Responses to the Chartists

J.W. Whittaker’s Sermon to the Chartists ABLibrary 19thCent OVZ BX5133.W542x D7 1839

J.A. Jones’s New Church “Songs and Ballads” Set to Old Cathedral Music: An Analytical Review of “Songs and Ballads for the People” ABLibrary 19thCent OVZ BX5135.J66 1843

Christian Remembrancer‘s “Review of: Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Art. I. 1. The Song of Hiawatha.”

Rare Item Analysis: Responses to the Chartists at the Armstrong Browning Library

By Aubrey Morris


The Armstrong Browning Library holds 3 particularly significant responses to the Chartist movement of the mid 19th Century, which argued for universal male suffrage and electoral reform in order to prevent corruption and enable poor and working class men to wield political power. The movement believed that economic inequality and the working conditions in the factories could not be remedied until the people working in the factories were formally represented by the government, and took several charters to Parliament, asking to be enfranchised. The movement also had religious, musical, and poetic arenas of discourse, creating and publishing their own journals and writing hymns and poetry. Each of the following texts from the Armstrong Browning Library responds to Chartism from a different arena of Chartist discourse, and allows readers to see Chartism from an outside perspective that is helpful in illuminating the pressures and criticisms faced by the movement.

The earliest and most direct response is religious, a 4th edition of Dr. J.W. Whittaker’s Sermon to the Chartists: A Sermon Preached at the Parish Church, Blackburn, on Sunday, August 4th, 1839. This sermon is found in the 19th Century Collection, at call number OVZ BX5133.W542x D7 1839.  It was delivered to an audience of about 4,000 people, many of them Chartists, and published soon after.

The 19th Century Collection also features an 1843 text participating in the conversation around hymns. John Andrew Jones’s 1843 pamphlet New Church “Songs and Ballads” Set to Old Cathedral Music: An Analytical Review of “Songs and Ballads for the People” by John M. Neale: Accompanied by Some Full-Toned Mother-Church Notes, Composed for the Parish Organ is found at call number OVZ BX5135 .J66 1843. Jones reviews a book of songs written by John M. Neale, a High Church Anglican, against a broad set of dissenters, defending the dissenters from Neale’s attacks.

The library’s Rare Periodicals Collection includes a final significant response, this one in the arena of poetry. The year-in-review article “Review of: Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Art. I. 1. The Song of Hiawatha,” detached from High Church periodical Christian Remembrancer, Vol. 31, no. 92, was published in April 1856 and discusses 8 books of poetry released the previous year, 1855. Although it found its way into the Armstrong Browning Library because of its review of Robert Browning’s Men and Women, which is marked off in pencil and labeled with additional bibliographic information about its source, the article also includes a review of Chartist leader and poet Ernest Jones’s book The Battle-Day and Other Poems.

Analysis: Sermon to the Chartists

Whittaker’s Sermon to the Chartists is significant both for its direct participation in Chartist religious and political discourse and for its construction of the Chartists themselves.

Whittaker emphasizes the setting of his sermon, part of a series of Chartist church occupations, in which Chartist groups would send letters to their parish priests, requesting that they speak on a specific Biblical text, generally focused on wealth, inequality, or other issues related to class. They would then attend the church on Sunday morning, seeing whether their challenge had been taken up or not and displaying their numbers. Whittaker uses this setting as an opportunity to refute the Chartists. Whittaker makes this context clear to his listeners, explaining: “I have been invited to preach this morning from only the first six verses of this chapter [James 5], with the obvious intention that I should apply (or rather be compelled to apply) the Apostle’s words to the rich of the present day, as generally true of them” (10). Whittaker opposes this reading, arguing instead, “it would be an act of flagrant false witness against our brethren, to apply any such description, with the most distant pretense of generality, to any body of men, rich or high in station, in a really Christian country” (9). He emphasizes the charities and institutions created and maintained by the rich to help the poor, arguing that the wealthy in Christendom, by virtue of being Christians, could be relied upon to help the poor rather than to oppress them, as they did in James’s day.

