English Parliament Passes the Enabling Act of 1779

A Government Must Act Before Private, non-Profit Corporations May Exist

Carey was fortunate to write his proposal after the year 1779. By a providence, English Parliament past the Enabling Act in 1779, authorizing English citizens to organize public or private schools and associations. This meant the Church no longer had the power to say “no” to private initiatives. Prior to 1779, the Church of England had routinely suppressed the initiatives of English citizens who had ideas that were important to a few likeminded people. The reader must remember that a government must act to allow their citizens to organize voluntary societies. That is what happened in 1779. Parliament’s Enabling Act encouraged common people to start addressing problems that were important to them.

Robert Raikes and Mrs. Meredith Teaching Sunday School

Robert Raikes took advantage of the new law to organize a Sunday School in 1780 in his hometown of Gloucester. The Church disapproved, but to no avail. Raikes held his first classes in the kitchen of one Mrs. Meredith; no church was willing to open its doors to him. At first only boys were allowed to attend, but in time girls were invited to join as well. Today Robert Raikes is hailed as founder of the Sunday School movement, and indeed, so great is the assumption that the pastor must also staff Sunday School and that there must be classrooms for every grade, that the reader will be forgiven for assuming that the apostles themselves came up with the idea. “It is unlikely that anything like the Sunday school could have arisen without the legal sanction of the [1779] Enabling Act.”[1] In Raikes we see “the clear connection between a free society and the growth of independent religious organizations. Prior to 1779, “the philanthropy of Robert Raikes (or anyone else) would have been stifled by the laws of the country and the prejudice of those in ecclesiastical power.”[2] English citizens began forming themselves into “little platoons,” Edmund Burke’s clever term for voluntary societies. Members of these societies devoted themselves to certain causes (e.g. abolition of slavery, prison reform, temperance, Christian overseas missions). These “voluntary forms of operation,” M. J. D. Roberts wrote, “once accepted as ‘safe’ by civil and ecclesiastical authority, were accessible by any who had the will to adopt them.” Working class people were transformed into activists through the instrument of voluntary associations. English women organized moral reform societies, which “became the means by which women made a successful claim for recognition as legitimate participants in rational-critical debate.”[3] An Age of Reform had begun. We can be thankful that William Carey proposed his idea to organize the Baptist Mission Society after Parliament had passed the Enabling Act of 1779.

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[1] Wesley Kenneth Willmer, J. David Schmidt, and Martyn Smith, The Prospering Parachurch: Enlarging the Boundaries of God’s Work, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998). 37

[2] Ibid. 35

[3] M. J. D. Roberts, Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England, 1787-
1886, Cambridge Social and Cultural Histories (Cambridge University Press, 2004). 294