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The Regaining of Faith: Reconversions among Popular Radicals in Mid-Victorian England.

There is a wealth of literature on Victorian religious doubt, and much of it is structured by implicitly defining pure faith in the context of nineteenth-century England as an organized, traditional, orthodox, trinitarian, and supernatural version of Christianity and then herding together people who deviate from this ideal at various points into vague categories such as "unbelief," "infidelity," "irreligion," "honest doubt," or "freethought." Members of the numerically impressive group which is thereby constructed are then said to represent a strong trend that is given labels such as "the Victorian crisis of faith," "the loss of faith," or "secularization." Much of this historiography is imbued with a Whig interpretation: these figures are seen as part of an inevitable movement toward the abandonment of religious beliefs by thinking people in the modern age as they progressed toward a more credible worldview. Indeed, the considerable attention that is paid to such people in the literature despite the fact that the Victorian age is often simultaneously declared to have been an extraordinarily religious one seems to be tacitly justified on the grounds that, although these figures may have been out of step with the spiritual confidence of their own generation, they were in step with the march of truth.(1) The rhetoric of "honest doubt" is often tinged with the notion that a full appreciation of the fruits of modern thought and scientific inquiry would almost automatically lead to the abandonment of religious views; it is not just "honest" in the sense of candidly avowed and not derived from unworthy motives, but, rather, it is as if an "honest" examination of the facts could lead only to religious doubt. A contention of this study is that these interpretative tendencies have obscured a notable and telling countervailing pattern.

By way of contrast, it might be illuminating to see what could be revealed about the nature of Victorian society if the "freethinkers all" scheme of categorization was stood on its head. In such an approach, pure unbelief might be defined as an anti-Christian materialist atheism and then everyone who deviated from it would be lumped together, perhaps under a label like "spiritual sympathizers." Moreover, the Whiggish, one-way, linear notions that color the manner in which this material is sometimes narrated ought not to go unchallenged. These historiographical themes have been self-fulfilling as scholars have concentrated on those lives--or even those phases of particular lives--that have reinforced them. In particular, two significant facts need to be highlighted. First, all the available evidence leads to the conclusion that the percentage of the mid-Victorian generation that steadfastly maintained an anti-Christian materialist atheism was negligible. Second, and more tellingly (even if one clings to the questionable habit of visualizing these changes in terms of linear movements), a significant number of those who went some way down the road to such a worldview found it to be a personal dead-end and either retraced their steps or found a new route pointing in the opposite direction.

Traditionally, discussions of "honest doubt" have focused on the elite. Of the twelve figures discussed in Basil Willey's More Nineteenth Century Studies: A Group of Honest Doubters, all but one had an Oxbridge education.(2) A.O.J. Cockshut's The Unbelievers deals with celebrated Victorian titans such as Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, and J. S. Mill.(3) Moreover, the doubts of eminent Victorians continue to attract historians.(4) James R. Moore's examination of changing views amongst the "intelligentsia" does not include in this term the kind of autodidacts from humble backgrounds discussed below; his article is populated by the familiar crowd, figures such as Francis Newman, J. A. Froude, and Leslie Stephen. Although he seeks to broaden the discussion of a Victorian crisis amongst the intelligentsia beyond the narrow realm of faith, Moore nevertheless oddly confines its effects to "bourgeois opinion," as if spiritual and intellectual turmoil was a luxury that the lower classes could not afford, or workingmen and women were invariably ignorant of the discussions which animated quarterly reviews.(5) Fortunately, although it is not usually framed within the context of "honest doubt" or a "crisis of faith," a significant body of literature has developed over recent decades regarding popular unbelief.(6) Edward Royle's writings hold a central place in this achievement.(7) Of special relevance for the shape of this study, however, is an article by Susan Budd, "The Loss of Faith: Reasons for Unbelief among Members of the Secular Movement in England, 1850-1950," which became a chapter in her book, Varieties of Unbelief.(8) These writings, by the very fact that their focus is on "infidelity" or "rationalism," usually explore only the unbelieving phase of personal and intellectual histories which were often kaleidoscopic in nature. Therefore, in order that the valuable, detailed information made available through such work is not misguidedly enlisted as so much more evidence for an imagined, inevitable momentum toward "the loss of faith," it would be useful to pay attention to another significant pattern amongst Victorian popular radicals that has been largely left unexplored: the regaining of faith.(9)

I. THE RECONVERTS ACCORDING TO THE VICTORIAN SECULARISTS

The notion that the abandonment of religious ideas was the unavoidable fruit of the advancement of knowledge and therefore an irreversible movement was, of course, a component of the propaganda of the Victorian Secularists themselves. As the noted Secularist Robert Cooper put it when Henry Knight, an atheist lecturer at the John Street Institute in London, converted to Christianity in 1852, "I have some difficulty comprehending how a person can progress backwards."(10) This attitude, together with a desire to engage in damage-limitation exercises, led popular freethinkers to question the motives and integrity of the reconverts as a matter of routine. Thomas Cooper was a former Chartist prisoner and the author of the poem The Purgatory of the Suicides. In 1850, he had used his Cooper's Journal to popularize D. F. Strauss's biblical criticism (which George Eliot had translated into English), and he was one of the most popular lecturers in infidel circles before his reconversion in 1856.(11) The militantly anti-Christian Investigator amply illustrated this skeptical response by writing of Cooper almost two years after he had begun to defend his new convictions in public discussions: "[W]e yet question the sincerity of his conversion. No man who has once dared to think for himself; who has had the courage to strip the Bible of all its traditional awe, and to look upon it merely as a book; who, having set himself carefully to examine it, has discovered in it contradictions and absurdities ... would have the audacity to maintain that this book was the word of God."(12)

