- God & Progress: Religion & History in British Intellectual Culture, 1845–1914 by Joshua Bennett, and: Good Words: Evangelicalism and the Victorian Novel by Mark Knight, and: Constructing Nineteenth-Century Religion: Literary, Historical, and Religious Studies in Dialogue ed. by Joshua King and Winter Jade Werner
These three works, individually and collectively, are important additions to the field of nineteenth-century studies. Utilizing different methodologies and collectively representing the disciplines of history, literature, and religious studies, each shares a commitment to interdisciplinary methods and a skepticism about academic polarization: religious vs. secular, elite vs. popular. This approach reveals the many ways in which religious, primarily Protestant, frameworks and assumptions infused what we categorize as secular culture. The careful scholarship and innovative ideas of these works give us a more accurate understanding of the complexities of the lived experiences of nineteenth-century Britons.
Joshua Bennett is a historian writing about the writing of history in God & Progress: Religion & History in British Intellectual Culture, 1845–1914. Focusing on major thinkers —including Henry Hart Milman, Dean of St. Paul’s; Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford and later Dean of Westminster; and Mark Pattison of Lincoln College, Oxford—Bennett details how the writing of history changed, and was changed by, Protestant concerns and assumptions between 1845 and 1914. The [End Page 690] period between the publication of John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) and the beginning of World War I was the period in which, Bennett argues, liberal Protestant thinkers began to understand Christian history as progressive and dynamic as they sought to validate their religious beliefs and give them meaning in a modern world. They thus infused with Christian assumptions the history by which Victorians understood their place in the world and consequently undermined the notion of a rising secularism in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.
The chapters in this well-researched and clearly argued monograph are organized thematically by historical time period, from the early church through Latin Christianity (or the medieval church), the Protestant Reformation, and the modern period. This organization means that the Victorian chronology is rehearsed in every chapter, and that some major figures, like Milman, appear repeatedly. While initially it can be a bit disconcerting to go over roughly the same chronological ground in subsequent chapters, the reiteration of Victorian figures, events, and concerns helps build the evidence for Bennett’s argument that the interplay between Protestant concerns and the development of the writing of history continued throughout the Victorian era and across the study of very different historical eras. While the work’s major contribution is to show the religious impact on a supposedly secular discipline, it also demonstrates the degree to which Victorian Protestants were invested in shaping the story of earlier eras that were less compatible with their religious assumptions.
Like Bennett, and covering approximately the same time period, Mark Knight, in Good Words: Evangelicalism and the Victorian Novel, looks at how religion infused discourses normally considered secular, in this case canonical novels: William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), and Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1903). His focus is more narrowly on evangelicals, both within and outside the Church of England, but his argument is similarly expansive. He argues that specific features of evangelicalism—a focus on personal morality, redemption, and the power of words—shaped even apparently secular concerns and language. He also considers how, in the periodical Good Words (1860–1910), evangelicals tried and failed to use the novelistic form. Knight situates his work as developing from Elisabeth Jay...