In addition to his refutation of their religious argument through contrast between the wealthy in pre-Christian and Christian society, Whittaker describes specific political features of Britain that he argues make the comparison to the wealthy in James 5:1-6 inappropriate, saying “Still more extravagantly false and unfounded would it be in our own land, which is governed by equal laws, where civil rights and public guarantees of liberty are secured too firmly to be shaken, except by those who enjoy their benefit” (9). In doing so, he suggests not only that British citizens are already equal – or at least “governed by equal laws” – but also warns listeners that agitation might “shake” the rights and liberties they already have. Finally, he argues specifically against the charter, claiming, “No nation ever attained civil liberty by mere charters and acts of legislation. They were the effects and not the cause of national virtue. The inverse process has often been tried and has always failed” (15). Rather than seeking political change, he argues, Chartists should refocus their attention on virtue and trust to the virtue of the wealthy, because this system of Christian virtue will protect and help them more than political change.

In addition to these direct rebuttals of Chartist ideas, Whittaker presents a picture of the Chartists themselves that goes against their conception of themselves. Although the first petition sent to Parliament had garnered over a million signatures across Britain, Whittaker describes the Chartists as a small group “so small, that it cannot, either by its numbers, influence or respectability, account for the present concourse,” because, “if all their comrades were assembled, they could not muster in this populous parish much more that [sic] one hundred persons” (13). He also undermines their character, describing them as “an evil under the sun which is much to be deplored,” before defining them more specifically as “persons who can descry all kinds of errors and failings and sins in other persons, but will admit and believe of none in themselves” (10). They are hypocritical and deceptive, a danger to his more pious parishioners, who may have been “grossly deceived, most infamously and impudently deluded and practiced upon by persons who have their own wicked and selfish ends to answer by your destruction” (14-15).

Whittaker also paints the Chartists as irreligious, a sharp contrast to Chartists who called on Biblical imagery in their poetry and supported their calls for equality with Biblical texts. He calls them “perfect strangers” to the “house of God” (14). He reads their dissension from the Anglican church not only as unauthorized, but as irreligious, claiming that their “primary object . . . is, to eradicate all religious principle and belief from your minds,” that they “labour” to “make you believe that revelation is a falsehood,” and that “they endeavour . . . zealously to untie all social obligations, to obliterate all traces of Christian charity and kindly feeling” (15). He also reads their reliance on political change, rather than the faithful prayer called for by the latter part of his sermon text, James 5:10-16, as an indication that they “disbelieve the Bible, and must be argued with on totally different principles” (12). Ultimately, Whittaker undermines the religious underpinning Chartists claimed for themselves, both in his treatment of their arguments and in his depiction of them as a body. He articulates religious, political, and personal arguments against them, providing a point of contrast to the Chartists’ depictions of their own beliefs, illustrating the pressures the Chartists had to fight against.

Analysis: New Church “Songs and Ballads” Set to Old Cathedral Music: An Analytical Review of “Songs and Ballads for the People”

J.A. Jones’s work touches only briefly on the Chartists, but is interesting as a piece of the conversation around hymnody, providing both examples of the establishment response to new dissenter hymns and examples of the dissenters’ response to those responses. Jones notes, “Dissenters through the kingdom have distributed not a few of them, in order to laugh at, and make themselves innocently merry, at the consummate ignorance, the egregious folly, of this famous Bachelor of Arts, of Trinity College, Cambridge” (B2). Dissenters, then, did not always take the establishment responses to their activities seriously. Even so, Jones accompanies his mocking commentary on Neale’s work with a genuine defense of dissenters, which, although it fails to touch specifically on the Chartists, clearly articulates the general principles of the era’s denominational conflicts and demonstrates the pressure dissenters were under to justify their beliefs and actions.

The review’s specific mention of the Chartists sets them into the broader context of dissenting Christians. A quote from Neale’s work includes them as part of a list of enemies of the church, “Baptists, Chartists, Infidels . . . Wesleyans, Independents / And other sects a score,” (12). Jones’s response to this ballad, which claims that the “desired downfall” of the “grinders of the poor . . . will be accomplished ere long” suggests that although not all dissenters were Chartists, many members of other dissenting groups were also concerned with the conditions among the poor and working classes (13). The Anglican poetry he reviews is less sympathetic.

Analysis: Christian Remembrancer Review

The review from the Christian Remembrancer touches both on the Chartists themselves and on their poetry. The reviewers portray the Chartists as an unruly and undistinguishing crowd, and describe Jones as “the Chartist mob-orator whose name at monster meetings we see attached to long speeches, which quiet people never dream of reading” (301). His usual listeners, “excited thousands,” they say, “probably prefer this style to a dogged closeness of reasoning and comparison. They like a genial dash of eloquence, and never stop to check off accurately the exact progress of a metaphor” (302). They emphasize the difference between a listening and a reading audience, but treat the listeners as inferior, noting, “His listening admirers would not be perplexed, as we are, to make out the absolute exact meaning of the terrible image or images employed,” (302). The Chartists, then, are imprecise and unable to perceive the “singular looseness of thought, and want of consecutiveness” the reviewers criticize Jones for (302). The emphasis on listening, rather than reading, also suggests an implicit criticism of the lower classes that make up Jones’s audience, in comparison to upper class people who have more opportunities to read and reflect.

