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  • Behold the (Anonymous) Man:J.R. Seeley and the Publishing of Ecce Homo1
  • Ian Hesketh (bio)

Publisher Alexander Macmillan was pleasantly surprised by the early sales of Ecce Homo (1865), John Seeley’s history of the life and work of Jesus Christ. “The sales go on still,” he wrote to Seeley in amazement on 15 March 1866 (Seeley Papers mss 903/3A/1). Seeley, who would in 1869 occupy the chair of modern history at Cambridge, was a proponent of Rankean scientific history and believed that the past should be conveyed to the public in as plain a format as possible, devoid of drama and literary style. Ecce Homo, however, was not written with such historically sound principles in mind. While Seeley claimed that his primary purpose was to separate the facts from the fiction concerning the life of Christ, he avoided any serious source criticism while explicitly ignoring questions of a theological nature. Instead, he focused primarily on Christ as man and moral philosopher. Indeed, unlike later works of Rankean history that would seek not to judge but merely to let the facts speak for themselves, Seeley’s text was as prescriptive as it was descriptive. Christ’s teachings, argued Seeley, should provide the foundation for a new science of politics and for a Christian state governed by a universal positive morality that would embrace the “blessed light of science, a light … dispersing every day some noxious superstition, some cowardice of the human spirit” (Ecce Homo 367–68). This turned out to be a divisive message, one that attracted outspoken detractors and supporters alike.

At the time, Seeley’s analysis was in line with the Broad Church movement, liberal Anglicans who sought to embrace advances in scientific thinking, often at the expense of deeply entrenched traditions in the established Church.2 The chief manifesto of the Broad Church movement was the controversial Essays and Reviews (1860), a collection of essays (and one review) written by a handful of scholars. The subject matter was highly contentious because it promoted recent scholarship that seemed to challenge Anglican doctrines. Some of the essays were more provocative than others, particularly those embracing the findings of German Biblical criticism and uniformitarian geology.3 However, the book would likely have been ignored except for the fact that six of the seven essayists were well-known clergymen. As it was, the publication of Essays and Reviews touched off “the greatest religious crisis of the Victorian age” (Ellis ix), which not only involved the publication of countless reviews in the weekly, monthly, and quarterly presses, as well as at least 150 pamphlets, but also a [End Page 93] formal charge of heresy against two of the authors. The book was eventually synodically condemned by the Church of England.4

Within such a context, it is not surprising that histories of Jesus Christ were controversial. Histories of Jesus from the Continent had gained considerable notice in Britain, most notably David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (1835–36) and Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus (1863). While Das Leben Jesu touched off in Germany “one of the most legendary controversies in the history of Christian thought,” in the words of Daniel Pals (Victorian “Lives” 25), it was not until the 1840s, when Strauss’s views began to be summarized and refuted in the British periodical press, that his work began to seem offensive and even threatening in Britain. He did have a few articulate supporters, most notably George Eliot, who provided the first full English translation of the work in 1846, thereby touching off another round of debate and hand-wringing. Renan’s Vie de Jésus, which was translated into English the year it appeared, renewed many of the previous debates, but this time the periodical press was almost entirely negative in its assessment (Pals, Victorian “Lives” 34). There was much at stake in writing about the life of Jesus, and anyone attempting to do so while denying (or even ignoring), for instance, the existence of miracles could expect much outspoken opposition.

These controversies about the very touchy terrain on which history, Christianity, and science intersected had particularly upset evangelical and Catholic-oriented factions within...


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