Labour Churches and Ethical Socialism

Onward Christian Socialists? Mark Bevir takes a timely look at a little-known phenomenon that was part of turn-of-the-century radicalism in Britain.

The conference held in Bradford in 1895 to form the Independent Labour Party (ILP) met in a disused chapel being run as a Labour Institute by the Bradford Labour Church. The conference was accompanied, moreover, by a Labour Church service attended by some 5,000 people.

The Labour Church movement that played such a vital role in the history of British socialism was inspired by John Trevor. Trevor resigned as a Unitarian minister to found the first Labour Church in Manchester: the first service took place there in October 1891. A string band opened the proceedings, after which Trevor led prayers, the congregation listened to a reading of a poem by James Russell Lowell, and Harold Rylett, a Unitarian minister, read the lesson, before the choir sang 'England. Arise', a socialist hymn written by Edward Carpenter. Trevor gave a sermon emphasising the religious nature of the Labour movement. Before long Labour Churches had sprung up in most of the large cities in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, including, of course, Bradford.

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