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

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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.