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Victorian Christianity’s flight from faith (3)

May 2016 | by David Young

Continued from Victorian Christianity’s flight from faith (2)

The first two articles in this series surveyed the attack on evangelical faith during the first two-thirds or so of the nineteenth century, through novels, poetry, science and philosophy. ).

These assaults arose largely from sentiment and an a priori presupposition that miracles and other divine interventions do not or cannot occur. They came from outside theological circles and began before Charles Darwin’s writings.

This article now considers the effects of Darwin’s theory of evolution and of the so-called ‘Higher Criticism’ of the Bible, on religious faith in the Victorian era.


Ideas of biological evolution did not actually originate with Darwin. Robert Chambers published his Vestiges of the natural history of creation in 1844. Despite being regarded as poorly researched, it achieved great popularity, with 23,750 copies sold in Britain (Chadwick, volume 1, p.566). In it, man is included in the process of evolution.

This helped prepare the ground for Darwin’s publication of On the origin of species in 1859. Darwin’s work was taken seriously, as well researched by a competent scientist. It initiated serious debate concerning the authenticity of Scripture and the doctrine of man.

The biblical picture of the fixity of species appeared false and man seemed no longer uniquely created in the image of God, but evolved from lower animals by a law of natural selection, leading to survival of the fittest.

Darwin promoted the belief that mankind is progressing by means of continued evolution. This inevitably entailed a lower view of the wickedness of sin. This chance-based process, supposedly brought about by small random changes in life forms, seemed to destroy the argument for a designed creation.

Belief in evolution rather than special creation was further strengthened by the publication of Charles Lyell’s Antiquity of man (1863) and Darwin’s Descent of man (1871).

Chadwick (volume 2) has three chapters on the development of doubt in the Victorian age. From the mid-1860s, science and faith were widely deemed to be in conflict and, by 1870, Genesis was considered disproved, with evolution as the only widely accepted theory, even though many Nonconformist worshippers didn’t accept evolution for at least another two decades.

Doctrines revised

If man does not uniquely bear God’s image, then the doctrines of the Fall, sin, God’s judgment and evil all need revision.

As science, health, life expectancy, leisure and technology all progressed, it seemed indeed as if man was not a fallen creature, but a continually improving product of chance. Evolution seemed to promote a higher view of humanity.

This was popularised in the poem ‘These things shall be!’ by John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), published in 1880. Extracts from its 15 stanzas even found their way into Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian hymn books:


1. These things shall be: a loftier race

Than e’er the world hath known shall rise

With flame of freedom in their souls

And light of knowledge in their eyes.


2. They shall be gentle, brave, and strong

To spill no drop of blood, but dare

All that may plant man’s lordship firm

On earth, and fire, and sea, and air.


3. Nation with nation, land with land,

Unarmed shall live as comrades free;

In every heart and brain shall throb

The pulse of one fraternity.


4. Man shall love man with heart as pure

And fervent as the young-eyed throng

Who chant their heavenly psalms before

God’s face with undiscordant song.


5. New arts shall bloom of loftier mould,

And mightier music thrill the skies,

And every life shall be a song,

When all the earth is paradise.


6. There shall be no more sin, nor shame,

Though pain and passion may not die;

For man shall be at one with God

In bonds of firm necessity.


Scientists acquired the image of honest seekers after truth, while orthodox theologians were perceived as imposing inherited dogmas (Hylson-Smith). Jozef Altholz (in Parsons (ed.), volume 4, chapter 8) depicts the struggle as between the crude, harsh doctrines of orthodoxy on the one hand and conscience on the other; and the scientists’ search for truth as more moral than the theologians’ adherence to traditional belief.

Glover (pp. 36, 38) states that ‘Higher Criticism did not get a foothold in England until after 1880 … The native problems raised by geology and later by biological evolution seemed much more relevant to the defence of the faith’.

Higher Criticism

Previous challenges to evangelical belief had come from outside English Christianity, but, during the 1860s, an assault was mounted from within by theologians.

