Posts tagged ‘William Gresley’

07/03/2014

Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years

gresley1“Depend upon it, we cannot too closely conform to the direction of the Church. Nothing can be so preposterous as the custom of the present day, to preach against ordinances, when they are so lamentably neglected. It almost looks as if clergymen wished to drive away their congregation on the festivals, in order that they may not have the trouble of performing the service. And then to enlarge on spiritual worship, as if the two were adverse, or incompatible one with the other; whereas the express object of Christian ordinances is to raise the soul to spiritual things. For what do we commemorate the deeds of saints and martyrs, but that, by the contemplation of their zeal, and faith, and holiness, a spirit of emulation may be kindled in our own dull souls? For what do we follow the steps of our blessed Saviour and the prophets and apostles, in frequent fasting and prayer, but that we may inure our souls to self-denial, and raise them above the carnal vanities of life? Have the Christians of the nineteenth century any right to think that they can safely dispense with aids to devotion which the holiest of men in all ages have employed? I am convinced,” continued Mr Manwaring, rising from his seat and speaking with more than usual energy, “I am convinced that our people are perishing by thousands, from the neglect of the means of godliness prepared for them in the Church. This is the grand stumbling-block of the Evangelicals, and is the cause of the comparatively small effect of their exertions upon the masses of the people. Much as I respect the zeal with which they have brought forward many vital and peculiar doctrines, I must freely say, that, practically, they have entirely failed in accomplishing any great amount of good. Their work is hollow and insubstantial, and will not endure the fiery trial.”

It’s my own fault, of course.

When I realised in the course of Stephen Jenner’s Steepleton; or, High Church And Low Church that the novel had been written in response to an earlier, factionally-opposed work, it seemed to me that in the interests of fair play I was obliged to give that earlier work equal air-time. The work in question, Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years, is a Tractarian manifesto by one of the first people to recognise that the novel could be powerful and far-reaching vehicle for the dissemination of doctrinal positions. William Gresley was already the author of several successful non-fiction works on church history and practice when he turned to fiction as a way of broadening his audience. A number of his works were intended for a younger audience (what we would today call “young adult”), and use tales from history to entertain and preach, but his Bernard Leslie is an unapologetic polemic intended to explain, on one hand, not merely the content of the controversial Tracts For The Times, but their essential rightness, and on the other the many doctrinal and practical failings of the faction that Gresley chooses to call “Evangelical”.

Having struggled through both Bernard Leslie and Steepleton, I have to say that my sympathies are with the Low Church faction. At least Stephen Jenner pretended to be writing a novel for about 50% of his work, before dropping the façade of fiction and lecturing me unmercifully about the treacherous proceedings of the Tractarians and, conversely, the doctrinal soundness of the Low Church. William Gresley, on the other hand, is not even a quarter of the way into his 300-page work before he strips off the gloves.

Bernard Leslie and Steepleton are written on almost exactly the same scheme; a deliberate move on the part of Stephen Jenner, no doubt. Both novels follow a young man through his early education (the only thing that Gresley and Jenner agree on is that education at the time was grossly inadequate, both generally and particularly as a preparation for ordination), his first church appointments, and his subsequent rise to prominence as an advocate for his doctrines. Both start out with their protagonist declaring that he belongs to no faction; after joining a clerical society, eye-opening encounters with various fellow-clergymen, and much reading and reflection, the young ministers eventually come down on one side of the factional fence, though of course Bernard Leslie and Frank Faithful end up on opposite sides. Both works depict their minister-heroes as the personification of correct doctrinal practice. Both devolve into a series of long, hectoring lectures intended to support one position and undermine the other.

(The other thing these novels have in common is their attitude to women, who are essentially invisible in both. Like Frank Faithful, Bernard Leslie marries—and her bare existence is all we ever hear of Mrs Leslie, although her husband takes the opportunity to expound for a full chapter upon the question of whether clergymen should marry.)

It is unclear how much of Stephen Jenner ended up in Steepleton, but Bernard Leslie is clearly a semi-autobiographical work. Ironically, neither William Gresley nor his literary counterpart set out for a career in the church. Here, we are offered only the cryptic comment, Owing to circumstances which need not be detailed, the plan originally laid out for me by my father was abandoned; in reality, Gresley suffered an injury which damaged his eyesight and compelled him to give up his plans to become a barrister: the church was his second choice.

Since Gresley did not condescend to anything as prosaic and unnecessary as “a plot”, his Bernard Leslie is not really a reviewable work. That said, several things did leap off its pages at me, in addition to those issues which Stephen Jenner specifically highlighted in Steepleton—or, more correctly, wrote Steepleton in order to highlight. I think all I can do here is point out what particularly struck me on the way through.

The first thing, perhaps the most significant thing, is William Gresley’s choice to designate his opponents under the title “Evangelical”. Here immediately I stumble into difficulties, because – heaven knows! – I’m no expert in the finer points of the hair-splitting 19th century religious vocabulary. (For example, I’m still trying to figure out why “Puseyism” is a derogatory term.) However mistakenly, I was under the impression that “Low Church” and “Evangelical” were not necessarily interchangeable terms, though there was certainly overlap; although the difference was perhaps one of attitude rather than doctrine.

