Faith in the Town: Lay Religion, Urbanisation and Industrialisation in England, 1740-1830

December 3, 2021 | Blog
Home > Faith in the Town: Lay Religion, Urbanisation and Industrialisation in England, 1740-1830

by Kate Gibson (University of Manchester)

This blog is based on the author’s presentation to the 2021 Economic History Society annual conference.

Historians have long-debated the social and cultural changes that accompanied industrialisation and economic growth in eighteenth-century Northern England.  The dominant view is that the ‘modernisation’ of the economy was facilitated by growing secularisation.  The pious, anxious seventeenth-century trader, motivated by faith, was replaced by a rational, enlightened, and secular early nineteenth-century businessman motivated by profit. Any religious motivations that remained were confined to a few, unusual pious groups, such as Quakers, but by the late eighteenth century the vast majority of the population saw no connection between religion and the world of work and business.

The Faith in the Town project, currently underway at the University of Manchester and funded by the AHRC, is questioning this dominant view.  We examined the letters, diaries, and accounts of over 230 individuals, families, businesses, and organisations based in the industrialising towns of Northern England between 1740 and 1830, for evidence of the impact of faith on understandings of work, time, identity, family life, and urban space.  Our source base is broad, ranging from wealthy business owners, to struggling shopkeepers and servants. Our sources are drawn from a range of religious denominations, and from the very pious to the lapsed or questioning.

Our project found that faith remained one of the most significant frameworks for ordinary people’s understanding of work and the wider economy. Characteristics of good business practice — honesty, diligence and prudence — were held up as religious virtues which could result in heavenly reward.   For example, in the 1820s, evangelical Anglican Rebecca Hey of Leeds praised her nephew William’s diligence and advised him to ‘seek God’s blessing in entering on this new Situation’. Then, she asserted:  ‘the happy result will follow, namely that of becoming a blessing to others, and when … we enter on Eternity, what a comfort it will be to have been of any use in our day & generation, and if our Services have been done in humility & from a desire to please God, they will doubtless be mercifully regarded’.

Faith also governed behaviour at work and adherence to certain tasks.  Quaker shoemaker John Bragg of Whitehaven (1723-1795), viewed the importance of doing accounts on time with regard to religious, rather than secular consequences: ‘Let the concern of your Soul & your Shop, your Trade and your Religion, lie always in such order as far as Possible, that Death at a short Warning may be no occasion of a disquieting tumult in your Spirit’.   In the 1780s, one Methodist shopkeeper from Sheffield worried about his tendency to get angry at his employees. This was a religious sin, but also a failing that could be combated with prayer. In February 1785 he wrote:  ‘I had Some Severe temptations in the Shop this Morning was Obligd to Exert my Authority and gave way to Anger … but I was Enabled to lay it before the Lord and I was much more Composed and began the Business with more ease than I expectd’.

Figure 1. An example of a diary used in the project: ‘Faith in the Town’. Source: Cumbria Archive and Local Studies Centre (Barrow): BDX/215/2, Diary of tract seller John Burnthwaite, 1830-1.

Religion was also a way of understanding and coping with a volatile industrialising economy. Although historians have noted the growth of secular risk management strategies in this period, such as insurance, we found that success or failure continued to be discussed in religious language.  For example, business failure was often described as a test of faith, and success as proof of Gods’ love.  Liverpool governess Ellen Weeton (1776-1849), counselled her brother Tom that, ‘though business should be slack just now, something will turn out to support thee, if thou canot but wait with patience. Religion is such a consolation to a drooping spirit, that I could wish thou wouldest seek for comfort, and chearfulness in it; for God never foresakes those who turn to him.’  Leeds manufacturer Thomas Brancker coped with the uncertainty of the textile market by trusting to providence.  At the end of 1825, Brancker reflected, ‘The times are indeed dreadful, we hear of shocking distress all around us… Let us hope & trust to a watchful Providence that before the close of another Year these disastrous times may be but as an useful lesson to guard us in our future dealings’.

Our findings show that faith continued to be important in contemporaries’ understanding of economic change, as well as in ordinary people’s understanding of their place in the world and their behaviour at work.  Business-owners and employees alike were not disinterested economic actors, but also individuals whose actions and beliefs were motivated and informed by varying degrees of religious faith.

To find out more, visit the project website at


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