Arnold's Main Beliefs

Today Thomas Arnold is remembered, when he is remembered at all, as a brilliant pioneer of both liberal Protestantism and educational reform. At the height of his fame, however, he was vilified almost continuously for his statements about religion. Arnold's broadly ecumenical beliefs infuriated many devout Victorian sectarians because they believed, like the preacher who finally drove Ruskin to abandon Christianity for several decades, that they and only they would be saved (or, in some cases, already had been saved, and they knew it). In contrast, this intensely devout man held a few simple, direct points of belief:

Arnold's Central Belief

Thomas Arnold effectively communicated his deepest beliefs to readers of his sermons and to his oldest Rugby students. He did not do so, however, by using the characteristic methods of evangelical preachers, such as Charles Spurgeon, who related their most private spiritual experiences in powerfully emotional personal narratives. Instead, he led them to understand the reality of Gospel history and promises. "'He appeared to me,' writes a pupil, whose intercourse with him never extended beyond these lessons, 'to be remarkable for his habit of realizing every thing that we are told in Scripture. . . . he seemed to have the freshest view of our Lord's life and death that I ever knew a man to possess. His rich mind filled up the naked outline of the Gospel history; — it was to him he most interesting fact that has ever happened, — is real, as exciting (if I may use the expression) as any recent event in modern history of which the actual effects are visible'" (I, 156). Arnold's patent sincerity, his avoidance of cant terms that had lost all emotional valence, and his simple style, like that which characterized his writing, had powerful effects on his young listeners.

The Moral and Political Corollaries of Christianity

Arnold fervently believed that Christianity and Christians must oppose "moral evil," and for him this meant fighting against slavery and for fair treatment of working people, even if that meant approving the violence of the French Revolution, which terrified so many Victorians. Arnold, who believed that Christianity fundamentally supported reform, strongly supported the 1832 Reform Bill, though he did not overestimate its ultimate value. Much like Ruskin two decades after Arnold's death, Rugby's famous headmaster had a radically Christian political economics. And because he believed that Christianity intrinsically involved reform and improvement, he could explain to a close friend and fellow clergyman, "My abhorrence of Conservatism is not because it checkes liberty, — in an established democracy it would favour liberty; but because it checks the growth of mankind in wisdom, goodness and happiness, by striving to maintain institutions which are of necessity temporary, and thus never hindering change, but often depriving the change of half its value" (I, 431; F. C. Blackstone, 28 July 1835). This "abhorrence of Conservatism" detonates in a letter of November 1830 to his sister Susannah that reacts to a letter to The Times that had recommended

that the clergy should preach subordination and obedience. I seriously say, God forbid they should; for, if any earthly thing could ruin Christianity in England, it would be this. If they read Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos and Habakkuk, they will find that the Prophets, in a similar state of society in Judea, did not preach subordination only or chiefly, but they denounced oppression, and amassing overgrown properties, and grinding the labourers to the smallest possible pittance1; and they denounced the Jewish high-church party for countenancing all these iniquities, and prophesying smooth things to please the aristocracy. If the clergy would come forward as one man from Cumberland to Cornwall, exhorting peaceableness on the one side, and justice on the other, denouncing the high rents nnd the game laws, and the carelessness which keeps the poor ignorant, and then wonders that they arc brutal, I verily believe they might yet save themselves and the state. But the truth is that we are living amongst a population whom we treat with all the haughtiness and indifference that we could treat slaves, whom we allow to be slaves in ignorance, without having them chained and watched to prevent them from hurting us. I only wish you could read Arthur Young's Travels in France in 1789 and 1790, and see what he says of the general outbreak then of the peasantry, when they burnt the chateaux all over France, and ill-used the families of the proprietors, and then compare the orderliness of the French populace now. It speaks volumes for small subdivided properties, general intelligence, and an absence of aristocratical manners and distinctions. [I, 291]

