The 18th & 19th centuries in Anglican Christianity

Further print reading

Various entries in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church  (3rd edn 1971)

E.P. Thompson, The making of the English working class (London, 1963)

Other sources

A BBC radio program, April 2006, on John Henry Newman; the link takes you to a BBC page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Politics and religion in Britain and Ireland

The royal house of Hanover.  With the death of the last monarch of the Stuart family in 1714, the rulers of the German principality of Hanover, descendants of a daughter of James VI and I, became sovereigns of Great Britain and Ireland.  They were nominally Lutheran and initially spoke no English.  Although they officially enjoyed enormous authority, they assumed a much smaller role in decision-making than their predecessors in the previous century.  They ruled through a new office of “Prime Minister”, who was increasingly subject to Parliament, which was dominated by persons elected by landowners. 

Church life.  When the clergy threatened to censure Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761), the Bishop of Bangor, for his published views on a theory of parliamentary government, the only effective instruments of church self-government in England, the Convocations, were permanently prorogued and could not meet.  Church life was usually in the hands of privileged and indifferent younger sons of landowners, although there were pockets of devotion and religious life.  Because of the dilution of authority such changes would involve, new parishes were generally thwarted, and large areas of population growth were largely unserved by Church of England parishes.  The inaccessibility and indifference of parish churches was sometimes offset by dissenters’ chapels, but for the most part, the populations of mining and manufacturing towns were without any noticeable Christian presence.

The Enlightenment.  The dominant intellectual attitude was summed up by the descriptions of the period as the Age of Enlightenment, following on the scientific advances that had begun in the seventeenth century.  Religions of reason, rather than revelation, were fashionable, and many Dissenting Chapels became Deist, acknowledging only a transcendent deity and not an immanent one.  Even within the church, the dominant ethos descended from the “Latitudinarian” divines of the seventeenth century who “attached little importance to matters of dogmatic truth, ecclesiastical organization, and liturgical practice” [ODCC] and the emphasis in theology was on high morality and justification of belief in God through observing the design in Nature. 

  • William Paley (1743-1805), who wrote View of the Evidences of Christianity (1784), was the most fashionable theologian. 

  • Occasionally, major intellectual figures resisted this movement, either through a highly intellectualized Orthodoxy, as in Joseph Butler (1692-1752), a Presbyterian Deist who became a convert to the Church of England and, eventually, a bishop, or through a retrieval of a highly personal Calvinism, as in Augustus Toplady (1740-1778), author of the hymn “Rock of Ages”.

Political and church "parties".  During the period, Church and public life was dominated by rivalry of “parties” within church and state.   Broad and loose groupings of the elites, termed “Tory” (from Irish “toraighe”, meaning outlaw or guerilla fighter) and “Whig” (from “whiggamore”, meaning cattle driver) by their opponents, using archaic terms from the struggles of the sixteenth century, became more and more unified around various matters related to religion and the constitution, the Tories retaining some loyalty for the Stuart royal family in exile and an assumption about the divine rights of the monarchs, and the Whigs opting for loyalty to the new German royal family and assumptions about oligarchic and parliamentary supremacy.  The groupings evolved into the nineteenth century Conservatives and Reformers or Liberals.  In church matters, these two groups came to be identified as the “High Church” party, upholding a “high” conception of the authority of the church, independent of parliament, the claims of episcopacy and the nature of the sacraments.  The “Low Church” party, on the other hand, emphasized the control of the church through parliament and the lay executive, with a corresponding “low” conception of the authority of the church, the claims of the episcopacy, priesthood and the sacraments, and a general sympathy for the legacy of the Reformation and for Protestant non-conformists.  Originally the more liberal group intellectually, the Low Church group included the highly influential “Latitudinarians” of the late 17th and 18th centuries, and evolved into a Broad Church party, in distinction to a new “Low Church” Evangelical party in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The development of toleration. Increasing religious toleration meant that dissenters were more and more accepted into public institutions, except for Roman Catholics, who often continued to be treated as traitorous.  The official toleration of Roman Catholics as officers in the army led, however, to massive rioting in the Gordon Riots of 1780.  Nevertheless, familiarity with exiled and devoted French Roman Catholic priests after the Civil Constitution of the clergy by the Revolutionary French government allowed for a sympathy and new appreciation of the simplicity of their lives and ministry, and a new appreciation of Roman Catholics generally, from whom all legal disabilities were finally removed, and the church hierarchy restored, in 1829.

