Women remaking religion in early twentieth-century Britain

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Women remaking religion in early twentieth-century Britain

Exploring the intersections of religion, gender and the modern era

by Kathryn Dickason on Thursday, May 26, 2016 - 9:23am

In 1994, for the first time since its establishment in the sixteenth century, the Church of England began to ordain women as priests. The office of priest, and later bishop, enabled outstanding women to become leaders of their religious communities. Nevertheless, prior to that, women forged their own leadership roles in a variety of ways.

According to Jane Shaw, dean for religious life and professor of religious studies at Stanford, in the first half of the twentieth century, British women founded a variety of religious movements that resided on the fringes of orthodox religious institutions. By creating alternative religions, Shaw argues, these women remade religion in early twentieth-century England. 

Shaw’s research offers a new picture of women and religion during the inter-war period. In the Victorian period, women had participated in the churches as Sunday school teachers and missionaries, in temperance movements and by serving the poor. But by the early twentieth century, some women were stepping outside the churches or at least to their edges, to pioneer new religious ideas and practices, and create their own religious movements. 

Becoming perfect

The Panacea Society, founded in 1919 by Mabel Barltrop, believed members could make themselves perfect, and that perfection would make them immortal. Followers believed that Barltrop, later known as Octavia, was the daughter of God and the key to immortal life.

The Panacea Society was located in Bedford, England, where members lived in the same houses and colonized a full block of the town. For them, Bedford was symbolic; they came to believe it was the original Garden of Eden. The Panacea Society, as Shaw explains, attracted men and women (including suffragettes) who had become disillusioned with the Church of England. Women belonging to the Panacea Society were especially active. They performed rites of healing, administered rituals and worked for the community printing press. But their striving after perfection and immortality meant that they were not interested in improving society, as other female religious leaders were, but rather in bypassing it to bring about the second coming of Jesus.

Shaw discovered the Panacea Society in 2001, and unearthed and catalogued the Panacea archive, which includes diverse writings, diaries and visual objects. Many of these materials are now displayed in the Panacea Museum in Bedford, an institution that Shaw was instrumental in creating. Her history of the Panacea Society was published in 2011: "Octavia, Daughter of God: the Story of a Female Messiah and her Followers" (Yale 2011). 

Maude Royden

Progressive religion

Shaw identifies another variety of women’s religious leadership in the Guildhouse. Founded by Maude Royden in 1920, the Guildhouse was a London-based community in which women were particularly present as activists, teachers and preachers. Moreover, the Guildhouse embraced liberal politics. Left wing politicians, artists and writers visited the community. 

The Guildhouse’s primary mission was to use religion to create a better world. Women’s roles helped recast post-war society in an optimistic light, as something that could be improved. Royden preached internationally, and even delivered a guest sermon at Stanford’s Memorial Church in 1928. Advertising this event, the “Stanford Daily” called Royden “one of England’s most remarkable women.”


A third religious movement Shaw explores is the Order of Silence, founded by Adela Curtis in 1910 in Cold Ash, Berkshire. For the Order of Silence, Shaw explains, spiritual development was connected to bodily health. Members of the community practiced meditation regularly, up to seven times per day, in addition to doing domestic chores. The Order’s ultimate goal was, through rigorous discipline, to re-make the self and become like Christ.

Cold AshShaw’s research elaborates on the Order of Silence’s austerity. Meditation, mysticism and vegetarianism were part of the community’s lifestyle. Physical labor constituted a form of worship. When not meditating, members engaged in agricultural and domestic chores. They tended their own land, and even kept silk worms so they could make their own clothes. The members’ rigorous lifestyle was aimed at achieving self-sufficiency.  

As all of these religious movements show, Shaw says, women gravitated toward a “mobile religiosity.” In seeking spirituality, women became attracted to eclectic religions. They sampled and followed what worked best for them. Shaw explains that such a “seeking spirituality” allowed women to go beyond the strict boundaries of orthodoxy and gain religious authority not just by reading the Bible but also by cultivating their own experiences.

Shaw concedes that, once the Church of England granted women better leadership roles, most of these religious movements disappeared. Women’s religious movements of early twentieth-century England, Shaw indicates, were period pieces that fulfilled the needs of their historical moment. However, in re-making religion, she concludes, “women were doing something that had not been done before.”

Jane Shaw
Dean for Religious Life and Professor of Religious Studies

Jane Shaw is Dean for Religious Life and Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University. She works on the history of modern Christianity, with a particular focus on Britain and the United States. Her books include Miracles in Enlightenment England (2006) and Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and her Followers (2011). Currently Shaw is a Faculty Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

kathryn dickason
Graduate Student, Department of Religious Studies

Kathryn Dickason is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Stanford University. She specializes in western medieval Christianity with a particular focus on embodiment, gender, performance, and dance. 

Kathryn is a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.