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Religion, health and welfare since 1750

October 14, 2013

Workshop report – by Janet Greenlees

The role of religion and religious groups in the provision of health and welfare services has had considerable attention from historians covering the early modern period into the 19th century, but this has not been the case for the 20th century. To remedy this, a two-day workshop exploring the relationships between religion, health and welfare since 1750 was hosted by the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare in Glasgow in October 2012. Participants included historians, sociologists and social policy experts from universities and organisations in the UK, Ireland and Germany.

The Deaf and Dumb Institution, Glasgow, 19th century. Wellcome Library

The Deaf and Dumb Institution, Glasgow, 19th century. Wellcome Library

The workshop drew attention to some key themes surrounding the continuities and disjuncture in religion’s influence on health and welfare services to the present day: relationships between religion and biomedicine; changing power relationships between religious groups, medicine and the state; shifting understandings and constructions of difference and associate moral relationships; and the strength of religious culture in shaping and understanding medicine.

The complex relationship between religion, healthcare and tradition in the care of children was addressed by three speakers. Iain Hutchison (University of Glasgow) revealed that although Glasgow’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children was founded in 1882 as a non- denominational institution, religious affiliation was assumed for hospital staff and hospital benefactors, as well as the child patients and their families. Yet religious practice within the hospital was driven more by ingrained cultural traditions than by doctrine. Mary Clare Martin (University of Greenwich) provided a parallel of children’s hospitals where religious education was incorporated into the healthcare provision with evangelical aims. Daniel Grey (University of Oxford) explored the religious complexities surrounding Hindu gender roles and infanticide in late-19th-century India, highlighting similarities with English newborn murder trials – even though the outcomes differed in line with the different cultural understandings of gender roles, sexual morality and the nature of ‘deviance’.

Closely allied with religious traditions and healthcare are religious understandings or constructions of difference, such as class, disability and social exclusion, and the associated power constructions. Several papers addressed these intricate relationships. My own revealed how the Church of Scotland’s provision and expansion of health and welfare services during the 20th century gradually distanced it from its membership and made it the state religion’s official channel for approaching Scottish moral anxieties about the erosion of community and family values. Seán Lucey (Queen’s University Belfast) examined the relationship between rate-funded relief schemes and voluntary ones in Ireland during the break-up of the Irish Poor Law after Irish independence, highlighting the changing relationships between civil and religious authorities in both the formation of welfare policy and service provision.

On the theme of religious constructions of difference, Esme Cleall (University of Sheffield) highlighted the complex and sometimes contradictory framing and reframing of deafness by religious groups in Britain during the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century. Deaf people were objectified, with their identity constructed as an imagined religious otherness, often associated with immorality, while at the same time deaf missions provided the deaf community with a sense of identity and evangelical opportunities. Oonagh Walsh (Glasgow Caledonian University) compared state and voluntary care of intellectually disabled people in Ireland during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and how the two providers conceptualised their patients, with the religious institutions being more flexible with their definitions and perceptions than the state.

Missionary work and charity are integral parts of religious doctrine, with healthcare often constituting part of the evangelical mission. Yet associations between religion and biomedicine varied. Kathleen Vongsathorn (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berin) examined this relationship in the leprosy settlements in Uganda in the 1930s and 1940s, highlighting how without an effective biomedical treatment for leprosy, Uganda’s leprosy patients viewed the medical and religious treatment offerings as only part of an array of treatments available. What attracted patients to the missionary settlements was the welfare, education and material support they provided. Susannah Wright (Oxford Brookes University) emphasised the centrality of Christianity in Birmingham’s voluntary medical care for the poor in the decades surrounding 1900. Christianity suffused the aims, ethos and activities associated with medical and welfare work, as well as providing practical networks for financial and voluntary support. Helen Ross (Housing Options Scotland) explained how missionaries at the Glasgow City Mission were both patronising and practical, promoting healthcare and providing necessities for the poor, while also seeking to solve social problems with spiritual intervention.

Relationships between religious groups and the state have always been complex, and philanthropic bodies were able to interfere in families long before the state could. However, the creation of the NHS changed all this in Britain. Several papers highlighted the continuous influence of Christianity on the development of welfare policy in Britain. Leah Songhurst (University of Exeter) explained how Christian beliefs were both a help and a hindrance to the foundation of early voluntary child protection organisations like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and subsequent child protection practices, including state services. John Stewart (Glasgow Caledonian University) demonstrated the importance of Anglican social thought on the formation of the welfare state and its continuing influence on welfare policy, despite the declining membership of the Church of England. Linda Woodhead (University of Lancaster) furthered this debate by highlighting how the NHS was made possible because it took over many resources and services from religious bodies, mostly with their cooperation. Yet while healthcare has gradually secularised, since the 1970s spiritual forms of healing have been on the increase and the NHS has incorporated some of these into its services.

While many relationships between religion, health and welfare in the modern period remain to be explored, this workshop started to address some of these issues and furthered networks for future research. It was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Economic History Society, with administrative and funding arrangements ably handled by the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare’s Outreach/ Research Officer, Rhona Blincow.

Janet Greenlees is Deputy Director of the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare at Glasgow Caledonian University (


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