Most reconverts were accused of being motivated by a desire to gain financial advantages. When Jonathan Barber, a Nottingham framework knitter and a rough local leader of radical political efforts and an anti-Christian debater, announced his conversion to Christianity in 1858, the Secularist newspaper the Reasoner ran a story on his decision entitled "Rice Christians," the term used for the dubious adherents that some missionaries in foreign lands were said to gain by doling out aid.(13) This charge was so standard that it was even made against J. H. Gordon, the full-time lecturer of the Leeds Secular Society, despite the fact that at the time of his reconversion he securely occupied the only salaried freethinking lectureship in the country.(14) Another tack was to claim that the reconvert, whilst in unbelieving circles, had proven himself to be an unsavory character and therefore it was actually a relief to see him go. When the former secretary of the National Secular Society, D. K. Fraser, converted in 1876, the free-thinking newspaper the National Reformer struck this pose, claiming that it was "glad" to announce he had joined the Christians.(15)

Secularists almost invariably commented on how "suddenly" their erstwhile fellow traveler had changed his views: an observation that contained the innuendo that there had been insufficient time for him to have become intellectually convinced.(16) Once again, making this charge was such a reflex that it was done indiscriminately. Thomas Cooper announced in January 1856 that he had come to realize that there was a Moral Governor of the Universe--a Paineite Deist position within the acceptable bounds of mid-Victorian popular free-thought, were it not for the fact that he appeared to be progressing backwards--and then spent most of the rest of the year wrestling intensely with issues of faith and criticism. Although he carefully refrained from making public pronouncements while his views were in flux, his struggles are exposed in his private correspondence. For example, Cooper wrote to the clergyman and author Charles Kingsley over five months after his public announcement: "I read the New Testament, and will read it--but how often it all looks like a bundle of fables! Shall I ever come to read it with a feeling of the solid reality of what I read? ... Can you tell me what to do--anything that will help me to Christ? Him I want. If the Four Gospels be half legends I still want him.... But how is it, then, that I am still so full of doubts?"(17) Nevertheless, even though it took him nine months or more to find his way back to Christianity, the Investigator still wrote when it happened: "we have a right to inquire what has led to the change, and so suddenly. Sincere conviction of our error on great questions is rarely effected in a week."(18) In short, Secularists almost never admitted that a reconversion was based on a genuine and reflective pursuit of truth and instead often supplied less noble explanations for this phenomenon.

II. THE RECONVERTS ON THEIR OWN LOSS OF FAITH

These accusations were often made in defiance of the explanations that the reconverts themselves gave. Many of these reconverts also gave reasons for their prior move into unbelief and, for some of them, accounts are available that they wrote when they were still skeptics. To assert that their reconversion was a regression to the faith of their childhood does not add to our knowledge, but rather merely restates the definition of a reconvert in a pejorative way.(19) Moreover, Budd has shown that the typical Secularist during this period (with reconverts excluded) was someone who had experienced and embraced a strong religious environment when young, so this is not a distinguishing feature. In fact, the accounts of the loss of faith given by reconverts confirm the reasons that Budd offers for Secularists generally.(20)

Nevertheless, the reconverts often added to these reasons personal, psychological, relational, or emotional factors and interpretations. The typical reconvert was an autodidact whose knowledge and cleverness had quickly surpassed that of the religious authorities who were meant to have been his guides. J. B. Bebbington was a potter from Staffordshire who later moved to London. He became the president of the Temple Secular Society and was an atheist lecturer until his reconversion in 1863. In his youth, he had attended a Primitive Methodist Chapel where the preachers were ordinary laborers during the rest of the week: "they often made mistakes, fell into blunders.... As I grew up I perceived this, and thereupon the mocking spirit took possession of me."(21) Bebbington's exceptional thirst for knowledge was not satisfied by them, and the lure of forbidden intellectual fruit offered an additional frisson: "I travelled eight miles to procure the famous `System of Nature,' commonly attributed to Mirabaud, really by D'Holbach. It was late on Saturday night when I set out to return home with this treasure. I was disappointed that I could not begin to read it as I walked along; I managed to cut it open with a knife even as I journeyed in the darkness."(22) Looking back as reconverts, such men, whilst still heartily valuing the accumulation of knowledge, often detected the sins of pride and arrogance in their early histories.

