Victorian challenges to English Christianity and their relevance today

by John S. Summerwill

© John S. Summerwill 2020. All rights reserved.


In the Victorian era, and especially from about 1860 onwards, the churches in England were troubled by a storm of challenges to the conventional order, including, inter alia: Darwin's theory of evolution; the rise of biblical criticism; the moral critique of Christian doctrine; the growth of doubt, agnosticism and atheism. The issues were much debated but never settled: they still trouble and divide Christians now. This essay analyses scholarly studies and opinions concerning them and seeks to assess their relative importance and continuing impact today.

Darwin and his successors: the challenge of evolutionary theory

The Challenge to Scriptural Authority: Essays and Reviews & Colenso
The Moral Challenge
Honest Doubt


The best known of the controversies that unsettled the faith of the Victorians was that concerning Darwin’s theory of evolution, which challenged the fundamental Christian belief that God had created the world in six days as described at the beginning of the Bible. There were many other movements of thought that disturbed religious convention and were perceived at the time to be threatening. Belief in miracles was becoming increasingly difficult in an age that sought rational explanation of all phenomena; the developing application of historical and literary critical methods to biblical literature threatened to make the Bible unbelievable. A conflict between faith and doubt; a concern that some traditional doctrines were morally questionable; the rise of agnosticism and atheism; the growth of dissent; questions about the establishment of the Church of England and its control of education—all of these issues, often interwoven, caused pious souls to ask what the world was coming to. The purpose of this essay is to examine and evaluate some of these issues and to show how they continue to make an impact on Christians and churches today.

The discussion must necessarily be confined to the English church scene because it would be altogether too vast and unmanageable to consider other British perspectives, let alone the diversity to be found in world church contexts. Many of the issues were as much debated in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but for various reasons the debates generally came later than in England and were handled differently[1] . Much Victorian debate took it for granted that conventional Christian teaching was teaching consistent with the Bible, the ancient creeds and the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England, to which all Oxford and Cambridge graduates had to subscribe, whether priests or laymen[2] . On many of the basic doctrines of Christianity there was a broad consensus shared by Anglicans, Catholics and dissenters. Clearly, though, there were also deep differences which had led to the splits of the Protestant Reformation, the schisms within the English Church, and, in the Victorian period, the sometimes rancorous disputes between Tractarians, Evangelicals and Broad Churchmen in the Church of England. Methodists were not, strictly speaking, either ‘dissenters’ or ‘nonconformists’, though by the second half of the nineteenth century they had become quite distanced from the Church of England and more like the dissenters in their thinking and attitudes. Their theological stances tended to be traditional, evangelical and conservative. All of these groups held that what they believed and taught was conventional Christian teaching and it was those who differed who had departed from the true scriptural faith of the ancient Church. Too much of an obsession along such lines may itself have helped to divert attention from more serious challenges.

Darwin and his successors: the challenge of evolutionary theory

This essay was first drafted in 2009, Charles Darwin's bicentenary year. His theory of evolution continues to cause controversy among religious believers and between believers and atheists. The theory itself was modified by Darwin himself in successive editions of his writings, and has been further refined by later scientists. The core idea—that the diversity of plant and animal species is brought about by a slow and ongoing evolutionary process of change by natural selection—is so obviously consistent with experience, observation and common sense, that few people then or now would doubt it. Whether natural selection is the only mechanism is more debatable. Darwin at first thought so and set this forth in the first edition of Origin of Species in 1859, but debate with scientific critics over the next twelve years obliged him to acknowledge some problems to which there was no simple solution: individual differences between creatures of the same species and siblings; the persistence of useless physical features; how inheritance works; the time frame needed for change. These were but minor adjustments. The key idea of evolution seized the imagination of Victorians and came to be widely accepted both by the few who understood the scientific evidence and reasoning, and by a larger population who felt instinctively that it must be right. What remained uncertain is whether it is possible to reconcile the randomness of natural selection with the belief that the universe is the creation of an omniscient and omnipotent designer. Darwin put in jeopardy the conclusions of Paley, whose design argument he loved and admired.

The Descent of Man, published in 1871, was more challenging for theology, for it treated the human species as not essentially different from other animals in having evolved from the same ancestors as other primates. Conflict with the traditional teaching, based on the Book of Genesis, which taught that humanity was a superior species, was inevitable.

'Darwin has disproved the Bible' is a claim attributed by Chadwick[3] to G.M. Trevelyan's autobiography, in which Trevelyan says that had heard it at the age of 13 (in 1889) and it had caused him to disbelieve all Christian doctrine.

Superficially it is obvious that Darwin's theory of evolution contradicts a simple literalist reading of the Genesis stories of creation in seven days and of humankind being descended from Adam and Eve. Obviously also the claim which impressed Trevelyan was a gross exaggeration. Darwin's theory, it might be argued, had relevance only to a few chapters of the Bible, not to the whole. He had not 'disproved' it, but had only set up another theory that itself was not proved beyond doubt—a position still argued by some fundamentalists today. There might, in any case, be ways of reconciling evolutionary theory with the Bible, either by reading the 'days' of Genesis as long periods of time, or by treating the biblical narratives as theological truth conveyed through poetry, metaphor or myth. These alternative ways of defending scripture would all be argued as the Victorian period progressed, and are debated still.