Ritualism and anti-ritualism.  In the wake of the Tractarian “reformation” in theology centred at Oxford University, a related interest in renewal the ceremonial, and eventually the words, of the Eucharist, centred initially at Cambridge among antiquarian romantics, raised considerable public concern from those who believed the changes, called somewhat inaccurately Ritualism, were a restoration of forbidden and dangerous Roman Catholic practices.  A flurry of attention to the details of various statutes and rubrics came to contradictory conclusions about what was allowable and what was required in the Church of England.  Eucharistic vestments, “eastward celebration”, mixing water with the wine at the offertory, wafer bread, lighting candles on the altars, and using incense in the traditional manner were introduced in a few scattered parishes, including some in poor districts of east London, and in wealthy churches in Brighton.  Sporadic and confused attempts by the bishops to restrict some or all of these ceremonies did not decrease the incidents.  The government provided clearer legislation, that moved some offences into new courts outside the church, and four priests went to prison on the charge of contumacy between 1877 and 1882, under the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874, a statute which incidentally gave the archbishops a veto of any proceedings.  In 1890, the Archbishop of Canterbury offered an opinion that largely but not entirely upheld Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln, who had been accused by the Church Association, an anti-ritualistic society of Evangelicals, for such practices as the “eastward position”, having lighted candles on the altar, a mixed chalice, the use of the Agnus dei, ablutions of the sacred vessels, and using the sign of the cross at the absolution and Blessing.  The legislation was largely discredited and now pointless and disobedience flourished.  Attempts to enforce uniformity led to failed attempts to amend the Book of Common Prayer in the 20th century, and eventually the illegal variations were widely tolerated.  Advanced ritualists formed into two loose and competing groups, those who favoured imitation of current Roman Catholic customs in the northern European churches, and those who attempted to restore ceremonial in use in England just before the reforms of the 16th century

Revolution and the “threat” of Socialism

The French Revolution, beginning in 1789, sent shock waves through the social groupings of power, and meant that all social change was viewed with suspicion.  Initially, the Revolution had been hostile to religion, and destructive of church institutions, property and power. 

Robert Owen (1771-1858), younger son of a Welch merchant family, set up a social experiment at New Lanark in Scotland in a factory started in 1784 by Dale and Arkwright, pioneers of the Industrial Revolution.  In 1800, when Owen assembled enough money to buy the factory (because he was in love with the daughter of the overseer), it employed 2,000 people, including 500 child labourers, who had been brought from poor houses and charity orphanages in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  All the workers faced a terrible life, with long hours of work and demoralizing living circumstances beset with theft, drunkenness, and crowded unsanitary conditions.  Owen, who rejected all belief in the prevailing forms of religion, and treated happiness as the appropriate goal for all human beings, espoused a philosophy that human beings are the product of their environments, especially their early environments.  He called himself a “Socialist” and set out to transform the factory and its dependent town, by providing improved company housing, free schools and reduced working hours for children.  His work turned out to be initially very profitable and was much admired, especially by some very powerful friends, like the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria.  His broader political plans to cure “pauperism” by “united acts of man and subordination of machinery” were initially supported:  communities of approximately 1200 people on 1000-1500 acres were set up, one in Indiana.  The experiments, however, eventually failed.

