I’d long been aware that the later 19th century in Britain had been a ferment of belief systems reinventing themselves, often within the Christian church. Some time ago I reviewed a marvellous book about utopian communities, Utopia Britannica, that pokes around in the wilder fringes of community living and pseudo-religious invention. Many novels of the period use religious seeking as a character identifier, most notably Rose Macaulay’s Told by An Idiot (1923), in which the Victorian pater familias loses his faith at regular intervals. It sounds facetious, but it isn’t a joke: an income based on your religious position could be lost as a matter of conscience, and would take the entire Victorian family along with it.
Neil Johnson’s study of the Labour Church tells the story of John Trevor, a Liverpudlian orphan bought up by his Particular Baptist grandparents. He became a Unitarian minister, then threw Jesus and his stipend away to found a new religion from the teachings of Socialism. He created the Labour Church in 1891 in Manchester, as an offshoot of the International Labour Party, and it was eagerly adopted, lasting almost a century in different congregations in Britain, Australia and Canada. The last congregation, in Canada, was dissolved in 1950. Reading this eager but undeniably academic work is to prompt the question of what, exactly, a religion is? The Labour Church, popular at different times and in different places, seems to have dispensed with the Holy Trinity, and treated Jesus with respect but as only a man. They adopted the Bible’s teachings as needed, and were very strong on the socialist aspects of the New Testament, drawing on them to support Labour Party and Socialist principles, and vice versa. It was a movement of political faith, or politicised faith, and had the advantage of forming a meeting ground for socialist atheists and socialistically-minded Christians.
It’s not clear what the Church actually achieved. The Quakers, as an example of a comparable Christian sect interested in social justice, are barely mentioned in Johnson’s book, so this is not a comparison across the political spectrum. Johnson’s focus is on patching together the varied sources of documentation, and making connections with the few earlier researchers in the field. The Labour Church is a well-explained resource for a brave but bizarre period in politicised worship.
Neil Johnson, The Labour Church: The Movement and Its Message (Routledge 2017), ISBN 978-1-138-23551-9. In hardback and ebook, both at academic prices.