The simple faith of Charles Dickens

by
21 December 2017

Charles Dickens is one of the architects of our Christmas traditions. Keith Hooper investigates his faith

Science History Images/Alamy

Celebrity appearance: Charles Dickens gives a public reading from A Christmas Carol on 15 March 1870

Celebrity appearance: Charles Dickens gives a public reading from A Christmas Carol on 15 March 1870

CHARLES DICKENS possessed, through­­out his life, a simple, sincere, and, above all, practical faith. Uninterested in mat­ters of doctrine and petty sec­tarian squabbles, he passionately believed that the task of the Church as a body, and its members, was to live out the example of Christ. This was especially the case with regard to social justice and the plight of the poor. Christianity was not about ritual or formal religious observance, but a matter of individual conscience and attitude of heart, which manifested itself in actions rather than words.

The author’s personal beliefs were rooted in the teaching of the New Testament in general, and in the four Gospels in particular. George Dolby, Dickens’s reading-tours manager, wrote of his “great reverence” towards the Bible: “It was the book of all others he read most and which he took as his one unfailing guide in his life.” In a letter to a clergyman, R. H. Davies (Christmas Eve 1856) the writer states: “There cannot be many men, I believe, who have a more humble veneration for the New Testa­ment, or a more profound awareness of its all-sufficiency, than I have.”

Stan Pritchard/AlamyScrooge: the Christmas stamp designed by Quentin Blake to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol, 1993

Added to this, at the conclusion of his will, Dickens strongly urged his family to adopt his personal position: “My dear children humbly try to guide yourselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man’s narrow construction of its letter here and there.”

Dickens’s positive commitment to the efficacy of the New Testament did not extend to the Old. In corres­ponding with his friend Frank Stone (Monday, 13 December 1858), he writes: “Half the misery and hypo­crisy of the Christian world (as I take it) comes from a stubborn determina­tion to refuse the New Testament as a sufficient guide in itself, and to force the Old Testament into alliance with it.” His reliance upon the New Testa­ment was in keeping with that of the Unitarians, one of only two denom­ina­tions with whom he identified throughout his adult life.

 

ON THE afternoon of Saturday 22 January 1842, the American Mail steam-packet Britannia sailed safely into Boston Harbour, much to the relief of its 86 passengers. The 18-day voyage from Liverpool had been one of the stormiest experienced for years. Before even having the opportunity to disembark, Dickens found himself surrounded by a posse of journalists, all eager to secure an interview for their respec­tive publications.

World History Archive/SuperStockFaith by works: Ignorance and Want presented by a ghost appearing to Scrooge (illustration by John Leech from A Christmas Carol)

That evening, at the Tremont Hotel, he, Catherine, his wife, and her maid, Anne Brown, barely had time to finish their dinner before invitations to various social events began flooding in. Despite all the celebrity attention he received — he had to employ a secretary to assist him with the enormous volume of correspondence that arrived each day — the author found time to meet the city’s leading influential Unitarian, Dr William Ellen Channing. The time they spent together was to have a profound effect on Dickens.

It was not only his personal ac­­quaintance with Channing which attracted the author to Unitarianism. While he was in Boston, it became apparent that nearly all the cultivated men he met belonged to the de­­nomination. He also discovered that a number of Harvard University pro­fessors were Unitarians, including the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who became a friend of Dickens and stayed with him in London. So was John Forster and his friend, the social reformer Dr Southwood Smith.

 

SHORTLY after returning home in July 1842, Dickens, now 30, began attending Essex Street Chapel in the Strand. It was here, in 1774, that the original Unitarian congregation first met, led by a former Church of England clergyman, Theophilus Lind­sey. Unitarian’s beliefs, most noticeably their rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, had started to develop in the 17th century. One of the movement’s founders, John Biddle, published his Twelve Arguments Drawn Out of Scripture in the 1640s. In it, he con­tested, based on his reading of the Greek text of the New Testament, that the Trinitarian argument was not based on scripture.

