The Contrarian: When Britain Still Believed in God

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

By Tim Stanley | Published in History Today Volume: 61 Issue: 5 2011

The Victorian era was an age of faith – which is why it was also a golden period of progress, argues Tim Stanley.

Most Britons presume that religious tolerance, even religious indifference, is in their DNA. It is commonly held that since the Reformation Britain has avoided Christian fanaticism – that the Anglican compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism kept the country out of European religious wars and protected private conscience. Over time the Anglican communion became a social club rather than a Christian church, while religion and politics divorced amicably. To contemporary Britons American evangelicalism looks eccentric and the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the UK seems strange and un-British. David Cameron wants to inoculate the country against radicalism with a shot of traditional British religious tolerance enforced by education and law. He calls this ‘muscular liberalism’.

Gladstone portrayed in watercolour by Sydney Prior Hall, 1890sIf muscular liberalism is built upon the concept that Britain is an innately secular nation then it is pure fantasy. Religion has always played a big role in British public life, for both good and bad. Christianity permeated Victorian politics. The great Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone wrote in 1832: ‘Restrict the sphere of politics to earth, and it becomes a secondary science.’ Aside from immersing his policies and rhetoric in Christian ideals, he would often pay prostitutes to spend the night at Number 10, where he would read them the Bible and beg them to give up their profession. In 1878 Gladstone confessed in his diary: ‘I am aware that language such as I have here used is often prompted by fanaticism.’ But he concluded that: ‘I should regard my having been forced into this work as a great and high election of God.’

Like many Victorians Gladstone saw faith as the engine of social reform. Thus it was evangelicals who set up Short Time Committees in the 1830s to demand regulation of child employment. Nonconformists dominated the fledgling Labour Party and Anglo-Catholics published pamphlets critical of the spiritual and material poverty of free-market capitalism. The Salvation Army reached out to drug addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes, bringing soup and scripture to London’s East End.

The religion that permeated Victorian society often had a chauvinist, know-nothing edge. The outrage of the Anglican establishment at the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species rivals the clamour of American Creationists today. The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, ran a campaign to trash Darwin’s thesis and drag sympathetic theologians to court on a charge of heresy. At a debate at Oxford in 1860 one journalist summed up Wilberforce’s views thus: ‘The Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone ... assured us there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?’ Many people flocked to Darwin’s defence, but were usually motivated by countervailing theological views rather than scientific enquiry. The Christian Socialist Charles Kingsley saw in evolution justification of his own theory of Christian egality. When the orthodox aristocrat Lady Aylesbury told Kingsley she was shocked that he counted Darwin among his friends, he replied: ‘What can be more delightful to me, than to know that your Ladyship and myself sprang from the same toadstool?’

British secularism is a 20th-century innovation, produced by the psychological shocks of war and social change. The Victorians would be bemused by the secularism of muscular liberalism and scandalised by the vague ‘births, deaths and marriages’ Anglicanism of much of the present government. Yet they were capable of a surprising degree of multiculturalism. Albeit with much debate, Unitarianism and Islam were legalised in 1812 and Catholics were given the vote in 1829. Muscular liberalism is a project rooted in false historical consciousness that seeks to drive religion out of the public sphere. In contrast, Victorian society revelled in difference and debate. Its unifying principle was not the absence of belief but its permeation. Given the part that faith has played in shaping the British constitution and state – from the right of Parliament to dismiss a heretical monarch, to the abolition of slavery – it is ahistorical to try to proscribe or eliminate its role today.


- Gladstone portrayed in watercolour by Sydney Prior Hall, 1890s

The Contrarian: When Britain Still Believed in God | History Today

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