It seemed to me that by his blanket use of “Evangelical”, William Gresley was unfairly bundling some disparate factions together under a single heading in order to dispose of them collectively with a sometimes misapplied but sweeping condemnation—and I received some support for my uncertain views from some unexpected quarters, in the first place from William Gresley himself, in what struck me as a piece of revealing disingenuousness.

The contentious question of the correct response to the Tracts For The Times raises its head in the district in which Bernard Leslie’s first curacy is situated. The Evangelicals want them denounced, but a High Church clergyman named Mr Manwaring, who becomes Leslie’s doctrinal mentor and the novel’s voice of High Church reason, compels the Tracts’ enemies to admit publically that they haven’t read them. (I don’t have any trouble believing that was frequently the case.) This admission shocks the still-naïve Leslie, who responds by obtaining and studying the Tracts under Mr Manwaring’s tutorage—on the whole embracing them, occasionally pointing out passages which seem to go too far, or act as the expression of a personal opinion rather than church opinion. The first of several chapters devoted to the contents of the Tracts is also where the word “Evangelical” begins to intrude upon the narrative, and concludes with the following footnote:

There is an obvious objection to use a word of so excellent a meaning as “Evangelical” to designate a mere party. There seems, however, no alternative but the substitution of some offensive nickname. I have thought it better, therefore, to employ a word which conveys to all persons the notion which is meant to be expressed, and is not offensive to the party to whom it is applied: though of course I should maintain that High Churchmen are the most truly evangelical, in the right sense of the word,—that is, they keep to Gospel-truth more strictly than others.

Presumably the “offensive nickname” that Bernard Leslie chose not to use was “Low Church”: we may recall that in Steepleton, in all likelihood provoked by this very quote, Stephen Jenner has his Frank Faithful take to himself the term “Low Church” as a badge of honour: Now it is an undeniable fact, which is of great moment in this inquiry, that the appellation “High Church” is assumed—the designation “Low Church” imposed: the one is arrogantly claimed—the other meekly borne.

We might dismiss all this as a fairly childish exchange of name-calling except that, most tellingly, two contemporary publications that embraced Bernard Leslie, both of them unabashedly High Church, to say the least, each expressed unease at the novel’s use of “Evangelical”—indicating that the substitution was indeed a misapplication of the term.

The Gentleman’s Magazine was a publication that lasted for almost 200 years, appearing in monthly issues from 1731 to 1922. During that time it changed content and approach several times, and in the first half of the 19th century was openly a Tory / High Church publication that campaigned against reform and “liberalism” and supported the Tractarians during the controversies of the Oxford Movement. Indeed, so devoted was it to its cause that in its review of Bernard Leslie, which appeared in the August 1843 issue (and must have been of the second edition), it finds itself capable of praising the author in the following terms: He understands the art of composition, and can impart his knowledge in a lively, dramatic form, without weakening its effect, or impairing the dignity of its subject…

If I were to make a list of words that do not describe Bernard Leslie, “lively” and “dramatic” would be somewhere near the top of it. However, doctrine is the real issue. The magazine’s praise is almost unstinting, but even so, evidently a squirm of conscience prompted the reviewer to observe in a footnote: The term “Evangelical,” it has been by some observed, is a misnomer…

And footnotes also intrude in a far more surprising context: The Christian Remembrancer was a High Church magazine that ran from 1819 to 1868, and a prominent vehicle for the leading Tractarians. In the July 1842 issue, Bernard Leslie is one of the works considered at length as part of an examination of “the great movement”: lengthy quotations are included, and Gresley is praised for his clarity of argument and his handling of the Tracts, in particular his ability to distinguish issues, and to separate doctrine from opinion. Yet even here, a caveat suddenly appears: The truth of this remark of course depends upon the sense in which the party term “Evangelical” is used…

Startlingly in some respects, the article in which Bernard Leslie is examined is titled “The Progress Of Anglo-Catholicism”—and startling, too, at least from certain perspectives, is the novel’s attitude to Catholicism, which is declared to be correct in its essentials: it is the Evangelicals who are the enemy, not the Catholics, who have simply, and rather foolishly, allowed a crust of human arrogance to overgrow correct doctrine and appropriate submission to church authority. “Dissenters—Wesleyans, for instance, or Socinians, or Papists, who as we believe, are born and educated in an erroneous system,” declares Mr Manwaring, and so are not to be blamed for their errors, which are circumstantial. The Evangelicals, on the other hand, have with eyes wide open chosen to reject many of the church’s traditional beliefs and practices, and are consequently damned.

