Evangelicalism in Brighton

By Carole

Although I do not adhere to any faith, I have always loved visiting churches. I find the spirituality I experience inside these historic buildings comforting and reassuring. One of the first things I did on moving to Brighton in 2009 was to spend time visiting its churches. Then my mother passed away, and I frequently found myself deep in sorrow, lighting a candle or sitting in a pew in St Bartholomew’s seeking solace in peaceful meditation. Little did I know that a few years later I would be part of a volunteer team researching the history of Holy Trinity Church, for Fabrica’s wonderful project, If These Walls Could Talk.

If there was any single belief system that characterised the 1800s and early 1900s, the heyday of HTC, it was Christianity. Religion pervaded social and political life to an extent unimaginable today. However, Christianity was divided. The eighteenth century had seen an Evangelical revival in opposition to the established church, the Church of England (C of E, Anglican Church). Dissenting churches and chapels were everywhere, and Evangelical beliefs began to enter and influence the established church itself. By the nineteenth century however, a reaction to the Evangelical revival had set in. A schism grew within the ranks of the established church: on one side an intensified form of Anglo-Catholicism (aka high church), on the other Evangelical (aka low church). The C of E was, and is, a ‘broad church’ capable of including many different tenets both Protestant and Catholic. But the consequences of the division in some places, not least Brighton, was the arousal of considerable passion among Anglican worshippers, sometimes even manifested in violent action.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica an Anglican Evangelical was one who emphasized biblical faith and personal conversion and gave less importance to the sacrament and liturgical worship favoured by Anglo-Catholicism. Nineteenth Century Evangelicals tended to be liberals, social reformers and radicals, such as the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce and HTC’s own dissenting minister and radical MP, George Faithfull. High church Anglicans tended to Toryism.

Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Holy Trinity Chapel’s beginnings were as a dissenting chapel, Nonconformist and independent of the established church. (The dissenters were originally Protestant Christians who separated from the Church of England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). The chapel, founded by Thomas Kemp who was its first preacher, followed by Faithfull, was sold to Robert Anderson in 1825 and became a chapel of the Church of England. By 1846 there were twelve Anglican Chapels in Brighton.

The divisions in the church were given potency when, from the 1830s to the 1870s, Henry and Arthur Wagner (the Vicar of Brighton and his son, also an Anglican clergyman) embarked on a massive church building scheme, intended to accommodate the poor of the parish who could not afford the rental price of a pew. Arthur Wagner was a more zealous ‘ritualist’ than his father, who was ‘old style’ high church. St Paul’s church in West Street was originally built for him on the site of a dissenting chapel, as a chapel of ease to bring ‘religion to the poor’ particularly the fishermen who lived near the shore. (It is still called ‘the Fishermen’s Church’). However the church did not succeed in this as it quickly became fashionable. Protestants were enraged by the ‘lavish decorations’ and the Catholic practices of rituals, chanting and confessions. Arthur Wagner founded ‘an order of Protestant nuns in Queen Square’. The outrage heightened to the point where Wagner was shot at.

Meanwhile HTC was purchased by the Church of England in 1878. Soon after the building underwent major alterations and additions in the style of the Gothic Revival. This would perhaps suggest that Holy Trinity itself was then becoming more high church, as ‘architecture in the form of the Gothic Revival became one of the main weapons in the high church’s armoury’.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that these passions between high and low churches began to dissipate.

How did the divisions within the C of E impact on our ‘unpretending little church in Ship Street’? Where did its most notable ministers stand in relation to the schism? Despite the high church tendency of Henry Wagner, HTC ministers were for the most part much more nuanced in their theological thinking, whilst emphasising in the ‘age of the preacher’, the importance of preaching over the ‘ritualism’ of the high church.

Anderson, who was a respected preacher though he believed that prayer rather than preaching was the main purpose of a church, sought to reconcile the two traditions of the high and low church, settling on the via media (the middle way) as he refrained from partisanship in any of the ecclesiastical controversies. Although his critics accused him of moving from Evangelicalism to high church, his wife Caroline Anderson who wrote an account of his life for the evangelical periodical Christian Observer, refuted this accusation, insisting that her husband’s beliefs had remained consistent throughout his time at HTC.

HTC’s most famous minister, Frederick Robertson began as an Evangelical strongly influenced by Calvinism. Yet his life was a relentless search for religious truth, and he became disillusioned by the way that Evangelicalism was practiced. He described his agonising spiritual struggles as ‘battling his way through seas of doubt’. Unlike Anderson he did not seek a middle way through religious controversy, but believed there was truth to be found in both Evangelical and high church doctrines, and preached a ‘higher Christian ground’, embracing the essential truth in both Protestant and Catholic positions. By the time he had become minister at HTC Robertson had shed many of his Evangelical assumptions without however becoming high church. He appealed to a broad consensus within Anglican belief although he also attracted harsh criticism, not least for being a passionate social reformer; criticism which hurt him deeply.

Ralph Daly Cocking was minister of HTC for twenty-eight years, in which time he helped secure the funds for the purchase by the C of E and oversaw the remodeling of the building. He was the first minister of HTC to be appointed by the Vicar of Brighton in 1870 (previous incumbents were appointed by the Anderson family). A member of the congregation said of his ministry: ‘At Trinity the service is sufficiently high to please all moderate people.’ Reginald Campbell came from a Nonconformist background (Nonconformist was a general term which, by the mid-nineteenth century, was used collectively of the evangelical dissenting churches and of Methodism and its offshoots), and was influenced by the Congregationalism of his father and the Ulster Presbyterianism of his grandfather. Like them he became a Nonconformist minister and a central figure of the New Theology movement, which was predominantly Nonconformist. Through his career he made a ‘spiritual journey’ from Nonconformist to the Anglican Church, and a position more in sympathy with high church values. Visiting the front during WWI led him to argue for church unity, as he realised that the horrors of war made the church’s internal disagreements seem trivial. He continued to acknowledge the Nonconformist ministry as a ‘true church’, a position which drew fierce criticism. And as a socialist – he regarded socialism as ‘a practical expression of Christian ethics’ – he pursued a quest to initiate social reforms, including women’s suffrage.

A postcard of R J Cambell

David Davies like Campbell began his ministerial life in the Congregational church before becoming an Anglican. His father was a choirmaster in a small Welsh Independent chapel. Davies was a political agitator during the 1926 General Strike, when he was still a Congregational minister. Also like Campbell, he was devastated by the horror of war, in this case the Spanish Civil War, which he experienced as a member of a delegation. He wrote several books; the title of one suggests a similar religious journey to that of Campbell: On to Orthodoxy.

Though I have learnt so much researching for this project, it has raised more questions for me than answers, and it has created a curiosity to know more about this intricate and fascinating history. Is it a coincidence that when considering what subject to study for my degree course, theology was a real possibility? Being part of If These Walls Could Talk has fulfilled some of this ambition.


  • Colleagues scripts, If These Walls Could Talk
  • I Sellers: Nineteenth Century Nonconformity (London: Arnold, 1977)
  • Stopford Brooke: Life and Letters of F W Robertson
  • My Brighton & Hove website
  • Sussex Parish Churches website
  • R W Dale: The old Evangelicalism and the New, 1889
  • RJ Campbell: A Notable Centenary
  • BNA newspaper articles
  • The Post Magazine, The Wagners


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