[Part One of "Religious Revival and the Transformation of English Sensibilities in the Early Ninteeenth Century" © Herbert Schlossberg]
annah More, having abandoned her sparkling social life with the London intellectual elite, as well as her career as poet and playwright, took up her pen in support of her evangelical interests. Teaching the poor and ignorant to read she became concerned about providing reading material commensurate with the motivation of her schools. When she found little that was appropriate, she spearheaded a project to provide a series of inexpensive publications that came to be called the Cheap Repository Tracts. Published during 1795-1798, these little booklets included poetry, Bible stories and simple allegories with theological meaning, and tales of fictional instruction designed to inculcate homely virtues and habits of sound living. The list of financial contributors to the project included Prime Minister Pitt (Wilberforce's intimate friend), the Archbishop of Canterbury, and numerous other bishops. [Pickering, John Locke and Children's Books, 121f.] Pickering's title is suggestive in the light of Richard Brantley's theme of Locke's influence on later thinkers through Wesley. He has some very interesting material in particular on Isaac Watts (pp. 17f), the dissenting minister whose Divine Songs (1715) became very popular for children on both sides of the Atlantic for a century-and-a-half. Like Wesley, Watts was convinced by Locke's teaching on the theological significance of human experience, and he employed the teaching in his children's literature. For additional information on the effect of the Cheap Repository Tracts see Ernest Marshall Howse, Saints in Politics: The "Clapham Sect" and the Growth of Freedom, 201f.
Wilberforce, eminence grise behind much of Hannah More's activities, wrote to her in 1802 and suggested a new series of publications similar to the Cheap Repository tracts, but at a higher level, presumbly for a more educated audience. "Not withstanding your ill health, you have no valid excuse for not taking up the pen, because you write with such facility. I who, without any false humility, must say the very opposite of myself, will yet fall to work when I know you have agreed to contribute. You must not refuse me." Wilberforce to More, September 7, 1802, in Wilberforce and Wilberforce, Life of Wilberforce, 3:67.]
More and her co-workers cleverly disguised the Tracts to look like the immoral and seditious literature the books were expected to replace (this was the revolutionary period in France and Tom Paine's writings were receiving wide circulation in England), and like the others were to be sold by hawkers in the streets; to that end they were given racy titles and decked out with attractive woodcuts. Because of the money Clapham had raised the prices were as low as a half-penny each, and in quantity much less. The sales were unprecedented. In the first six weeks three hundred thousand copies flew out the door; by the end of the first year two million had been sold. Even the gentry were captivated by these writings and at their demand there was a second printing on better paper, to be sold in ordinary bookstores. Thus was born a revolutionary means for social indoctrination, one that was to be used for a variety of purposes, not all to the liking of the originators. [Altick, The English Common Reader, 75-77. Cf. John Campbell Colquhoun, William Wilberforce123f: "Her writings reached the upper classes in away then unusual. They were recommended both by her literary fame, and by the variety and sprightliness of her style. The evidence of this is found in the popularity of her works, and their circulation among the higher classes. The work on the 'Manners of the Great' ran rapidly through many editions, and passed from the Queen and the Court to the hands of fashionable ladies, literary persons, and divines. The 'Hints for the Education of a Princess' were read by the Princess Charlotte, by the bishop who was her tutor, and by the Duchess of Gloucester.
Her political Tracts, which she wrote against democratic opinions in the times of the French Revolution, (Will Chip, Village Politics, &c.,) were distributed largely by prelates, by politicians, by the Attorney-General and Bishop Porteus, by the stout old king and by Mr. Pitt. When she issued a monthly Tract (which she continued, with her friends' help, for three years), two millions of these were sold in the first year. These efforts, so acceptable to the friends of constitutional order, procured greater attention for her religious works. When she wrote 'Coelebs,' it had a success almost unequalled. It came out in two octavo volumes in 1809, and in a few days the first edition was exhausted. It ran through eleven editions in nine months; and during her lifetime 30,000 copies were sold, and the profits amounted to £7000, though the authoress had only one third of these. In America a single bookseller in New York told her that he had sold 30,000 copies; and she remarks in her later years, that there was hardly a town in the United States in which she had not a correspondent.
