My research is, in some ways, a continuation of work I undertook for my masters degree. This focused on the impact of the highly controversial Education Act 1902 on Hampshire, where I have lived since 2001. Noting the involvement of a number of leading Congregationalists in the opposition to the legislation within the county, I wanted to discover more about the denomination to which they belonged. To this end, I have sought to locate Congregationalists within the ecclesiastical landscape of Edwardian Hampshire; establish the characteristics of the members and leaders, both clerical and lay, of Congregational churches; and reveal the substance of the discourses which can be said to have defined Edwardian Congregationalism. In pursuing these goals, I have made extensive use of statistical data; church records and, in particular, local newspapers. At the time, the press gave considerable coverage to religious affairs, in general, and Congregationalism, in particular.
The picture which has emerged confirms that leading Congregationalists played key roles in the economic, social and political, as well as religious, life of their communities. From what they had to say about Congregational identity, doctrine and relations with the wider world it has been possible to gain insights into their priorities and concerns. Theirs was a resilient faith which, in seeking to meet the challenges arising from a more perplexing social and cultural milieu, blended a traditional evangelicalism with a well developed social conscience. Such a finding calls into question the suitability of constructs, such as ‘faith society’ and ‘faith in crisis’, which church historians have used to characterise the religious climate of the years leading up to the First World War. However, in constructing a more nuanced narrative, it has also been necessary to take account of one subject on which Congregationalists were, in the main, silent, gender relations, and of an emergent tension between optimistic and pessimistic interpretations of contemporary developments.