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Religion in Victorian Britain.

Religion in Victorian Britain (Manchester UP, 1988): Volume I, Traditions (ed. Gerald Parsons), 328 pp.; Volume H, Controversies (ed. Gerald Parsons), 308 pp.; Volume III, Sources (ed. James Moore), 545pp.; Volume IV, Interpretations (ed. Gerald Parsons), 225pp.

These four ample volumes are testimony to the academic value of a captive audience. Written by staff at the Open University in London, they form a set of textbooks for an Open University course on Victorian religion, a format allowing more extensive discussion than the two-hundred page synthetic introduction to a topic favored by publishers. Conveniently organized to allow selective reading, they provide the best available introduction to the state of scholarship on Victorian religion, one useful to historians as well as scholars in almost any related discipline.

Considerably longer even than Owen Chadwick's two volumes on The Victorian Church (1966-1970), Religion in Victorian Britain takes into account the recent flood of scholarship on the social and intellectual history of religion. Volumes I (Traditions) and II (Controversies) contain original essays by Open University faculty on diverse topics including the major denominational traditions (with welcome attention to Scotland, Wales, and Ireland as well as England), revivalism, Christian social attitudes, working-class religion, ethics, and biblical criticism, each essay set off with an appropriate cartoon from Punch. The best of these essays are thirteen contributions by Gerald Parsons.

Parsons not only provides a summary of current scholarship on each topic, but presses on to his own revisionist contribution. He avoids any resort to a "hidden hand" of secularization to explain religious change, and recognizes the inaccuracy of a blanket characterization of the Victorian working class as irreligious. In his short essay on biblical criticism he provides a clear introduction to the topic, useful for lecturing among other purposes, and argues persuasively that the churches never really "accepted" biblical criticism. Instead, the laity accepted a popular semi-critical understanding of the Bible, which was tolerated by the clergy, who avoided the issue altogether except in the seminar room.

James Moore's contribution to Volume II summarizes his revisionist case against still influential late nineteenth-century depictions of a Victorian war between science and religion. Victorian critics of religion were not external enemies of faith, he argues, but moral and ethical thinkers deeply engaged with religious thought, ethics, and natural philosophy. Moore is also the editor of Volume III (Sources), where he continues his argument in a section on "Science and Religion" with excerpts from Malthus, Mill, Carlyle, George Eliot, Huxley, Spencer, and others, all arranged to demonstrate clearly that, in Moore's words, "the Victorian 'conflict of religion and science' is best interpreted, not as a ding-dong battle between theologians on the one hand, and scientists on the other, but as a demarcation dispute" (III. 424).

The Sources volume is worth reading for that section alone, but Moore's six other sections display an extraordinary knowledge of the by-ways of nineteenth-century religion, with selected documents on the Church and its creed, gender and politics, Nonconformity, home missions, evangelicalism, class and unbelief, and "Beyond Christendom." Reading Moore we traverse the range of Victorian religious opinion: Cardinal Manning's eloquent critique of free-market capitalism; Thomas Wright's defense of the working class' religion; infuriating legal proceedings from trials of blasphemers and secularists; excerpts on the Bible from Essays and Reviews; colorful partisan attacks on Calvinism and ritualism; and extraordinary millenarian speculation from the fever-swamps of the evangelical fringe.

The concluding volume, Interpretations, contains reprints of important recent essays originally published in journals that many scholars might miss for one reason or another, including Recusant History, The Journal of the Society for the Study of Welsh Labour History, and Northern History.

There are two serious omissions which characterize all four volumes, and for which the editors can hardly claim lack of space. The first is the absence of serious attention to women, who made up the majority of Victorian churchgoers and church workers. Even the section in Sources on "gender" includes only one document by a woman. The second omission is the failure to discuss the Victorian missionary movement, an oversight related to the first since by 1900 a majority of missionaries were women. Terence Thomas discusses foreign missionaries briefly in his essay in Volume II on Victorian attitudes to other religions, and attributes much of the new Victorian interest in comparative religions to the missionary movement. But Thomas's essay suffers from a failure to take into account the influential arguments of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978). Furthermore, the missionary movement deserves separate treatment, including a discussion of its role in the Victorian churches, its impact on Victorian society, and its influence abroad.

Moore's volume of Sources also ignores foreign missionaries, although it includes two interesting lectures by the famous comparative religionist and Sanskrit scholar Friedrich Max Muller predicting the convergence of the major world religions. Moore points out the obvious strain of Christian triumphalism even in a liberal thinker like Muller, who never traveled to India and despised many aspects of modern Hinduism. In some ways, as Said has argued forcefully, the more the Victorians knew about other religions, the less they understood.

Jeffrey Cox

University of Iowa
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Author:Cox, Jeffrey
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 1991
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