My own use of the word “traditional” evokes an involuntary shudder. Even as in Steepleton Stephen Jenner devoted pages to the implications of “hereby” and “thereby”, here William Gresley, via Mr Manwaring, gives us a painfully lengthy and detailed explanation of why “tradition”, often a term of abuse applied to Catholicism and a way of summing up everything wrong with that religion, is actually a good and right thing:

    Mr L. “I begin to think that no satisfactory conclusion can be arrived at, unless we have a regular logical definition of tradition, or at least a mutual understanding as to what it means. Will you tell me, dear sir, what tradition really is?”
    Mr M. “I will endeavour to do so. You are quite right as to the importance of settling the meaning of the term. To have done so would have saved the controversialists a great deal of unnecessary trouble:—To begin, then, secundum artem. Tradition, as I need scarcely remind you, is derived from the Latin word trado, which signifies ‘to hand down’. But it is important to observe, that the English word tradition answers to two Latin words, traditio and traditum. Tradition (traditio) is the act of handing down; a tradition (traditum) is a thing handed down. Now the modes of handing down are various. A thing may possibly be handed down from generation to generation by mere word of mouth, and never committed to writing; or it may be handed down in writing; or it may be handed down for two or three generations by word of mouth, and then committed to writing…”

And so on.

Of course, within the context of the Oxford Movement this stance towards Catholicism is not surprising at all: at the very heart of the movement was a revival of traditional practices, and the propagation of the idea of the Established Church as a truly “catholic” body. However, when you have become accustomed to the bitterly hostile anti-Catholic voice that marks so much English literature over a period of some three hundred years, this sudden apparent embrace of Catholicism is jolting, to say the least. On the basis of Bernard Leslie, it is certainly not difficult to understand why the enemies of the Tractarians declared them to be, in truth, “backdoor Catholics”.

In addition to its examination of the Tracts, much of the narrative of this novel concerns the young minister’s efforts to revive various traditional church practices that have been allowed to fall to the wayside under the wicked influence of the Evangelicals. When he is appointed as rector of a parish, Leslie finds things in a deplorable state:

My two predecessors had been, the one, I am sorry to say, negligent in his duties, and the other, who succeeded him, not possessed of a zeal according to knowledge, but one who considered the feelings of the times, rather than the ordinances of the Church, to be the ground of his operation. Many of the practices which he had introduced into the parish were directly opposed to the rubrics and canons…

Deciding that he might as well start as he means to continue, Leslie revives in his parish various discarded practices including fasting, the observance of feast days and daily prayer, re-orders his services with respect to the sermon, psalms and prayers, and introduces a weekly lecture which he uses to explain himself to his bemused parishioners; who, once they understand why these things have been done, embrace them wholeheartedly. (Even The Gentleman’s Magazine found this instantaneous conversion somewhat improbable.) For a while Leslie has things all his own way:

Fortunately, there had not then arisen that wicked newspaper-agitation, which represents conformity to the ordinances of the Church as popery, and the minds of my parishioners had not been poisoned. At the present time, in consequence of the ignorant prejudices of some, and sinful misrepresentation of others, it is very doubtful whether a clergyman who conscientiously acted upon the established order of the Church would not be in danger of offending, or even driving from the Church, many unstable and ill-instructed persons…

But there is one group looking on in deep disapproval—

These were the Dissenters, who abounded in the parish when I arrived there, but, I am thankful to say, have since much diminished in numbers. Manifold were the expedients to which they resorted in order to prejudice me in the eyes of the congregation. Of course, the principal charge against me was, that I was an abettor of popery. What could be so popish as to keep fasts and festivals? What so uncharitable as to revive the Anathasian Creed? What so monstrous as the doctrine of apostolic succession, which unchurched all those who did not belong to the Establishment? Then there was the soul-destroying heresy of baptismal regeneration…

(I have been re-reading The Last Chronicle Of Barset, in which it is observed of the fiercely Evangelical Mrs Proudie – no problem with designating her an Evangelical – that, Services on saints’ days she regarded as rank papacy, and had been known to accuse a clergyman’s wife, to her face, of idolatry, because the poor lady had dated a letter, St. John’s Eve.)

Ah, yes—baptismal regeneration. You might recall that Steepleton devoted three whole chapters to arguing the Low Church stance on baptismal regeneration, clearly in response to what had been said on the High Church position in Bernard Leslie. This was one of the critical divisions between the factions, which (to put it simply and superficially) disagreed on the necessity of baptism, or rather upon whether or not the ceremony did in fact confer “regeneration”. Leslie’s own researches lead him to conclude that baptism is absolutely necessary, that the ceremony cleanses the child of original sin, and that, in suggesting that, “Our Church, in calling baptised children regenerate, speaks the language of charity…she expresses her hope and trust that the baptised person possesses, or, through God’s grace, at some future time may possess, the requisite qualification”, Mr Flavel, an Evangelical who has had great influence upon Leslie up to this point, is either misinterpreting the text or guilty of deliberate sophism. It is upon this point that Leslie turns his back upon Flavel and his followers:

I verily believe it was this discussion about the doctrine of regeneration that saved me from Evangelicalism, into which I was fast descending. I had  been struck with the usefulness and apparent zeal of Mr. Flavel, and others of his way of thinking,—had made him my counsellor, and adopted many of his views. But this discussion staggered me. I did not for a moment consider Mr. Flavel as dishonest; but I thought there must be some strange perversion of the understanding which could explain away the scriptural doctrine held by the Church of baptismal regeneration. If Mr. Flavel could so palpably distort the language of our formularies, supported as they were by Scripture, in one instance, how could I trust his advice in other matters?

