Hugh Price Hughes and the Non Conformist conscience

According to Wikipedia:The Nonconformist conscience was the moralistic influence of the Nonconformist churches in British politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries”. Pertinent to the points I want to make in my article is the example the Wikipedia article gave of how this conscience was exercised, which appear strangely relevant for today: “The phrase gained wide currency during the campaign by the Welsh Methodist Hugh Price Hughes against the participation in politics of the divorcee Sir Charles Dilke (1886) and the adulterer Charles Stewart Parnell (1890), believing that political leaders should possess high moral integrity. In Britain one strong base of Liberal Party support was Nonconformist Protestantism, such as the Methodists and Presbyterians. The nonconformist conscience rebelled against having an adulterer (Parnell) play a major role in the Liberal Party. The Liberal party leader William Gladstone warned that if Parnell retained his powerful role the leadership, it would mean the loss of the next election, the end of their alliance and also of Home Rule.”

The Wikipedia article concerning a man that a week ago I had not even heard off, and discovered only thanks to my Pastor, is informative and relevant, to what I want to discuss here and provides further evidence of why I find Victorian Christians a fascinating bunch covering many varying interests and views, who we can learn a lot from and, if I had my time again, I would love to write a book on the subject:  “Hugh Price Hughes (9 February 1847 – 17 November 1902) was a Welsh Protestant clergyman and religious reformer in the Methodist tradition. He served in multiple leadership roles in the Wesleyan Methodist Church. He organised the West London Methodist Mission, a key Methodist organisation today. Recognised as one of the greatest orators of his era, Hughes also founded and edited an influential newspaper, the Methodist Times in 1885. His editorials helped convince Methodists to break their longstanding support for the Conservatives and support the more moralistic Liberal Party, which other Nonconformist Protestants were already supporting. Hughes was born in Carmarthen, and was educated at Richmond Theological College and University College London. He married Katherine Hughes (née Barrett). In 1885, he founded the Methodist Times, and in 1887 he was appointed Superintendent of the West London Methodist Mission. His wife Katherine organised and led the innovative Sisters of the People, social work volunteers attached to the West London Mission. In 1896, he was elected first president of the National Council of Evangelical Free Churches, an organisation he helped create. In 1898, he was elected President of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference for a year-long term. He died at his home in London following a stroke. Hughes rose as the leader of the “Forward Movement” in Methodism, which sought to reshape the Methodist Church as the moral and social conscience of Britain. Later, he extended this idea to the Nonconformist Free Churches as a whole. He was concerned that the non-Anglican evangelical tradition had become overly focused on individual salvation, and it was time for Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Quakers to become churches in a fuller sense, taking on responsibility for the salvation of society. These ideas were expressed in his published sermons. In his first book of sermons, entitled Social Christianity, he declared “It is because the spirit of Christ has not been introduced into public life that Europe is in a perilous condition today. . . My wish is to apply Christianity to every aspect of life.” As a reformer, Hughes was a leader for temperance and for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. He was also a strong advocate for public, non-sectarian education and international peace. He strongly supported Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule Bills. After the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell was revealed to have committed adultery with Katherine O’Shea, Hughes declared that English Nonconformists would no longer support the Irish cause if its leader was a proven adulterer. This threat led Gladstone to state that he could not remain as Liberal leader if Parnell continued to lead the Nationalists, thus precipitating the Parnell Split. Hughes played a key role in leading Methodists into the Liberal Party coalition, away from the Conservative leanings of previous Methodist leaders.”

I mentioned Hugh Price Hughes (although not by name – it was only later I was able to find out the identity of this fascinating clergyman) in my article “When and how Christians should speak out?” to make the point that here was an example of an influential Christian leader who was able to use his influence to prevent someone (here it was the Irish politician Charles Parnell) gaining high office because of an obvious moral failing. Some of my Christian mover and shaker friends might well employ similar arguments when it comes to the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Two of them recently shared articles critical of Trump, expressing exasperation that many Evangelicals support him despite their moral failures, on their Facebook pages: “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity” and “Faith and freedoms: why evangelicals profess unwavering love for Trump“. While those who follow me in my Trump / Boris related blogs would not be surprised when I say I support them both, albeit NOT unreservedly and NOT glossing over their moral failures, yet in doing so I recognize friends who take issue with me on subjects like Trump and Boris because of the sort of conscience discussed in the first Wikipedia article, while adding to it the statement – so do I!

When I consciously started going “Outside the Camp” with my gospel preaching, community activism, trying to engage with all and sundry, around the turn of the millennium, I was motivated as much as anything by conscience, the need to speak out and act on matters that did not go down well with my conscience and speak up for those who due to their conscience are made to suffer because of the prevailing ungodly paradigm then operate in. I don’t know enough about Hugh Price Hughes and the culture he had to operate in to give a definitive view, but I suspect while I would likely have agreed with him on much, especially to do with social justice matters (albeit not necessarily leaning toward the Liberal Party of his day) I would disagree with him regarding Parnell for similar reasons I would with his present day followers concerning Trump. If it were a matter of appointing church ministers, Parnell and Trump would undoubtedly be disqualified, but we are talking here of those to lead their countries. It seems to me if God can tell Elijah to anoint Jehu and Hazael to be kings, knowing full well their faults, he could do so with Trump. Perhaps over dramatic and simplistic but an article like “Glenn Beck: If Trump Doesn’t Win “We Are Officially At The End Of The Country As We Know It” provides good grounds why according to my non conformist conscience Trump (and while on the subject Boris too) are the best available from the alternatives on offer, and as far as fulfilling God’s agenda, which is what matters most after all, they are most likely to do so.

In rounding up, there are a number of lessons worth pondering. Regarding Hugh Price Hughes and the Non Conformist conscience, there is more delving to be done and two books on the subjects that I can think of that are worth reading. It seems to me the above reflection is one more example that can be used to back up the old adage: “those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it”. As for conscience, that is not just the prerogative of Non Conformists or Christians even, since all humankind have some measure of conscience, but in my experience it is earnest Christian types who put special store on conscience and those who ignore this fail to understand what it is that makes such people tick. It should be said that there are a whole plethora of matters of conscience type issues and even Christians from my own theological stable are not always in agreement what these are and what priority to attach to each item. My final thought, which is borne out every day when I read of yet another earnest Christian falling foul of those who try to lay down what is culturally acceptable, is we are in a culture war, whether or not we choose to do battle. Yet it is always right to act according to informed conscience, despite inevitable opposition, and with the important rider that fighting for truth is balanced by love.

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