Religion and the Community

XI Religion and the Community

‘The prosperity of agriculture’, wrote Arthur Young in 1799, ‘as of everything else, depends on the moral and religious habits of the people’; and he recounted the perhaps apocryphal story of the Lincolnshire parish clerk who prevented service being said for five weeks because her pet goose was sitting in the pulpit. Such ‘neglect of worship’, it was alleged, was particularly prevalent in the Wolds.

A survey of church life in the county in 1788-92 supports Young’s description. There was widespread non-residence among the clergy – three-quarters of Lincolnshire rectors and vicars served their parishes by visits or by curates. Some like Lord Bristol’s agent Waterson at Sleaford accumulated benefices and lived in style on one of them, and evidence of neglect of pastoral functions abounds. One reason was that many livings were very poor, less than £50 p.a., and even the bishop admitted that dissenting teachers were often more learned than his own clergy.

Other forms of Christian observance emerged to meet spiritual and social needs in neglected parishes. At first they were closely interrelated: the three main groups of Anglicans, Catholics and Protestant dissenters had much in common, and transfer from one to another took place on occasion. The parents of John Wesley were both prominent dissenters before Samuel was ordained into the Church of England, while Wesley, himself an ordained Anglican, returned (voluntarily or involuntarily) to the nonconformist arena. This interrelationship did not break down until the 19th century; as late as the 1850s, the ‘all but universal [practice] in this part of Lincolnshire at least [Swaby] the attendance of members both at church and chapel’ was reported from town and village alike; at Lincoln ‘they go from church to church, from chapel to church, and from church to chapel’, while among the Methodist groups an ‘acceptable preacher’ was used by congregations of different per­suasions without any sense of incongruity. All three strands were equally affected by the major movements of this period, evangelical enthusiasm and high church ritualism; prayer meetings, preachings and Bible study groups were features of all groups, just as increasing formalism and-ornateness in buildings affected most denominations.

Religion and society

It has been argued that religion played its part in the destruction of traditional social structures. As distinct social classes emerged, the gentry in the 18th century, the middle classes of small owners and larger tenant farmers in the early 19th century, and the rural working classes not until the middle or late 19th century, the gentry identified more closely with the established church, the Anglican clergy drawn from the same families often joining them so that the church became increasingly remote from the people; the middle classes turned to the more ‘polite’ forms of dissent (Independents, Quakers, Unitarians and especially in Lincolnshire the Wesleyans), while the working classes retained at least for a time aspects of traditional communal patterns of life in the enthusiastic forms of worship associated with the Primitive Methodists and other groups.

Such an analysis needs more study before it can be accepted with confidence. So too does the relationship between urban and rural religion in the county. It seems that the towns gradually became the focal points for religion, subjecting rural centres of worship to an urban ethos. The government of the churches, their committees and courts, their major festivals and their leading figures tended more and more to be centred on the towns, so that to serve an urban congregation came to be regarded as a career advancement.

Such trends helped to undermine the cohesion of the local community. The solidarity of the village was not significantly threatened by the emergence of recusants, early dissenting groups and even the Wesleyans, but from the second quarter of the 19th century the ‘gathered congrega­tions’ of the Primitive Methodists, Baptists and Independents led increas­ingly to new attitudes towards a hierarchically ordered local society. Lay participation in these groups (rare in the Church of England despite the parish officers of sexton, clerk and churchwarden) led to increased alienation from the established church and contributed to the disintegra­tion of the community; it is not without significance that many chapels were built outside the villages, often on parish boundaries between local communities, a sign of this disintegration. The Church of England reacted, seeking to retain its primacy and identification with the com­munity as a whole. It embarked on a rebuilding programme and in an attempt to win back those who now openly declared that they no longer belonged began to introduce more services: at Humberston in 1833 two services on Sunday were ‘looked upon as opposition by the Methodists’; ‘those Dissenters who were constantly attending Morning Service mur­mured and stayed from church because the Afternoon Service interfered with their chapel hour’. ‘My evening duty has most woefully thinned their ranks’, wrote the rector of Grimsby in 1829. Bishop Kaye urged his clergy to feed their flocks so that they no longer ‘turned to any teacher who professes to supply them with spiritual food for which they hunger’, and some responded: ‘now at each service, a sermon is preached. It is hoped that the sermon in the morning will bring a larger congregation’ (Hibaldstow, 1851). The Church of England in the villages became to a large extent just another denomination.

It is with such trends that the historian of religion in Lincolnshire will be concerned in the future rather than with the separate history of the denominations. Religion must as far as possible be seen as a whole, whether it is the various branches of the Christian church or the popular religion of magic, witchcraft, superstitions and customs. But until this work has been done, we must be content to describe the fortunes of the main forms of Christian activity in the county, and the late 18th-century survey which shows the distribution of these groupings at that time provides a useful starting point.


