p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.

0px ‘Times New Roman’; color: #333333; -webkit-text-stroke: #333333; background-color: #ffffff}p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.

0px ‘Times New Roman’; color: #333333; -webkit-text-stroke: #333333; background-color: #ffffff; min-height: 15.0px}p.p3 {margin: 0.

0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.

0px ‘Times New Roman’; color: #000000; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}span.Apple-tab-span {white-space:pre}The nineteenth century brought a wave of new ideas to the shores of England. Charles Darwin’s and Thomas Huxley’s scientific discoveries and intellectual innovations challenged previously held systems of belief.

  Leading nineteenth-century intellectuals battled the Church of England and struggled to absorb radical scientific discoveries that upended everything the Bible had taught them about the world. As Christopher Lane argued in “The Age of Doubt,” the explosion of questioning among Christian thinkers in the Victorian era transformed the idea of doubt from a religious sin or lapse to necessary ethical exploration.  As a result, Victorians came to view doubt as inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, as well as a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and unbridled certainty. Despite the proliferation of doubters within the Church, this method of questioning was not held to be detrimental to the continued existence of said religious body. The ‘New Reformation’ was considered to be a process of purification, rather than an attack on faith. Rather than using new scientific evidence to discredit the Church as a whole, scientific, literary, and intellectual icons applied new discoveries to refine what was taught within the walls of the chapel and edit doctrine that had been called into question by physical and empirical evidence. In this way, doubt in the nineteenth century served to purify religion from within, not negate it from an exterior perspective.

In his essay “Faith and Doubt in Victorian Fiction” Reg Tye observes that ‘the retention of faith under a variety of onslaughts’ was one of the most excruciating and consuming problems faced by the Victorians. The established Church was challenged by advances in science, the influence of German higher criticism, political reforms, drastic changes in society and culture as a result of industrialisation and newly articulated philosophies. Certainly, one of the forces to shake the Anglican Church in the first half of the century was the Oxford Movement. The insistence on a return to pre-Reformation faith in the Church itself, though it instigated much needed reform, stirred debate over the power of the Church and placed Church members at odds. The strain between factions in the Church and the threat of Catholicism challenged Anglican orthodoxy. The Oxford Movement was unsettling to the Established Church because its proponents raised questions not only about the practice of belief but also about the essence of belief itself.

According to Margaret Maison, the Oxford Movement showed that ‘simple faith was not as simple as the ordinary Anglican had imagined’; it was a very complex matter intertwined with personal convictions.  A contrasting force that moved the Church in an opposite direction was the Evangelical movement. In contrast to the high church emphasis of the Oxford Movement, the low church emphasis of the Evangelicals was on simplicity, personal faith, and religious experience. Evangelicals also challenged Anglican orthodoxy by questioning traditional practices of the Church and placing greater emphasis on private expression in belief. The movement precipitated theological battles that lasted throughout the century. The ‘personal faith’ identity of Evangelical Christianity was wielded as a strong weapon against the forces that threatened to undermine belief; for, as Noel Annan asserts, Evangelicals ‘scorned the value of evidence and proofs and waged all on the conviction of faith’.

Thus, throughout the century Evangelicals voiced some of the strongest objections to the findings of science and higher criticism while seeking to counter their influence. The significance of the Oxford and Evangelical movements lies in their impact on the mindset of nineteenth century Anglicans. Perhaps both movements made the expression of private belief more acceptable than it had been a century before and, at the same time, set the stage for the dethronement of orthodoxy by questioning the traditional teachings and practices of the Church.

However, it is important to note that the movement away from orthodoxy does not necessitate a break with religious faith altogether, merely an examination of the components of the espoused faith and a desire to refine it. The ‘serious decline’ in the ‘authority and influence’ of the Anglican Church in the second half of the nineteenth century noted by Horton Davies in his discussion of the theological revolution in England between 1850 and 1900 was also a result of the difficulties raised by advances in knowledge and new theories that made long-held beliefs shaky. As Robert Young points out, the nineteenth century witnessed the application of the ‘naturalistic or scientific approach to the earth, life, man, his mind and society’ which led to fresh perspectives in utilitarianism, population theory, psychology, and theology, subsequently bringing the traditional teachings of the Church into question. As Victorians began to reject what they had been taught to believe, the Established Church found itself in a precarious position. The Church found itself challenged by forces that pushed for a restatement of theology.