In the Victorian era, though, alternatives were not immediately evident to those who had been brought up to believe 'all scripture is given by inspiration of God' (II Timothy 3:16). The ancient and medieval church, following Alexandrian theologians such as Origen, acknowledged that scripture could be read in four ways: literally, as allegory, for moral instruction, and spiritually or mystically. One effect of the Reformation was to fix in Protestant minds the notion that scripture has but one plain literal sense, except where it is evidently parable or allegory. It seemed to many that if even one fact asserted by scripture was proven false, the credibility of the whole was thereby destroyed. It was on such a basis that young Trevelyan rejected Christianity in the 1880s: it was just such a consequence that many of Darwin's critics feared when his works were first published.

The immediate issue concerning the Bible that Darwin raised was already being debated on other grounds. Geologists such as William Buckland and his pupil Charles Lyell, one of Darwin's mentors, had established that the earth was of far greater antiquity than the 4004 BC of Bishop Ussher's biblical chronology, and though Buckland had found support for the universal deluge in Noah's time, geologists of the 1850s were sure no such event could have occurred. Between the publication of Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, the wider debate on scriptural authority stirred by Essays and Reviews and the Colenso affair burst forth (which will be discussed later). Darwin did not enter that fray, nor was it ever his purpose to engage in theological controversy.[4] He, however, as a scientist epitomised a rational, evidence-based approach to the explanation of natural phenomena in contrast to one based on faith in what tradition claims as divinely revealed truth. It was not the theory of evolution in itself that caused the difficulty, but its implications for the nature of truth and how it may be known. The ensuing debate was not focused simply on Darwin: it widened into what was perceived as a conflict between science and religion, but which, in Chadwick's view, was not ultimately about scientific theories 'but over the freedom of the scientist to be a scientist'[5].

Moore,[6] who considers that Darwin's ideas were much misrepresented[7], quotes with approval the view of John Dewey:

Although the ideas that rose up like armed men against Darwinism owed their intensity to religious associations, their origin and meaning are to be found in science and philosophy, not in religion[8].

The issue was really a conflict with two ancient, pre-Christian ideas which had been accommodated with Christian theology but were not necessary to Christianity: the Platonic and Aristotelian notion of immutable 'forms' or 'essences' which characterised and distinguished species, and the belief in the fixity of species, both of which accorded with a literal interpretation of Genesis. The taxonomic work of Darwin's predecessors[9] assumed that species had been designed and created separately, and that human beings were the highest form of creature. Moore judges that Darwin undermined the fundamental assumptions of that model of natural science. After Darwin there could be no assurance that inductive reasoning would lead to discovery of the Creator's plan, nor any assurance that all things were developing towards their predetermined goal: process and probability replaced certainty. If these were challenges for faith, they were even greater challenges to the old philosophy and old science.

Christian anti-Darwinians opposed Darwinism principally 'because they sought certainty through inductive inferences and because they believed in the fixity of biological species.'[10] Christian Darwinists accepted that Darwin had rightly discerned the processes through which change occurs, and welcomed this as a new revelation of God's ongoing way of creation. However, they needed to reconcile evolution with a non-negotiable concept of God as omnipotent, omniscient and beneficent, and this was hard to reconcile with the notion of the 'survival of the fittest'[11], and of man as a species evolved through a brutal struggle for existence. In Moore's view, the resolution of this dissonance came, not by opposing evolution but by adopting a different version of evolution from Darwin's. Moore contends, surprisingly, that Darwin's theory challenged liberal theology more than it challenged orthodoxy. The few orthodox theologians sympathetic to Darwin's views [12]could see evolution as the way in which the sovereign purposes of a rational God are worked out in a continuous process of creation in which God is immanent. There was no special creation of humanity, but mankind is evolving according to the divine will as revealed in Christ.[13] Liberal theologians, however—and they were more numerous—were, says Moore[14], unable to accept a strict Darwinism. Natural selection and survival of the fittest were incompatible with the liberal focus on providence and human progress through rationality, education, social justice and democracy. They tended therefore to accept evolution as but one factor in producing change, and a subordinate one. Whilst there was much debate and variety of view, liberal theologians tended to follow Lamarck or Herbert Spencer rather than Darwin, to see purpose rather than randomness in the way that the world is, and to regard humanity as a special creation.[15]

Chadwick[16] traces the stages by which evolutionary theory gradually became less controversial in the churches. In the 1860s there were many anti-Darwinian press articles, speeches and sermons, though a few supporters[17] welcomed Darwin's ideas as revealing truth about God and his creation. Liberals had no reason to defend the Bible, so they found it easy to accept Darwinian ideas.[18] From the late 1860s onwards, an increasing number of senior churchmen endorsed evolutionary theory, and opposition came to look increasingly old-fashioned and obscurantist, at least within the educated, articulate clergy of the Church of England. It would be decades more before Roman Catholics, dissenters and ordinary pious Anglicans would come to terms with it.

The rise of social anthropology was stimulated by the theory of evolution. If the Bible did not explain accurately the origins of religion, perhaps those origins could be found by looking at animism among primitive tribes still existing in the world. As travel became easier, many anthropologists, often in a very amateur fashion, engaged in research or speculation about the development of religion, much of which was based on false premises and of little or no lasting value. One of its effects, however, was to put into the public mind the idea of the rise of man in place of the fall of man.[19] The morality and spirituality of humans, a species evolved from lower primates, had grown with them as a result partly of heredity and partly of environment. In 1890 Frazer's Golden Bough would take such thinking forward in a way that would scandalise Christians by associating Christ with the ideas of pagan fertility cults, and treating as mythological those key events that Christians regarded as the core of sacred history.

