Great Charters & Sacred Months

Outside Preston’s former corn exchange is a rather moving group of statues. It shows soldiers firing guns at three terrified figures. It depicts an event in 1842, during a general strike, in which four protestors were shot and killed. They were:

John Mercer, 27 of Ribbleton Lane, Preston

William Lancaster, 25 of Blackburn.

George Sowerbutts, 19 of Chandler Street

Bernard McNamara, 17 of Birk Street, Preston

That decade saw wage-cuts for the poor and further demands from working folk that they be allowed a say in the country’s administration. They were called chartists and sought a ‘people’s charter’ which contained the following clauses 

  • A vote for all men over 21- regardless of class or income. Extending this right to women had not really occurred to them
  • The secret ballot- so voters could not be bullied or cajoled to vote in a particular way by the powerful
  • No property qualification to become an MP- this would allow working folk to enter Parliament
  • Payment for MPs- again, so people without capital and rental incomes could enter the legislature
  • Electoral districts of equal size- ensuring all voters had an equal say
  • Annual elections for Parliament- so governments and poorly performing MPs could be replaced within short periods of time

Interestingly, most of these ambitions are now enshrined in Parliamentary practice. The exceptions are number 1, which ignores women and 18-20 years-olds, and number 6 which would result in too little time for any government to enact its policies.

One of the leaders of the Preston and county-wide chartists was one Richard Marsden from Bamber Bridge. Meetings were held on Pendle Hill which called for ‘the sacred month’. This was initially proposed for August 1839, during which all workers would strike, withdraw savings and refuse to consume any taxable luxuries like tobacco and spirits. By disengaging from capitalism, it was hoped this ‘sacred month’ would bring the whole economic system down, and with it the workers’ oppression. 

Despite the chartists’ ultimate success, our country and wider world is still subject to injustice and unfairness, be this moral, economic or social. The sin of selfishness, that legacy of the Fall, will always find new and daring ways to express itself. The ultimate remedy for the ills of this world is Christ’s return. Call as many sacred months and general strikes as you wish; boot out the farmer and submit to the pigs if you dare, but injustice will stubbornly remain.

At the beginning of Exodus 12, we come close the marking of a ‘sacred month’:

Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, “This month shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: ‘On the tenth of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household.

It was the time when the Hebrews were released from their Egyptian slavery. This was not just economic tyranny coming to an end, releasing drudges from a system which exploited their labour. Israel was asked to take a lamb and slaughter it, splashing its blood on their door posts, that the Destroyer might pass over. These lambs point to Christ the Lamb, whose shed blood releases those who believe from bondage to freedom.

The chartists’ sacred month never came; the four slaughtered strikers died and were buried. Although most of what they stood for was eventually conceded, there is a human bondage which they failed to address. True freedom and dignity come from Christ.