Printer Friendly

Commerce and Christianity: the Great Exhibition of 1851 was not only a celebration of Victorian Britain's scientific and economic pre-eminence but also a hymn to the religion that underpinned it.

The scene depicted in the painting below shows Queen Victoria, accompanied by Prince Albert and other dignitaries, at the opening of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations on May 1st, 1851. Surrounding the raised platform stand members of the Royal Commission and others responsible for mounting the exhibition, together with a number of eminent guests, including acting commissioners representing several countries. Albert presented the commissioners' report to the queen. After her brief response, the Archbishop of Canterbury prayed 'with great fervency of manner' for God's blessing on the exhibition. The ceremony in the Crystal Palace ended with a massed choir singing Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. As the royal procession departed, the large crowd cheered enthusiastically. In her journal Victoria recorded her delight: 'This day is one of the greatest and most glorious days of our lives, with which to my pride and joy, the name of my dearly beloved Albert is for ever associated!'



Over the ensuing five and a half months the exhibition attracted an estimated six million visitors, who inspected a vast array of exhibits from Britain and around the world. These ranged from samples of embroidery, cabinet-making and silverware produced by skilled craftsmen to the heavy machinery of the textile industry. Large blocks of coal, samples of iron ore, wheat, barley, cinnamon from Ceylon and cedar wood from Cuba were included in the displays of raw materials. There were statues of nymphs, a magnificent howdah (a seat for riding on an elephant's back) on the Indian stand, the multifaceted glass lantern from a lighthouse and the Koh-i-Noor diamond, reputedly valued at 2 [pounds sterling] million. Yet for a significant number of visitors two far more important and valuable exhibits were to be found in the section devoted to 'Paper, Printing, and Bookbinding'.

One of these consisted of religious works in 54 languages and dialects displayed by the Religious Tract Society (RTS). More valuable still were the contents of a larger bookcase in which the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) displayed copies of the Bible in 165 languages. Evangelicals visiting the exhibition were particularly enamoured of this display. '[O]h, what a spectacle is that stall!' trumpeted one religious monthly. 'What a treasure lies at that table! Not all the proudest works of art to the astonishment of gazing millions can be compared with that blessed Bible!' It is 'a glorious sight', wrote another. 'To the spiritual mind it is worth more than all the treasures, of which this magnificent palace can boast.' Compared with the eternal truths of the Bible, the other artefacts on display were transitory and worthless.

The exhibition has generally been portrayed as a secular event both by contemporaries and subsequent historians and the presence of both the RTS and the BFBS in the Crystal Palace has been largely ignored. However, religion played a far more important role in the exhibition than has been acknowledged. A surprisingly large number of contemporary sources addressed the religious significance of the event. These included sermons delivered in churches and chapels throughout the country (especially on the Sunday following the official opening); tracts published to cater for visitors to the exhibition; and numerous articles in the burgeoning religious press. An estimated 150 religious periodicals were published in London alone between 1841 and 1851. Thus at the time of the exhibition almost every religious denomination, sect and even faction possessed or was closely associated with a specific periodical publication.

Prince Albert encouraged this engagement with religion. At the Mansion House banquet held on March 21st, 1850, at which he presented his plans for the exhibition, he portrayed nature as God's creation and offered a religious interpretation of human progress:

[Man's] reason being created after the image of God, he has to use it to discover the laws by which the Almighty governs His creation, and, by making these laws his standard of action, to conquer nature to his use--himself a divine instrument.

The scientist, the inventor, the manufacturer and the artisan were thus proclaimed to be God's instruments and the exhibition firmly set within a religious framework. Albert also allied the exhibition with the opening verse of Psalm 24--'The earth is the Lord's and all that therein is; the compass of the world and they that dwell therein'--which was printed on the frontispiece of the exhibition's Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue.

In their speeches at the opening ceremony both Albert and Victoria sought God's blessing on the exhibition and the Archbishop of Canterbury not only prayed for its success but also located it firmly within a providentialist framework. Although we might view these religious contributions to the opening ceremony as mere conventional utterances, for many contemporaries they transformed the exhibition from a secular event devoted solely to the pursuit of science, commerce and manufacturing into a religious occasion in which they could participate.


The popular poet and Anglican evangelical Martin Tupper was typical of those who considered that the best way to avoid being spiritually compromised was to perceive the exhibits as God's creation. As he wrote in the preface to his Hymn for All Nations, penned for the Great Exhibition:

I thought it would be a world-wide sin, if men of every nation under heaven met together to glorify their own skill and the wonderful things around them, without some Catholic acknowledgement of HIM who made them all.