In addition to their criticism of Jones’s listeners and his “loose” poetry, the reviewers comment negatively on Chartist poetry in general. Although Jones had been writing poetry for Chartist newspapers for years, and many of the poems in Battle Day, including some they cite, were reprints, the reviewers emphasize their unfamiliarity with Chartist poetry, stating, “Though we should not hazard a guess before-hand as to what sort of poetry a Chartist orator would write, we perceive, after its perusal, that this is precisely what might have been looked for” (301). What they “might have looked for,” and what they expect of the Chartists, is “a good deal of rather envious appreciation of the rank and social elevation it is his business to pull down . . . flow, and spirit sometimes, plenty of rant, and now and then pretty and pleasing ideas” (301). Even the “pretty and pleasing ideas” are undermined as they note that “all who win their way into any kind of popular estimation must have their share of” such ideas (301-302). The High Church, establishment reviewers at the Christian Remembrancer devalue both poet and poetry, providing a look at the Chartists from the point of view of an upper-class audience who could – and did – ignore the Chartists and their concerns.


Establishment responses to the Chartists often portray them not only as outsiders, but also as unsuited for the discourses in which they participated. To Whittaker, they are irreligious. To the reviewers at the Remembrancer, they are undiscriminating. Issues of class, not drawn explicitly to the forefront in any of the texts, hover beneath the surface, as the Remembrancer reviewers criticize Jones’s “listeners” and Whittaker urges them to focus on “honest labour, content of mind, patience of heart, and a good conscience towards God and man,” appropriate pursuits for the lower classes (Whittaker 17). Although the texts undermine the Chartists in different ways, they all reinforce the Chartists’ position as outsiders, and suggest the ease with which the Chartists’ concerns could be ignored by the people in power.

Chartism, in general, has been under-studied, with fewer than 150 results on the MLA Bibliography database, and even fewer works focused primarily on the Chartists themselves. The majority of the work on the Chartists has been done in the last 25 years. Scholarship on the Chartists is burgeoning, and would benefit from the introduction of texts responding to the Chartists. These texts, in part because they are so negative, cast new light on the pressures faced by Chartist writers, and on the arguments used to silence them and to justify denying the petitions they took to Parliament.

Presentation: Morris Rare Items Presentation

Discussion Questions: Chartism and Reception

Church reception: Whittaker’s Sermon to the Chartists (August 4, 1839)

  1. Even as Whittaker accuses some of the Chartists of being disrespectful of the church, he acknowledges the possibility that they could be part of the body of Christ, and that some could have been called to church for a reason. Do we see a similar tension between opposition and brotherhood in Chartist writers critiquing the Anglican church?
  1. Whittaker seems to be refuting what he sees as a flawed understanding of the relationship between law and virtue. How do the Chartists construct this relationship in their writing?
  1. How does Whittaker’s discussion of death, and the return of the body to the church, fit with Chartist ideas about martyrdom?

Poetic reception: Review of The Battle-Day (1855) from the High Church periodical Christian Remembrancer Vol 31, no. 92 (April 1856)

  1. The Christian Remembrancer reviewer seems surprised that Jones – and Chartists in general – are writing poetry. However, The Battle-Day was not only not Jones’s first book of poems, it was a book of poems that reprinted his older work, like “The Better Hope,” published originally in 1846. What ought we to make of the reveiwer’s surprise?
  1. Do we see these elements our reviewer “might have . . . looked for” in the Chartist materials we’ve read in general? In Jones’s poetry specifically?
  1. Leaving, for the moment, questions of the social class of his audience, what elements of orality do we see in Jones’s work? Does the Chartist poetry we’ve read seem to value oral forms? The review points specifically to lines 37-48 of “The Better Hope” (“For a giant had risen . . . While it foamed with humanity’s pangs”). Do we agree that this metaphor fails to hold together? Do we see any elements of orality in this section?

Selection from Whittaker’s Sermon

W9 W10-11 W12-13 W14-15 W16-17 W18

Selection from review

CR301 CR302 CR303