Notes on Churches in Higgins’s Time

Very few new churches were built in the 18th century except where it was necessary to replace those that fell down. To build a new church required an act of parliament. This was because a parish church minister was supported by tithes on land in the parish and if the parish was split into two there would need to be an arrangement for support of the two ministries. The fabric of many churches deteriorated in the 18th century leading to the need for extensive restoration or even reconstruction in the 19th century. St. John the Baptist at Knutsford, built in 1744 came about because of the loss of the chapel of ease.

Although there was less religious intolerance in the 18th century than there had been in the 17th, there was a decline in religious observance. This was partly due to the complacence of ministers.  Ministers were widely associated with the landed gentry. Often they were younger sons of the local squire and many were also magistrates. This brought them face to face with some of their parishioners in a manner unlikely to lead to good relations. As Bishops sat in the House of Lords, it was not uncommon for them to spend more time on politics than on administering their diocese or introducing reforms. Trollope in his Barchester Towers novels describes a vicar who put a curate into his parish and then spent his time in Italy. This was not an uncommon problem. In Devon for example, in 1780, 70% of the parishes had absent ministers. Some ministers had more than one living and put in a curate on perhaps £20 a year while they lived elsewhere. The Bishop of Llandaff in the 1780s had fourteen livings. Parson Woodford’s diaries show how he enjoyed a good lifestyle in the late 18th century, collecting the tithes, farming his glebe land, going on long holidays while a curate stood in for him, and engaged in a constant round of entertaining with local gentry and clergy. Woodford did little for local welfare or education and had a deep suspicion of any reformist ideas. By contrast, David Simpson, the minister at the new Christchurch in Macclesfield had leanings towards Methodism. He was an indefatigable worker for his congregation in the fields of welfare and Sunday School education.

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