Sometimes they clashed with religious authorities, and the result was another emotional factor that they identified as having contributed to their move toward unbelief: bitterness against Christian leaders that grew into a dislike of Christianity generally. Joseph Barker was a Methodist New Connexion minister before his journey into unorthodoxy eventually led to his becoming a leading anti-Bible lecturer. Barker and Thomas Cooper were both strong-willed, clever, arrogant, popular young preachers who clashed with insecure, defensive, envious, mediocre Methodist superintendents. Barker's superintendent secretly searched his lodgings for anything that might discredit him and thought he had found it in his possession of a volume of Shakespeare.(23) Even after he had broken away from the denomination, Barker felt its leaders were still maliciously hounding him. The corrosive bitterness this could unleash (which he acknowledged as a reconvert) can be sensed in a letter that his brother wrote, in response to this perceived treatment, to William Cooke, a leading Methodist New Connexion minister: "I am now inclined to think that your Priesthood is altogether corrupt ... that there is none of you righteous no not one."(24) Many reconverts warned Christian leaders against trying to thwart the intellectual curiosity of their followers. Cooper, for example, in a lecture against unbelief, noted, "Another cause of Skepticism--and especially with the young--is the forbidding of Free Enquiry.... That system of forbidding Free Enquiry will have to be given up, I am very sure, if religious truth is to be maintained."(25) The reconverts believed that the antidote to unbelief was not the suppression of skeptical ideas, but a proper presentation of religious ones, and they often saw their having been the cleverest fish in a rather small religious backwater as a contributing factor to their own unbelief.

III. THE VICTORIAN CRISIS OF DOUBT

If their minds and energies were occupied for a time by an iconoclastic approach to Christian doctrines, this exercise lost much of its appeal once one had progressed through the full range of religious belief, systematically attacking each tenet in turn. Reconverts claimed that they had experienced their fill of unbelief and found it to be bleak, gloomy, and solely destructive. George Sexton, a reconvert who had once been a regular lecturer at the South London Secular Institute, gave an entire discourse in which he expounded the theme that Secularism was merely "a creed of negations": "Now, being a negation it cannot form the basis for any positive work, and hence is itself obstructive of progress and improvement."(26) In his view, it had no theory of the meaning of life to offer, and Secularists did not even exert themselves to educate the masses or engage in any other constructive work: "There is a Hall of Science, so-called, at Sheffield, and there is another at Bradford, both of which are devoted mainly to dancing, and could not be kept open for a month in any other way. Occasionally Sunday evening lectures are given always upon the usual threadbare topic--abuse of the Bible, and denunciation of Christianity; but Science is never heard of within their walls."(27) Reconverts frequently claimed that they eventually realized that the creed they had embraced was a purely negative one which did not provide an alternative worldview which could offer a solid foundation for vital human hopes and efforts.(28)

Excessive negations, it was claimed, were the result of the method of thinking used, a method that they came to see as an oppressive standard of logic that processed the data of human experience in a Procrustean manner. J. H. Gordon's reconversion was facilitated by being able to judge critically his Secularist outlook: "That standpoint was the standpoint of the mere reason, the mere logical part of man's nature, without any reference whatever to, or any acknowledge whatever of, any other part, intuitional or emotional, of the wondrous mechanism of human life. It was all reason, reason, reason. Can this thing be proved, or, can it be shown to be what it is said to be? If so, all right--if not, away with it. Thus, you cannot prove that you exist; and, therefore, away with the notion that you do exist!"(29) Instead, they argued that truth could only be fully grasped once other guides than this kind of logic had been followed. These guides were named in various ways, including: heart, conscience, feeling, affection, intuition, and instinct. In other words, they gave considerable weight to the so-called internal evidences for Christianity in contrast to the older apologetics that often concentrated exclusively on external ones (that is, attempts at objective proofs). Joseph Barker, who had given years of his life to exposing mercilessly the flaws in some of the older arguments, particularly emphasized this approach: "You who fancy your strong and heart-cheering faith rests on theological theories, and that if those theories were exploded, it would perish, are, happily, under a great mistake. Your faith, and hope, and joy, rest on the harmony between Christianity and your souls.... They are made for each other. They fit each other."(30) J. B. Bebbington says of his journey into unbelief: "Although the conclusion to which I came deeply wounded my feelings, it never entered my mind that it was my duty to do aught but stifle all feeling, and walk by what is magniloquently called the `pure light of reason,' alone. I never considered, that in thus doing violence to my consciousness, I was suppressing vast and powerful evidence for the existence of God--namely, the fact that it was written so deeply on that consciousness."(31) In this light, the ubiquity of religious beliefs across cultures and generations became an important apologetic argument: the human consciousness has always discerned these realities. Sexton was particularly fond of this line of reasoning: "It is contended that a few savage tribes ... have no conception of God, and no sort of religion. But if this were really so, it would simply prove that the Atheist's highest ideal of man is a savage, since all civilised races have the religious faculty."(32) According to this view, humanity possessed genuine religious knowledge, even if it was not derived from theorems.

