well estab­lished in England.

Whitefield and Wesley

Evangelical Protestantism be­gan to make a comeback in the eighteenth century. With it came a renewed religious zeal and a revival of what was, in many respects, the Puritan posture to­ward this world. Several denomi­nations and sects played a part in this: Congregationalists, Bap­tists, and Quakers; but the most prominent role was played by John Wesley and the Methodists. There were two leading figures in a re­vivalist movement which was un­derway in the 1730′s and 1740′s: George Whitefield and John Wes­ley. Whitefield was the first to take to open-air preaching — that is, preaching to throngs of people who gathered in an open space. His preaching was characterized by much enthusiasm and a power­ful emotional appeal. John Wesley was to adopt this as his method too, and over a long career was to address such crowds on many occasions.

Of the influence of Wesley and Whitefield upon their time, as well as upon later generations, there should be no doubt. One historian says that their work “brought about the regeneration of a living faith in England. They appealed to the vast mass of their countrymen who had, most of them, either never been inside a church in their lives, or, if they had, were untouched by the formal services they found there — the poor, the degraded, no less than the honest working folk, repelled by the cold, lifeless, and perfunc­tory ministrations of the bene­ficed clergy.”4

Wesley and Whitefield preached salvation by faith and personal piety. Though they frequently ad­dressed the poor, they were nei­ther radicals nor revolutionaries. Their message was directed to in­dividuals, not to classes. So far as Wesley was concerned with the material conditions under which people lived, he bade them to im­prove by their own efforts. More, he bade them to be diligent in their earthly affairs:

The generality of Christians after using some prayer, usually apply themselves to the business of their calling. Every man that has any pretence to be a Christian, will not fail to do this: seeing it is impos­sible that an idle man can be a good man: sloth being inconsistent with religion. But with what view? For what end do you undertake and fol­low your worldly business? “To pro­vide things necessary for myself and my family.” It is a good answer, as far as it goes; but it does not go far enough. For a Turk or a heathen goes so far; does his work for the very same ends. But a Christian may go abundantly farther: his end in all his labour is, to please God; to do not his own will, but the will of him that sent him into the world; for this very purpose, to do the will of God on earth, as angels do in heaven.5

Christian Virtues

The Doctrine of the Calling was revived in Methodist teachings. It will be worthwhile, too, to go over those virtues that Wesley account­ed worthy of a Christian:

…Do you love, honour, and obey your father and mother, and help them to the utmost of your power? Do you honour and obey all in au­thority? all you governors, spirit­ual pastors, and masters? Do you behave lowly and reverently to all your betters? Do you hurt nobody, by word or deed? Are you true and just in all your dealings? Do you take care to pay whatever you owe? Do you feel no malice, or envy, or revenge, no hatred or bitterness to any man?… Do you speak the truth from your heart to all men, and that in tenderness and love?… Do you keep your body in sobriety, temperance, and chastity, as know­ing it is the temple of the Holy Ghost…? Have you learned, in every state wherein you are, there­with to be content? Do you labour to get your own living, abhorring idleness as you abhor hell-fire? The devil tempts other men; but an idle man tempts the devil. An idle man’s brain is the devil’s shop, where he is continually working mischief. Are you not slothful in business? What­ever your hand finds to do, do you do it with your might? And do you do all as unto the Lord, as a sac­rifice unto God, acceptable in Christ Jesus.16

The teachings of Wesley and others like him, says one historian, brought solace to those poor hud­dled in their misery in new fac­tory towns in the late eighteenth century and eventually “helped to make them the deeply religious and self-respecting people which the lower middle class of factory workers and shopkeepers of the manufacturing areas had become by the nineteenth century.”7

John Wesley was an ordained Anglican clergyman and remained one throughout his life. He pro­fessed much love and veneration for the “mother church.” Yet after his death the Methodists be­came a separate denomination. Even so, the impact upon the Anglican church remained great. By the late eighteenth century there were many of an evangelical temperament within the estab­lished church, and they taught doctrines similar to those of Wes­ley. As one writer puts it, “Like the Methodists, the evangelicals within the Church of England were firm supporters of the social order. Reformation of manners, not reformation of social evils, was their main concern; and to most of them righteousness and radicalism seemed to go ill to­gether.”8

Another historian says of the impact of the evangelicals within the Church of England, “Although this movement had passed its climax in 1815, it still represented the most active section of the church. The leaders set a pattern of strict and pious life…. They maintained a serious and unself­ish attitude towards public af­fairs. They used their wealth con­scientiously, and, on the whole, to good and noble purpose.”

Victorian Morality

In the first half of the nine­teenth century, the evangelical de­nominations grew greatly in num­bers and influence. “The number of Congregationalist chapels in­creased three and a half times be­tween 1801 and 1851; the number of Baptist meeting places multi­plied fourfold; and the number of Methodist halls multiplied more than fourteen times during these years…. Revival meetings on the American model were popular among many nonconformists, and the evangelically minded ‘Low Church’ remained a prominent facet of Anglicanism.”10 A reli­gious census in 1851 indicated that of approximately 18 million people some 7 million were regu­lar churchgoers.

