Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain

It is easy for twenty-first century Christians to forget the vast range of charitable works undertaken or funded by our Victorian ancestors. Little more than a hundred years ago voluntary organisations were responsible for a substantial part of the education system, for much health care and for a good deal of social work and poor relief. This was accepted as a normal and healthy state of affairs, and it rested partly on a Christian ethic of compassion and social responsibility.

During the twentieth century, however, a rising population, new aspirations, a sharper awareness of needs, the impact of two world wars, changing political philosophies and cultural developments combined to generate a massive expansion in the State provision of health, education and social services. The voluntary sector moved from sole or main provider to junior partner to paternalistic anachronism as the Welfare State took control. Once-influential agencies disappeared or were re-branded to achieve acceptability in the brave new world of ‘Whitehall knows best’.

In Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain, Frank Prochaska tells the story of this immense change in Britain’s social landscape. Four case studies – of schooling, visiting, mothering and nursing – are framed by opening and closing chapters offering an overview of the transformation from a world of civic voluntarism and private philanthropy to one of State-led collectivist welfare. Prochaska argues that Christian faith motivated Victorian philanthropy, but also stimulated the democratic beliefs which gave rise to the Welfare State. Likewise, a more professional and ‘secular’ outlook in the welfare agencies both reflected and accelerated a decline in Christian social influence.

This book synthesizes a vast amount of material, and could perhaps have allowed itself more space to develop and nuance its arguments. There are a few eccentric opinions – for instance the statement that ‘Methodists were often hostile to traditional doctrines stemming from the Reformation’ (p.34) – and some sweeping generalisations, but there are also many thought-provoking comments, like the suggestion that ‘chloroform did as much to imperil faith as Darwin’ (p.142), by distracting doctors and patients from the awkward fact of mortality!

The author’s underlying thesis is worthy of reflection: the destruction of a rich mosaic of voluntary agencies, in a vain quest for a ‘new Jerusalem egalitarianism’, has not only proved ineffective in practice but also devastating for democracy, community and Christianity. My lingering unease, however, may be due to a suspicion that Prochaska is too nostalgic for a Victorian and Edwardian world in which everyone knew their place and in which that place, in spite of Christian philanthropy, was squalid and degrading for the most vulnerable in our society.

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