he most important thing to remember about religion in Victorian England is that there was an awful lot of it. The nineteenth century was marked by a revival of religious activity unmatched since the days of the Puritans. This religious revival shaped that code of moral behavior, or rather that infusion of all behavior with moralism, which we still call, rightly or wrongly, "Victorianism." Above all, religion occupied a place in the public consciousness, a centrality in the intellectual life of the age, which it had not had a century before and did not retain in the twentieth century.
That is the second important thing to remember about the Victorian religious revival: that it did not last. It was not merely that the churches lost, or rather had never had, the growing working classes of their increasingly urbanized society; they could hardly be blamed for being defeated by demographics. But the striking thing about the decline of the Victorian religious revival is that it took place, in the latter decades of the century, within that very middle class whose virtues it sanctified. Most importantly, those special segments of the middle class which served as culture-bearers to their age and shapers of the next, the intellectual and professional classes, had their faith eroded in a distinctive and decisive manner. [58/59]
The crisis of intellectual faith, which may be dated about 1860, had a deceptive appearance of suddenness. The 1850s had been a period of relative religious calm, in which unquestioning churchgoers had little to trouble them except the growth of Popery and ritualism, the dissidence of Dissent, and the strange absence of the poor from the churches. Then in 1859 appeared Darwin's Origin of Species, the most famous but not the most important of the challenges to faith, which questioned both the literal accuracy of the first chapters of Genesis and the argument from design for the existence of God. In 1860 appeared a book entitled Essays and Reviews, six of whose seven authors were clergymen of the Church of England, which brought to Britain the techniques and startling hypotheses of German biblical criticism. In 1862 the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch was denied by no less than a bishop, John William Colenso. In 1864 and 1865 the courts decided that nothing could be done about these subversives within the Church, and in 1869 one of the Essayists and Reviewers became a bishop. Naturalistic, non-miraculous lives of Jesus appeared: Renan's Vie de Jésus in 1863, J. R. Seeley's Ecce Homo in 1865. Meanwhile the scientists pressed their challenge: in 1863 Huxley's Man's Place in Nature and Lyell's Antiquity of Man, and finally in 1871 Darwin's Descent of Man, stripped away the uniqueness of mankind. To retain a traditional Bible-centered faith in the 1870s, an educated man had either to deny the findings of biblical criticism and natural science, supported by an increasing mass of evidence, or else to re-create that faith on a new basis which few were able to construct.
Because this crisis was brought on and highlighted by challenges external to orthodox faith -- because the normal posture of the churches during the crisis was one of denial and resistance in the face of the triumphant advance of science and criticism -- it is natural to see these events in terms of the inevitable progress of the human mind and the advancement of science. Certainly, if we understand by "science" what the Germans call Wissenschaft, not merely the natural sciences but social and humane studies scientifically treated, what transpired was a victory for science. This is the traditional approach to the subject, immortalized in the phrase of Andrew Dickson White, "the warfare of science with theology." This approach presupposes a clear and direct confrontation between geological, biological, and historical science on the one hand and religion on the other, with science ultimately prevailing because of its intrinsic merits. [59/60]
I wish to propose an alternative approach, which treats the conflict not as a struggle of faith against its external enemies, but as a crisis within religion itself. The real point of the conflict was not the challenge of science but the response of religion. The scientific challenges laid bare certain weaknesses of the Victorian religious revival, and the victory of science was largely due to elements within the religious position. The most important such factor was the latent conflict between the sensitivity of conscience stimulated by the religious revival and the crude and harsh statement of the dogmas to which such sensitive consciences were expected to give their allegiance. The spokesmen of orthodox faith narrowed the ground on which Christianity was to be defended and allowed their scientific opponents to appear more honest than themselves. In these conflicts, the position of orthodox doctrine was, as presented by its upholders, not only less valid but less moral than that of irreligious science. As events unfolded, not merely the intellect but the moral sense, particularly the sense of truthfulness, revolted against orthodoxy. This may be called "the warfare of conscience with theology."
It is possible to analyze this conflict as a "class struggle" of sorts, if this be understood not as a struggle between classes but as a struggle within the middle class, between the clergy on the one hand and the secular professions on the other, for the minds of the rising generation. The nineteenth century saw the rise and definition of the professions, including the clerical profession itself. The eighteenth-century clergyman could not be said to have had a vocation. He was a country gentleman, or hoped to be one; his few religious duties left him ample time to mingle in society, to be a magistrate, a naturalist, an essayist, or a sportsman. If he did not much improve his world, he was very much a part of it. But the evangelical revival changed all that. The evangelicals (the "serious" Christians, as they called themselves) insisted that clergymen be serious, attend to their religious duties, and expand the definition of those duties until they were capable of absorbing their entire time and energy: two sermons on Sunday, weekday services, frequent visiting of the poor. To this the tractarians added the sense of a distinct vocation and separation of the priesthood from the laity. By the 1840s, even among those who were neither evangelical nor tractarian, the professional ideal of the clergy had won out.