IV. THE RECONVERTS AND CLASSIC CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS

This did not mean, however, that the reconverts abandoned the classic apologetic arguments--far from it. The argument from design was widely employed and was clearly viewed as a persuasive tool for unsettling the views of skeptics. Although a record of Henry Knight's statement of his reasons for converting to Christianity does not appear to have survived, we know from a reply to it made by Robert Cooper, a leading infidel, that "Mr. Knight quoted largely from Paley on the design argument."(33) Even Jonathan Barber, whose statement was mainly one of his personal history and experience, included a section in which he ridiculed Lamarckian ideas and triumphantly asked, "For who, we would ask, (if his intellect were not warped) could contemplate the wonderful mechanism of the human frame, and not be at once struck with the idea that some great intelligent being must have created it."(34) The cogency of this line of thinking for mid-Victorian popular radicals should not be underestimated. The Secularist leader, G. J. Holyoake, attempted to defuse this apologetic weapon by writing an anti-Paley tract, but both Thomas Cooper and J. B. Bebbington were not convinced by it even when they were skeptics. (Cooper wondered if the existence of suffering undermined the argument from design, and Bebbington thought for a time that Hume had, but these were arguments against the deity being good or omnipotent rather than an attack on the central assertion that there must have been an Intelligent Designer.)(35) Although he was entirely alienated from orthodox circles and a public champion of skeptical ideas, Joseph Barker still used a leading article in his Chartist newspaper, The People, to inculcate natural religion on the authority of this apologetic.(36) Barker, Cooper, and Sexton, as reconverts, all explicitly denied that Darwin had robbed the argument from design of its force, and there is no doubt that many mid-Victorians genuinely found it to be a very intellectually satisfying line of reasoning.(37)

The a priori argument was also popular. W. S. Ellison was a mechanic who became a Secularist, lived for a period in Blackburn, Lancashire, and was apparently successful at spreading infidel ideas in his own sphere of influence there and elsewhere, although he was never a leader in the movement. Although his account of his reconversion was mainly a personal one, he endorsed and briefly outlined the ontological argument in it.(38) Bebbington still conceded as a reconvert that Hume's critique limited the usefulness of the argument from design, but he nevertheless claimed that sufficient proof for a proper deity was displayed once one combined it with the a priori argument.(39) Cooper devoted the last decades of his life to popularizing apologetic arguments, and both the argument from design and the a priori argument were standard weapons in his armory.(40) Sexton also found this latter argument compelling, although not necessarily serviceable: "Arguments a priori and a posteriori [that is, the argument from design] are both conclusive in favor of the being of God. The former of these I deem unanswerable, but, perhaps too abstruse for the popular mind."(41) Although the reconverts decried skepticism for employing an oppressive standard of logic, they in no way abandoned the notion that spiritual ideas could be defended with rational arguments. Indeed, they were often eager to champion the intellectual grounds of their faith in public lectures and discussions.

V. THE BASIS OF MORALITY

The reason for forsaking the world of unbelief for that of Christianity that looms largest in mid-Victorian reconversion literature is the inability of the former to offer a secure foundation for morality, along with the success of the latter at this same task. Interestingly, Budd has likewise noted that the judgment that the Bible, Christian doctrine, the clergy or believers generally were immoral was a dominant reason for the loss of faith. Joseph Barker fits this trajectory very well: whatever else he might have advocated or denounced in his varied career, he was always a keen moralist. One of his earliest, limited steps into freethought was a tract he wrote in which he denied the canonicity of the Song of Solomon on the grounds that it was "thoroughly earthly and carnal."(42) At the high-water mark of his unbelief, when he declared that he was not ashamed to accept the label of atheist, this attack had grown into the simple maxim: "All religion is immoral."(43) He was particularly preoccupied with sexual morality, and his anti-Bible lectures never failed to highlight the polygamy of biblical heroes and to condemn the Scriptures for failing to maintain proper moral standards in other ways. Barker had become an editor of the freethinking newspaper the National Reformer when it was founded in 1860, and he became disillusioned with the movement when his co-editor, the militant atheist Charles Bradlaugh, began to champion George Drysdale's The Elements of Social Science; or physical, sexual and natural religion, a volume which Barker believed encouraged sexual immorality.(44) This incident helped to drive him to the conclusion that unbelief offered no moral safeguards. If some people became unbelievers because of revulsion at the conduct of Christians, it was possible to flee from infidel circles for the same reason. Barker came to believe that Secularist saints were not moral exemplars either: "There have been three great disbelievers in God in our own country during the present century, all of whom have written books denouncing marriage and counselling unbounded sensual licence" (he might have had in mind Richard Carlile, Robert Owen, and Charles Bradlaugh).(45) He wrote tellingly of his path back to faith that the immorality he saw in the infidel world "went far towards convincing me, that whether religion was founded in truth or not, it was necessary to the virtue and happiness of mankind."(46)

