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Steeped in the scriptures

by
27 June 2011

Victorians of all kinds knew their Bible, says Michael Wheeler

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THE jacket illustration is based on a splendid portrait of Mr Gladstone reading the lessons at Hawarden church. This, together with the book’s subtitle, suggests that we are in for a quatercentenary study on the pervasive influence of the King James Bible on Victorian culture, at a time when the status of the “Authorised Version” was at its zenith. In reality, however, the Grand Old Man hardly figures at all in a book that downplays those eminent Victorians who are most frequently cited as great readers of the Bible: Carlyle, Macaulay, Westcott, Lightfoot, Ruskin, Tennyson, and Holman Hunt get only five page-references between them in the index.

Timothy Larsen chooses instead to focus on a range of Christian and non-Christian traditions and positions in 19th-century Britain, and on representative figures who often wrote and spoke in opposition to the doctrines and practices of the Established Church of England. Anglo-Catholics are represented by Pusey, Roman Catholics by Wiseman, atheists by Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, Methodists by Catherine Booth and William Cooke, liberal Anglicans by Florence Nightingale, Unitarians by Mary Carpenter, Quakers by Elizabeth Fry, agnostics by Huxley, Evangelical Anglicans by Josephine Butler, and “Orthodox Old Dissent” by Spurgeon.

The author teaches at Wheaton College, Illinois, and this random sequence — the chapters are arranged in the order in which they were researched — reflects a nervousness about suggesting a hierarchy of significance. Similarly, Larsen was “committed from the beginning” to ensuring that at least half of his case-studies were women.

Setting aside the vexed question of political correctness in American Academia, one can say that the individual chapters, designed to stand alone, are lively and informative. Larsen engages our interest by unsettling our preconceptions. The assumption, for example, that Anglo-Catholic worship “exalts the altar at the expense of the pulpit” is not borne out in Pusey’s case. As a conservative and deeply learned Old Testament scholar, Pusey not only engaged with liberal, critical scholarship, but would sometimes cite practitioners of the Higher Criticism approvingly.

Similarly, a Protestant assumption that the first Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster would not have been a keen student of the Bible is exploded when one reads Wiseman’s voluminous writings on the subject: he was a “Bible man his whole life”.

The paradoxes thicken when it comes to the antis. When attacking Christianity and the Bible, Bradlaugh frequently used biblical language that would seem esoteric to the general reader today. Many of Huxley’s metaphors and analogies were biblical, and he tended to recast his opponents as biblical characters: the Duke of Argyll was Balaam, William Booth the Salvationist was Simon Magus, and Comte was Samuel, or sometimes Moses.

Huxley’s comments on the Bible as part of the core curriculum in schools infuriated the atheists:

Take the Bible as a whole; make the severest deductions which fair criticism can dictate for shortcomings and positive errors; eliminate, as a sensible lay-teacher would do, if left to himself, all that it is not desirable for children to occupy themselves with; and there still remains in this old literature a vast residuum of moral beauty and grandeur. And then consider the great historical fact that, for three centuries, this book has been woven into the life of all that is best and noblest in English history; that it has become the national epic of Britain, and is as familiar to noble and simple, from John-o’-Groats House to Land’s End.

Take the Bible as a whole; make the severest deductions which fair criticism can dictate for shortcomings and positive errors; eliminate, as a sensible lay-teacher would do, if left to himself, all that it is not desirable for children to occupy themselves with; and there still remains in this old literature a vast residuum of moral beauty and grandeur. And then consider the great historical fact that, for three centuries, this book has been woven into the life of all that is best and noblest in English history; that it has become the national epic of Britain, and is as familiar to noble and simple, from John-o’-Groats House to Land’s End.

Huxley’s views are not dissimilar to those that we are currently being fed by the media in this 400th-anniversary year.

Huxley’s specific point about expurgating parts of the Bible for younger readers was also central to Florence Nightingale’s thinking when she corresponded with Jowett of Balliol. Larsen’s chapter on the Lady with the Lamp brings to light recent research that shows just how learned a reader of the Bible she was, annotating her own copy in several modern languages, New Testament Greek, and occasionally Hebrew. Indeed, it is the sheer weight of biblical knowledge that these Victorians shared which gives one pause. How are today’s educa­tionists to remedy a situation in which many British undergraduates in the humanities have not heard of Moses?

Professor Wheeler has curated the current exhibition at Winchester Cathedral (until 3 October) to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

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