All Victorians were earnest; it was important to be earnest; but clergymen [60/61] were distinctively and preeminently earnest. They hunted not, nor did they attend the theater; they wore black unrelieved by the slightest hint of gray; and from the 1860s they adopted that ultimate badge of clericalism, the dog collar. Such a hard-working clergy accomplished much and deserved to have accomplished more. But this professionalism came at a price. Fully occupied by work which was absorbing but specialized, concentrating their minds on the "one thing only" that mattered, most of the clergy withdrew from that wider intellectual life of England of which they had once been a central part. At the very time that Coleridge formulated his ideal of the "clerisy" to embrace all the educated classes, the clergy was separating from the "clerisy" and withdrawing behind the impregnable fortress of Holy Scripture and Paley's Natural Theology. A closed mind had become, as much as the black coat, part of the professional equipment of a clergyman.
At the same time the secular professions had also developed their distinctive specialized training and functions and. esprit de corps, and the physical and natural sciences, though still largely in the hands of amateurs, were beginning to develop similarly professional standards. Now what distinguishes these sciences, and their aspiring brethren in the social sciences, is a preeminent concern with fact -- fact that is verifiable and applicable. To the gentlemen of the factual professions, it was galling to see the precedence and prestige accorded to a clergy which had come to define itself by the blinkers it wore. In their struggle to impress scientific ideas, and, more important, the idea of science itself on the minds of the rising generation of intellectual young men, it was inevitable that they would come into conflict with the obstacle of clerical narrowness. And in this conflict they found themselves armed with a weapon which even clergymen were taught to fear, the weapon of truth.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these rival professionalisms -- the growth of an Anglican clericalism coinciding with the awakening of a self-conscious intellectual laity -- provide necessary predisposing conditions for the conflict that was to develop. However, there are certain difficulties which limit the usefulness of this class analysis in terms of conflicting elements in the intellectual middle classes. The first arises from the professionalism of science itself: scientific facts require scientific minds to appreciate them, and they could have only a peripheral effect as long as education remained classical rather than scientific. Second, as we shall see, the heaviest blows to clerical orthodoxy were dealt, not by [61/62] scientific outsiders, but by dissident clergymen, those who felt entrapped by the narrowness of their profession and sought to break out to a broader culture. After all, Lyell's geology and Darwin's biology, even if absolutely true, affected only a few chapters of Genesis, leaving the rest of the Bible untouched; but biblical criticism, even in the hands of devout clergymen, affected the whole text and inspiration and authority of the Bible and perhaps of the Christian faith. Most important, however, is the fact that what ultimately alienated the rising intellectual generation was, not the external challenge of science or criticism, but the response of the spokesmen of orthodox religion. It was the failure of orthodoxy, not the strengths of heresy or infidelity, which lost the intellectual classes to religion.
The orthodoxy of Protestant England, common to Anglicans and most Dissenters, was the product of the evangelical revival. It is impossible to overstate the pervasiveness and intensity of the moralism which the evangelicals had infused into every aspect of Victorian life. Indeed, what separates us from the Victorians is, not so much the difference in our moral judgments, as their readiness to make moral judgments and our readiness to suspend them. Our objectivity is their immorality. The sensitivity of conscience thus produced, the self-consciousness and introspection thus fostered, were awesome things; and the moral crises which are so frequent in both the, literature and the life of the educated classes did not always pass through the approved channels of evangelical conversion and a strenuous but safely moral life.
One of the moral virtues most frequently inculcated (and regarded as distinctively English) was the virtue of truth. Now truth is a two-edged sword. For one thing, there was a fundamental confusion in the Victorian concept of "truth." In one sense the word refers to objective truth, the factual reality; in another sense it means truthfulness, that is, the honesty of a person. It is characteristic of the Victorians that they were more interested in truthfulness than in truth; they were more concerned with the moral character of the speaker than with the factual correctness of his statement. A result of this attitude is that the debates over biblical criticism have a curious ad hominem character. Thus, criticism is opposed because it seems to impugn the truthfulness of God as the author of the Bible; or the Essayists and Reviewers are condemned as dishonest because [62/63] the conclusions they reached contradicted the promises they made at their ordinations. The trouble with this mode of reasoning is that it issues of draws attention to personalities and away from the actual issues of debate; it is the practice of evasion in the name of honesty.
