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The Mind of Gladstone: Religion, Homer, and Politics
The Mind of Gladstone: Religion, Homer, and Politics
David W. Bebbington
Oxford University Press, 2004
352 pp., $180.00

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John Powell


How Liberal Was It?

Gladstone's religion

It has been more than a century since the death of William Gladstone, four-time prime minister of Great Britain (1868–74, 1880–85, 1886, 1892–94) and widely regarded as the great Christian statesman of his age. One might have expected a reasonably complete and satisfying assessment to have emerged by now. Gladstone served in the public eye for more than 60 years. His views on the widest array of topics were regularly reported in the press and Hansard's Parliamentary Debates. He was also a great controversialist who published widely. Though a master of political qualification, Gladstone always attempted to be honest, and generally was. What he could not, or would not, say publicly about family, sex, or other sensitive issues he often recorded in his diary or private letters and memoranda. His library remains intact, including thousands of annotated volumes dealing with all the most controversial issues regarding his career and personality. The opportunities for insight are staggering. Yet biographies of Gladstonemost notably by John Morley (3 vols, 1903), Colin Matthew (2 vols. 1986, 1995), and Richard Shannon (2 vols., 1982, 1999)have all foundered in some way upon religion, particularly in its relation to his mental and moral choices. Just as Victorian cartoonists could never quite locate the visual characteristic necessary to successful caricature, so biographers have struggled to distinguish the active elements of Gladstone's faith from those that were largely matters of form, and thus less important to understanding his sometimes baffling behavior.

David Bebbington's The Mind of Gladstone takes a large step forward. It is not a study of his religion per se, nor a full intellectual biography, but a "case-study in the evolution of Gladstone's thinking" on the foundational subjects that were most important to him: politics, religion, and Homer. Bebbington judiciously balances evidence drawn from Gladstone's public and private papers, personal library, ...

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