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Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England
Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England
Timothy Larsen
Oxford University Press, 2007
330 pp., 30.99

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David Hempton


A fresh look at faith and doubt in Victorian England

More churches were built or restored and more yards of religious print were published in 19th-century Britain than in any other century of British history before or since. Similarly, various estimates of church attendance, whether based on the snapshot Religious Census of 1851 or on other data, are remarkably high by recent British standards, and are probably also high by 18th-century standards. In 19th-century Britain, religious voluntary associations were ubiquitous and religious issues often dominated social and political discourse. Unsurprisingly therefore, it was taken as axiomatic among scholars of George Kitson Clark's generation that to begin to understand Victorian civilization one had to understand its religion. That is the intellectual tradition I grew up in as a college student, and there was no shortage of superior literature upon which to draw, including Owen Chadwick's magisterial, if now rather dated and smugly Anglican, two-volume history of the Victorian Church. Although a combination of the Oxford Movement and Evangelicalism probably occasioned the most distinguished historiographies of Victorian religion, even new-fangled social historians like Hugh McLeod and James Obelkevich treated religion seriously back in the 1970s. Religion and Victorian culture, it seemed, were inextricably yoked.

Timothy Larsen's book, on the other hand, has been provoked by a different discourse altogether, namely that of the Victorian crisis of faith. Larsen shows that beginning with some eminent Victorians themselves, and then continued by scholars such as Basil Wiley and A. N. Wilson, the loss of faith has become a dominant motif in 19th-century British studies that has seeped its way into textbooks, general histories, and encyclopedias as the chief characteristic of Victorian religion. As British intellectual life has become more secular, and as religion has diminished in social salience, the intelligentsia has looked increasingly to the Victorian period for the roots of its secularity. Larsen's aim is to attack that view of 19th-century England by showing that a "crisis of doubt" makes at least as much sense in characterizing the period as a "crisis of faith."

Larsen's angle of attack is to look at the plebeian leaders of 19th-century secularism who reconverted to Christianity after having made their mark as popular leaders of the Secular Movement. His book consists of seven biographical portraits topped and tailed by a helpful introduction and conclusion. His chosen figures are William Hone, Frederic Rowland Young, Thomas Cooper, John Henry Gordon, Joseph Barker, John Bagnall Bebbington, and George Sexton. These are scarcely household names outside the scholarly cognoscenti of Victorian experts, but they were all important leaders of Victorian secularism, and they all eventually reconverted to a more-or-less orthodox Christianity. Larsen is at pains to point out that their conversions to and from secularism were serious intellectual affairs and were not undertaken for mere pecuniary or positional advantage, and that all seven reconverted long before their deathbeds. The point of such an emphasis is to insist that these seven figures looked seriously into the gaping mouth of secularism yet returned to Christianity via a serious, honest, and careful evaluation of the respective merits and demerits of faith and infidelity.

Although each faith journey is obviously unique, the common pattern among Larsen's chosen subjects is that they were either brought up in Christian homes and/or embraced populist forms of evangelical Nonconformity early in their lives. Many were educated in Sunday Schools or became Sunday School teachers or preachers, often of the Methodist or Baptist variety, before falling by the wayside. The most common reasons for their apostasy included doubts about the inspiration and moral content of the Bible, the growth of a radical political consciousness, disillusionment with established forms of religion, and acquaintance with a wide range of English and French infidel literature such as Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and Baron d'Holbach's The System of Nature. They also had temperaments that did not easily bow the knee to any kind of secular or religious authority. According to George Sexton, "the so called Secular societies were made up of young men, for whom skeptical views have an attraction, as being calculated to allow a sort of reckless independence, freedom from control, and a kind of intellectual audacity which fascinate for a time."

Larsen's cohort of secularists became leading orators, writers, organizers, and debaters for the secularist cause. Why then did they reconvert to Christianity? Once again, the narrative of every life is unique, but Larsen helpfully identifies a number of common factors at play in reconversion. These erstwhile militant secularists came to see that secularism was better at tearing down Christianity than building a replacement, left little solid basis for the construction of a satisfying morality, and was based on an oppressively narrow definition of reason that left little room for intuition and emotion. In addition, they remained haunted by the compelling figure of Jesus of Nazareth, became intrigued afresh by the grandeur of the Scriptures, repudiated naked materialism by flirting with spiritualism, came to see that they could be radical politically without abandoning Christianity, and became intellectually persuaded of the truth of Christianity from their consumption of a wide range of books, sermons, and letters.