Labour unrest.  After 1815, in the wake of misery and economic depression following the Napoleonic wars, widespread rioting occurred.  The initial government reaction was repression.  In 1819, “Six Acts” were passed, outlawing agrarian and industrial rioting and against political movements demanding manhood suffrage, the ballot at elections, annual parliaments, the abolition of property qualifications for members of parliament, and salaries for members of parliament.   Various liberal movements, however, eventually produced modest parliamentary reform, signaled by the First Reform Bill (1832).  Unrest and union movements continued.  At Tolpuddle, in Dorset, six farm labourers who attempted to form a trade union were arrested and sentenced to transportation to a penal colony in Australia.  A mass demonstration for these “Tolpuddle martyrs” (in which Robert Owen himself was involved) eventually led to the sentences being quashed in 1836.  In 1838, a National Charter was drawn up by the “Working Men’s Association”.  After rioting, the leaders were transported to Australia, but “Chartism” remained a significant movement.  In 1848, a year of many revolutions in Europe, a national strike was planned for London on April 10th.  A gathering of 500,000 people from all over Britain was planned in London, and were to march to the Houses of Parliament and present a petition of 6,000,000 names.  The military were called out, and 170,000 special constables were sworn, and the Duke of Wellington, victor over Napoleon in 1815, called out of retirement to lead the defence.   To everyone’s surprise, the whole event was a failure, possibly because it rained heavily on the day. 

 

Spiritual and Theological Renewal (Some episodes)

John Wesley and the Methodists

Wesley's early years.  John Wesley (1703-91), fifteenth child of the Reverend Samuel Wesley, a country parish priest, and his wife Susanna Annesley, was the grandson, on both sides, of clergy who had been ejected from their church livings in 1662 and had become dissenting ministers.  He attended Christ Church, Oxford, and became a Fellow Lincoln College in 1726.  As an ordained Oxford college fellow he was licenced and authorized to preach anywhere in England, an entitlement that was to be very useful to him later and an irritant to church authorities.  While at Oxford he joined with his brother, Charles Wesley, and others to form a small and intense religious group, nicknamed variously “the Holy Club”, “Bible Moths” and eventually “Methodists”.  Members lived under a strict rule, receiving Holy Communion often, reading Scripture and religious books, praying together, giving money to the poor, and engaging in works of “practical Christianity”, such as visiting prisons.  Wesley and his colleagues were attracted to the “high church” spiritual writers of the seventeenth century, such as Daniel Brevint and Jeremy Taylor and to their contemporary, William Law, as well as to Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist.  They also read from the Greek fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa, and various medieval spiritual writers, especially Thomas Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.   They took from these various authors a conviction of the importance of “holy living”. 

Wesley's hard knocks in early ministry.  From 1735-7, John Wesley and others worked as missionaries in Georgia under the sponsorship of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in foreign Parts (S.P.G., founded 1701), an official Church of England organization founded to minister of British people living abroad and to evangelize the non-Christian people of the world.  Wesley counted this ministry as a failure; he was considered too serious for the people he ministered to, and was unpopular for preaching against the slave trade and gin.

Origins of his Methodist movement.  On May 24, 1738, while at a religious meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, while listening to a reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, he underwent a dramatic and life-changing religious experience, which he later described as “discovering the personal dimension of the doctrine of justification by faith.” Rejected by established parishes, he and his colleagues took their message to mines, market places and the fields, where they were met with mixed reaction, but gradually attracted more and more adherents, and traveled widely.  Small class meetings were established in many places where they preached, meeting weekly for spiritual nurture, including prayer, Bible study, and “mutual accountability”.  Preaching focused on a “heart response”, and personal conversion.  Sermons were accompanied by impassioned singing, thousands of new hymns being composed for the meetings.  Lay people, some without formal education, were groomed to preach.  (Later, the Primitive Methodists would even tolerate lay women preaching.)

Development of Methodism.  The Methodist movement was able to attract a large number of sympathetic clergy, but had difficulty getting them appointed to parishes.  Selina, Countess of Huntington, (1707-91) used her considerable wealth and high social status to found chapels to which she appointed her own chaplains.  She was eventually taken to a church court in 1779, and forbidden to appoint so many chaplains.  To get around this limitation, she registered her chapels, which became known as “the Countess of Huntington’s Connexion”, as dissenting places of worship, outside the control of the Church of England.  This denomination became the Calvinistic Methodists, and followed George Whitefield (1714-1770), a companion of Wesley in the Holy Club and in Georgia, who split from John Wesley in 1741, because Wesley opposed the strict Calvinist view of election and moved to a view of predestination through foreknowledge of those who would put their trust in God.  Wesley, who emphacised his belief that all people are of equal worth and that human beings, created in the image of God, are created with a spiritual nature that they retain in spite of their current sinful state, called himself “Arminian”.  John Wesley himself held distinctive views about “perfection” and entire sanctification” that set him at some distance from inherited English theology and which were not shared by all his colleagues, including his brother Charles Wesley.