This practice was not uncommon among the clergy. It contributed, in the middle decades, to a growing (though rarely articulated) distrust of their preaching, a loss of influence which paralleled their increasing professionalism. This is best stated by a Broad Church clergyman, Arthur Stanley, later Dean of Westminster:
I believe that the besetting sin of the clerical profession -- that to which its peculiar temptations may lead -- is indifference to strict truth... There is also a habit of using words without meaning, or with only a half-belief, or for the sake of a convenient argument and of filling up an awkward gap, or with a love of things established... which leads in part, I am convinced, to that deep-rooted indifference to sermons, and that vast separation between faith and outward belief, and that distrust of all that the clergy say, and that intolerable arrogance which so many of them feel towards lay people.
Stanley's friend Benjamin Jowett put it more concisely: "I never hear a sermon scarcely which does not seem equally divided between truth and falsehood." Preaching, to be sure, has problems as well as temptations; there are a limited number of conclusions which may safely be arrived at in an unlimited number of sermons, and facility in achieving this may correlate negatively with religious depth. By 1860 it was noticed that the really ablest men were no longer proceeding to holy orders; and Frederick Temple, like Jowett an Essayist and Reviewer, was struck by the "extraordinary reticence'" on religious matters of the young men at the universities.
Part of this reticence, this reluctance to express and examine doubts and perplexities in religion, was the frequently inculcated belief that religious doubt was in itself sinful. The duty of avoiding doubt, whatever intellectual operations might be needed to accomplish this, was put with characteristically eloquent crudity by Samuel Wilberforce, later Bishop of Oxford:
Whilst irreverence and doubt are the object of your greatest fear; whilst you would glady retain a childlike and unquestioning reverence by abasing, if need were, your understanding, rather than gain any knowledge at the hazard of your reverence; you are doubtless in God's hands, and therefore safe... Fly, therefore, rather than contend; fly to known truths. [63/64]
As his biographer remarked, "In an age that pressed desperately for the answers to all sorts of questions, Wilberforce believed they were better left unasked."
One reason for the non-asking of questions was the belief that doubt was not only sinful but that it rendered the doubter miserable in this life as well, the absence of faith producing emptiness and unhappiness. Men of much faith projected what they would feel if deprived of their faith; and no factual evidence of serene agnostics and happy atheists could shake their conviction that doubt was a state of misery. Even the usually sensible Newman could exclaim, "Consider the miseries of wives and mothers losing their faith in Scripture." It became a duty to prevent this, to suppress one's own doubts and discourage the doubts of others. But could the rising generation, self-consciously devoted to truth but increasingly aware of disturbing facts, be expected indefinitely to contain their doubts and profess an assurance which was decreasingly real? This was the point of tension, the poison in the theological atmosphere which had to come out.
The issue on which the intensity of Victorian religion first began to turn inward on itself was, not an external challenge of science or criticism, but a felt conflict between the morality which the evangelicals had cultivated and the theological doctrines which they taught. Victorian morality was not merely stern, it was also humanitarian; though the evangelicals doubted whether the mass of mankind could be saved, they preached the duty of active benevolence; they freed the slaves and improved the conditions of factory labor. There was already a discrepancy here between the essentially otherwordly character of their faith and the contemporary aspirations, in which they often shared, towards the progress and improvement of human society. More important, the humanitarian values thus engendered were incompatible with the commonplace theology of the day. Here we must note that the word theology is and was used loosely; nineteenth-century England was not a home of systematic theology as Germany was; the best of its religious thinkers were self-taught amateurs. The theology espoused by most evangelicals, and generally accepted by most others, was a sort of unsystematic and semiconscious quasi-Calvinism, positing the Atonement rather than the Incarnation as the central fact of Christianity, and stressing the sterner and harsher Christian doctrines: original sin, reprobation, vicarious [64/65] atonement, eternal punishment. The unbalanced emphasis of these essentially unattractive themes was bound to come into conflict with the sentimental and humanitarian spirit of the age, itself largely a product of the religious revival.
