Ian McCormack welcomes two new books which provide fresh insight into Victorian Christianity


The Bible and the Victorians Timothy Larsen

OUP, 327pp, hbk

978 0199570096, £30


Religion and Colonialism in the British World, c.1801–1908 Hilary M. Carey

CUP, 448pp, hbk

978 0521194105, £60

ONE OF my tutors at theological college used to complain that the problem with Anglo-Catholics was that they (we) did not know enough about the Bible. In his stimulating volume, Timothy Larsen sets out to show that in Victorian England, everybody knew their Bible. He does this by analysing in turn representative figures from different religious (and non-religious) groups in turn: Roman Catholics through Nicholas Wiseman, atheists through Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, ‘Liberal Anglicans’ through Florence Nightingale, and so on. Of particular interest is the fact that Larsen takes as his exemplar of the Anglo-Catholics Dr Pusey (albeit that that is a title which Pusey was not fond of using about himself).

Larsen makes the point that Pusey, along with most of his other subjects – atheists included – inhabited a mental world which was dominated by the Bible. Thus when despairing over the state of Oxford University, Pusey naturally turned to a biblical analogy, writing to Keble that ‘we are in the state of Israel under the Judges, when every one did that which was right in his own eyes.’

What distinguishes Larsen’s account of Pusey from most others of recent times is the fact that he has actually bothered to read what Pusey wrote instead of relying on the lazy assumptions of other historians. The result is that he restores Pusey as a theologian and biblical scholar of formidable ability and energy: his mammoth Daniel the Prophet is revealed here to be a scholarly destruction of the liberal dating of the book of Daniel. Pusey’s orthodox position on this did not survive the test of time and progress in biblical studies, but he does not deserve to be written off as an obscurantist crank (as Colin Matthew, David Forrester and others have done) because of it.

Pusey was not alone in knowing and loving his Bible intimately, as Larsen’s entertaining pen-portraits make clear. Wiseman argued that the Church cannot teach anything which is contrary to God’s written word, but he meant it literally: it is impossible for the Church to do such a thing, since she has God’s pledge that she will not. Larsen shows how Wiseman revelled in beating Protestants at their own game when it came to use of the Bible, arguing for example that the paralytic who is first forgiven

and then healed by Jesus shows that priestly absolution is ‘not declatory but efficacious’, and that it is catholic, not protestant, Eucharistic theology which most closely adheres to the words of Jesus himself: Jesus said ‘this is my body,’ not ‘this represents my body’.

Even the atheists got in on the act: Bradlaugh, who for many years attempted to sit as an MP without having to take his oath on the Bible, made clear that he did not deny ‘a God’ in general, but specifically the God of the Bible, and peppered his published works with biblical references and quotations which might just as easily have adorned the pages of an orthodox commentary. His close friend Annie Besant stuffed her writings with biblical references, despite condemning it as an ‘indictable book.’

Larsen argues successfully that ‘biblical literacy was the water that most Victorians lived in.’ But if the Victorians were a people of one book, they were also a people of empire and colonial expansion. Carey’s book adopts a similar approach to Larsen’s, inasmuch as its longest section studies the missionary endeavours of the major denominations in turn.

There are important differences of approach, however: Larsen limits himself to Victorian England, whilst Carey specifically focuses on the whole of Great Britain – indeed her goal is to show how religion was a key tool in the quest to define the Empire as ‘Greater Britain’. Although both are scholarly works, Larsen’s is perhaps more accessible to the general reader; Carey’s more explicitly academic and technical, especially when she veers into the more theoretical aspects of the history of colonialism and imperialism (the terms themselves are significant).

Nonetheless, there is much in God’s Empire which is of general appeal, such as the case study of St Augustine’s College, Canterbury; the passage on chaplaincy and the changing role of chaplains in the early days of the colonial churches; and that central section in which Carey examines in turn the missionary activities of Anglicans, Catholics, Evangelical Anglicans, Nonconformists and Presbyterians.

As Carey notes in the Preface, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel is the only large-scale missionary society to have received a full academic history, so much of her material is breaking new ground. She writes in a style which is both full of factual information and (mostly) pleasing to read. Her repeated and unqualified assertion that the Anglican Church is simply a ‘Protestant’ church grates a little.

Nonetheless, God’s Empire is an impressive work, which along with A People of One Book provides valuable new insights into an already crowded field of historical study. ND