Methodism leaves Anglicanism.  Finally, John Wesley, unable to procure leadership for his communities through the Church of England, ordained a man to be a superintendent or bishop for ministry in the North American colonies, and the Movement, which still remained officially within the Church of England, took on more and more features of a separate denomination.   After Wesley’s death, the Methodist Movement splintered considerably, beginning with the “Methodist New Connexion” under Alexander Kilham, in 1797, who separated over whether Methodists could receive communion outside the Church of England.  They were followed in schism by the Primitive Methodists (derived in part from the “Camp Meeting Methodists”) in 1811, who rejected the dictatorial practices of Jabez Bunting, Wesley’s self-chosen successor for the “Wesleyan Methodists”.  After 1815, the “Bible Christians”, local Wesleyan churches in Devon and Cornwall, became a separate denomination, which, after 1831, admitted women to its ministry equally with men.  In the later nineteenth and early centuries, Methodists of all kinds re-united in common organizations in England and in North America.

Evangelicals

The evangelical revival.  Parallel with the Methodists, and making some points of contact with them, especially with George Whitefield, a school of clergy and lay people who remained within the Church of England sought to revive religious practice and piety to the church, whose clergy were often negligent and worldly.  They laid stress on personal conversion and salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ.  It had no leader of the stature of John Wesley, but various parochial and University clergy made significant contributions. John Fletcher (1729-85) of Madeley in Shropshire, Henry Venn (1725-95) of Huddersfield, William Romaine (1745-95), a strict Calvinistic predestinarian, of London, John Newton (1725-1807) of Olney, and Charles Simeon (1759-1836).  Evangelicals tended to uphold the verbal inspiration and sole authority of scripture, the imminent return of Christ to redeem his elect, the supreme importance of preaching and the lesser importance of liturgical worship.  Especially when presented with accounts of baptismal regeneration or of eucharistic sacrifice, Evangelicals maintained a strong suspicion of the Roman Catholic church and hostility to Church of England members who seemed to tend in Roman Catholic directions.  Noted for their piety and humanity, they gained a large following although their religious earnestness caused some persecution, as when six students were expelled from St. Edmund Hall, Oxford in 1768 for “too much religion”.

Sunday schools, the slave trade, and new denominations

In 1780, Robert Raikes (1735-1811), with the help of a sympathetic local parish priest, engaged four women to instruct poor children in Gloucester in the Scriptures, in reading and the church catechism on Sundays, when the children were not required to work.  Later, the schools extended to teach children during the week.  Initially, the experiment was denounced and opposed by church people, in part because of the assumption that popular education would lead to revolution and in part because the Sunday schools were breaking the Sabbath and undermining the authority of the clergy over catechising.  The movement quickly spread to other centers and was broadly adopted, as an extension of the traditional catechism instruction in parish churches.

William Wilberforce (1759-1833), educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, was first elected to the House of Commons as MP for Hull, in 1780 and became a friend of William Pitt.  Through his reading of the New Testament, he became converted to Evangelicalism, and determined to lead a strict Christian life.  He was dissuaded by the Rev. John Newton from ordination and pursued a life of social and religious reform as a layman.  In 1787, he helped found the Society for the Reformation of Manners, and became, like Newton, a campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade (coming into law in 1807).  In 1798, he helped form the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.), an independent Evangelical body that became the first effective organ of the Church of England in missions to non-Christians.  In 1803, he helped form the British and Foreign Bible Society, and interdenominational body that has translated the Bible (omitting the books called Apocrypha) into most known languages.

