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Victorian Christianity’s flight from faith (4)

June 2016 | by David Young

Continued from Victorian Christianity’s flight from faith (3)

The first two articles in this series explored the erosion of evangelical theology during the nineteenth century. The first weakening influence came through literature. Romantic poets and novelists drip-fed their dislike of eternal punishment and substitutionary atonement into people’s sensibilities.

Then came philosophy, with its dismissal of the supernatural. Geology led to a revised view of the age of the earth and chronology of creation. Finally, in 1859 and 1860, Darwin’s theories and so-called High Criticism of the Bible inflicted decisive blows; the age of Victorian doubt was in full spate.

God’s fatherhood

All this led to a revised view of God’s character. Instead of God being worshipped as creator and sovereign of his world, and lawgiver and judge, emphasis shifted to his fatherhood of all mankind — not just of believers — and to the brotherhood of man.

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) was influential in spreading these ideas, especially through What is Christianity? (1901). Parsons says that the Congregationalists explored new theologies in relation to the atonement and eternal punishment as early as the 1850s-1870s (vol. 1, p.103). Murray relates how: ‘R. W. Dale had in 1874 declared against the eternal punishment of sinners, preferring the theory of annihilation.

‘He went on to declare that a doctrinal acceptance of the deity of Christ was not essential to the experience of saving faith in his person, and … argued that Christ is not lost to us, though we discard the old belief in the inerrancy of Scripture’ (pp. 142-5).

Murray also turns his attention to the Baptist Union, quoting Charles Haddon Spurgeon, from the November 1887 issue of The Sword and Trowel: ‘Believers in Christ’s atonement are now in declared union with those who make light of it; believers in Holy Scripture are in confederacy with those who deny plenary inspiration; those who hold evangelical doctrine are in open alliance with those who call the Fall a fable, who deny the personality of the Holy Ghost, who call justification by faith immoral, and hold that there is another probation after death’.

Chadwick says that, in the 1870s and 1880s, in both Anglican and Nonconformist churches, the new theology was commonly accepted in private, but not proclaimed in public. The strongest period of agonising over the new views came during the 1880s. But, by the 1890s, people were less disturbed by the new ideas, although ‘the ordinary worshipper was slow to adapt his mind to biblical criticism’ (vol. 2, p.130).


Sheehan relates how ministers changed their beliefs before the laity. Many with unorthodox views stayed in the same denominations whose doctrines they denied. There was a cowardly reluctance to discipline error and little attempt made to challenge the new beliefs at the theological level.

As Dinsdale Young had it, looking back over the decades since he began preaching in 1876, doctrine was too often left in the hands of ‘tame, unimaginative, unpoetical, tedious men’ (p.196).

Kitching 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’.

‘During the years 1890-1910 the effect of biblical criticism hit the Methodist Churches with undue force and caused confusion’ and, ‘in the Methodist Churches, between 1880 and 1910, doctrine was subtly beginning to change. The old emphasis on hell, heaven, personal conversion and sanctification were being replaced by a gospel of ethics and social witness.

‘The fatherhood of God was replacing the doctrine of atonement as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. Many Methodists came to accept the theory of evolution. Major storms broke out over the doctrine of eternal punishment’ (pp. 1-4).


Arthur Samuel Peake became tutor at Primitive Methodism’s Hartley College in 1892, and is widely perceived today as the man who introduced the new ideas into Primitive Methodism. Rack, writing of the Primitive Methodists, states that, in the 1890s and early 1900s, the reliability of the Bible and a whole range of biblical beliefs were being challenged (pp. 48-9).

The Wesleyan Methodists stood for the truth a bit longer: ‘Above the storms of critical controversy the Wesleyan body stood majestically … As late as 1898 and, again in 1902, the Reverend J. Agar Beet was censured by Conference for unorthodox ideas of hell’ (Sellers, pp. 29-30). But things began to change for the worse from the appointment of a new editor for the Wesleyan Magazine in 1893.

By 1900, Baptists, Wesleyan Methodists and Primitive Methodists had all accommodated critical opinions, and were holding them alongside the more traditional views. After 1900, the alliance between cautious scholarly criticism and orthodox belief rapidly fell apart. The virgin birth of Christ and Christ’s resurrection were both under challenge, and the incarnation was ousting the atonement as the gospel’s central focus (Parsons, vol. 2, pp. 250, 253). Theological rationalism was overwhelming English Nonconformity.

Joseph Ritson, in an article entitled ‘Century stock-taking’,for the Primitive Methodist Magazine of 1900 (pp. 822-5) comments on Primitive Methodism and other churches: ‘Perhaps the century has witnessed the greatest amount of change and unsettlement in the doctrine of the “last things”. The change, however, is not so much in the recognized doctrinal standards of the churches as in the general attitude and consciousness of the Christian world.

‘At the opening of the [nineteenth] century, the doctrine of eternal punishment was held almost universally and in its most literal and absolute form. The doctrine was not only in the creed, but very prominently in the pulpit. It is still in the creeds, and in some form is still held by many in all the churches; but it cannot be denied that comparatively little is heard of it in the pulpit.

On the subject of the future punishment of the wicked, there is no uncertain sound … It is in regard to the eternity of the punishment that there is a certain hesitancy of statement. Many would declare themselves agnostic in this regard, while others, notably in the Congregational churches, have completely abandoned the doctrine’.


The wife of Harold Morton wrote: ‘When in 1913 my husband [a Wesleyan minister, from 1894 to 1932] realised the stranglehold of modernism on the Wesleyan and other churches, he resolved to devote, with God’s help, all his energy to try to loosen this. He saw that the acceptance of teachings of the modernists, unless checked, must lead to the destruction of Christianity’ (Morton & Dewar, pp. 86-7).

Looking around English and Welsh villages today, with their multitude of closed down chapels, one can only agree with that analysis, and lament with the words of Scripture, ‘But my people have forgotten me … they have stumbled in their ways, in the ancient roads, and have gone into bypaths, not the highway … like the east wind, I will scatter them before the enemy’ (Jeremiah 18:15).

From about 1860, to 1910 and beyond, first the Congregationalists, and then the Baptists, Primitive Methodists and Wesleyan Methodists, discarded the rich spiritual heritage bequeathed to them by their believing forefathers, who had known so abundantly God’s blessing. They turned to another gospel.

The effects of their betrayal remain with us to this day. Nonetheless, in these bodies there was, and still is, a faithful remnant.

David M. Young was for many years director of the Albanian Evangelical Mission. He would appreciate contact with Methodists or former Methodists concerning local movements within the evangelical resurgence in Methodism during the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps (but not necessarily) associated with the Methodist Revival Fellowship ([email protected]).


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

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

Currie, R. (1968), Methodism divided, Faber & Faber.

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

Morton, E. & Dewar, D (1937), A voice crying in the wilderness: a memoir of Harold Christopherson Morton, Thynne & Co..

Murray, I. H. (1973), The forgotten Spurgeon, Banner of Truth.

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

Peake, A. S. (1908), Christianity: its nature and its truth, Duckworth; (1921), ‘Evangelism and the intellectual influences of the age’ in Evangelism: a reinterpretation, Ed. Aldom, E., Epworth Press; (1926), The life of Sir William Hartley, Hodder & Stoughton.

Peake, L. S. (1930), Arthur Samuel Peake: a memoir, Hodder & Stoughton.

Rack, H. (2004), ‘A. S. Peake — liberal evangelical’, Epworth Review, July 2004, Methodist Publishing House.

Sellers, I. (1977), Nineteenth century nonconformity, Edward Arnold.

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

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

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