Higher Criticism had taken deep root in Germany long before it had much effect in Britain. Georg Niebuhr’s History of Rome,published in 1812, had introduced a new approach to history, in which historians doubted everything until proved. Historians now felt the Bible should be analysed in the same way as any other ancient text.

The Bible’s authorship, dates, sources and purpose were all questioned, especially the Old Testament. It was posited that its writers had made up some of the narrative to further their own ends.

The publication of Essays and Reviews in 1860 gave rise to widespread alarm in Britain. Focusing on ‘free and honest discussion’ in biblical criticism, it questioned the authorship and date of the biblical books, promoted the theory of evolution, denied the reality of miracles, and asserted the Bible may contain errors (Chadwick, volume 2).

Biblical narratives were seen as based on faint memories, reconstructions, inventions and myths. Essays and Reviews became widely known among Anglicans, and marked the end of English isolation from German theology. Its seven authors were all Anglican, although 10,000 Anglican clergy signed a condemnation of the book.

Essays and Reviews was followed in 1862 by Bishop J. W. Colenso’s The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua critically examined. This questioned the authorship and historical accuracy of the early books of the Bible. It cast doubt on the Pentateuch, especially the validity of its numbers.

If facts, figures, dates, and authorship could be wrong, then the Bible seemed to lose all authority. During the period 1860-1900, much of the Old Testament came to be viewed as legendary, and when attention turned to New Testament criticism, there was even greater unsettlement of faith (Chadwick, volume 2). By 1900, Higher Criticism was the norm in the universities and among clergymen (Parsons, volume 2, chapter 9).

Evangelical scholarship

In the evangelical churches there was little attempt to challenge the new beliefs at a theological level. As Young (p.196) has it, doctrine was too often left in the hands of ‘tame, unimaginative, unpoetical, tedious men’. Kitching (pp. 3-4) refers to the turn of the century as a time of aggressive evangelism, adding, ‘This emphasis upon evangelism and mission led to a dearth of evangelical scholarship and theological thinking, for often the keenest and cleverest of the evangelicals went overseas.

‘Evangelism too, in view of the Lord’s return, was considered far more important than scholarship. This lack of evangelical scholarship was marked in most of the Protestant denominations, but was particularly so in the Methodist churches. Recognised Methodist scholars were certainly not evangelicals after 1890.’

Ministers changed their beliefs before the laity. Many ministers with unorthodox views stayed in the denominations, even though they no longer believed their denominations’ doctrines. There was a reluctance among the denominational hierarchies to discipline error. Both Sheehan and Young argue that a desire for unity with other professing Christians further contributed to the weakening of doctrinal conviction.

Dinsdale Young (p.197), president of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference in 1914, protested against this ministerial hypocrisy, ‘Had I seen reason to abandon the doctrines to which I was pledged, I would have deemed it just and right that I withdrew from the church which laid the beliefs upon me.

‘I observe with solicitude that some “new” theologies involve also a “new” morality. They demand to remain in the pay — I will use the ugly but fitting word — of the communities whose doctrinal standards they have disavowed. I am incapable of understanding such ethics. Such a resultant immorality is a strong refutation of the theology with which it is associated.’

The final article in this series will explore the decay and collapse of evangelical loyalty among formerly orthodox denominations, in the period leading up to the First World War.


Bebbington, D. W., The dominance of evangelicalism (IVP, 2005).

Chadwick, O., The Victorian church (Black, 1970).

Glover, W. B., Evangelical nonconformists and Higher Criticism in the nineteenth century (Independent Press, 1954).

Hylson-Smith, K., The churches in England from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II,Volume III (SCM, 1998).

Kitching, R. J., The conservative-evangelical influence in Methodism 1900-1976 (MA dissertation, Birmingham University, 1976).

Parsons, G (Ed.), Religion in Victorian Britain (Manchester University Press, 1988).

Sheehan, R. J., The decline of evangelicalism in nineteenth-century England (Banner of Truth, 278, November 1986).

Young, D. T., Stars of retrospect (Hodder & Stoughton, 1920).

Concluded in Victorian Christianity’s flight from faith (3)

David M. Young was for many years director of the Albanian Evangelical Mission

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