And henceforth Leslie studies at the feet of the High Church Mr Manwaring.

The suggestion that the Evangelical Mr Flavel had been guilty of “palpably distort[ing] the language of our formularies” was another thing pounced upon by Stephen Jenner in Steepleton, who retaliated by accusing William Gresley of misunderstanding – or misquoting – the Catechism, in order to support his views on baptismal regeneration; arguing – at great length – that the substitution of “thereby” for “hereby” alters the entire thrust of the very passage he is quoting to make his case.

Be that as it may— We left Bernard Leslie about to have a smackdown with the Dissenters in his parish, who accuse him of “popery” when he reintroduces what he considers to be sound High Church practices:

But the principal cause of their anger was the progress which Church-opinions made, and the secession of some of their own members from the meeting-house. All these things gave ample scope for discussion in a small community like that of High Kirkstall. I was attacked several times, with some bitterness and scurrility, in the radical papers; but of this I took no notice. Tracts and handbills were spread profusely amongst my congregation, though without much effect. I might well have declined to answer them. But as I believed the Dissenters themselves to he a portion of that flock over which, as parochial minister, I was by the providence of God appointed, I thought it a good opportunity, in preference to preaching in the church, where the Dissenters would not hear me, to draw up my views on the subject in the form of a tract or pamphlet, which I circulated amongst them.

What follows is a sixteen-page-long argument against the dissenting stance, which attracted enormous attention at the time of Bernard Leslie‘s publication, to the extent that it was finally reprinted and disseminated as a tract in its own right.

Meanwhile, we also get an illustration of William Gresley’s indulgent view of Catholicism. A new curate arrives in the parish, a Mr Monkton (subtle!), who is devout and hardworking, granted, but who horrifies the congregation and dismays Bernard Leslie by wearing a cassock-like coat, making the sign of the cross, shaving his head to produce a tonsure, and substituting wafers for the wheaten bread generally used during communion. All of these things, however dangerously Papist at first glance, turn out to be some of those silly human additions of which the Catholics are guilty, not wicked but unnecessary and confusing for the congregation. Between scolding and argument, a chastened Mr Monkton is shown the error of his ways, and as a consequence settles down to become a good churchman. (It is, it is clearly implied, just that easy to convert Catholics, if only someone would take the job on!)

Having won over both the Dissenters and the Catholics to his way of thinking, Bernard Leslie then takes on his chief enemies: the conclusion of this novel is a diatribe against the Evangelicals. Many and varied are the ways in which they err, we learn, and somewhat curiously, given the stereotype of the joyless, hectoring, hard-line Evangelical (see also: Mrs Proudie), it seems that their main sin is that they leave their parishioners too much to themselves, and allow too much to depend upon the experience of the individual. Their faith is placed, literally, in personal conversion; it is in conjunction with this that the importance of baptismal regeneration is downplayed. All of this, in Bernard Leslie’s view, is not just wrong but deeply sinful: the Evangelicals are leading their followers into damnation by not “claiming” them at the time they are born, and holding them hard to a single way of proceeding from there. (And if that sounds very much like the Jesuit aphorism, Give me a child until he is seven—, well, I’m sure it’s only a coincidence.)

And here, I think, the problem with the dodgy definition of “Evangelical” rears its head in earnest:

I maintain, therefore, that the unsound and defective views, which I have specified as characteristics of the Evangelical party, are shared by all who belong to that party. All Evangelicals are unsound in the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and in the doctrine of the one Catholic and Apostolic Church. Not one only here and there, but all. All confound the doctrine of the visible Church with the communion of saints; and all refuse to receive, in its true and natural sense, the doctrines of the Church respecting baptism. All, more or less, exalt the doctrine of justification by faith, to the disparagement of other great doctrines,—though some more than others. All cry down ordinances, and more or less neglect the fasts and festivals appointed by the Church. It is these characteristics which constitute the Evangelical party. Those who do not hold these views are not Evangelicals.