Catholicism survived in Lincolnshire in small pockets, usually depen­dent upon a landholder who provided protection or even coercion. At Irnham where 77 per cent of the population were Catholic, ‘Lord Arundell has a House here with a Chaplain where Mass is celebrated’, and people from neighbouring Corby attended the Irnham chapel until it was removed to Corby early in the 19th century. Catholics were grouped in the upper Ancholme valley centred on the Heneage estate at Hainton (where a third of the population was ‘papist’), in the north (Worlaby and an early church at Osgodby) and scattered over the central Wolds. Although there was a group of recusants in Lincoln at the end of the previous century, by 1790 this had apparently died out.

During the 19th century, Catholicism in the county was strengthened by a wave of immigrants, some from the continent, others from Ireland engaged in seasonal labour. Much of this New Catholicism with its priests who were not local men seems to have been despised by the older Catholic families for its irregularity in attending mass, its poverty and for listening to service while standing ‘in the yard and outside the chapel door’. Only in Grantham did a long-established Catholic church supported by the Manners and Thorold families adapt itself to the new conditions of the 19th century.


The East Midlands were the centre of English ‘separatism’; at least four Calvinist congregations in south Lincolnshire dated from the days of the Commonwealth, while Baptists were meeting in Epworth as early as 1623. The Axholme groups had declined by the 1790s. The General Baptists, strongly represented in the Fens between Boston and Long Sutton, were torn by the debate which turned most of them into Unitar­ians. David Taylor from Yorkshire established a New Connexion of Baptists at a conference in Lincoln in 1769, but it was driven out by the Old Connexion and only one chapel remained at Boston. Evangelicalism had relatively little impact on Old Dissent in Lincolnshire.

There was a sharp fall in the number of Presbyterian congregations; a few became Unitarian. They lay scattered over the county until in 1844 the Lincolnshire Association of Independent Ministers and Churches drew them closer together. The Quakers were strong in northwest Kesteven, the Marsh and the south and west Wolds. Like the Old Catholics they relied upon patronage to support them through the periods of intermittent and never very harsh persecution. But patronage could not protect them from decline, and the nearly 30 congregations of the early 18th century were reduced to nine by the mid-19th century; like the Independents their strength now lay in towns like Caistor, Lincoln and Spalding. Mormons appeared in the county before 1845, preaching in the public houses; despite mob violence as at Spalding, they established a number of congregations which grew slowly since ‘the greater part of the members have emigrated’ (1851).

The north of the county had a number of prominent Quaker families centred on the Society at Gainsborough but few other dissenters; it was in the Fens that these groups made their greatest impact – at Spalding, Gedney and Long Sutton with lesser centres at Bourne and elsewhere. Small congregations were often linked together for purposes of ministry: in 1720 ‘Joseph Hooke was ordained Pastor of the [Baptist] Church meeting in Bourne, Hackonby, Spalding and the Park adjacent’. Throughout the period there seems to have been little, persecution although at Spalding the worshippers ‘came out and fell to pulling apple trees and pair trees’ when the constables called.

Religion in Lincolnshire at the end of the 18th century
20. Religion in Lincolnshire at the end of the 18th century


Lincolnshire claims a special place in the history of the Evangelical Revival as the home of John and Charles Wesley. Their father held the livings of South Ormesby and later for 39 years of Epworth and Wroote in Axholme. Here John and Charles with their brother Samuel and their many sisters were educated by their father and mother before being sent to Oxford where they established their rigorous society, seeking salvation by discipline. They went to Georgia to serve the colonists there, seeking salvation in mission; but it was in London that first Charles and later John were converted under the influence of the Moravian Christian Brethren. Then followed a life of preaching, debating, organising societies and settling disputes throughout the country.

Wesley’s first three centres were at London, Bristol and Newcastle upon Tyne. Lincolnshire came later. His was a mission to the nation, particularly the towns in which increasingly large populations lived in poverty, ignorance, hard labour and crime. Wesley was a figure of the new age, not the old one which Lincolnshire represented in the 18th century. But both Wesleys and their supporters were active in the county, especially in the north; on at least one occasion John faced a riotous mob at Crowle. Congregations were established early and Methodism became stronger in this county than in most other parts of the country. There were large numbers in the Sleaford area (half the population of Heckington in 1790), in the south Wolds (Raithby, 62 per cent) and in the north Wolds.

As with the Catholics, sometimes the aristocracy took the lead like the Tennysons at Tealby, though at Elsham John Wesley found the landowners hostile and at Appleby the Winns (squire and parson) drove the Wesleyans out. But in general the movement seems to have been based on the newer class of freehold or substantial tenant farmer like the Ellis family of Burton on Stather or George Milns in the Marsh.

The 1851 census of religion shows the increase in the number of Methodist meeting houses between 1790 and 1850. Before their chapels were built, congregations met in cottages, barns and outhouses. The ‘agitations’ which split the movement in 1797, 1835 and 1849 and local schisms created more congregations so that in some villages there were two or three Methodist groups each with its own chapel. The sect flourished in open villages like Binbrook and Tetford in the north or Brant Broughton (which housed Quaker and two Methodist chapels) and Corby in the south; growing towns like Brigg became ‘a haven for dissenters and a seminary for all such like cattle the whole county over’.


