The politics of memory, local and national: the Battle of Bosham Clock

Nestling on one of the reaches of Chichester harbour, the life of the village of Bosham is peculiarly dominated by the changing tide. At high tide the road around the narrow channel becomes impassable; sometimes the cars of unsuspecting visitors are engulfed by the water that changes the appearance and even the sound of the village. Legend has it that it was in Bosham that Canute ordered the tides to cease, yet still they continue to rise and fall.

Although the visitor does not see it when arriving from the main road between Chichester and Portsmouth, the village is dominated by the parish church. Overlooking the meadow that separates it from the quay from which sailing boats are launched each weekend, the church of the Holy Trinity can be seen from north, south and west. Also on the green is the village war memorial, one of the great many made after 1918 which had to be modified, not always comfortably, to accommodate the dead of the second generation; some of those lost in both conflicts were lost to the sea. And despite the apparent givenness of the scene, Bosham was the scene of a remarkable controversy lasting from 1945 until 1947 over how the village dead should be remembered.

Quay Meadow, Bosham.
Image by ianpudsey [CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The dispute centred over a proposed memorial, a new clock face on the church tower. It ended in a hearing in the consistory court of the diocese, in which disputes over alterations to churches were settled, after which the clock was in fact approved, made and installed. The papers of that hearing illustrate the full range of local opinion on how a small community should remember its dead, when grief remained raw.

But this was not merely a local dispute, as the idea provoked a national campaign in opposition that engaged the English establishment at the highest level. Letters to the Times were written; representations were made to the diocesan chancellor (to whom it fell to settle the case). Which should win out: the national guardians of the architectural heritage of the nation, or a local community? And with whom in that community did authority rest?

******

The names of the Bosham dead of both world wars are recorded both on two brass plates in the church, and on the memorial on the meadow: thirty names from the first conflict, forty-two more from the second. Some names appear in both lists; others more than once, such as the three Stubbington brothers, all killed in the second conflict. Among them were the names of sons of both the two opponents in the controversy: the vicar, and the lord of the manor.

The Bosham war memorial on Quay Meadow.
Image: Peter Webster (2007)

The general idea of a memorial clock had been in the mind of the vicar, A.L. Chatfield, very soon after the end of the war, if not before. Chatfield had himself won a Military Cross, and his son, John Anthony Cecil Chatfield had been killed by shellfire near Caen in northern France in July 1944. As well as on the plate in the church, his loss was recorded amongst the dozens of others from his school, Lancing College, a short train ride away from Bosham. He had been mentioned in despatches.

George Bell, bishop of Chichester, was by this time already known as an encourager of the contemporary arts in his diocese. Emboldened by a conversation with Bell during a visit, Chatfield put the idea to the church’s Parochial Church Council in November 1945, and announced his intentions in the parish magazine in January 1946. A public meeting was held in the village hall in early February, at and after which objections were raised; already the key issues were in view.

The local artist Helen Reid objected on the grounds that it would spoil the appearance of the tower (although the design was not yet finalised). Others, she thought, favoured an alternative idea that had begun to circulate, that of a social centre in the village for returning servicemen: ‘wouldn’t that be a practical tribute, for it would be for those who came back to enjoy.’ (This predisposition towards ‘useful’ memorials was widespread in England at this point.) However, she stressed that it would be ‘such a pity to have any strong divergence of ideas over anything as sacred as a War Memorial’ and invited Chatfield and his wife to take tea.

Despite these early signs of trouble, Chatfield was undeterred. In March, on Bell’s advice, the idea went before the Sussex Churches Arts Council, a body unique to the diocese and set up by Bell to advise churches on new works of art. The Council approved the idea in principle, but suggested modifications to the design, sketched by F.C. Eeles, a member of the Council, but also secretary of the national Central Council for the Care of Churches. A revised design then went in October to the Diocesan Advisory Committee, the body with the legal responsibility for regulating alterations to churches, which recommended that it be approved.

