This period was marked by bitter and prolonged controversies precipitated by such things as the intellectual polemics of the Tractarians, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), the provocative theological symposium Essays and Reviews (1860) and its milder successor Lex Mundi (1889) and the publication of the Vatican Decrees in 1870. Poets and novelists portrayed the trauma of the loss of faith in individuals, and the editors of newspapers and serious journals provided a forum for a religious elite that grappled with questions of doubt and disbelief very publicly. Articulate Victorians were preoccupied with the future of religion almost to the point of morbidity.
However, these articulate individuals did not constitute a cross-section of their society. They were the talented, well educated and the kind of people whose beliefs and values were recorded either by themselves or others. It is therefore no easy task to generalise from what they wrote and what was written about them, to the attitudes of the whole society. Was their ‘crisis of faith’ part of a new phenomenon of ideological secularisation that set the Victorian age apart from earlier periods of English religious history? If it was, can the decline of religion after 1900 be attributed, at least in part, to the gradual erosion of religious practice by this tide of doubt and disbelief?
A ‘crisis of faith’?
The intellectual ferment of the second half of the nineteenth century differed from that of earlier periods in important aspects of tone and substance and in the extent to which it implicated the ordinary church-going population as well as the religious intelligentsia. It was the percolation downwards of theological uncertainty into the ranks of ordinary believers that marks the Victorian period off from the doubt and disbelief of Hanoverian society.
Radical and potentially subversive ideas were popularised in Victorian society and this added a new dimension to the relationship between the Churches and the wider intellectual world. Victorian laymen, judged by the diet served them in popular religious newspapers, periodicals and sermons, were capable of considerable theological subtlety, but even those who were less subtle could be caught up in the crises of Darwinism and biblical criticism. The popularisation of controversy involved many of the rank and file of Church and Chapel communities in earnest debate and soul-searching. Indeed, it was the involvement of the general public in Victorian religious controversies, as much as the controversies themselves, those contemporaries often found noteworthy.
What was novel was the emergence of popular theological speculation within the Churches. Popular infidelity was not new, but in the past its very hostility to the Christian tradition had militated against its chances of subverting the faith of the church-going population. In its most famous articulation, the Age of Reason of 1794, Thomas Paine had set out to lay an axe to the roots of popular religiosity and he had reached a wide audience. As City Mission workers found in the late nineteenth century, a strong undercurrent of proletarian secularism, Paineite in the bold invective and blunt ribaldry with which it was expressed. This augmented the more urbane secularism of people like Charles Bradlaugh, George Jacob Holyoake and Annie Besant. But the Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ was not precipitated by such counter-religious propaganda. It was not secularists but devout Christians that were its most effective proponents. The controversial Essays and Reviews of 1860 was the work of six Anglican clergymen and a devout layman.
There were profound misgivings in all the Churches that the traditional tenets of belief and faith were being questioned in an attempt to come to terms with wider intellectual tendencies that were anathema to some of their brethren. The most famous Victorian Baptist, whose periodical The Sword and the Trowel brought tensions to a head among Baptists in 1887, published a series of articles accusing radicals of the denomination of virtual apostasy. Similar crises occurred in Wesleyanism in the early 1880s when Rev. W.H. Dallinger was prevented from delivering the Fernley lecture advancing the synthesis of Methodist theology and evolutionary theory. Among Congregationalists similar problems arose as the result of the airing of advanced theological opinions during a meeting associated with the autumnal session of the Congregational Union held in Leicester in October 1877. Despite the tensions that the popularisation of these issues generated and the obvious fascination they held for denominational editors, preachers and pamphleteers, controversy was less significant within the Churches than the absence of permanent division. The ‘crisis of faith’ was contained and produced very little actual loss of faith. While there were notable cases of apostasy, doubt generally led not to disbelief but to theological revision of one kind or another.
Declining recruitment: a factor in the ‘crisis of faith'
The decline of religious adherence in modern English society was not caused by the loss of existing members. Membership retention has not been a major problem. From the 1830s, when various churches associated with the Baptist Union began compiling statistics, a growing number of English religious organisations have collected and collated data on aspects of recruitment and loss. A similar picture emerges in each case. While they have been growing rapidly, religious organisations have had a high turnover in membership: losses by expulsion, lapsing and leakage were offset by extremely rapid recruitment. But as their growth rates have declined, so did membership turnover. In Wesleyanism, for example, annual losses of total membership were 14.1 per cent of the total membership in 1880-81 but only 6.8 per cent in 1932. However, in 1881 it had attracted enough new members to offset the loss, by 1932 losses greatly exceeded new member. Recruitment rather than loss was the crucial variable in the process of decline.
What were the links between the Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ and the growing inability of the Churches to draw new members from the broader society? The intellectual tensions occasioned by theological revisionism and Darwinian theory did not produce any significant rate of defection among existing adherents. The reason for this lay in the strong social and cultural pressures that existing among Victorian Christians to reach some sort of ideological compromise. The heat was generally taken out of the crises by an almost irresistible imperative towards accommodation with the wider intellectual world, an imperative as much social as intellectual. In a society that was no longer dominated by a pervasive religious belief, there was a distinctively modern religious-cultural preoccupation with making the Christian faith relevant.