But our friend Bernard is only getting warmed up:

    In a word, it is to be feared that Evangelicalism has so obscured the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and so unscripturally smoothed the way of repentance, that multitudes have been beguiled to their destruction. Multitudes have been destroyed, not so much by what the Evangelicals teach, as by what they leave untaught…
    They are unsound in the doctrine of the one Catholic and Apostolic Church, confounding it with that of the communion of saints, or the invisible Church, holding it in a different manner from that in which it has been held by the Church universal from the beginning, and adopting the doctrines of the Dissenters.
    They associate with schismatics on the platform and elsewhere, contrary to the express command of Scripture; and by so doing, and by the near approach
which they make to the doctrine and practices of the Dissenters, they have confused the minds of the common people as to the duty and necessity of union with the Church, and the sin and danger of schism. This conduct has been the main cause of the lamentable state of schism and religious discord to which the nation has been reduced,—schism which, alas, has been communicated to our colonies in distant lands, and spread by our influence through the world, so as to impede the advance of Gospel-truth, and render the union of the Church more hopeless than ever…

Fortunately, however, a breath of fresh air is currently blowing through the church—causing much wailing and gnashing of teeth in certain quarters:

    They have now stood forward in a new light. They are no longer contending for the souls of men, but struggling to maintain a waning popularity. They see growing up around them, perhaps settling in their own parishes or neighbourhood, a zealous and laborious body of men who have devoted themselves to restore the ancient energy and purity of the Church. These men are gradually gaining an influence over the public mind, to the prejudice and annoyance of the Evangelicals. Hence their rage against them; and because these men blame as defective the effete Evangelicalism of the day, they are accused of being enemies to the Reformation; and because they endeavour to restore the ancient usages of the Church, which have been sinfully neglected, they are accused of popery and held up as departers from the Church’s discipline by men who err themselves in a tenfold greater and more dangerous degree. The effrontery with which these men accuse their brethren is marvellous. The daily newspapers and monthly magazines have been filled with false charges and injurious reports against those who are endeavouring to raise the tone of religion. Instead of that generous rivalry which ought to influence men engaged in the same great cause of winning souls to Christ, there has sprung up amongst the Evangelicals a bitter hostility and ungenerous jealousy; they bar the kingdom of heaven against men; they neither go in themselves, nor suffer those that are entering to go in…
    Under these circumstances, my feeling with regard to this party is changed. I no longer respect them as I used. They have assumed the attitude, not only of violent partisans of a defective system, but they stand forth as opponents of those who would raise the Church to her true position; and thus are fast approaching the sin of antichrist…

And having thus unburdened himself, William Gresley stops to draw breath:

It may appear to some that these accusations are penned in a spirit of harshness…

Heavens, no, William!—heavens, no…

11/05/2011

The church in a state

The Victorian English left us, in the form of fiction, a picture of themselves more complete than any we possess for other nations or other generations. But historians have almost ignored this vast mine of humane knowledge, a source of insight, if not indeed of fact. The view of the intellectual movement presented by men of unquestioned honesty to a public too well acquainted with the subject to accept obvious misrepresentation, should be valuable—not only for what is stated, but also for what is unconsciously revealed of bias, assumption, of the spiritual atmosphere of the time. Moreover, the Victorians were tremendously concerned with religion, lest it vanish, and their chief instrument of propaganda (in fact, their favorite means of presenting serious psychological or social study) was the novel.

Those of us who love the Victorian novel nevertheless face certain challenges in absorbing from it all that it has to offer. For the modern reader, one of the greatest of these may well be coming to terms with not merely the religious content, which is almost ubiquitous, but the terminology that goes along with it. In Victorian Britain, religion was a very public thing: this was a time of strife, not only between the church and its enemies – or at least its disputants – but between the various factions within the church itself. One of the pleasures for me of Joseph Ellis Baker’s The Novel And The Oxford Movement is that it allowed me finally, seriously, to begin to get my head around the vocabulary of the age, and to understand the allusions that for the Victorian reader were clear and self-explanatory: High Church, Low Church, Evangelicalism, Tractarianism, Puseyism, High Anglicanism, High And Dry, Anglo-Catholicism, Roman Catholicism— AAACCKK!!!!

Grateful as I am to Joseph Ellis Baker, I have, nevertheless, certain qualms about trying to review this book. As he declares in his preface, Baker was himself Catholic – or as I should say in this context, Roman Catholic – and even with my limited knowledge, I can see how this tends to skews his presentation of his material. Another issue is that, writing in 1932, Baker makes certain assumptions, and takes certain things for granted, that some eighty-odd years later we might not be inclined to accept. This presents a problem – one I don’t intend to try and overcome. Call it tolerance or call it cowardice, but I’ve decided not to engage with Baker at that level.

Instead, I’ll stick to talking about what I most took out of this book, a better understanding of the various religious movements of 19th-century Britain, and an awareness of some now extremely obscure novelists. And,  well, you know me: obscure novels, and obscure novelists, are my stock-in-trade; and I confess that these peculiar, clumsy, ponderously sincere, ephemeral texts hold a strange fascination for me.

(While I can say I have a better understanding of this subject, that’s certainly not to say it’s flawless. So if I get anything wrong here, or misuse any of the terminology, please feel free to set me straight.)