The clock in Bosham church tower.
Image: Peter Webster (2007)

In the meantime, an alternative memorial scheme was being put in place, following a further public meeting in May. An appeal was instituted in July to fund (in this order): the addition of the names of the war dead to the existing village memorial (a very common practice); the reconditioning of a play area nearby, and to raise £2500 for a new village social club. The manifesto document of the fund still at this stage stressed its non-denominational character; there was no wish to cut across memorials that the churches in the village might wish to make themselves.

In February 1947, the statutory invitation for objections to the granting of the faculty seems to have been the trigger that turned a smouldering local dispute into a full-scale fire. The argument was made that the church was a Saxon one (which was correct, in part) and as such any addition to it would be too incongruous; one correspondent thought it a ‘desecration’. Chatfield responded that, although the church was indeed very old, the cladding on the tower in fact dated from the nineteenth century. Even if that had not been the case, ‘if your Norman and Early English Church builders had all declared Bosham Church unique and added nothing for us today – I’m afraid there would be very little for us to be proud of – do please try to see things ahead – it is only fair to the future generation.’

Others suggested that, whatever form it took, ‘a war memorial should have the general approval and support of the parish as a whole and not be a source of dissension thereto’. Several hundred names that had by now been added to a petition against the clock. Chatfield, however, believed them to be mostly those of day-trippers and of the growing number of temporary holiday residents in the village. Were the wardens and PCC to be overridden in parochial affairs, he asked, by outsiders who ‘merely indulge themselves in occasional residence at Bosham for any purpose other than that for which a church was built and continues to exist?’ Implicitly implicated in this was Rupert Guinness, the second earl Iveagh, lord of the manor, who was listed among the principal objectors. Iveagh’s father, the industrialist Edward Guinness, had been created the first earl in 1919 and bought the lordship at some point after that. The family seat was in Norfolk; the second earl himself was resident near Woking, some fifty miles away.

These particular arguments of principle were given a particular intensity by the presence on both sides of those who had been bereaved. Chatfield received several letters from the bereaved, both in favour and against. Chatfield wrote to Iveagh with a list of 33 names of the bereaved who were supporting the scheme, urging him to drop his ‘wholly inadequate, also extremely inconsiderate’ objections. ‘To proceed with any proposal’ Iveagh replied ‘in the face of strong opposition from so many, including those, like myself, are among the bereaved, introduces an element of discord, wholly at variance with what should be our feelings in regard to a memorial. While the present generation lasts, it would emphasize discord, when a memorial should be an expression of unity of purpose.’ The plaque in the church bears the name ‘Elveden’: Iveagh’s son Arthur, viscount Elveden, killed while part of an anti-tank regiment at Nijmegen in the Netherlands in February 1945.

The stone in the churchyard below the clock face. The text reads;
‘I ring for you the passing hours
Dweller and stranger on your way
I ring remembrance for the men
Who died to win your liberty
And though the warriors’ sun be set
Its radiance lingers with us yet
Turn here to prayer before you go

If this had been the extent of the dispute, it may well be regarded as merely an unusually bitter local disagreement; the issues of principle involved were repeated in other places. It was however further complicated by the intrusion of influential national opinion. Resident in the manor house next to the church was the architect Grey Wornum, and it was apparently at Wornum’s instigation that a letter was sent to the Times, objecting to an ‘incongruous addition’. The letter suggested that the various watchdog bodies had been caught napping, and that the last line of defence was to dissuade the diocesan Chancellor, Kenneth Mead McMorran, from granting the faculty. ‘Time is short, and if this last defence is to be effective it is desirable that public opinion should reinforce local opinion. To that end, Sir, we address you and your influential readers.’

Wornum had been assiduous in gathering signatories; as well as Iveagh, the list included the prominent architects A.E. Richardson, Charles Holden and W.H. Ansell (the latter a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects). Another signatory, the architect Lionel Pearson, had designed the memorial for the Royal Artillery at Hyde Park Corner. Also on the list were Sir Alfred Munnings, President of the Royal Academy; the Slade professor of fine art at UCL, Randolph Schwabe, and the former director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Sir Sydney Cockerell. The letter was followed by several others in support, expressing the hope that ‘the opposition to the scheme may be overwhelming, and that we shall hear no more of it.’