Herbert Spencer's system of Synthetic Philosophy, also later called inappropriately by some 'Social Darwinism', became enormously popular by the 1870s. Based more upon Lamarck's thinking than upon Darwin's, it proposed that evolution was the principle by which change and improvement came about not only in the biological world but also in human thought, in ethics and in the ordering of human society. In many ways Spencerian non-theistic evolutionary thought was more threatening to Christian teaching than Darwin's, for it undermined belief in God to a greater degree, bypassing and making irrelevant the traditional Christian analysis of the human condition based on the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, and with it the remedy through the incarnation, atonement and resurrection. What Spencer represented was the idea that theology and religion are superfluous and irrelevant. Man is not fallen from an original state of grace but an animal rising and improving through his own unaided efforts. That proposition continues to be expounded in a modern version by Richard Dawkins, who has gone to somewhat extreme lengths to find ways of reconciling the idea that we are genetically programmed to be selfish in the interests of natural selection with the idea that there is moral advantage in our being altruistic. His attempts to find a biological explanation for the universal persistence of religious thought in human consciousness have been unconvincing.

If we understand 'conventional Christian teaching' to be that derived from the literalistic reading of scripture that was the norm in Darwin's day, the challenge presented to it by evolutionary theory was great and serious. It still is for 21st century Christian literalists and supporters of Intelligent Design. If, however, we think in terms of older conventions, Jewish and Christian, which attach less importance to the literal sense of scripture and value more its symbolic meaning, the challenge is less significant. Many of Darwin's contemporaries welcomed his theory as itself a revelation, and something which enhanced rather than diminished their sense of awe at the magnificence of the divine design which they continued to perceive in creation. Darwin himself gradually lost the theistic faith which he had as a young man, and from 1849 stopped attending church, though he continued to support parish activities. He considered himself an agnostic rather than an atheist. A quarter of a century after the publication of Origin of Species the Church of England honoured him with burial in Westminster Abbey after a state funeral.

The Challenge to Scriptural Authority: Essays and Reviews & Colenso

The interpretation of the greater part of scripture was unaffected by Darwin's thinking but very much affected by the views advanced by a new generation of biblical critics, whose views we now consider.

Essays and Reviews, published in 1860, contained seven articles dealing with issues in education, history, philosophy and, particularly, biblical interpretation. The writers were distinguished Oxford and Cambridge scholars[20] representing the Broad Church or liberal view in the Church of England. There was no single editor, nor were the articles jointly written. The Preface stated: 'the Authors of the ensuing Essays are responsible for their respective articles only. They have written in entire independence of each other, and without concert or comparison.'[21] Because of this independence, there was no single thread running through the collection, but certain ideas recur among several of the writers: a concern that there was a growing gulf between what men educated in history, science and theology knew to be the case and what the Church taught and required them to believe; a feeling of moral obligation honestly to acknowledge this dislocation; a conviction that the new knowledge was to be welcomed, not feared, since it too came from God; the recognition that although the Bible is inspired and inspirational, it is not infallible, nor to be taken literally, and it needs to be interpreted in the context of the time in which it was written, using the tools of scholarship. These key ideas were not new: they had long been the subject of scholarly debate and had a place within the theological training of clergymen. What caused uproar within the church, the universities, the press and parliament was that these views were being offered to a wider public by clergymen in prominent public positions. They should not think as they did; if they did so think, they should not say so; if they did say it, they should resign.[22] The debates rumbled on for at least a decade, the book being so much in demand that it ran to twelve editions in five years.

There is no need here to discuss either the substance of the essays or the grounds upon which charges of heresy were brought in the courts against two of the contributors.[23] It is on the third Essayist accused of heresy that we need to focus— Benjamin Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford. His article On the Interpretation of Scripture addresses the 'strange, though familiar fact, that great differences of opinion exist respecting the Interpretation of Scripture'[24]. This, he claimed, was not a new phenomenon: Christians had always disagreed, and, while claiming the authority of the scriptures for what they believed, had been selective, sometimes misrepresenting the scriptures in the process.

Jowett is critical of the way in which the statements of a single verse or two of scripture are used to draw large conclusions running beyond the sense that the words themselves can bear, illustrating this by reference to teachings on divorce and remarriage, the paucity of scriptural basis for episcopacy, and the dependence of 'the Christian scheme of redemption' on 'two figurative expressions of St. Paul to which there is no parallel in any other part of Scripture' and which contradict other biblical teaching[25]. He illustrates a range of ways in which passages are ignored or perverted because they would threaten custom and convention, and how Protestants and Catholics each choose from scripture what will support their view. [26]In Jowett's view there was not enough recognition that the language of different parts of scripture needed to be understood in the context in which it was written, not read in the light of later creeds and liturgies as too often happened.

The unchangeable word of God, in the name of which we repose, is changed by each age and each generation in accordance with its passing fancy. The book in which we believe all religious truth to be contained, is the most uncertain of all books, because interpreted by arbitrary and uncertain methods. [27]

Jowett pleaded for honesty. The difficulties and uncertainties of interpreting scripture were well known by the clergy and ecclesiastical authorities: they should not pretend that such difficulties existed or continue to conceal them from laymen. The time had come for the results of biblical criticism to be admitted, for in them there was nothing to be feared.