Her work on Practical Piety, though more distinctly religious, ran speedily to ten editions; and her work on Christian Morals, also in two volumes, published about two years after, was almost equally successful. Her last original work, 'Moral Sketches,' was written in 1819, when she had reached her 75th year. She had by this time been stripped of much domestic happiness. Her last and dearest sister had passed to her rest. Yet this work was characterized with the usual liveliness of her style; and conveyed her opinions to the upper class, for which she wrote, full of sound patriotism and Christian truth. To these writings we must add her Essay on the Character and Practical Writings of St. Paul, which was published in 1815; and this was translated, under the direction of the Chief Justice of Ceylon, Sir Alexander Johnstone, into Cingalese, into which language and the Tamil several of her tracts and poems also found their way. To celebrate the abolition of slavery in Ceylon, she wrote, in her 74th year, a spirited poem, which was translated and recited with enthusiasm in Ceylon at the anniversaries of their liberty. In her 79th year, she collected from her various works passages on prayer, and put them together in a book, issued under the title of 'The Spirit of Prayer,' which passed through three editions in three months, and of this work 5000 copies were sold. Her Bible Rhythms and religious tracts had a large circulation; and it is pleasant to notice the judgment of so competent an observer as the Rev. John Venn, who, writing from Clapham in 1810, refers a remarkable case of change of character to one of these tracts. In later years, gratifying testimonials poured in upon her both from England and America. It was found that persons moving in the higher classes of society, and exercising large influence, had received their first impressions of religion from her works. Thus was confirmed the remark made of her in earlier life by John Wesley, that her sphere of good was Society, from which he and his preachers were shut out by the notoriety of their religious views, but into which she had easy access."] More's amazing output included a didactic novel in which she used a young man's search for a wife to present moral teachings in the form of adventurour travels. Thus an innovative form of literature was incorporated into the evangelical mission to reform the nation. [Hannah More, Coelebs in Search of a Wife]
This effort by the Anglican Evangelicals to encourage reading of a certain kind echoed the long-standing efforts of Wesley to encourage his followers to read. Even earlier, English puritanism had promoted the reading of religious literature. But now the success of the Evangelicals in teaching, writing and publishing was turning ever larger numbers of the public into readers.
Probably not unconnected with the increasing evangelical influence was the change in the nature of the non-religious literature being published. Walter Scott's story of his grand aunt's rereading in old age the novels of her youth has been retold often. She had enjoyed the lusty Aphra Benn novels greatly as a young woman, when they were read aloud to large groups. Much later she was shocked and embarrassed by looking at them again, having forgotten their prurient content. Not long after Scott recounted this tale, the famous working class radical Francis Place (1771-1854) reported to the House of Commons that books that were universally regarded as pornographic in the 1830s had been widely circulated when he was young; he regarded the change as an improvement in public morals. [Buckley, The Victorian Temper, 116.] As the evangelical ethos spread through the society the English novel changed because the novelists perceived the market for their wares changing. For the respectable to feel free to read the novels, the novelists had to write respectable books. [Altick, English Common Reader, 124.]
Apart from the avoidance of material regarded as distasteful, salacious, or seditious, the spread of evangelical culture affected the subject matter, even the form, of the literature. Artistic expression increasingly used biblical typology, a mode that had fallen into disfavor in the eighteenth century. In autobiography the theme of conversion became common, even among those who had no evangelical conversion to talk about and those whose story entailed a deconversion [Henderson, The Victorian Self, 10-12.] As in autobiography so in fiction, and the novels began commonly recounting conversion experiences and speaking of the "new birth" [Schieder, "Loss and Gain?" Also Buckley, Victorian Temper, 105]. One modern scholar finds that many Victorian novels are "homilies working from the paradigm of the word of the Bible and the evangelical pulpit," offering "an imitation of the kerygmatic word so that readers are free to consider the as-if possibility of belief even if they will not accept it as an actual possibility" [Harrington, review of Elizabeth Jay, The Religion of the Heart; Citation misplaced, probably Victorian Studies], 233.]
