J.W. Whittaker’s Sermon to the Chartists ABLibrary 19thCent OVZ BX5133.W542x D7 1839
Realigning the Apostle: J.W. Whittaker’s Sermon to the Chartists
By Kristyn Drew Woytkewicz
In 1839, proponents of Chartism, a working-class movement which argued for universal male suffrage and parliamentary reform, began staging Sunday morning occupations of Church of England churches. The Chartists would inform the parish preacher of their visit beforehand and request he preach on a particular Bible passage. Generally, this passage would be about God’s condemnation of the rich and His care for the poor. These Chartist sit-ins, along with their recommended Bible passages, represent Chartists’ and anti-Chartists’ attitudes towards the Bible, Christianity, and each other. The Chartists saw these passages – and thus the Christian God – as aligning with poor, working-class laborers and also with the political goals of Chartism. In response, Church of England clergy, who were opposed to Chartism, had to refute Chartist beliefs in their sermons by showing how these passages did not support Chartist social and political aims. Among the holdings of the Armstrong Browning Library is a fourth edition pamphlet of one such sermon preached in response to Chartist church occupations: Rev. J. W. Whittaker’s Sermon to the Chartists: A Sermon Preached at the Parish Church, Blackburn, on Sunday, August 4th, 1839. The sermon is in the Theological Pamphlets subcollection of the 19th Century Collection.
Whittaker’s sermon has been discussed alongside other responses to the Chartist movement in a previous post by Aubrey Morris. In that post, Morris notes that Whittaker refutes Chartist religious and political beliefs by presenting England as a Christian nation that cares for her poor and offers equal protection under the law to all her subjects. Alongside other texts, Whittaker’s sermon constructs Chartism as a small, insignificant political movement made up of ignorant, irreligious, and illogical people. Samantha Kiser, in another previous post discussing an issue of The People’s Journal, has noted how the journal attempted to mediate between these disparate Chartist and anti-Chartist viewpoints, recognizing the truth of injustice and poverty in England while rejecting the political goals of Chartism itself. In this post, I will extend Morris’ argument by discussing Whittaker’s emphasis on James’ martyrdom in his sermon. By sending Whittaker James 5:1-6 as their chosen passage, the Chartists align the passage, and the Apostle, with their own views. In his sermon, however, Whittaker connects the Chartists not to James but to the mob that killed him, in turn realigning James with Whittaker and the Church of England. Through this discussion of James’ murder, Whittaker also suggests that the fate of England rests on whether or not the Chartists succeed. Whittaker’s sermon reveals how Chartist and anti-Chartist discourse reacted to each other and grounded themselves on Christianity, each arguing for interpretative authority to support their political aims.
Chartism and Blackburn Parish
The Chartists first presented the Charter to Parliament in the summer of 1839. It was rejected. The Chartist occupation of Blackburn Parish Church occurred only a few months after this rejection but before the Newport Rising in November 1839, placing it directly in the middle of escalating Chartist fervor and aggravation. Blackburn Parish is in Lancashire, just over twenty miles northwest of Manchester. Because of its importance to the textile industry, Lancashire was a frequent location for Chartist meetings and activism as it contained large numbers of working-class people.
By 1839, Whittaker had been at Blackburn Parish for seventeen years. He was already well-known as a clergyman and intellectual before the delivery and publication of this sermon, having published multiple other discourses. On the opposite side of the pamphlet’s title page, Whittaker informs the reader that the church attendance “ha[d] been calculated to be about four thousand.” Whittaker’s calculation, plus the fact that the Armstrong Browning Library’s holding is a fourth edition printing, suggests that the sermon had a significant audience both at its delivery and following its printing.
The Martyrdom of James
Whittaker foregrounds his treatment of the Scriptures and Chartism by first discussing the martyrdom of James. In doing so, he assumes that the Chartists do not know Christian history, stating he will discuss James’ history because, “some of you, however, in all probability may know nothing, and at the same time be disposed to learn something, respecting the blessed Apostle and Martyr of Christ, from whose words I am about to address you…” (4). As Morris has noted previously, elsewhere in the sermon, Whittaker constructs the Chartists as religiously and political unaware. Here, Whittaker characterizes the Chartists as also ignorant of the Christian heritage that they claim. Not only do they not know, according to Whittaker, how to read the Scriptures, they also cannot properly exegete the Scriptures because of their lack of historical knowledge. Understanding James’ future death, he suggests, is necessary to properly read his epistle.
Whittaker’s discussion of James’ martyrdom is more than just a history lesson, however. Ultimately, Whittaker uses the story of James’ death to align the apostle with himself while aligning the mob that killed James with the Chartists. While the Chartists had sent Whittaker James 5:1-6 because they saw the text as supporting their goals, Whittaker first attempts to subvert their understanding not be realigning the meaning of the text, but by realigning the Apostle himself. When Whittaker says he will discuss James’ death, he also states that “his history is by no means irrelevant to my purpose” (4). This purpose, of course, is refuting the Chartists’ claim to the Apostle’s writings. He notes that James was called by the Jewish leaders to calm the people after “a tumultuous and wild multitude rushed into the house of God, and filled the courts of the temple with clamour and confusion” (5). However, when James began to preach about love, the leaders “resolved to put an end to his discourse” (5). To do this, they threw him to the ground and called on the people to stone him. At this, “Too mad with fury and excitement to distinguish friend from foe, or right from wrong, and blind to everything but a vague determination of vengeance, the populace fell into the snare. The saint of God was barbarously murdered by them in the very house of God” (5). At this stage in the sermon, Whittaker’s connection is implicit, though it was likely clear to the Chartists. James’ martyrdom occurred when a large crowd filled the house of God. Because the Chartists, who generally did not attend Church of England services, had filled the Blackburn Parish church, Whittaker sets up the two crowds as synonymous.
