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When people thought differently

September 2021 | by Paul Smith

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I’ve been mining the minute books of a Baptist Association celebrating its 150th anniversary. But I’ve regularly got side-tracked from its history. Often, I’ve found events common to all evangelicals as intriguing as those that affected the group I was studying. I’ve been fascinated by when they protested to government and why. Christians used to think differently.

Here are some questions they addressed, and how their thinking challenges our own.

When do we no longer have to obey our rulers?

The Victorian era is known for rigid morality and deference to monarchy. But in 1888 both were questioned. The trouble arose over Queen Victoria’s response to Pope Leo XII’s congratulations on her Golden Jubilee. She sent the Duke of Norfolk with a message of ‘unfeigned respect and esteem’ and ‘assurance of my sincere friendship’.

Such pleasantries caused consternation. Some drafted a message direct to Queen Victoria, implying she had broken her coronation vows. This was deemed too strong. Yet the toned-down message to the Foreign Secretary ended by highlighting ‘serious doubts in the minds of Her Majesty’s subjects as to whether they are “absolved of their allegiance.”’ The implication: if Victoria broke with the Protestant settlement of 1688, she ceased to be their monarch.

This raises fascinating questions regarding the relationship between government and governed. Do we have a principled position on our constitution from which to assess when we are no longer bound to obey our rulers? Are lies so normal in public life that when ministers break their word it no longer impacts us?

Does national government have the right to run schools?

Schools used to be much more locally controlled. Gladstone enabled local taxpayers to elect representatives to over 2500 school boards. Local taxes could be used to build and maintain these schools. Nonconformists had direct influence.

But the Conservatives’ 1902 Education Bill replaced the school boards with Local Education Authorities and favoured the Church of England. The Association’s response was one of outrage. Nonconformists funding Anglican education through their taxes was deemed ‘subversive to religious liberty’. It was condemned as ‘contrary to civil liberty in enforcing taxation without . . . representation’.

What would it be like today if Council taxpayers elected school boards to run local schools? Would headteachers in many areas be much more reluctant to push teaching that parents were concerned with? Should this past reasoning embolden parents to challenge teachers, funded by their tax money, who abuse their trust?

What exactly is necessary work on Sunday?

It has long been held that Sunday is a day of worship except for ‘duties of necessity and mercy’. But what is necessary work? In March 1917, with German U-boats sinking food ships, the President of the Board of Agriculture persuaded the Archbishop of Canterbury to support Sunday labour on the land.

The Association strongly opposed this, no doubt mindful of Exodus 34:21. They expressed support for maximising farm labour and minimising food consumption but were clear that breaking the Sabbath in this way was ‘contrary to the call of God’. Are evangelicals today ready to follow the fourth commandment even if Christians more broadly readily set it aside? Is our instinct to obey or find an exception when public opinion or personal inclination clashes with God’s commands?

What do we think of Sunday entertainment?

One consistent concern for past believers was attempts to loosen the 1780 Sunday Observance Act, which outlawed Sunday entertainment. An MP who sought to change it described the Lord’s Day Observance Society as ‘one of the strongest pressure groups in this country’.

Concerned Christians managed to delay the loosening for decades. In 1931, a judge upheld that the 1780 Act continued to prohibit opening of places of entertainment, like Sunday cinemas. Believers were relieved. But in 1941 they were ‘deprecating the secularisation of the Sabbath Day’ as theatres and music halls were allowed to open. When the (liberalising) Sunday Observance Bill was decisively defeated in 1953, the Association sent congratulations to Prime Minister Churchill who voted against it.

Some of the strongest opposition came from those not so much concerned for Sunday church attendance but Sunday School attendance. Many of the protests within the Association came from the Sunday School Committee. It was they who expressed concern about Sunday cinemas in 1943. This also explains why the protest against the Sunday opening of the Festival of Britain in 1950 was focussed on the Fun Fair.

Sunday school parade in 2018
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One Association leader estimated in 1928 that 80% of church members had passed through the Sunday Schools. With church attendance in steady and significant decline throughout the twentieth century, it was the Sunday Schools which were a bulwark against secularisation. A focus on the fourth commandment would oppose Sunday entertainment on the grounds of Sabbath desecration and taking people away from worship. But a focus on Sunday Schools meant opposition on the grounds that it prevented children from hearing the gospel.

Some today see campaigning to maintain legacy laws from Britain’s Christian past as futile and a distraction from evangelism. Years of vehement protests merely delayed the abolition of Sunday Observance laws. Yet this raises a question: how many children were saved through Sunday Schools, who wouldn’t have been without this delay? If our spiritual ancestors fought to prevent Sunday entertainments being a distraction to unbelievers, how should that affect our view of them as believers?

Where do we draw the line with entertainment?

I was fascinated to read of a telegram of protest in 1961 against a Christian rock opera on television. The production in question, ‘A man dies’, was the brainchild of a Presbyterian minister from Bristol and designed to reach youth in their own idiom. Those protesting were aghast at it ‘depicting the Crucifixion in a most blasphemous manner’.

More intriguing was that this managed to circumvent blasphemy laws. Until the Theatres Act of 1968, stage plays were at risk of prosecution for blasphemous libel. Whatever we may think of blasphemy laws, the question arises: how keenly do we feel it when our God is blasphemed or our Saviour’s death treated flippantly? For my generation of Christians, blasphemy laws instinctively feel intolerant. For the current generation to only allow men and women to marry instinctively feels intolerant. How far are our instincts shaped by culture not Scripture?

Also in 1961, a concern was raised regarding ‘the increase in sex and violence being broadcast and televised by BBC and ITV at peak hours’. In 1961. Fifty years ago. How much of this, if broadcast today, would be deemed classic family programming from a more innocent age? How far are our principles on what we watch determined by Scripture and how far by what is acceptable in our culture?

Challenging our own thinking

I have posed many questions. I certainly don’t have answers to all of them. But I was struck that I’m more shaped by the contours of this progressive age than I would like to think. As we seek to be shaped by Scripture not culture, we can thank God for believers from the past acting according to deeply held convictions that challenge our own.

Examples in this article come from the minutes of the Association of Grace Baptist Churches South East. Its 150th Anniversary meetings, with Mark Dever, are on Saturday 25th September at Homerton Baptist Church. A special anniversary book is available from Grace Publications, with more on AGBCSE history and chapters from men such as John Benton, Robert Strivens, and Barry King.

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