Faith and the early Victorians


Thinking about Tennyson reminded me about something – that we popularly date the Age of Doubt, I suspect, from the wrong period.

A few days ago I was listening to a fascinating edition of ‘In Our Time’, a BBC Radio 4 academic discussion show, on Tennyson’s famous poem In Memoriam, A.H.H. The poem is a requiem commemorating his friend Arthur Hallam (Hallam had died suddenly while on a European tour 16 years previously). Poem 60 contains some interesting lines:

‘The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.’

Now a certain wistful regret coupled with acceptance is a feature of Tennyson’s poetry; compare ‘Locksley Hall’ (1842) with its sequel written in 1886, or indeed a personal favourite ‘Crossing the Bar’ (1889). Yet Tennyson was not alone in concerning himself as to the passing of traditional religious faith in Britain. The Church of England’s role had been under criticism for some time. As I understand it, for instance, the character of Dr. Grant in Mansfield Park (1812-14) is Austen’s critique of the ‘county squire’ parson, who occupied himself more in the trappings rather than the duties of his position. Perhaps more noticeably there were the various earthquakes within the Church itself. The passing of the Catholic Relief Act (1829) emancipated a large segment of the British-Irish population and was necessary, but it also undermined the established church’s position in that country. With the shaking-up of Anglicanism resultant from the Oxford Movement (1833-45) and such noticeable events as the Gorham Case (1847-50), tremors were already being felt. There had meanwhile already been several books suggesting early proto-evolutionary theory; Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) is the best example.

These tremors were being felt culturally. In 1867 Matthew Arnold (son of the famed Dr. Thomas Arnold, of Rugby School and the Regius History Professorship at Oxford) published ‘Dover Beach’. The poem – as I understand it – was written sometime between 1849 and 1851, and its third stanza reads:

The sea of faith
 Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
 Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
 But now I only hear
 Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
 Retreating, to the breath
 Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
 And naked shingles of the world.

This is not to deny the impact of Origin of Species. It is more to argue that Darwinian theory did not enter into a vacuum, but rather into a world were secularisation and scientific/religious reaction to some early ideas on ‘evolutionary’ traits were already common. I suspect that much of this can be traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) which allowed secular rulers to chose a state’s religious faith (and therefore prioritised temporal rule over religious rule).

If we are to understand the dawn of modern secularism, and if we are Christians to react to it, we must carefully understand from whence it came.

God bless, and have a good week,


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