In her study Religious Belief and Popular Culture in Southwark , London, historian Sarah Williams cites a district nurse who observed what historians now call ‘popular’ or ‘lived’ religion. At the end of the nineteenth century the nurse wrote:
To count up the churchgoers and chapel-goers and argue that the neighbourhood is without religion or to estimate the proportion of children and young persons in places of worship and then say ‘religion has no hold on them’…is a serious error. It is a confusion of formal outward signs and inward spiritual graces. 1
Some of this confusion has to do with the relative ease and popularity of statistical approaches to religious history. Formal outward signs, such as attendance at church services, are statistically quantifi able, and may thus provide rough measures of the demographic ‘signifi cance’, political ‘infl uence’ or economic power of particular denominations. However, the inward dimensions of religion, as it is practised and given meaning by individuals in everyday life, are less easily assessed. Williams has provided a valuable model for investigating popular religion, by exploring participant accounts of belief such as those expressed in oral history interviews, to understand the ‘multidimensional nature of religious experience’. 2 It is language that illuminates what religious beliefs and practices mean to people, and how they shape everyday life, attitudes and behaviours. It is through words, particularly the words of participants themselves, that we can start to understand the complex combination of formal outward signs and inward spiritual graces that can combine in an individual’s life. Thus it is that when we take a broad view of religion in popular culture and everyday life and focus on participant accounts of religious belief and experience, including the infl uential period of childhood, we can understand religion more fully. By listening to ordinary people’s testimony about their own lives, we can see how children experienced religion throughout popular culture in a variety of settings in everyday life.