By Baker’s account, the so-called Oxford Movement grew out of a backlash against the liberalism of the 1830s, which saw various reforms passed giving greater rights and opportunities to the lower and middle classes, and an increasing distance placed between Church and State. A key moment came in 1833, with a Bill introduced in parliament to reduce the number of bishoprics in Ireland. Although this was part of a reform under which the money saved would be applied to other church business, the Bill was preceived in some quarters as an outrageous secular meddling in religious matters. The most notable reaction came from John Keble, the author of The Christian Year and, from 1831, the Chair of Poetry at Oxford. In 1833, Keble’s Assize Sermon was entitled “National Apostasy”. In it he denounced both the Irish Bill and the interference by the state in church affairs. This sermon is now generally regarded as the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Following Keble’s sermon, a group of English clerics banded together and produced a series of papers that they called Tracts For Our Times, which expounded upon the principles of what they called “the English branch of the Holy Catholic Church”. These Tracts became the focus of a move away from the Low Church, or Evangelical, form of worship, which then dominated England, and towards what would be known as Anglo-Catholicism: a stricter, more traditional approach that, while not recognising the authority of the Pope or the Catholic hierarchy, or incorporating confession and absolution, adopted Catholic procedures and rituals. It was Anglican, but not Protestant.

This movement was and for a decade remained based around Oxford. In the first instance it was often called “Tractarianism”, in reference to the publications which the Anglo-Catholics used to fire the first barrages in what would become a decades-long conflict. In line with their horror of liberalism and reform, the Tractarians advocated a return to an England under the joint paternalistic rule of the church and the aristocracy: a realm where everyone was content to stay where God had seen fit to place them; where the poor were  “looked after”, in the feudal sense, and thus kept passive and obedient, and where an uppity middle-class was to learn submission to God’s will whether it liked it or not.

Even as it is generally accepted that civil war is the most internecine, this battle not between different religions, but between degrees of the same religion, was a bitter if bloodless conflict, a war fought from the pulpit, and in the newspapers – and in the novel. By the time of the birth of the Oxford Movement, the novel was an accepted although not entirely approved form of recreation. While in general novels were still held to be a threat to the weak-minded of society – women, servants, the working-class – it was nevertheless recognised that if written with strict purpose, the novel could be a powerful weapon. So it was that during the 1840s, the religious novel was born, as each of the various factions tried to reach, to educate, to sway the English public through its favourite form of entertainment – not, however, without certain qualms.

It is to these qualms that we owe the most peculiar characteristics of the novels of this time. Many writers, uneasy at adopting a form often denounced for its pernicious influence to favour their cause, actually took pains to make their novels as unentertaining as possible. (Or at least, that’s the story they’re sticking with.) It became a matter of pride, for instance, not to include anything resembling a love-story: a convention perhaps easier for the Anglo-Catholics, one of whose tenets was the celibacy of the ministry. Indeed, many of the earliest religious novels are essentially sermons in prose. But over time, it was conceded that the power of the novel lay in its ability to engage the imagination and the emotions; that soapbox shouting defeated its own purpose. Finally, the more talented of the religious novelists began weaving their themes and their arguments into stories that carried conviction through their grounding in a recognisable reality.

Most readers today, I imagine, if asked to name a religious 19th century English novelist, would probably nominate Anthony Trollope, specifically his Barchester books. Ironically, although he gives Trollope his own section in his book, Joseph Ellis Baker essentially dismisses him as a religious novelist, arguing that his clergymen are predominantly creatures of society and not the church. This is, of course, to a large extent true, as Trollope himself admitted; it is not private religion but public duty with which he mostly concerned himself. Baker also points out that in Trollope’s novels, the Oxford Movement seems almost not to have happened – that he spends most of his time satirising the Evangelicals from a High (but not too High) Church perspective, exactly as his mother, Frances Trollope, was doing in her novels of the 1830s. This, however, Baker subscribes largely to the fact that Trollope was writing his novels after the first great wave of religious controversy had subsided, during a period of greater tolerance and reduced disputation.

Nevertheless, for the modern reader, Trollope is still a good place to start – and quite complicated enough, with his Proudie / Grantley – Low Church / High Church brawling. We do in fact find in his novels a few references to the earlier religious controversies, including the unanticipated and most unwanted climax of the Oxford Movement, which saw several of its leading exponents, most notoriously John Henry Newman, convert to Roman Catholicism: exactly what the Movement’s Lower Church enemies had warned would be its natural consequence.

Thus in Barchester Towers, Francis Arabin is described as “an ardent disciple” of Newman, and, So high, indeed, that at one period of his career, he had all but toppled over into the cesspool of Rome. In Doctor Thorne we have Caleb Oriel, who represents a mild form of another frequent accusation made against Catholicism: that it was a religion of the senses and not of the spirit. Caleb’s initial calling was, we learn, Rather to the outward and visible signs of religion than to its inward and spiritual graces. He is also an advocate of celibacy in the church: a belief which scarcely outlasts his first meeting with Beatrice Gresham. Trollope is indulgent with those who go a little too “High”, believing that this is something they will simply grow out of; but he has little patience with those who go Low. For Trollope, Evangelicalism is the refuge of the ungentlemanly.

