What Would Jesus Do? The “Occupation” of St Paul’s Cathedral, February 1887.

By Peter Yeandle, (University of Manchester)

On 15 October 2012, the anniversary of Occupy London, four women chained themselves together within St Paul’s Cathedral. Occupy, concerned to contest the malevolent association of politics and finance, targeted not the Cathedral but casino capitalism: a camp was only established at St Paul’s once private security guards had prevented access to the Stock Exchange. One of the most intriguing debates set in train, however, related to the relationship between the Cathedral itself and the Corporation of London. The question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ [hereafter WWJD] was posed to Cathedral authorities by protestors and subsequently dominated media accounts. Images such as those shown here were commonplace. WWJD was a question which the then Archbishop, Rowan Williams, claimed ‘triggered a sharp crisis of confidence for the Church’.

Figure One: Symon Hill, ‘Would Jesus kick the Occupy London protesters off St Paul’s grounds?’ Guardian, 20 October 2011

Figure Two:  Giles Fraser, ‘Occupy was right – all the church could say was “go home”’, Guardian, 14 October 2012

It is not my intention, here, to offer direct comment on contemporary affairs. A year is a long time in politics; so too is a year a long time in activism. What I’d like to do, instead, is tell the story of a previous occupation of the Cathedral, central to which was the WWJD question.

Radical preachers, secularists, and others, often used the cathedral steps as political platform. The ‘occupation’ of 27 February 1887, like 2011, was not planned per se, but resulted from a larger day of political action. The Occupation of 2011 was to last several months, the ‘parade’ of 1887 several hours; but ‘occupation’ is an appropriate descriptor. As will be explained, the campaigners of 1887 were made up from disparate groups in society with shared grievances and, crucially, protestors seized public space to demonstrate the deleterious relationship between corporate greed and public good. In 1887, as now, campaigners were equally concerned to offer a critique the perceived unchristian stance of the established Church.

In the run up to February 1887 (so several months before Bloody Sunday), the Social Democratic Federation had been agitating amongst the unemployed and oppressed. A protest march was organised which would culminate at St Paul’s. This deliberately aped Chartist practices of church processions and was timed to coincide with demonstrations by Free Speech Campaigners and the London Radicals Club. Protestors set off from six locations around the City: Paddington Green, Smithfield Market, St George’s Circus, Cleopatra’s Needle, Charterhouse orphanage and the corner of Whitechapel and Commercial Roads). Protestors were to be blessed. The priest, the Ven. Dr. Gifford, blessed the poor. However, rather than remind the Christian rich of their duties, Gifford instead preached that God made the world in such a way that poverty was inevitable; that there would be rich, and that there would be poor, and that the best the poor could do was accept their station and live godly lives. Needless to say, this prompted uproar. The number of demonstrators swelled to thousands: the Cathedral itself was occupied, and soon would be the courtyard and surrounding areas. Socialist hymns were sung, en masse. The whole of London’s police was despatched. In all, the occupation lasted less than a day. Police reports suggest the crowd remained peaceful throughout: the Pall Mall Gazette commented ‘it must be confessed that the great mass of those present behaved themselves in a way which was really decorous and eminently creditable’ (28 February 1887).

Banners unfurled in 2011 bore remarkable similarity to those carried by demonstrators in 1887. These included “Feed My Lambs”, a reference to John 21:15 and the notion that ‘my pastor’s sermons are not relevant to me’; “I was hungered and You Fed Me Not; Naked and Ye Clothed Me Not” (Matthew 25:42); “He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches, and he that giveth to the rich, shall surely come to want “(Proverbs 22:16); and, “My House is a House of Prayer, But Ye Have Made it a Den of Thieves” (Matthew 21.13). There was obvious references to rich men, camels and the eyes of needles, and to Jesus throwing the moneylenders from the temple; tropes common to media coverage of 2011. Other banners in 1887 were made up of hybrid statements of biblical quotation and contemporary comment: ‘the wages of sin is death, but the wages of the worker are slow starvation’; ‘the fruits of the church are for capitalist and landlord’ only. The Daily News described a crowd made up of ‘close cropped and uncombed labouring men’ occupying inside and the outside the Cathedral with ‘artisans, working women and homeless children from the districts’. The statue of Queen Anne ‘was enveloped in blood-red flags’. The Christian Socialist preacher, the Revd Thomas Hancock, addressed the crowd. His sermon from the steps, later published as ‘The Banner of Christ in the Hands of the Socialists’, argued that those in the crowd were the true disciples of a revolutionary Jesus.

Hancock was acting in the spirit of the Christian Socialist revival, which had seen a fusion of non-believing Socialists, Secularists and a vast assortment of Christian activists who would otherwise have been at theological loggerheads. There is insufficient space here to offer an in-depth analysis of the development of late-Victorian Christian Socialist activism (that will follow in an extended essay); nor does word limit allow me to tell the story of how such disparate groups could come to fight common cause (I have already offered some tentative thoughts in essays for Nineteenth Century Prose and the Ruskin Review and Bulletin). What I wish to highlight here is the late-Victorian revivification of Jesus as a revolutionary figure; as an historical actor who set precedents for emulation. The charge levelled at the Church was that, by not emulating the active Christ, they had become unchristian; they had abdicated their moral responsibility to the meek and had lost sight of gospel Christianity.

