Critical Analysis Of Helmstadter’s Article The Nonconformist Conscience

Throughout this essay, the article by R. J. Helmstadter, “The Nonconformist Conscience” shall be discussed. Nonconformist conscience explains the fifty-year stronghold of 1830 to 1880. This event resulted in Free Churchmen being unable to evolve. Helmstadter’s argument portrays three categories of the nonconformist conscience, these are; social attitudes, politics and religion. In order to critically assess Helmstadter’s work, each of these three categories of the nonconformist conscience shall be analysed and an argument for each will be portrayed, this will then lead to a final conclusion on the article as a whole.

To begin with, the idea of social attitudes towards individualism is discussed throughout Helmstadters work. The idea is that social attitudes began to alter and change throughout this time and is discussed as a main category for the nonconformist conscience. Helmstadter explains that the Nonconformists had an emphasis on individualism, this created a schism and difficulties for free churchmen who tried to move away from this when it became disregarded by society as wrong. To show the impact of individualism and self-improvement, Helmstadter uses the primary evidence of John Ploughman’s talk (1869) and John Ploughman’s pictures. This is observed by Professor David Bebbington who describes that “explicit evidence in its support is not hard to find” Bebbington then presents the primary evidence of Henry Allon which arguably strengthens Helmstadter’s argument and allows the conclusion that Helmstadter gives as to hold more weight and gravity in-which bolsters the overall appreciation for the article. However, Professor David Bebbington does not agree with the ideas that Helmstadter argues and throughout the essay this will be explained. Bebbington gives many examples of social attitudes towards individualism within churches such as in “Nottinghamshire” and “Birmingham” and as congregations that practiced individualism but also “induced social and political attitudes whose hallmark was corporate responsibility” portrayed an argument against Helmstadter that shows that social attitudes did not change and the idea that their views changed towards the individual is false. Bebbington explains that this is the “kernel of chapel social theory”. The acknowledgement of this by professor Bebbington adds weight to Helmstadters argument but the following discrepancies of Helmstadters argument that both Bebbington and Gerald Parsons discuss show the lack of clarity and impact Helmstadter argument has. 

Gerald Parsons suggests that Helmstadter dismisses the problem of social individualism and describes it as a ‘vague humanitarianism encouraged by a vague theology’[footnoteRef:8], these statements made by Helmstadter show the unwillingness to assess these problems fully and allows for scrutiny. Parsons then goes onto explain how in fact t the Ploughman evidence that Helmstadter used is ‘monolithic[footnoteRef:9]’ Helmstadters work can also be scrutinised as not portraying his thoughts and arguments in a convincing mannor and the point of the arguments that Helmstadter portrays are not always seen to be correct and do not convey enough to be respected. The weight behind Helmstadters statements are questioned through many historians and the way in which he describes and portrays his argument can sometimes be described as non-academically sound. The incorrect and underwhelming explanations the centrality of family welfare pulls this aspect of Helmstadters article into question. Parsons uses this argument to make Helmstadter argument the argument unsound. 

Helmstadter uses the idea that the theological change resulted in a loss of confidence in old ideas and was seen by a new generation of Nonconformist ministers as ‘old fashioned and outworn[footnoteRef:10]’. He uses three main concepts to explain this theory. One idea was that of biblical criticism and the idea that eternal damnation was. His assessment of eternal damnation is portrayed well and can seem to be compelling as the uses of Primary sources elude to the argument given having a strong foundation However, the evolving religious ideology created out of social change did not just impact the Nonconformists. Helmstedter neglects to identify any other forms of Christianity that changed due to the same reasons. The argument of biblical criticism is messy at best. His isolation of this fifty-year period in comparison to the 1880’s onwards does not allow for the presence of biblical criticism in his fifty-year Nonconformist golden era. However, as Parsons shows through the Davidson suspension, biblical criticism did have a presence and should be considered a minority movement. In his assessment, Parsons recognises that this event can embellish Helmstedter’s position through its rejection. However, this is thwarted through further assessment of key evidence; namely that Davidson’s suspension came down to a majority of eighteen to sixteen. This clearly demonstrates a movement towards biblical criticism within the fifty-year timespan highlighting a flaw in Helmstedter’s approach. 

The idea of politics is also suggested throughout Helmstadters work and the shift that the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 presented an idea towards the downfall of the Nonconformist conscience this reform act gave working-class men the ability to vote. This meant the increased pool of voters decreased the significance of the nonconformist vote, which had previously been considered the ‘backbone’ of the Liberal party. Additionally, the upper and middle classes were expected to participate in the idea of church-going practices whereas the working classes found it difficult to participate as seats in church were commonly bought or reserved for the upper classes meaning that they could then not afford it. Helmstadter portrays the idea that the working-class were ‘beyond the reach of the religious press’. The argument therefore that Helmstadter is giving is that the working-class would not base their vote on religious practice leading to an idea that altered the influence in the political power dynamics, which, Helmstadter is suggesting, became unrecoverable for the free churchmen when they did not adapt these ideas.

However, this argument relies heavily on legal evidence. The legal evidence is used to give an insight into the laws of the land, this insight is not personal in the perspective it gives and does not show the members of the land these laws govern respond to these laws and how many follow them. This creates a flaw amongst the evidence that Hellmstedter gives as he would be drawing on personal views of his own to portray his argument. The lack of sources here also creates a lack of strength in his evidence meaning that the argument seems to fall apart and become scrutinised. Furthermore, this does not create a valid account as many working-class people were religious and tried to be a part of religious practices and services. A certain Sheffield service where “5,000 in attendance were from the working-class”. This statement and evidence give light to the holes in the argument that Helmstadter gives as if the working class never attended church or religion and religious practices escaped the working class then why would there be so many accounts of events that had a majority attendance of working-class.

In conclusion, the article by R. J. Helmstadter, “The Nonconformist Conscience” is full of inconsistences and his argument seems to have many historians disagreeing with the many points that Helmstedter gives. As stated previously the problems with the three main points of argument that Helmstadter’s portrays are the main flaws within his article. The main problem is the discrepancies with the three main ideas of the three categories of the nonconformist conscience. Helmstedter’s argument is not compelling and has been scrutinised by many and found to be full of holes and inaccuracies. Many historians assessing the work come to the same conclusions. The evidence selected and used throughout the article should have been stronger or more persuasive. Helmstedter also uses a lot of assumption diminishing the clarity of his argument and the lack of assertion. Therefore, to be truly persuasive, he needs to select stronger evidence to portray his findings and beliefs and not use his own opinion in order to portray his arguments.

16 December 2021
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