That Anthony Trollope is an enduringly popular novelist, and that Anthony Trollope was not, in Joseph Ellis Baker’s opinion, a religious novelist, are probably not unrelated. Most of the propagandistic novels produced during this time were so narrow in scope, so humourless in execution, so specific in respect to time and place – and, let’s face it, so poor in quality – that very few of them outlived the brief period of their initial release.

A few good – or at least, interesting – novelists, albeit ones not much read these days, did emerge from this controversy. Benjamin Disraeli’s works reflect his “Young Englishism”, a form of Toryism than looked yearningly back at the forms of Old English tradition, and thus found some parallels with the conservatism of the Oxford Movement. Significantly, Disraeli’s novels came in two waves, matching the two great outbreaks of religious controversy, during the 1840s and the 1870s.

On the other side of the fence, Charles Kingsley used the novel to launch scathing attacks upon the Tractarians, but from a rather unique perspective. Kingsley took issue with the notion that human nature was inherently sinful, believing that what was “natural” was “good” – including sex. While decrying celibacy and asceticism, Kingsley finds God equally in nature and in science. On the other hand, he held grave views about the possibility of rebellion by the lower classes, which like his religious enemies, the Anglo-Catholics, he viewed as defiance of God’s will.

But it was the Anglo-Catholics who first seized upon the novel as a means of propaganda, their leading lights in this respect during the 1840s being William Gresley and Francis Edward Paget. Both of these men were exponents of the dissertation school of novel-writing, avoiding love interest and concentrating instead on topics such as church restoration and the removal of pews. Stories of individuals who inherit estates and make them over in religious / feudal terms were also popular.

Another recurrent theme was the pernicious influence of the Mechanics’ Institutes and the like, which not only educated the poor and the working-class, but educated them in science; thus moving from being merely foolish to the outright sinful. In her 1855 novel, S. Alban’s; or, The Prisoners Of Hope, Felicia Skene offers a dire warning about what was going on in these Institutes, giving an example of the kind of lecture the lower classes were listening to: They were all equal, and men were not to be bought and sold like slaves, whose labour was to be made use of; and all this wicked sophistry [was] remarkably palatable to the proud unchastened spirit of the man…

But as the fight heated up, the novels became more and more thunderous against democracy or liberalism in any form; against reform; against social progress; and above all against anything that questioned the “natural authority” of the church in the first instance, but also of the aristocracy. This attitude is illustrated in William Gresley’s Clement Walton, wherein the English Church – i.e. the Anglo-Catholic Church – is praised for producing men who are “loyal, faithful, peaceable, and intelligent”; while conversely, in those who follow other tenets there is, An absence of that humble submission to authority, which is so amiable a feature of the Christian character… Corresponding with this spiritual defect there is a political disaffection to civil government; a democratic, arrogant temper; an anxiety to maintain rights rather than to perform duties.

Most of the early Tractarian novels were written by men about men; but later in the century, the novel of domestic manners became prominent, and gave women writers an acceptable framework within which to tackle religious matters. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these novels is their profound anti-intellectualism. The same advocacy of submission is present in these novels, but it goes hand-in-hand with an overt suspicion of the intellect. “Thinking”, generally, is viewed as a form of wicked wilfullness that will inevitable lead to sin: to think is to question; to question is to doubt; to doubt is to disbelieve. And “thinking” is doubly sinful when it is done by women, who along with the church will usually have an array of fathers, brothers and husbands to whom they should be submitting without hesitation or reflection.

Perhaps the most well-known, and indeed the most talented, of this particular school of novel-writing is Charlotte Yonge. The Clever Woman Of The Family, as we might guess from its title – the 19th century produced no more damning term for a woman than “clever” – is the story of a woman who has the temerity to think for herself, and who must suffer a proper and thorough humiliation as a consequence and thus learn her place. Meanwhile, Yonge’s Hopes And Fears has a young woman who has learned to be deeply suspicious of her own intelligence, which she fears will lead her into sin, looking wistfully at her mentally disabled sister and praying to be, As silly as she.

It is, however, Elizabeth Missing Sewell who represents the most extreme form of this stance, embracing a creed of absolute, unthinking obedience to authority. Obstacles are sent by God not to be striven against, but as a sign that we should stop whatever it is that we are doing and sit still: in Margaret Percival, when a character cannot afford to go to university and become a clergyman because of his brother’s gambling debts, it does not mean that he should work and strive and overcome these difficulties, but a sign that God does not want him to be a clergyman.

Also in Margaret Percival, we find the heroine hesitating over donating money for church restoration, as to do so would give her pleasure and is thus in all likelihood a sin. When she wavers towards Rome she is lectured bluntly about, “The duty of remaining where God has placed you, unless you have absolute demonstration, which you never can have, that the English Church is no true Church…” – and further warned that doing what is right “in her own eyes” will likely land her in Hell. “Thinking” is a form of self-will, and therefore a sin. “Conscience”, likewise, is setting our own judgement against that of a proper authority and a sin of pride. Acts such as these are dangerous for anyone, but unforgiveable in a woman, for whom the safest way is to fill her life entirely with religion – the right religion – so that she is in no danger of thinking about anything else, and therefore in no danger of thinking at all. In Ursula, a woman who has suffered an illness that leaves her “weak-minded” finds that obedience to authority now comes much more easily to her, and recognises that what she at first viewed as an affliction is a gift from God.

