Oxford has been the origin of no fewer than four religious movements that have made an impact on history. It is unlikely that even residents of the City could name them, so I shall attempt to remedy the gaps in readers' knowledge whether or not they want their gaps filled in. One of the first things my philosophy tutor, the celebrated John Simopoulos, said to me on arrival in this fair City was:
“You can't walk ten yards in this town without tripping over a fucking God-box.”
He was right. There were more religious buildings in the City than public houses, though most of them served no purpose, and they were more conspicuous than the public houses, too. That was because of the history of the University, which of course originated as a place to train the clergy. If you discuss the matter with a member of the University of Paris, you will be given to understand that Oxford was founded by refugee clergymen from Paris who were fugitives from justice, namely charges of rape. Curiously, I never came across this story in Oxford. Nowadays some of the more central religious buildings have been converted into college libraries. Some are occasional concert halls. One or two are night shelters for the homeless. They rarely seem to get demolished, though.
Let us take the four Oxford religious movements in chronological order. I suggest that this also reflects their order of historical importance.
The Lollards. John Wyclif (1330-1384) was an Oxford cleric who became Doctor of Divinity in 1372 at a time when there were two Popes. This was during the period of the Hundred Years' War, during which the Avignon papacy was trying to enforce its jurisdiction over the Church in England, but which was thought to be under the control of the King of France. So Wyclif's view that the Pope could have no special authority in England agreed with Edward III's view. Wyclif's idea that the Church should not continue to own vast properties, but that they should be turned over to their original landlords, appealed very much to those who would have benefited. He argued that the Bible should be made available to the ordinary people in their native language. He even argued against transubstantiation, the doctrine that the consecrated bread turns literally into the body of Christ. Wyclif got away with most of this because he was protected by John of Gaunt, the most powerful man in the land. But there was no mileage in the purely doctrinal, as opposed to his other more politically convenient views, and he was blamed for supporting the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 even though he did not. He was expelled from Oxford in that year, and died of a stroke in 1384. Even the least religious of my readers will have noticed that Wyclif's views represent a kind of proto-Anglicanism.
Wyclif's ideas were taken up by travelling mendicant preachers, known as Lollards, who were considered seditious. Henry IV, who had usurped the Crown in 1399, was anxious to secure the acquiescence of the Church in his irregular change of régime. So he passed the Statute De Heretico Comburendo “On the Burning of Heretics” and persecuted these Lollards. The movement went underground, but there is every reason to suppose that the English Reformation under Henry VIII and Elizabeth owes some of its special character to their clandestinely transmitted ideas.
Wyclif's ideas travelled especially to Bohemia, where Jan Hus adopted them. So much for Chamberlain's 1938 statement that “Czechoslovakia is a faraway country of which we know nothing”. We knew a lot about it more than five centuries previously. Hus was the person who invented the modern method of representing the Czech language, with haček diacritals to represent extra letters, “acute” accents to mark long vowels, and a little “o” on the top of a “u” where the pronunciation and the grammar did not coincide. Hus was burnt at the stake in 1415, but his followers, the Hussites, kept the flame alive. They were driven into the Tabor Mountain region in Moravia, after which they were known as Moravians, and as such went on to influence the second of our Oxford religious movements.
The Methodists. John Wesley (1703-1791) was educated at Oxford, where he became a member of the “Holy Club” (nowadays the God Squad). He was elected Fellow of Lincoln College in 1726 and ordained in 1728. In 1735 he was sent to Georgia, which is where he fell under the influence of the Moravians. He returned to England in 1738, and thenceforward devoted himself to hot gospelling among the common people. His followers, or Wesleyans, were nicknamed “Methodists” because of their strict adherence to religious practice. The fact that he sought to convert the irreligious poor was not received uncritically by those who considered themselves to be upper class. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, wished that all the Methodists could have but one shared neck so that they could all be hanged at the same time.
As it turned out, John Wesley was a man with excellent organisational skills. He set up local Methodist societies and the system of corresponding circuits that exists to this day. Their first ever meeting hall was in New Inn Hall Street, Oxford, opposite where their big chapel is situated. Wesley was assisted in his work by George Whitefield, a fellow member of the “Holy Club”, and Wesley's brother Samuel, who was an accomplished musician who wrote hymns and set them to simple arrangements. “Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?” Wesley did not see his activities as conflicting with the Established Church. However, the Established Church saw his activities as conflicting with theirs. The Establishment regarded religion as being a method for maintaining the obedience of the lower classes, and deprecated any efforts by the said lower classes to take responsibility for their own religion. Thus Methodism developed in competition with the Anglican Church. Wesley's “ministers” formed a corpus of clergy independent of the hierarchy, and to this day it has proved difficult to reconcile the radically different administrations.
