Friday, 30 December 2011

Was there a Victorian ‘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 across society and this added a new dimension to the relationship between the Churches and the wider intellectual world. Victorian laymen, judged by 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. [1] The popularisation of controversy and the involvement of the general public in religious debates was what 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 hostility to the Christian tradition had militated against its chances of subverting the faith of the church-going population. City Mission workers found in the late-nineteenth century that there was a strong undercurrent of plebeian secularism, Paineite in the bold invective and blunt ribaldry through which it was expressed. This augmented the more urbane secularism of people such Charles Bradlaugh, George Jacob Holyoake and Annie Besant. [2] But the Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ was not precipitated by such counter-religious propaganda. It was not secularists but devout Christians who 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. The periodical The Sword and the Trowel brought tensions to a head among Baptists in 1887, publishing 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. [3] Among Congregationalists similar problems arose as the result of the airing of advanced theological opinions during a meeting associated with the autumn session of the Congregational Union held in Leicester in October 1877. [4] Despite the tensions that the popularisation of these issues generated and the 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 or accommodation of one kind or another.

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% of the total membership in 1880-1881 but only 6.8% in 1932. However, in 1881 it had attracted enough new members to offset the loss but by 1932 losses greatly exceeded new member. Recruitment rather than loss was the crucial variable in declining support.

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 significant levels of defection among existing adherents largely because of 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. 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 churches in which relevance is assured by social domination, nor of sects that accepted cultural marginality but 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 ideological accommodation was the increasing marginality and cultural isolation of organised religion within English society.

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 members with other recreational, social, cultural and vocational activities. The transition to denomination means that the organisation could no longer demand levels of participation from its members previously 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 accommodated 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 church leaders felt that they were fighting a losing battle to rival ‘the social party, the secular concert or the tennis club’. [5] The choices facing them were bleak. On one side religion was growing increasingly worldly 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 a matter of the Churches coming to terms ideologically with the secularising tendencies within the wider culture. But this 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 this that hindered their ability to maintain an adequate rate of recruitment from the broader society. 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. Well before 1900, commentators insisted that the most serious threat to English religion was not the incompatibility between science and religion but the growing tendency for people without much knowledge of theology or interest in it becoming 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’. [6] Increasingly after 1850 science 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. [7] 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, the material wealth of a whole society began steadily 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 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. Increasingly the Churches were becoming estranged 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 groundless. It was also becoming apparent that for the middle and upper-classes, religion was an increasingly irrelevant activity and cultural influence. The denominational compromises of the Victorian churches in their search for 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.



[1] Knight, P., The Age of Science, (Basil Blackwell), 1986, places the Darwinian dispute in its nineteenth century context while the monumental biography Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James, Darwin, (Michael Joseph), 1991, is a major study of this enigmatic figure.

[2] On Holyoake and Annie Besant, see Grugel, Lee E., George Jacob Holyoake: a study in the evolution of a Victorian radical, (Porcupine Press), 1976, and Taylor, Ann, Annie Besant: a biography, (Oxford University Press), 1992.

[3] Haas, J. W., ‘The Reverend Dr William Henry Dallinger, F.R.S. (1839-1909)’, Notes & Records of the Royal Society (of London), Vol. 54, (2000), pp. 53-65.

[4] Ledger-Lomas, Michael, ‘“Glimpses of the Great Conflict”: English Congregationalists and the European Crisis of Faith, circa 1840-1875’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 46, (2007), pp. 826-860, Thompson, D. M., ‘R. W. Dale and the “civic gospel”‘, in Sell, Alan P. F., (ed.), Protestant nonconformists and the west Midlands of England: papers presented at the first conference of the Association of Denominational Historical Societies and Cognate Libraries, (Keele University Press), 1996, pp. 99-118.

[5] Cit, ibid, Gilbert, A. D., Religion and Society in Industrial England, p. 181. See also, Hennell, Michael, ‘Evangelicalism and worldliness, 1770-1870’, in Cuming, G. J., and Baker, D., (eds.), Popular belief and practice; papers read at the ninth summer meeting and the tenth winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, (Cambridge University Press), 1972, 229-236.

[6] Fyfe, Aileen, ‘Science and Religion in Popular Publishing in 19th Century Britain’, in Meusburger, Peter, Welker, Michael, and Wunder, Edgar, (eds.), Clashes of Knowledge: Orthodoxies and Heterodoxies in Science and Religion, (Springer Science), 2008, pp. 121-132, and Ruse, Michael, ‘The relationship between science and religion in Britain, 1830-1870’, Church History, Vol. 44, (1975), pp. 505-522.

[7] See, Lucas, J. R., ‘Wilberforce and Huxley: a legendary encounter’, Historical Journal, Vol. 22, (1979), pp. 313-330, Gilley, Sheridan, ‘The Huxley-Wilberforce debate: a reconsideration’, in Robbins, Keith, (ed.), Religion and humanism: papers read at the eighteenth summer meeting and the nineteenth winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, (Oxford University Press), 1981, pp. 325-340, and James, Frank A. J. L., ‘An ‘Open Clash between Science and the Church’?: Wilberforce, Huxley and Hooker on Darwin at the British Association, Oxford, 1860’, in Knight, David M., and Eddy, Matthew, (eds.), Science and beliefs: from natural philosophy to natural science, 1700-1900, (Ashgate), 2005, pp. 171-194.

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