Robust evangelical belief, whether Calvinist or Arminian, fell into rapid decay during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It has been customary to fix the largest part of the blame for this on Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and his speculations.
Although Darwin’s writings were a significant contributory factor, in reality, decline set in years before his evolutionary theory became known. The assault on biblical faith first arose from quite different quarters. In the following articles, we will explore the course of that theological decay. This article is an overview of the attack (authors cited are referenced below).
Sheehan relates how, in the early nineteenth century, Britain’s Protestant churches, Anglican as well as Dissenting, saw the Bible as the authoritative, infallible Word of God. There was little distinction in people’s minds between faith in the Bible and faith in God.
As Neil and Wright express it, almost all English Christians were ‘fundamentalist’ until 1860. Glover (p.222) states that ‘the traditional view of the Bible had so permeated the very religious life of the evangelical churches that to discard it seemed to imperil the faith itself’.
Theological rationalism began in German universities and churches early in the nineteenth century, but failed to gain much attention in Britain.
Biblical criticism, associated with Germany, was felt to be dangerous; such views either weakened the effect of preaching upon hearers or failed to retain hearers in the first place.
Glover says: ‘A list of the greatest preachers, as distinct from denominational leaders and scholars, would clearly indicate a positive correlation between effective preaching and conservative attitudes towards the Bible … The immediate effect of Higher Criticism was an enervating uncertainty as to the authenticity and significance of particular passages of Scripture’ (pp. 228, 231).
But Sheehan also argues that the revivals of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries focussed attention on religious experience rather than doctrine, which led to a growing lack of interest in theology. Spirituality became more pietistic, emphasising the right of private interpretation and the freedom of the individual’s conscience.
In the years leading up to a more general loss of faith, a range of Christian beliefs were challenged, namely, the authenticity and reliability of the Bible; the biblical portrayal of God; the Fall and original sin; penal substitution; eternal punishment; miracles, divine intervention and supernatural forces.
These challenges were often presented on philosophical and ethical grounds. Nonconformist preachers were restating the atonement, justification by faith, and the character of the future life. Currie writes of ‘the complete recasting of Christianity, according to the wishes of the religious bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth century. Social change had rendered traditional Christianity obsolete’ (p.124).
The chapter headings alone in Henry C. Sheldon’s book, Unbelief in the nineteenth century, provide an insight into the theological shift — challenging of the supernatural; denial of the finality of Christianity; denial of the transcendent Sonship of Jesus Christ; criticism of the Gospel history by Strauss; criticism of the New Testament by Baur; critical reconstruction of the life of Jesus by Renan and others; radicalism in the criticism of the Old Testament; radicalism in the criticism of the New Testament.
Worrall describes a range of trends contributing to the decline in faith in the late Victorian age. A combination of science and biblical criticism attacked belief in a divinely inspired Bible. This led to a loss of confidence in the reality of spiritual experience, and a vague religiousness instead of confident adherence to traditional concepts of God’s character, Jesus as man’s Redeemer, the personality and inner working of the Holy Spirit, and the seriousness of sin (pp. 155-156).
As religious fervour declined, time and effort were redirected to political activism, while secular entertainments drew people away from chapel as the focus of social life. Similarly, MacLeod lists Victorian doubts concerning the reliability of the Bible, the Bible’s interaction with science, eternal punishment and substitutionary atonement. He adds that doubts in such matters could lead to ‘the dissolution of all faith’ (pp. 182-185).
Hylson-Smith relates that new discoveries and theories in the fields of geology, biology, Bible criticism and comparative religion all contributed to the crisis of faith (pp.18ff.), and Wheeler points out that Britain’s expanding empire brought home to people the vast numbers of adherents of other religions and caused them to think the eternal punishment of unbelievers unjust (p.190).
As these attacks gained momentum, Gavin Carlyle, in 1878, took up his pen in defence of evangelical belief — incidentally highlighting what the perceived threats were. ‘Assaults of many different kinds have been made on the authority of the Scriptures in recent times. Many who profess great reverence for them, entirely destroy their value as a basis of faith.
‘They represent that though the Word of God is in the Holy Scriptures, the Holy Scriptures are not the Word of God … If the Word of God is in the Scripture, here and there, but the Scripture is not the Word of God, who is to tell which part of it is of divine authority, and which not? We are left without any guidance’ (pp. 20-21).
