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Religious Movements & Reform in 19th-Century Britain

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  • 0:04 The Church of England
  • 1:31 Catholic Emancipation
  • 2:22 The Oxford Movement
  • 2:58 Nonconformists & Methodism
  • 4:16 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will explore religion and religious movements in Great Britain during the 19th century. We will highlight key themes and developments, and understand the historical context of religion in Great Britain at that time.

The Church of England

When you think about the history of religion in Great Britain, maybe the Church of England comes to mind. You know, the same Church of England that prompted many of the Pilgrims to leave England and settle a new land across the Atlantic Ocean. In the religious history of Great Britain, the Church of England is a pillar, meaning it was a dominant force. The Church of England was (and still is) the official religion of England. It is a Protestant Christian denomination that emerged in the 16th century as an alternative to the Roman Catholic Church. This is important to remember, because in many respects the Church of England has historically been anti-Catholic.

Historically, the Church of England has been a state church, meaning it has ties to the government. This is very different from the model America's Founding Fathers set forth. In the United States, there is what we call ''separation of church and state'', meaning the U.S. does not have an official religion. Because the Church of England was the official religion of England, many people throughout Great Britain did not have religious liberty, especially before the 19th century.

After all, that's why the Pilgrims left, right? Catholics, ''Nonconformists'', and other groups were regularly subject to religious persecution. In some cases, they couldn't hold public office, be involved in government, or worse. However, during the 19th century, some reforms were introduced that allowed for greater religious liberty. Let's dig deeper and learn more.

Catholic Emancipation

Being a Protestant branch of Christianity, the Church of England (also often called the Anglican Church), was openly hostile toward Catholicism throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. However, by the 19th century, attitudes were changing and religious reforms were being made. The term Catholic Emancipation refers to the changes in Great Britain and Ireland during the early 19th century, in which Catholics were granted much more religious liberty.

For example, one of the most important aspects of the Catholic Emancipation was the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which permitted Catholics to hold office as members of Parliament. Before this, to sit in Parliament, one had to belong to the Church of England. Other restrictions on those who practiced Catholicism were also lifted throughout the early 19th century.

During this time, many leaders in the Anglican Church also began to gain a greater appreciation for the heritage and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Sure, there were many theological differences between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church, but in regard to the ''high church'' style of worship and an appreciation for tradition, many Anglican leaders began to embrace these aspects of Catholicism. This was called the Oxford Movement. The Oxford Movement merged certain aspects of Catholicism with Anglicanism. Because of the Oxford Movement, the Anglican Church became more ''liturgical'', or formal.

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