Published in 1863, Salem Chapel explores the religious concerns of the "greengrocers, dealers in cheese and bacon, milkmen, dress-makers of inferior pretensions, and teachers of the day-schools"(2) who make up the middle and merchant classes of Carlingford. Oliphant recasts the crisis of vocation she'd treated in The Rector in the context of class tensions and church control, creating a novel that, in her words, "caused a kind of commotion" (Oliphant, Autobiography, 84).
Salem Chapel tells the story of Arthur Vincent, recent graduate of Homerton College, Cambridge, who has been called to pastor Salem Chapel upon the retirement of its previous minister, Mr Tufton. Salem belongs to the Dissenters of Carlingford, to whom Oliphant attributes varying degrees of kindness, hospitality, generosity, commercial acumen, stubbornness, and complacency. Chapel life is naturally rooted in Carlingford's mercantile center, and the cheerful bustle of tea-meetings, singing classes, charitable and missionary activities echoes the hum of commerce. At the center of this "brisk succession of 'Chapel business'"(2), stands the minister. He is, Oliphant declares, "everything in his little world. That respectable connection would not have hung together half so closely but for this perpetual subject of discussion, criticism, and patronage" (The Perpetual Curate, 2).
Ambitious and talented, Vincent feels an unquestioned confidence in the superiority of his nonconformist views even as he pictures his influence extending quickly into the upper realms of Carlingford society.
As he walked about Carlingford making acquaintance with the place, it occurred to the young man, with a thrill of not ungenerous ambition, that the time might shortly come when Salem Chapel would be all too insignificant for the Nonconformists of this hitherto torpid place. He pictured to himself how, by and by, those jealous doors in Grange Lane would fly open at his touch, and how the dormant minds within would awake under his influence. It was a blissful dream to the young pastor. Even the fact that Mr Tozer [the head deacon] was a butterman, and the other managers of the chapel equally humble in their pretensions, did not disconcert him in that flush of early confidence. All he wanted — all any man worthy of his post wanted — was a spot of standing-ground, and an opportunity of making the Truth — and himself — known. Such, at least, was the teaching of Homerton and the Dissenting organs. Young Vincent, well educated and enlightened according to his fashion, was yet so entirely unacquainted with any world but that contracted one in which he had been brought up, that he believed all this as devoutly as Mr Wentworth believed in Anglicanism, and would have smiled with calm scorn at any sceptic who ventured to doubt. Thus it will be seen he came to Carlingford with elevated expectations — by no means prepared to circulate among his flock, and say grace at Mrs Tozer's "teas" and get up soirees to amuse the congregation, as [the former minister] had been accustomed to do. These secondary circumstances of his charge had little share in the new minister's thoughts. 
This passage introduces several of the tensions which will pervade the novel: class perceptions and social mobility, clerical ambition, experience and idealism. Arthur conflates his confidence in the rightness of his doctrine with the promise of professional advancement, anticipating that reputation will also lead to social advancement. Oliphant notes that he "wore an Anglican coat" (18) and "preferred the word clergyman to the word minister"(4); he thinks of himself in lofty terms as a "soldier of the Cross" or "an apostle of thought and religious opinion" (47). Details like these reveal Vincent's class aspirations, but Oliphant makes it clear that Vincent's understanding of himself and of society is largely abstract. Although his father before him was also a minister, Arthur shows little of the necessary involvement with his congregation which for Oliphant, any ministry requires. At the beginning, Arthur Vincent is impatient with "what he considered the mean details of existence" (99), by the end, he will have to confront them; though he feels certain at the start that the gates of Grange Lane are susceptible to his influence, he will find that society, neither welcoming nor antagonistic, simply does not recognize him.
Oliphant offsets Vincent's expectation of social advancement with a congregation that considers nonconformity to be particularly suited to their own middle class. When Vincent refuses an invitation to a Chapel tea in favor of an engagement with Lady Western, or when he is seen to patronize the Anglican bookstore rather than the Evangelical bookseller closer to home, Mr Tozer warns that "a minister of our connection as was well-acquainted among them sort of folks would be out o' nature" (85). Though they occasionally admire his "fine superiority," Vincent is already too "high" for his congregation, the first cleric who has not "condescend[ed] to be gracious" (101) at obligatory social events. "If there's one thing I can't abear in a chapel," states one deacon's wife, "it's one setting up above the rest. But bein' all in the way of business 'there’s nothing but brotherly love here'" (12). Her words (versions of which are repeated by various Chapel members) collapse the distinctions between spiritual community and economic community; in practice, the congregation that pays him claims the right to direct the minister’s activities. Accountable to a board of deacons to whom he feels himself both financially obligated and decidedly superior, Vincent chafes against the expectation that he will increase pew rentals and offer "coorses" of study to enhance the reputation of the Chapel, considering it
a downfall not to be lightly thought of. Salem itself, and the new pulpit, which had a short time ago represented to poor Vincent that tribune from which he was to influence the world, that point of vantage which was all a true man needed for the making of his career, dwindled into a miserable scene of trade before his disenchanted eyes — a preaching shop, where his success was to be measured by the seat-letting, and his soul decanted out into periodical issueÖ. 
