Movement to Reform Manners Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Society for the Reformation of Manners developed during a time when social problems were thought to come from idleness, irreligion, and immoral impulses. The organization believed that arrests, prosecutions, and convictions could eradicate bad behavior and reform society. Although the society served its goals, its methods led to a predictable backlash.

Summary of Event

Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, poverty and crime were becoming endemic in the greater London area, leading to outrageous corruption and a perceived breakdown in public order. London’s population had increased by 76 percent in forty years because of an influx of the impoverished Population growth;England . With few opportunities for subsistence, many of the poor resorted to vagrancy, begging, and prostitution, from the city of London to the West End. Bawdy houses, gambling houses, and so-called Molly houses (venues for homosexual activity, considered lewd at the time), were opening everywhere, while the streets seemed rampant with drunkenness, theft, blasphemy, and riotous behavior. Many feared that the ecclesiastical courts had abdicated their traditional role of upholding public morality. Many residents called for official action. Poverty;England [kw]Movement to Reform Manners (beginning 1690’) [kw]Manners, Movement to Reform (beginning 1690’) Social issues and reform;Beginning 1690’: Movement to Reform Manners[2970] Religion and theology;Beginning 1690’: Movement to Reform Manners[2970] Laws, acts, and legal history;Beginning 1690’: Movement to Reform Manners[2970] Cultural and intellectual history;Beginning 1690’: Movement to Reform Manners[2970] Organizations and institutions;Beginning 1690’: Movement to Reform Manners[2970] England;Beginning 1690’: Movement to Reform Manners[2970] Society for the Reformation of Manners Stillingfleet, Edward Woodward, Josiah Collier, Jeremy

Founding members of the Society for the Reformation of Manners (SRM), including Edward Stillingfleet Stillingfleet, Edward and Anthony Horneck, Horneck, Anthony believed that an individual was condemned to eternal damnation not only through sin and vice but also through failure to act against their spread, which were believed to resemble contagious diseases. God’s wrath could destroy the community, and Christian “soldiers” were needed to keep individuals in a state of moral and physical health, to keep the economy in financial and moral order, to move society into equilibrium, and to keep England safe from destruction and the machinations of Rome and the pope.

Justices initiated numerous arrests in 1689, after church officials of St. Martin’-in-the-Field petitioned the justices of Westminster for action against brothels. The SRM campaigns began soon after an October 30, 1690, pamphlet, A Proclamation for Apprehending Robbers on the Highway, was distributed, which described such criminals as “lewd, disorderly, and wicked persons.” The proclamation argued also that the elimination of prostitution would result in the elimination of related crimes. The SRM, with its roots in Puritanism Puritanism , formed with the meeting of a group of evangelical Christians at Tower Hamlets in the East End of London. They documented their program in Antimoixeia: Or, The Honest and Joynt Design of the Tower Hamblets for the General Supression of Bawdy Houses Antimoixeia (1691).

The movement gained royal sanction: In 1691, Queen Mary Mary II (queen of England)[Mary 02 (queen of England)];manners and II wrote to the justices of the peace of Middlesex to enforce laws against “drunkenness, uncleanness, swearing, cursing, profanation of the Lord’s day, etc.”; in 1692, King William’s William III (king of England)[William 03 (king of England)];manners and royal proclamation condemned such behavior and others considered “dissolute, immoral or disorderly,” which would include sodomy, printing obscene matter, attending masquerades and fairs, and participating in the purported “sin pits” of the theaters. The SRM’s Proposals for a National Reformation of Manners Proposals for a National Reformation of Manners (1694)—containing summaries of laws and rulings, the queen’s letter to the magistrates, and their reply—also condemned theaters as venues for “delight in idleness, excessive vanity, revellings, luxury, wantonness, lasciviousness [and were] whoredoms.” Frequenting theaters was thought to lead to a decline in “the natural vigour and manliness, prowess, and valour of our kingdom.”

In his A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, A (Collier) (1698), Jeremy Collier Collier, Jeremy fulminated against the Restoration stage, denouncing, among others, the plays of Sir John Vanbrugh, Vanbrugh, Sir John[Vanbrugh, John] William Congreve, Congreve, William and John Dryden Dryden, John for debauching public morals. Theater;England So effective was Collier’s propaganda that Vanbrugh had difficulty securing a license for his theater in the Haymarket. An anonymous Account of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners in London and Westminster, and Other Parts of the Kingdom . . . for Effecting a National Reformation Account of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners in London and Westminster, and Other Parts of the Kingdom . . . for the Effecting a National Reformation (1699) included Queen Mary’s letter, King William’s proclamation of February 24, 1697, an address to the king by the House of Commons, and a listing of penal laws, sample warrants, and registers.