When interpreted like any other book, by the same rules of evidence and the same canons of criticism, the Bible will still remain unlike any other book; its beauty will be freshly seen, as of a picture which is restored after many ages to its original state.[28]  

The one meaning of scripture is that which was in the mind of the prophet or evangelist who first uttered or wrote it for the hearers or readers who first received it, so do not look for hidden meanings, nor assume that all biblical books and writers can be harmonised; observe the development of thought through the biblical period, and recognise that later teaching often renders earlier teaching obsolete. Investigation in the original languages is crucial. In his conclusions, Jowett is optimistic that the critical, honest, open approach to the Bible that he advocates, and that was already happening in a world 'nor unprepared for it', will bring more good than harm. It should be pursued for truth's sake alone, but truth is the source of justice and good, and Jowett hints that a critical use of scripture could unite Christians of different traditions, bring more individuals to faith, enhance missions, improve preaching, and draw 'the hearts of the poor'.

A year after Essays and Reviews J.W. Colenso, the Anglican Bishop of Natal, published his controversial commentary on Romans, which denied the doctrine of eternal punishment. From 1862 onwards he published a series of writings on the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua setting out in extraordinary detail the impossibility that numerous facts declared in those books could be historically accurate. His work was met with support from sympathisers like Darwin, and with much ridicule, especially from evangelicals, partly deserved because the work was poorly done, but undeserved where the condemnation came from bishops who had not read it. Colenso's excommunication by Bishop Gray of Capetown (later judged to be ultra vires) was made on the grounds that a minister could not hold office if he believed parts of the Bible to be untrue. Colenso's appeal to the Privy Council, and the debate of his case in the Convocation of Canterbury in June 1866, gave publicity to the issue. The Colenso affair was much less important than Essays and Reviews, but coming as it did at the same time, it added to the ferment of thought, and brought into open public debate doubts which many already quietly harboured about the accuracy, the morality and the value of Old Testament narratives and laws. [29]

How much of a challenge to conventional Christianity did Jowett, the other Essayists and Colenso pose? To their ecclesiastical contemporaries, and especially to the bishops, theirs was a threat so grave as to justify legal proceedings. It was not simply the doctrines of the Church, especially Christology, that they called into question but the authoritative sources of those doctrines—the scriptures themselves and the tradition of interpretation of them which was embedded in the decisions of the ecumenical councils, the creeds, the Prayer Book, the Articles. They undermined the bishops, who claimed to be the successors of the apostles and the guardians of the faith. Methodists and dissenters, although they had no room for bishops, Prayer Book and Articles, and little use for creeds, were just as concerned, because they had even more of an investment in the authority of an infallible Bible. It was easy to excoriate the Essayists, more difficult by far to refute what they said, for much of it could hardly be denied. The debate was often more focused on their right to publish their views than on the views themselves.

Altholz considers that the reaction to Essays and Reviews by the clergy was much the same whether they were Evangelicals or Tractarians: both had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge in a rationalistic system that was based on Butler and Paley. Butler had argued that revelation was not unreasonable, Paley that the evidences in nature confirmed revelation. Faith was understood to be unquestioning acceptance of what was revealed. So the Bible, the ‘Word of God’ was to be taken whole. If anything was erroneous, the credibility of the whole was at stake. Conversely, to doubt anything was to doubt all. So the stakes were set ridiculously high because of a rationalist argument and a ‘dangerous demand for certainty’. [30] The dissenting academies took much the same view.

Parsons questions the conventional view that the 1850-1880 controversies over the Bible were a clash between criticism and faith. Biblical criticism become an issue of widespread concern in the 1850s when '... the temperature was hotter, the pressure greater, the doubts and challenges more profound, the religiously conservative both more militant and also more embattled.'[31] The orthodox protested that it was dishonest for those who held critical views that were contrary to the orthodox faith they had publicly espoused to continue as priests and ministers, and wrong of them to undermine the faith of others by publishing their own doubts. The scholars themselves, however, did not see the issue as one of faith: 'they were, to a man, believing critics.'[32] The issue for them was the meaning and nature of faith, rather than faith itself. What united the authors of Essays and Reviews was that they found the evidences for Christianity internally, in the religious and moral sense and experience of humanity, rather than in the external evidences and proofs, whether credal, scriptural or rational.[33]

Although they might not admit it even to themselves, many academics and clergy found Jowett’s thesis personally threatening to the foundations upon which they had built their careers and ministries.

Jowett's argument was and is judged to contradict conventional teaching as understood in the Victorian church, yet in his defence it might be argued that he stood for an older convention of Christian teaching—older than the Reformation, older than the Fathers, older even than the New Testament itself. By focusing upon the original meaning of scripture, Jowett sought to reach the fountainhead of Christian teaching, its pure source, confident that God was still revealing new truth to those who, through scholarly study, sought it. What such scholarship threatened was error, bias, ignorance, misunderstanding, false conclusions, monstrous theological edifices built on sand: it did not threaten truth, but revealed it in its splendour.

Jowett's article is still both readable and relevant today. The debates in the contemporary churches about priesthood, women's ordination, homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia, etc, often fail to move forward because protagonists read scripture superficially and uncritically, building mountainous arguments on the strength of a few selected verses of scripture, as though Jowett had not written. Even preachers who are not literalists often preach as though they were, thereby leaving a mistaken impression in the minds of congregations. In the mainstream churches, Christians undisturbed by hearing the Genesis stories talked of as a myths can yet be affronted if New Testament narratives are described similarly, especially if the status of the incarnation and the resurrection as historical events is questioned. That difference is, perhaps, one indicator that the critical approach of the Essayists continues to be, and to be perceived to be, more threatening to conventional Christian teaching than Darwin's theory.