The conflict between humane ethics and rigorous dogma was responsible for some of the more spectacular losses of faith in the 1840s. How could a benevolent and sensitive conscience accept the morality of a Jehovah who behaved, as the young Darwin put it, like a "revengeful tyrant" and who condemned the majority of his human creatures to an eternity of torment disproportionate to their wickedness or based on no personal fault at all? These were the issues which provoked theological crises in the 1850s. F. D. Maurice, perhaps the most prophetic mind of the century, was deprived of his professorship in 1853 for questioning the eternity of punishment. Jowett's 1855 commentary on St. Paul, denouncing the conventional presentation of the Atonement, brought a storm of criticism foreshadowing the later denunciation of Essays and Reviews. Let me quote Jowett to show the depth of the indignation which Victorian quasi-Calvinism could produce in a usually calm mind: "God is represented as angry with us for what we never did; He is ready to inflict a disproportionate punishment on us for what we are; He is satisfied by the sufferings of His Son in our stead... The imperfection of human law is transferred to the Divine." After this Jowett "cannot but fear whether it be still possible so I to teach Christ as not to cast a shadow on the holiness and truth of God."
The erosion of faith caused by this ethical revulsion against cruel dogmas crudely stated is perhaps the clearest example of what I have called "the warfare of conscience with theology."13 The classic statement of this revulsion is that of John Stuart Mill: "I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures, and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go."14 This sentiment was not confined to such eminent cases as Darwin, Francis Newman, James Anthony Froude, or George Eliot; it can be found in many elements of society.15 The apparent immorality of the Bible and the Creed provided stock arguments for atheists; more important, it provided grounds for that perplexity of faith about which professed believers were so unwholesomely reticent. It is possible that the science and criticism of the 1860s had such effect because they provided stimuli and rationales for minds already unsettled and alienated on these [65/66] moral grounds. At any rate, the ethical I challenge preceded and transcended the scientific challenge. Perhaps the Victorian religious revival had made men too moral to be orthodox, too humanitarian to be Christian.
The ground was thus prepared for the first onslaughts of science and criticism. Biblical criticism, to be sure, was slow to reach England; it was a German product. But science, especially biology and geology, had a respectable English pedigree. Country clergymen observed plants and animals; country gentlemen looked at rocks; and so we have biology and geology. But the close observation of nature produced some problems. How could these geological strata and fossils of extinct species be squared with a six-day Creation dating, according to Archbishop Ussher's chronology printed in the margins of the authorized Bible, from only 4004 B.c.? The question was focused by Sir Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology, which advanced the convincing hypothesis that geological formations were the results, not of sudden catastrophes such as Creation and the Flood, but of the slow operation of uniform processes of change. The uniformitarian hypothesis required a much longer time-span than seemed to be allowed by the biblical account of Creation. The response of churchmen was not, in the 1830s, directly hostile; rather they sought to show that the biblical texts could be harmonized with the new science. Unfortunately, the various "harmonies," such as those which treated the "days" of Genesis as geological eras, proved to be nearly as incompatible with the developments of geology as the literal biblical text itself. And those fossils, which suggested transformations in biology as vast as those in geology, were awkward to get over: a religious scientist was reported to have concluded that fossils had been deliberately placed by God to test man's faith.
More serious problems would arise when the concept of development was extended from geology to biology. The idea of evolution, though not yet acceptable to most biologists, was in the air. In 1844 Robert Chambers, an amateur, published anonymously a book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which maintained that each species had not been specially created by God but had evolved according to general laws. This rather unscientific work, a sort of Darwin without discipline, was written in a reverent spirit. It was received, however, with a storm of theological criticism which anticipated the more famous debate later excited [66/67] by Darwin. The book was criticized by scientists no less strongly than by clergymen, but many sensitive laymen were curiously attracted by the idea of evolution. The storm over Vestiges of Creation was a sign of the uneasiness of the times, the unsettlement of minds produced by the scientific Picture of impersonal nature functioning without direct divine interposition, a picture difficult to accept, yet increasingly difficult to resist. The poet Tennyson was one of the fascinated readers of Vestiges of Creation, and In Memoriam shows both its influence and the problems it posed:
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the world's great altar-stairs
That slope through darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope. (LV)
In Memoriam, published in 1850, stands as a monument of the Victorian mind at equipoise, unable to deny the results of science, yet hopefully (if "faintly") placing its faith in "the truths that never can be proved."
