The Cross and the Ballot Paper: 1832 as a Religious Crisis

1832 was one of the great political crises of the 19th century. It is widely considered the closest Britain has come in the modern era to revolution, prompting rioting across the country and the creation of a vast popular movement. The Whigs were trying to pass the 'Great Reform Act', an overhaul of the electoral system that promised to eliminate corruption and reconnect Parliament with public opinion. As the Tories and the House of Lords fought to obstruct the bill, angry crowds torched the Bishop's Palace at Bristol and destroyed the Duke of Newcastle's residence at Nottingham Castle.

One of the most bitter opponents of the bill was the young William Gladstone. A student at Christ Church, Gladstone believed that the bill was not just wrong, but actively Satanic. He later recalled that he had seen 'an element of the Anti-Christ' in the reform bill, and he fought it at the time with all the fury of a holy war. The forces of hell, he believed, had launched 'their last and fiercest effort against the God of heaven’, and all who promoted the bill were ‘banded with the enemies of God’.

Gladstone was always rather highly strung, but such language was far from unusual. A Tory journal, Blackwood's Magazine, printed a series of letters which it claimed had been sent from Satan to the Whig Cabinet, while clergy across the kingdom preached in opposition to the bill. The British Critic, an Anglican newspaper, warned that 'The principles of the French Revolution are again stalking abroad among us, and it is the same Devil, who is seeking what he can devour'.

Historians have paid very little attention to this language. Ecclesiastical opposition to reform - notably from the bishops in the House of Lords - is usually attributed to the Tory sympathies of the episcopate, or to the vested interests of the Church as a wealthy corporation. It is, of course, true, that there were institutional reasons why the Church of England was wary of reform. This was a Constitution ‘in Church and State’, and the two were not easily disentangled. The Political Unions that sprang up across the country were overwhelmingly founded by dissenters, and their programmes tended to pair reform with things like disestablishment, disendowment, and abolition of the tithe. But there was also a theological case against reform. For those caught up in it, the reform crisis wasn't simply about potwalloper boroughs and the £10 franchise; it was a spiritual struggle in which the souls of a nation hung in the balance.

The 1820s and 30s saw a surge of millenarianism - a sense of living in 'the latter days', when Christ would return to judge the earth. As one preacher warned his congregation, 'The legions of Christ and of Anti-Christ are advancing towards their last and decisive collision. God is "sealing the foreheads" of his elect'. The reform crisis ran alongside a cholera epidemic, widely interpreted as 'an infliction from Heaven'. The cholera was not simply a medical emergency but 'the smiting of the Lord's angel', a 'pestilence' sent by God 'to execute his fierce anger upon a rebellious people'. At such a time, reform was not only a distraction but a snare, 'a very delusion of Satan to hoodwink the eyes of the people'.

Reform, in any case, was still widely associated with the French Revolution. The Revolution had been founded on many of the same generous impulses, offering seductive promises of popular government, only to trigger 25 years of global bloodshed, the abolition of Christianity and a campaign of terror against the Church and its clergy. In the memory of the Church, this was a rebellion against God as well as man. Napoleon himself was commonly portrayed as the devil's spawn, sent into the world to wage war on the people of God:


Underpinning all this was a particular vision of human nature, which stressed the ubiquity of sin. Man was a fallen creation, a being whose bestial lusts and passions were capable of tremendous evil. Government offered a moral discipline, as well as a political one: teaching obedience to the will of God through obedience to the powers that are ordained of God. From this perspective, there was something deeply corrosive about reform. It took the most sinful part of human nature - his will - and enthroned it at the heart of government. It stripped away the protective discipline of government, teaching weak-minded men that government existed not to constrain their passions but to serve them. As rioting spread across the country and a bishop's palace went up in flames, it seemed once again that 'the demon of insubordination hath broken loose'. The picture at the top of the page showed Bristol in flames, a hellish inferno licking against the very walls of the Cathedral. In a poem composed for Blackwood's Magazine, the devil was imagined dancing with delight as he watched the chaos spread:

Satan stood high upon Brandon Hill
With his fiery eyeballs glowing;
He banged the ground with his swinging tail,
And the Demons came round him, and cried, All hail!
See, see, how Reform is going!

Satan he stood in the blazing square,
In the midst of conflagration;
And shouted, Reform! – the day’s my own,
I’ve won me on earth another throne –
And this is my Coronation

This, reflected one preacher, was 'the evil of secret rebellion against all obedience to a superior power; and therefore against God, from whom all power is derived'.

Of course, it was not only anti-reformers who sought religious justifications. Reformers, too, sang hymns and waved religious banners. The Birmingham Political Union sang 'God is our Guide' before meetings, and spoke of reform as a holy cause. In Benjamin Haydon's famous painting of 'The Gathering of the Unions', the Rev Hugh Hutton leads the congregation in prayer, his arm stretched out in benediction:


Commemorative postcards showed the reform struggle as a last judgement scene, with the King and his ministers in Heaven while Tories and anti-Reformers were dragged down to Hell:


But the Antis are perhaps the most interesting. Their rhetoric reminds us that those who fought against reform, and pushed their country to the brink of revolution, were not simply blundering fools, or selfish elites protecting their own vested interests. In many cases, they saw reform as a moral test, in which the stakes were far higher than the rights of property or even the stability of the social order. In this respect, 1832 should be seen as an important moment in the religious history of Britain, and not simply in its political story.