Thomas Wodehouse’s A Grammar of Socialism

A guest blog by Kayley Davies, Alexandra Gunn, Ben Littlejohns, James Lansdale and Julia Smith from the University of Manchester about Thomas Wodehouse’s 1884 pamphlet A Grammar of Socialism.  The students visited the Labour History Archive & Study Centre as part of their Archival Project for ‘Christianity, Culture and Society 1750-2000’.

The Source and Author                

A Grammar of SocialismA Grammar of Socialism is a pamphlet by Thomas Wodehouse, the curate of the Savoy, and published in 1884. The source is written in a question and answer style and was sold for a tuppence. The text addresses the population as a whole and transcends class barriers. It is likely to have been used to educate people of the ideas and definition of Christian Socialism, including questions such as, ‘what is Socialism, and what is its aim?’ Through the question and answer structure, the pamphlet is able to put forward the basic and also more elaborate ideas of Socialism. These main ideas focus on right and wrong and the three maxims that all should work, consume only what they need and distribution their remaining wealth. It is important to remember that as the author is writing to promote Christian Socialism, he is writing with an element of bias.

The Context of the Time

The end of the 19th century was no less tumultuous than the start. Although working men had been granted partial suffrage under the Reform Act of 1867, the impact of the Charter Movement continued to be felt. The increasing awareness of the need for change is most obvious in the establishment of the Socialist Democratic Federation in 1881, and the subsequent split with the Socialist League in December 1884. Upon its foundation, it ran on a very progressive platform, calling for a 48 hour work week, an end to child labour, and equality for women. Though it is somewhat outdated, Torben Christensen’s Origin and History of Christian Socialism, 1848-1854 provides an excellent introduction to the context in which Christian Socialism emerged.

Religion at the Time of Production    

By detailing the need for money to alleviate the problems the poor faced, the demand for support from the upper classes is important to Christian Socialists.

By assisting the poor with their monetary concerns, Christian Socialists seek to rid the issue of poverty within the working classes of their society. As the movement acted on behalf of the poor, it can show the lack of interaction the working class had within religious institutions. The pamphlets desire to distribute large sums of money amongst orphanages could be linked to the Sunday School movement that arose throughout the 19th Century, striving to provide a basic literary education to children through a biblical context.

Why Study the Work?

This pamphlet is emblematic of certain Christian socialist ideals and therefore is a particularly interesting and useful text to highlight. Christian socialism emerged in response to the widespread poverty that was afflicting the working classes in late Victorian London. The text reveals their core belief that Christians should be active in society on a practical level. The insistence on the redistribution of wealth shows us that although spiritual and moral reform was a concern, it never constituted a focus for the Christian socialists. Instead, they believed that those in poverty must first be alleviated from their situation before they could be reformed spiritually. The pamphlet’s emphasis on the physical conditions and suffering of the working class represents the contrasting position the Christian Socialists had to the evangelicals in this period, who were distinctly concerned with moral regeneration and ‘soul-saving’.

Relevance to Contemporary Faith Groups

It is important to look at the work of early Christian Socialists as their work has inspired and led the way for followers of the movement today. Wodehouse’s pamphlet is relevant as it helps us understand the ideas of the early development and is easily read. The work defines socialism as one that ‘promotes the temporal welfare of the whole community.’ This is still the overall belief of Christian Socialism, further demonstrating the relevance of the piece. These 19th century ideas can also be observed through contemporary Christian faith groups and their use of foodbanks and Christian aid in order to provide for those who are without. Modern Christian Socialist, Kenneth Leech demonstrates how these ideas of Christian Socialism are still relevant as he states:

‘The only theology to which I am committed is one which is part of the current liberation.’

Further Reading

Leech, Kenneth. The Sky is Red: Discerning the Sign of the Times. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

Norman, Edward R.. The Victorian Christian Socialists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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