In some places, Methodism replaced Anglicanism. The Isle of Man, for instance, became a Methodist island. Wales also went Methodist, though it adopted a peculiar and unpleasant flavour of its own called “Calvinistic Methodism”, a form of religion excoriated by Caradoc Evans in “My People” (1915), a set of short stories that are perhaps the bleakest and blackest that black humour has ever achieved. Other Methodists called themselves “Primitive Methodists”. I once visited a village in Norfolk where the grand mediaeval church in the centre had no congregation; the original Methodist chapel was a substantial, properly designed brick-built edifice; the first breakaway chapel, was less grand; and so on, until the “United Wesleyans”, the sixth and final denomination, operated in a tin hut in the middle of a swampy patch at the corner of a farmer's field. In recent years, no doubt because of a decline in attendance, there have been moves among denominations to amalgamate, so that some Methodists joined with the Congregationalists (a sect dating from the Civil War) to form the United Reformed Church.
My beloved history master at school, a Welshman, told us that it was Methodism that prevented revolution in this country in the early nineteenth century. It became the preferred religion of the lower middle classes, who came to dominate Liberal politics in the Gladstone era. It set its face sternly against drinking and gambling, those vices that were seen as keeping working people in poverty. (Of course, Tory landowners owned the breweries). Lloyd George, who was no Christian, even so passed the Licensing Acts to restrict opening hours, and arranged for the munitions workers' beer to be watered. The attempt by the Blair/Brown governments to introduce a “Continental” attitude to drinking, and their promotion of betting shops with unlimited stakes, indicates that by the turn of the 21st Century the Labour Party had radically departed from its roots. For the Trade Union movement famously took its administrative system from Wesley. And nineteenth century efforts by the “industrious” working class to better themselves owe a lot to Wesley's inspiration. Nowadays the national religion of Wales is Atheism. Chapels are being converted to unseemly and ungodly functions such as skateboard arenas, amusement arcades, and public conveniences.
The Tractarians. This movement, originating in Oxford, has left behind it some indelible traces. Whenever you see a Victorian building with pointed windows, you think “Tractarians”. Or you should. This movement originated in Oxford in the 1820's and 1830's, and perhaps could be seen as a reaction against the morals of the Regency. Its main exponents were John Henry Newman (1801–1890) (now St John Newman); John Keble (1792–1866); and Edward Pusey (1800–1882), all of whom were Fellows of Oriel College, Oxford. The name derives from a series of “Tracts for our Times” of which Pusey wrote the first, “On Fasting” in 1834. These three were the chief spokesmen for a religious revival based on a High Church, or Romanising, interpretation of Anglican doctrine. Thus it was in opposition to the simplistic doctrines of Wesley. It may also be contrasted with the new Prussian concept of what a University should be, as promoted by the Humboldt brothers, and which now dominates education in the English-speaking world and beyond.
It is easy for a modern cynic to cast scorn on those people. Yet there were many who thought that morals needed reforming. Cuthbert Bede's Verdant Green (1853-57) contains a wonderful description of Oxford University before it became a place of learning. The novel, which is set in the pre-railway age, contains the most exciting description of a mass brawl in the whole of literature. The hero's desperate but unsuccessful peregrinations in search of a woman for sex do not accord exactly with our idea of Victorian Values. Yet Bede was a clergyman. During this same period Dr Arnold of Rugby was reforming the public schools to turn them into places of learning and Christian piety. Given that the sons of the upper classes had tended to learn bullying, boozing, wenching, and idleness while at school, so as to fit them for Oxford and thence Parliament, the Church or the Army, there were not a few who commended his efforts.