As the Bible became a text to be critically examined and as enlightened men began to posit new explanations for the existence of mankind and the condition of the world, it became increasingly difficult to hold on to a traditional belief system. While many, even most, thinking people could retain their traditional beliefs through the first half of the century, later in the century, it was increasingly difficult to maintain previously-held beliefs. Bernard Reardon highlights the progressive instability of orthodox belief:  At the outset of the nineteenth century the religion of the Christian churches still provided an intellectual and moral frame of reference which even the religiously indifferent in the main admitted.

At its end this frame of reference had lost credibility. The instability of orthodox belief contributed to the Victorian crisis of faith. The crisis was pervasive and particularly pronounced among the educated. As Robert Wolff points out, the more numerous and articulate class of doubters in Victorian England were ‘rebellious and tormented intellectuals’. For intellectuals the influence of new thought was intimidating if not overwhelming; it caused much unsettlement in the Victorian mind. The influence of new thought included Darwinian biology, German philosophical theories, and historical criticism. All of these concerns preoccupied the educated and the creators of literature. Novelists were the spokespersons for the age, writing about social evils, new scientific theories, political corruption, and Church controversies.

This intimate connection between literature and life in the Victorian novel makes the novel one of the most rewarding records of the Victorian mind. While the debate over what to think and believe was waged in periodicals, pubs, drawing rooms and at dinner tables, conversations were often informed by the latest novel. The novel was used as a platform to express every kind of opinion; however, the subject that held the attention of the novelists more than any other was religion. According to Maison, the religious novel reached its ‘most glorious zenith’ during the Victorian age. Anything and everything related to religion, to belief, to church practices became subject matter for fiction. An extensive reading of Victorian religious novels provides a thorough picture of Christian belief in Victorian England.

  The subject of doubt increasingly drew the attention of Victorian writers; after 1860, novelists placed a greater emphasis on the personal struggle of the character experiencing a crisis of faith and took a greater interest in exploring the causes of doubt. Moreover, the portrayal of doubters was modified. Novels before mid-century tended to be melodramatic and didactic. Typically, the demise of the hero served ‘as a dreadful warning to doubters’ (214).

Maison, writing about this progression, notes that novelists in the early 1800s expressed conventional condemnation of doubt and unbelief. Doubters were treated as sinners ‘and almost invariably punished by madness or death’. However, a new attitude toward unbelief became evident later in the century, as novelists portrayed doubters more sympathetically. Many novelists of this later period provided a sincere depiction of the tragedies attending loss of faith. Other novelists not only portrayed doubters and unbelievers with more sympathy, but put their cases before the public. Regression toward doubt proved a strong inspiration to novelists in the later part of the century as they carefully mapped out the path from belief to doubt and, in many cases, to redefinition of faith. Victorian novelists were well aware of the looming threats to orthodox belief and thoughtfully explored the many causes of doubt in their fiction. They were especially aware of the clash between religion and science and, according to Leo Henkin, gave more attention to religion’s struggle with science than to any other Victorian concern.

The broad application of science redefined nineteenth-century thought, and the writers of the age sought to come to terms with all the implications of this redefinition. Two areas of scientific application that had deep impact upon religious belief were evolutionary theory and German higher criticism. Evolutionary theory was one of the forces that posed a major threat to established belief in the nineteenth century.

The concept of evolution was not, however, new to the Victorians. Evolutionary theory was anticipated early in the eighteenth century by Leibnitz and DeMaillet, who argued against the concept of the immutability of species. DeMaillet’s study of fossils led him to suggest that the world was older than had been previously thought and to formulate theories that were precursors to natural selection. Later in the century, Linnaeus and Buffon theorized that ‘animated beings had come into existence by some process other than special creation’, and both inquired into the variation of species.

Evolutionary theory was given further support by geologists. In the first part of the nineteenth century, advances in geological study, particularly the work of Georges Cuvier and Charles Lyell, demonstrated that the earth was much older than was originally thought. Extending the theories of James Hutton and William Smith, they pointed out that the age of the earth as presented by contemporary geology did not correspond with the Biblical account. By far the most disconcerting presentation of evolutionary theory to the Victorians came in 1859.