The Moral Challenge

Colenso's doubts about the accuracy of scripture began with doubts about the morality of the God of the Old Testament. A moral critique of God—or at least of conventional teaching about God—was another of the startling and novel challenges of the age.

Vidler says that 'beneath the surface of respectable conformity was a turmoil and doubt and uncertainty', which stemmed not only from the discoveries of natural science and biblical criticism, but

the apparent immorality and inhumanity of the Christian scheme of salvation (divine favouritism, the substitutionary atonement, everlasting torment in hell, etc) and also its bare-faced next-worldliness which seemed to deny the possibility and the duty of improving conditions of life in this world[34] .

It was because of this, rather than because of natural science or the Bible, that Francis Newman, J.A. Froude, and George Eliot 'turned their backs on orthodoxy'[35]

Altholz [36] proposes that the crisis for faith in the 1870s was an outcome from the Victorian religious revival. 'The theology espoused by most evangelicals, and generally accepted by most others, was a sort of unsystematic and semiconscious quasi-Calvinism, positing the Atonement rather than the Incarnation as the central fact of Christianity, and stressing the sterner and harsher Christian doctrines: original sin, reprobation, vicarious atonement, eternal punishment. The unbalanced emphasis of these essentially unattractive themes was bound to come into conflict with the sentimental and humanitarian spirit of the age, itself largely a product of the religious revival.'[37] Alholz sees evidence of these tensions in F.D. Maurice's loss of his chair of Theology in 1853 for questioning the doctrine of eternal punishment, and in the storm of criticism which Jowett met when, in his 1855 commentary on St Paul, he denounced the conventional presentation of the Atonement, quoting Jowett's words:

God is represented as angry with us for what we never did; He is ready to inflict a disproportionate punishment on us for what we are; He is satisfied by the sufferings of His Son in our stead.'

Trollope's Barchester Towers, published in 1857, illustrates something of the tensions, the depth of feeling, the bigotry and at times the anger that affected relationships between Evangelicals, Tractarians and Broad Churchmen even before the controversies raised by Darwin and the Essayists.  Crowther[39] says,

...it seems that the tragedy of the Church at this time was not its doubts but its certainties. Each group was utterly convinced of the truth of its position and was not prepared to admit differing viewpoints.

Tait, the Bishop of London, reflected: “the great evil is—that the liberals are deficient in religion and the religious are deficient in liberality.” [40]

Maurice, Jowett and the other Essayists remained believers, even if their theology was different from the evangelical conventional Christian teaching, and fearlessly spoke out. Others, like John Stuart Mill and Froude, abandoned belief altogether. Some changed to a less dogmatic church, if they could find one, Unitarianism in particular being in vogue. The liberalism of such as the Essayists and Maurice found a much warmer reception among the laity than among the clergy, and gradually gained acceptance through the 1860s and 1870s. McLeod (1996: 184) [41]sees 1877 as the key year by which the tide had turned to such an extent that even a canon of Westminster Abbey[42] could preach and publish sermons questioning the existing teaching on hell.

Bartholomew[43] summarises the research of a range of scholars on the moral crisis. He observes that Murphy and Altholz built their arguments largely on biographical evidence that reveals the views of the articulate, educated classes. A number of other studies by historians like Susan Budd and Edward Royle, he reports, show that among the working classes too it was not science or intellectual questions that disturbed people so much as 'disgust with the church and moral revulsion against Christian doctrines.' [44]

The moral challenge to 'conventional Christian teachings' is one case in which the definition of 'conventional' is less ambiguous. The hard-edged theology which offended the liberals could undoubtedly be defended as scripturally supportable and as having the endorsement of eminent theologians down through the ages. To abandon the belief in original sin and hell taught by St Augustine inevitably meant denying New Testament teaching on which such theology was based. The idea that theology could give precedence to reason and experience over scripture and tradition was new and deeply controversial, for it put in jeopardy any and every doctrine. Liberal theologians were willing to take the risk because of their commitment to truth. Conservatives feared that such shaking of the foundations would bring down not only the Church but all of the moral civilised society that Christian teaching had brought about. If people could sin with impunity, what would become of conscience, and without conscience how could crime ever be controlled? The debate was heated because much was at stake—and it still continues. The Evangelical Alliance, to which some Methodist evangelicals belong, still stands by doctrines that the Victorian liberals denounced as immoral.

Honest Doubt

It was not moral doubt only that challenged orthodoxy. Another of the great issues of the Victorian age was the question of the existence of God and all its corollaries, such as predestination, life after death, heaven and hell.

McLeod[45] talks of a slow growth of unbelief in the 1850s and 1860s, spreading more widely until in the 1890s agnosticism was widespread.  He sees T.H. Huxley's coining of the word 'agnosticism' in 1869 as a symbolic turning point, 'as doubters now had a socially acceptable and intellectually plausible means of defining their religious position'. 

In the eighteenth century enlightened rationalism had challenged Christian orthodoxy and given rise to deism, but by the mid–nineteenth century the evangelical movement had created a strong sense of the seriousness of sin and its consequences and a fear of damnation. Doubt was the result of sin, and itself sinful. It was therefore not easy for unbelievers to admit and give expression to their unbelief: among the lower-middle class it would mean a loss of respectability; for the educated upper middle class it could mean exclusion from graduation at the universities, which required subscription to the Thirty Nine Articles.  But doubt could not simply be suppressed, though there were strong endeavours to that end. In Essays and Reviews Jowett said, 'Doubt comes in at the window when inquiry is denied at the door.' [46]

For Broad Churchmen, doubts about some doctrines, or about biblical miracles, were not sufficient to drive them altogether away from faith, for they continued to believe in a God whom mankind could only imperfectly understand. An increasing number of Victorians, though, became doubtful whether God existed, and some lost belief in God altogether.

