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Faith in the power of fiction

by
01 September 2010

In the month of the bicentenary of Elizabeth Gaskell’s birth, Ann Peart, another Unitarian, examines her religious convictions

Although other notable people with Unitarian connections, such as her friends Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, are also commem­orated in the Abbey, it is extremely unusual for a woman who spent all her life as a Unitarian to be hon­oured in this way.

The timing of the dedication, im­mediately after evensong, would have pleased her, for she enjoyed attending this service. She often found it easier to feel more “devo­tional” when attending an Anglican church rather than a Unitarian chapel, and especially loved the beauty of evensong, which contained fewer practices to which she could not assent, and where “there is no­thing except the doxology to offend one’s sense of truth,” she wrote in a letter to her oldest daughter.

Of her religious beliefs, she wrote very little, with no mention of Unitarianism in her fiction, and only occasional references in her letters.

Of her religious beliefs, she wrote very little, with no mention of Unitarianism in her fiction, and only occasional references in her letters.

HER father was, for a short time, quite a radical Unitari­an minister, but she was brought up by her aunt in Knuts­ford, where they attended an old chapel that had originally been Pres­byterian, but, by the 19th cen­tury, had became Unitarian in out­look.

Like Cross Street Chapel in central Manchester, where her husband was co-minister, there was often little emphasis on dogma in its worship or sermons. Because Unitarian congre­gations, then as now, contained mem­­bers with a wide spectrum of be­liefs, emphasis on specific doc­trines could lead to division and dis­agreement.

Gaskell preferred sermons that were spiritually uplifting rather than on doctrine, about which she felt one could never be certain. In a letter to a friend she wrote: “Oh for some really spiritual devotional preaching in­stead of controversy about doctrines — about which I am more & more certain we can never be certain in this world.” But she took seriously the duty to think about her faith, and to engage her reason as well as her aesthetic sense.

It was important to her to be clear about her beliefs. She followed the teach­ing of Jesus both in its moral precepts and also in the command to address prayers to God alone. This she took to mean God the Father, and she would not therefore address prayer to Christ or Jesus. Neverthe­less, Jesus Christ, although not equal to his father, was still her saviour, a tender and loving presence in her life.

Her remark that she was not a “humanitarian” has been misinter­preted by some; by this she meant that her Christology was Arian rather than Socinian, and that she regarded Christ as more than just a good human being.

The prayers she wrote in the diary she kept of the infancy of her eldest daughter are almost all addressed to God as Father or Lord, and some­times end with “through our Lord Jesus Christ”, a phrase found only occasionally in Unitarian chapels today.

Many of her prayers in the diary are for the safety and happiness of her daughters (she gave birth to seven children, but only four sur­vived infancy). She also prayed for patience and strength equal to the task: “Help my ignorance O Lord strengthen my good purpose & pre­serve a due sense of my holy trust. . . And yet if I do right in endeavour­ing, the Lord will bless me and her, and lead her right at last, and forgive her mother’s errors.”

Many of her prayers in the diary are for the safety and happiness of her daughters (she gave birth to seven children, but only four sur­vived infancy). She also prayed for patience and strength equal to the task: “Help my ignorance O Lord strengthen my good purpose & pre­serve a due sense of my holy trust. . . And yet if I do right in endeavour­ing, the Lord will bless me and her, and lead her right at last, and forgive her mother’s errors.”

THE emphasis in both her prayers and her other writings is on God as loving father, and, unlike many other Protestants of the time, she did not wish her children to be brought up in the fear of hell or damnation.

This universalism, with its stress on love rather than judgement, was a hallmark of the Unitarian commun­ity, but it did not absolve Gaskell from the duty to study and seek the truth. Rather, it encouraged her to respect the experiences and beliefs of people different from her.

Family prayers were, of course, a daily occurrence in the Gaskell house­hold, often led by Elizabeth. When the children were small, she used to read the Bible, and have prayers first with the household servants and then with the children. At that early age, she did not en­courage them to go to chapel.

Although the household was headed by a Unitarian minister, it does not appear to have been overly pious. When, years later, one of her daughters showed an interest in Roman Catholicism, influenced by Cardinal Manning, William gave her a course of instruction in Unitarian beliefs, and Elizabeth gave the im­pression that her children had not been brought up with a detailed knowledge of Unitarian doctrines or arguments.

Gaskell considered that after mar­riage, her main duty was to be a wife and mother. Although she increas­ingly left Manchester to visit friends and relatives, or to travel to London or abroad, she always made careful arrangements for the house­hold, and would frequently take one or more of the children with her.

She seemed ambivalent about be­ing a minister’s wife, and does not feature significantly among the wo­men of Cross Street Chapel con­gre­gation, nor to have spent much time visit­ing the poor and sick. She did, however, take an interest in indi­vidual cases, including prison visits.

She clearly had some first-hand knowledge of the lives of the very poorest cellar-dwellers in Manches­ter, although she also gained infor­ma­tion from the visits of her hus­band and other Unitarians. Her main commitment was to the Sun­day school, and she entertained some of her pupils at her home.

Much of her social life involved the middle-class families in the con­gregation, and dinners and other vis­its were often described in her diary — although she did not see the point of chapel tea-parties.

Much of her social life involved the middle-class families in the con­gregation, and dinners and other vis­its were often described in her diary — although she did not see the point of chapel tea-parties.

WHEN she saw the need, she was ready to help. During the cotton famine, when the raw material was embargoed as a result of the Amer­ican Civil War, Gaskell played an im­portant part in setting up and super­vising sewing schools to provide both part-time work and education for the mill girls. She was also active in raising money for those out of work, espe­cially the older women.

The long hours — from nine in the morn­ing until after seven at night — that were spent during the winter of 1862 on this relief work led to her col­lapse, and possibly ag­gra­­vated the heart con­dition that brought about her death three years later. They show Gaskell’s re­li­gious pri­ori­­ties: not doc­trines, but con­cern for the situa­tion of her fel­low human beings — a “humanitar­ian”, not in the Christological sense, but in the world in which she lived.

A talk and a celebration of Eliza­beth Gaskell’s life and reli­gious views takes place on 12 September, at 12.30 p.m., at Cross Street Chapel, Man­­chester. The speaker is the Revd Dr Ann Peart, Vice-president of the Unitarian Gen­eral Assem­bly and re­tired Princi­pal of Unitar­ian College Man­chester.

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