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Response to Review of A People of One Book: the Bible and the Victorians

I have long admired and appreciated Reviews in History. It is an honour to have my work noticed in this important and valuable venue. I am grateful to Daniel Ritchie for his thorough presentation of the book’s contents and relieved that his assessment is largely favourable.  A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians was a strange project to write for, as I say in the conclusion, ‘no one has ever doubted that the Bible had a prominent place in Victorian culture’ (p. 295). Hitherto, my monographs have been revisionist histories. I used to joke with my students that my thesis is always: ‘You’ve always thought this, but you were wrong’. Now I have gone in the completely opposite direction and spent 300 pages painstakingly documenting something that everyone already knows! My previous monograph, Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (1), sought to turn on its head a tried and overblown loss-of-faith historiography. In the last paragraph of Crisis of Doubt I observed that future studies of the Victorians should proceed from a realization of the strength of Christian thought in 19th-century Britain rather than presuming its weakness. I have figured out retrospectively that, in a sense, A People of One Book was my attempt to accept my own challenge. I wanted to drive home the point: Whither shall one go to escape the pervasive presence of the scriptures? If one ascends into the high church, it is there; even in the uttermost parts of the atheist movement, it is still with us. An astonishingly wide and deep range of Victorians gave some of their most concerted intellectual efforts to studying the Bible. Catherine Booth had read the Bible through eight times before she reached the age of 12. Charles Bradlaugh’s idea of how to be the leader of organized atheism was to learn Hebrew and to make his magnum opus a biblical commentary. The point is that these details did not seem startling to the Victorians – the water they swam in was, in biblical parlance, this living water.

I am pleased to learn that Ritchie found the chapters on Pusey and Wiseman the most significant ones. I have also been delighted, however, at how varied the reactions have been regarding which chapters are the most important or revealing. I think every single chapter has been voted someone’s favourite by reviewers or scholars who have written to me personally. As for myself, I have a special fondness for the chapter on T. H. Huxley. Ritchie highlights that Darwin’s bulldog praised the Bible and insisted that it be part of the curriculum in state schools. Beyond that, however, he also compulsively quoted it and eventually gave up on scientific research altogether in order to pursue a second career as a biblical scholar. (That is to state it provocatively, but not inaccurately.) The biblical critique of idolatry shaped his thought so profoundly that he even used it to against fellow freethinkers such as Comte, Carlyle, and Spencer. Although he coined the word ‘agnosticism’ to describe his own stance (according to an eyewitness it was itself a biblical allusion, referring to the Agnosto Theo – the Unknown God – of Acts 17:23), Huxley nevertheless also claimed that his religious position was best encapsulated in Micah 6:8: ‘He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’

Ritchie is certainly right to observe that some of my figures are more fittingly ‘representative’ than others. I can only plead that I acknowledge this explicitly in the book. As to Florence Nightingale, for instance, I do not claim that she is representative of liberal Anglicans in the standard sense of representative but rather that she is ‘an extreme, and therefore, all the more telling’ example (p. 114). I invite readers to examine my articles on Bishop Colenso and the Bible for an alternative, as well as to imagine what a chapter would be like for any standard liberal Anglican figure of the period. Nightingale, however, was one of the chapters that I learned the most from researching. She denied the orthodox view of many standard doctrines – the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, miracles, and so on. She also affirmed that the Bible was often wrong, even about God, and that it was not uniquely inspired, but rather just one of many sources of spiritual insight. Nevertheless, she read it day and night throughout her entire adult life with existential intensity and devotional fervor. I came to this realization: ‘Published books tend to concentrate on being either critical or devotional, tempting scholars to imagine that these are separate groups of people rather than modes of engagement’ (p. 135). In general, scholars have ignored the ways that scripture was an intimate, nurturing force in the lives of Victorians – failing to notice it, or dismissing it as merely obscuring what they supposedly really felt or thought, or just not exploring it because they could not face having to read through the devotional works that their subjects wrote. (I have found that ‘unreadable’ is often code for ‘unread’.)

I appreciate the additional reactions by others to William Lloyd Garrison that Ritchie offers. I was certainly learning from him at this point and it makes one think that there might be a theme for a research article in it which someone reading this might want to pursue (if Ritchie himself does not). I am also glad that my conclusion convinced Ritchie that even more chapters would have been welcome. I do spend about six pages apiece, however, sketching what a full chapter on Spiritualism, Judaism, and the (Plymouth) Brethren might have looked like. My Jewish figure is Grace Aguilar, whose fame is due to her fiction writing but who, like so many other Victorians who gained prominence in other areas of thought or action, also wrote substantial works on the Bible. Echoing the sola scriptura of Protestants, Aguilar insisted that Jews should look to ‘the Bible alone for support and comfort in affliction, for the guidance and direction in every social, domestic, moral and religious duty’ (p. 285). Due to space constraints, I was not able to include these three chapters (and others I had planned as well), but I hope that my work prompts others to explore this theme of ‘a people of one book’ with other figures or aspects of Victorian society or culture. I am convinced that the reported speech of any group of Victorians from prostitutes to parliamentarians will reveal that their language and thought patterns were profoundly shaped by the Bible.

Notes

  1. Timothy Larsen, Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford, 2006).Back to (1)