The growth of atheism was in part brought about by the inflexibility of the defenders of orthodoxy, according to Altholz.[47]

The orthodox apologetic... insisted that, since faith must be without reservation, the acceptance of the data of revelation must be total and uncritical...Either you accepted all of revelation and orthodox theology, or the whole edifice would fall if any one argument was denied... there was no alternative between orthodoxy and total 'infidelity.' The result was inevitable. England ceased to produce heretics and began to produce infidels.[48]

The most notorious 'infidel' was Charles Bradlaugh, a co-founder of the National Secularist Society, who in four elections from 1880 was unable to take his seat as an MP because he refused to take the religious Oath of Obedience. Few were quite as aggressively anti-religious as Bradlaugh or the poet Swinburne, but, in the late Victorian period especially, conventional Christianity faced an increasingly sustained, strong and serious questioning from a range of well-informed intellectual writers, the quality of whose writing gave their views impact upon a wider public. Common among them, and typical of them, is an agonising over issues of faith, a sense of bereavement in the unavoidable loss of the old certainties rather than any welcome release into new freedom. [49]

Tennyson's dolorous epic In Memoriam was enormously popular, including those lines:

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope through darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope...

  ...There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds. [50]

Edwards[51] observes that the lives of many Victorian laymen illustrate a confusion or conflict between opposed tendencies:

the nostalgia for the religious foundations of family life and other agreeable features of the old England, and the awareness that a time had come for which there might be no over-ruling God, no ever-living Christ, no realistic morality other than self-interest.[52]

Browning was more optimistic. In Bishop Blougram's Apology he explores the debate between faith and doubt, suggesting that neither is ever complete: each is affected by the other, and our experiences can unsettle us in both directions. Since we cannot know, faith may, on balance, be the wiser course.

All we have gained then by our unbelief
Is a life of doubt diversified by faith,
For one of faith diversified by doubt:
We called the chess-board white,—we call it black.

It is impossible to say how far the 'honest doubt' which found expression in Victorian poetry and novels reflected thinking and how far it influenced it. We may reasonably surmise that popular poets such as Tennyson and Browning, and popular novelists such as the freethinking George Eliot[53] , must have had far greater impact upon a wide readership than the works of the intellectual theologians. We must not underestimate the seriousness of the challenge such doubt posed to conventional Christian teaching, not least because it was read by many of those who had ceased to attend church and never heard a sermon[54]


Conventional Christian teaching met so many challenges that we have necessarily had to be selective in dealing with them.[55] It remains for us to try to identify which is 'the most serious', assuming that it is one of those we have identified. The principal difficulty is determining a criterion. Is a challenge serious simply because it was perceived to be so, or because of the effects it produced? If the challenge provokes healthy reform and improvement, does that make it more or less 'serious' than an ineffective challenge or one that results in damage and destruction? Different judges will arrive at different conclusions if they start from different premises. For this reason, judgements on the challenges to 'conventional Christian teaching' are likely to be influenced by the judges' own perceptions of what that teaching was, and is, and ought to be. Fundamentalist and conservative Christians, the successors of the Victorian Evangelicals, may feel that evolutionary theory and critical approaches to the Bible were equally disastrous. Liberals, on the other hand, may consider that the conventional teaching was not as Christian as it claimed, and that it needed to be reformed: the really serious challenge was the growth of moral and intellectual doubt made worse by the conservatism that stifled debate until the damage had gone too far to be corrected.  

It is certainly the case that all of the movements we have discussed have remained controversial ever since, and have had far-reaching effects on the life of the churches. McLeod, for example, sees the liberalisation of theology as a factor contributing to the growth of a more tolerant view of other faiths, weakening the missionary impulse, or at least changing its motives from the desire to save souls to a concern to abolish slavery, polygamy and other forms of injustice.

A crucial pillar of the missionary edifice was removed when Christians began to doubt that all those who did not know Christ were lost.[56]

Among the principal historians of the period what is generally agreed is that whatever the most serious challenge was, it was not Darwin's evolutionary theory. Altholz writes about Origin of Species as 'the most famous but not the most important of the challenges to faith.'[57]  Chadwick observes the difficulty of pointing to a single cause of the general unsettlement of faith.[58] In 1861-5, he says, it was historians challenging the biblical text, not Darwin, who caused the unsettlement. From 1864 the debate between science and religion took fire, but in the public mind there was no distinction between historical and scientific challenges to religion: all were 'science', nor was the distinction between science and scientists always clear.[59]  Crowther likewise judges:

many churchmen in the 1860s believed that the Church’s greatest danger lay in the increasing alienation of many educated men, stimulated by a new spirit of free inquiry into many fields of learning, including science, history and theology… The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 was not such a thunderbolt to the Church as might be imagined, nor did it suddenly undermine the faith of a generation.[60]

McLeod[61] is surely right to be critical of the attempts made by so many historians to try to find a single 'most serious challenge'. [62]

Reading the debates today one is struck by the breadth, the depth, the seriousness, the originality in such articles as those in Essays and Reviews and the rich variety of extracts from Victorian theological writings in James R. Moore's anthology[63] . If the bishops and clergy had followed where Jowett and others led, a reformed, liberal Christianity might still be holding its own today. Tragically, conservative elements in the churches lacked the courage, and reacted defensively. Trying not to disturb the faith of ordinary churchgoers, even liberal clergy avoided preaching what their theological education had taught them, unintentionally contributing to Britain becoming one of the most secularised countries in the world. The issues remain, and it is to the credit of the Victorian theologians that they grappled with them.[64] The challenge to the churches now is how to frame a theology that engages with the issues rather than avoiding them. Theology needs to offer a rational interpretation of human experience and religious tradition, consistent with the discoveries of the last two centuries, that is credible and convincing to educated, thoughtful people. If all the church can offer is a faith that requires people to suspend belief in the findings of science, psychology, medicine, sociology, history and literary theory, its  imminent demise is assured.


