Victorian Faith In Crisis; & Protestant Evangelicanism

Edward Norman | Published in History Today

Victorian Faith In Crisis. Essays On Continuity And Changein Nineteenth-Century Religious Belief

Edited by Richard J. Helmstadter and Bernard Lightman - Macmillan, 1990 - 391 pp. - £45

Protestant Evangelicanism: Britain, Ireland, Germany And America C.1750-1950

Edited by Keith Robbins - Blackwell, 1990 - 369 pp. - £35

Victorian sceptics of religious faith made extremely heavy weather of their doubts: they luxuriated in their agonies, they picked away at the sores, and, like all compulsive moralists, most of them ended up with a structure of secular ethicism which was considerably more demanding than the faith they had abandoned. Christianity, after all, was addressed by its Founder to sinners – it was always recognised that corrupted humanity would go on being corrupt to the end of time; but ethicists are looking for a secular redemption, and their view of people who fall short is severe. To listen to Anglican sermons of the present day is, as it happens, to hear a version which sometimes contains about as much authentic religion as the Victorian free-thinkers allowed themselves. We can now marvel at how much they continued to believe; we can be astounded at the degree to which the contemporary custodians of religious truth have abandoned the core of faith.

So much that has been written about the Victorian sceptics has centred on the literateurs, the apostasising parsons, and the bourgeois housewives with nothing to do but tinker around with their own delicate consciences. Interpretation, in consequence, has followed their breathless journey to unbelief, recounted with such delicious thrill and with so grand a measure of portentous explanation. Mrs Humphrey Ward's Robert Elsmere, (1888), the Anglican priest whose departure from faith shocked and delighted a generation, would today be able to express his opinions quite unexceptionably in a television discussion programme.

It is one of the great advantages of Victorian Faith in Crisis that the essayists direct themselves to beyond the literary and professional elite. While they do not, it is true, do much to probe the difficult question of free- thought within the society of the upper working class (the 'skilled artisans'), from where its seepage was doubtless more significant than from the drawing-rooms of the affluent thinkers, they do greatly widen the horizon of the debate in general. The collection is filled with new insights into particular and selected dimensions, and the writing is precise and in general well informed.

Contemporary advocates of family values had better look at their effects on religious beIief, as correctly portrayed in this book. Here the essay by Frank Turner is especially valuable. The Evangelicals were to blame. Having preached up the notion of the godly family, knit together under the male head of the household, with daily Bible reading and shared recounting of conversion experiences, they managed to create an emotional tyranny. Normal family tensions then provoked individual spiritual crises, and all the usual assertions of adolescent self-identity ended up by questioning the tight family structure in which religions, faith and social authority were unhappily conjoined. 'In other words,' Turner writes, 'some people experienced loss of faith and all the pain and anguish accompanying it quite simply because they wished to grow up and consequently and necessarily break out of their original family circle'.

Now it is the Evangelicals who are, in our own day, once again rising to control the Church of England. And the Puritan spirit, which we have always with us, in alliance with petit-bourgeois morality, is clambering to revive the rule of law to enforce 'family values'. Protestant Evangelicalism is an excellent assemblage of essays which remind us, on the other hand, of more serious and agreeable aspects of Evangelical religion. Professor Ward had himself made a sparkling contribution to Victorian Faith in Crisis, and this other volume, of essays in his honour, is a splendid complement. Collections of this sort have a necessary incoherence: themes are always a little artificial in a festchrift. Yet here there are assessments of Evangelical thought which reveal that it had, in the past at any rate, a reasonable intellectual content.

Edward Norman is the author of The English Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1984).

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