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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., 208.45

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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, and published writings, as well as from the most recent scholarly research. He is the first scholar to make significant use of some 200 sermons prepared by Gladstone and delivered to his household between 1840 and 1866, and the first to examine the significant evolution of Gladstone's views on the Homeric question. This is an important book that succeeds in highlighting the interdependence of received Christianity and rational humanism in the mind of Gladstone.

Early in the book, it becomes clear that Gladstone will not be satisfied by religious explanations that do not embrace both the traditional historicity of God's work in the world through Christ and the rational use of his intellect. In the opening chapter on "The Foundations of Gladstonian Conservatism," Bebbington demonstrates, not surprisingly, that the Bible was an important source of Gladstone's earliest conservatism. On the following page, however, one learns that "the preponderant" influence was Aristotle. In the next chapter on "The Emergence of Church Principles," Gladstone is characterized as "militantly Anglican," though his "ideal of state-church relations" is shown to have "rested on the holistic premise that he had learned from antiquity." When Gladstone's first book, The State in its Relations with the Church (1838), was savagely attacked by Thomas Macaulay, Gladstone turned to Aristotle for a defense. For Gladstone, faith was "an intellectual act." Though it is true that the fundamental elements of traditional Christianity were always present to Gladstone's mind, his appeal to antiquity in resolving intellectual problems eventually became habitual, with the Greeks often being dragged into controversies by the ears.

Gladstone's early religious struggle, roughly corresponding to his movement from a kind of early evangelicalism to Anglo-Catholicism, involved a reconciliation of the methods of rationalism and the goals of humanism with traditional claims of revealed truth and the historic evidences of God's work on earth through the Church and Holy Scriptures. The key figure in this reconciliation was the 18th-century Anglican bishop Joseph Butler. From the mid 1840s, Gladstone progressively passed every aspect of belief and practice through Butler's doctrine of probability. Gladstone came to believe, as Butler argued in Analogy of Religion (1736), that Christians must eschew certainty in religious matters, but nevertheless be ready to act on the "balance of probability." In Studies Subsidiary to the Works of Bishop Butler, published just two years before his death, Gladstone was still promoting Butler's work, and held that the value of his method was even greater than the content. Butler was "a collector of facts, and a reasoner upon them." More importantly, he "chose for his whole argument the sure and immovable basis of human experience." Butler gave Gladstone two important tools. First, he provided a rational and systematic intellectual method that enabled Gladstone to reconcile his high understanding of human worth and achievement with the Church's teaching on sin and degradation. Closely related but more personally, Butler offered him a justification for elevating the role of intellect, a justification made all the more attractive by being couched in terms of moral obligation. Called to high moral purpose but freed from irrational religious obligations, Gladstone was free to explore all religious doctrines, practices, and tendencies.

Bebbington, as a good churchman, gives Gladstone every benefit of the doubt regarding the unique conjunction of views and practices that defined his religion, emphasizing the orthodox and heightening evidence that bolsters the generally held impression that Gladstone was a heroic defender of the historic Christian faith. The list of Gladstone's religious "eccentricities" is, however, long and substantial. The largest in terms of time was his devotion to the works of Homer and his attraction to the humanistic culture they describe. From a careful study of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Gladstone came to believe that the Greeks "inherited elements of a single body of truth given to humanity as a whole in its earliest days," and that the "Greek divinities represented degenerated forms of an original illumination by God at the dawn of history." But Gladstone was so "eager to rake in any scrap of evidence" supporting the view that the early Greeks were animated by the remnants of divine revelation, that he often misread evidence. As generous as Bebbington is in demonstrating that Gladstone was willing to change particular views regarding Homerand this is one of the most important achievements of the book he still finds the prime minister consistently subordinating his literary judgment "to his apologetic purpose." Gladstone was so deeply attracted to the early Greeksto their courage, their sense of honor, and their physical beautythat he refused to believe that their best qualities might have been developed outside the providential design of God.

The extent to which Gladstone accepted God's providential design in history was also unusual, extending to social institutions in all branches of the human family. In 1887 Gladstone published an article, "Universitas Hominum; or, The Unity of History," in which he spoke as an old man who, through long experience, could help others "bring the various and separated movements of growing minds into relation with one another, and to give them their places as portions of the general scheme of life." He presented to the young the question, and its implied answer, that had animated his religious quest throughout most of his adult life:

Torn and defaced as is the ideal of our race, yet have there not been, and are there not, things in man, in his frame, and in his soul and intellect, which, taken at their height, are so beautiful, so good, so great, as to suggest an inward questioning, how far creative power itself can go beyond what, in these elect specimens, it has exhibited?

There was little doubt in Gladstone's mind that the Greeks had perfected the human ideal. Greece had been given by God the "office" of "making ready the Gospel feast," supplying both the language and "mental culture" which enabled it to be received. Of the four great objects of "human quest," the Hebrews had been entrusted with training man to be "good." Greece had been given the "principal share" in developing the sense of what was "great" and "true." "With respect to the beautiful," Gladstone wrote, "her office was supreme, almost exclusive."

