Friday, February 02, 2007

Religion & Science in 19th Century Britain

I am currently teaching a course for an Academy of Life Long Learning dealing with the debate/conflict between science and religion in mid nineteenth century Britain, particularly as reflected in Tennyson’s poem "In Memoriam A.H.H." Here is the general introduction to the course; I hope to add further, shorter notes as the Semester progresses:

The Wider Background

There is widespread agreement that the first half of the 19th century was an era of significant distress and disruption, socially, politically, and, above all in religious belief and practices. Our ultimate objective is to provide the setting for Tennyson’s monumental work, In Memoriam, which reflects many of the tensions so often lumped together as the “science and religion” issue: to do this, however, we need to go back to earlier settings. The tensions and turbulence hardly erupted out of a clear sky, and, to get a good understanding of the turmoils that engulfed the mid-Victorians, it will be helpful to look at some of the clouds that were already gathering long before the eighteen year-old Victoria came to the throne left vacant by the death of her Uncle, William IV.
Any procedure along these lines at once poses the question: how far back can we, should we, go? Perhaps we can take for granted that immense changes began at the Reformation, ending it as it did centuries of a more or less monolithic order for all of Europe. It is easy to assume that the Reformation brought monumental changes to the religious scene, and in some ways that is accurate, but at the deeper levels of theological principles, and, particularly, what might be called the foundational Christian positions, there was not all that much change (except, perhaps, in the case of Calvin who ratcheted up the Augustinian position quite a few notches): views of God as Unity in Trinity; of Jesus Christ as human and divine whose death continued widely to be understood as some punitive transaction that freed humankind (and both sides in the post reformation era continued to say “mankind”); of heaven and hell (though Purgatory had a rough time in Protestant circles); the view that the earth was created in 4004 B.C., this and much more remained unchallenged. The main changes in the reformed position were the new understanding of the structure and authority of the church, and, almost as a corollary to that, the status of the scriptures, where an infallible book now took the place of an infallible Pope or Council of Bishops.

The Age of Reason

It was, however, these two factors that were central in the intellectual developments of the 17th and 18th centuries. The almost universal consensus of the mediaeval period gave way to new questionings of the fixed and final authority of the Church/State of the 12th-15th centuries. Copernicus and Galileo led the way, but lest this introduction to the period with which we are concerned turn into a full-blown history of the Renaissance and the rise of science, it is necessary to jump a century or two.
As we over-fly the territory, we should note how two Englishmen dominated European thought from the 1680s on. Gerald Cragg writes, “In the early part of the eighteenth century, the prestige of English thought stood very high. This was largely due to ….two men: Isaac Newton, who had unlocked the secrets of the physical universe, and John Locke who had laid bare the inner nature of man. English ideas, when transplanted to continental countries, often proved revolutionary in their implications.” (The Church & The Age of Reason 1648-1789 - Penguin 1960, p 157).
Since Newton’s pure reasoning had produced such an elegant and (apparently) final picture of how the Universe worked, it is not surprising that the century that followed has become known as the age of reason. The centre of gravity moved from its Newtonian home to France where thinkers like Montesquieu, Voltaire and Diderot worked at the diffusion of new ideas, producing the Encyclopaedia. Cragg writes: “[The authors] were not primarily interested in communicating a specific body of knowledge; rather, they aimed at effecting a fundamental revolution in the prevailing pattern of thought.” (op. cit. p 236). This they achieved in great measure, among the intelligentsia of Europe: there was a distinct move from accepting positions on ecclesiastical authority, a move to question accepted historical evidence just on the weight of its supposed origins (Edicts on which much Papal authority was based had been shown to be forgeries), and, in general, a move to a science that was free of theological presuppositions.
Long before the 19th century began, experimental science was asking questions and providing new answers. Quite a few of the aristocratic class had laboratories in their stately homes, Robert Boyle, whose law about the behavior of gasses is well known, is a good example, the earliest experiments with static electricity were under way and in medicine a few tentative steps were being taken. It was not only in the natural sciences that things were stirring. The very understanding of history was changing. New documents were coming to light, old forgeries were being exposed, and, above all, the first signs of critical history appear, where it becomes clear, for example, that the mere number of witnesses is no guarantee of accuracy.

