Reading religion

Some of our Reading Sheffield interviewees had vivid memories of the contribution religion made to their reading lives.

… the services were a bit boring but the actual working out [of] the words that I’d never heard, was fascinating.

This was Erica (b.1937) remembering how she learned to read, not in school, but in church.


Malcolm (b. 1925) also remembered religion helping his education:

…And some of the psalms – you know ‘In the year the King Uzziah died I saw the Lord lifted high and up and his strength filled the Temple’. So we learned Biblical scriptures. … I am sure it contributed. … the love of the old Authorised Version and the words of Evensong and Matins still stick with us in a way that modern prayers don’t. That’s not true but they don’t keep you in the same way. I know when I was in training college to become a teacher, people, colleagues, would criticise the Prayer Book because of its language, but this was something that I as a choir boy had to learn, which is very useful for reading anyway because you learned words there that you wouldn’t normally have learned – same with the hymns. I think it was the language of the Prayer Book that kept us there to some extent.

Shirley (b. 1936) owed her whole existence to Methodism – to the Scotland Street Methodist Church:

… church is the connection! [My parents] were both keen Methodists … And theirs was a romance born and bred at church, that’s how they knew each other, the families knew each other, and they were very enthusiastic members, you know, morning and evening and Sunday school and I grew up the same way.


Shirley’s parents shared an interest in church music. She remembered their ‘tune books for the Methodist Church’ in one of the bookcases at home.

‘We always went to Sunday school.  We nearly lived there. … if they were putting something on, we were expected to join in,’ said Edna (b. 1928). Sunday schools and church schools often gave books or book tokens as prizes. The quality of the books varied, of course. Erica was not impressed with her church’s efforts, describing the prize books as ‘flimsy and irrelevant really’. The books at Erica’s boarding school were equally unsatisfactory in her opinion.

It was a Church of England, basically it was a school for the daughters of clergy. And presumably the library was well stocked books that they approved.

Meg (b.1936) was luckier:

The Methodist Church, Walkley

I once took the scripture exam … and came second in Sheffield, with 98 marks. We had to go to the Montgomery Hall to be presented. So I had a book token, and whenever I got book tokens from church – I was at Walkley Methodist Church, on South Road – or the scripture exam, they used to take me to the Methodist bookshop in Chapel Walk to buy books. This occasion, I remember I got an Arthur Ransome book, which was quite a thick book – it was a good token!

Grown-up Meg

Winnie (b. 1923) had kept some books given to her mother, a Salvationist. There was, for example, Jessica’s First Prayer by Hesba Stretton, inscribed ‘Salvation Army Slum Corps’ and presented to Hannah Stacey, ‘for regular attendance, February 2nd 1899’. The Slum Corps was based on Infirmary Road, Sheffield and Hannah Stacey was Winnie’s mother, who was ten years old in 1899. Winnie thought that this type of Victorian book was usually sad.

They were very hard. Like Jessica’s Prayer, in fact I only found that out a few weeks ago and I thought I’ll read this again. She’s on her own completely and living in a garret and I think it was the verger at the local church … Yeah, Jessica’s First Prayer.

Oh he was a coffee stall keeper and he also looked after the local church.  Must’ve been like a verger or something there. Yes. And he took her under his wing and gave her shelter and fed her and took her into church and she’d never been in church before. It’s very – a real tear jerker.


Winnie treasured her mother’s prizes but she was never awarded any herself. ‘Ooh no!  Never! Never! I never went long enough! No, no!’

Doreen (b. 1934), who said ‘We weren’t taken to church, we were sent to church,’ knew her Bible. Her favourite book was Ruth, because ‘it’s homely and it’s like, well, our life really, isn’t it?’

Doreen aged 17

Maureen (b. 1941), in contrast, wasn’t from a churchgoing family. In childhood, she went to services only occasionally, when staying at her grandfather’s house.

I was friends with the family next door, the two youngest daughters there, and we sometimes went to the Methodist church.

Religion became, and remained, important to her.

I’ve got a Bible there, which was given to me after I asked for a Bible for my ninth birthday. This one. And I’ve written in it, because my aunt bought it from … there was a really good toyshop at Firth Park, expensive toyshop, and she bought it me from there. And I put on it: ‘1951. To Maureen, for her ninth birthday from Auntie Edith.’ But I wrote it. And I put how many words are in the Bible and how many chapters and how many verses. So that was mine as a child. I don’t know where I got that from – I’ve not counted them obviously.

Maureen appreciated the Bible as a source of stories, as well as religious teaching.

I mean, if you just read it as a book, you’ve got murders, you’ve got all sorts, you’ve got wars, you’ve got murders … I mean, I’ve just been reading about the king who married Jezebel and all of that, and John had his head put on a platter … so even if you just had no faith, but read it as a book, there’s everything in it really, I suppose. There’s love, there’s hatred, there’s forgiveness …

Her favourite book was Isaiah:

… it’s relevant for today, the things that are happening in the world today were happening in Isaiah – and we’ve still not learned very much, have we? We must have, but I think a lot of what is prophesised … came true. The words that he used – and I do have doubts sometimes – the words that he used actually came to fruition in Jesus, and then the gospels, you know, what Jesus said as well, but … yes, Isaiah stands out for me.

Reading the Bible strengthened Maureen’s faith:

I think you grow in the spread of what you read, and your faith changes all the time, you can read something one day and you can read it another day and it means something different to you.

Some of our readers had relatives who were preachers or ministers. Anne (b.1930) remembered that her grandmother was not a reader but had:

a big bookcase that was full of books but, my grandfather, she kept all his books, he was a, he wasn’t an ordained minister, but he was a minister in the church.

John (b.1929) also remembered ‘devotional books’ at home. He grew up in the Wesleyan Reform Union. His mother worked for years in the Book-room, the Union’s bookshop:

… in effect, it was the headquarters of the Wesleyan Reform Union and Sheffield was chosen as the centre for it and it was on West Bar, Sheffield. And my grandfather became the very first full-time general secretary of the Wesleyan     Reform Union, and that’s when he actually moved to Sheffield to take up this post and also the ministry at the Attercliffe Wesleyan Reform chapel on Bodmin Street. It’s still there, it is now a mosque …

John’s relatives featured in The History of the Wesleyan Reform Union, which he read ‘more than anything’.

This was written by the general secretary at that time. And of course, my grandfather’s mentioned there, my great-grandfather is. There’s pictures of them and my uncle, who was a minister there.

So strong was the link between church and family that John thought:

… that if my mother had been – it sounds silly this – if my mother had been a man, she’d have been a minister, because both her elder brothers went. She didn’t. The only job she ever had, as far as I know, was as assistant to her father in the Book-room in Sheffield. But she was a constant worker for the church right through, as long as she could be.

In later years, with his memory suffering, John returned to books from his youth:

… one thing now that I like reading is the hymn books, because it’s the Bible in another form. … The point I’m making, why I like the hymn books, is because things like that you remember better, because my memory’s very bad now, so I can’t remember things. I remember this one verse in particular:

I am not skilled to understand

What God had willed and God has planned

I only know at God’s right hand

Stands one who is my saviour.

And things like that you remember, and it makes you remember them. This is what I try to do now, to sort of stoke up my memory.


With thanks to my colleague Mary Grover for making the notes on which this post is based.