Tupper's hymn, which appeared along with translations into 23 languages and an accompanying musical score, proclaimed the exhibition as a divinely ordained event and thus offered the Christian visitor a perspective from which its significance could be appreciated without endangering the soul. As he wrote in the second verse:
   In the wonders all around
   Ever is Thy Spirit found,
   And each good thing we see
   All the good is born of Thee!

Likewise, in a sermon preached at the Congregationalist York Street Chapel, Walworth, a few days before the exhibition opened, George Clayton advised his flock:

When you gaze with admiration and delight upon the rare productions [in the Crystal Palace] you will naturally rise higher than the shuttle and the forge, you will rise higher than the axe, the saw, and the chisel: you will think of mind, the skill and ingenuity of the workman.

Visitors should not limit their appreciation to the abilities of the artisan, he argued, but rather 'rise higher still, and devoutly acknowledge the hand of God in all these things. Without Him, believe me, not a single specimen could have had being, or beauty, or brilliancy.' From this stance, Clayton believed that a visit to the exhibition should become a profound religious experience.

Scientific advance

Some Christians not only viewed the artefacts on display as manifestations of God's providence but also found religious meaning in the exhibition itself. One sermon, delivered by William Leask at the Esher Street Congregationalist Chapel in Kennington a few days before the exhibition opened, expressed both approbation of science and the hope that its future progress 'will be amazingly accelerated'. Yet for Leask, as for a number of other Christian commentators, the prospect of scientific advance was welcomed for religious rather than secular reasons. Its progress would, he asserted, result in 'the long-prayed-for Sabbath when Christ shall reign and man be free'. Towards the end of his sermon Leask articulated an optimistic vision that associated the exhibition with the messianic era. 'Brethren,' he confided to his congregants,

I cannot help expressing the feeling, that there is something in all this more than meets the eye; something of which neither the projectors [of the exhibition], nor the exhibitors, nor the spectators are aware ... but there are so many points of undesigned coincidence, that a feeling of awe settles on my mind when I contemplate the 'Crystal Palace' and the objects of its erection.

In contemplating the exhibition Leask could almost hear the archangel's voice ushering in Christ's return together with a new order of universal righteousness.

Though some religious writers were among the most enthusiastic supporters of the exhibition, other Christians were more ambivalent and warned of the potential danger of seeing so many remarkable and beautiful material artefacts crammed together. The High Church Guardian's main misgiving about the exhibition was that it celebrated the 'products and materials of physical comfort and prosperity' and thereby encouraged self-glorification. Moderate evangelicals often proffered similar advice. Thus the monthly The Visitor, published by the RTS, warned against the 'idolatry of man's intellect,' while a dissenting minister urged his flock to '[b]eware ... of the danger of pride'.

One way of avoiding the snare of pride was to stress that the exhibition was merely temporary and temporal when compared with the eternal verities of Christianity. Salvation alone mattered, not the transient Crystal Palace and its ephemeral contents. This argument was adopted by the magazine of the Wesleyan Methodist Association, which characterised glass--from which the Crystal Palace was constructed--as 'the emblem of brief duration: brittleness is one of its characteristics' and suggested that the building and its contents should be understood from the perspective of Ecclesiastes 1:2: 'Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!' From this standpoint the exhibition and its materialist cornucopia were rendered insignificant. Those who adopted this argument included some who condemned the exhibition forthrightly as irrelevant and others who supported it, yet advised visitors not to be seduced by the imposing displays of material goods but to strive continually for salvation.


During the months preceding the opening ceremony a number of anonymous tracts were published alerting Christians to the apparent similarities between the exhibition and Belshazzar's glorification of material objects, as related in the Book of Daniel. As the anonymous author of Belshazzar's Feast in Its Application to the Great Exhibition noted: 'The present moment may surely thus remind us of Belshazzar's feast', when material objects were worshipped and God was ignored. Materialism ruled then, just as it was perceived to do in his own day: 'The gods of gold and of silver, of brass, of wood and of iron, are praised,' he wrote, quoting Daniel 5:4. Moreover, just as Belshazzar's Feast ended in destruction, so he expected the exhibition to prefigure a similar calamity. So convinced was he that the exhibition was inimical to Christian values that he urged committed believers to refuse to visit it. Although a few extreme evangelicals and High Churchmen adopted this prophetic interpretation, they represented a small proportion of Christians.