The novelists were not merely pandering to the taste of those who might give them a living; they, like their readers, were affected by the evangelicalization of the culture. Dickens, who rarely passed by an opportunity to lampoon the evangelicals, nevertheless aped some of their favorite themes, however unconscious it may have been. He ends The Tale of Two Cities with Sidney Carton going to the guillotine, an innocent man voluntarily submitting to death in place of another, his motive being love. In Great Expectations he has Pip ruminating on his own unworthiness and his brother-in-law's virtues being expended on his behalf: "It was not because I was faithful, but because Joe was faithful, that I never ran away and went for a soldier or a sailor. It was not because I had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, but because Joe had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, that I worked with tolerable zeal against the grain." Dickens's biographer tells us the meaning of A Christmas Carol, which, he says, is:
a serio-comic parable of social redemption. Marley's Ghost is the symbol of divine grace, and the three Christmas Spirits are the working of that grace through the agencies of memory, example, and fear....The conversion of Scrooge is an image of the conversion for which Dickens hopes among mankind [Johnson, Charles Dickens, 1: 489].
Even in his private moments, a public parodist of evangelicals of a certain type could show an unexpected side to his character. When Dickens bade farewell to his sixteen-year-old son Plorn, who was off to Australia, he wrote: "I put a New Testament among your books, for the very same reasons, and with the very same hopes that made me write an easy account of it for you, when you were a little child...." [Quoted in Johnson, 2: 1100].
Richard Altick studied numerous autobiographies from the period and uncovered the books that had been most influential among their authors. The Bible, of course, was number one. After that came Pilgrim's Progress, which was often taken not as an allegory but as literal history. The taste for poetry was kindled mostly by the reading of Milton, whom the revived puritanism of the era made topical. Also popular were the old puritan sermons and products of the religious reawakening of the eighteenth century [Altick, English Common Reader, 255f.]. It is hard to calculate the effect this outpouring of literature, old and new, had on people, but it must have been enormous.
Recent studies have concluded that the religious influences on the Brontë sisters were stronger than was previously acknowledged. Most of the books they owned were theological in nature, as was a healthy proportion of those available to them for borrowing. Products of an evangelical parsonage, many of their acquaintances were clergymen, and their stories were populated with similar men. Their poetry was redolent of the hymnal and the prayer book [Winnifrith, The Brontës].
Jane Austen was known for her reticence in speaking about religion, and was never favorably disposed toward enthusiasms. In 1809, she wrote to her sister: "I do not like the Evangelicals," but five years later she remarked to a friend: "I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, and am at least persuaded that they who are so from reason and feeling must be happiest and safest." Recent scholarship suggests that the last three of her novels were more profound than the earlier ones because they were more reflective of the evangelical movement, and also of the spiritual development of the novelist. [Jenkins, Jane Austen , 313; Koppel, The Religious Dimension of Jane Austen's Novels, 5f; Brantley, Locke, Wesley and the Method of English Romanticism, 208.]
Carlyle, one of the most influential writers of the century, ostensibly left his Calvinism behind in the Scottish countryside when as a young man he moved to London. Yet, his father's theology, while it may have departed from his mind, seemingly animated his heart. Charles Frederick Harrald argued that Carlyle's dalliance with German philosophy provided him with an intellectually acceptable "restatement" of various Calvinist themes — a transcendent God, a kind of fatalism, the elect — and that he was, therefore, "a Calvinist without the theology." In some respects he remained a religious conservative with a biblical world view. That this perspective asserted itself more in his later books accounts for the hostility with which many admirers of his early work view his later ones. [Brantley, Coordinates of Anglo-American Romanticism, 44. Brantley maintains that Carlyle retained some arminian elements that came largely from Wesley, as in the case of Chartism, which stressed the worth of every individual soul, the crusade against drunkenness and idleness, his hopes for education and for the moral redemption of the poor (66).] He was deeply moved by the death of his father, who remained a staunch Calvinist until the end, and this most unsentimental of men published his spectulations about that difficult period of his life.