Works Cited

Altholz, Josef L. (1988a), "The Mind of Victorian Orthodoxy: Anglican Responses to 'Essays and Reviews', 1860-1864", in Religion in Victorian Britain, vol IV: Interpretations, ed. Gerald Parsons, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Altholz, Josef L. (1988b), "The Warfare of Conscience with Theology", in Religion in Victorian Britain, vol IV: Interpretations, ed. Gerald Parsons, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Bartholomew, Michael (1988), "The Moral Critique of Christian Orthodoxy", in Religion in Victorian Britain, vol IV: Interpretations, ed. Gerald Parsons, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Chadwick, Owen (1987), The Victorian Church, Part 2: 1860-1901—3rd edn. London: SCM Press

Crowther, M.A. (1988), "Church Problems and Church Parties", in Religion in Victorian Britain, vol IV: Interpretations, ed. Gerald Parsons, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Edwards, David L. (1984), Christian England, Volume 3: from the 18th century to the first world war. London: Collins

Jowett, Benjamin (1860), "On the Interpretation of Scripture", in Essays and Reviews: the 1860 text and its reading, ed Victor Shea and William Whitla  (2000), Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia

Livingston, James (2007), Religious Thought in the Victorian Age: challenges and reconceptions. New York: T & T Clark

McLeod, Hugh (1996), Religion and Society in England, 1850-1914. Basingstoke: Macmillan

Moore, James R. (1979 ), The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggles to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America 1870-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Moore, James R. (1988) (ed), Religion in Victorian Britain, vol III: Sources. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Shea, Victor & Whitla, William (eds) (2000), Essays and Reviews: the 1860 text and its reading.  Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia

Parsons, Gerald (1988a), "On Speaking Plainly: 'Honest Doubt' and the Ethics of Belief", in Religion in Victorian Britain, Vol 2: Controversies, ed Gerald Parsons (1988), Manchester: Manchester University Press

Parsons, Gerald (1988b), "Biblical Criticism in Victorian Britain: From Controversy to Acceptance?", in Religion in Victorian Britain, Vol 2: Controversies, ed Gerald Parsons (1988), Manchester: Manchester University Press

Vidler, Alec R. (1971), The Church in an Age of Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books

Principal Additional Sources Consulted





Soffer, Reba N. (1992), “History and Religion: J.R. Seeley and the burden of the past”, in Religion and Irreligion in Victorian Society: essays in honor of R.K. Webb, ed R.W. Davis and R.J. Helmstadter, London and New York: Routledge

Turner, Frank M, and Von Arx, Jeffrey (1988), "Victorian Ethics of Belief: a Reconsideration", in Religion in Victorian Britain, vol IV: Interpretations, ed. Gerald Parsons, Manchester: Manchester University Press


[1] In Wales, which was mainly nonconformist, the Anglican church was at this time still the established Church of England.

[2] From 1854 in Oxford and 1856 in Cambridge subscription was not required for bachelors' degrees. Higher degrees and fellowships were closed to dissenters until 1871.

[3] Chadwick (1987:1)

[4] 'To this humble undogmatic student came feelings rather than philosophical inferences; a feeling that there was meaninglessness in the world; a feeling that the problem of pain was sore upon theism; a feeling that his argument weakened the appeal to design and the doctrine of special creations. This last feeling assailed, not religious faith, but the contemporary theology in which that faith was expressed. The Christians could jettison the doctrine of special creations without any sense of loss. But it was not easy to disentangle faith from its contemporary expressions in theology, nor to separate religion from the logic of apologists for religion' (Chadwick, 1987: 20).

[5] Chadwick (1987: 20)

[6] Moore (1979: 214)

[7] Moore (1979: Part 1) argues that whenever Darwin and religion, or science and religion, are discussed in literature, there is a tendency for writers to reach immediately for military metaphors and he analyses in depth the origins and use of such metaphors in relation to Darwin and the supposed 'conflict between science and religion' in a wide range of American and British Protestant literature up to the 1970s. He finds that although much was written, few historians cover the Darwinian controversies on both sides of the Atlantic; few deal with the whole range of literature rather than a few 'representative' writers; there tends to be a concentration on the period up to about 1880, though some of the most significant responses to Darwin came later; but most importantly few appreciate that evolutionary theory was itself evolving, and that Darwin's own ideas, as developed by such Darwinists as Huxley and Galton are to be distinguished from the neo-Darwinist.