Arnold's Ecumenism

"I groan," he told one of his correspondents in December 1834, "over the divisions of the Church, of all our evils I think the greatest, — of Christ's Church I mean, — that men should call themselves Roman Catholics, Church of England men, Baptists, Quakers, all sorts of various appellations, forgetting that only glorious name of CHRISTIAN, which is common to all, and a true bond of union. I begin now to think that things must be worse before they are better, and that nothing but some great pressure from without will make Christians cast away their idols of Sectarianism; the worst and most mischievous by which Christ's Church has ever been plagued" (I, 402). According to him, the Epistles use the term heresy only for instances of moral wrong, not for disagreements over points of doctrine, and therefore we should avoid insisting that individual groups, parties, or denominations have the only true religion. Sectarianism for Arnold was one of the first and worst of worldly evils, probably because it derives from a kind of pride, from self-confidence that one (and only one) is right. This ecumenism made him one of the few Anglican divines who advocated Catholic Emancipation, the restoration of full civil liberties to Roman Catholics that they had lost centuries earlier.

I always grounded the right to Emancipation on the principle that Ireland was a distinct nation, entitled to govern itself. I know full well that my principles would lead to the establishment of the Roman Catholic religion in three-fourths of Ireland. . . . Those who think that Catholicism is idolatry, ought, on their own principles, to move heaven and earth for the repeal of the Union, and to let O'Connell rule his Kelts their own way. I think that a Catholic is a member of Christ's Church just as much as I am, and I could well endure one form of that Church in Ireland, and another in England.. . . I only hope that when they do they will reform themselves so far as to be thorough Christians, and avoid, as they would a dog or a viper, the errors which marred the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, destroying things most noble and most purifying, as well as things superstitious and hurtful. . . . I will trust no man when he turns fanatic; and really these high churchmen are far more fanatical and much more foolish than Irving himself. Irving appealed to the gifts of tongues and of healing, which he alleged to exist in his congregation, as proofs that the Holy Spirit was with them; but the high churchmen abandon reason.

Arnold opened his arms to all Christians, to all who believed in salvation through Christ, but those, such as Unitarians and Jews, who did not meet this criterion, were unacceptable. He would not, therefore, support civil rights for Jews (which some evangelicals strongly advocated) as he had for Catholics, and for this reason he also would not accept Unitarian boys at Rugby, though here an additional reason involved his belief that he had no right to interfere with a father's choice of religion for his child.

Arnold's Conception of the Church of Christ

According to Dean Stanley, Arnold's close friend and biographer, he maintained that the chief purpose of the Church

"to be the putting down of moral evil." . . . . Its true nature he believed to be not an institution of the clergy, but a living society of all Christians. . . . "if I were asked, What are the laity? would answer. The Church minus the Clergy." "This," he said, "is the view taken of the Church in the New Testament; can it be said that it is the view held amongst ourselves, and if not, is not the difference incalculable?" It was as frustrating the union of all Christians, in accomplishing what he believed to be the true end enjoined by their common Master, that he felt so strongly against the desire for uniformity of opinion or worship, which he used to denounce under the name of sectarianism; it was an annihilating what he believed to be the Apostolical idea of a Church, that he felt so strongly against that principle of separation between the clergy and laity, which he used to denounce under the name of priestcraft. [I, 226]

High Churchmen, members of the Oxford Movement and their sympathizers, attacked Arnold because he absolutely denied a point of dogma that separated them from other Christians — their insistence that the Anglican Church was a holy organization directly descended from Christ's apostles and that therefore its priests had a special holy status. Of course, Arnold shared a good many High Church approaches to religion, including the importance of confirmation, an awareness of the dark side of the Reformation, a suspicion of egotistical, emotional religion, and attempts of both preachers and laymen to emphasize particularly difficult parts of scripture, such as Revelations. Like Newman, Keble, and Pusey, in other words, Arnold disapproved of the tone and emphasis of evangelicals without and without the Church. Nonetheless, he had much in common with evangelicals, too, for he shared their fervent belief, so unlike that of the Tractarians, in direct moral social and political action, such as appears in the anti-slavery movement — long a major evangelical cause that Arnold supported. At the same time, Stanley points out, "he felt most keenly his differences with the so-called Evangelical party," which then had long dominated British religion, because he believed "their narrow views and technical phraseology" prevented "the real and practical application of the Old and New Testament, as the remedy of the great wants of the age, social, moral, and intellectual" (I, 286).


Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn. The life and correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D., late head-master of Rugby school, and regius professor of modern history in the University of Oxford. 4th ed. 2 vols. London: B. Fellowes, 1845.

Last modified 16 July 2006