Perhaps my father, all that essentially was my father is even now near me, with me. Both he and I are with God. Perhaps, if it so please God, we shall in some higher state of being meet one another, recognize one another. As it is written, We shall be for ever with God. The possiblity, nay (in some way) the certainty of perennial existence daily grows plainer to me. [Carlyle, Reminiscences, 1:65.]
This is not to say that Carlyle was in any sense orthodox. He belonged to no church and professed no confession. But the peculiar nature of his age was that the religious material both overtly and covertly permeated the public and private sensibilities that those who could not in good conscience recite the creed nevertheless possessed assumptions and habits of thought that could only be logically inferred from the creed. [For a good short explication of the paradox of the unreligious religiosity of Carlyle, see Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty, 200.] Lord Byron who, like Carlyle, rebelled against his Calvinist upbringing, retained the sense of external law and reflected the image of the "evangelical wave." [Hilton, Age of Atonement, 30. Clubbe and Lovell, English Romanticism, 101 believe the guilt so evident in Byron's heroes are a remainder of Christian orthodoxy.] Matthew Arnold, although a very different kind of man and writer, was similar in that respect. His writings are usually associated with the erosion of the orthodox faith that was characteristic of the mid- and late years of the century, but he remained a practicing Anglican until his death, and he expected that the Church would continue, probably more in keeping with its catholic heritage than its protestant one. [Robbins, The Ethical Idealism of Matthew Arnold, 30.]
In addition to the spread of religious ideas through churches and Sunday schools and the voluntary activity of reading books, there were other cultural influences. Lindley Murray, a devout Evangelical, was asked by some young teachers at a women's school for help in teaching grammar. Murray obliged by writing English Grammar, published in 1795. This book quickly became the standard reference in establishing and teaching the correct use of the language. The interesting thing about this book is the illustrative material, which was full of the expression and ideas of evangelicalism. It was praised not only by evangelicals but by educators of virtually every stripe, and it remained in wide use until the end of the nineteenth century. [Cruse, The Englishman and his Books, 87f. One of C.S.Lewis's best known and most profound books, though simply-written, is The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947), which is an essay based on the hidden assumptions of the illustrative matter in a grammar book, written by two schoolmasters. Lewis begins the book: "I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text-books" (13), not because he has a special concern for the effectiveness of the books in teaching their purported subject matter, but because of the tendency for the philosophy hidden behind the illustrations to affect the world view of the readers.] Such books were prevalent in dwellings as well as schoolrooms, and a French traveler to England in the 1860s noted that religious works dominated on the bookshelves of the cottages. Since books were still very expensive, for ordinary people the libraries were of more importance in the task of selecting books to read than were the bookstores. For the most part the libraries habituated by working class readers were disproportionately filled with religious literature, and the same was true of those for the more affluent. The library potentate Charles Edward Mudie catered to a class that could afford a guinea a year as a subscription fee, and he acted as a kind of watchdog on the reading habits of the population; his standards were firmly evangelical. This had a marked effect on the selection process of the publishers, from whom one could frequently hear the cry during a strategy session, "What will Mudie say?" [Altick, English Common Reader, 246, 296].
For ordinary people music may be more formative than books. Even before the Wesleyan movement began Isaac Watts's songs began influencing people thinking and emotions. Charles Wesley's hymns made an astounding impact on those who heard them and especially on those who sang them. People had the words burned into their minds by the meter and tune. "The effect of this memorization process could be profound," writes Susan Tamke. "For many Victorians the hymns learned in childhood made a deep and lasting impression. In adulthood they could remember the lyrics automatically and, even more important, that recall often included a recapitulation of the emotional climate surrounding the original learning process" [Tamke, Make a Joyful Noise, 78. Eleanor Roosevelt provides an illustration of how the process works. Though not conventionally religious, she recalled that she grew up memorizing Bible verses and hymns as a daily practice. She thought it curious that even late in life, at crucial moments the appropriate passages would come to mind to give her guidance [Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, "The Minorities Questions," 72].
Content last modified 1998