Members of the SRM varied in social status, from craftspeople and tradesmen to constables, members of Parliament, and justices of the peace. The Bristol society was made up of mostly gentlemen. Although not uniform in emphasis, society chapters generally believed that correct behavior provided a model for the roughest classes to imitate, which would result in their leading lives of civility through piety; that those not yet fallen into disgrace could be kept from it through education and honest work. Theologically, they believed that a vengeful Old Testament God was in perpetual conflict with Satan; that sin, according to one of the most vocal of the SRM’s speakers, Josiah Woodward, Woodward, Josiah kept people from living in a rational state; that the eternal struggle between God and Satan was played out within the individual soul; and that “neutrality” was indicative of Satanic collusion. Salvation depended upon grace, given by God not through predestination but through rejecting earthly pleasures, and by serving as active Christian warriors.

To achieve its goals, the SRM carried out a campaign of informing on alleged criminals and enforcing vice laws through criminal courts rather than through church courts. SRM informants met with special agents, who were paid to hear them and complete warrants against the alleged criminal parties; the warrants were presented to justices of the peace, who delivered them to constables, who then served them by carrying out arrests. Alleged criminals were arraigned and sentenced by the justice of the peace. “Black lists” were published from 1693 to 1707, noting the crimes that had been prosecuted. By 1725, the number of public prosecutions neared 100,000. Meanwhile, there had been a split between, on one hand, reform movements that concentrated on charity schools and the workhouse movement, and, on the other hand, the SRM, which had shifted its focus from that of enforcing a pious life to prosecuting social miscreants.


The Society for the Reformation of Manners’ most active days were over by 1738, by which time it had seen an upsurge in attacks on informers, arresting officers, and SRM members as well. It was reconstituted two decades later for a short while. John Wesley, Wesley, John sermonizing in 1763, stressed the damage the theater had done “to the Faith and Morals of the Nation” as “Schools of Vice, and Nurseries of Profaneness and Lewdness,” where lurked moral disease and contagion. By this time, however, the bawdry of the Restoration stage was long gone. The society’s final days came in 1766 with a falsely obtained indictment in the Court of King’s Bench.

Also, social changes decreased the perceived need for the SRM’s activities. Whereas female prostitutes traditionally had been considered perpetrators, they came to be considered victims, in part because of the increased perception of male libertinism in the eighteenth century. As early as 1711, Joseph Addison described in the Spectator a “loose Tribe of Men” on the prowl in London, searching out “unfortunate Females” to seduce. The SRM’s campaign against the sexual double standard took root and grew in the eighteenth century in the idea that only the chaste husband was a respectable member of the middle class. In 1736, Sir John Gonson’s efforts in passing the Gin Act eventually contributed to the decline of the SRM through reaction against the use of informers. Also, intellectual worldviews changed. The Enlightenment, with its widespread notions grounded in reason and its belief that society and nature functioned independently of divine intervention, had little room for the SRM and its mandates.

The legacy of the SRM pursued a meandering course through English social life. Negatively, it fed into that deleterious tradition of censoriousness and regulation in sexual matters, which partly determined, up to the 1960’, what the English could read and what they could see in theaters. Positively, however, it fed a broad humanitarian and compassionate stream that, beginning with Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele in the Spectator seeking the improvement of manners, flowed throughout the eighteenth century into philanthropic and charitable concerns. Thus, in one direction, the SRM pursued a tradition of social reform exemplified by such projects as the Foundling Hospital, established by Thomas Coram, himself a member of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (one of the many offshoots of the SRM); John Howard and Elizabeth Fry’s penal reforms; and societies such as those created for the prevention of cruelty to children and animals.

In another direction, the dissenting tradition of Wesley and Methodism combined the objectives of attaining both spiritual grace and social amelioration. By the turn of the century, its course included the Abolitionist movement and the missionary Evangelicalism of Exeter Hall and the Clapham Sect.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtis, T. C., and W. A. Speck. “The Societies for the Reformation of Manners: A Case Study in the Theory and Practice of Moral Reform.” Literature and History 3 (1976): 45-64. An excellent foundation for the study of the SRM. Draws on archival material and seventeenth and eighteenth century SRM sermons.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dillon, Patrick. “The Roots of Reform.” History Today 53, no. 4 (July, 2003): 44-46. Focuses on 1754, but gives information concerning the SRM’s founding, the Gin Act, and the movement toward social reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hurl-Eamon, Jennine. “Policing Male Heterosexuality: The Reformation of Manners Societies’ Campaign Against the Brothels in Westminster, 1690-1720.” Journal of Social History 37, no. 4 (Summer, 2004): 1017-1035. Discusses the SRM’s activity in prosecuting male clients of prostitutes. Hurl-Eamon’s study looks at prosecution according to class, information drawn from contemporary Westminster recognizances.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meadley, T. D. “Society for the Reformation of Manners.” London Quarterly Review 6, no. 2 (January/ October, 1951): 144-148. Discusses the development of the SRM and outlines Wesley’s sermon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shoemaker, Robert. “Reforming the City: The Reformation of Manners Campaign in London, 1690-1738.” In Stilling the Grumbling Hive, edited by Lee Davison et al. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Provides statistical data from the London SRM annual reports and other sources, and argues that SRM activity had social rather than religious motivations.

Reign of William and Mary

The Glorious Revolution

Related articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Richard Baxter; Mary II; Madeleine de Scudéry; James Shirley. Society for the Reformation of Manners

Categories: History