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A Mission to Reform Manners: Religion, Secularization, and Empire in Early Modern England


This dissertation looks at three voluntary societies formed in London shortly after the revolution of 1688. These societies, with overlapping membership, shared a broad vision for the improvement of manners and morals throughout the burgeoning British Empire. The Society for Reformation of Manners, founded in 1691, called for the enforcement of the civil laws against prostitution, swearing, drunkenness, gambling, and other moral crimes. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, founded in 1698, established schools and distributed books--forming some of the first public lending libraries--throughout England and its colonies. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, founded in 1701, sent missionaries abroad to convert, educate and civilize the European settlers, African slaves, and American Indians.

I show that in response to the uncertainties of the post-revolutionary period and the establishment of religious toleration in 1689, religiously motivated reformers advanced new ideas about the nature of society. They looked to shared manners, habits, customs and mores--rather than shared religious beliefs and practices--as the binding agents of society. Reformers described the benefits good manners brought individuals and communities; good manners, they said, were essential to a stable, commercial, tolerant society. Thus I show that some of the most religious people in this period spoke in secular terms. As the ideas and practices of religious toleration became more firmly rooted in English society, people turned to manners as the glue that held the community--or nation--together. This is the birth of a particular strand of social thinking.

This dissertations then follows the process by which ideas of religious diversity were transformed in the context of the colonies. The societies hoped to encourage better--and more uniform--manners and habits on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing all peoples of the empire under a common cultural denominator. In doing so, they created a new imperial ideology. An explication of the writings of these reformers, then, offers new insights into the making of secular culture in the Atlantic World and the origins of the Enlightenment in England.

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