From 1787 on, Hannah More (1745-1833), who had been a member of the highest literary circles in Bath and London, a friend of the leading actors, such as David Garrick, and of the polymath Samuel Johnson, came under the influence of William Wilberforce and John Newton, established schools at Cheddar and in neighbouring villages around the tin mines, providing religious education and, for girls, training in spinning.  Her schools were deliberately designed both to inculcate religion and to reduce poverty, by providing skills.  (She was, however, adamantly opposed to social revolution and wrote a pamphlet against the French Revolution!)

Among the many new dissenting denominations, the Plymouth Brethren, have been particularly significant despite their relatively small numbers, influencing a broad range of Evangelical Christians, on “Dispensationalism”, “the Rapture” and “Premillenialism”.  Founded in Ireland by John Nelson Derby (1800-1882), formerly a clergyman of the Church of Ireland, they became centred in Plymouth in England in 1830.  Developing a number of distinctive themes from Calvinism and Pietism, and teaching an immanent return of Christ, Derby produced an elaborate and detailed account of the various dispensations of world history, outlining what was to come, and detailing both the tribulations and the rapture to be expected by Christians.  A simplicity of life and of ornament is required of members and many secular occupations were renounced, unless they were compatible with New Testament standards (medicine and handicrafts, for example, were allowed).  There is no organized ministry, no creed, no denominational theory; the outlook on Scripture is very conservative; each local church is completely autonomous; the community Breaks Bread together each Sunday; several sub-divisions are recognized and there were early controversies within the group on the human nature of Christ and on church government.  The influence of some of the distinctive ideas has been considerable in other denominations in Britain and in America.

In 1865, William Booth (1829-1912), who had been converted as a Methodist and had become a revivalist preacher rejected by other Methodists because of his violent preaching, founded The Salvation Army, which he gave its present title and form in 1878.  Organized on strict military lines, the Army has a ‘General’ at its head, is organized according to national frontiers, provinces and divisions, and demands “Unquestioning obedience” of its officers and members.  Its doctrine is in line with traditional Evangelical belief, but it has no sacraments.  It stresses the moral side of Christianity and requires complete self-denial of its followers.  It aggressively attempts to induce conversions through a simple presentation of its message, public testimony and penance, at open air meetings, with brass bands and banners.  It conducts a wide variety of social services, including rescues, night shelters, hostels, soup kitchens, hospitals and schools, for which it actively solicits donations in public.

The Tractarians

 John Keble (1792-1866), the son of a High Church parish priest, attended Corpus Christi College in Oxford.  In 1811, he became a Fellow of Oriel College.  From 1823-31, he served as his father’s curate.  In 1827, he published The Christian Year, a book of poems that could function as hymns for each of the festivals of the Christian year.  The book became very popular and includes hymns that are still familiar.  In 1831, he was appointed professor of poetry in the University of Oxford, and developed a circle of friends that included J.H. Newman and E.B. Pusey.  The group became alarmed by the dangers of reform and liberal movements threatening the privileges of the Church of England.  On July 14, 1833, enraged by the supposed suppression of ten Irish bishoprics by parliament, these concerns were announced in his Sermon on National Apostasy, a sermon he preached in the University Church for the beginning of the assizes.  He and his friends began to publish Tracts for the Times, a series of learned tracts arguing for the spiritual and privileged character of the church, for orthodox and disciplined understanding of the sacraments, and for very serious standards for the Christian life.  He published a scholarly edition of Richard Hooker in 1836 and, in the same year, became Vicar of Hursley, near Worcester, where he remained until his death, encouraging a circle of serious Christian lay people in the neighbourhood, including the Tractarian novelist

Charlotte Yonge.  In 1838, he and his friends began the publication program Library of the Fathers of the Church, and soon thereafter, Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, to re-publish works of the anti-puritan divines of the seventeenth century.

