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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., 170.00

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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 ...

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