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Christian Work in the Devil’s Strongholds : Atheism in England in 1913

The village where my parents now live recently held a display of its local history. In it was a local church magazine for 1913 that contained the fascinating article below. It is an article bemoaning the rise of atheism. Read it for what it is, a historical primary source of the goings-on and attitudes of the day in England. It is written by the church, for the church, but still paints an astonishing picture of life in London in 1913.

It shows that at the very beginning of the twentieth century, discussions on Atheism had a popularity and vigour that would astound most of us today. It shows that people, especially the young rebellious middle classes, would desert their churches on Sundays and flock to the parks to hear talks on Atheism. Atheism was on the rise and surely it seemed only a matter of time before organised religion crumbled. Freethinking Pseudo-Churches were being formed and were flourishing.

What has changed? Why is the standard of interest and debate, especially among the general public, so much lower today than it was then? We can only speculate, but I would put the following reasons forward.

  • Atheism allied itself with the new political movements, especially Communism and Socialism. As Communism challenged the establishment, so the establishment found an ally in the Church in reaction. Godless Communism ultimately didn’t work and dragged Atheism down with it.
  • 1913 was the year before World War 1 broke out. When wars happen society tends to close ranks and solidify to fight the new cause. Energy was redirected into winning the war. The middle of a war was not the time for challenging authority or for philosophical debate. Many of the young middle-class men who were active campaigners would also have become junior officers in the war, the group with the highest casualty rate.
  • New forms of entertainment have arrived; the cinema and television have proved to be better entertainment than intellectual argument. These are mainly passive, requiring only that the viewer to sit back and listen to what is said. If you can’t heckle, there is no need to think. God, being invisible and incorporeal, makes poor TV or cinema.
  • In those days, there was none of the Political Correctness that there is today. In England today, religion is hardly mentioned and the main concern with any religious talk seems to be not to upset people with what you say. Certainly I have never heard anyone in England directly challenge a Muslim with a statement such as, “Allah does not exist.” There seemed to be no such reticence in those days.
  • It is interesting to speculate that most active Atheists with an interest in the subject tend to be former theists. The children of atheists may be more apathetic and uninterested towards religion. This is certainly the case in England today. Perhaps Atheism may carry the seeds of its own destruction.

Anyway, enough of such speculation. Here is the document. Make of it what you will:

The Dawn of Day, 1913

Christian Work in the Devil’s Strongholds

By Rev C.L. Drawbridge, MA

Honory Organising Secretary for the Christian Evidence Society

In the huge Metropolis of the world–London–the contrast between the good and the bad, and between religious an irreligious people is very great. In London and its suburbs we have, on the one hand, vast numbers of people who are very good indeed, and most religious, and, on the other hand, we have very many people who are very wicked indeed, and most irreligious. In London we have, also the central offices of the great religious societies, and, on the other hand, we find the head offices of the organised atheist societies the business of which is to attack religion. There are even three temples to the devil in London–or at least there used to be.

Vast masses of people in London never, by any chance, go inside a place of worship, and they do not see any reason why they should go. Most of them are merely indifferent, but many are very wicked and bitterly hostile to religion. When the good and religious people are in church on Sundays, millions of those who do not attend any place of worship assemble in the streets, the parks, and the open spaces. Hundreds of thousands of Londoners spend practically the whole of Sunday, especially in the summer, in open spaces.

A Vigorous campaign.

Whilst the clergy and church workers are filly engrossed in divine worship and in Sunday School work, etc, in their buildings, the vehement enemies of all that we hold most sacred, the opponents of everything for which we labour on a Sunday, assemble in the parks, and other open spaces. They conduct there vigorous campaign against religion, and try to win over to atheism those who are merely indifferent to religion. These public meeting grounds are usually regarded by the enemies of religion as their special territory, and here the people are more friendly to them than they are to us Christians. In these open spaces, professional atheist orators–many of whom are very eloquent, smart, humorous, and plausible–put up little platforms and, hour after hour, and all day long, violently and bitterly attack religion, Jesus Christ, the Bible, the Church, and man’s sense of moral responsibility. Many thousands of youths and mere boys listen very attentively to these men for hours at a time, and believe most of what they are told by them. There are various organised atheist societies which work hard all day Sunday in trying to persuade people that there is no God, that Jesus Christ never lived, and that man is not responsible for his actions. These are three chief articles of their creed. In some of the big parks there are often two, three, or more atheist orators speaking at the same time, from different platforms, to large crowds of men and lads.

27 Meetings every Sunday.

For years past the Christian Evidence Society and its branches have specialised in the work of (1) providing evidence of the truth of Christianity for those who will not believe in it without evidence; and (2) systematically combating atheism in its own strongholds. (I have the honour of organising all the open air work of the Society and its branches, and of speaking in the parks every week.) Every Sunday in the summer we have twenty-seven meetings, each of which lasts for hours, and we also hold several meetings during the week. The North London branch during three years distributed free 200,000 evidential pamphlets (written by us specially) on Parliament Hill alone, because this spot was the most atheistic site in London. At the present time our attention is chiefly called to Findsbury Park, which now is the most hostile to religion, partly because North London has long been by far the most atheistic part of London, and, I think of the United Kingdom, and also because, owing to pressure of work, we allowed the atheists to have it their own way too mach in Finsbury Park. It is our chief battleground new.

A Bitter Attack

Hyde Park is much better known to Christians than any other park, because of its central position. Therefore more religious efforts have been expended there than in any of the other open spaces of London. Hyde Park is, therefore, by no means typical. Those who estimate the general nature of the anti-religious problem from their acquaintance with Hyde Park meetings alone, entirely under-estimate the bitterness and the strength of the attack upon our Lord Jesus Christ and upon the belief in God, and upon man’s sense of responsibility. Since writing the above, after speaking for some hours in Hyde Park, I wondered round and made notes of the various causes advocated on that particular Sunday afternoon. There were the following amongst others: The Christian Evidence Society, the Humanitarians (opponents of Christianity), the anti-Visisectionists, two un-named platforms (both, I think atheistic, but the speakers were having tea), an Irish Nationalist meeting, an anti-Roman Catholic meeting, an anti-Protestant one (these two play into the hands of the atheists), a very small service, an anti-patent medicine speaker, a Hindoo missionary to Christians, a purely atheistic platform, and another atheist platform of a socialistic nature. These meetings go on all day long with but short intervals for meals. There were two other meetings on the grass, which I did not visit. Also, earlier in the day, the Church Army had been in the field for a short time: they have two short meetings every Sunday of a purely evangelical nature. The photograph reproduced on the previous page will give some idea of the size of the crowds which listen to our Christian Evidence speakers.

A Crying Need

London is the centre of the British Empire and hundreds of thousands of people from all parts of the world go to London occasionally, or that the crowds in the parks, on a Sunday, are exceedingly cosmopolitan. An erroneous impression with regard to the state of religious feeling in England is given to the heathen Chinese, Japanese, Africans Indians etc. etc. who stroll into our parks to study English life, and who watch huge crowds listening attentively, and apparently approvingly, to atheistic lecturers–here in the very heart of the British Empire.

As I have said, the opponents of Christianity are organised into several societies, but the Christian Evidence Society which has to combat them all has an income which is several times less than, for instance, that of the Rational Press Association alone. This fact shows that the crying need of opposing atheistic teaching has not yet been realized by the Church, otherwise this branch of Home Mission work would be very much better supported. We are therefore, exceedingly grateful to the editor of this magazine for so kindly allowing us to draw your attention to our task, and for permitting us to ask for your prayers on behalf of the much neglected work.

By both precept and example our Divine Master acted upon the principle that “they that be whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick” and that the lost sheep should be sought and saved. The main object of the Church in England is doubtless to tend the Christian Flock, but we must not neglect to follow up the sheep which have been led astray. Further, the task of seriously hunting the wolves, which prey upon the sheep, is absolutely necessary also, we must not neglect the work of casting out Devils.