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Christian Social Thought in Britain as a Reaction to the European Crises of the 1930s and 1940s

In this DFG-financed project, John Carter Wood researched the plans for a new social and political order that were developed within a mainly Anglican and Presbyterian intellectual group in the 1930s and 1940s in response to economic crises, totalitarianism and war. In this project, the “group” in question – consisting of two official church organisations (The Council on the Christian Faith and the Common Life and The Christian Frontier Council), a private discussion circle (The Moot), and a weekly (later bi-weekly) publication (The Christian News-Letter) – was retrospectively labelled “the Oldham group” after its main organiser, the missionary and ecumenical activist Joseph H. Oldham. In this form, the group was active between 1937 and 1949.

The ideas and activities of the Oldham group can be interpreted as a prime example of the relevance and complexity of the response of Christian thinkers to the social, cultural, and political upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century. Christian individuals and organisations contributed significantly to the debates about a new social order in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Oldham group in particular played a leading, high-profile role in such discussions. The group was closely connected to leading figures in the Protestant churches and took part in debates about the restructuring of post-war educational and social policy. Moreover, its arguments and ideas were taken note of and discussed in both the Christian and secular press.

The group’s aim was to renew western societies through a mixture of Christian principles and “modern” sociological knowledge: in short, to steer social and political developments toward a more “Christian society”.  The definition of a “Christian society” remained a vague and contested issue within the group; nonetheless, a broad consensus emerged with regard to many topics.

By examining the Oldham group’s ideas, their origins, and the efforts undertaken to promote them, this project builds upon established research fields on religion and the early twentieth century – e.g., Christian social thought or the social policy of the Anglican Church – and also contributes to the broader intellectual, cultural, and media history of the 1930s and 1940s.

The contributions of religious thinkers to the intellectual discourses of the 1930s and 1940s have hitherto been relatively ignored. This project helps to close this gap by applying the methods of cultural and intellectual history to the topic of Christian social thought and, in particular, by focusing on the interaction between theological and secular ideas.