Crisis of Doubt is an impressively researched, clearly written, and forcefully, even polemically, argued work of scholarship. Moreover, Larsen is careful not to overplay his hand. Despite supplying an appendix of some thirty additional names of erstwhile secularists who found some sort of religion, he acknowledges that reconversion from secularism was not exactly rampant in Victorian Britain. He is also careful to show that his seven converts did not necessarily return to an impeccably conservative form of evangelical Protestantism. In fact most embraced fairly conservative positions on important Christian doctrines, but many held a more flexible view of biblical inspiration, and most remained radical in their social and political orientations. Reconversion did not mean capitulation to the religious or political status quo, and old radicals lived on in new Christian clothes.

By suggesting that the "crisis of doubt" within Victorian secularism was a more common and powerful reality than was the "crisis of faith" among the Victorian intelligentsia, Larsen is hoping not only to correct an exaggerated emphasis on the Victorian crisis of faith but also to show the intellectual robustness of Christianity in the 19th century. Challenging the notion that there was an inevitable and inexorable slide towards Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," Crisis of Doubt argues that the tide of faith could come in as well as go out. In that sense the book also acts as an important counterpoint to intellectually sloppy versions of secularization theory.

Although Crisis of Doubt is an impressive achievement, it is not without its flaws. So keen is Larsen to demonstrate that reconversion is primarily an intellectual transaction, which ought not to be "reduced" to the effects of other more personal factors such as relationships, illness, bereavement, or penury, that his seven portraits are at times rather bloodless creations. The reader is left with a great deal of head knowledge about the intellectual reasons for conversion and reconversion, and the kind of Christian apologetics written by the reconverted, but beyond the bare essentials demanded by the narrative we learn little of the book's main characters as human beings. Moreover, in order to sustain his main argument that reconversion was based primarily on ideas, Larsen has to work against some of his own evidence, as many of his chosen figures drew attention to the emotional sterility of secularism, and their eager longing for a return to a more compelling alternative.

A second quibble one might have with the book is that a biographical approach, albeit with a succinct and helpful introduction and conclusion, does not allow much space for treating seriously shared and repeated characteristics. For example, it is clear that these seven figures were all experiencing dissatisfaction with the moral content of the Bible, including the doctrines of hell and substitutionary atonement, but the negotiation of these moral difficulties, both in conversion and reconversion, is not drawn out as thoroughly as one would wish. Howard Murphy's old claim in the American Historical Review in 1955, that the revolt against Christian orthodoxy in Victorian Britain was essentially an ethical one, is largely confirmed by this volume, but it is not brought into sharp focus. Similarly, most of the figures in the book were thoroughly disenchanted with the state of established religion and political culture in Britain, but the extent to which that was moderated or recalibrated after reconversion is only hinted at.

Timothy Larsen has produced an admirable study of a group of plebeian radicals who once dared to convert to secularism and then dared to convert back again to orthodox Christianity. The word dare is appropriate, for these sturdy individuals had to cope with the opprobrium of intellectually deserted friends and families—not once, but twice. In retrospect what is remarkable about them is their willingness to continue their lives as public figures, lecturing on platforms, writing in periodicals, and publishing pamphlets and books even after they had made a 180-degree turn for the second time. These were anything but blushing violets who coped with their reconversions by shunning the limelight in embarrassed silence.

Moreover, Larsen suggestively argues that working-class intellectuals, because they owed no deference to churches, colleges, and establishments, were earlier embracers of modern views about science, biblical criticism, and theology than their middle- and upper-class counterparts. Indeed, they were dealing with new ideas about nature, evolution, and biblical reliability a generation in advance of their more celebrated and better known countrymen. In that sense Larsen's book contains a noble plea for taking seriously the intellectual culture of the 19th-century working class. (Not before time, one might add.)

Whether Larsen has succeeded in his broader aim of reversing the dominant trajectory of secularist scholarship on Victorian religion and irreligion is quite another matter. Larsen's subjects are far from negligible figures, especially William Hone, Joseph Barker, and Thomas Cooper, but they somehow lack the intellectual eclat of the Victorian doubters such as George Eliot, Francis Newman, Leslie Stephen, and John Ruskin. Still, at least we now know they existed, and that their reconversion to orthodox Christianity was as important for making sense of their lives as their more highly publicized contribution to 19th-century secular societies. Larsen has amply demonstrated that at least among the plebeian leaders of 19th-century secularism there was indeed a "crisis of doubt" to go alongside the more familiar meta-narrative of a "crisis of faith."

David Hempton is Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author most recently of Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (Yale Univ. Press).

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