The 1851 Religious Census of Salem Chapel

In 1851, Queen Victoria’s government conducted a census of church attendance. Each congregation was asked to provide figures for how many people their church or chapel could seat, and the actual attendance at each Sunday service held on 30th March that year. I've found the return for our chapel, which reads thus:

Salem Chapel (Congregational Independents), Martin Top. Erected 1817 Sittings: Free 210, Other 90 

So there were 210 seats which were free, and 90 rented. Does our chapel really hold 300 seats? No, but it may have back then. Pews were lost when the organ (1860s) and vestry (1880s) were built and further ones were removed from the front and the piano area.

On 30th March Morning: General Congregation: 14. Sunday Scholars: 59

Afternoon: GC 91, SS 62

Evening GC 56

Signed: Stephen Dean, Deacon

It’s interesting that there were three services each Sunday, but few came in the morning. Perhaps farming folk preferred to attend after their lunches and the morning’s milking. Or maybe they attended the more respectable parish church (see below).

An impressive 161 adults attended on a Sunday, but many of these may have come twice and some thrice, so the real number is likely to be lower. In addition, there were 120 children. These numbers look very healthy and may be compared to the two nearest churches. Salem Chapel attracted fewer worshippers than St Mary’s at Gisburn (165 am and 73 pm), but similar numbers to the Wesleyan Methodists down at Stopper Lane (36 am, 74 pm, 56 pm). Overall, a great many local folk were found in places of worship on that Sunday than they are today.

When all the figures were published in 1854, the volume proved a best seller, with 21,000 eager Victorians wishing to flick through their own copy. The book caused a great deal of disquiet, shocking mid-Victorian Britain. Although the churches look packed and busy, they were appalled to learn that only 7.26 million out of a total population of England and Wales of 18 million attended church. Horace Mann, the solicitor who published the report, commented “it must be apparent that a sadly formidable portion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion”, noting that most of these absentees were working class.

Although we look upon the nineteenth century as a time of splendid Christian growth with its feverish construction of chapels, memorable revivalists and eloquent writers, it too hosted a silent, godless majority. In any age and at any time, the path to life has always been narrow, and only a few found it.