The effect of this pressure was felt in Bosham. One of Chatfield’s most vocal correspondents despaired of the fact that the vicar would not accept the judgment of such a group of ‘eminent signatories’ as those of the Times letter. It wasn’t only Chatfield who was to feel the pressure; enquiries were made to the Diocesan Advisory Committee by Walter Godfrey, of the National Monuments Record. The secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings also made an enquiry to the chancellor’s office, but was warned that the matter was sub judice. Undeterred, the Society’s chairman, Viscount Esher wrote directly to Macmorran, strongly deprecating the proposal, and was instructed again that the matter could not be discussed.

So it was that George Bell’s chancellor was caught in a near-perfect storm. The village locally had been divided over the appropriate form of memorial, and of the proper relation of beauty and utility; in play was the issue of the right relation between a church, its parishioners and an historic building; all this was mixed with a liberal portion of local grief. As Macmorran made clear in his judgement, he had in addition been caught between a correctly administered process of deliberation by experts within the diocese on the one hand, and the precipitous intervention of national bodies on the other; a case in which different parts of the ‘establishment’ were in disagreement. He was to rule, in June 1947, in favour of the former, and against those, like Esher, who ‘ought to have known better’ than to try to pressurise him.

Bosham at low tide.
Image by ianpudsey (CC BY 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Few in the village now know of the story of the ‘Battle of Bosham Clock’, and it seems that memories of the dispute faded relatively quickly. Only three years later, in 1950, Grey Wornum was also to lose a child: his daughter, Jenefer, who had lived at the manor, drowned in the sea off the Australian coast at the age of 23. It would seem that he made his peace with the church enough to design a set of gates in her memory, described in a nearby tablet as his last work before his death in 1957. And so the clock, weathered now as its designer had anticipated, still looks out at the tide as it rises and falls in Bosham Channel.

The papers relating to the consistory court case may be consulted at West Sussex Record Office in Chichester. To learn more about the national involvement of the Church of England in war memorials after 1945, see this article from 2008 on war memorials, bombed churches and the Church of England, 1940-7.

Pioneers of Modern Spirituality: a review

[A review first published by Fulcrum in November 2018]

Jane Shaw
Pioneers of Modern Spirituality. The neglected Anglican innovators of a “spiritual but not religious” age
Darton, Longman and Todd, 2018. Further details

What is the church’s past for? How far might it hold examples for today’s Christians, and how easily are those examples translated into our present context? This intriguing book, by the principal of Harris Manchester College, Oxford and a former cathedral dean, is one answer. Based on the Sarum Lectures for 2017, in its brief compass it demonstrates both the potential and the limitations of church history as a resource for the present church.

Jane Shaw’s aim is to show that in the early twentieth century there were Anglican figures whose life and work might be a resource now in reaching those who might think of themselves as spiritual but not religious. Before moving to Oxford earlier this year, Shaw ministered for several years in California, and she rightly notes a similarity in Anglican missional strategy on both sides of the Atlantic. Mission is too often concentrated on deepening the faith of those who are already in some way engaged with the church, she argues, to the neglect of those who are not. Are there resources within historic Anglicanism that might help engage those who might never otherwise consider crossing the threshold of a church?

Among these seekers, she argues, the things that are sought are: an engagement with the beautiful as something that points beyond the self; ways of dealing with the hyperactivity and over-connectedness of daily life; a sense of community; agency in building a juster society, and a seriousness about fundamental questions of human life. All these the tradition can provide, if only these seekers can find pathways into it.

Shaw focusses on four Anglican figures of comparable ages, all active either or both before and after the First World War, some of whom are reasonably well known, others not at all. Rarely, if ever, have they been juxtaposed in this way. The book is pithy and engagingly written and has the cardinal virtue of sending the reader back to the texts themselves, to which end there is a useful guide to further reading.

It opens with Evelyn Underhill, perhaps the most important English writer on mysticism of her generation, whose most significant books were written during a very wide-ranging intellectual journey which only later ended in Christian conviction. As both author and as a leader of retreats at a time when few women did so, Underhill stressed that spiritual experience was not the preserve of elite practitioners but could be open to all. Crucially, her practice was to allow those under her direction to use prayer and meditation on the truths that they could understand and accept as a pathway towards those doctrines which seemed more difficult. Demanding but forgiving, practical and gentle, Underhill’s example offers much of value.