E.B. Pusey (1800-1882) attended Christ Church, Oxford and, in 1823 became a Fellow of Oriel College.  Travelling extensively and studying in Germany, he became an expert in semitic languages and familiar with the leading German Biblical critics.  Although he came to reject the fashionable German theology, he remained a biblical scholar and was appointed Regius Professor of Hebrew in 1828, a post he held until his death.  He contributed learned papers, especially o fasting and baptism, to the Tracts for the Times, and edited several volumes in the series Library of the Fathers of the Church. Controversy over his University sermon “The Holy Eucharist, a Comfort to the Penitent” of 1843 led to his being condemned as teaching error and he was suspended from the University pulpit for two years.  He returned to the subject in a later University sermon, “The Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist”, in which he was careful to deny the doctrine of Transubstantiation, but repeated the typical Tractarian teaching of the Real Presence of Christ in the elements of the eucharist, defending this as the official teaching of the sixteenth century formularies and contrasting his view with the Lutheran view of Consubstantiation.  He emphasized the Church of England’s reluctance to define the manner of the presence that it affirmed and the seriousness of receiving communion.  He was instrumental in reviving the regular practice of private confession, in disuse since the middle of the Seventeenth Century and encouraged the foundation of the first Anglican religious orders for women.

J.H. Newman (1800-1890), brought up under Evangelical influence was educated at Trinity College, Oxford and became a Fellow of Oriel College in 1822 and in 1828, Vicar of the St. Mary the Virgin, the University church.  A valued preacher, he attracted a large following for his sermons, especially in their published form, and was influential in promoting a serious disciplined Christian life, centred in the sacraments.  Arguing that the Church of England was a “via media” between the Church of Rome and the churches of the Reformation, he sought to develop a theology of grace that built on various seventeenth century divines and was expressed in his Lectures on Justification (1838), in which, through an elaborate and clever exposition of scriptural texts he seriously undermined the received assumptions about the doctrine of justification by faith.  From 1839, he began to express doubts about this “Anglican” position and moved, in 1841, to write and publish the last of the Tracts for the Times, Tract 90, which argued that the teaching of the Thirty-Nine articles was entirely compatible with the decrees of the Council of Trent.  In the storm of protest that followed, he was disciplined and retired from public life, becoming a Roman Catholic in 1845.  In 1879, he was made Cardinal.

Anglo-catholicism.  Although they referred to their work as a “second Reformation”, the stated purpose of the Tractarian writers was to show the catholic character of the Church of England.  Their views, particularly on the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, were not typical of Cranmer and his contemporaries.  They argued, however, that they were reproducing the views of the reformers, which had been providentially saved from over-contamination with the thought of the European reformation.  The Tractarians were attached to the authority of the institutions of the Church of England, including the Book of Common Prayer, which they used with a new precision, restoring many forgotten details.  Initially, they did not opt for any novelty in the vestments of the clergy or the decoration of churches.  (Liturgical and decorative revolution came a generation later, among their disciples, especially admirers of the middle ages centred in Cambridge.)  In their theology of grace, they continued a seventeenth century tendency to “harmonize the apostles” by balancing faith and works in the Christian life.  They emphacised the renewal of regeneration of the human subject in baptism that they read in the formularies, and the presence of Christ in the elements of the eucharist.  Pusey’s seriousness about sin and its consequences as remedied by baptism brought spirited criticism from F.D Maurice and their catholic tendencies brought suspicion and condemnation broadly from the church, including the revival of interest in the sixteenth century, as illustrated by the publishing program of the Parker Society.  Despite opposition and persecution, however, they became increasingly popular to members of the University and many throughout Britain who became familiar with their writings. 

F.D. Maurice and Christian socialism

Christian Socialism, led by F.D. Maurice (1805-1872) and his disciples, was born out of the failure of the national strike of 1848.  They began to publish Tracts on Christian Socialism in 1850, and on Christian principles that cooperation is more basic than competition and that all human beings share “a constant unity” in Christ, undertook various enterprises to educate working men (the “Christian Working Men’s Associations”) and indigent gentlewomen (Queen Mary’s College) and to set up working men’s cooperatives.  Highly admired by some contemporaries, and suspected by many in church and academy, Maurice was a highly original figure and produced a large volume of published theological material.  He is often considered one of the most significant Anglican theologians and apologists for Anglicanism. 

