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Religious treasure in the attic

11 January 2019

The top floor of a library in Nottingham is an Aladdin’s cave of theological books. Pat Ashworth goes to browse


The studio

The studio

STAFF at Bromley House Library, in Nottingham, one of the few surviving subscription libraries in the country, are considering the future of its large theology section of more than 2000 books.

Many have not been borrowed for decades, which has prompted the staff to consider whether that indicates a decline of interest in the subject, or simply that their present location in the building’s attic is too much of a climb for members.

The library, founded in 1816, is one of the city’s hidden treasures: an oasis of calm in a four-storey Georgian townhouse off a noisy thoroughfare near the Old Market Square. Three clergymen, one banker, and two doctors formed the original committee of six; so the clerical influence was strong.

The subject of what they bought and how the shelves reflect the changing identity and spirituality of the city fascinates Steve Bates, a library member who is looking at every book in the collection with a view to assessing its importance.

Theology moved up from the wing of the library to the attic — the location of the first photographic studio in the Midlands in 1841 — in the 1950s, becoming separated from philosophy in the process. The books are catalogued and shelved by date: the higher the number, the more recent the book.


THE collection starts with the foundational works of the church Fathers of the early centuries: Iranaeus, Lactantius, and the rest, “reflecting the education of the largely Anglican founders of the library”, Mr Bates says, also noting the solid presence of Bede, in Latin.

“These are the big hitters. It’s a very much more hierarchical and traditional religion, and the clergy were educated in it and in the unspoken assumptions — which is why they got so shook up later.”

Books such as these would have been a resource for clergy who were writing sermons. There is a certainty about them, an unshakeable faith and airy confidence in assertions such as one in a book that I open at random, Of the Testimonies of Poets and Philosophers: “How little the precepts of philosophers contribute to true wisdom, which is found in religion alone. . . It is divine instruction alone which bestows wisdom.”

Here are Bentley’s eight sermons, the earliest (on atheism) delivered in 1691, and — for Mr Bates, a particular delight — the 13 volumes of the discourses of the Scottish clergyman Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), illustrative of the different stages in his ministry.

“Dear old Mr Chalmers,” Mr Bates says with affection, “he’s talking to his contemporaries about issues that are particularly relevant to what was happening in Nottingham, where industry was burgeoning, like: when you’re running a factory and making all this money, how do you distribute it fairly? what are Christians saying in this boom­ing city, where a lot of money is being made and spent?”

The growth of the manufacturing industry meant massive changes in the city, particularly in the lace trade, in the mid-19th century, when self-made men such as Jesse Boot and John Player rose to prominence. “Sermons like these are obviously being read by people here in an industrial environment, and at a time of huge political and social radicalisation and ferment of ideas,” Mr Bates says.

BROMLEY HOUSE LIBRARYThe main reading room

IN THE light of the early-19th-century debates on Newman, Tractarianism, and the rest, there is a growing interest in doctrine evident from these shelves, too, in works such as Harold E. Brown’s 850-page exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, and particularly in books of new criticism by German theo­logians.

George Eliot translated David Friedrich Strauss’s critical Life of Jesus (not in this collection), leading Mr Bates to ponder: “In provincial Middle England, Middlemarch, what are the clergy buying and reading? What are their responses?”

As scientific study expanded, particularly geology and biology, and Charles Darwin prepared to launch what Mr Bates describes as his “nuclear weapon”, our eyes stray to titles by the likes of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a natural scientist, explorer, archaeologist, and author of The Record of the Rocks. “You can see people here struggling for answers, reading people like Sir William Hamilton, who were trying to say: ‘Yes, there is a God, a God we can relate to; but we are people, and God is God, and we can’t buy into the more traditional Christianity.’”

There is a fat and fascinating record of a meeting of the Church Congress held in Nottingham in 1871, which more than 3000 people attended. One paper in particular, on “the present duty of the Church in regard to the State”, expresses the spirit of the times and demonstrates the growing gap between rich and poor and the dangers in disestablishment:

“While those rich towns might not see it, the poor would be the first to suffer if the Church of England were stripped of its endowments. . . In cities and pauperised rural parishes, the voluntary system is an entire failure. . . How is it that if any religious building lifts its head in a poor mining or manufacturing district, it is generally built by the establishment and not the Liberationist party?”

There were also calls at the meet­ing for “energetic resistance and without delay” to “the attempt that is being made to eliminate from the education of the country all that is distinctive in religious teaching”.

Nottingham was chosen to host the meeting because of the number of rooms available and the city’s reputation for hospitality — and, perhaps, the spirit of openness to new ideas which is evident from these shelves. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. Scanning the books from this and the later period, my eye is drawn to the two volumes of Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, published in 1896.

It is stirring stuff from the founder of Cornell University. He pleads:

“I simply try to aid in letting the light of historical truth into that decaying mass of outworn thought which attaches the modern world to mediaeval concepts of Christianity and which still lingers among us — a most serious barrier to religion and morals, and a menace to the whole normal evolution of society.

“For behind this barrier also, the flood is rapidly rising — the flood of increased knowledge and new thought; and this barrier also, though honeycombed and in many places thin, creates a danger — danger of a sudden breaking away, distressing and calamitous, sweeping before it not only outworn creeds and noxious dogmas, but cherished principles and ideas, and even wrenching out the most precious religious and moral foundations of the whole social and political fabric.”

BROMLEY HOUSE LIBRARYThe hallway at Bromley House Library

MR BATES is attempting to categorise the collection in terms such as Apologia, Reactions to Changing Culture, War and Conflict — the last category of particular interest because of the small number of books: about 25.

Library staff suggest that the conflict between science and faith brought about by Enlightenment thinking was reaffirmed after the senseless casualties of the First World War, when attempts were made either to reaffirm the faith or corroborate it with scientific thought, and there is a period of silence reflected in the lack of acquisitions.

“What you feel from this point, after the war, is that there’s been an earthquake,” Mr Bates says. “The story’s not working any more. We’ve lost millions of soldiers in four years, and it almost hurt too much: what does it all mean; what can it ever mean? When you had one man die in your parish in a week, that was one thing; when you had many in a week, they would doubtless look at you and leave the unspoken question hanging in the air.” There were 13,435 identified Nottinghamshire fatalities in that war.

Books such as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh, later Lord, Dowding’s The Dark Star — one of four explorations into life after death by the Battle of Britain commander — and others by the padre and poet Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (“Wood­bine Willie”) were popular in their day. Dowding in particular, Mr Bates reflects, “sought to bring the dead to life; to give two episodes of global war a higher meaning and purpose”.

Later acquisitions to the collection demonstrate this continuous engagement with contemporary thought. I notice Christopher Hitchens’s case against organised religion, God Is Not Great: How God poisons everything, in the final set of shelves.

“It’s a remarkably diverse collection,” library staff say. “Treatises on world faiths such as Confucianism and Zoroastrianism stand alongside the Christian faith’s interaction with evolution, astronomy, and Nazism, as well as personal accounts of the nature of love, marriage, and death.”

It may leave the attics and rejoin Philosophy on shelves downstairs — a move that would meet with Mr Bates’s approval (and save the legs of the 1600 members). In the mean time, the library is giving the collection a boost by highlighting some of its hidden gems, and by continuing to unravel its mysteries.

Bromley House Library costs £104 a year to join. On Angel Street in central Nottingham, it is open Monday to Saturday: 0115 947 3134; ww.bromleyhouse.org.

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