More exacting was the spiritual direction of Reginald Somerset Ward, who left parish ministry to work as a ‘freelance’ spiritual director for over forty years, counting bishops and archbishops among his several hundred directees. In Ward’s stress on the importance of a regular rule of life in which prayer is the first rather than the last priority – a discipline of time and attention – Shaw finds a possible means to manage the demands of modern life. That many will find their way into the full rigour of Ward’s practice is harder to imagine.

Third among Shaw’s subjects is Percy Dearmer, and his work in the renewal of Anglican worship. Through his writings, not least The Parson’s Handbook, and through the model of St Mary Primrose Hill in London, Dearmer promoted an art of public worship (the title of another of his books) that demanded the best in all its aspects: its music, its words and its movements, its architectural and decorative setting. Shaw focusses rightly on Dearmer’s theology of beauty as articulated in Art and Religion (1924), and notes contemporary experience in San Francisco and elsewhere of the response of seekers to the arts in church settings.

This ‘high’ theology of beauty as sacrament was taken up by others, notably Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester, but not all parishes can hope that their building and their music may be beautiful (supposing for a moment that we could agree on what was beautiful in the first place). However, I would argue that Dearmer’s thought and practice also points towards a more achievable aspiration that is no less useful and likely to be as attractive in a different way: that the way in which public worship is conducted is a demonstration that it is important, that attention has been paid to it, that time and effort have been expended on it, as a means of pointing to the One to whom it is all directed.

The final chapter is on the novelist Rose Macaulay. After a conventional church upbringing, Macaulay spent nearly three decades out of contact with the church as a member, only returning to faith at the age of 69. However, she continued to draw on what she called ‘spiritual capital’, describing herself as an ‘Anglo-agnostic’ who (had it come to it) might have been an ‘Anglo-atheist’. This identification was a matter of ‘taste and affection’ but also in her ‘blood and bones’. Art, music, architecture, liturgy, the company and conversation of Christian friends (many of them clergy); all these remained sources of delight and meaning throughout. It is the existence of this spiritual capital in the British upper and middle classes that allowed Underhill, Dearmer and Ward to operate, and arguably this chapter might have been better placed first in order to frame the argument. But it is telling that Macaulay features little in Shaw’s conclusion, since we surely now face a different situation, in which that spiritual capital is not there to be drawn upon, but must be invested afresh.

Specialist historians may well be left with questions that Shaw raises, but which (quite understandably in a book of this size) it is not her aim to pursue. Shaw is quite right to draw attention to a critique of ‘institutionalism’ voiced by Underhill and Dearmer, but there is work to do yet to establish how widespread this understanding was. As well as that, I would question how far this impatience with certain aspects of the way in which churches operate can be equated with the self-conscious identification as being of ‘no religion’ that characterises our current situation. The conditions are now quite different, and to project them back risks distorting our sense of the inter-war period.

Shaw also perhaps overplays how marginal some of her subjects were. Underhill and Macaulay clearly were, but Percy Dearmer, while not holding an appointment within the Church after leaving Primrose Hill (to his discomfort), was still a widely read author, an academic in a university setting in which ordinands were trained (King’s College, London) and eventually a canon of Westminster. Somerset Ward was certainly not well known in public, but the array of the great and the good who gathered for his memorial service surely demonstrates that he was far from marginal.

More generally, the book is marred by a great many small mistakes – personal, organisation and place names misspelled, titles of books given incorrectly – which could have easily been ironed out and are a distraction. This is a shame, as Jane Shaw has brought four neglected figures to our attention again in a fresh and fertile way. This book deserves to be widely read.

The contemporary religious history of the Web: themes, prospects and pitfalls

A paper I gave on 9 October to the Digital History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London.

Abstract: The emerging discipline of Web history is at a point of inflection. Over nearly ten years, a small but worldwide community of scholars has been grappling with the methodological questions raised by the Web, and the archived Web in particular, as scholarly sources. (Some of this exploration has been aired in this seminar in previous years.) At the same time, the continuously moving frontier that marks the further extent of the interest of contemporary historians has now reached the 1990s, the period during which the Web begins to take its place as a truly revolutionary medium of communication. This paper sets out to connect the preoccupations of contemporary religious history with the developing area of Web history, and to suggest an agenda for the near future of the contemporary religious history of the Web.

