A. Gordon James (b.1885): Habits, Culture & Belief – Writing Lives

A. Gordon James (b.1885): Habits, Culture & Belief

‘Something more is demanded of the Church than passing pious resolutions on the evil of drink or gambling’ (54)

Photograph of American Evangelist,
Billy Graham.

Naturally, Alfred was raised in a religious household. He had been brought up as a Congregationalist by his mother. He implies that his family were originally Methodists because he left this church for his ‘ancestral loyalty because we found the West Norwood Congregationalists stiff and unfriendly’ (11). During this time, he found that he had an ‘aversion’ to the American style of ‘Sensational Evangelism’, which he calls ‘the Billy Graham type’ (11). It’s important to note that both of these Christian denominations are under the Reformed Tradition, which emphasises the supreme authority of the teachings of the bible. Though it isn’t directly stated, we can assume Alfred believed there was an oppressive nature to this doctrine. For example, his father, who was also a member of the Reformed Church, ‘was less bigoted than some of his fellow members of the nonconformist chapel’ (6).

Scanned-Copy of 1919 Memorandum on the ‘demobilisation’ of the Ministry of Food.

Later in the manuscript, Alfred comments on the impact of the First World War on British working-class culture. Because Alfred couldn’t join the army, he became an ‘assistant administrator’ at the ‘Ministry of Food’, which was in charge of rationing in the country (45). This involved negotiating supplies with fish-fryers, where they wrote to all requests ‘in typical bureaucratic fashion’ with the reply, ‘The Ministry is considering the matter’ (46). Alfred describes the moment he weaved through the crowds on Armistice Day, writing that ‘As I reached Trafalgar, the King and Queen drove through the crowd in an open carriage…we all cheered madly’ (47).

Figure 1: Graph showing the decrease in church attendance and belief in Britain taken from ‘Generations of Decline: Religious Change in 20th-Century Britain’ by Alasdair Crockett and David Voas on Page 573.

When he resumed his work at his ministry in Harrow after the war, Alfred started to believe that there was a loosening of Christianity’s grip on British working-class culture: ‘The Church had somehow lost contact with the contemporary world’ (46). He writes of an encounter with a ‘commercial traveller’ on a train, who said ‘“You fellows have the goods, but you have no idea how to sell them”’ (54). This view is different to that of Callum G. Brown, who argues that his book ‘rebrands Britain of 1800-1963 as a highly religious nation, and the period as the nation’s last puritan age’ (Callum G. B. 2001, p 7). The reactionary response of James, writing of a time just after the First World War, seems to contradict this statement. Figure 1 roughly indicates that there was an emerging decline in the church attendance and ‘belief’ in God at the beginning of the 20th century (Alaisdair Crockett and David Voas, 2006, p 573). This data arguably supports Alfred’s insight.

Figure 2: Scanned copy of ‘The Methodist Leader’ featuring The Fellowship of the Kingdom. Click to zoom!

 In light of this decline, Alfred wanted to find out what the consensus was among working-class people about religion, making ‘a more sustained effort to find out what ordinary men and women who stood aloof from the churches were thinking’ (55). This involved going to ‘public houses’ where ‘he refrained from talking about religion until I was challenged, which happened almost at once’ (51). Alfred also mentions his place as a ‘founding member’ of a new convention of Methodist ministers and clergyman from other Christian denominations under the name, ‘The Fellowship of the Kingdom.’ He states that members promised to make a ‘constant and diligent inquiry into the nature of the Christian experience and its relevance to modern life…’ (49). This convention grew to attract famous speakers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘who allowed themselves to be questioned by members of the audience, mostly non-Churchgoers’ (53). Figure 2, which is a scanned-copy of ‘The Methodist Leader’, mentions one of the founding members called Arundel Chapman, whom Alfred writes of in his manuscript as one of his ‘closest friends’ (48).

            During his stay at the Methodist parish in Harrow in 1916, Alfred encountered some luxury, with ‘conditions very different from those at Chertsey’ (44). He now ‘had a large and alert congregation’, a house ‘furnished with taste’ and became good friends with ‘Mrs Dunhill…her eldest son was the proprietor of the well-known tobacco and pipe firm’ (44). Alfred writes these moments with Jane Dunhill with the underlying connotation that he doesn’t have any reservations about mixing with wealthy people, caring more about the ‘character and good works’ of the person (44). Alfred didn’t write much about what he liked to do for leisure. He seems to have derived most of his enjoyment from his work. It is implied that he was teetotal, mentioning the ‘evil of drink’ and ‘ordering non-alcoholic beverages’ when he visited the public-houses (54).

During his training in Chertsey, however, he held a sceptical view of the wealthy in that parish. He states that ‘the aristocracy attended the established church to set a good example to the members of their household’, implying that they didn’t attend for religious reasons (20). This is an important insight into British working-class culture because he explores the dynamic between the wealthy and the household servants through the lens of religion.

Alfred implies that the parish at Harrow was wealthy and influential because when he offered himself for a chaplaincy role in the army during the First World War, he ‘was rejected rather rudely’ on the grounds that his ‘own church was too important to be left without a minister’ (45).


Works Cited:

James, A. G. ‘A Soul Remembering: An Intimate Autobiography’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection.

Brown, G. C. (2001) The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000. Oxon: Routledge.

Crockett, A. and Voas, D. (2006) Generations of Decline: Religious Change in 20th Century Britain. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 45 (4), pp.567-584.

Images Used:

Photograph of Billy Graham found at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/21/obituaries/billy-graham-dead.html

Scanned-copy of 1919 Memorandum on the Ministry of Food found at: https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/D7733224

Scanned copy of ‘The Methodist Leader’ found at: 

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