The Bible and the Victorians
Describing the state of her mattress after a period of persistent rain, the 19-year-old Florence Nightingale wrote to her sister that it had become ‘the pool of Siloam’. Years later she instructed nurses on the proper way to dress by giving a four point exposition based on Jesus’ remarks in Matthew’s Gospel about how God clothes the flowers of the field.
Timothy Larsen quotes these allusions to Scripture by this particular eminent Victorian, who was herself an extreme liberal in theological matters, to illustrate just how saturated in the Bible was the culture of 19th-century England. The Victorians’ tendency to read their own experiences through a Biblical lens and to express their thoughts and emotions in Scriptural language extended to agnostics and atheists. The leading freethinkers, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, who had both lost their faith as a result of finding discrepancies between the four Gospels while pursuing Biblically-based devotional exercises in their youth, went on cheerfully quoting the Bible long after they had become militant secularists. Bradlaugh even learned Hebrew so that he could better pursue his magnum opus, a massive Bible commentary published in 1870.
Larsen’s book brilliantly and engagingly illuminates the extent to which the Victorians were ‘a people of one book’ by exploring the hold of the Bible in the lives and writings of 12 representative figures. Commendably and refreshingly more than half his case studies are of women. They include Josephine Butler, representing Evangelical Anglicanism; Catherine Booth, who had read through the entire Bible eight times by the age of 12, representing Methodism and the Holiness movement; the Unitarian Mary Carpenter; the Quaker Elizabeth Fry, for whom daily Bible reading was at the heart of her manifesto for prison reform; as well as Nightingale, who herself denied that the Bible was a uniquely inspired book and is taken to represent liberal broad church Anglicanism.
Larsen’s theme is echoed by Giles St Aubyn, who writes that ‘the Victorians were the most Biblically literate people known in British history’. The subject matter of his book is considerably wider than its title suggests. It is essentially a description of Victorian religious belief in all its facets, with lengthy sections on Evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism as well as on Positivism, spiritualism and atheism. There is, indeed, too much extraneous information and digression and it could have been usefully pruned. It is only on page 177, a third of the way in, that Larsen begins to tackle the Victorian crisis of faith that is supposedly the book’s main theme.
When the author does eventually get on to this subject he is covering ground that is already well trodden. Like others who have recently written in this area, including Larsen in his Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Victorian England (2008), St Aubyn identifies three main reasons why Victorian believers slipped into doubt: inability to reconcile the idea of a good and benevolent God with the reality of suffering and evil – what he calls the morality of religion; questions over the historical credibility of the Bible in the light of Biblical criticism and the rise of the historical method; and the impact of science, especially the theory of evolution.
Although he has no substantial new revelations to offer, St Aubyn covers the ground with commendable thoroughness and clarity and, like Larsen, is adept at the use of telling anecdotes. One such is the story of the dying clergyman in the early 1880s who sent for Edwin Abbott, a well-known liberal divine, and confessed that, although an Anglican priest, he no longer believed in the Creed. He blamed his loss of faith on being ‘taught to believe too much when young’ and urged Abbott, who at the time was headmaster of the City of London School, to ensure that his pupils were offered ‘a religion that would wear’. A moving encounter from the same period involved Queen Victoria and Tennyson discussing their belief that there must be another world ‘where there would be no partings’ and their mutual horror of ‘unbelievers and philosophers, who would try to make one believe that there was no other world, no immortality, and who tried to explain everything away in a miserable manner’.
Both these books underline the extent to which the Victorians clung on to the roots and language of religious faith after they had abandoned it. St Aubyn rightly reflects that ‘one characteristic of Victorian doubt was its essential religiosity’, echoing Larsen’s comment about Bradlaugh: ‘Victorian Britain’s pre-eminent atheist went on struggling with Scripture to the end.’
Ian Bradley is Reader in Church History at the University of St Andrews.
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