The Magazine

People of the Book

No need to be a believer to cherish the Bible.

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The popular Victorian novelist and travel writer Georgiana, Lady Chatterton (1806-1876), describing the bafflement she felt when reading the Bible as a girl, recalled how “one governess considered me unteachable, because I could not say the second Psalm by heart, and especially the verse, ‘Why do the heathen so furiously rage?’ which she used to repeat over and over again. .  .  . The fact is, I was wondering all the time why the heathen did so furiously rage, and who they could be; so that the more my mind was made to dwell on the words, the more puzzled I became.”

Photo of Anglican clergymen, circa 1870

Anglican clergymen, ca. 1870

Getty Images

It is difficult imagining the children of David Cameron’s England puzzling over the Bible because it is difficult imagining them reading the book in the first place. Yet children in Victorian England were profoundly different. In this sprightly new study, Timothy Larsen richly documents the appeal the Bible had not only for Victorian adults but for their children as well.

Indeed, he quotes Thomas Henry Huxley, the agnostic biologist, who was convinced that “if Bible-reading is not accompanied by constraint and solemnity .  .  . I do not believe there is anything in which children take more pleasure.” Gladstone and Disraeli devoured Scripture as children, as did John Ruskin: 

My mother forced me, by steady daily toil, to learn long chapters of the Bible by heart; as well as to read it every syllable through, aloud, hard names and all, from Genesis to the Apocalypse, about once a year; and to that discipline—patient, accurate, and resolute—I owe, not only a knowledge of the book, which I find occasionally serviceable, but much of my general power of taking pains, and the best part of my taste in literature. .  .  . Once knowing the 32nd of Deuteronomy, the 119th Psalm, the 15th of 1st Corinthians, the Sermon on the Mount, and most of the Apocalypse, every syllable by heart, and having always a way of thinking with myself what words meant, it was not possible for me, even in the foolishest times of youth, to write entirely superficial or formal English.

The deep regard of English Protestants for the Bible can be traced back to John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), in which those put to death by Queen Mary were commemorated not only as martyrs to Protestantism but to the authority of Scripture. By the beginning of the 19th century, William Cobbett might claim that Foxe’s martyrs were “most wicked wretches, who sought to destroy the Queen and her government .  .  . under the pretense of conscience and superior piety”—but this was not the majority view. Queen Victoria spoke for an entire Protestant civilization when she referred to Mary’s Roman Catholic faith—that, after the Reformation, de-emphasized the Bible—as “sacerdotal tyranny.” More to the taste of freeborn Englishmen was John Milton’s sola scriptura Christianity, which he defended against the proponents of episcopacy with impassioned eloquence.

[L]et them chant while they will of prerogatives, we shall tell them of Scripture; of custom, we of Scripture; of Acts and Statutes, still of Scripture; till the quick and piercing word enter to the dividing of their souls, and the mighty weakness of the Gospel throw down the weak mightiness of man’s reasoning.

The most brilliant of all Victorian churchmen, John Henry Newman, never accepted the notion that the Bible alone could encompass Christianity—there was nothing in the Bible, after all, about the Trinity or, for that matter, about the Bible being the sole repository of the faith—yet he recognized that the Bible was “the best book of meditations which can be, because it is divine.” He also recognized that Catholic countries negligent of the Bible were in peril of losing their faith. France and Italy, for example, risked succumbing to apostasy precisely because (as he said) “they have not impressed upon their hearts the life of our Lord and Saviour as given us in the Evangelists. They believe merely with the intellect, not with the heart.”

About Newman’s great friend Edward Pusey, Larsen is revelatory, seeing him not merely as a controversial champion of episcopacy but a first-rate biblical scholar. It is true that most of his English contemporaries took issue with him for being too Roman, but Larsen suggests that this might have been misconceived criticism. Bishops, after all, never meant as much to Pusey as the Bible, about which he wrote with such learned zest. When he threw in his lot with the Tractarians he might have missed his true calling. As Larsen nicely puts it, Pusey was a “Bible man, who led an exegetical life” and had, in this respect at least, more in common with the Evangelicals than with the Anglo-Catholics.

A People of One Book is far-ranging. Larsen has chapters on what a vital role the Bible played among Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, Dissenters, Agnostics, even Atheists. And what is more impressive, he manages to show each of these different traditions true critical sympathy.

