ike so many other major Victorian authors who later in life had little sympathy with Evangelical Christianity, such as Thomas Carlyle, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Henry Newman, and John Ruskin, as a young man Thomas Hardy had an important Evangelical phase that left a deep impress on his thought. Examining the text of a sermon clearly marked by "Evangelical style and theology" (12) that the eighteen-year-old Hardy wrote, Pamela Dalziel concludes that it provides convincing evidence "of Hardy's already being sympathetic to Evangelicalism by October 1858, his taking sufficiently seriously his so-called 'dream' of ordination to practice writing a sermon, and, most significantly, his having a personal faith that was both ardent and orthodox" (20). This new evidence proves important because it requires rewriting the history of the novelist's religious belief or beliefs.
Although one his oldest friends, Henry Bastow, an ardent Baptist who emigrated to Australia, long ago claimed that in Hardy had been an Evangelical, scholars have generally dismissed his remarks, largely on the basis of the autobiography. "The Hardy of Life and Work," Dalziel points out, presents his "youthful faith . . . as gentlemanly and unimpassioned, more social that religious, and fundamentally different from the Evangelical — indeed evangelistic — zeal embodied in the sermon. This Hardy presumably never underwent a classic Victorian loss of faith because he never had a sustained, personal faith to lose" (12). The new evidence paints a very different picture.
Citing Timothy Hand's 1989 "notable book on Hardy and Christianity," Dalziel lists the novelist's lifelong connections to the orthodox Christianity he was soon to abandon:
- his family's associations with the established church
- "his lifelong love of church music and the language of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer"
- his continued attending religious services
- his poetry's occasional expression longing for belief (e.g. "The Oxen")
- "his conviction that the Church was — and should remain — the social, ethical, and educational center of a community"
Despite these lifelong connections with the Church of England — connections much firmer and more numerous than most Victorian authors who lost their belief — "Hardy repeatedly articulated both his conviction that the Cause of Things must be unconscious, 'neither moral or immoral, but unmoral,' and his hope that this Unconscious Will was evolving into consciousness would ultimately become sympathetic" (12-13). Nonetheless, Dalziel argues that however far Hardy moved from his Evangelical sermon of 1858, its three main points remain the "central preoccupations" of his life: the emphasis "on the law as curse, on suffering, and on the saving force of love" (13). She therefore argues that Hardy the atheist remained "profoundly Christian" in many ways.
The question remains, of course, if one retains some of the cultural, emotional, and even ethical attitudes of Christianity, as so many Victorian non-believers did, but does not have any faith in a personal god, much less in the divinity of Christ and salvation through him, can these attitudes still be considered Christian? Wouldn't it be less tendentious and a lot more convincing simply to state that Thomas Hardy might have wished he could have remained a Christian, but that he didn't, or that he always retained many ideas and attitudes associated with Christianity (and, of course, with other religions as well) but not the fundamental beliefs that grounded them. Such a characterization of Hardy would seem more true to the Victorian frame of mind that would overemphasizing Hardy's Christian-ness. For me the point remains not that, like so many other Victorians, he retained habits of mind associated with Christianity after he abandoned it but that he abandoned it for a belief in some Unconscious Will.
Dalziel, Pamela. "Strange Sermon: The Gospel According to Thomas Hardy." Times Literary Supplement. (17 March 2006): 12-23.
Hands, Timothy. Thomas Hardy: Distracted Preacher? Hardy's Religious Biography and its Influence on his Novels. N. Y.: St Martin's, 1989.
last modified 9 June 2014