My slides are available at

Chagall in Chichester

[It is forty years this month since the unveiling of a stained glass window in Chichester cathedral, designed by Marc Chagall. This edited extract from my book on Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester, who commissioned it, tells the story of its making.]

Hussey had begun to think more or less immediately, on his arrival at Chichester in 1955, of new stained glass for the cathedral. However, it was only after his retirement in 1977 that he achieved his goal, in between which he had commissioned work from Graham Sutherland, John Piper and many others.

The Chagall window is located in a curiously obscure area of the building. Geoffrey Clarke’s pulpit in aluminium faces out into the nave; Sutherland’s Noli me tangere is visible from the full length of the south aisle; the colours of Piper’s tapestry frame the high altar, the focus of the central liturgical work of the cathedral, and are visible from the west end. By contrast, the Chagall window is tucked away in the wall of the north quire aisle, and so the visitor to the cathedral must venture deep into the building to find it. As Robert Holtby, Hussey’s successor as dean, noted in his sermon at the service of dedication, it is also all but invisible from the outside. Inside, it is the frame or backdrop to no liturgical action, being connected to none of the chapels and their altars. As such, of all the artistic work in the building, it is most like a painting in a gallery: an object for personal viewing and contemplation, not a companion to the collective action of the congregation as the Body of Christ as it worships.

The Chagall window in Chichester cathedral

In one sense, this more detached position suits the work itself, a work of art in a church on the theme of the arts in the Church. The theme of the 150th psalm was suggested by Hussey, the common property of Hussey and of Chagall the Jew. But the subtitle – ‘The arts to the glory of God’ – suggests that the project was also a gloss on Hussey’s life’s work, which took on a valedictory quality as retirement approached. ‘True artists of all sorts, as creators of some of the most worthwhile of man’s work, are well adapted to express man’s worship of God’ he wrote to Chagall. ‘I can imagine a window showing a variety of these artistic activities all caught up in a great act of worship – Psalm 150….. it has been the great enthusiasm of my life and work to commission for the Church the very best artists I could, in painting, in sculpture, in architecture, in music and in literature.’

In the early 1950s, Chagall, after decades in Russia, Germany, France and the USA, had returned to France where he would stay for the rest of his life. This late period in the artist’s work, which was to extend for three decades, was marked both by a return to the Biblical subjects of Chagall’s Russian childhood, and a move into new media: in particular, stained glass. In 1959 he received his first commission for new glass for a church building: the cathedral at Metz. Several other such commissions were to follow; particularly notable were the twelve windows for the synagogue of the medical centre at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, completed in 1961. These windows formed the basis of a record-breaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, preceded by a similar show at the Louvre in the summer of 1961.

Hussey visited Paris to see the Louvre exhibition, and was impressed by Chagall’s handling of colour. This impression was shared by ‘sensitive and expert friends’, one of which may well have been John Piper, who had been impressed by the only other Chagall windows in an English church, at Tudeley in Kent. The other such friend may have been Robert Potter, cathedral architect, since it was Hussey who had recommended Potter as architect to Lady d’Avigdor Goldschmid, in the memory of whose daughter the Tudeley windows were made.

Others were less sure. In 1970, Hussey sought the advice of Edwin Mullins, art critic of the Sunday Telegraph, who thought rather too much attention was being paid to both Piper and Chagall and suggested several other names, including Ceri Richards, Patrick Heron, Bridget Riley and Richard Smith. But by this time, Hussey had approached Chagall; by October 1969, he understood that Chagall was considering the idea seriously with his maker of all his glass, Charles Marq, after a visit to Chichester, possibly in connection with the unveiling of the first Tudeley glass in 1967.

Hussey was accustomed to waiting for his schemes to come to fruition, but the six-year silence that then ensued must have tried even his patience. In 1975, he wrote again, stressing that time was now short, as he was to retire in 1977. Marq and his wife Brigitte then came to Chichester in April 1976, met with cathedral staff and inspected the site. Chagall was fit and active, and his wife was keen for him to take on the commission, but there would be a further delay. Chagall, it turned out, was having difficulty getting started; would Hussey go to see him?