After all this, it was, I confess, with some relief that I turned to Baker’s account of the opposing Evangelical novels. It is a given in these novels that Anglo-Catholicism is all about the externals – of the senses, not the spirit, as we have said. As a religion, it leads people away from inner grace to a fixation on forms and ceremonies; while the decoration of churches reflects a sinful adherence to worldly pleasures. Evangelical novels do not generally express the same kind of suspicion of the intellect per se as the Tractarian novels, but what we find instead is a dismissal of art and literature as having any value in and of themselves.

That the Tractarians are, one way or another, deluded is the catch-cry of these novels. Girls are shown to be at particular risk of being drawn in: it is, we are told gravely, a short step from embroidering an altar-cloth to “going over to Rome”. Unlike the Anglo-Catholics, the Evangelicals tended to make a point of including a love-story in their novels. A number of Evangelical novels, including Emma Jane Worboise’s Overdale; or, The Story Of A Pervert, suggest that the attraction of Catholicism (Anglo or Roman) to young women is that its public display affords them – ahem – an outlet for their emotions. Once a nice young man turns up, all that nonsense is quickly forgotten. Another danger is celibate churchmen, who amusingly enough are sketched as being like catnip for their female parishioners. Celibacy is viewed with great suspicion, as evidence of the fundamental “unnaturalness” of Catholicism; and as it leads women away from love and marriage, it becomes not just wrong but wicked.

Despite all this, however, the Evangelical novels tend to be more generous to the Anglo-Catholics than vice-versa: they admit the good intentions of their spiritual enemies, even that they do much good amongst the poor; but all of this is as nothing beside such transgressions as encouraging amusements on Sundays – or frequenting theatres and other such places at any time. Thus, in Experience; or, The Young Church-Woman, an anonymous novel from 1854, we have the heroine refusing an invitation to the opera, her rule being, “Never to go anywhere to which I would not take my Saviour.”

The controversy surrounding the Oxford Movement died away during the 1850s, giving us a period of comparative calm and tolerance in the 1860s, in which religious novelists of all camps, although holding their ground, became more willing to present both sides of an argument, and to allow that their enemies, however misguided, were sincere. It was during this period that Anthony Trollope flourished. Things changed during the 1870s, however, on the back of a severe agricultural depression that put enormous pressure on the traditional landowners and brought about widespread unemployment. Life was hard for many, and it is perhaps because of this that the second wave of the Oxford Movement manifested itself as Ritualism, with an emphasis not only on ceremony, but on the emotional aspects of worship, including belief in supernatural manifestations and an embrace of mysticism.

When the Evangelicals hit back, as they inevitably did, against these “Catholic extravagances”, their retaliation was in its own way just as extravagant: whereas once religious novelists had shied away from the conventions of the form, this second wave found them using the scandalous framework of the sensation novel to make their case, telling lurid stories about religiously mixed marriages and scheming priests. Oddly, this movement produced, or at least attracted, a talented novelist in the form of Eliza Linn Lynton; perhaps she was just glad of an excuse to write a sensation novel. In any case, her Under Which Lord? is the definitive study of an Anglo-Catholic wife torn between her duty to her husband and her duty to her church. The scheming priest in this case is an advanced Ritualist, and condemned by the narrator as, A Roman Catholic in all save name and obedience…one who was contemptuous of modern science, sceptical of modern progress, and opposed to all forms of mental freedom. The distance between Lynton’s creed and that of Elizabeth Missing Sewell is staggering to contemplate.

Amusingly, this new form of Evangelical attack brought the Victorian religious novel full circle, as Francis Edward Paget, one of the pioneering Tracterian novelists of the 1840s, reacted by publishing in 1868 Lucretia; or, The Heroine Of The Nineteenth Century, a bitter and heavy-handed satire of the sensation novel, which is accused of not merely exploiting, but actively promoting all manner of sin – chiefly adultery and murder. Paget has no doubt where this novelistic trend was leading: France is not the only country in the annals of the world in which a reign of lust has been followed by a reign of terror.

The most horrifying aspect of the sensation novel, however, is that so many of them are written by – gasp! – women:

—and the worst of them, UNMARRIED WOMEN!

Emphasis his.

But this wave, too, died away. In the 1880s, novels were still dealing with religious matters, but those themes were being woven into the story instead of being the story: the era of the overt propaganda vehicle was gone. Not surprisingly, many of the novelists who had entered this particular battle subsequently sank into oblivion. Their works, equally crude and sincere, are the very definition of “an acquired taste”…yet some of us have acquired it. I shudder to reflect what The Novel And The Oxford Movement – in combination with Margaret Maison’s Search Your Soul, Eustace, which I read shortly pre-blog – has done to my wishlist. All the novels mentioned here are in there, people – it’s only a matter of time…