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Hopes and fears in Hyde Park

03 January 2012

Michael Wheeler looks into the ‘crystal palace’

Religion and the Great Exhibition of 1851
Geoffrey Cantor
Oxford University Press £70
Church Times Bookshop £63

EMBLAZONED on the frontispiece of the official catalogue of the Great Exhibition were words from Psalm 24 in the Book of Common Prayer: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is.” On the evidence of this new book, Prince Albert might rather have adapted some familiar words from the carol: “The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.”

Geoffrey Cantor, Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Leeds, shows how anxious many Christians were during the run-up to this momentous exhibition: shades of Belshazzar’s feast or the tower of Babel? monument to Mammon? honeypot for dodgy (Roman Catholic) foreigners? But many were hopeful, too, as Paxton’s glass cathedral, complete with nave and transepts, rose up in the park, to be filled with God’s light, a sign of (divinely willed) human progress and even of the Millennium, when all nations shall be gathered together.

Contradiction and paradox ruled, as commentators from a wide variety of Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Dissenting traditions, as well as Jews and secularists, tried to make sense of all that accumu­lated stuff from Britain and over­seas. When it was all over, the fears had largely melted away, although the hopes for spiritual revival re­mained largely unfulfilled.

Today, we marvel at the energy and enterprise of the Victorians, whose labours laid the foundations for our own materialistic genera­tion. We also think of the 19th century as the last great religious age, shaped by the Evangelical move­ment and polished by the Tractarians. The Great Exhibition represents a site — perhaps the site — in which the celebration of material progress and Christian otherworldliness bump up against each other awkwardly in the age of steam and Empire.

Of the many sermons delivered on 4 May 1851, the Sunday after the grand official opening, more than 50 were published. Cantor has read them, along with numerous articles in the heavyweight religious press of the day. He painstakingly takes us through these documents, theme by theme, denomination by denomina­tion, and chooses some evocative plates to illustrate his text. Special­ist scholars will be grateful to him — and the cover price indicates the book’s destination: the college library.

Professor Wheeler is the author of St John and the Victorians (Cambridge University Press, November 2011).

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