The influence of the evangeli­cal Protestant ethic reached its peak in the nineteenth century. It eventuated in the dominance of what has been termed Victorian morality. One historian describes Victorian morality “as a set of ideals about efficiency and thrift, seriousness of character, respect­ability, and self-help…. The maxim ‘honesty is the best policy’ was to serve not merely as a slo­gan but as an accepted and demon­strable truth…. Bankruptcy was regarded not merely as a financial but as a moral disgrace. Morality in government was given similar, perhaps even greater stress…”¹¹

Bible-reading in the Home, Sermonizing in the Church

By truncating a sentence by G. M. Young, historian of the Vic­torian Age, the relation of evan­gelicalism to this morality can be stated: “Victorian history is the story of the English mind employ­ing the energy imparted by Evan­gelical conviction….“12 He says that “Evangelicalism had imposed on society, even on classes which were indifferent to its religious basis and unaffected by its eco­nomic appeal, its code of Sabbath observance, responsibility, and philanthropy; of discipline in the home, regularity in affairs; it had created a most effective technique of agitation….”13 Or again, “To be serious, to redeem the time, to abstain from gambling, to remem­ber the Sabbath day to keep it holy, to limit the gratification of the senses to the pleasures of a table lawfully earned and the em­braces of a wife lawfully wedded….”¹4 The testimony of yet an­other historian will drive the point home:

No interpretation of mid-Victori­anism would be sound which did not place religious faith and observance in the very centre of the picture. The most generally accepted and practised form of Christianity at the time was that which may be broadly called evangelicalism, with its emphasis upon moral conduct as the test of the good Christian…. Its basis was biblical. Bible-reading in the home was as popular as sermonizing in church. Its highest virtue was self-improvement. Its emphasis lay not on sacraments or ritual, but on organized prayer and preaching, and on the strict observ­ance of Sunday….1 5

The moral base for the rise and greatness of England, then, was to be found mainly in a Chris­tianity as it was interpreted and exemplified by evangelical Protes­tants. Men did not, of course, pro­fess Christianity that England might be great or even, ideally, that they might be successful as individuals in acquiring worldly goods. Protestant Christianity spoke its message to the individual soul in its yearning toward God and eternity. If they did put spiritual things first, they were told, then they might have earthly goods in plenty. We cannot know, of course, how far and to what extent men did indeed put spirit­ual things first. What we can be certain of is that they had im­bibed an outlook toward this world and were taught a morality which did make for material success and greatness.

The Freeing of Human Energy

The energies of Englishmen set free by liberty were controlled and directed toward positive accom­plishment by an ethos which held that any lawful undertaking, be it ever so humble, was a calling of God to a Christian engaged in it. The way in which he performed his work would be a sign of his election and the state of his soul. Careful workmanship, diligence in labor, charitable benevolence, re­spect for other men in what was theirs was deeply ingrained in this outlook. In a sense, this outlook did make of all of life and every undertaking a kind of spiritual exercise, and of the whole world a monastery. To put it another way, all legitimate human effort was pervaded with spiritual overtones and meaning. Even that part of life that has to do with material things, their production, acquisi­tion, and disposal was given spirit­ual import. Not because of the importance of material things but because of the transcendent im­portance of the immortal soul which was engaged with them for a little while, and in the manner of its engagement showed forth its faith.

The drive which carried the English to their peak of achieve­ment, then, had a profound basis. The morality by which they were constrained in the conduct of their affairs was equally deeply based. From about the middle of the eighteenth century onward the English began their surge to greatness. The base from which they moved has now been ex­plored.

The next article in this series will pertain to “The Industrial Surge.”



1 Exodus 20: 13-17 (RSV).

2 William Haller, The Rise of Puri­tanism (New York: Columbia Univer­sity Press, 1938), p. 123.

3 Perry Miller, ed., The American Puritans (Garden City: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 173-82.

4 Basil Williams, The Whig Suprema­cy (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), pp. 96-97.

5 Herbert Welch, comp., Selections from the Writings of John Wesley (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1918), pp. 97-98.

6 Ibid., pp. 308-09.

7 Williams, op cit., p. 97.

8 Derek Jarrett, Britain: 1688-1815 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), pp. 358-59.

9 Llewellyn Woodward, The Age of Reform (London: Oxford University Press, 1962, 2nd ed.), p. 504.

10 Walter L. Arnstein, Britain: Yes­terday and Today (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1966), p. 80.

11 Ibid., p. 77.

12 G. M. Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), p. 5.

13 Ibid., p. 5.

14 Ibid., p. 2.

15 David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: Pen­guin Books, 1950), p. 107.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.