Beginning of the Nineteenth Century

Thus, by the beginning of the 19th century much had changed since the end of the middle ages, and the stage was set for the clashes of what might broadly be called ‘secularism’ and the defenders of traditional religion. The situation in Great Britain, however, was significantly different from affairs on the continent. The whole of Europe was still staggering from the effects of French revolution; in Britain, this led to the strengthening of traditional positions, with a good many recriminations against liberals, and a determination to void such excesses. All this has to be viewed in the light of the struggle for survival being fought against Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Religious Scene

The wider religious scene at the beginning of the new century is as complex as its understanding is essential for our purposes. For much of the 18th century, the C of E could not be called a dynamic force in English life. It was decidedly Erastian in orientation, that is to say, there was almost a symbiosis between State and Church: The Convocations had lapsed and Parliament rarely dealt with church issues (that was to change significantly in the next century); the great Cathedrals kept the services going, but were hardly shining lights; in quite a few rural areas good parsons looked after the members of the parish, lamenting that there seemed to be an increasing number of Dissenters. But, still “[The Church of England] claimed to be a national communion, big enough to contain all shades of thought and feeling, with its rules and ordinances part of pour happy Constitution and State’.” (Asa Briggs, The Making of Modern England, p 69). Among churchmen (people), there was a lively and very present awareness that the English church was “as by law established”. Ever since the time of Elizabeth I there had been groups who felt that the English reformation had not gone far enough, some though no where near far enough. Some, by the time of James I, despairing of any change in the Royal support for the establishment had, to the great relief of many in England, had departed to the new world, taking with them strong Calvinist principles and a narrow vision of a New Jerusalem; there they were to become in future centuries one of the deeper religious strains in the developing of a biblical fundamentalism and an anti-scientific attitude.

Fears of ‘Popery’

At the other end of the spectrum, the establishment continued to fear the re-establishment of a Roman Catholic monarchy. Elizabeth’ reign was plagued with plots to replace her, perhaps the most well known being the one cooked up by Sir John Babbington, aimed at putting Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary (the Scottish Queen) on the English throne. But the threat did not end with the death of Elizabeth. There followed the Stuart kings, Charles I & II, bracketing the civil war and the decade or so of the Common wealth under Cromwell – clearly a time when the “More Reformation” party, (or more accurately parties) were in the ascendant. Charles II died n February 1685, reputedly proclaiming himself a papist on his death-bed. His son, James II, clearly wanted to restore the link with Rome and precipitated what is called the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which brought the Hanoverians into power.
Even this was not the end of the story. In 1715 and again in 1745 attempts were made to restore a Stuart in the throne. They both failed, but had results that strongly influenced the religious scene in England into the 19th century. Michael Wheeler writes, “ Protestant accusations the Catholics would ‘never peaceably submit to a Protestant government’ were often repeated I the n nineteenth century, especially in the times of crisis”. (The Old Enemies – Catholic and Protestant in Nineteenth-Century English Culture. CUP 2006, p 113). Among these crises were the gradual repeal of discriminatory laws, the re-introduction of Roman Catholic Bishops, and the perceived infecting of the C of E with ‘popish’ errors clearly visible in the defection to Rome (‘going to Aunty’) of controversial figures like Jon Newman, later made a Cardinal. Thus as we move into the 19th century we have the C of E. ‘by la established’, but on one wing a significant number of dissenters, suffering under penal laws of exclusion and on the other, a lingering minority, who lived with even bigger legal exclusions, and hankered after re-connecting with Rome.


Asa Briggs remark that the established church managed to hold a very broad spectrum of theological opinion and ecclesiastical practice is certainly not over-stated. The center was occupied by what are frequently called “latitudinarians”, and though by 1800 they were more a hang-over of the rationalism of the previous century, they still minimized the speculative element in religious thinking and preferred moral duty to theological theorizings. The most dynamic group was the Evangelicals. The main evangelical movement had begun outside the C of E with the work of John Wesley who founded the “Methodist Societies”, but it took strong root within the established church, a minority movement but a very vocal one, inveighing against vice, insisting on a rigid keeping of Sunday (which they always mis-named as “the Sabbath”) and a general disapprobation of any kind of display in religion. As a result, outside their own circles, they were unpopular, accused of removing the few comforts that the working-man had (things like a pint of beer and a stroll in the Park on Sunday).. They were thought by most good, average Church of England members of the working class to be priggish and stuffy; (and, it might be added, by the vast majority of the upper and upper-middle classes); they would not have fox-hunting clergy, dancing clergy, idle clergy, academic-like preaching clergy. Nevertheless, their influence was immense. Marian Evans whom we know as George Elliott was brought up in a strongly evangelical household, allowed as a girl to read only censored versions of Shakespeare. This edition was produced by an evangelical clergyman, Dr. T(homas) Bowdler. It is possibly apocryphal and could easily be checked that Bowdler change the line in Othello, “Thy wife has played the strumpet in thy bed”, to (surely you guessed), “Thy wife has played the trumpet in thy bed.” Tennyson was brought up in a country Vicarage; his father was not an evangelical, but as a die-hard Tory had a very narrow view of life and an unquestioning loyalty to the dogmas of the reformed C of E.