Raised in the household of a Unitarian minister, Maurice lived through constant theological debate at home.  He studied Law at Cambridge, but was unable to take his degree since he was a dissenter, and moved to London where he wrote and published articles and journals against the secular liberal thought fashionable at the time.  As a convert to the Church of England, he was rebaptised and studied theology at Oxford University.  He was ordained and served his first appointment in a decidedly unintellectual country parish.  This appointment was followed by a long incumbency as a chaplain in a “hospital” in a poor district south of the Thames, the place where the poorest and most hopeless were housed until they died.  In both ministries, he discovered the significance of bringing the Christian proclamation to those without wealth, power or education.  Passionately involved in many religious controversies, Maurice was an implacable critique, on theological grounds, of Benthamite utilitarianism, and of any attempt to reduce the authority of the institutions of the Church, including the requirement of subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles, which he nevertheless criticized for its lack of vision and authentic life, and for its complicity in the injustices of the nation and of the emerging British empire.  He rejected the systems of the three main parties he identified in the Church, Evangelical, Liberal and Tractarian, and proposed a highly ingenious retrieval of the religious principles of the Articles and Book of Common Prayer, thereby providing an apology for the Church of England without any “systems”.  He was accused of heresy for his insightful treatment of the doctrine of eternal punishment, which had been widely used as an instrument of social control, and dismissed from his teaching position at King’s College, London.  He was, however, able to continue his ordained ministry, continued to preach to puzzled but enthusiastic congregations of students and privileged elites, published voluminously, and was eventually appointed a professor at Cambridge University.

Intellectual challenges: Biblical criticism, Darwin, Marx, Freud

Christianity was challenged by a series of intellectual revolutions that gave rise to anxiety, doubt, divisions within the church, and remain a challenge for Christian theology.   Tensions in the seventeenth century surrounding the rediscovery of the heliocentric model of the solar system had led to condemnation of the theories of Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) by the Pope, in 1616, and Roman Catholic teaching remained suspicious and condemnatory of most new thinking until the 20th century.

Although the heliocentric theory was not accepted by many in Britain, it was assumed by Isaac Newton (1642-1727), an immensely pious mathematical genius, physicist and public person, a member of the Royal Society (founded by Charles II in 1662), a group of pious laymen who discovered many of the revolutions in mathematics, physics, chemistry and medicine, yet remained generally orthodox and untroubled intellectually about possible challenges of their science to the propositions of their faith.  Generally, they acknowledged, like Newton, a Divine transcendence, omnipotence, and perfection, rejecting pantheism, and acknowledging God’s complete authority over the material universe, while interpreting Biblical narratives, including stories of divine intervention in the laws of nature, in as literal a way as was possible; science simply uncovered the ways in which God worked, and the scientific discoveries increased the opportunity to marvel at God’s works, especially in creation.  (Newton himself rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, as several pious laymen like John Milton (1608-74) had but not on scientific grounds, rather on the grounds that the statement of it was unintelligible and it was not required by Scripture.)  Robert Boyle (1627-91), the “father of chemistry”, an Oxford scholar, in addition to his scientific works, wrote extensively on the harmony between the results of the scientific methods and the Christian faith.  His legacy created the “Boyle Lectures”, to be given annually and to refute unbelievers.

In the nineteenth century, the tensions between science and religion were less easily resolved than they had been previously in the British Isles.  Continental Lutheran scholars had undertaken critical and historical study of the text of the Bible for some time, first scrutinizing the Old Testament, then turning to the New.  The work of the “Lower Critics”, who had continued scholarly work that had been going on since the Renaissance on the manuscripts and other evidence for more authentic texts of the Bible, was followed by the “Higher Criticism”, which dealt with the literary methods and sources used by the human authors.   Their work was largely ignored, or rejected in Great Britain, but came to be more generally known, and eventually the works of such scholars Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), who made credible the source criticism of the Old Testament (“J”, “E”, “P”) and later of the New Testament, became widely, although not universally, accepted in Britain.  The “Cambridge three”, B.F. Westcott (1825-1901), J.B. Lightfoot (1828-1889) and F.J.A. Hort (1828-1892), probably influenced by F.D. Maurice, produced a dazzling output of texts and commentaries on the New Testament, which took for granted almost without comment current critical conclusions, yet provided useful and insightful spiritual commentary.  Resistance to Biblical criticism continued in some dissenting and some Evangelical circles.