But these first glimmerings of doubts and difficulties did not produce a direct conflict between science and religion. Indeed, it was almost an article of faith that such a conflict could not occur, that the conclusions of reason would ultimately harmonize with the dicta of revelation, that the facts of nature discovered by science could not contradict the Word of God who was the creator of nature. A clear position on this matter had been worked out in the conflicts with the rationalists of the eighteenth[67/68]century, when it was the glory of the Church of England that its thinkers had met the deists and freethinkers on their own rational grounds and more than held their own. A line of Anglican apologists, from Berkeley through Butler to Paley, had used the language of the Enlightenment to justify the ways of God to man. The culmination of this process came, at the end of the eighteenth century, in the work of Archdeacon William Paley. His Natural Theology (1802) demonstrated the existence of God by the argument from design. As the existence of a watch proves that there must have been a watchmaker, so the complexity and perfect ,interrelationships of nature prove that it must have been designed by an intelligent creator. The smoothness and closeness of Paley's arguments had a certain fatuous charm, and the abundance of his detailed illustrations from nature impressed the young Darwin and may have influenced his style. Another of Paley's works, The Evidences of Christianity (1794), rested the case for the specific Christian revelation primarily on the argument from miracles. These works became standard textbooks at the universities and provided the staple apologetic theology for generations of clergymen.
The argument from design and the evidence of miracles and prophecies seemed to have met not only the challenge of eighteenth century rationalism but all future argumentative needs, enabling the clergy to disregard most external challenges to religion. Paradoxically, the success of the Paleyan apologetic was to prove disastrous in the 1860s: it was precisely the argument from design and miracles and prophecies (the "external evidences") that were devastated by the new science and criticism. But evangelicalism and tractarianism had turned the clerical mind from more original researches in apologetics to matters internal to the Church. The one exception, the Bridgewater treatises of the 1830s, proved to be restatements by religious scientists of the argument from design.
Meanwhile philosophy had moved beyond the positions of the Enlightenment to new rationalisms, whether the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill or the German metaphysics of Kant and Hegel. The external evidences for Christian faith on which Paley had relied were being pushed aside by a new emphasis on inward religious experience, more profound but less verifiable, whose spokesman in England was Coleridge. In his distaste for the formal evidences and dogmas of Christianity, Coleridge spoke for many sensitive religious intellectuals, and he[68/69]provided the philosophical underpinning for much of later Broad Church biblical criticism. Orthodox clergymen were vaguely aware of these challenges to their position, but they were unable to respond with more than denunciations.
Then, in 1858, emerged a new champion of orthodoxy who seemed to have finally refuted all unbelievers and heretics with the most up-to-date philosophical weapons. H. L. Mansel, in his Bampton lectures on The Limits of Religious Thought, employed the then-current philosophy of Sir William Hamilton to place the Christian faith permanently beyond the reach of rational challenge. Mansel argued that the Absolute, the Unconditioned, the Infillite (in other words, God), was utterly beyond the power of human reason to understand, either to defend or to deny. He thus dismissed summarily both Paley's demonstration of the existence of God and the rationalists' attempts to disprove it. From this supreme skepticism, Mansel immediately passed to the most complete orthodoxy. What man's reason could not do, God could do and did in his revelation. Regardless of intellectual or ethical difficulties, man must accept revelation as God gives it; he can examine not its contents but only its evidences. And the evidences Mansel offers are none other than the external evidences of Paley: miracles and prophecies. We must accept revelation on these evidences and we must accept it in its entirety, with no exceptions or qualifications.
This now-forgotten book of 1858 is important because it shows the state of mind of the most intelligent upholders of orthodoxy on the eve of their most formidable challenges. Mansel's book was hailed as having definitively put down rationalism, with the result that the "religious world" was in a state of false security just before the crises of 1859 and 1860. His admirers could perhaps be excused for not having anticipated that Hamilton's philosophy of the Unconditioned, on which Mansel's logical structure depended, was shortly to be demolished by John Stuart Mill. They were more culpable for disregarding the ease with which Mansel's philosophical skepticism could be accepted by those who, like Herbert Spencer, saw no need to proceed beyond it to Christianity. But the great danger in Mansel's argument was that it identified the Christian faith with the text of the Bible and rested the authenticity of the Bible solely on external evidences such as miracles and prophecies. While removing faith safely beyond the reach of philosophy, Mansel had exposed it directly to the attack of science and biblical criticism. The prevailing[69/70]acceptance of the Paleyan evidences made Mansel and others blind to the vulnerability of a faith which rested solely on such external supports.
Mansel's successor as Bampton lecturer was to assert that the Bible was, as history, "absolutely and in every respect true." Another held that every word in the Bible was "the direct utterance of the Most High." The clear implication of such statements was that, if any text of the Bible could be shown to be scientifically or historically erroneous, not only that text but the entirety of revelation must be given up. Never had traditional Christianity been so self-confident or so vulnerable.
