- The Bible and the Victorians: An Interview with Timothy Larsen
It is Often Thought that the Truly Authentic Religious experience of Victorian Britain was an expression of a crisis of faith. But in Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 2007) Timothy Larsen offered a provocative corrective. Now, in A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (Oxford University Press, 2011) Larsen reveals how scripture-saturated the Victorians were. Larsen is the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He began the research for this book as a visiting fellow in history at Trinity College, Cambridge. Senior editor Donald A. Yerxa interviewed him in March 2011.
What are you attempting to accomplish in A People of One Book?
I wanted to display the profound way in which a deep knowledge of the Bible pervaded and shaped the whole of Victorian culture. Everyone spoke through biblical language, reasoned through scriptural categories, and cited biblical proof texts to clinch their arguments. It was more than just that they knew the contents of the Bible very well, although that is unquestionably true. It is that the Bible really was at the center culturally; almost all Victorians tried to get the Bible on their side in any cause they espoused. A minority tried to defy scripture head on, but even that was a backhanded tribute to the centrality of the Bible. No one just went on their way without scriptural cadences calibrating their stride. I came to think of the centrality of the Bible as kind of a key to the age that has been hiding in plain sight. It has always been in plain sight in the sense that every Victorian scholar would tell you that scripture infused 19th-century culture—high and low, popular and elite.
Nevertheless, it has been hidden. There are several reasons for this. Past generations of Victorian scholars who were themselves raised in societies where the Bible is more prominent than it is now found this point so obvious that they had no interest in documenting it. They became obsessed with those Victorians who were skeptical about the Bible because what really interested them was not displaying the scripture-saturated culture of the Victorians but rather finding the seeds of its demise. They focused on challenges to the Bible or its authority while failing to appreciate that even attacks on the Bible were another manifestation of the Victorian obsession with the Bible. Scholars more recently have tended to interrogate the Victorians about issues that preoccupy us today such as gender, race, sexuality, and imperialism. This means that if they read Victorian writings on the Bible at all, they tend to mine them for what they ostensibly reveal about these other issues (and, alas, too often they misread them in the process). And many scholars deem biblical commentaries and devotional literature too tedious to endure and don’t read them at all. Moreover, scholars today are often themselves biblically illiterate so they miss the allusions, or they take what was a perfectly conventional statement in a scripture-saturated culture and erroneously imagine that it is really about something else lying hidden beneath the surface.
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How did you go about selecting representative Victorians from various religious traditions?
I should say that the structure of the book is to cover all the main religious and skeptical traditions in 19th-century England, from atheism to Judaism, from spiritualism to Methodism. I do this with in-depth case studies of one or sometimes two representative figures. My first aim was that scholars whose work focuses on that particular tradition would agree that the person was a fitting representative. Nicholas Wiseman, the first Archbishop of Westminster, for example, is my Roman Catholic: as he was formally the leader of the Catholic Church in England, his representativeness is an easy claim to make. A second goal was to try to achieve a gender balance. I would therefore ask...