The Nineteenth-Century Decline of Religious Orthodoxy

During the nineteenth century, scholarly clergymen like Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), J.R. Green (1837-1883), and J.E. Thorold Rogers (1823-1890) “felt it their duty of conscience to resign their orders.” Doubt and unbelief in the nineteenth century, it has been said, brought on by the concept of evolution and the “higher criticism” in biblical scholarship, led to such abdications of clerical duties. The revolt against evangelical or Catholic orthodoxy, however, was largely against the apparent immorality and inhumanity of certain doctrines within Christianity (e.g. “divine favoritism,” “substitutionary atonement,” “everlasting torment in hell,” etc.). The impression that Darwin’s evolutionism cannot be reconciled with Genesis, or that German scholars had shown that neither the Old nor the New Testament are reliable, and thereby leading to the abandonment of Christianity, is an altogether false impression. “Contemporary developments in geology, biology, and Biblical scholarship provided indispensable ammunition,” to be sure, “but they did not generate the attack.” According to H.R. Murphy, in his “The Ethical Revolt Against Christian Orthodoxy in Early Victorian England” (1955),  “the attack was generated by a sensed incongruity between a vigorous and hopeful meliorism and the doctrinal legacy of the Christian tradition.”

Murphy goes on to show that it was on these grounds, and not on account of natural science or biblical criticism, that Francis William Newmen (1805-1897), James Anthony Froude (1818-1894), and George Eliot (1819-1880) abandoned Christian orthodoxy.

This is not to say that the new science caused no stir among Victorians. The publications of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833) and Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) caused a sensation, decades before Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). When Darwin did finally publish his great work, Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873) publicly attacked him in the Quarterly Review. Yet there was some Christian believers, both scientists and theologians, who were not at all alarmed by Darwin, and some even came to his defense. The eminent American botanist, Asa Gray (1810-1888), for instance, saw no conflict between the theory of evolution and orthodox Christianity. Richard William Church (1815-1890), Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, claimed that the theory was compatible with a “higher and spiritual order.” Even F.J.A. Hort (1828-1892) and B.F. Westcott (1825-1901), who, working in cooperation, published a revised text critical edition of The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881, found Darwin’s Origin a “treat to read.”

Wanting the draw secularists back into the church, sermons were even preached in favor of the new science. Stewart D. Headlam (1847-1924), for example, preached a sermon in 1879 declaring:

Thank God that the scientific men have…shattered the idol of an infallible book, broken the fetters of a supposed divine code of rules; for so they have helped to reveal Jesus Christ in his majesty…[who] is the wisdom in Lyell or in Darwin…[Evolution ultimately] gives us far grander notions of God to think of him making the world by his Spirit through the ages, than to think of him making it in a few days.”

There were many others who preached in favor of Darwin and the new science. It suffices to say that accommodating science was one possible response. The other impression, that biblical criticism shattered Victorian belief in Christianity, is also overstated. But there is indeed more truth in this impression than the other. The publication of Essays and Reviews in 1860 by publisher John William Parker (1792-1870) caused much turmoil. The Essays and Reviews was a collection of seven essays by seven “broad churchmen,” H.B. Wilson (1803-1888), Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893), Frederick Temple (1821-1902), Rowland Williams (1817-1870), Baden Powell (1796-1860), C.W. Goodwin (1817-1878), and Mark Pattison (1813-1884). The essays were an attempt to adapt the Church of England to the critical and historical study of the biblical text pioneered by German thinkers some fifty years earlier. The essays were relentlessly attacked—and for disparate reasons—in the press. Deposed High Anglican Frederic Harrison (1831-1923), for example, writing in the Westminster Review in October of 1860, decried against the essayists, saying “you have no business to adopt this reasonable view of the Bible and to remain in the Church.” Wilberforce, again in the Quarterly Review, argued that the essayists presented a “scarcely veiled atheism.” A more moderate position came from English churchmen A.P. Stanley (1815-1881) in the Edinburgh Review, arguing that the church would benefit from such critical insights, endorsing the remark made by Jowett that “doubt comes in at the window when inquiry is denied at the door.” But perhaps the best response came from Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), in a letter to The Times newspaper in 1861:

What we all want is, briefly, not a condemnation, but a refutation. The age when ecclesiastical censures were sufficient in such cases has passed away. A large portion of the laity now, though unqualified for abstruse theological investigations, are yet competent to hear and decide on theological arguments. These men will not be satisfied by en ex cathedra shelving of the question, nor terrified by a deduction of awful consequences from the new speculations. For philosophy and history alike have taught them to seek not what is ‘safe’, but what is true.

That refutation came through the writings of Westcott, Hort, and, especially, Joseph Lightfoot (1828-1889). When the Essays and Reviews appeared, Westcott wrote to Hort that “it is needful to show that there is a mean between Essays and Reviews and Traditionalism.” Westcott agreed that the Bible should be studied and interpreted like other books, but he also wanted to pay the greatest attention to “every detail, every syllable of the text,” and “all the resources of scholarship must be employed and focused upon each sentence, each clause, each word.” Lightfoot’s commentaries on various New Testament books, furthermore, undermined the Tübingen school of biblical scholarship. A severely critical and historical study did not lead to the same conclusions of German critics.

This leads us back to Murphy’s argument, that the decline of faith was not due to any skepticism raised by evolutionary theory or biblical criticism, but rather Christianity’s failure to reach the poor in the inhumanity of the industrialized age.

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