Cooper's mental revolution also grew from a similar seed: "My heart and mind were deeply uneasy, and I could hardly define the uneasiness. I felt sure my life for years had been wrong. I had taught morals, and taught them strictly; but the questioning within, that would arise, day by day, and hour by hour, made my heart ache. `Why should man be moral? Why cannot he quench the sense of accountability? and why have you not taught your fellowmen that they are answerable to the Divine Moral Governor, and must appear before Him in a future state, and receive their reward or punishment?'"(47) Following Kant, to whom he referred, he (and some other reconverts) came to see this as a major apologetic argument in its own right: the existence of a Moral Lawgiver can be inferred from our awareness that there is a moral law.(48) The issue of morality also dominated J. H. Gordon's explanation of his change of views. He hinted that his visit to London shortly before his reconversion had revealed that the leading Secularists were not living pure lives: "Now, I am not going to say anything personal about those six advocates, one lady and five gentlemen, except that, if you want to know anything about any one of them, ask all the rest, and you will very soon find out something curiously irregular, if not directly immoral."(49) His main argument, however, was that unbelief offered no basis for morality, and he wrote an entire tract expounding this point: "men and women must have guidance, control, a standard of right and wrong, a something to quicken and culture all that is good within them, and a something to neutralise and destroy all that is depraved and gross. Any system, however, that throws a man back upon himself, and bids him seek all direction and guidance there, is not the system wanted; and Secularism, or Just-what-you-like-ism, is such a system."(50)

That tract was a line-by-line examination of Holyoake's Principles of Secularism Briefly Explained, ostensibly demonstrating that an alternative basis for morality was not to be found there. Some reconverts also occupied themselves with endeavoring to prove that utilitarianism was not a satisfactory basis for morality either. Bebbington writes: "Natural morality, when asked for a test to distinguish between right and wrong, is obliged to mutter that very ugly word--utility. And despite the genius of John Stuart Mill, it is a very ugly word ... men know and admire a generous, heroic deed. But if you bring everything to the test of utility where are devotion, sacrifice?"(51) Sexton provided a lengthy critique of utilitarianism. Amongst his more subtle arguments, he protested that this standard of behavior could even accommodate the crucifixion of Christ: "the Jewish populace cried out, upon strict Utilitarian principles, `It is expedient for us that one man should die for the people.'"(52) A more common target was the ideas of Robert Owen, who was said to have taught an environmental determinism that eradicated the notion of moral culpability. Although it did not make it into his autobiography, accounts in the local press in the years soon after his reconversion show that Cooper's reconsideration of the issue of morality was triggered by "the circumstance that he took as the subject of one of his Sunday evening lectures, in London, a work written by Robert Owen in advocacy of the doctrine that man is a creature of circumstances, undeserving of either blame or praise for bad or virtuous deeds."(53) Mid-Victorian artisan culture had a strong vein of self-help running through it. The self-education aspect of this impulse sometimes led certain people into reading Paine's Age of Reason and other pieces of radical literature, and this in turn, as Budd has shown, contributed to their move into unbelief. Another aspect of self-help, however, was the kind of self-discipline and moral earnestness exemplified by the teetotal movement.(54) For the reconverts, this latter emphasis appears to have helped them to develop a moral critique of the skeptical ideas that their self-education had taught them.

VI. HAUNTED BY JESUS CHRIST

Nothing has been said so far--whether the claims that unbelief was negative or immoral, or a fresh appreciation of instincts and classic arguments for the existence of God--that necessitates a distinctly Christian position. The specific choice to embrace Christianity was explained by reference to what was, along with the issue of morality, the other theme at the center of many of the reconversion accounts: the figure of Christ himself. Sexton recalled: "the person of Christ. This one subject haunted me night and day."(55) However much he might have doubted its historicity, Cooper always revered the New Testament portrait of Jesus. When Barker, in his Secularist days, attempted to goad Cooper with skeptical statements he had made in the past, he retorted: "In 1849, Mr. Barker and Frederick Lees heard me lecture; and Mr. Lees shed tears while I eulogised Christ. I never ceased to eulogise Christ. If any man in England can produce a single sentence ever uttered by me against the moral beauty and perfection of Christ, let him do it."(56) Cooper, Barker, and Sexton all came to believe that the picture of Jesus contained in the Gospels was too good not to be true. This idea allowed them to overcome the skeptical approaches to a traditional view of Christ that had impressed them in the past, notably Hume's critique of miracles and Strauss's biblical criticism. As Barker put it:
 The story of Christ's life is its own evidence--it proves its own truth. It
 could have no other origin than a real life; and no other life could have
 given birth to it but such a life as that of Christ. To have forged such a
 life, in such a country, and in such an age, would have been impossible....
 it is impossible it should be a fiction.... There was nothing that could
 have suggested a character as that of Jesus either to Jew or Gentile, but
 the character itself. There was nothing that could have produced such a
 story as that of the Gospels, but a real life answering to the story. There
 was nothing in the prevailing sentiments of the age, nothing in the
 religious sects of those times, nothing in the theologies, nothing in the
 philosophies, nothing in the books, nothing in the traditions, nothing in
 the teachers, nothing even in the desires, the expectations, or the dreams
 of the time to give birth to such histories as those of the Gospels.(57)


Likewise Sexton argued:
 Even if the miracles were proved to be false, and the supernatural halo
 that continually surrounded Him were shown to be mythological accumulation
 of after ages, or a pure invention of the time, still that would in no
 sense explain away the life of the Being depicted. The character of Christ
 is perfect, and that perfection has to be accounted for. To say that it was
 fictitious in no way gets out of the difficulty; for that is only to shift
 the ground from the real to the ideal, leaving us in the dark as to how the
 invention came. For, if Christ be simply an ideal picture, the man who
 sketched it will be as difficult to account for as the Being himself.(58)


Whatever might be said for or against this line of thinking as an apologetic, it is hard to escape the judgment that some mid-Victorian popular radicals were indeed haunted by Christ.

