You do not have to read very far in Matthew Arnold’s tracts for the times to know what may have been wrong with Nonconformists. He does not spare their provincialism and ignorance, their immeasurable self-satisfaction and their lack of any critical standard, their relish for bathos, and the act that they had seemingly locked themselves into the narrow room of “Puritanism” and showed no desire to get out. Had, then, the extension of this power meant in any sense at all the extension of civilization in this world, in whatever way it may have been preparing men’s souls for the next?
The indictment is heavy, and if the tone and the tendency to nag irritates it is well to remember that Arnold had met the men he is writing about and we have not. Yet it may be questioned whether in fact he is really blaming the right thing. That the people about whom he wrote were as he described them is probable, the question to be asked is whether, Nonconformity apart, they had much chance of being anything else. A rapidly expanding society, where the opportunities of education were often negligible, leisure at a discount and the needs of commerce and industry ever insistent, was not likely to encourage the values Arnold admired, whether it was dominated by Nonconformity or no. It may, in fact, be questioned whether the faults of Nonconformity were what they were because the society in which they developed was what it was, or the society was what it was because of the nature of Nonconformity. It is true that their self-righteousness may have been an unlovely trait, but self-righteousness is natural to men who have never had the chance of a generous education but who have made something of life. It is true that to be locked in Puritanism has undeniably a restrictive effect on the human spirit, but as has been said earlier, Puritanism should always be measured by whatever it is guarding itself against. . . .
In fact, it seems probable that the revival in all its forms — Anglican, Roman Catholic and Protestant Nonconformist — gave shape and meaning to many lives which otherwise would have had none. It was unfortunate that the nature and comprehensiveness of that mening was all too often limited by the comprehension and education of the en who gave it, and that these limitations were too often rendered opaque by a natural but irremovable self-satisfaction. . . . Even so, the appropriate question seems to be, What was the alternative? From what other source could they have gained what they have gained from the chapel? This is a question that has been answered by a man who knew in his own person what Methodism could mean to a working man. “The chapel gave them,” said he, “their first music, their first literature and philosophy to meet the harsh life and cruel impact of the crude materialistic age.” . . .If it did anything like this for many of the people who were being carried swiftly along by the tide of that world it seems possible that the debt of the country to it is very great. [195-96]
Clark, G. Kitson. The Making of Victorian England (1962). New York: Atheneum, 1971.
Last modified 10 April 2017