In The Death of Christian Britain Callum Brown argues that contrary to the accepted narrative Christianity did not steadily decline in Britain as a result of urbanization and industrialization, but instead suddenly collapsed in the 1960s.
…women, rather than cities or social class, emerge as the principal source of explanation for the patterns of religiosity that were observable in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most importantly, two other things will emerge. First, women were the bulwark to popular support for organized Christianity between 1800 and 1963, and second it was they who broke their relationship to Christian piety in the 1960s and thereby caused secularization.
Brown traces the collapse to a two stage phenomenon. First, British Christianity morphed into a veneration of women, viewing them as “the angel in the house”, and the earthly source of Christian virtue. Brown found that British literature of the 1800s contained a consistent theme of coarse, rough, sinful men being eventually tamed and brought to God by naturally good women.
…women’s spiritual destiny was virtually never portrayed as a battle with temptation or real sin; fallen women did not appear as central characters, and none of the usual temptations like drink or gambling ever seemed to be an issue with them. The problem is the man, sometimes the father, but more commonly the boyfriend, fiancé, or husband, who is a drinker, a gambler, keeps the ‘bad company’ of ‘rough lads’ and is commonly a womanizer. The man is the agency of the virtuous woman’s downfall; he does not make her bad, but does make her suffer and poor. She is not always portrayed as having undergone a major conversion experience, but to have emerged from childhood into a disciplined and natural ‘goodness.’
Second, in the 1960s women in Britain lost interest in playing the role of angel in the house, and the entire structure suddenly collapsed.
Women had previously been the heart of family piety, the moral restraint upon men and children. By the mid 1960s, domestic ideology was assailed on many fronts, putting the cultural revolution in collision with not just the Christian churches but with Christianity as a whole. The loss of domestic ideology to youth culture from c. 1958 meant that piety ‘lost’ its discursive home within femininity. Its last redoubt, the ‘angel in the house’ to use an historians cliché, was now negotiable and challenged discursive terrain…
The discursive death of pious femininity destroyed the evangelical narrative.
Brown doesn’t draw this connection in the book, but it is obvious that the view of women as beacons of natural virtue itself comes from the British literary tradition of Courtly Love (chivalry). As C.S. Lewis explains in The Allegory of Love, Courtly Love teaches that men must look to women for moral guidance (emphasis mine):
The love which is to be the source of all that is beautiful in life and manners must be the reward freely given by the lady, and only our superiors can reward. But a wife is not a superior.81 As the wife of another, above all as the wife of a great lord, she may be queen of beauty and of love, the distributor of favours, the inspiration of all knightly virtues, and the bridle of ‘villany’;82 but as your own wife, for whom you have bargained with her father, she sinks at once from lady into mere woman. How can a woman, whose duty is to obey you, be the midons whose grace is the goal of all striving and whose displeasure is the restraining influence upon all uncourtly vices?
Courtly Love was created as a mockery of Christianity, but Christians were so tempted by the idea that eventually most Christians couldn’t distinguish between the two. This is certainly true in the US today. It shouldn’t be surprising that once the real deal had been replaced with an enticing substitute the stage was set for the whole facade to eventually come crashing down all at once. What isn’t clear is why the sudden collapse in Christian belief happened in Britain when it did, but not (yet?) in the US.