What was the Christian contribution to the foundation of the British Welfare State?

‘From cradle to grave’ was Beveridge’s famous summary of his vision of a British society where the state would seek to provide the basic necessities of life from beginning to the end. The welfare state was a political expression, following the second world war, of the underlying belief that the nation could be re-constructed and that the state should be a safety net providing security and opportunity for all.

In this essay, I will describe the Christian contribution towards the foundation of the welfare state, which I will argue was very influential in preparing both the British people and British institutional life for the idea of much greater state provision. However, I will also indicate that Christian support for the welfare state was by no means universal and consider the wider historical and political factors, which led to its establishment.

There can be little doubt that the shift in Christian thinking in the nineteenth century caused the churches to have greater social involvement and challenged the laissez-faire economic attitudes that had justified keeping the poor poor (Worrall, 1993 p37). Powerful Christian proponents of socialist thinking, such as F. D. Maurice (1805-72) for the first time offered an alternative by identifying the root causes of low wages and unemployment as the inherent result of competitive, profit-driven capitalism (Worrall, 1993 p 49). Due to increased prosperity in the 1880s and a lack of economic depth, Maurice and his contemporaries had limited success in drawing attention the idea of co-operation in place of competition (Wilkinson, 1998 p19). However, Maurice laid the foundations for the re-emergence of Christian socialist thinking in the early part of the next century and in so doing arguably took the first step to bringing the welfare state into reality.

Theologically, a change in emphasis from the paradigm of atonement to that of incarnation also served to liberate Christian philanthropists to accommodate a social agenda as an important part of the churches’ mission. This shift in thinking influenced the emergence and emphasis of New Liberalism, which advocated the need for a social agenda but without altering the freedom of a capitalist economy (Machin, 1998 p 25). With the bed-rock of non-conformist support behind him, it was Lloyd George’s Liberal Party in the early twentieth whose tax-increasing social reforms were the a necessary political pre-text towards a more interventionist role for government. (Hastings, 1998 p 173).

The establishment of organisations such as the Christian Social Union (CSU) by Scott Holland in 1889, the Anglican Church Socialist League and the Guild of St Matthews in the early part of the twentieth century were also important influences in airing relatively new socialist ideas. These organisations were forums to discuss the churches’ role in responding to social and political issues and to re-think theology that had traditionally limited Christian social vision and action. Through the leadership of senior Christians such as Charles Gore, the CSU managed to ‘Christianise’ socialism and argue that its principles of co-operation, collectivism and justice dovetailed naturally with Christian message. This perspective is summed up in Donaldson’s famous quote, ‘Christianity was the religion of which socialism was the practice’ (Wilkinson, 1998 p 58).

The keen intellect and lucid writings of Christians such as R.H. Tawney (who became a member of the CSU in 1903) led the way in critiquing capitalism, which he saw as morally bankrupt for treating human beings as a means not an end (Wilkinson, 1998 p 97). Due to the introduction of ideas such as increasing public expenditure and re-distribution of wealth, the church could be seen to be responsible for the ‘left-turn’ in society that led to the welfare state (Hastings, 1986 p 393).

However, it is William Temple who must take the greatest credit for any Christian contribution to the foundation of the welfare state. The most influential of twentieth century Archbishops, it was Temple who pushed for the publication of the 1918 Fifth Report which was so important in the re-emergence of socialist thought and dealt with the live issues of unemployment which were to blight the inter-war years. The Fifth report was the pre-cursor for establishing COPEC in 1924 (Conference of Politics, Economics and Citizenship) which was an unprecedented ecumenical conference designed to address the churches response to social problems. Although COPEC was criticised for being ineffectual and unpractical, it was nevertheless cited by some as being the blue-print to the welfare state (Machin, 1998 p 35). It was Temple again who grasped the opportunity after the second world-war to re-build a fairer Britain, by overseeing the Malvern conference and subsequently writing his book ‘Christianity and the Social Order’ which addressed the nation and not just the church and provided framework for modern socialism (Hastings, 1986 p 398). Temple’s four principles, freedom, fellowship, service, and sacrifice, guided the churches social thought and gave it a distinct role in challenging post-reformation individualism (Wilkinson, 1998 p 123).

It must be noted however, that opposition in some quarters tempered the Christian contribution to the welfare state. In 1933 Bishop Headlam expressed his unease at collectivist policies and asserted his conviction that the market must be left to operate naturally and that taxation should be lowered in order to let industry expand (Machin, 1998 p 43). Greater state intervention was opposed by some Christians who believed it would limit the sacrosanct value of individual freedom. More significantly, there was opposition to socialist thought from parts of the church who were suspicious that greater left-wing sympathy represented a dangerous lurch towards communism. There was also a fascist element in Catholic teaching that feared democracy was the gateway to communism.

In evangelical circles, it took the independent thinking of John Stott in the 1960s before a social agenda was placed with a degree of parity alongside the ‘real business’ of evangelism. The theology expounded by the Keswick convention which placed emphasis on individual sanctification gave further reasons for the evangelical constituency to disengage from participating in wider societal concerns (Bebbington, 1995 p 177).

It is also important to recognise that the Christian contribution to the welfare state did not occur in a vacuum. Wider factors such as the occurrence of two world wars, the emergence of the Independent Labour Party, the transition from church-based to state related social provision and greater class consciousness would have influenced Christians of the day and were crucial in themselves to inducing the birth of the welfare state. Roberts (1999, pp 705) argues that because Britain’s nationalism had been bolstered as a result of the war, there was a ‘special national psychology’ which was amenable to the relatively radical concept that publicly funded provision should be made accessible for all who needed it.

Christians must guard against a self-serving appraisal of their contribution towards of the welfare state. However, it is nevertheless clear that the thoughts, words and actions of the Christian community were central in bringing it to fruition.


D. Bebbington, The Decline and Resurgence of Evangelical Social Concern 1918-1980, SPCK, 1995

A Hastings, A History of English Christianity 1920-2000 SCM Press, 1986

J. Kent, William Kent, Cambridge University Press, 1992

G.I.T Machin, Churches and Social Issues in Twentieth-Century Britain, OUP, 1998

J.M Roberts, Penguin History of Twentieth Century, Penguin, 1999

A. Wilkinson, Christian Socialism, SCM Press, 1998

B.G Worrall, The Making of the Modern Church, New Edition, SPCK, 1993