These lines show Vincent's rather conventional disdain for trade, and again reveal his distance from the realities of his life; the fact that the dairymen and poulterers in his congregation provide the necessary underpinnings of all Carlingford society makes this attitude especially condescending. Nevertheless, the comic exaggeration here also reveals a serious criticism of Salem Chapel: its congregation is apt to regard the minister himself as a commodity, someone whose services are paid for, and whose skills can be put to use.
As with questions of professional influence, Arthur's romantic interests are also vexed by class. His congregation expects that he will marry one of the young women of Salem Chapel, but he has already fallen in love with the young and beautiful (and Anglican) Dowager Lady Western. His desire for her company offends his congregation even as the hopes of the novel's pretty merchant daughters increasingly irritate him.
Was he actually to live among these people for years — to have no other society — to circulate among their tea-parties, and grow accustomed to their finery, and perhaps "pay attention" to Phoebe Tozer; or, at least, suffer that young lady's attentions to him? 
Oliphant acknowledges his desire for "all the joys and privileges of humanity" (80) but mocks Arthur's infatuation nonetheless. In his thoughts, Lady Western is nearly deified by capitalized pronouns and inflated prose: "Wherever he lifted his eyes, was not She there, all-conquering and glorious?" (35). Action becomes equally comic. Only a few pages after the exhortation of a Homerton friend, "we are the priests of the poor" (15) Arthur tosses a street urchin out of Lady Western's path lest her dress be dirtied. Oliphant typically favors clerical marriages in her novels, but in this case, Arthur's infatuation with Lady Western makes him a worse minister, and so will come to nothing.
Oliphant develops the novel's social and vocational tensions through a highly sensational subplot involving suspected seduction, abduction, violence, and incipient madness. Lady Western's mysterious friend, Mrs "Hilyard," attends Salem Chapel services despite belonging to the Church of England, and lives in the poorest of circumstances despite her clear gentility. For reasons she will not disclose, Mrs Hilyard requests that she be allowed to place her daughter in the care of Vincent's mother and sister in a nearby town. While his mother is in Carlingford, Vincent's sister Susan and Mrs Hilyard's daughter Alice are lured from home by Susan's fiancé, who turns out to be Mrs Hilyard's abusive husband (also Lady Western's brother) under a false name. Having cared for Mrs Hilyard's daughter throughout their abduction, Susan is suspected of shooting (possibly killing) her abductor, and upon her arrival at Carlingford, collapses mentally and physically. None of the novel’s sensational threats ultimately come to fruition, however: the villainous Colonel Mildmay lives to clear Susan’s name, and both Susan and Alice Mildmay are safe at novel’s end. Arthur’s equally unrealistic romantic hopes also come to a rather prosaic end when it is revealed that the Mr Fordham whose name Colonel Mildmay had adopted is in fact a favored suitor of Lady Western.
Yet no threat is resolved through any action of Arthur Vincent's either. Though, as the minister of Salem Chapel, Arthur ought to carry moral authority and influence, he has little effective power. Indeed, his own position in the community is as fragile as his sister's, and Oliphant is as likely to use words like "terror," "horror, "ruin" and "disgrace" with regard to the misunderstood cleric as she is to use them in conjunction with Susan or Mrs Hilyard. Of the suspicion that Susan has shot and perhaps even killed Colonel Mildmay, Oliphant writes:
The horror of this accusation had come home to Vincent's mind at last. He saw, as if by a sudden flash of dreadful enlightenment, not guilt indeed, or its awful punishment, but open shame — the disgrace of publicity — the horrible suspicions which were of themselves more than enough to kill the unhappy girl. 
