In John Whale's review of a recent book on the Evangelical conversion narrative in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he notes how both preachers and their listeners, particularly women, found preaching addictive:

"Nothing would satisfy me", wrote Matthias Joyce, "but hearing the people roar under the sermon, from a sense of their misery; and, on the other hand, shouting for joy. through a sense of pardoning love."

Of the women in these congregations, many had led drab lives. A Cambuslang weaver's daughter, Elizabeth Johnson, was stirred when she saw "how much good others were getting, while I was let alone". A number of such women had found little joy in marriage: their experience of it was of over-frequent pregnancy, ill-treatment, desertion. Some of them seemed to look to Jesus for an alternative that went beyond metaphor. Martha Barham described herself as "one spirit, flesh and bone" with him, and as having given herself "entirely to him, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, till death shall convey me into his dear arms and bosom". Others directed these yearnings at their ministers, and let them know it. "Margaret Austin tells me", Charles Wesley recorded in his diary, "she has longed for my coming as a child for the breast." James Hutton (who as a member of the Moravian tendency, an Eastern European import, would have preferred quieter ways than prevailed among Methodists) wrote in 1740 that the Wesley brothers, "both of them, are dangerous snares to many young women; several are in love with them". [32]

Objections to emotional religion such as Hutton's have a long history in English literature, most notably in Jonathan Swift's brilliantly scurrilous satire in The Tale of a Tub. There the Anglican clergyman matched his Protestant attacks on the excesses of Roman Catholicism in Section IV with even more savage ones on Puritan or Low Church appeals to the emotions by conflating the etymologies of spirit, inspiration, and divine afflatus with notions of pride and sexuality. In The Tale of a Tub all such religious inspiration turns out to be a matter of gas and irritated or swollen body parts, so that allegedly religious experiences, sexuality, and farting turn out to be the results of pride (or being swollen or puffed up).

Dickens and other Victorian authors also satirized what they took to be the excesses of Evangelical religion, though, as might be expected, they do not emphasize any connection between it and sexual pleasures. Instead, as Sam Weller's father complains in Pickwick, Evangelical preachers like Stiggins are little more than swindlers who "reg'larly turns the heads of all the young ladies, about here. Lord bless their little hearts, they thinks its all right, and don't know no better; but they're the wictims o' gammon, Samivel, they're the wictims o' gammon (Ch. 27). Elsewhere in the novel, we see Stiggins consuming excessive amounts of a household's food and drink and leading Mrs. Weller to neglect household duties and to abandon local charity in favor of essentially useless foreign missionary efforts. As the older Weller puts it,

"Nothin' else," said Mr. Weller, shaking his head gravely; "and wot aggrawates me, Samivel, is to see 'em a wastin' all their time and labour in making clothes for copper-coloured people as don't want 'em, and taking no notice of the flesh-coloured Christians as do. If I'd my vay, Samivel, I'd just stick some o' these here lazy shepherds behind a heavy wheelbarrow, and run 'em up and down a fourteen-inch-wide plank all day. That 'ud shake the nonsense out of 'em, if anythin' vould." [ch. 27, p.359]

As Lauren Goodlad points out in Victorian Literature and the Victorian State, "Dickens's anti-feminist assault on middle-class women's extradomestic activities" (108), which appear in his satiric presentations of Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle [in Bleak House], derives from his fears that by going outside the home, these women will simultaneously destroy the last refuge of the personal and "take on the cast of administrative machinery" (110). For Dickens and many other authors, Evangelical do-gooders threatened to destroy the home. Dickens, whose father's stay in debtor's prison led to one of the most traumatic events in the novelist's life, depicts many more incompetent, irresponsible fathers than mothers, but the dreadful mothers in his novels, like Mrs. Clenham in Little Dorrit, are usually explicitly Evangelical.

Victorian fiction is also full of hypocritical Evangelicals, such as the Rev. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre, but Evangelical men and women alike were charged with being guilty of this vice. Not surprisingly, charges of hypocrisy, like attacks women's irresponsibility, derive from key features, perhaps virtues, of Evangelicalism. Whereas foolish emotionalism is the other side of the emotional, imaginative Evangelical religion that enriched so many Victorian lives, hypocrisy was the other side and inevitable consequence of two related Evangelical emphases — namely that the truly converted believer must demonstrate zeal, particularly in her actions on behalf of others, and that believers should make immoral behavior unfashionable. Class divisions occasionally made such attempts to raise the tone of the public sphere appear particularly hypocritical. Evangelical attempts to close pubs and other forms of popular entertainment, which Punch mocked, rang particularly hollow because members of the wealthier classes had access to private clubs and luxurious homes to which such rules would not apply.

Related Materials


Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. New York, London: Penguin Books, 1999.

Goodlad, Lauren M. E. Victorian Literature and the Victorian State: Character and Governance in a Liberal Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003.

Hindmarsh, D. Bruce. The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

Whale, John. "Scab on the Story," Times Literary Supplement (17 February 2006): 32.

Last modified 19 February 2016