[Part Eight of "Religious Revival and the Transformation of English Sensibilities in the Early Ninteeenth Century" © Herbert Schlossberg]

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The reputation of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby, has to some extent been established largely by the testimony of his most influential critic — John Henry Newman. He had first known Arnold as one of the "noetics" at Oriel College whom he had been tempted to follow into liberalism. In the Apologia, Newman said repeatedly that the great enemy he was fighting was liberalism, and he also made clear that Arnold was a prime examplar of that detested ideology. In one famous incident he asked rhetorically whether Arnold could even be considered a Christian [Apologia, 52]. Newman here tries to soften the fact of his annoyance with Arnold, by declaring it to have been temporary, but in fact he reveals the depth of his estrangement with his understanding of what Arnold stands for.] Many Evangelicals had similar opinions of Arnold and of the broad church movement in general. On the other hand there is good reason to question the accuracy of this assessment. Thomas Hughes was perhaps the most famous of Rugby's graduates from the days of the Arnold regime because of his novel Tom Brown's Schooldays, which gave to the English public an inside look at what life at Rugby was like. Later on Hughes became one of the leaders of the misnamed Christian socialist movement. In that later period he gave an address to an assembly of schoolboys in which he had this to say:

I tell you that all the miseries of England and of other lands consist simply in this and in nothing else...that we men, made in the image of God, made to know Him, to be one with Him and His Son, will not confess that Son, our Lord and Brother, to be the Son of God and Son of Man, the living Head of our race and of each one of us. [Quoted in Norman, The Victorian Christian Socialists, 81.]

Could Hughes have learned this message from Dr. Arnold at Rugby? Not according to most of Arnold's critics, but the sermons Arnold preached at the school suggest otherwise.

In the introduction to the published sermons, Arnold is critical of those who support zealously the outward forms of Christian faith but are reluctant to admit "its principles in the concerns of common life, in matters belonging to their own trade or profession, or above all, in the conduct of national affairs. They will not tolerate its spirit in their every day practice, but ridicule it as visionary and impracticable." [Arnold, sermons, 1: iv.] This is precisely the central message of Wilberforce's Practical View and Hannah More's Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great. He acknowledges that some Englishmen are familiar with the gospel message from their childhood. "But it is quite needless to say that our congregations are not such as these; but that a large proportion of them foreever require to be told afresh what is the very foundation of Christian life" [2].

He calls it a superstition to think that baptism is "a sort of charm" that will preserve an individual from the penalty of damnation [44].

He speaks forcefully against confusing Christian faith with moralism. What is needed is not "improvement...but a change of heart and life; a change of principles, of hopes, of fears, of master; a change from death unto life; from Satan to God" [53]. The diparagement of mere outward religion without inner devotion is a constant theme of the sermons. See, for example, 3:178f. One of his confirmation sermons exhorts the boys:

Let your most earnest prayer to God be, that you may follow Christ with a single mind and a single heart; not with affections divided between him and his enemies, with a wish to please him when it will not interfere with pleasing the world. Attach yourself to your Saviour who has died for you, and let him be indeed your breath of life for ever. [2: 336]

Arnold has been associated with broad church antinomianism, but he separated himself from anything "low in principle or in feeling, any thing deserving of the name of latitudinarian" [3: iv]. He bound himself to the traditions of the church, denying novelty: "And if in any principle...I should be found to differ from these really great authorities, it would be to me as much a matter of surprise as of regret" [vi]. I venture to say that all these ideas can be found in the writings of Wesley and in the letters of Wilberforce, and many of them comport with Tractarian thinking as well.

The significance of Arnold is not just that of a schoolmaster, even of a renowned school like Rugby. The school was not renowned before his tenure, and afterwards the public school system was reformed along the lines he had established. In his poisonous parody treating Arnold as a mere purveyor of respectability, Lytton Strachey nevertheless recognized his enormous influence. "After Dr. Arnold, no public school could venture to ignore the virtues of respectability" [Strachey, Eminent Victorians, 213]. I have seen a letter of Wilberforce, probably dating from the 1790s, in which he advises a friend that the public schools are too damaging to a boy's faith to make it wise for a Christian father to send a son to one of them. That suggests the magnitude of Arnold's achievement. From Rugby and later from newly founded or reformed public schools a stream of boys poured forth which would provide the leadership of the nation for decades into the future. We cannot know how many were embued with Thomas Hughes's convictions, but I would say the number was not inconsiderable.


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