A few examples suffice to demonstrate that the language of social Christianity was acute. Hancock had delivered, and published, several sermons – the titles of which indicate a clear theological correlation between radical politics and religion: in addition to ‘The Banner of Christ’, Hancock’s sermons included ‘The Social-Democratic Pentecost [1884]’ and ‘The Worship of Mammon [1885]’. Other Christian Socialists were similar. Drawing from Ruskinian critiques of mid-century Anglican dogma and its resolute attachment to laissez-faire economics, a wide range of voices were heard proclaiming the need for specifically Christian economics. In Unto this Last (1860), Ruskin made explicit the central contradiction of Christianity and capitalism:

I know no previous instance in history of a nation establishing a systematic disobedience to the first principles of its professed religion. The writings which we (verbally) esteem as divine, not only denounce the love of money as the source of all evil, and as an idolatry abhorred by the Deity, but declare mammon service to be accurate and irreconcilable opposite of God’s service: and, whenever they speak of riches absolute, and poverty absolute, declare woe to the rich, and blessing to the poor. (Collected Works, 17: 75-6).

Three decades later, Christian Socialists preached his gospel. John Clifford, in his Fabian pamphlet Socialism and the Teaching of Christ (1898) celebrated that ‘those who have experienced that regeneration of the social consciousness in the Churches of Christ’ did so in followership of Ruskin’s words in Time and Tide. These are the words Clifford found to be particularly influential:

to call the confused wreck of social order and life brought about by malicious collision and competition an arrangement of Providence, is quite one of the most insolent and wicked ways in which it is possible to take the name of God in vain. (pp. 4-5).

Hence, when Ruskin argued – as he did in ‘The Work of Iron (1858) – that ‘The Bible hardly ever talks about neglect of the poor. It always talks of oppression of the poor – a very different matter’, (Collected Works, 16:398-9), Christian Socialists would later take his words as a rallying cry. The Reverend Wilfrid Richmond, High Church Anglican and founding member of the Church Socialist Union, drew heavily from Unto This Last in his Christian Economics (1888), a text intended to develop a ‘Political Economy which shall be a branch of morals’. In a clear nod to Ruskin, chapter headings included ‘Love’, ‘Justice’ and ‘Wealth’. According to the Revd Stewart Duckworth Headlam, Christ’s miracles ‘were all distinctly secular, socialistic works; works for health against disease, works restoring beauty and harmony and pleasure, where there had been ugliness and discord and misery; works taking care to see that people were properly fed …’ (Christian Socialism, 1892, p. 2). Headlam was founder of the Guild of St Matthew, a guild often called the epicentre of the Christian Socialist Revival. For Headlam, and others, Christ was ‘the Holy Carpenter’, the Book of Common Prayer a Socialist manual, Baptism the great ‘Sacrament of equality’. Modern political watchwords, ‘solidarity’, ‘brotherhood’, ‘co-operation’ and ‘socialism’ were all evident in the teachings and life of the Gospel Jesus.

I could offer many more examples of the discursive construction of an active Christ in Christian Socialist texts; moreover, Christian language was at work in the humanitarian socialism of non-believing socialists (consider the connotations in socialist use of words such as ‘goodwill’, ‘truth’, ‘justice’). The revivification of a performative Christ, recognisable for his actions, was thus used in the late nineteenth century to provoke a response from the Church; through putting forward a version of a revolutionary Jesus who put the physical and spiritual needs of the meek above the material and financial needs of the mighty, late-Victorian activists raised the WWJD question in a way which is familiar to us now.

The 1887 occupation of St Paul’s may not have lasted long, but socialist activists as diverse as Headlam, Tom Mann and John Burns acknowledged that their participation at St Paul’s in February 1887 taught them the need for solidarity, for common cause, and that the bond between church and finance needed continually to be challenged.


Despite the relatively peaceful nature of events in 1887, the Morning Post, foretelling the disingenuous response of some of the twenty-first century media, declined to comment on either the intellectual cause of the gathering or the moral legitimacy of arguments presented. Instead, it focused merely on the visual and superficial – on the alleged desecration of a holy place by ‘an execrable rabble’, an unruly ‘mob’, ‘the shameful face of London’. In stereotypical Victorian fashion, the problem of poverty and systemic disadvantage was to be dealt with through denying its form in human suffering and castigating those who would represent the most oppressed. We have not travelled so far as we think.


  1. Just one of the many intriguing similarities between the present day and the late 1880s!

    As it happens, on this day in 1887 (November 8) a proclamation was issued by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Charles Warren banning public meetings at Trafalgar Square. The protestors took up the challenge and the result was Bloody Sunday.

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