Dickens, however, was to stay at the Revd Thomas Madge’s Chapel for only a short time. Just nine months after their meeting in Boston, Dr Channing died. Such was his reputa­tion that a memorial service was arranged on 20 November at Little Portland Street Unitarian Chapel. Eager to pay his respects, Dickens went to the service and was so im­­pressed by the Revd Edward Tagart’s tribute and sermon that he decided, along with Catherine and their five children, to join the church. He was to attend the chapel, situated in the West End of London, near his Devon­shire Terrace home, regularly for almost two years.

His departure, in July 1844, co­­incided with the family’s extended visit to Italy. Some 15 years later, and then until his death in 1870, he would occasionally return to hear the sermons of James Martineau, Tagart’s successor.

World History ArchiveChristmas Eve at Mr Wardle’s, from Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, illustrated by Phiz

Despite his decision to leave Little Portland Street, the author was to remain on extremely friendly terms with Tagart until the minister’s death in 1858. There can be no doubt that his attendance at the chapel was considerably influenced by his high regard for its minister. Dickens found many of the Unitarian beliefs compat­ible with his own. As already men­tioned, both believed in a Christ-centred, New Testament faith, which, although falling short of rejecting the Old Testament altogether, viewed its contents as belonging to a previous dispensation. Unitarians were also committed to the principle of faith in action and the cause of social reform.

Dr Channing’s tireless campaign against slavery in the United States exemplified this approach. Dickens described Unitarianism as “the reli­gion that has sympathy for men of every creed and ventures to pass judge­ment on none”. He also appreci­ated their liberal, non-dogmatic, ra­­tional, humanitarian approach, and their rejection of eternal punishment.

Importantly, they shared the writer’s rejection of the doctrine of original sin. Unitarianism, with its practical, sympathetic approach, sat comfortably with Dickens and mir­rored much of his own personal religious ideology.

 

H -D Falkenstein/imageBROKERMarley’s ghost appears to Scrooge; illustration by BozWHILE it would be wrong to charac­terise Dickens’s involvement with Unitarianism as a mere passing fancy, his long-term denominational com­mitment was to the Church of Eng­land, the Established Church. His parents, though somewhat lukewarm in their own faith, were regular church­goers; so, growing up, he at­­tended C of E services in the parishes where his family lived. The church­going habit, cultivated in his child­hood, was to remain with him throughout his adult life.

At the age of 25, within a year of his marriage, having moved to Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, he rented a pew at the popular Foundling Hospital Chapel near by. Two years later, in 1839, his move to Devonshire Terrace rendered his regu­lar attendance impractical, but he still went along to the services at the chapel occasionally.

On moving to Gad’s Hill Place in the late 1850s, where he stayed until his death in 1870, Dickens first attended St Mary’s, Higham, and then the newly built St John’s in Mid-Higham. At the latter, which was closer to his home, he had his own pew in the chancel, which he shared with his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, and his children when they visited.

There is also ample evidence within his writings of the writer’s attending services. In “Our Watering Place” (Reprinted Pieces), he refers to going to Broadstairs Parish Church in the course of his frequent visits to the town; in “City of London Churches” (The Uncommercial Traveller), refer­ence is made to his numerous visits to various churches. He arranged for all his children to be baptised in the Church of England, even when he was going to Unitarian services: when Frank, his fifth child was baptised, Dickens was attending Little Portland Street Unitarian Chapel.

His circle of friends contained several clergymen: the Revd William Harness, the Revd W. H. Brookfield, the Rev­d James White, the Revd Sidney Smith, and the Revd Chauncey Hare Townsend, to whom he dedicated Great Expectations.

 

THEN, as now, the Victorian Church of England contained various groups who held different emphases. For much of the author’s lifetime, two of the most influential were the Evan­gelicals and the Tractarians, also known as the Puseyites, after one of the movement’s leaders, Edward Pusey. Such was the interest they generated that the philosopher John Stuart Mill observed: “What is it that occupies the minds of three-fourths of those in England who care about any public interest or any controversial question? The quarrel between Puseyite and Evangelical.”