Hussey described his difficulties in getting to France in December 1976, and in finding the Chagall’s home: a sorry tale of flight delays, linguistic incomprehension and wrong directions on a rainy night. Once there, he and Chagall conversed over a full-size drawing of the window, with Madame Chagall interpreting, and in the company of the Marqs. Chagall asked how Hussey imagined the window; Hussey ventured the idea of an array of figures representing the various arts, arranged around a central figure. It should also have the ‘rich and luscious colours’ that Hussey had been so impressed by in the Louvre. Chagall seemed to like the idea, and indeed the final design was along these lines.

This meeting seems to have released Chagall’s thinking, and the sketches were begun in January, and a maquette had been made by March. Marq sent a colour photograph of the maquette, stating that the glass work could not be finished until the summer, and possibly rather later, as a particular kind of red glass was only produced by the manufacturers at St Just twice a year. Now clear that the window would not be installed before he retired, Hussey resolved to move the matter as far on as it could be. The design was accepted by the cathedral chapter on the basis of the photograph, apparently without dissent. Both Potter and the Clerk of the Works, Eric Brooks approved the design: ‘happiness and satisfaction all round’. Even then, the window was not to be installed for over a year; it was unveiled by the Duchess of Kent in October 1978.

One critic has described the Chagall window as Hussey’s ‘crowning achievement’, which ‘immeasurably enriched the Cathedral’. Kenneth Clark thought it a ‘triumph’. How significant is the Chagall window in the history of patronage and of religious art in England? On the one hand, it is one of only two Chagall works in English churches, and the only one in a cathedral. On the other, the twelve window scheme at Tudeley is on a much larger scale, and was commissioned earlier (although the whole sequence unfolded over several years, between 1967 and 1985). Neither was particularly early in Chagall’s work in glass.

The Chagall commission shows the limits of Hussey’s engagement with the very contemporary in art as he had grown older. The commissions of Henry Moore and Sutherland at Northampton were of relatively unknown young artists by a young provincial priest, which provoked scandalised reactions amongst press and public. The Chagall commission is by one old man of an even older man, who was still producing fine work, but who had long since ceased to be in critical favour. The window provoked no particularly adverse reaction: there was little to fear from Chagall in 1978.

Chagall was also now a very expensive man to hire; the eventual cost of the commission was in excess of £20,000, not including fees and expenses for Chagall and Marq. For previous commissions, Hussey had been supported financially by either a collecting box, as at Northampton, or by the private funds of a donor connected with the church (as with Moore at Northampton, and Cecil Collins at Chichester). The Friends of the cathedral had also funded the Sutherland painting, copes from Ceri Richards, and the Piper tapestry. In the case of Chagall, Hussey had assured the Chapter that he would not be calling on Chapter funds. Not only that, but he had also undertaken not to approach any Chichester people who had not yet contributed to the restoration appeal for the cathedral fabric, or any trusts and charities that might support it. Hussey was thus obliged to seek the aid of trusts that specialised in art, with or without any particular connection with the churches. The target was met, with a significant contribution from Hussey himself (£4,000), as well as public funds from the Arts Council. In this, Hussey moved some way from his earlier model of funding, in which a local church community commissioned a work of art and covered the costs in its own strength. Both models of patronage have survived him.

The Devil’s music: a review

[A review published in July in Reviews in History.]

The Devil’s Music. How Christians inspired, condemned, and embraced rock ‘n’ roll
Randall J. Stephens
Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780674980846

When viewed in a long perspective, the modern history of popular music has very often been one in which new styles are adopted by the young in spite of (and indeed because of) the incomprehension and disapproval of their elders, only to enter the mainstream as those young people age. At the same time, Christians, when confronted with the arts of the societies in which they find themselves, have variously ignored, embraced, adapted and tried to replace or eradicate those arts both in worship and in public. It is in these two ongoing stories (in their American variant) that Randall J. Stephens makes a timely and important intervention. It will be required reading for students of modern American cultural history, but specialists in the religious history of other countries will also find much of value in it, as will the growing number of theologians and musicians concerned with the relationship between the churches and the arts. No serious academic library will want to be without it, and since it is generously produced and sensibly priced, it should find a wide readership outside the academy amongst Christians and ageing rock fans alike.