In The Origin of Species. Charles Darwin presented detailed and systematic scientific evidence of evolution and posited that natural selection was the cause of species origin and variation. As stated by Andrew White, Darwin’s work transcended all that had been written before because his theories were supported by ‘minute research, wide observation’ and ‘patient collation’.  The premise of The Origin of Species was that all nature operates under ‘one general law leading to the advancement of all organic beings–namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die’. Darwin argued against special creation, saying that humans are mistaken in thinking that any species was suddenly produced and making a case for a common progenitor for existing species.

Darwin’s theory pictured an independent creation of life and life forms that sustained themselves in accordance with natural laws apart from divine intervention. A major blow was levelled against traditional belief as evolutionary theory discounted intentional creation. The theory questioned not only God’s role in creation and His authority over creation, but perhaps His very existence.

As Bernard Reardon observes, an acceptance of an autonomous natural order made it difficult to find evidence of a divine being in the act of creation or the governing of nature. In suggesting that man did not owe his existence to God, Darwin’s theory suggested that God was not in control of the universe, that He had no personal interest in man, that man was not uniquely created in His image. Darwin’s argument was that species were not independently created, that they had evolved over a long period of time, that secondary causes explain the existence of life on earth. While he acknowledged a Creator who set all in motion, he denied special creation.

  Clearly, then, the advances in natural and biological science in the nineteenth century cast doubt on ‘the indispensable underpinnings of the Christian faith’. The main difficulty that these advances posed for orthodox believers was to question creationism and by extension the traditional conception of the Creator. Yet, if one adjusted their view of creation, they could still believe in a Supreme Being, as Lyell, Chambers, and Darwin did, and retain much of their traditional belief, in particular the teachings of the New Testament. As Horton Davies points out, while the natural sciences implicitly criticised ‘the accepted Biblical account of the Creator . . .

they cast no direct aspersions on the Redeemer, nor the record of His life as narrated in the pages of the New Testament’. The most critical challenge to New Testament teaching came from the second major threat to established belief in the nineteenth century, higher criticism. The influence of German higher criticism of the Bible had as much to do with casting doubt on traditional belief as any other force in Victorian England. As scientists proposed new theories regarding the origin of life, scholars applied the scientific method to the Bible and investigated the origin and authenticity of Scripture. This application meant that the Bible was studied as a historical document, rather than a holy one. Higher Criticism undercut traditional Christian doctrine and the teachings of the Established Church in key areas. The very authority of Scripture and, by implication, the Church itself was called into question.

The questioning of Jesus’s divine nature was perhaps the greatest difficulty raised by higher criticism.  These impediments to belief placed the Established Church in a precarious position. It was ‘assailed from two directions at once’, as Cosslett asserts.

‘German Biblical Criticism was undermining belief in revealed theology, while evolutionary science was undermining belief in natural theology’.  As a result, churchgoers and intellectuals had to redefine their faith in order to accommodate the advances in science and criticism to their own theology. Evolutionary theory pushed thinking men and women to reassess the role of the Creator. Despite earlier denunciation of Darwinism, the second half of the century saw a gradual, though subtle, integration, with a developing attitude on the part of many that evolution and Christian doctrine were compatible. Carpenter explains that in the course of this development theologians who placed emphasis on a ‘pure and spiritual conception of God’ could view evolution as ‘a description, from the human end, of the method of divine creation’. Although there are many today the believe science and religion to be fundamentally incompatible, that was not the perspective that most Victorians held on this matter.

In the nineteenth century, all of the new intellectual ideas, scientific discoveries, and philosophical methods caused Christians throughout Britain to reexamine their religious beliefs. This emergence of ‘doubt’ led to a reassessment of faith, on both a personal and organisational level. Though this phenomenon is sometimes termed a ‘crisis of faith’, it is perhaps a misleading term as only in rare cases was the existence of faith in question. Rather, the forces and theories that raised religious questions were not used to discredit faith but rather to reexamine and redefine it; indeed, to purify it. Religious doubt served to build faith that was compatible with science and philosophy, faith that was not diminished by the asking of questions but instead strengthened through a process of careful consideration.

Christians used religious doubt to refine their faith and create personal and organisational belief systems that would not be toppled by further scientific evidence or philosophical theories; a ‘crisis of doubt’ served to strengthen and refine Christian faith in the nineteenth century.


I'm Erica!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out