Not all religious enthusiasm and discipline lay with the nonconfor­mists any more than all neglect and corruption lay with the established church. There were it is true drunken and immoral Anglican clergy as at Coningsby in the early 18th century, but equally the Baptist minister at Bourne in 1794 ‘turned out a very bad man. He was under necessity to leave the town in the night for fear of the mob; drunkenness and sodomy were laid to his charge’. And there were many ‘Godly and pious Pastors’ in Lincolnshire parishes. The extensive use of curates did not necessarily lead to neglect for they often lived in the same parish for many years, serving under successive rectors or vicars, and thus became identified with their parishioners.

Nor were the buildings always neglected. Some new churches were built like Stainfield (1711), Harmston (1717), Wilsthorpe near Greatford (1715) and Langton by Spilsby (1725), and older churches were restored, often at great cost. With the growing population and the new settlements established after enclosure, drainage and waste reclamation, new par­ishes were created and new churches and chapels endowed. The Fens, where the Church was at its weakest, witnessed the building or rebuilding (often in brick) of churches as at Sutton St. Edmund and West Pinchbeck. The new villages of East, West and Wildmore Fen were dowered by Act of Parliament (1812) with churches, but in places temporary premises were needed as at New Holland where first the railway station waiting room and later the schoolroom were used for worship until the church was completed. In the expanding towns, new parish churches were erected and endowed. Bishop, lay patron, incumbents, Church societies and trusts, local lay subscribers, drainage commissioners – all sources of revenue were pressed into service to outstrip the dissenters and put up new and better buildings or restore older often crumbling centres of local religious life.

Three main movements affected the Church of England in Lincoln­shire between 1750 and 1850. First it felt the winds of the Evangelical Revival. Clergy like John Pugh of Rauceby friend of Charles Simeon and founder of the Church Missionary Society and John Wilson of Donington led the way in bringing new ideas and a new spirit into the Worship of the day. Some like Charles Dodsworth of Welby even helped build Wesleyan chapels in their parishes.

Secondly the bishops of Lincoln launched a programme of reform particularly directed against the non-residence and pluralism of many of their clergy. The ‘vicarage movement’ of the 1830s and 1840s, aimed at supplying a decent parsonage house in every parish, thus eliminating one excuse for non-residence, has given us many of the surviving Lincoln­shire vicarages, substantial houses in brick or stone. But perhaps more effective in reducing pluralism was the increase in the value of rural benefices at this time; Bishop Kaye tried to ensure that every incumbent had at least £200 p.a.

The work of these reforming bishops – John Kaye, Christopher Words­worth and Edward King – eventually bore fruit. The ‘squarson’ like the Beriges of Algarkirk and Fosdyke and the Winns at Appleby became rarer; even John King who lived at Ashby de la Launde Hall and owned, bred and trained racehorses and who described clergymen like himself as ‘only a particular variety of country gentlemen’ was called to account.

Kaye urged the increase of Sunday services and preaching but his encouragement of a weekly communion took longer to bear fruit; Lin­colnshire was well behind other areas in this respect in the 1840s and 1850s. Bishop King turned his attention to the towns like Grimsby. All the bishops and many of the clergy emphasised the importance of education as an antidote to the ‘manner in which the people have been neglected. A great number of people attend no place of worship. There is a wide field for exertion but as is universally the case, no great good can be done without an established school’.

Thirdly came the High Church movement – the twin threads of ritualism and Anglo-Catholic doctrine promoted locally by the Ecciesiological Societies in Louth and elsewhere. It was largely from this that the demand for the restoration of so many parish churches originated. High church practices spread rapidly despite opposition; Thomas Pel­ham-Dale, rector of Sausthorpe, went to prison for his ‘excessive religious zeal’, and even Bishop King fought a High Court suit over the use of cope and mitre. In the 1860s, Thomas Wimberley Mossman of Torring­ton trained his ‘Mossman Monks’ to go preaching in Lincoln and Louth and eventually, resigned his living to join the Catholic church.

But the majority of clergy were more interested in those whom ‘distance and want of decent apparel’ kept from attending church rather than with dogma. They were concerned for the local community as a whole. ‘I endeavour to avoid all irritation’, wrote the rector of Swaby in relation to his Wesleyan neighbours, ‘and so we jog on together, as friendly as possible’. They were anxious to defuse the tithe and church rate war which racked many villages at this time. Perhaps they were aware that the ‘revived practices’ separated the priest further from his people and led to deteriorating relations with Methodists and others. Rivalry between church and chapel certainly grew and extended to the schools; the race between the Anglicans and the free churches to establish a school in every village had begun. The hostility has left its mark on some Lincolnshire villages today. In Corby it is said that relations between the Anglicans and the Catholics in the late 19th century were closer than those between the Anglicans and the Methodists, and apart from the Anglican Grammar school, there were three rival elementary schools, Catholic, Methodist and Board school (of which the Anglican incumbent was chairman).