VII. THE MID-VICTORIAN GENERATION OF PLEBIAN RADICALS

In addition to the thoughts and motivations of particular individuals, this cluster of reconverts raises a more general question: what were the wider, more collective forces that were influencing this generation and thereby producing this pattern? It is, of course, true that these figures had somewhat lost their way by the collapse of such movements as Owenism and Chartism; but these life-changing setbacks did not induce reconversions on the rebound, as E. P. Thompson's theory of "the chiliasm of despair" might lead one to suspect.(59) Quite to the contrary, many of these figures were led into freethinking circles after the political or social movements they had supported had fallen apart. The very quest to find an adequate explanation for these reconversions can easily assume what ought not to be assumed; namely, that a religious faith is a remarkable thing that needs an extraordinary cause. In that sense, Budd's project was the right one. Arguably, what really needs to be explained is not why this group of people reconverted, but why they were tempted to be militant Secularists for a season. A potentially fruitful fresh line of inquiry in that direction lies in the particular place in time that they occupied in the history of the provision of education and the dissemination of knowledge. It was not until the end of the mid-Victorian period that state education for working-class children had been secured. The mid-Victorian generation of popular radicals lived in an unusual period in which formal education was not readily available but cheap literature reflecting many different points of view was accessible in an unprecedented way. The curious imbibed impressive amounts of knowledge, but they developed views in the light of that knowledge in solitude, or only amongst like-minded peers. This intellectual isolation allowed a kind of suspicious outlook, if not a mentality susceptible to conspiracy theories, to arise; the higher social orders were trying to dupe them with erroneous theories, but they would outwit them. Moreover, the stance these popular radicals took on political and social issues was one of independence and defiance. For example, the Chartists rejected the political leaders of the middle classes and their anti-corn law cause. In religion, these currents produced a tendency toward a defiant, plebian Secularist movement. If this reading is correct, then the reconversions were part of a wider reintegration in Victorian society. As popular radicals began to interact directly with members of the elite, even clerics such as Charles Kingsley and F. D. Maurice, some of their former intellectual caricatures and suspicious theories were eroded. Likewise in politics cooperation between the classes replaced independence as the dominant model and popular radicals began to identify with the Liberal Party. In short, the reconversions were part of a process of shedding former stances that had been adopted in a unique context but which, when that context no longer existed, came to be viewed as overly defiant and based on some misconceptions.

There is no apparent way to discover accurately the total number of reconverts; the very names, let alone life stories, of most of the rank-and-file Secularists who drifted out of the movement and back into the Christian fold are seemingly forever irretrievable. Moreover, it is even a problematic enterprise to attempt to quantify the precise percentage of Secularist leaders who reconverted, as there is no easy, objective way to determine who belongs in this wider pool (not to mention the possibility that others might have changed their views more discreetly). Nevertheless, although the fact has been obscured, it is clear that a significant percentage did reconvert. For example, a major, unique, Secularist camp meeting was organized in 1860. Royle claims that it was "the greatest single demonstration of Secularist strength" in this period.(60) This meeting recognized eight national leaders of the Secularist movement (G. J. Holyoake, Joseph Barker, C. Bradlaugh, A. Holyoake, J. Watts, J. H. Gordon, Robert Cooper, and J. B. Bebbington) and, as has been shown already, three of these eight (Barker, Gordon, and Bebbington) went on to reconvert.(61) While it is probably true that this unique snapshot produces a deceptively high result, any responsible analysis would show that the reconverts were a significant group. Lacking the unrecorded life stories of an untold number of ordinary people, this study has also reduced the pool of reconverts being examined in several other ways--notably by focusing largely on those who made a reputation in the world of freethought prior to their reconversion and who then went on to articulate the reasons for their change of views. Other figures fall just short of these hurdles. Patrick Lloyd Jones, for example, has left an extensive record of his anti-Christian views in the printed transcripts of his debates as an Owenite lecturer, but although he later joined forces with the Christian Socialists and, according to John Ludlow, reconverted, he did not leave an account of his spiritual or intellectual pilgrimage.(62)

The stories of these reconverts serve to undermine the assumption that intellectually curious Victorians, if they had ever imbibed skeptical ideas and were still moving at all, were inevitably drifting toward more unbelief. The inadequacy of this view is revealed in a different way by recalling once again the alternative (un)orthodoxy of an anti-Christian materialist atheism that was somewhat mischievously devised toward the beginning of this article. All movement was certainly not a progression in that direction. To take some obvious examples, the mid-Victorian period is bracketed by the stories of two of the most famous popular freethinkers of the nineteenth century: Robert Owen, who, his earlier emphasis on rationalism notwithstanding, eventually became enamored with Spiritualism, and Annie Besant, who went from being a vice-president of the National Secular Society to being the president of the Theosophical Society.(63) In recent decades, some scholars have attempted to weaken the hegemony of the secularization thesis.(64) Although it does not seem in any grave danger--and this very focused study is not intended as a pebble that might slay such a Goliath--it may nevertheless be possible, in conclusion, to point toward a contribution that this study might make to that wider debate: figures such as Owen and Besant do remind us not to confuse dechristianization with secularization, and the reconverts remind us that, however much evidence there might be that secularization has indeed happened, this should not be confused with evidence for the assumption that it is an irreversible process.