A second coming

Another biblical passage that appeared to have a direct bearing on the exhibition was the description of the dispersion of tongues at Babel. Reflecting on this passage some prophetic writers saw the gathering of nations in London in the summer of 1851 as a sign of impending danger, perhaps the overthrow of Protestant England by Catholics or by secular revolutionaries. However, for many other religious commentators, both Anglicans and Dissenters, the Great Exhibition offered an unrivalled opportunity for the nations to meet together in peace. For moderate evangelicals, in particular, the gathering of nations was a harbinger of Christ's second coming. For example, in an RTS publication, Thomas Binney, a Dissenting minister, argued that the people who converged on London would imbibe the beliefs and values of Protestant Christianity: 'It is hoped and expected that the crowds will disperse wiser and better,--more loving and more fraternal.' This, in turn, would produce a profound change in the world, with everyone benefiting from the diffusion of Christianity, free trade and international commerce. Moreover, atheism and all other religions would be eliminated and everyone would instead subscribe to a pure, Bible-based Christianity that inculcated the highest moral principles; hence there would be no drunkenness, theft or murder. Binney portrayed the Great Exhibition as initiating a new era on earth marked by divinely ordained progress in religion, peace and prosperity.

Binney's expectation that the exhibition would aid the spread of Christianity was widely shared and underpinned the strenuous efforts made by several religious and especially missionary organisations to convert 'heathen' visitors to London to Christianity. For example, the Evangelical Alliance, which drew its membership from both Anglican and Dissenting evangelicals, formed the high-profile Foreign Conference and Evangelisation Committee for 1851 (FCEC). One of its aims was to liaise with visiting Christians, organise special services and lectures and maintain a reading room where visitors could avail themselves of Christian publications. The FCEC also engaged in missionary activities, including the distribution of Bibles and evangelical tracts, and employed missionaries to target foreign visitors. Wilbraham Taylor, the FCEC's honorary secretary, expressed his principal rationale for engaging with the exhibition:

The Russian and the Roman, the Swede and the Spaniard, the German and the Gaul, will all be here. Judaism and Infidelity, Heathenism, Rationalism, Mahomedanism, and Atheism, will all be here. The Greek and Roman Churches, with the Mosque, will all be here. The evil attendant on this Exhibition will bear its sad proportion to the extent of it; our duty [as evangelical Christians] ... is as plain as though it were written with a sunbeam. Let us counteract, with God's grace, that evil as far as may be.


Fired by Taylor's concerns, the FCEC raised 3,500 [pounds sterling] to fund its evangelical activities, such as supplying hotels and lodging houses with copies of the Bible.

Among its other activities the BFBS opened a depot in Piccadilly and hired 11 missionaries for the duration of the exhibition, who spoke a variety of languages. Not only did these missionaries approach visitors in Hyde Park, but they also waylaid them at railway stations, at the British Museum and at other tourist attractions. Evangelical organisations, such as the London Missionary Society and the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews, viewed the large number of visitors to the exhibition as a godsend because it provided a ready supply of potential converts. The exhibition was God's means of bringing 'heathens' to London so that they could be converted.

Religious publishing societies specifically targeted visitors to the exhibition. The RTS issued two new tracts entitled A Walk through the Crystal Palace and To a Stranger in Hyde Park, each with an initial print run of 100,000. A Walk through the Crystal Palace, which celebrated the gathering of the nations, praised England, attributed its success to the influence of the Bible and asserted the need for faith in Jesus. It appeared in Italian, Spanish, French, German, Swedish and Dutch editions, while To a Stranger was published in both English and French. The principal tract produced by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) for visitors to the exhibition was An Address to Foreigners Visiting the Great Exhibition of Arts in London, 1851, which was also published in at least six foreign languages. Utilising the resources of the SPCK, the Bishop of London organised extra services for visitors during the exhibition and foreign language translations of the Book of Common Prayer.

A series of Sunday morning and evening services was mounted by a consortium of evangelical churches. These were held at Exeter Hall on the Strand, a popular venue for evangelical and philanthropic organisations, with capacity for up to 4,000 people. The organisers targeted British visitors to London who were away from home over the Sabbath (when the exhibition was closed). Some of those who attended were already committed Christians, but the organisers were particularly keen to attract those who did not usually attend church. On many occasions the hall was so full that people had to be turned away.

