Liberty is Near – the story behind the new album
Ever since I saw the photo of the National Chartist Hymn Book in the Church Times I was intrigued. I contacted Dr Michael Sanders, Senior Lecturer in Victorian Studies at Manchester University and he sent me the lyrics; the hymn book had been discovered in Todmorden Public Library. Michael had set about investigating its origins and he believes it is the only surviving copy.
Michael says the now obscure South Lancashire Delegate Meeting almost certainly compiled the tiny pamphlet.
I didn’t know a lot about the Chartists but I knew they were a significant labour movement calling for political reform and rights for working people. I’m learning much more now from Michael and others.
I was interested to see how they expressed their concern for social justice in a hymn – what was the theology or spirituality. Some of those writing worship songs today are now keen to express issues of justice in them. I heard one writer say this was a ‘new thing that God was doing’. I chuckled because when we search there are normally models that can guide us – this one being around 170 years ago. Justice has always been close to the heart of God – note the emphasis of the Hebrew prophets.
I feel awkward singing some of the lyrics because
the terminology is very ‘male’. Though they were taking up or reflecting many issues of justice, sexual or gender equality had not arrived. For the sake of historical accuracy I haven’t changed that but I hope in our new songs we will get this right. In a time when the Church stills struggles to reflect equal rights for women, especially in leadership, this is an important justice issue to be reflected in our hymn/song writing.
It was also the time of the ‘Occupy’ movement when I came across the book. Having an office close to St Paul’s Cathedral I used to wander amongst the demo that was based there and listen to some of the comments. Many reflected what I would call a biblical attitude of justice, often challenging our community and especially our economic system to be for the benefit of the 99 per cent and not just the 1 per cent. It prompted me to release an album of songs for worship called Justice like a river. In the foreword of the songbook I wrote: ‘It is a very relevant moment to have songs that pick up issues of justice, peace and spirituality as a central part of our worship. I was tempted to call the album and songbook Occupy worship because the Occupy movements have reminded us all of the need for fairer communities where the division between rich and poor is not so great.’ I hope releasing Liberty is near! will give a further reminder and encouragement for justice to be at the heart of our worship and inspire us to live out ‘love of our neighbours’. I hope this album breathes life into these remarkable old lyrics – enjoy them!
For the ordinary people of Britain the 1830s was a bleak decade. For many working people, industrialisation and mechanisation had brought only economic hardship. The ‘Great Betrayal’ of the 1832 Reform Bill – when middle-class reformers used working-class muscle to enfranchise themselves and then rejected the claim of their erstwhile allies – had been compounded by the passing of the New Poor Law in 1834, which to working-class eyes made poverty a crime to be punished by imprisonment in the hated workhouse. Yet, towards the end of the decade a new hope arose in Britain. The name of this hope was Chartism.
Ostensibly, Chartism was a movement for political reform. Its Charter contained six points, or demands: universal male suffrage (although many women were active in the Chartist movement, it never campaigned for female suffrage), the secret ballot, equal electoral constituencies, abolition of property qualifications for MPs, payment of MPs and annual Parliaments. Today, five of these demands are widely recognised as fundamental to the practice of democracy; in the late 1830s the privileged classes considered these to be revolutionary demands which, if enacted, would overthrow civilisation itself. Unsurprisingly, they rejected these demands every time they were formally presented to Parliament.
Three times the Chartist movement petitioned Parliament. In 1839 it presented 1,280,959 signatures, 3,317,752 signatures in 1842 and 1,975,496 signatures in 1848. Throughout this period, fewer than a million people had the right to vote. These refusals were not without consequence. In November 1839, the Chartists of South Wales attempted an armed uprising in which at least 22 Chartists were killed. In 1842 the presentation of the petition occurred in the midst of a mass strike-wave which has a claim to be considered the first ‘General Strike’ in history. In North-West England alone, 1,500 Chartists were arrested. Hundreds of Chartists were imprisoned and 79 were transported for their role in the strike. The final petition of 1848 witnessed a massive show of force by the Government which doubled the number of troops on duty in London, called up a further 1,100 army pensioners and enrolled a staggering 85,000 Special Constables.
The movement never recovered from this defeat and Chartism increasingly became a memory rather than an active force in British politics.
Precisely because it was a movement of hope – Chartism casts a long historical shadow. The Charter was not just about the ‘Six Points’, it symbolised a desire for a better society. Chartism is sometimes described by historians as a ‘hunger’ movement, a desperate response to desperate times. This is only half true. Chartism was driven by hunger but, as the hymns and songs gathered on this album show, that hunger was for liberty and social justice, as well as for daily bread.