The quest for relevance is a characteristic of neither church type religion, in which relevance is assured by social domination, nor of sect type religion that involves an acceptance of cultural marginality. It is a preoccupation of denominational type religion. It is essential for the survival of denominations that depend on the voluntary allegiance of members who adhere in general to the prevalent ideas and intellectual fashions of their age. Victorian Christianity’s attempts to come to terms with biological and geological science, social science, archaeology, comparative religion, historical scholarship and philosophical theology can be seen in this light. The alternative to achieving some kind of ideological accommodation was the increasing marginality and cultural isolation of organised religion within English society. The ‘crisis of faith’ was part of the broader process of secularisation.
Denominations do not have the control over their members of either churches or sects. Membership does not exclude other commitments and denominational life is only one of a variety of associational activities. The denomination must compete for the energies and time of individuals with other recreational, social, cultural and vocational activities. The transition to denomination means that the organisation could no longer expect or demand from its members’ levels of participation once regarded as normal. In fact the membership’s beliefs and values were increasingly moulded by ‘worldly’ associations as by ‘religious’ ones. There was a decline in commitment, especially evident among Nonconformists. The Church of England had long had the capacity to accommodate people willing to worship in church but unwilling to tolerate too intense or too disciplined a religious life. The pervasive nature of Nonconformity to its adherents, especially falling attendance at weekday prayer, preaching and class meetings, was beginning to decline by the early 1850s. By 1900 many denominational leaders felt that the ‘Means of Grace’ were fighting a losing battle to rival ‘the social party, the secular concert or the tennis club’. The choices facing Nonconformity were stark. On one side was the growing worldliness of religion where recreational activities went alongside and often were more important that spiritual ones. The alternative was alienation both from the wider culture and from the great majority of Victorians and Edwardians who were prepared for accommodation with the changing spirit of the times. It was the worldliness of accommodation rather than the alienation of reaction that was the norm.
The Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ was simply a matter of the Churches coming to terms ideologically with the secularising tendencies within the wider culture. But the rapprochement was only partially successful. What was a ‘crisis of faith’ for believers was for outsiders a ‘crisis of plausibility’ and the failure of the Churches to deal effectively with the latter crisis clearly inhibited their capacity to maintain an adequate rate of recruitment from the broader society.
The crisis of plausibility
Far more important for the future of English religion than the specific challenges of Darwinism or biblical criticism, or the internal adjustments that these challenges demanded of the Churches, was the gradual divergence, increasingly evident after 1860, between religious and secular modes of interpreting reality. Previously there had been something like a consensus between believers and unbelievers about the plausibility of the religious worldview. Religious definitions of reality had been credible even to those who had rejected or ignored them. This was not the case in the cultural milieu of modern industrial England. Commentators were insisting well before 1900 that the most serious threat to English religion was not the incompatibility between specific aspects of science and religion. It was the growing tendency for people without much knowledge of theology or interest in it to become alienated from the modes of thought and definitions of reality that made religiosity explicable and relevant.
Two powerful forces were operating in society to produce this fundamental secularisation of the values and beliefs of the population outside the Churches. First, there was a popularisation of the ‘scientific spirit’. Increasingly after 1850 science increasingly dominated popular definitions of reality. The scientific ethos as a popular philosophy tended to stultify all forms of metaphysical thinking, despite the fact that many of the scientists putting forward these views were themselves Christians. Secondly, popular materialism emerged as a major social force. There is a significant link between the economic changes that occurred after 1750 and the growing secularisation of society. Poverty, scarcity and disease had been the common lot of all but the fortunate few in pre-industrial societies. But in nineteenth century England, for the first time in history, the material wealth of a whole society began steadily and persistently to improve. The self-sustaining economic growth of a maturing industrial society and economy had already undermined attitudes and values that had taken shape amidst the poverty and relentless economic insecurity of generations before the Industrial Revolution.
The crisis of plausibility produced by the emergence of industrial society in England made its presence felt early in the Victorian period. From a previous situation in which people had taken for granted that the world was ‘a vale of tears that must be passed though on the way of eternal bliss or damnation’, there was beginning to emerge ‘the idea that the world was susceptible to systematic improvement through the application of sustained human effort and intelligence’. Increasingly the Churches were becoming estrangement from modern English society, though this was not brought home fully until the experience of the First World War. Victorian fears about the alienation of the working-classes from organised religion, though grounded in the definition of religiosity as attendance, were not to prove groundless. It was becoming increasingly apparent that for the middle and upper-classes, religion was becoming an increasingly irrelevant activity and cultural influence. The denominational compromises of the Victorian churches in their search for illusory relevance undermined their evangelical verve just as the crisis of plausibility undermined their influence on wider society. In seeking to understand why religious adherence declined after 1850, science and theology provide only part of the answer.
 S. Budd Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society 1850-1960, Heinemann, 1977, Edward Royle Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791-1866, Manchester, 1974 and Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain 1866-1915, Manchester, 1980 are the best introductory works. On Holyoake and Annie Besant see the respective biographies by Lee E. Grugel, Philadelphia, 1976 and Ann Taylor, OUP, 1992. P. Knight The Age of Science, Blackwell, 1986 places the Darwinian dispute in its nineteenth century context while the monumental biography Adrian Desmond and James Moore Darwin, London, 1991 is a major study of this enigmatic figure.