The Church Army and the Working Class – Mitchell Dagley

Church Army, Dickens Dictionary of London, c.1908

By 1908, the Church Army had grown in both size and importance across much of Britain, leading writer Charles Dickens Jr to discuss the organisation’s structure and its impact on the religious and everyday lives of the working class:

About 400,000 cases of men, women and boys are dealt with in a year; over 58 per cent, of all received in Labour Homes turn out well. …[Though] to the average London citizen [they are] largely known by the services at St. Mary at Hill, Eastcheap, E.C., which the rector, the Rev. Prebendary Carlile, adapts to the requirements of the unemployed and poor people (at 9 am, and 6.30 p.m. on Sundays). [1]

Church Army
Church Army mission van, Sunderland

While Dickens was claiming the Church Army was an important part of slum life, he was not suggesting this was a direct product of the working classes’ involvement with religion. The level to which churches influenced the working classes in the nineteenth-century has become a topic of debate within historiography, as historians have grappled with the idea of how to tell whether a person is under religious influence or not. Analysing Dickens extract allows us to consider the Church’s influence on the working-class and whether or not it truly impacted on their religious activity. The working classes’ relationship with religion, or as K.S. Inglis has claimed, their apathy, led Henry Pelling to suggest that working-class desertion of churchgoing in the cities was not a universal trend, as many living in small towns and the countryside still had an active involvement. [2] However, Hugh McLeod has questioned this idea by suggesting the working classes had not rejected religion but simply had their own individual, but an equally valid approach to religious worship, which was typically practical and concerned especially with mutual aid and ‘decent’ behaviour. [3] These different perspectives are further confused by the work of E.P. Thompson who suggests that Sunday school was an arena where evangelical thinking was preached, as am attempt to morally rescue poor children. [4] This relationship with religious ideology from such a young age, once demands historians to think about the extent an ingrained belief can be abandoned.

By the time Dickens had considered the Church Army in the Dickens Dictionary of London in 1908, the organisation had already been the focus of various writers, who mostly focused on its history, its founder Reverend Wilson Carlile and its approach to poverty. For instance, Edgar Rowan, in Wilson Carlile and The Church Army (1905) highlighted how the Church Army’s work was raising ‘men from indifference and drunkenness and [setting] them among their mates as real ministers of the Gospel.’ [5] Dickens similarly portrayed the Church Army’s influence this way by demonstrating, in part, the organisation’s emphasis on religious morality and activism. Montague Chamberlain, in The Church Army (1897) once again recognised the Church Army’s work; however, he claimed they were indebted to the Salvation Army to which they had based many of their methods on. This Salvation Army work, despite being based around non-conformist ideas, was soon adapted by the Church Army and became a recognised aspect of the Church of England, which, as Chamberlain highlighted, was even acknowledged in one the Archbishop of Canterbury’s last speeches:

“Let us understand that the work of the Church Army is Church work. I consider that evangelization is at the very heart of the Church and it is a necessary in all parts of England…” [6]

Church Army 1
The dining hall of the Church Army’s Westminster home

By the late nineteenth century, the slums of Britain had not only become centres of poverty but also for organisations, including the Salvation Army and Toynbee Hall, seeking to spread their ideas and values around virtue and religion. The Salvation Army, as highlighted by Pamela Walker, was focused on revitalising ‘Nonconformist radicalism that stressed independence, sobriety, virtue and liberty’ by attempting to put itself at the heart of working-class life. [7] At Toynbee Hall, Reverend Samuel Barnett and hi wife Henrietta believed that art could be used to ‘reawaken the religious impulses of man’, which had been lost to industry and urbanisation. [8] The Church Army’s place amongst these organisations, as emphasised by Dickens, was through its roaming mission vans, labour homes and religious services all attempting ‘to raise the hopeless outcasts of society’. [9] With numerous organisations vying to connect with the working-class on a spiritual level, there was a need to distinguish themselves apart from each other, which the Church Army did by priding itself on its Anglican and British principles. This was recognised by the government who increasingly supported their work and the spreading of their religious ideas, for example by certifying them as an official society to reform and support discharged prisoners. [10]Despite the Church Army claiming that their religious work focused on both men and women, more often than not within photography, film and literature there was a disproportionate focus on their work with men. The British Pathé film featuring Prince George, Duke of York, for instance, can be seen as perfect example of this as it solely focuses on their work ‘helping [men] to feel they are not cast off.’ [11] By using this high-profile visit in such a way, the Church Army was causing the public to overlook its efforts with women and, in part, creating a specific image of itself. This prompts one to question whether or not they deemed men’s religious morality of greater importance to that of women or whether these representations distort their work.

Dickens’ extract on the Church Army helps one to consider the working classes relationship with religion while highlighting the Church of England’s changing attitude towards their role within the slums. By the end of the century there were many religious groups working within the slums all competing to convert the working class to their way of thinking. The Church Army recognised this and used their Anglican and British values to set themselves apart. The extract has also allowed us to gain an insight into nineteenth-century attitudes to gender, questioning whether or not men’s religious morality was of greater importance than women’s.

Mitchell Dagley


  1. Dickens, C. Jr., ‘Church Army’, in Dickens, C. et al. (eds) Dickens Dictionary of London: An Unconventional Handbook, (London: E.J. Larby, 1908). Available online:
  2. Pelling, H., ‘Religion and the Nineteenth-Century British Working Class’, Past & Present, 27 (1964),. pp. 132-133.
  3.  McLeod, H., Religion and the Working Class in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 11.
  4. Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin, 1963), p. 414.
  5. Rowan, E. Wilson Carlile and the Church Army. (Oxford: The Church Army Press, 1928), p. 419-20.
  6. Chamberlain, M., The Church Army (Boston: Damrell and Upham, 1897), p. 42.
  7. Walker, P.J., ‘A Carnival of Equality’: The Salvation Army and the Politics of Religion in the Working-Class Communities’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 5:1 (2000), p. 61.
  8. Matthews-Jones, L, ‘Lessons in Seeing: Art, Religion and Class in the East End of London, 1881-1898’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 16:3 (2011), p. 385.
  9. Dickens, ‘Church Army’.
  10. Dickens, ‘Church Army’.
  11. ‘Prince George ‘takes A Hand”. 1932. [Film]. Unknown director. London: British Pathé