There is also much lively biography. In taking up the case of Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker who devoted her life to prison reform, Larsen shows how the Bible was an integral part of her ministry at a time when not everyone approved of Scripture. On one occasion, the French press characterized the Bible passages that she was attempting to distribute to prisoners as “controversial tracts.” Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this enterprising woman was to supply Bibles to the English coastguard. Certainly, the sailors for whom she cared so deeply would have been amused to know how opposed their benefactress was to teetotalism: In response to Romans 14:21, which dissuades the faithful from taking wine if it cause scandal or offense to another (“It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak”), Fry wrote in the margin of her own Bible: “We must on one hand be very careful not to offend a weak brother & on the other we must not unite in scruples that we think contrary to the will of God.”

Larsen is particularly good on Huxley, who, for all his contempt for what he regarded as the credulity of Christian belief, loved the Bible. Indeed, he was adamant that, for educational purposes, Scripture was incomparable.

Take the Bible as a whole; make the severest deductions which fair criticism can dictate for shortcomings and positive errors; eliminate .  .  . all that is not desirable for children .  .  . and there still remains in the old literature a vast residuum of moral beauty and grandeur. And then consider the great historical fact that, for three centuries, this book has been woven into the life of all that is best and noblest in English history; that it has become the national epic of Britain, and is as familiar to noble and simple, from John-o’-Groat’s House to Land’s End.

At the same time, Huxley was fond of quoting the Bible to tease Bible-thumpers. In 1892, he wrote of how “the green bay tree of bibliolatry flourishes as it did sixty years ago” because (as he said) “whoso refuses to offer incense to the idol [of the Bible] is held to be guilty of ‘a dishonor to God,’ imperilling his salvation.”

There is much to praise here. Deeply researched and deftly presented, Larsen’s chapters capture the ubiquity of the Bible in Victorian culture without ever becoming sidetracked by those fashionable bores that stultify so much academic history, theory and gender. Instead, he allows his subjects to speak for themselves and never takes them to task for failing to conform to the dictates of political correctness.

He also uncovers a good deal of endearing absurdity in his subjects, as when he writes of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the celebrated preacher. When he was at Menton, Spurgeon would convince himself that he was seeing life as it was in biblical stories: “I often fancy that I am looking out upon the Lake of Gennesaret, or walking at the foot of the Mount of Olives, or peering into the mysterious gloom of the Garden of Gethsemane. The narrow streets of the old town are such as Jesus traversed, these villages are such as He inhabited.” One can safely assume that this tells us more about Spurgeon’s biblically saturated imagination than it does about the French Riviera.

What lies outside the compass of Larsen’s study is how the English lost their attachment to the Bible. In this, the German biblical criticism that emerged in England in the 1830s, and finally took hold at the end of the century, was a factor, as was the general waning of Christian belief that followed. But perhaps the severest blow to the authority of the Bible came from the work of geologists like Sir Charles Lyell, which cast doubt on so many biblical certainties. In 1851, Ruskin wrote to a friend,

You speak of the Flimsiness of your own faith. Mine, which was never strong, is being beaten into mere gold leaf, and flutters in weak rags from the letter of its old forms; but the only letters it can hold at all are the old Evangelical formulae. If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses—

If some blamed the geologists and their physical science for the eventual desuetude in which the Bible fell, others blamed the liturgical reformers. Regarding these energetic vandals, the Conservative member of Parliament for Aldershot, Julian Critchley, spoke for many when he wrote in the Listener (1982): “The statue of the Virgin is no longer the target of the iconoclasts’ hammer; it is those two distinctive treasures of the English language, James I’s Authorised Version of the Bible and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. Now they are seldom heard in church, having been translated into Sunday Supplement Prose. The transfiguration is unforgivable.”

At the same time, Larsen makes a vital point when he observes how our own contemporary scholars have “overlooked or distorted” the primacy of the Bible for the Victorians “by a preoccupation .  .  . with critical approaches to the Bible.” These scholars have also tended to minimize the extent to which the Bible was taken up for devotional purposes. Diverging from these ahistorical accounts, Larsen succeeds admirably in showing how the Victorians “experienced the Bible first and foremost as a .  .  . life-giving source of spiritual comfort and divine promises.” Nevertheless, if the Victorians refused to “ignore or sidestep the Bible,” the same cannot be said for their successors.

Recently, in the towns and cities of England, a fair sampling of those successors regaled the world with scenes that posed anew the question that baffled Lady Chatterton: Why do the heathen so furiously rage? A People of One Book does not answer that rather complicated question, but it will send readers back to the book that more than any other defined the English when they had a common culture.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries and a forthcoming companion volume, Newman and His Family.