We may now turn to the first of the great challenges to orthodox Christianity, the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. This work became the most successful exposition of the doctrine of evolution because, first, it offered a coherent and detailed presentation of the evidence and, second, it provided for the first time a satisfactory explanation of the mechanism of evolution, the theory of natural selection. Although Darwin hesitated to apply his theory to the case of man, its applicability was immediately recognized and became the focus of the public debate. "Is man an ape or an angel?" asked Disraeli; being a politician, he was on the side of the angels." While some scientists found objections to evolution, the attack on Darwin turned on his denial of the special creation of each species by direct divine action and his refusal to assign to man a unique place distinct from the rest of animal creation. Philosophically Darwin was even more subversive: his concept of random variations challenged not only the literal text of Genesis but also the argument from design of Paley and the deists.
Darwin and The Origin of Species
The controversy over the Origin of Species took the unfortunate form of a direct confrontation between religion and science. The great majority of religious spokesmen condemned the doctrine of evolution, often without regard to its scientific merits, on the ground of its repugnance to the text of the Bible and its tendency to degrade man to the level of the beasts. A majority of scientists, on the other hand, accepted evolution as at least a probable hypothesis, and some, notably Huxley and Tyndall, were goaded by their clerical opponents to take an increasingly antireligious position. Both sides seemed to identify the substance of Christianity with the text of Genesis.
The most famous confrontation occurred at Oxford in 1860. Samuel Wilberforce, a fine bishop but an over-ardent controversialist, went beyond[70/71]the scientific arguments in which he had been briefed to refute evolution by sarcasm, asking Huxley "was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?" Huxley's reply was simple but devastating -- "He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth." The audience (largely clerical) applauded. By relying on the supreme virtue of truthfulness, Huxley turned Victorian morality against Victorian orthodoxy. When it came to the test, the defenders of orthodoxy were not interested in truth, and the defenders of truth were not interested in orthodoxy.
The direct effects of this debate have been exaggerated, but it holds a great symbolic significance. The clergy in the audience may have merely applauded a good debate, or they may have enjoyed the put-down of a bishop whose outspokenness had made him many enemies; but the young laymen saw the contrast between the shallowness of a reverend bishop and the reverence for truth of an irreligious scientist. It was this contrast, more than the actual issues of the debate over evolution, which gave rise to the feeling that science was the wave of the future and religion a thing of the past. The effect of the victory of science in the evolution debate was not a headlong abandonment of faith by those who had previously been religious, but rather a confirmation of doubts that already existed and a general turning of attention to the more meaningful issues of the secular world.
The challenge of evolutionary biology, serious though it might be, was superficial compared with the challenge of biblical criticism, which ranged over the entire text and interpretation of the Bible and touched more deeply the sources of the Christian faith. This was an internal problem, not an external one. While textual criticism was relatively uncontroversial, the same could not be said of the so-called higher criticism, the analysis of the authorship, sources, motivation, and accuracy of the biblical writings. The results of such analysis might well disconcert those who believed in the direct and literal divine inspiration of the biblical writings; and the cool and detached manner of historical research seemed hardly compatible with a lively faith.
Essays and Reviews
What was worse, biblical criticism was un-English, lacking in native roots and challenging the prevailing insularity. It was a German product. Hardly anybody'read German; most did not think it worth reading; and [71/72]what they heard of German thought was not encouraging. Virtually the first work of German criticism which reached England was D. F. Strauss's Life of Jesus, which treated the Gospels as mythological rather than historical and scandalized even Germans; translated by George Eliot in 1846, it affected a few sensitive, already doubting souls, but served for most who heard of it as a warning that criticism led to infidelity. England was unprepared for biblical criticism; "the Bible, and the Bible alone" was the watchword of English Protestantism. The extreme sensitiveness to any questioning of the authority of the Bible was exacerbated in the 1860s by the coincidence of the arrival of biblical criticism with the challenge of evolutionary science.
