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Surveying rebellious spirits

09 October 2007

James Garrard looks at the queries and crises of honest doubters

Crisis of Doubt: Honest faith in nineteenth-century England
Timothy Larsen

IT IS a truth universally acknowledged that the 19th century was marked by a crisis of faith. Timothy Larsen does not deny the importance of this theme, but shows very neatly how it can be wrongly seen as a summary of the state of religious belief and practice then.

The greater part of his book consists of studies of individuals, all well known for their antagonism to Christianity, who later reconverted. Larsen puts the psychological explanation of conversion, loss of faith, and reconversion very well into context, showing that it is inconsistent to disregard the arguments of one who discovers or rediscovers religious faith, without doing the same when concerning what made a person a feminist, a Marxist, or whatever.

Those who reconverted were vulnerable to lazy criticism from former secularist friends, because they had often had strict Evangelical upbringings, and were thought to be returning to comfort, or even to have lost their sanity.

More typical and illuminating is the fact that these reconverts increasingly saw secularism as merely negative and destructive, and, crucially, felt that it offered no basis for morality or making ethical choices.

John Henry Gordon denounced secularism as “just-what-you-like-ism”. F. R. Young (a leading light in the London Secular Society in the 1850s) was so taken by the question “What think ye of Christ?” that it began his progress back to belief. William Hone created his own version of a Jefferson Bible by removing all the accounts of Jesus he could not believe, such as the miracles — and remained fascinated by Christ’s personality and character.

Larsen shows how reconverts were often led away from materialism by re-engaging with the realm of the spirit in a form decoupled from Christianity. Young was very taken with spiritualism and the “doctrine of immortality”. He rejected the verbal infallibility and plenary inspiration of scripture, but sounded a warning that still has force today: “You may . . . pick and choose your ways through these [Gospel] narratives, taking what is consistent with your notion, and rejecting all that is against it. But in doing so, you have, as a result, not the Christ which the four evangelists have given us, but an eclectic Christ, the Christ of your own arbitrary making.”

The favourite reading of the extraordinary Thomas Cooper (1805-92) was Byron, before his conversion to Primitive Methodism at 14. His experience of religious discipline (an unsupportive superintendent) “soured my own mind against religious professions, and raised within me a rebellious spirit”. He was soon leading the Leicester Chartists.

Incarcerated in the early 1840s for fomenting a riot, Cooper wrote a teach-yourself-Hebrew guide. He could barely believe that anyone could hold traditional Christian beliefs without hypocrisy. When he reconverted, he described D. F. Strauss’s Life of Jesus (famously translated by George Eliot) as the most decisive fact in his move into unbelief.

Cooper’s return to faith exhibits many features shared with others discussed in this book. He became convinced of the intellectual poverty of deism, but fell short of affirming orthodox Christianity. He did not eschew doubts, but made his stand on the balance of probabilities.

It was a stock view among those who remained freethinkers that those who reconverted did so in sudden emotion, and not as the fruit of reflection. This is demonstrably false. Cooper lectured on awkward subjects such as design, suffering, and his continuing disbelief in endless punishment. What finally convinced him of the faith were arguments from design, and his understanding of Christ’s perfect moral nature as a door leading into the whole realm of orthodox Christology.

Larsen’s book is a very interesting one. It is, perhaps, a little untypical of a monograph, taking the odd well-aimed potshot at modern-day naysayers of the Christian faith. But it is all the more refreshing for that.

The Revd Dr Garrard is Warden of Readers for the diocese of Blackburn.

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