Nostalgia: ‘Attack on Faith of school children’

Snainton School where in November 1915 the children were told in the half-hour religious class that they could not worship in a chapel without an altar.
Snainton School where in November 1915 the children were told in the half-hour religious class that they could not worship in a chapel without an altar.

One of the chapters in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s acclaimed A History of Christianity (2009), covering the years 1914 to 1918, he called A War That Killed Christendom. The Great War that began in August 1914 had initially involved four Christian emperors. On one side were Kaiser William II, head of the Prussian Evangelical Protestant church and his ally, Emperor Franz Joseph, a devout Catholic. On the other were Tsar Nicholas II, head of the Russian Orthodox church, and his cousin, King-Emperor, George V, supreme governor of the Church of England. All four claimed that their cause was Christian and just.

However, by the end of the war in 1918, three of the four Christian empires had collapsed. In Russia, after the fall of the Tsarist regime, the Bolshevik revolutionaries had made peace and then proceeded to destroy the Orthodox church. Both German emperors abdicated as a result of their defeat and the Austro-Hungarian empire disintegrated. Of all the European imperial crowned heads, only the British survived the war.

Ever since the 17th century the English had been divided by religion into different and differing Christian groups, mainly the established Church of England, the surviving but persecuted Roman Catholics and the rising number of Protestant Dissenters. Of the last there came to be many kinds of sects, mainly Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Unitarians and latterly the Wesleyan and Primitive Methodists.

The Anglicans enjoyed the legal privileges that followed establishment. The monarch was their hereditary supreme governor; only their bishops had seats in the House of Lords; all the old grammar and most of the public schools were Anglican; and they had a monopoly of the college chapels of Oxford and Cambridge universities. Even as late as 1914, three out of every four English were baptized in the Church of England and four out of every five weddings took place in its parish churches. Army recruits who professed no religious denomination were recorded as “C of E” and required to attend Sunday church parades. Anglicanism was the default position.

This monopoly had been contested and challenged for more than two centuries, but only some concessions had been granted grudgingly to Nonconformists and Catholics by 1914. They were no longer excluded from the professions, from the House of Commons, from commissions in the armed forces and from local councils, but there remained some outstanding grievances such as those of non-Anglicans who were compelled to send their children to church schools and pay rates for their upkeep.

This issue was revived in an acute form at Snainton in November, 1915. On the 26th of that month, under headings of “Attack on the Faith of School Children” and “Nonconformist parents adopt firm attitude”, The Mercury reported recent events there in its usual partisan manner. It seems that an Anglican Mission Father, the Rev Leonard T Strong, had been taking the half-hour religious class, the first of the day, at the village’s only primary school. In the words of The Mercury, Strong was a “high” churchman who promoted the practices favoured in the parish church of Brompton, whereas Snainton was strongly Nonconformist and not “under the thumb of the parson and squire”.

As a result, Snainton’s Nonconformist parents objected strongly when they heard that their children were being told that they could not worship in a chapel without an altar. In protest, they withdrew them from Father Strong’s early morning class. They were even more outraged when Strong led a procession of school children through the village headed by the local curate carrying a cross. To rub salt into their wounds, they then received a circular from Strong advising them to send their offspring to the Anglican church for Sunday services and Sunday school, telling them that only the Church of England was truly Christian, and that true Christians confessed their sins to a priest who had the power to absolve them. Just in case they were unaware of their sins, Snainton’s families were given a list of 55, punishable by loss of grace if not confessed to a priest. The list included such heinous offences as staying too long in bed in the morning!

Such news was grist to Jottings’ Nonconformist mill. In one of his diatribes against the oppressive, undeserved privileges of the established church he wrote: “Snainton people are far too sound in adherence to Nonconformity and Liberalism to stand any interference with their religious liberty.” He referred to Anglicanism as “a repugnant religion” taught, in this case, by”an impudent clergyman”. As for the circular sent to villagers’ homes, he described it as “a bare-faced letter” and ended, without a hint of self-examination, with the phrase “Intolerance dies hard”.

It is evident from press reports and comments such as these that denominational rivalry in Scarborough had not ended with the outbreak of war. It appears that the Bombardment, like any widespread calamity, had at first united the formerly fractious Christian denominations in the town. A memorial service for the victims of December 16 held soon afterwards at St Mary’s had been attended by representatives from every church, chapel and meeting house. On January 8, 1915, a unique meeting had been held at St Nicholas Hall “for prayer, intercession and thanksgiving” which had brought together all the Free Churches and Roman Catholics as well as Scarborough’s Anglicans. Apart from the pacifist Quakers of York Place, there was now no explicit pulpit opposition to the war.

However, there was still little inter-denominational cooperation. When Dr Cosmo Gordon Lang, archbishop of York and future head of the church at Canterbury, visited Scarborough during the second week in November 1915, he preached in all nine Anglican churches and never set foot in any other, except the Mission to Seamean on Sandside.

A week later, Scarborough’s Free Churches (as they preferred now to call themselves) held their annual public meeting at Bar Street. Unlike neighbouring estate villages such as Brompton, Hackness or Wykeham, which were overwhelmingly Anglican, the borough of Scarborough had become a stronghold of Protestant dissent. That day there were present members from eleven Methodist chapels, six Primitives and five Wesleyan, four Congregationalist, two Baptist and one Presbyterian. There they were told that 637 of their number were now in the armed forces, out of approximately 2,000 enlisted local men. At least in Scarborough, militant Christianity was not the preserve of the Church of England.