- Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England
"There was a crisis of faith in nineteenth-century Britain, but there was also a crisis of doubt," writes Timothy Larsen in the last (and best) chapter of his revisionist account of "honest faith" in Victorian England (p. 239).Too much emphasis, he claims, has been placed on the narrative of "the Victorian loss of faith," which more truthfully was no more and no less than "a telling counterpoint" in an age still dominated by "religiosity in general and Christianity in particular" (p. 1). He rightly complains of what he sees as "a strong and deeply ingrained tendency in Victorian studies to separate religion from any positive connection with thought" (p. 3, emphasis added).
For this, he interestingly blames, in particular, scholars "from the field of English or literary studies" (myself included). According to Larsen, such people, at the expense of historical truth, have been all too concerned with the secularizing story of the crisis of faith because such a story seems to them more exciting, more dramatic, more honest, and, not least of all, more modern—in the sense of being more the way the future was going to go. His main (and rather easy) target is A.N.Wilson, who in God's Funeral all too reactively "denounced as dishonest seemingly every leading Victorian intellectual who maintained a commitment to orthodox Christianity" (p. 245).
But the real interest, even in Wilson, is when the claims of faith cling on within a skepticism distorted by its all-too-dogmatic attempt to disassociate itself from genuinely free thinking. As Larsen himself shows, in some of his Victorian examples, the result is often a belated swing back to religion again. These reconversion narratives are Larsen's subject-matter. But what he does not consider is how far these to-ings and fro-ings are no more than the dialectical mechanism of a certain stage in history. That is to say: an inadequately conventional Christianity gives way to a reactively self-congratulatory secularism that in turn breaks down to revert to a half re-formed version of the original creed. [End Page 397]
A better point would be not to see a crisis of doubt as separate from the crisis of faith, but to take the two as part of the same phenomenon.Yet so interested is Larsen in his own revisionist counterposition that he only once makes this simple but vital point:"The Victorians themselves frequently discussed and wrote about the crisis of faith.Many of them did this because they prized faith so much and therefore feared and cared about its loss" (p. 10).That is why the Tennyson of In Memoriam matters so much: in him, the crisis of faith and the crisis of doubt are emphatically part of the same crisis.
Larsen gives us instead brief life-stories of seven plebeian radicals who lost their faith, turned secularist, and then returned to religion. They are William Hone, Frederic Rowland Young, Thomas Cooper, John Henry Gordon, Joseph Barker, John Bagnall Bebbington,and George Sexton.He interestingly argues that such self-educated men were more liable to imbibe skepticism earlier and more disturbingly than many of their more conventionally educated contemporaries, and thus that their narratives anticipate some later twentieth-century returns to religion that belie the secularizing tendency too often seen as characteristic of the nineteenth century onward. He shows how for each of them secularism did not finally offer a genuinely alternative worldview,being too full of reactive negations. And he powerfully exposes the arrogant and traducing dismissiveness with which reconversion was too often viewed by those who remained secularist. How could these renegades go "backwards"again? It must have been for money, or for social status, or out of hypocritical fear, as a result of sudden personal illness or misfortune. Larsen rightly clears these men of such charges.There is also a useful appendix listing other cases worthy of future study.
But he does not make these men or their lives...