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Thy Kingdom come on earth

by
22 April 2022

Ian Bradley celebrates the life of F. D. Maurice, who died 150 years ago this month

Antiqua Print Gallery/Alamy

Obituary portrait of the Revd F. D. Maurice from The Illustrated London News, 1872

Obituary portrait of the Revd F. D. Maurice from The Illustrated London News, 1872

FOR ME, Frederick Denison Maurice — the 150th anniversary of whose death fell on 1 April — is the greatest ever British theologian. His intellectual brilliance and breadth, expressed in nearly 40 books, ranging from biblical exegesis through Christology to eschatology, was combined with a deep pastoral concern and active commitment to social and political reform.

A pioneer Christian Socialist, he once remarked that he learned more theology in the wards of Guy’s Hospital, London, during his ten years as chaplain there than from all the books in his study at King’s College, where he was Professor of Theology.

Born in 1805, in Suffolk, where his father was a Unitarian minister, he became an Anglican and was ordained deacon in 1834 and priest a year later. Although he forsook the denomination in which he had been reared, he never lost some of the central tenets of Unitarianism, notably its conception of God as a loving father and its association with political radicalism. He was attracted by the broad, inclusive nature of Anglicanism, and by the capacity of an Established Church to spiritualise national life.

 

MAURICE’s first significant work, The Kingdom of Christ (published in 1838), asserted the headship of Christ over all humanity, whereby all people are incorporated into God’s family and held in divine love. Its focus is strongly incarnational: Christ is to be found everywhere — “in the shop and in the marriage feast, wherever we go, whatever we are about”.

Maurice’s belief that co-operation rather than competition should inform all human relationships underlay his Christian Socialism, which was also informed by the emphasis on sacrifice, and especially the sacrifice of self for the sake of others and the common good, which he saw as “the doctrine of the Bible”, at the heart of the mind and being of God and the life and death of Christ.

In 1853, he was dismissed from his chairs at King’s College — where he was Professor of English Literature and History, as well as of Theology — for his apparent denial, in his Theological Essays, of the doctrine of eternal punishment. Challenging the prevailing Evangelical belief in an everlasting hell, he argued that God created human beings not to reward or punish them, but to give them eternal life.

 

FOR Maurice, the key to understanding the concept of eternal life lay in detaching it from any notion of time. Eternity is better expressed by a circle than by a line, being a quality of experience rather than a matter of temporal duration. To know God and to dwell in Christ is to experience eternal life and to live in heaven now, just as self-imposed separation from God is eternal death.

Although he vehemently denied that he was a Universalist, and maintained that eternal loss was a real possibility for those who consciously rejected fellowship with God in Christ, his teaching about the depth and breadth of God’s love, and his profound distaste for hell-fire preaching brought him very close to the view that all are ultimately saved.

Maurice’s view of heaven, presented in lectures in 1861 on the Revelation of St John, stands in marked contrast to the sentimental and static picture of angelic choruses endlessly strumming harps offered by many Victorian hymns. For him, heaven is a state of strenuous activity, reconciliation, and progressive development, in which one can “complete tasks which death will leave unfinished, recover affections which have been broken, know what you have been unable to know, work bravely and rest without ceasing to work”.

His view of it as an extension of life on earth was highly influential in helping to create the widespread Victorian belief that death would be like a homecoming, with friends reunited and familiar tasks awaiting.

 

HE WAS an active social and political reformer. Supporting the extension of the vote to working men in 1866, he argued that the franchise would be “a better discipline, morally and intellectually”, for the working classes than any amount of book learning.

At the same time, he was worried about the rise of populism, and of single-issue campaigns that polarised and divided people on crude arguments and “laid their sacrifices on the altars of the evil spirit called Public Opinion”. He counselled against simply following the will of the majority, asserting that the popular choice “will always be something profoundly low and swinish”.

This was not liberal elitism. It was based on a strong conviction that people were not mere aggregates of numbers, but, rather, part of an organic whole. Governments and politicians should cease courting voters and pandering to fickle public opinion, and focus, rather, on eliminating the huge inequalities between rich and poor, and preventing the heaping-up of wealth by capitalists. These were the necessary moves towards humanising society and realising Christ’s Kingdom on earth.

 

ALTHOUGH deprived of his chairs at King’s, in 1866 Maurice was elected to the chair of casuistry, moral theology, and moral philosophy at Cambridge, which he held in conjunction with the principalship of the working men’s college in London which he had founded in 1854. Throughout this period, he also preached regularly at St Peter’s Chapel, Vere Street, in central London, where his sermons were particularly appreciated by the Revd Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).

Maurice’s legacy was considerable: besides helping to fashion the Victorians’ view of heaven, he did much to remove the pervasive Evangelical emphasis on the deadweight of human depravity, and division of the human race into elect and damned. He inspired several Anglicans to follow him into Christian Socialism.

Charles Kingsley called him “the most beautiful human soul whom God has ever allowed me to meet with”. Harold Macmillan’s father was named Maurice out of admiration for him, and Macmillan called his own son Maurice, being “not unmindful of the F. D. Maurice tradition”.

He is commemorated in the F. D. Maurice Chair in Moral and Social Theology at King’s College, now occupied by Linda Woodhead; and he surely stands as one of the truly great Anglican saints and sages, who expressed and lived out the broad, inclusive, Christ-centred faith of the Church of England at its best.

 

The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews, and has written much about Maurice in the context of his views on sacrifice and eternal life.

To mark the anniversary, a gentle circular walking and cycling route past places in London associated with F. D. Maurice has been devised. The route includes Lincoln’s Inn (where Maurice was Chaplain, and which supported him after his dismissal from King’s), King’s, the Red Cross Garden and housing estate, Bankside (established by his disciple Octavia Hill), Guy’s Hospital Chapel, Queens College for Girls, and The Working Men’s College (both of which he founded). A tea towel, written diagram, and guide are available. For further information about Maurice or the cycle route, please contact: roberthenrymccracken@outlook.com

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