(1.) Hugh McLeod has also suggested recently that the literature is imbalanced: "Meanwhile the Victorian `crisis of faith' continued to be a subject of absorbing interest, and, if anything, claimed a disproportionately large share of the space in the Parsons collection." Hugh McLeod, Religion and Society in England, 1850-1914 (New York: St. Martin's, 1996), 259. His reference is to Gerald Parsons, ed., Religion in Victorian Britain, Vols. 1, 2, and 4 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988). The dissemination of this approach can be seen, for example, in Melinda Corey and George Ochoa, eds., The Encyclopedia of the Victorian World (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), which has an entry on Charles Bradlaugh, but not Charles Spurgeon.

(2.) Basil Willey, More Nineteenth Century Studies: A Group of Honest Doubters (London: Chatto & Windus, 1956).

(3.) A. O. J. Cockshut, The Unbelievers: English Agnostic Thought, 1840-1890 (London: Collins, 1964).

(4.) For example, George Eliot looms large in Frank Turner, "The Victorian Crisis of Faith and the Faith that was Lost," in Victorian Faith in Crisis: Essays on Continuity and Change in Nineteenth-Century Religious Belief, eds. R. J. Helmstadter and Bernard Lightman (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), 9-38.

(5.) James R. Moore, "Theodicy and Society: The Crisis of the Intelligentsia," in Victorian Faith in Crisis, 153-80.

(6.) For example, in addition to the sources cited below, I. D. McCalman, "Popular Irreligion in Early Victorian England: Infidel Preachers and Radical Theatricality in 1830s London," in Religion and Irreligion in Victorian Society: Essays in Honor of R. K. Webb, eds. R. W. Davis and R. J. Helmstadter (London: Routledge, 1992), 51-67.

(7.) Most notably, Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791-1866 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974) and Radicals, Secularists, and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866-1915 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980). I have never met Royle, but I am grateful to him for answering several questions I put to him in writing and thereby facilitating my pursuit of relevant primary sources.

(8.) Susan Budd, "The Loss of Faith: Reasons for Unbelief among Members of the Secular Movement in England, 1850-1950," Past and Present 36 (1967): 106-25 and chap. 5 in Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society, 1850-1960 (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1977).

(9.) By using Secularist obituaries as her primary database, Budd's study automatically excluded the voices of reconverts. The existence of this pattern is noted in F. B. Smith, "The Atheist Mission, 1840-1900," in Ideas and Institutions of Victorian Britain: Essays in Honour of George Kitson Clark, ed. Robert Robson (London: Bell, 1967); and Michael R. Watts, The Dissenters: Volume II (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 561-62.

(10.) Reasoner, 11 August 1852.

(11.) For Cooper's life, in addition to his celebrated autobiography (cited below), see Robert J. Conklin, Thomas Cooper, the Chartist (1805-1892) (Manila: University of the Philippines Press, 1935).

(12.) Investigator, August 1858.

(13.) Reasoner, 29 August 1858. For Barber's political activities, see his entry in Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville, eds., Dictionary of Labour Biography (London: Macmillan, 1977), 4: 6-7.

(14.) National Reformer, 2 August 1862.

(15.) National Reformer, 25 June 1876.

(16.) No women reconverts have been found, but this is not surprising, as Budd and others have noted that popular infidelity was largely a male world.

(17.) Amsterdam, Internationaal Istituut Voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Coll. Cooper, Thomas Cooper to Charles Kingsley, 22 June 1856.

(18.) Investigator, January 1857.

(19.) It should also be noted that their final theological ideas were generally (if not invariably) much more nuanced than their views had been during their earlier Christian identity. Joseph Barker's final view of the nature of the Bible is a telling example of this: Joseph Barker, The Bible, Its Great Worth and Divine Origin (Philadelphia: Methodist Episcopal Book-Room, 1873).

(20.) Budd emphasizes the role of a moral critique of Christians and Christian teaching, the reading of radical literature, and doubts that arise from studying the Bible. She also discusses factors such as detachment from families and old communities and rebellion against fathers.

(21.) J. B. Bebbington, Why I Was an Atheist, and Why I Am Now A Christian, 2d ed. (London: H. J. Tresidder, [1864]), 5.

(22.) Bebbington, Why I Was an Atheist, 5.

(23.) [Joseph Barker], The History and Confessions of a Man, as Put Forth by Himself (Wortley: J. Barker, 1846), 186-87.

(24.) Manchester, John Rylands University Library, Joseph Barker Case Correspondence, Benjamin Barker to William Cooke, 20 January 1845.

(25.) Lincoln, Lincolnshire Archives, Misc. Don. 2 Bapt 2, Thomas Cooper lecture notes, "The Being, Power & Wisdom of God: the Design Argument re-stated: selection of striking instances of Design," (Hall of Science, London), 21 September 1856.