The work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) proved to be less easily domesticated by Christian Theology.  Based on his observations of unusual species in the Galapagos Islands, a group of long isolated islands in the Pacific Ocean, Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859) providing a causal refinement, “natural selection” to an existing theory of the evolution of species from other species.  Later, he drew conclusions with respect to the “descent of man”, which collided considerably with literal interpretation of the narratives of the Bible, and the assumptions about the importance of a “special creation” of the human being.  Darwin’s conclusions, which underwent considerable refinement by others, seemed to support implications generally taken about archaeological discoveries of long extinct species of animals.  “Darwinism” was attacked by many church leaders, who initiated a series of public debates with more and more aggressively agnostic defenders of the developing biological science.   Although more and more clergy and laity came to see that biological theories were compatible with Christian proclamation, in some non-Anglican circles, particularly in the U.S.A., in the twentieth century a movement called “Fundamentalism” grew up, rigidly upholding what were taken for traditional orthodox Christian doctrines, including the literal inerrancy of Scripture, and applying this theory to biological science.

In 1860, a group of academic clergy published a collection of essays entitled “Essays and Reviews”.  The essays covered various topics and were informed by a common belief in the necessity of free inquiry in religious matters.  In reaction to this volume, two of the authors suffered temporary deprivation of their offices, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued an encyclical condemning the work, and 11,000 clergy signed a declaration of their belief in the inspiration of Scripture and the eternity of punishment, both of which seemed to be cast into doubt by the essays.  In 1889, another book of essays, entitled “Lux Mundi” (meaning “light of the world) was published by a group of Oxford scholars under the inspiration and leadership of Charles Gore (1853-1932), leader of his generations of the Tractarians, and also influenced by F.D. Maurice.  This volume declared its purpose “to put the Catholic faith into its right relations to modern intellectual and moral problems”, and was much more careful in addressing various intellectual questions than Essays and Reviews had been.  It accepted the new critical views of the Old Testament, a treatment of social problems on “Catholic principles” that approached the conclusions of F.D. Maurice and his associates, and scandalously dealt with the creaturely limitations of Christ in his humanity.  Although condemned widely, especially by older Tractarians, its principles of a “liberal Catholicism” were broadly adopted by laity and clergy.

The writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883), who lived in London from 1849 and worked daily in the British Library at the same time as F.D. Maurice, apparently without meeting him, were less well known than his revolutionary activities, but were gradually absorbed outside the circles of revolutionary socialists.  His economic theories and philosophy provided a destructive critique of traditional religion and Christian theology generally, now seen as an “ideology” relating to the bourgeois world that was to be swept away in inevitable revolution.  Thus, despite the efforts of F.D. Maurice and others to justify a true Christian Socialism, and the heroic efforts of twentieth century socialists, such as William Temple (1881-1944) to provide a theology that would counter and refute the Dialectical Materialism of Marxism, there has been a widespread separation of Christians and Marxist Socialists (until the rise of Liberation Theology and parallel movements in the twentieth century).

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), an Austrian, co-founder of the psychoanalytic school of Psychiatry, provided a challenge to traditional Christian accounts of the human subject, the soul and moral responsibility.  His theory of the unconscious mind and of the mechanism of repression, together with his broadening of the arena of sexual desire, appeared completely inimical to the received interpretation of human action and grace, and has been met by a silent abandonment within Christian theology of much theological anthropology, including discussions of the human soul and of the integrity of the human subject, whether this is a result of the challenge of psychoanalysis or of other factors, including a renewed sense of the Biblical account of the human composite personality.

These intellectual and cultural challenges remained challenges for Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century.

January 2007