Though Vincent's worst sin is a refusal to explain his sister’s predicament, he sees himself in almost exactly the same terms:
When Vincent came to himself, and began to see clearly the true horrors of his position, his mind, driven to its last stronghold, rallied convulsively to meet the worst . . . In that bitter moment he gave up everything, and felt himself no longer capable of striving against his fate. He felt in his heart that all Carlingford must already be discussing the calamity that had come upon him, and that his innocent, honourable name was already sullied by the breath of the crowd. 
Valerie Sanders has pointed out in Eve's Renegades: Victorian Anti-Feminist Women Novelists that the position of Victorian clergymen bears striking similarities to that of Victorian women: "needing society’s approval for their well-being, being . . . powerless economically . . . and needing as clergymen to preserve their reputations in a state of immaculate order" (110). As Susan's position becomes more and more dire, so does Arthur's, who "accepted the fact that people were talking of him, pitying him, contemplating him with wonder and fright, as somehow involved in an atmosphere of tragedy and crime" (Salem Chapel, 292). In the end, his is the reputation that suffers most. Susan retains both her good name and her sanity, but Arthur's refusal to explain his necessary absences, his preoccupation with persons beyond the Chapel community, and the mysterious comings and goings that dismay his landlady all serve to alienate large portions of his congregation. As with many fictional clergymen, his insistence on the right to a private life puts him at odds with the chapelgoers who feel that his life should be exemplary, and therefore open to observation.
Because Carlingford is a town preoccupied by religious life, the novel's dramatic climax has little to do with the sensation plot; instead, it comes as the congregation holds a meeting to determine whether or not to retain Arthur Vincent as their minister. Although (through the passionate defense of Mr Tozer, Salem's chief deacon) the congregation votes in Vincent's favor, Vincent resigns of his own accord the next day. His congregational address points to the recurring problem of autonomy and patronage in clerical novels:
"It was you who elected me, it is you who have censured me, it was you last night who consented to look over my faults and give me a new trial. I am one of those who have boasted in my day that I received my title to ordination from no bishop, from no temporal provision, from no traditionary church, but from the hands of the people. Perhaps I am less sure than I was at first, when you were all disposed to praise me, that the voice of the people is the voice of God; but, however that may be, what I received from you I can but render up to you. I resign into your hands your pulpit, which you have erected with your money and hold with your property." [452-3]
By choosing to set Vincent's story in the nonconformist community, Oliphant creates a clear distinction between Arthur Vincent and her other Church of England clerics, whose authority is conferred through both national and divine sources. In doing so, she articulates a common complaint against Dissent, that to be a Dissenting minister requires that Vincent court the favor of his congregation, that he receives his authority from the very body he is to lead. In its premiere issue of The Perpetual Curate), she doesn't rest Vincent's crisis of vocation solely on his struggle with congregational authority. He has failed, too, in his lack of compassion for Mrs Hilyard despite her repeated pleas; he has aspired to a society that "did not know him" (Salem Chapel72) while scorning those who comprise his own cure of souls. Like The Rector's Morley Proctor, he has had little experience with the world before coming to Carlingford; unlike Proctor, Vincent does not humble himself to earn that experience., the conservative "Church and State Defence Association" similarly criticized the "Non-conformist minister, who is in most cases the servant, not of the whole of even his more or less confined and narrow sect, but of the still smaller number who are his congregation — a congregation with full liberty of 'appreciation and action,' critical and prone to dismiss!" (4) Still, though Oliphant certainly argues through Vincent's resignation that patronage belongs in the hands of an authoritative church (a subject to which she will return in
Ultimately, he retreats from public ministry altogether, and "went into literature" (437), writing philosophical treatises instead of sermons. The ministerial post at Salem Chapel is offered to Vincent's fellow Homerton graduate, Mr Beecher (later "Beecham"), who does precisely what is expected of a Salem Chapel minister, happily attending tea-meetings, and marrying deacon Tozer's daughter. Their own daughter will be the central character in Oliphant's last Carlingford novel, Phoebe, Junior.
Church and State Defence Association. Church and State. I.i. July 6, 1878. Google Books edition.
Oliphant, Margaret.The Autobiography of Mrs. Oliphant. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Oliphant, Margaret. The Perpetual Curate. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Oliphant, Margaret. Salem Chapel. NY: Viking Penguin, 1986.
Sanders, Valerie. Eve’s Renegades: Victorian Anti-Feminist Women Novelists. London: MacMillan, 1996.
Last modified 29 May 2011