Much more than nothing at all — Henry Scott Holland

08 June 2018

Michael Wheeler celebrates Henry Scott Holland, whose centenary falls this year

Hilary Morgan/Alamy

Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918), from The Strand, 1894

Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918), from The Strand, 1894

A CENTURY after his death, Henry Scott Holland is remembered mainly for some familiar words of comfort (“Death is nothing at all. . .”), and a rousing hymn (“Judge eternal, throned in splendour”). He deserves better, being the most imaginative Tractarian theologian and social reformer of his generation, whose words and works helped to define “liberal Catholicism”, the strongest strand of Anglican tradition.

Born on 27 January 1847, young “Scotty” enjoyed a happy and privileged childhood, was popular at Eton (where he was known as “Monkey”, or “Link”), and achieved the highest honours at Balliol College, Oxford, where he also rowed in the college eight. He was ordained deacon in 1872, and priest in 1874, taught for 14 years as a Senior Student of Christ Church, became a Canon of St Paul’s (where his sobriquet of “Scotus” throws light on an early friendship with Gerard Manley Hopkins), and was finally appointed Regius Professor of Divinity back at Oxford, where he died in the last year of the First World War.

Scott Holland’s Christian formation took place at Balliol, where he admired the beauty of Jowett’s preaching in chapel but described one sermon of 1869 as “just Platonism flavoured with a little Christian charity: Christianity is gutted by him”. He was taught by the idealist philosopher T. H. Green, and formed a friendship with R. L. Nettleship. John Heidt suggests that Nettleship “drove Holland towards an expansive and liberal outlook”, while his other close friend, Stephen Freemantle, “urged him into high Anglicanism, confession, and ascetic discipline”.

Holland’s contribution to the theological thought of his day, Heidt concludes, was “to demonstrate both intellectually and in his personality that such opposites were interdependent, and that a rigid orthodoxy was the necessary foundation for a free and liberal spirit”.

HOLLAND summarised his incarnational theology in 1870: “The central fact of Christianity is not the Divinity of a man, but the Humanity of a God; not life out of life, so much as life out of death.” Two years later, he declared that resident tutors at Oxford “ought to get woke up to a sense of life and death and the old ‘primal sympathies’”, an echo of the “Immortality” ode by Wordsworth, whom he venerated.


For Holland, primal sympathy leads to social awareness, and thus to action. In his view, “You cannot believe in the incarnation and not be concerned about drains.”

“There is something seething in the London slums,” he wrote in 1872, “which it will take all our energies to ‘grapple with’. . . It is the one thing set before us to do in this age, and it has all to be done — a new temper lies hid there, a new religious want.”

Whereas Mary Ward’s fictional Robert Elsmere was finally to lose his faith in trying to respond to that want, Scott Holland thrived in street preaching in Hoxton. He was good at inspiring others, as when this admirer of Professor Ruskin called upon the young men at Oxford to “come and be squires of East London.”

When, in 1884, Gladstone recommended him as a Canon of St Paul’s, he became further involved in the East End. C. F. G Masterman considered that the Christian Social Union — which Holland founded — was, in 1889, “almost alone in proclaiming the injustice of present society”.

Five years later, Holland co-founded Goodwill, a kind of national parish magazine, and then, in 1896, Commonwealth, a vehicle for his social thought. In 1909, for example, he wrote on the Poor Law report, pointing to the failure of the old deterrent system and declaring that slum-dwellers were owed honour, precisely because “they are poor, and weak, and helpless.”

ANGLICANS are often quick to recognise such outward and visible achievements in a clerical career but rather slower to acknowledge the significance of an individual’s intellectual contribution to the life of the Church — which, in Holland’s case, was just as significant.

He was “passionately of his age”, as Masterman put it, not only in terms of social ills but also of the march of mind. Consider, for example, his essay “Faith”, in Lux Mundi (1889, ed. Gore), a collection that attempted to address “new needs, new points of view, new questions” by “servants of the Catholic Creed and Church”.

Holland took up the theme in the opening essay. “New knowledge,” he wrote, “new experience, far from expunging the elements of faith, make ever fresh demands upon it; they constitute perpetual appeals to it to enlarge its trust, to expand its original audacity.”

The advance of secular knowledge, he argued, was for faith “an acquired gain”, and our faith must be “a faith of today”. In a comment that speaks to our own generation, he goes on, “the urgency, the peril of the hour, lies, not so much in the novelty, or force, of the pressure that is brought to bear against faith, as in the behaviour of faith itself under the pressure.”

The clarity of Scott Holland’s definition of faith in the essay reflects his skill as a preacher. “Faith”, he writes, “is an elemental energy of the soul,” and the one basis of all faith is in “the relationship of sons to a Father, Who has poured out into us, and still pours, the vigour of His own life”.

Faith “opens out fresh aspects of the good Father; it uncovers new treasures of His wisdom: therefore, for faith, it is an ever-mounting ladder, by which it draws nearer and nearer, spirit to spirit, heart to heart.”

If the last phrase reminds us of Newman, so too does Holland’s emphasis on the “historic experience of the Catholic community”: a community of faith. Unlike Newman, however, Holland continued to flourish in that part of the Catholic community which is the Church of England.

SCOTT HOLLAND made things happen. He was instrumental in founding the Church of England Purity Society, the Christ Church Mission in Poplar, and the Oxford Mission to Calcutta; and served as chairman of the committee overseeing the Maurice Hostel, Hoxton, for which he worked indefatigably.

In Oxford, he took an active interest in the founding of Lady Margaret Hall (the second Oxford college for women), and worked with Edward King and others on the foundation of St Stephen’s House.

His belief in the value of communities, exhibited at St Saviour’s, Hoxton, also informed his involvement with the foundation of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, which is commemorated to this day in the Scott Holland Lectures.

Holland made things happen. He also made his contemporaries think.

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton, and chairman of Gladstone’s Library. His books include The Old Enemies: Catholic and Protestant in nineteenth-century English culture and St John and the Victorians.

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