The Education of the Anglican Clergy, 1780-1839

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Sara Slinn
  • Suffolk, England: 
    Boydell & Brewer Publishers
    , May
     286 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sara Slinn begins The Education of the Anglican Clergy, 1780-1839 with the bold claim that hers “is the largest historical study of the recruitment to the ministry of the Church of England to date.” She then goes on to note that her main focus is on developing a more accurate understanding of “the educational backgrounds of men ordained in the late Hanoverian period” (1). The Education of the Anglican Clergy does not disappoint. Slinn has written an excellent book that does exactly what she promises.

Slinn has made extensive use of the material collected in the invaluable Clergy of the Church of England database project, as well as collections of ordination application papers and ordination lists printed in newspapers and periodicals. The book would not—as the author acknowledges—have been possible without the technical revolution that has made it easier for historians in many different fields to explore and analyze a wider range of primary sources than ever before. Yet what is compelling about Slinn’s book is that she does not fall into the trap of simply using the sources to provide statistical tables setting out patterns of clergy recruitment. Slinn instead works hard to understand and explain two striking themes that emerge from the data. The first is the extent to which clergy in the northern dioceses—along with those in south Wales—were in the late 18th century much less likely to have been university educated than clergy working in southern dioceses. The second is that this pattern began to change sharply in the first few decades of the 19th century, most strikingly in places such as the Carlisle diocese, where by the 1830s nearly 80% of clergy were graduates compared with just 11% fifty years earlier.

Slinn’s introduction deftly sets out the historical orthodoxies which her analysis undermines, showing that mid Victorian concern about the supposed decline in the numbers of graduate clergy was misplaced, at least in the sense that there had been large numbers of non-graduate clergy during the Hanoverian period. She provides a valuable discussion of how the number of graduate clergy reflected shifts in both supply and demand, shaped by factors ranging from the number of graduates produced by the universities, through to the shifting opportunities offered by careers in the other learned professions or the military. She wisely avoids making too many generalizations, recognizing that the pattern in a specific diocese was shaped by myriad factors (not least the attitude of the bishop to non-graduate recruits), though the figures she provides clearly show that it was only in the 1830s that “the domestic church, as a whole, could begin to be described as a graduate occupation” (68).

Slinn’s focus in several of the chapters is on the education of the non-graduate clergy (particularly in the northern province and in the dioceses of south Wales). In chapter 4 she examines the “Literate Clergy and the Grammar Schools,” while chapter 5 focuses on “Autodidacts, Tutors for Orders and Parish Clerical Seminaries.” These chapters draw on a rich variety of sources to examine how men who did not go university were trained for the Church of England. Slinn shows how a small number of grammar schools in northern towns like Bampton (Cumberland) provided the northern province “with a demonstrable and significant output of ordinands” (137). There were also other private schools that aimed to prepare men either for the Church or for one of the other learned professions without the expense of a university education. Young men seeking to enter the Church were able to study Greek and Latin to a high level in many of these schools, sometimes along with Hebrew, as well as (in many cases) having access to libraries with the key works of divinity. The opening of the clerical colleges at St Bees and Lampeter further extended the options for young men wishing to be ordained without having first attended university.

There was inevitably extensive discussion in the late 18th and early 19th centuries about the extent to which Oxford and Cambridge provided the kind of education suitable for those preparing for ordination in the Church of England. The teaching in some of the grammar schools and training colleges was certainly more focused on what would today be called theological education. The preparation of “autodidacts” and those who studied with approved members of the clergy unsurprisingly varied from case to case, though it is striking that men from humble backgrounds could sometimes succeed in obtaining sufficient education to make them viable candidates for ordination. It is certainly clear that a formal university education did not necessarily provide the best preparation for those seeking ordination, even if it was by the 1830s becoming almost universal among a new generation of ordinands.

One of the real strengths of Slinn’s book is its readability—something that is sadly by no means always true of much modern historical writing. Although her work is based on a judicious analysis of statistical material, the discussion is always lucid, while she uses a wide range of individual examples both to illustrate her argument and to show the complexity of the topic. She provides explanations for her broad findings while being alive to the nuances of the evidence and the power of historical contingency. As a result, The Education of the Anglican Clergy, 1780-1839 is both academically rigorous but also surprisingly readable for a scholarly prosopographical study. Although it is a valuable work of Church history, it deserves to be read by any scholar interested in the social history of Britain in the late Hanoverian period, and indeed by anyone interested in the history of the Church of England more broadly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Hughes is Professor of Modern History at Lancaster University.

Date of Review: 
June 22, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sara Slinn is research fellow at the school of history & heritage, University of Lincoln.


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