(26.) George Sexton, The Fallacies of Secularism (London: G. S. Sexton, 1877), 56.

(27.) Sexton, Fallacies of Secularism, 45.

(28.) One recurring application of this was that unbelief did not offer any hope or comfort to the dying.

(29.) J. H. Gordon, The Public Statement of Mr. J. H. Gordon, (Late Lecturer to the Leeds Secular Society), with Reference to his Repudiation of Secular Principles, and his Adoption of the Christian Faith (Leeds: J. Hamer, 1862), 7.

(30.) Joseph Barker, Modern Skepticism: A Journey through the Land of Doubt and Back Again; a Life Story (Philadelphia: Smith, English & co., 1874), 238-39.

(31.) Bebbington, Why I was an Atheist, 10.

(32.) George Sexton, The Folly of Atheism (London: G. S. Sexton, 1880).

(33.) Reasoner, 11 August 1852.

(34.) Jonathan Barber, The Apology for Renouncing Infidel Opinions of Jonathan Barber, Frame-Work Knitter (Nottingham, [1859]), 10.

(35.) Six Nights' Discussion between Thomas Cooper and Joseph Barker, held in St. George Hall, Bradford, September, 1860 (London: Ward and co., n.d.), 63, 93; Bebbington, Why I was an Atheist, 10-15.

(36.) The People, 2: 101 (1850).

(37.) For example, Sexton, Folly of Atheism, 21-31.

(38.) W. S. Ellison, Statement Delivered by W. S. Ellison, (Formerly a Secularist) in Ebenezer Chapel, Leeds, On Wednesday Evening, Oct. 8, 1862, Containing his Reasons for having Abandoned Secularism, and an Account of his Conversion (Leeds: Charles Goodall, A. Mann, & B. Summersgill, [1862]), 12-13.

(39.) Bebbington, Why I was an Atheist, 15.

(40.) For the latter, see Thomas Cooper, God, the Soul, and a Future State (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1874). For Cooper's career as a popular Christian apologist, see Timothy Larsen, "Thomas Cooper and Christian Apologetics in Victorian Britain," Journal of Victorian Culture 5 (2000): 239-59.

(41.) George Sexton, Reasons for Renouncing Infidelity (London: G. S. Sexton, 1876), 5.

(42.) Joseph Barker, The Inspiration of the Sacred Scriptures (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: J. Barker, n.d.).

(43.) Joseph Barker, Confessions of Joseph Barker, a Convert from Christianity (London: Holyoake, 1858), 9.

(44.) For a scholarly sketch of Barker's life, see his entry in J. O. Baylen and N. J. Gossman, eds., Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals: Vol. 2:1830-1870 (Hassocks: Harvester, 1984), 38-41. For his career as an anti-Bible lecturer, see Timothy Larsen, "Joseph Barker and Popular Biblical Criticism in the Nineteenth Century," Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 82 (2000): 115-34.

(45.) Joseph Barker, Teachings of Experience, or, Lessons I have Learned on my Way through Life (London: E. W. Allen, 1885), 281.

(46.) Barker, Modern Skepticism, 325-26.

(47.) Thomas Cooper, The Life of Thomas Cooper, Written by Himself (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1872), 352.

(48.) Cooper, God, the Soul, and a Future State, 99.

(49.) Gordon, The Public Statement of Mr. J. H. Gordon, 10.

(50.) J. H. Gordon, Just-What-You-Like-Ism. A Brief Explanation of Mr. G. J. Holyoake's "Principles of Secularism Briefly Explained" (Leeds: J. Hamer, 1863), 93.

(51.) Bebbington, Why I Was an Atheist, 24.

(52.) Sexton, Fallacies of Secularism, 85.

(53.) Norfolk News, 10 April 1858. See also, Bradford Review, 15 May 1858.

(54.) For this kind of self-help, see Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England, 1815-1872 (London: Faber and Faber, 1971).

(55.) Sexton, Reasons for Renouncing Infidelity, 45.

(56.) Six Night's Discussion between Thomas Cooper and Joseph Barker, 153.

(57.) Barker, The Bible, Its Great Worth and Divine Origin, 31-33.

(58.) Sexton, Reasons for Renouncing Infidelity, 33.

(59.) E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Victor Gollancz, 1965), 375-400.

(60.) Royle, Victorian Infidels, 190.

(61.) Reasoner, 12 August 1860, 261-62.

(62.) A. D. Murray, John Ludlow: The Autobiography of a Christian Socialist (London: F. Cass, 1981), 149.

(63.) For mid-Victorian popular radicals and Spiritualism, see Logie Barrow, Independent Spirits: Spiritualism and English Plebeians, 1850-1910 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986). For a recent study of Besant's phases of faith and unbelief, see Mark Bevir, "Annie Besant's Quest for Truth: Christianity, Secularism and New Age Thought," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 50 (1999): 62-93.

(64.) Most notably, see Steve Bruce, ed., Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992). For a recent, insightful survey of the relevant historiography, see the introduction and conclusion in S. J. D. Green, Religion in the Age of Decline: Organisation and Experience in Industrial Yorkshire, 1870-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Timothy Larsen is a professor of church history at Tyndale Seminary, Toronto.
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