Seven men, six of them clergymen of the Church of England, sought to break through the reticence of the educated on matters of faith by a free handling, in a becoming spirit, of subjects peculiarly liable to suffer by the repetition of conventional language, and from traditional methods of treatment. The resulting composite volume modestly entitled Essays and Reviews, was published in 1860. The five essays and two reviews, independently written, varied in character and quality: one was a rewritten sermon, another a learned, cold, but unexceptionable historical monograph. The one layman wrote a devastating critique of the attempted "harmonies" between Genesis and geology. Rowland Williams, a feisty Welshman, wrote a provocative essay on Baron von Bunsen in which "justification by faith" was turned into "peace of mind." Baden Powell, a mathematician, flatly denied the possibility of miracles. H. B. Wilson gave the widest possible latitude to subscription to the articles of faith and questioned the eternity of damnation. The entire work was capped by Jowett's tremendous though wayward essay "On the Interpretation of Scripture," in which he urged that the Bible be read "like any other book" and made an impassioned plea for freedom of scholarship: "The Christian religion is in a false position when all the tendencies of knowledge are opposed to it."
Much of what the Essayists and Reviewers wrote is now commonplace theology, and the work would not have attracted much attention even in 1860 but for the fact that its authors were clergymen. Once again the ad hominem element prevailed. How could a clergyman hold such views consistently with the Thirty-Nine Articles and his ordination vows? Once again Samuel Wilberforce led the attack, supported by evangelicals and High Churchmen in a rare display of unanimity. From[72/73]all quarters the volume was denounced: some 150 replies fill three pages of the British Museum catalogue. Wilberforce pressed for a synodical condemnation by the bishops, which he obtained tentatively in 1861 and formally in 1864. Williams and Wilson, the two Essayists who were subject to deprivation, were prosecuted in the church courts and partially condemned in 1862. But here the peculiarities of the English legal system intervened, demanding a strict construction of church formularies while giving the most liberal interpretation to the accused writings, and the conviction was reversed by the Privy Council in 1864. The Privy Council, someone quipped, "dismissed Hell with costs, and took away from Orthodox members of the Church of England their last hope of eternal damnation." Ironically, the liberty of thought within the Church of England was saved by the subjection of the Church to the state.
John William Colenso
Hard on the heels of the clergymen of Essays and Reviews came a bishop, albeit a colonial bishop, with a more direct though less competent attack on the literal interpretation of the Bible. John William Colenso had been brought up to believe that every detail of the Bible is literally true; he had a simple, numerical mind which led him to write textbooks of arithmetic; sent out as bishop to Natal in 1853, he was an effective missionary among the Zulus. Natives, however, lack the knowledge given to civilized men that certain questions ought not to be asked; and so, when they were translating the story of the Flood, one African innocently enquired: "Is all that true? Do you really believe that all this happened thus?" Colenso was an honest man; and he knew, having read Lyell, that geologists had disproved the universal Flood. He began to reexamine the first books of the Bible, with the aid of a few German works and a lot of arithmetic, and he found that the statistics given in the Bible, with their magnificent oriental rotundity, were simply impossible. His method was absurd, but his conclusion was irresistible: the Pentateuch was unhistorical, and most of it was written by someone other than Moses. He had to speak out, though many would be shaken by such statements from a bishop: "Our- duty, surely, is to follow the Truth, wherever it leads us, and to leave the consequences in the hands of God." So he published The Pentateuch Critically Examined in 1862, telling a shocked England that "the Bible itself is not 'God's word'; but assuredly 'God's word' will be heard in the Bible, by all who will humbly and devoutly listen for it." Having said this, he claimed the right to remain a bishop of the Church of England.[73/74]
Pious ears were offended; orthodoxy was outraged. The prevailing sentiment was expressed by Bishop Lee of Manchester: "the very foundations of our faith, the very basis of our hopes, the very nearest and dearest of our consolations are taken from us when one line in that Sacred Volume on which we base everything is declared to be unfaithful or untrustworthy." Bishops demanded the removal of their heretical colleague. The Bishop of Cape Town, who claimed jurisdiction over Natal, held a synod which deposed Colenso. Colenso appealed to the Privy Council, where the matter was promptly diverted from a religious question to the technical issue of the legal status of colonies. In the end, without ever resolving the doctrinal issue, the Privy Council held that Colenso could not be deposed. The Bishop of Cape Town, acting on his own, consecrated another bishop for Natal; most of his clergy repudiated Colenso; but he held on, and the result was a local schism which lasted for decades.
The legal judgments on Essays and Reviews and Colenso made it not illegal for a clergyman to deny the literal inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures, but that did not mean that it was tolerable for him to do so in the eyes of most of the clergy and many even of the laity. There was a double standard of belief, or rather of honesty, for clergymen and laymen. Indeed it is possible that the outspokenness of the Essayists and Reviewers actually retarded, by provoking so powerful a reaction, the advent of that freedom of thought in matters of faith for which they strove.
The turning point came when Temple, the least offensive of the Essayists and Reviewers, was nominated to be Bishop of Exeter in 1869 and consecrated despite strong efforts to prevent it. Eventually the theological climate would change: evolution became generally acceptable in the 1880s and, with the publication of Lux Mundi by a group of High Churchmen in 1889, it became evident that even conservative clergymen would have to deal with the problem of biblical criticism. But by then it was too late. What clergymen had belatedly discovered, intellectual laymen had known all along.
There had been something exaggerated and even slightly comical in the reaction against biblical criticism. Here, as with the response to Darwin, it seemed as if the defenders of orthodox faith were afraid of the[74/75]impartial search for truth. As Tennyson said: "There lives more faith in honest doubt,/ Believe me, than in half the creeds."
The Essayists and Reviewers, Colenso, and a few others such as F. D. Maurice and Archbishop Tait -- not doubters themselves, but critics -- were concerned to bridge the gap separating professed faith from the frank inquiry of educated laymen. One of these laymen, the philosopher Henry Sidgwick, spoke for many when he wrote: "What we all want is, briefly, not a condemnation, but a refutation. . . . A large portion of the laity now. . . . will not be satisfied by an ex cathedral shelving of the question, nor terrified by a deduction of awful consequences from the new speculations. For philosophy and history alike have taught them to seek not what is 'safe', but what is true."
The failure of the spokesmen of orthodoxy to respond to such appeals, to enter into a creative dialogue with the new ideas, was more important than the new ideas themselves in alienating the rising intellectual generation. As Jowett said: "Doubt. comes in at the window when inquiry is denied at the door." From the 1860s, the intellectual leadership of England turned, first tentatively and in single cases, then in a growing flood, away from that deep concern with matters religious which had characterized mid-Victorian England. I am not speaking of that minority which, as in previous generations, was naturally attracted by philosophical radicalisms. I speak of those who yet retained much of the evangelical heritage, particularly in morality, but who, becoming increasingly suspicious of an orthodoxy so ineptly defended, dnifted away from formal Christianity. A novel of 1888, Robert Elsmere by Mrs. Humphry Ward, tells the story of a clergyman who, because he can no longer believe in the creed of his church, resigns his office and devotes his life to social service. Robert Elsmere was the type of many young men of the late nineteenth century, some maintaining an outward conformity while thinking freely, others leaving organized religion altogether. Christianity had now become an "open question."
As the natural sciences, soon joined by the social sciences, continued their progress, a limited number became outright atheists, needing no religion to explain a universe which could now be understood in purely natural terms. More common, though not always articulated, was the Position for which Huxley invented the term "agnostic." As Huxley descnibed it, there was a good deal of residual Christianity in agnosticism:[75/76]a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. . . . Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before the fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing."
Truthfulness had replaced belief as the ultimate standard; but the abandonment of faith did not necessarily represcnt-an abandonment of morality. Indeed it was an outraged moral sense that had led in many instances to the rejection of the Christian faith; and Victorian morality could, at least among the elite, survive the collapse of the Victorian creed. In the writings of George Eliot, as in the practice of numerous positivists, agnostics, and atheists, a humanized evangelical morality, duty, service, and love - stood alone and triumphant, unsupported by belief in God or the hope of personal immortality:
O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence; live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night
And with their mild persistence urge man's
To vaster issues.
So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.<
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty --
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible nose music is the gladness of the world.
In such pure expression, the morality of the unbelievers could rival that of Christianity. The search for truth in science and in life is an activity as religious in spirit, if not in form or object, as the search for truth in religion. Thus one may speak of the "religion of unbelief" -- the faith of those who found the prevailing orthodoxy incompatible with the truths of which they were convinced, and who followed the truth they saw wherever it led them. The heritage of the Victorian religious revival had passed to those who had kept the morality when they could not keep the faith.
But they were living on the ethical capital of the Christianity which they had abandoned. In the long run, as the defenders of orthodoxy had pointed out, it was impossible for any but a small elite to sustain a morality without the foundation of faith. By the twentieth century, Victorian morality had gone the way of Victorian orthodoxy. But it did not go with Joy: after the first flush of release, there was a sense of loss, a feeling of failure. We can "hear the ghost of late Victorian England whimpering on the grave thereof" in the words of Oscar Wilde: "I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe; the Confraternity of all the Fatherless I might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine."
Other works in the Victorian Web by the same author
The Liberal Catholic Movement in England, 1962 [Table of Contents]
Last modified 15 August 2001