Nor was God's providence limited to the Greeks and Hebrews. In Islam, Buddhism, and even animist religions, Gladstone perceived "the care of the Almighty Father." In "On Authority in Matters of Opinion" (1877), he clearly expressed a long-held view suggesting that no one should depart "except upon serious and humble examination" from the religion in which they were raised, "even though non-Christian," for it was "the school of character and belief in which Providence" had placed them. These were precisely the principles he had employed in a letter to Colonial Secretary Lord Kimberley regarding a possible extension of British authority in West Africa in 1873:

You will be amused at my pleading, so to speak, on behalf of human sacrifices. I am of course all for getting rid of them. But: 1. They are not crimes under the moral law as recognized in Africa. 2. They were not crimes under the moral law as recognized by the most civilized nations of antiquity, though the Greeks in early days had a strong & laudable repugnance to them. 3. They were only put down by the influence of Christianity, & that slowly.

The view that God providentially dispensed benefits to the whole of humanity through cultures whose practices were in direct contradiction to Christian teaching was not an aberration or a convenience or a matter of religious compromise, as his critics often suggested when he proposed policies or made statements that seemed to contradict traditional Christian teaching. It was a reasoned, integral part of his faith. The degree to which "treasures of true piety," "devotion to duty," and "negation of self may have been reared within the field of religions less favored" than Christianity was a question he was perfectly willing to leave to the "All-just and All-wise" ("Universitas Hominum").

Finally, Gladstone's view of Holy Scripture was unusual for one who so fully embraced its ultimate truths. He began his 1892 book, The Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture, with an extensive disclaimer, carefully explaining that impregnability had its limits:

These words sound like a challenge. And they are a challenge to some extent, but not in the sense that might be supposed. They are a challenge to accept the Scriptures on the moral and spiritual and historical ground of their character in themselves. …
But all these assertions lie within the moral and spiritual precinct. No one of them begs any literary question of Old Testament criticism. They leave absolutely open every issue that has been or can be raised respecting the origin, date, authorship and text of the sacred books, which for the present purpose we do not require even to call sacred. Indeed it may be that this destructive criticism, if entirely made good, would, in the view of an inquiry really searching, comprehensive, and philosophical, leave as its result not less but greater reason for admiring the hidden modes by which the great Artificer works out His designs.

Knowing that many pious Christians who accepted the "full doctrine of literalism" would resent even the suggestion of error in the Bible, Gladstone fell back upon Butler's "balance of probability." "We are not entitled," he wrote, "to require when the Almighty, in His mercy, makes a special addition by revelation to what He has already given to us of knowledge in Nature and in Providence, that special gift should be unlike His other gifts, and should have all its lines and limits drawn out with mathematical precision."

If one thinks of Gladstone as a conventional Christianwhether Anglo-Catholic with evangelical tendencies, High Churchman with Broad Church sensibilities, or any other hybrid of generally recognizable denominational speciesit is difficult to address what has so often from Gladstone's own day to the present appeared to be inconsistency, opportunism, or self-delusion. Gladstone's religion was coherent but esoteric, combining heavy reliance upon reason with unlimited faith in God's providential design; a relatively low view of Scripture with a high regard for historical process and natural law; all mediated by Butler's "balance of probability." Bebbington himself draws upon this improbable mixture of intellectual forces to suggest that Gladstone, like Matthew Arnold, "came to see Christianity by itself as an insufficient foundation for modern society." It was only through "the Hellenism of Homer" that "the dignity of human beings" was vindicated. While it is possible to retreat from and contextualize this truth, emphasizing the preponderant external structure of orthodox Christian belief and practice, the idea of the social insufficiency of traditional Christianity was fundamental to Gladstone's religion, and it was this that led to his extraordinary openness in receiving alternate explanations. God had set aside the Hebrews, but in doing so had temporarily removed them from the ordinary human experience, and thus as an example for modern society.

Gladstone's theological liberalism was what it was, and from a biographical point of view needs no defense. He only seems to require defending when one believes that an open mind and reliance upon reason will inevitably lead to unbelief, or at best, to belief in only symbolic forms of Christianity. Gladstone was, however, a man of true faith who provided one possible model for meeting the challenges of an increasingly secular and pluralistic world. The essence of his faith can be found in one of the last articles he wrote, "Soliloquium and Postscript" (1897), in which he expressed both his faith and its incumbent social responsibilities:

If, out of every hundred professing Christians, ninety-nine assert amidst all their separate and clashing convictions their belief in the central doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation … will not the candid unbeliever be disposed freely to admit, that this unity amidst diversity is a great confirmation of the faith, and a broad basis on which to build our hopes for the future? … In the face then, of the assailants of religion, there is a broad ground to occupy. But it does not cover the entire field of battle; and as the divisions of the Christian Church are its chief source of weakness in the contest, must we not deem those happy who, without compromising truth, seek to make that ground of union wider still?

In our day, when the term "liberal" is frequently reserved for those who employ the traditional language of faith to explain their unbelief, one should naturally be reluctant to apply the word to Gladstone. But Gladstone lived a century ago, when liberalism meant quite a different thing.

John Powell is associate professor of history at Oklahoma Baptist University.

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