[8] Moore (1979:214)

[9] Chiefly John Ray in the 16th century, Carolus Linnaeus in the 18th century, and Georges Cuvier and Louis Agassiz in the 19th century

[10] Moore (1979: 219)

[11] A term coined by T.H. Huxley, and not used by Darwin

[12] Such as James Iverach and Aubrey Lackington Moore

[13] As Darwin himself said, 'I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to show why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction. The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance.' (Quoted in Moore (1979: 336))

[14] Moore (1979: 303)

[15] Moore (1979: 250)

[16] Chadwick (1987: 24ff)

[17]  Such as  Asa Gray, Charles Kingsley and Frederick Denison Maurice

[18] The conventional view that, as we have seen, Moore considers inaccurate

[19]  Chadwick (1987:43)

[20] Six of them Anglican clergymen, one of whom, Frederick Temple, later became Archbishop of Canterbury

[21] Shea & Whitla (2000: 135)

[22] The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, published a lengthy charge against Essays and Reviews in November 1860, condemning the Essayists for abandoning a literalist interpretation of the Bible (Shea, 2000: 637), and twelve other bishops also published charges. In February 1861 they issued a unanimous declaration that those who held such ideas as the Essayists could not honestly subscribe to the articles of the Church of England (Chadwick, 1987: 79).
[23] Rowland Williams (Vice-Principal at Lampeter) and Henry Bristow Wilson (a Huntingdonshire rector)

[24]  Jowett (1860: 477)

[25 ] Jowett, op. cit. 495. I Cor.XV.22 'As in Adam all die, &c', and a similar thought in Rom.V.12-17.

[26] 'The truth is, that in seeking to prove our own opinions out of Scripture, we are constantly falling into the common fallacy of opening our eyes to one class of facts and closing them to another. The favourite verses shine like stars, while the rest of the page is thrown into the shade.' ( ibid.: 498) 

[27] ibid: 501

[28] ibid: 505

[29] Colenso himself was deeply respected in Natal for his sensitive ministry to the Zulus. It was, indeed, his efforts to translate the Bible into their language that first led him into the detailed study of the Pentateuch and obliged him to address the question how the vindictive, unjust, punishing God of that literature could be identified with the Father of Jesus Christ.

[30] Altholz (1988: 40)

[31] Parsons (1988b: 249)

[32] Parsons (1988b: 250)

[33] Parsons also challenges the idea that by the 1890s the churches had 'accepted' biblical criticism. Certainly it was possible by then for clergymen to hold and to publish critical views without fear of prosecution. However, biblical criticism was not very evident in the pulpit, the Sunday school and popular religious literature. Insofar as there was an 'acceptance', it was 'a cautious, conservative criticism, a critical orthodoxy, a biblical criticism in which a moderate application of critical methods was wedded to a reassuringly orthodox doctrinal stance' (ibid: 251).

[34] Vidler (1971:112-113)

[35] Vidler (1971: 113)

[36] (1988b:150)

[37] Op cit: 156

[38] Ibid: 157

[39] Crowther (1988: 8) 

[40] Quoted in Crowther from Lambeth, Tait MSS 75f, 154. Reflections at Llanfairfechan, 12 Sept. 1863

[41] Citing Geoffrey Rowell, Hell and the Victorians, 1974)

[42] Canon F.W. Farrar

[43] Bartholomew (1988: 177ff)

[44] Royle (1974:108), quoted in Bartholomew (1988: 172)

[45] McLeod (1996: 179)

[46] Jowett (1860: 502)

[47]  (1988a: 40)

[48]  Op cit: 39-40

[49] Matthew Arnold's On Dover Beach captures well this sense of emptiness in the lines:
"The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
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."

[50] The Poetic Works of Alfred Tennyson, Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1857: 388,419

[51] Edwards (1984: 298)

[52] Op cit: 298

[53] The nom de plume of Marian Evans, whose first published book was her 1846 The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, a translation of David Friedrich Strauss's highly controversial Leben Jesu, which presented an entirely human 'historical' Jesus, treating the miracles as myths.

[54] A fuller study might look at attempts that have been made to quantify the growth of agnosticism and atheism as reflected in falling church attendances, the decline in the number of men seeking ordination, and the growth of non-religious alternatives to churches. McLeod outlines much evidence of this kind. The difficulty with such research is that there is no direct correlation between attendance and agnosticism or atheism: there were and are attending unbelievers and believing non-attenders.

[55] Had space allowed, more attention would have been given to the debates on miracles and on what Schweitzer later called 'the quest for the historical Jesus'

[56] McLeod (1996:193)

[57] (1988b:150)

[58] "When therefore we seek to analyse the part of 'science' and especially of Darwin in this momentous change, we must first recognise that science...was one aid to unsettlement in a more general unsettlement of minds" (Chadwick (1987:2)).

[59] Chadwick (1987: 3)

[60] Crowther (1988: 5)

[61] McLeod (1996:222)

[62] 'Most accounts [of the Victorian religious crisis] have been vitiated by an insistence on identifying some master-factor, which provides the key to the crisis: my argument is that no such key exists, and indeed that there was not one crisis, but a series of crises, that were only loosely related to one another.' He sees three partly independent dimensions of crisis: one of which is the growth of unbelief and doubt, mainly after about 1860, 'partly because of new scientific developments, but more especially because of changes in moral sensibilities, which made many aspects of Christian orthodoxy harder to accept' (McLeod (1996:223))

[63] Moore (1988)

[64] As Livingston (2007: 280) concludes: 'In the sphere of religious thought, the late Victorian writers...set an agenda of issues that were to remain at the center of British theological discussion through most of the twentieth century. While the late Victorian writers did not resolve these questions, they nonetheless recognized what they were, they asked the right questions, and they boldly charted the way... This remains a significant accomplishment and a challenging legacy.'

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