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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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—