Stephens’ argument is relatively easily summarised, although the introduction to the book does not do so adequately. Chapter one shows the close linking between the early development of rock and roll and the music of the Pentecostal churches, such that (although some Christian critics did not care to admit it), the stylistic differences between music inside and outside some churches were small, even if the lyrics were very different indeed. Striking here is the relationship between the Pentecostal televangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, his cousin, but similar debts of influence were owed by James Brown, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and indeed Elvis himself. Stephens’ exploration of the agonies of conscience that some suffered as a result of the disapproval of their own churches is vivid and convincing.

Chapter two describes a short but intense period of concern, not to say panic, over the dangers of rock and roll in the years before 1958, followed by a period of relative calm as several of the stars either died or were kept out of trouble in the armed forces. Stephens evokes the cluster of interrelated concerns in play: of the impact of ‘savage’ music (the possession of a subjugated culture) on white America; a more general anxiety about the young in an increasingly affluent and consumerist context, and their apparent slipping out of the control of their elders; there are overtones too of the fear of Communist infiltration. This is all deftly done, but it would have been useful to examine more closely the degree to which these concerns were distinctively religious (or, the prerogative of religious people), as opposed to those of a particular race, class and generation. After this period of calm, chapter three then shows the remarkable storm of dispute with which the Beatles were met after John Lennon’s famous comment to the London Evening Standard in 1966 that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus now’. Though Stephens is not quite right in saying that the comments made little impression among British Christians, the protests were of a quite different order in the USA: radio stations ceased playing their records, death threats were made, and effigies of the band burned in Dixie.

Chapter four and five, taken together, deal with the central paradox of the story: from the late 1960s onwards, how did part of the evangelical constituency come to see that these forms of popular music were not passing phenomena and as such were to be reckoned with, and perhaps used, rather than simply rejected? Stephens is vivid on the interconnection between the new ‘Jesus rock’ and an ongoing Christian negotiation with the wider counter-culture of the period, as Billy Graham, previously an opponent, grasped the need for a different approach to the extent that for a time he wore his hair long. For proponents of Christian rock then and since, it was possible to adopt an artistic form while changing its content; medium and message were separable. At this point Stephens’ book intersects with other recent work on the subject, notably that of David W. Stowe, and it appears at almost the same time as a new biography of the Christian musician Larry Norman, by Gregory Alan Thornbury.

Chapter five documents the backlash amongst other Christians, which Stephens calls the ‘fundamentalist reaction’. For these preachers and moralists, the proponents of Christian rock were variously too effeminate, too emotional, their stage acts too sexualised, and too closely associated with the charismatic movement. More often, though, the issue at stake was one of genre: rock, because of the associations it carried, could never be turned to a positive use and had to be shunned. Nonetheless, as Stephens’ story ends in the years after the millennium, Christian rock had become ubiquitous in American churches of an evangelical kind, with the remaining redoubts against it becoming fewer, and crossover artists had achieved mainstream recording and touring success.

All of this is wholly convincing as a characterisation of the period and as a chronology. This reviewer would wish, however, to make some criticisms on grounds of method and analysis, not so much to contradict the argument as to draw out and make explicit some things that are latent in it but which Stephens does not spell out.

Stephens’ method is documentary rather than narrowly analytical, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Having unearthed a vast, teeming field of Christian voices arguing about rock and roll, Stephens’ evocation of this cacophony is brilliant; his ear for the cadences of the preacher and the moralist is acute, and his ventriloquising of their concerns rings true throughout. Just occasionally the style becomes overripe, however; preachers ‘thunder’ and ‘howl’ in ‘raging fires’ of controversy but rarely just speak; guitars blast and drums thump but rarely do musicians just play or sing. In short bursts, the heightened register that Stephens adopts is vivid and evocative; over the length of a whole book it becomes somewhat wearing. It is also the case that quite often the argumentative thread is lost amongst the clamour of voices, and there is a tendency to repetition, as the same themes recur again and again; we hear about the length of Billy Graham’s hair at least four times.