Visiting Catholics were a particular target of evangelicals. At the time of the exhibition many Protestants were deeply troubled by the pope's recent creation of the See of Westminster and 12 English bishoptics. In response to this 'papal aggression,' anti-Catholic sentiment was running high in the summer of 1851 and on at least two occasions fights broke out between missionaries hired by the FCEC and worshippers at the Catholic church in the West End. But some Protestants also condemned the Great Exhibition itself as a Catholic plot to undermine the monarchy and supplant the Protestant religion. They particularly identified the Medieval Court, which included ecclesiastical artefacts designed by Augustus Pugin, who had himself converted to Rome, as a Catholic incursion. For example, a visiting Anglican clergyman from Liverpool claimed that the Medieval Court was 'filled with Babylonish garments and Tractarian toys'. He also saw signs of popery in the sections mounted by Catholic countries: the sculptures, the paintings, the robes of gold and silver. He recoiled in horror at the sight of two wax figures, one representing a cardinal, in full red and scarlet regalia: 'I could not look upon them without seeing prophesy fulfilled, and Rome baptised as the Babylon of the Apocalypse" For its part, the Catholic periodical press unanimously condemned the exhibition for being an instrument of the repressive English establishment. The Tablet, for example, reviled the exhibition as a vain, selfish and impious creature of Protestantism and pointed out that the organisers' proclaimed internationalism rang hollow when contrasted with the discrimination and persecution suffered by Catholics.



Peace and love

Despite accusations of sectarianism, Prince Albert conceived of the exhibition as a way of advancing world peace by bringing the nations together in a friendly competition for prizes in each of the 30 classes of exhibit. Thus in his Mansion House speech of March 1850 Albert had argued that 'we are living at a period of most wonderful transition ... the realisation of the unity of mankind: He proceeded to reflect on the exhibition's potential role to advance 'peace, love, and ready assistance, not only between individuals but between the nations of the earth'. The popular press christened the Crystal Palace the 'Temple of Peace'. Moreover, members of the peace societies, largely populated by evangelicals, especially Quakers, viewed the exhibition as a natural ally.

Beginning in 1843 pacifists had organised a series of international peace congresses. The fifth congress was held in Exeter Hall in late July 1851. For many of the delegates, who included more than 200 ministers of religion, this Peace Congress and Albert's 'Temple of Peace' merged into a unified vision. In his opening remarks the physicist and minister in the Free Church of Scotland, Sir David Brewster, who occupied the presidential chair, viewed the exhibition as a harbinger of an epoch of peace and harmony, which, he claimed, 'we are doubtless rapidly nearing'. Likewise, in his address, the prominent American pacifist Elihu Burritt noted that 'the lines of the Great Exhibition, and the annual Peace Congress of Christendom, have already merged into the great highway of peace and harmonious brotherhood. It is not our doing. It is the work of Divine Providence, and it is marvellous in our eyes'. For Brewster, Burritt and many other delegates, the congress and the exhibition were linked by the prophetic Christian message of brotherhood and world peace.

Science and religion

For many Victorians the exhibition was not simply the secular event of conventional portrayal. Instead, it was endowed with a variety of religious meanings. Thus although some commentators--extreme evangelicals, Catholics and some High Churchmen--opposed the exhibition on religious grounds, it garnered wide-spread support from other religious groups. For these Christians there was a natural confluence between science, technology and industry on the one hand and Christianity on the other. This alliance falsifies the view, frequently expressed in our own day, that there is a necessary conflict between science and all forms of religion. By contrast, as one Dissenting periodical noted, 'the [Crystal] Palace is doubtless a magnificent object of Christian contemplation'.

Further reading Jeffrey A. Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (Yale University Press, 1999); Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith, The Great Exhibition of 1851 (HMSO, 1981); Michael Leapman, The World for a Shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation (Headline, 2001).

For further articles on this subject, visit:

Geoffrey Cantor is Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Leeds and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at University College, London. His Religion and the Great Exhibition of 1851 will be published by Oxford University Press in February 2011.
COPYRIGHT 2010 History Today Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Cantor, Geoffrey
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2010
Previous Article:Patriot games: Algeria's football revolutionaries: football became a popular and potent expression of Algeria's struggle for independence from...
Next Article:In the grip of Google: Nick Poyntz looks at the ways in which the ubiquitous search engine is changing the nature of historical research.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters