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Book review: Breathers of an Ampler Day: Victorian views of heaven by Ian Bradley

02 February 2024

Michael Wheeler reads a study of Victorian ideas about heaven

“TRUST that those we call the dead Are breathers of an ampler day For ever nobler ends.” Tennyson’s longing for a progressive future state, expressed so powerfully in In Memoriam, was widely shared in mid-19th-century Britain.

What began as a threnody for his Cambridge friend Arthur Hallam broadened into a series of lyrics that explore the hopes and fears of the age in relation to death, judgement, heaven, and hell. Set against the Christian hope of heaven is the fear that science might lead to unbelief. The verses that probably speak most clearly to our own generation are these:

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of

Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to

I stretch lame hands of faith, and

And gather dust and chaff, and

To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

Ian Bradley, Professor Emeritus of St Andrews University, is a Church of Scotland minister whose many books include studies of liberalism, both political and theological. Tennyson’s is not the only liberal voice in this introduction to Victorian ideas of heaven (Faith, 10 November 2023). Bradley is equally keen on F. D. Maurice, for him “the greatest ever British theologian”.

Maurice, he reminds us, said that he learned more theology in the wards of Guy’s Hospital in London, where he was a chaplain, than from all the books in his study at King’s College, the institution near by from which he was ejected in 1853 for his advanced views on “everlasting punishment”. “I am obliged to believe”, he wrote, “in an abyss of love which is deeper than the abyss of death.” Tennyson knew what he was doing when he asked Maurice to serve as godfather to one of his sons.

Bradley chooses a preponderance of writers on heaven from the “Broad Church liberal tradition”. He writes, “This is a reflection not just of my own prejudices but also of what became the dominant outlook at both a popular and academic level, expressed in an emphasis on consolation and pastoral concern, a tendency to let the heart rule the head and embrace something close to universalism.”

As the Victorians thought longer and harder about heaven than we do, he suggests, they can be our guides. Indeed, he ends the book by revealing that he has been strengthened for fifty years by George Matheson’s vision of a return to the ocean depths of God’s love from whence we came:

O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee:
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its

May richer, fuller be.

As Bradley points out in his chapter on the blind Church of Scotland minister, these words come from the favourite hymn of both Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill.

Well known for his work on Victorian hymns, Bradley includes several in this book (there is a chapter on John Ellerton), alongside poetry by Christina Rossetti, John Henry Newman, and John Clare. He also inflicts the poetry of Adelaide Anne Procter upon us. She was, after all, “Queen Victoria’s favourite versifier”. All this from a period that excelled in its prose. But then verse speaks more directly to the heart and can more readily bear the weight of our hopes and fears, whether in a hymn sung in church or in an album of spiritual poems.

Dr Wheeler is the author of
Heaven, Hell, and the Victorians (CUP, 1994), and a former lay canon of Winchester.

Breathers of an Ampler Day: Victorian views of heaven
Ian Bradley
Sacristy Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

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