Dickens disliked both groups. He took exception to the Evangelical emphasis on the doctrine of original sin and the depravity of man, and was troubled by their insistence on addressing just the perceived spiritual needs of the poor rather than seeking to first alleviate the physical con­ditions they were forced to endure. Also, Dickens vehemently objected to the disproportionate amount of money the Evangelical missionary soci­eties spent overseas while neg­lect­ing the poor at home.

Dickens, with his pronounced liberal Christian views and commit­ment to practical faith, belonged to the road-church stream of the Church of England, which was similar to Unitarianism in its tolerance, lack of doctrinal emphasis, and reli­ance upon the New Testament rather than the Old.

The clearest indications of his sym­pathies towards the Broad Church are to be found in a letter to John Forster regarding A. P. Stanley’s biography of the influential early Victorian broad churchman, Thomas Arnold (Head­master of Rugby School). In it, Dickens writes: “I respect and rever­ence his memory beyond all expres­sion. I must have that book. Every sentence that you quote from it is the text-book of my faith.”

 

Newberry Library/SuperStockFrontispiece: Mr Fezziwig’s Ball, from A Christmas Carol, illustrated by John LeechDESPITE the religious indifference of his parents, Dickens’s family home life as a child was not without Chris­tian influence, as we have seen. It was also during his formative years that he began his lifetime commitment to personal prayer. Visiting his friend Lady Lovelace just before she died, he confided to her that, throughout his adult life, he prayed twice daily.

At the time of his childhood in Chatham, Dickens’s religious experi­ence was not limited to the home environment and church services. In keeping with the educational system of the period, both schools that he attended encouraged Christian observ­­ance. At his first school in Rome Lane, the six-year-old, as reflected in Paul Dombey’s education at Mrs Pipchin’s (Dombey and Son), prayed and read, or listened to the Bible being read, daily. The same pattern would have continued at William Giles’s school.

In the autobiographical account of Paul Dombey, a pupil at Dr Blimber’s, he is asked to recite the first chapter of Ephesians in front of the class. This is the very same text as Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit read in a “horrible tract” while a child. From this, it would appear likely that the writer took part in scriptural recita­tion at school and remembered this passage.

Another positive Chris­tian influ­ence on young Charles from his Chatham days was his schoolmaster, William Giles, and his family. Giles took a personal interest in his bright, in­­­telligent pupil. Such was the im­­pression that he made upon him that, some 27 years later, Dickens formed part of the committee set up to celebrate the schoolmaster’s 50th birthday. He also had previously, in August 1838, sent Giles a copy of every book he had written up to that point (Sketches By Boz, Sunday Under Three Heads, Sketches of Young Couples, and The Pickwick Papers).

 

OF ALL the members of his family, it was his eldest sister, Fanny, who possessed the most fervent faith. Having met her husband, Henry Burnett, at the Royal Academy of Music (he had taken the lead role
in Dickens’s operetta, The Village Coqu­ettes), she moved to Manchester where they took up responsibility for the music at Rusholme Road Congre­ga­tional Chapel.

At no time was her sincere spir­ituality more evident than in her long illness, when she was suffering from tuberculosis. Dickens was with her shortly before she died in August 1848, and he told John Forster how calm and happy she seemed as a result of her complete reliance upon “the mediation of Christ”. She told Charles how she “felt sure that they would meet again in a better world”.

 

THE sincerity of Dickens’s faith was clearly demonstrated with regard to his children. In October 1861, when his son Henry (Harry) left home to go to Cambridge University, Dickens wrote to him: “As your brothers have gone away one by one, I have written to each of them what I am now going to write to you. I most strongly and affectionately impress upon you the priceless value of the New Testament and the study of that book as the one unfailing guide in life. Deeply re­­spect­ing, and bowing down before the character of Our Saviour, you cannot go very wrong, and will al­­ways preserve at heart a true spirit of veneration and humility.”