Another group of Oxford students who adopted the new religious ethos was the Pre-Raphaelite group of painters, including Holman Hunt, Ruskin, Millais, and Rossetti. Their work is characterised by what may now be characterised as “religiosity”, the concept that making a window pointed led the observer to sacred thoughts. As the Victorian period went on, such artifices were seen as clichés. Newman's Italian Gothic church in Littlemore (which lay within the parish of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, where he was vicar) is unexceptionable, if rather out of kilter with its surroundings. But examine the Victorian woodwork in St Mary Magdalen, in Magdalen Street, and you will be confronted by a work of the most hideous religiosity, all full of spikes. As the century went on, such stylistic shorthand became what we now term “public convenience Gothic”. The Pre-Raphaelites' personal lives were dominated by sexual incompetence. What was wrong, ultimately, was that the age of steam was producing its own works of beauty and grandeur, against which the Tractarians were fighting a rearguard movement.
Eventually, Huxley prevailed over Bishop Wilberforce in the grand debate about Evolution (which was held in the state-of-the-art University Museum), and Benjamin Jowett single-handedly, starting with Balliol, propelled Oxford into the modern age. The Tractarians were seen to be debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, while Darwin (Cambridge) had revolutionised biology and Clark Maxwell (Cambridge) was doing the same for physics. Newman broke away from the other Tractarians, and joined the Church of Rome, where he became a Cardinal and eventually a Saint. The fact that Newman lived with the same man for most of his life has never been held against him. Perhaps he was lucky; or perhaps he was the beneficiary of pre-Victorian standards of non-interference in individuals' personal lives. Keble spent his last thirty years as rector of Hursley, in Hampshire. The Oxford college that bears his name was designed by Butterworth, famous for fancy brickwork.
The grandest of all Neo-Gothic buildings just has to be Pugin's Houses of Parliament. Yet compare it with Prince Albert's Albert Hall and the Museum Complex on the south side of Hyde Park. Albert's buildings still work, and they have a beauty as well as a sense of time and place. The Houses of Parliament are falling down; they would be illegal as workplaces under modern legislation; they are ridiculous; and they ought to be bulldozed!
The Oxford Group. Last, and least, is The Oxford Group. The background of this can be traced to an unexplained religious revival that took place in Wales in 1905. Dylan Thomas wrote a funny story about that revival, and it doubtless informs some of Caradoc Evans' blistering malice. Itinerant preachers based on Wesley's system travelled over the country, and contact was made with one Frank Buchman (1878-1961), an American God-botherer. Buchman set up sort of self-help groups in which the members would reinforce each others' religious faith. Buchman insisted on no doctrinal certainties; faith in God and a determination to Do The Right Thing were all that was required. The first such group was set up in Oxford. Many such groups were established, chiefly in the United States, and they adopted the more familiar name of Moral Rearmament in the 1930's. The organisation tended to seek out the more influential people so as to spread its message effectively. They even tried to persuade Herr Hitler to adopt their message of reconciliation, with the expected consequences. After the War, Buchman was given an award by both the French and the German governments for promoting reconciliation between them, from his base in Switzerland.
So far, so good. After the War there was another unexplained (unexplained by me) religious revival, and Buchman rode its waves very successfully. However, in America there developed a phenomenon, in which Moral Rearmament was embedded, called The Religious Right, or as they styled it themselves, The Moyl Joy-dee, or “Moral Majority”. Since this movement was especially hostile to “Godless Communism” (really this meant Roosevelt's New Deal policy) it probably created, in this country at least, converts to Atheism and, most undeservedly, to Soviet Communism. American politics can never really be understood in European terms. Moral Rearmament remained a fringe movement in Britain.
However, a spin-off from the movement, and one which can be seen to have done a lot of good, was Alcoholics Anonymous. The Buchmanite principle of forming groups for mutual support and group confession, though not everybody's glass of stout, has enabled a lot of people to come to terms with their addiction and to regain their dignity and self-respect.
My only brush with Buchmanism came about one May Morning in Oxford. After the final morris dance on St John's Fender, the morris men were approached by some very presentable young ladies who asked if we would like to come to their place for breakfast. Quite a few of the younger ones accepted the offer; I went home on the bus to my wife and child. It turned out that the young men with more testosterone than brains had found themselves in the premises belonging to the Oxford Group. There they were assailed with Moral Rearmament propaganda. No female flesh was on offer. They came away with pamphlets. For some years afterwards, as men On Tour were tucking themselves into their sleeping bags after a hard day's jigging and jugging, one of our number would solemnly read out loud one of these Moral Rearmament pamphlets. It concerned “The Evils of Masturbation”.