What is perhaps not realized is the severity of the Evangelical ideal, and its extensive “kill-joy” character. The three great objects to which the reform societies devoted themselves were, officially, the improvement of Sunday observance, the abolition of prostitution and the reduction of blasphemy. But since the term prostitution was enlarged in practice to cover all extra-marital sexual experience, and the term blasphemy, most kinds of statements which patrists found objectionable, and since to regulate Sunday enjoyment, in a period when men worked upwards of twelve hours a day, six days a week, was equivalent to regulating all enjoyment, the programme was all embracing. George Burden’s Sermon on Lawful Amusements ( 1804) laid down that Christians must refrain from all amusement on Sunday, including travelling and paying visits. Hannah More added that a stroll in the public gardens on Sunday evening or attendance at a sacred concert were to be condemned, and that to tell the maid to say one was not in, when one was, was a sin.
In fact, one of the astonishing features of this Evangelical morality was the lack of proportion it displayed. It condemned such classic offences as adultery and prostitution, to be sure, but it regarded a host of minor pleasures as scarcely less reprehensible. The “Evangelical Barometer” reproduced by Quinlan places all the principal virtues and sins of the day in fifteen grades, seven above zero and seven below. In the fourth grade below zero we find drunkenness paired with theatre-going; in the fifth, novel reading equated with neglect of private prayer. In the sixth grade, reserved for the most heinous sins short of total perdition, we find adultery grouped with parties of pleasure on the Lord’s day. Nor was this lack of proportion wholly confined to the Evangelicals; the grotesque extremes to which it was carried are illustrated by the fact that in I798 the Bishop of Durham solemnly assured the House of Lords that the French, having despaired of conquering England by force of arms, had conceived the deliberate and subtle plan of undermining her morals, and for this purpose had sent over a number of ballet dancers.
The Evangelical campaign, though undoubtedly based on sexual anxieties, as I shall seek to show, took the form not merely of a campaign against sexual indulgence, nor even of a campaign against all forms of pleasure; it had the character, rather, of an attack on all spontaneity of impulse. And to a considerable extent, people accepted the new standard. Places of resort, such as Vauxhall Gardens, the Apollo Gardens and the Temple of Flora closed for lack of support. Theatres were deserted. Men gave up archery, wrestling and football for such restrained and solitary activities as breeding pigeons. No one played practical jokes any more. Christian names went out of use except between members of the same family. But perhaps the flavour of this fear of spontaneity can be conveyed even better by saying that Dr. Johnson’s famous 3 a.m. excursion with Langton and Beauclerk (“What, is it you, you dogs!” he said when suddenly aroused, “I’ll have a frisk with you”) was regarded as a most improper and undignified incident. Gravity of demeanour was as essential for children as for adults. Robinson Crusoe was regarded as quite unsuitable reading for children — since, as Maria Edgeworth said, it might have the dangerous effect of inspiring young readers with a taste for adventure. How to inspire a suitably solemn attitude in the young is demonstrated in “The Fairchild Family” (1818), in which on three occasions the children are taken to see the dead or dying, so as to provide an occasion for suitable reflections upon corruption and mortality.