Some of the impression of repetition could have been avoided had Stephens included a more precise analytical framework in which to work, into which his narrative could have fitted well. The first such structure that is missing is a musicological one. The music here is ‘driving’, ‘revved-up’, ‘blasting’ or (in the case of the Christian metal band Stryper) ‘schlocky’, but to really apprehend what is at stake this reader at least needed a clearer sense of genre, instrumentation, performance practice, melodic and harmonic structure and so on. To borrow a quotation often attributed to Elvis Costello amongst others, writing about music is like dancing about architecture: exceptionally difficult to do well, but here the reader needed more nonetheless. As it is, readers without Stephens’ prodigious knowledge of this music are left with a great deal of work to do.

Stryper in concert, 1986, promoting their album To Hell with the Devil
Image via Wikimedia Commons: By Rafael Faria, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The second area in which the book would have benefitted from a clearer analytical framework is in the definition of different strands of Christian opinion. There are here pentecostal voices, Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics: denominational divisions that are reasonably robust as analytical categories. But Stephens never quite defines the differences between those who are ‘evangelical’, ‘fundamentalist’ and merely ‘conservative’. The term ‘fundamentalist’ is particularly difficult to define, and Stephens only meets the task head on in chapter six. ‘Fundamentalism’ has often been defined in strictly doctrinal terms, particularly concerning the authority of the Bible; the virgin birth, nature and eventual return of Christ; and the doctrine of the atonement. Defined in this way, several of those within the Christian rock movement appeared very ‘fundamentalist’ in their views of the Bible and on the issues that tended to trouble those with a conservative view of Biblical authority, such as gender, sexuality, and creationism. Stephens instead defines fundamentalism in terms of a determination to separate the faithful from the culture around them. This is clearly what is happening amongst some Christians during the period, but even if such cultural separatism was a marker of those Christians who were ‘fundamentalist’ in doctrine, it is not at all clear that they were the only Christians who took such a view of culture. On its own, cultural separatism seems insufficient as a definition of the term.

And it is the theologies of culture in play here, the guiding principles that underlie the rhetoric, that are often submerged in Stephens’ account and that most needed to be named and analysed. From time to time they briefly break the surface only for the reader to be swept downstream in the chronological and rhetorical flow. Christians have historically taken the arts seriously for two main reasons. The incarnational sense that all human creative endeavour was a sharing in the creative work of God was the key element in the Catholic recovery of the modern arts in the 20th century. Stephens notes in several places the pervasive sense amongst secular critics that Christian rock was more often than not mediocre, a poorly executed example of an art form. This ( at least in the British context) was also the objection raised by Christian critics of ‘church pop’ in the 1950s and 1960s; if there were Christian voices in the USA making the same point, it would have added to the narrative to hear more of them.

However, this incarnational understanding of the arts has historically been a minor theme at best in evangelical thought, with many being prepared to embrace bad taste in the service of the gospel. Evangelicals have been more interested in how the arts can be made to communicate a message, and (correspondingly) most exercised by the particular dangers posed if the arts were made to carry the wrong kind of message. The phenomenon of Jesus rock, far from being an anomaly, is part of a long tradition of evangelical efforts to adopt an artistic style for use in worship and/or evangelism while rendering it safe by supplying appropriate words, performed by those whose personal lives met the required moral standard. The insistence that a certain style of music – a certain arrangement of sounds in time, produced by a certain combination of instruments – could never be sanctified; that an element in God’s creation could never be redeemed for His use, is only one of the several theological options available to evangelical Christians, and has been the option least often chosen in evangelical history at large. All this is implied in Stephens’ account but only comes into focus in chapter six; it would perhaps have added to the impact had it been placed front and centre, earlier in the book.

To reiterate, none of these criticisms is fundamental to Stephens’ argument, and to adopt a more analytical structure and style may have lessened the significant media attention which the book is attracting at the time of writing, which it deserves. That said, although The Devil’s Music is a timely and important book, it leaves the reader with some work to do.

[See also Randall Stephens’ response.]