He says on theories of post mortem salvation for those who die in unbelief: ‘We have crude theories of conditional immortality brought forward by men who not only profess to be the warm defenders of Christianity, but who evidently believe that they are relieving its defences of great difficulties…
‘It is easy to understand the humane feelings which led to the origination of such theories. It is this which gives to them their attractiveness. But the question is whether they are true’ (pp. 131, 143).
Carlyle describes the attacks on the character of God: ‘It is averred by many … that the God of the Old Testament is chiefly severe, harsh and judicial; the God of the New Testament, as revealed by Christ, tender and loving and gentle’ (p.65).
God’s justice is called into question: ‘There are those who object to the idea of an atonement on the ground of injustice. It could not, they say, be the act of God to lay the sins of one being on another, for it would not be just. This objection … fails altogether when the taking upon Him of these sins is represented as a strictly voluntary act. From compassion for man, He … proffered His services’ (p.201).
Of the new theology’s approach, Carlyle says: ‘Much of this criticism … is founded on a philosophy which denies the possibility of the prophetic and miraculous’ (p.31); and, ‘there are many rash and ready writers, whose own Christianity many be sincere and real, but who, by making fatal concessions to the spirit of materialism, are steadily undermining the faith of intelligent youth, and preparing them for an easy passage over to the open ranks of infidelity’ (p.229).
Carlyle perceives too the dangers of evolution: ‘The doctrine of evolution … is really, though not always avowedly, in opposition to the idea of a personal God, creating and governing the material universe’ (p.149); ‘this is the aim of Mr Darwin, an aim which, if successful, would destroy the idea of the spiritual nature of man, make the soul merely a name for certain physical results, and of course take away all hope of future existence and of immortality … Religion, according to it, is a mere phase of the human mind, apart from reality’ (p.156); and, ‘with the pantheist and the materialist there can of course be no such thing as sin, in the sense of offence against God. The acts of man are conditioned by their physical construction’ (p.194).
Carlyle recognises that the atonement is necessarily bound up with the doctrine of Christ’s deity, for only a death of infinite worth could atone for so many, hence the one who atoned must needs be both a man and God.
He continues: ‘[Those] who reject the atonement, deny the true divinity of Christ … it is no wonder they feel it to be reasonable to question the possibility of one man atoning for multitudes of others. But the atonement and the true divinity of our Lord are indissolubly connected’ (p.200).
Carlyle explains: ‘The Christian religion is connected in all its parts. Let one link be removed, and the whole … is endangered. The representation of man as created in the likeness of God is the first link in the chain; then there is the Fall and the universal prevalence of sin; then there is the divine sonship of the Messiah … then there is the atoning sacrifice…
‘If man had not been created perfect, he could not have been restored to that which he never had … Every part is connected and the atonement is in the midst — the strongest link of all … Yet this is the doctrine which is assailed so much by many professed Christians of great ability in these latter times’ (pp. 209-211).
In the next articles we will explore how nineteenth century novels, poetry, philosophy, and geology gnawed away at the Christian faith, so that, by the 1890s, many theologians and preachers had departed from evangelical orthodoxy. Worshippers were being robbed of confidence in the Word of God and the God of the Word.
David M. Young was for many years director of the Albanian Evangelical Trust
Carlyle, G. (1878), The battle of unbelief (London: Hodder & Stoughton).
Currie, R. (1968), Methodism divided (London: Faber & Faber).
Glover, W. B. (1954), Evangelical Nonconformists and Higher Criticism in the nineteenth century (London: Independent Press).
Hylson-Smith, K. (1998), The churches in England from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II,Volume III (London: SCM).
McLeod, H. (1996), Religion and society in England 1850-1914 (Basingstoke: MacMillan).
Neil, S. & Wright, Tom (1988), The interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986 (Oxford: OUP).
Sheehan, R. J. (1986), The decline of Evangelicalism in nineteenth century England (Banner of Truth magazine 278, November 1986).
Sheldon, Henry C. (1907), Unbelief in the nineteenth century: a critical history (London: Robert Culley).
Wheeler, M. (1990), Death and the future life in Victorian literature and theology (Cambridge University Press).
Worrall, B. G. (1993), The making of the modern church (London: SPCK).