Two months later, he wrote a similar letter to his youngest son, Edward, who was emigrating to Australia: “I put a New Testament among your books because it is the best book that ever was or will be known in the world, and because it teaches you the best lessons by which any human creature, who tries to be truthful and faithful to duty can possibly be guided. . .”

 

World History Archive/AlamyUplifted: Bob Cratchit carries Tiny Tim, in an illustration by Harry Furniss for the same bookON THE day before he died, in what was quite pos­sibly his last-ever letter, Dickens wrote: “I have always striven to express veneration for the life and lessons of Our Saviour, because I feel it; and because I rewrote that history for my children — every one of whom knew it from having it repeated to them — long before they could read, and almost as soon as they could speak.”

This history was entitled The Life of Our Lord. He started it in June 1846, while at the Villa Rosemont, Laus­anne, in Switzerland and fin­ished it at some point three years later. It is a child-like account of the life of Jesus, based on St Luke’s Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. The author insisted that the nar­rative, designed to recapture the essence of Christianity for his children, remain pri­vate. In fact, it was not published until it was serial­ised in the Daily Mail in March 1934.

Dickens’s purpose in writing the account for his children is described in the book’s opening passage: “MY DEAR CHILDREN, I am very an­­xious that you should know some­thing about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable, as he was. And as he is now in Heaven, where we hope to go, and all to meet each other after we are dead, and there be happy always together, you never can think what a good place Heaven is, without knowing who he was and what he did.”

 

IN ADDITION to effectively retelling the story of Jesus’s life, he was also able to introduce to his children two central aspects of his own beliefs: the necessity for faith to be shown through works and the Christian responsibility of individuals and society to care for the poor. With reference to the former, he informed them that “people who have done good all their lives long, will go to heaven after they are dead”, and at the close of the book he wrote in bold letters: “REMEMBER! — It is Chris­tianity TO DO GOOD always.”

Within the opening section of “Chapter the Third”, he explains his views about how God sees the poor, and how he hoped his children would treat them: “That there might be some good men to go about with Him, teaching the people, Jesus Christ chose Twelve poor men to be his companions. . . He chose them from among Poor Men, in order that the Poor might know — always after that, in all years to come — that heaven was made for them as well as for the rich and that God makes no difference between those who wear good clothes and those who go bare­­foot and in rags.

“The most miserable, the most ugly, deformed, wretched creatures that live, will be bright Angels in Heaven if they are good here on earth. Never forget this, when you are grown up, never be proud or unkind my dears to any poor man, woman, or child. If they are bad, think that they would have been better, if they had had kind friends and good homes, and had been better taught.”

 

BESIDES encouraging his chil­dren to read the New Testament, and having written for them their own personal Gospel narrative, Dickens also actively encouraged them to emulate his daily habit of prayer. His daughter Mamie remembered his “writ­ing special prayers for us as soon as we could speak”.

In the previously mentioned letter to his son Henry, he wrote: “I impress upon you the habit of saying a Chris­tian prayer every night and morning. This has stood by me all through my life.”

To Edward he offered similar ad­­vice: “Never abandon the whole­some practice of saying your own prayers, night and morning. I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it.”

 

This is an edited extract from Charles Dickens: Faith, angels and the poor. Text copyright © 2017 Keith Hooper. Published by Lion Hudson, 2017. Used with permission of Lion Hudson (£9.99; CT Bookshop £9).

Forthcoming Events

16-18 February 2018
Church Times Festival of Faith & Literature

Our literary festival with a theological slant in Bloxham, Oxfordshire. Speakers include Francis Spufford, Ruth Valerio, Eve Poole, Mark Oakley, James Runcie and many others. Find out more

5-6 May 2018
Church Times Festival of Poetry
With Sarum College, Salisbury. More details coming soon - register your interest here

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

This January, non-subscribers can read up to thirty articles for free. (You will need to register.)