This connection becomes even clearer when Whittaker reflects on the “melancholy” nature of the passage. Having finished telling the story of James’ death, he remarks that the revolt and his subsequent death is “only one out of thousands and ten thousands of cases, which prove how fatal and how dreadful may be the consequences of unbridled passion, where discontented multitudes are encouraged to meet together for purposes which they do not distinctly understand, or to remove evils which they cannot control” (6). Whittaker’s assertion here is evident, and certainly was so to the Chartists. He sees them, like the masses who martyred James, as filled with passion and lacking in knowledge.
By explicitly connecting the Chartists to the mob, Whittaker also implicitly connects himself to James as the preacher of the true gospel. If the Chartists are angered by his sermon, or if they react in violence towards him, then their actions will just prove that they are not following the words of the Apostle. Through his discussion of James’ martyrdom, Whittaker aligns the Apostle and his writings not with the Chartists but rather with those who were opposed to Chartism, including Church of England clergy. Before he has even launched into the passage the Chartists had sent him, he refutes the idea that the passage can support the Chartist cause. While the Chartists clearly saw James’ writing as aligning with their own goals of raising up the poor masses, Whittaker realigns the Scripture through implicit condemnation of Chartist protests.
The Fate of England
After connecting the Chartist protest group to the mob that killed James, Whittaker constructs the argument that if Chartism succeeds or if the Chartists become violent against England and her churchmen, England will be cursed and destroyed. After his tale of James’ martyrdom, Whittaker notes that the act “was looked upon with horror universal, – that it was regarded as a national and almost inexpiable sin” (6). He further adds that “a general opinion prevailed that the destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem by the Romans, which took place only a few years afterwards, was a divine judgement on the inhabitants for this especial piece of guilt” (6). In the pamphlet, these opinions are cited in a footnote as coming from the secular historians Josephus and Eusebius; the historians are unnamed in the text itself. Because Whittaker has already connected the mob that killed James to the Chartists themselves, Christian England can be connected to Jerusalem. Thus, if the Chartists succeed in their deeds like the mob, England will be cursed and destroyed like Jerusalem. While Chartists saw the prolonged life of England as resting on their success, Whittaker sees the possibility of success as England’s downfall.
Chartist church occupations and Whittaker’s sermon in response reveal how both sides of the Chartists debate used Scripture to support their views. They also demonstrate the general antagonism between Chartists and the Church of England. Political tension affected how Church of England clergy could respond to the Chartist texts or any Scripture passage dealing with treatment of the poor. If he were to ignore the text and Chartist challenge outright, then he would be essentially admitting defeat, his omission suggesting that the Bible does align with the Chartists. Thus, to maintain an anti-Chartist stance from the pulpit and not provide Church of England sanction for Chartist activities, the clergyman had to find ways to both acknowledge the passage the Chartists had brought to him as true while maintaining that it did not align with the Chartists’ own legal position. In his sermon, Whittaker does this by realigning not only the Biblical passage but also the Biblical author himself. Whittaker suggests that because the Chartists are not equal to James in their actions and standings, they cannot claim interpretative authority for his writings. Interpretative authority, Whittaker suggests, resides in the man of God (himself) not the common people. Furthermore, Whittaker’s sermon demonstrates anti-Chartists’ fears about the state of England should Chartism succeed. The debate over Chartism was not only about the fate of the poor, but of England and her status as a Christian nation itself.
Whittaker’s sermon can be used by teachers and students to contextualize the Chartist claim to Christianity against Church of England discourse. It can also provide social context for understanding Chartist antagonism and zeal against the Church of England, evident in their writings, poetry, and hymns. Teachers could use this resource to teach the importance of rhetorical appeals and strategy, especially between opponents or hostile audiences. Although outside the scope of this post, scholars might also consider the dual nature of pamphlets like Whittaker’s sermon both as sermons that are preached to a specific congregation and as physical artifacts that circulated throughout the country.
J.W. Whittaker’s Sermon to the Chartists ABLibrary 19thCent OVZ BX5133.W542x D7 1839
Kiser, Samantha. “Progressive, Pragmatic Redemption: The People’s Journal.” 19CRS Blog. https://blogs.baylor.edu/19crs/2020/01/17/progressive-pragmatic-redemption-the-peoples-journal/. Accessed 6 April 2022.
Morris, Aubrey. “Responses to the Chartists.” 19CRS Blog. https://blogs.baylor.edu/19crs/2016/01/21/response-to-the-chartists/ Accessed 6 April 2022.
Royle, Edward, and Roger Lockyer. Chartism, Taylor & Francis Group, 1996. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bayloru/detail.action?docID=1790961.
Sutton, C. W., and H. C. G. Matthew. “Whittaker, John William (1791–1854), Church of England clergyman.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 09 Sept. 2021, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-29325.
 Herein James warns the rich of judgment for unjustly robbing their laborers of wages and using courts to condemn and kill the innocent.