Church of England – Evangelicals & Tractrians

The Evangelicals within the C of E remained fiercely protective of the established church: Chadwick writes, “Leading evangelicals were attached to the doctrine and discipline of the C of E. They exalted the prayer book, valued the establishment, [&] resented assaults upon a state church.” (The Victorian Church I, p 441). Another group, at deadly enmity with the evangelicals was not by any means as respectful of the establishment. They were the high church party, variously called the Tractarians (after a series of Tracts on theology and church polity that they wrote) or the Puseyites, after one of the leading Oxford Professors who was a major influence in their formation and continuing influence.
From the point if view of intellectual positions, the evangelicals tended from the start to an anti-intellectual stance: a trait that is still much in evidence among their contemporary descendants. The Tractarians, on the other hand, were much more scholarly, but it was a scholarship that stoutly resisted the trends of the 18th century and even more strongly what was to happen in the decades after1830. We tend to assume that only the evangelicals were, what since the early 20th century has been called Fundamentalists: the fact is that at the beginning of the 19th century almost all churchmen (as both halves of the human race were invariably called) held rigid views about the divine inspiration, and, thence, the accuracy of the Bible.
As we progress in reading In Memoriam, we shall revisit in more detail some parts of this background, especially considering the impact of the study of geology and Lyell’s Principles of Geology and an (at first) an anonymous work, The Vestiges of Creation, which appeared in 1844.

Brief Notes on the Format and Composition of In Memoriam

Alfred Tennyson was born in 1809, the fourth of what was to be a family of eleven siblings. The family history is even more convoluted than was typical for the English upper middle classes at the time. The Poet’s grandfather came from yeoman stock, but trained as a lawyer and became wealthy and, in his own eyes at least, the founder of a “county” family, that is, a substantial, land-owning Tory Squire (to whom his villagers were expected to touch their forelock). “By 1815 his properties at Grimsby alone were offered for sale at £200, 000 (about $1.8m in today’s currency), and at his death in 1835 he owned lands and manors all over northern Lincolnshire”. (Robert B. Martin, Tennyson – The Unquiet Heart Oxford 1983 p 7). Alfred’s father was the oldest son, but not the ‘old man’s’ favorite and was virtually disinherited. He was sent to Cambridge and ended up as the Rector of a rural Lincolnshire parish, Somersby.

Behind it all lay a family ‘secret’: there was a tendency for epilepsy in the Tennyson genes. At this time in history, there was some kind of stigma attached to epilepsy, almost as though it indicated moral degeneracy; for some quite inscrutable reason, its symptoms were attributed to gout. One of Alfred’s brothers was institutionalized from childhood, and several others became addicted to opium or alcohol in the efforts to control the seizures. Martin writes, “What is most probable is that among Alfred Tennyson’s ten brothers and sisters, some had attacks that resembled epilepsy”. (p 10) Alfred in later life thought he too might have the tendency and it was probably that fear, among many other factors, that delayed his marriage until he was 41. He records occasions of “trance-like” states, which were often important for his poetry. There is little doubt that for most of his life Tennyson suffered from depressive episodes and he tended to hypochondria.

He looked back on his early year in Trinity College Cambridge and the few years before that as a relatively happy time. His greatest joy was the friendship he made with a fellow Trinity student, Arthur Henry Hallam, two year his junior. Bernard writes, “The external circumstances of their lives were so different that it is surprising the most celebrated friendship of the century should ever have begun at all”. (p 69). It may not be surprising, however, that they met when both were submitting entries for the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for English verse in 1829. The two became close friends. Hallam visited Somersby, and enjoyed the informality of a large family. Eventually, he became engaged to Emily, Alfred’s younger sister. The friendship of the two men continued, and they took a memorable holiday together in Spain, involved in an amateurish plot to help some Spanish exiles over-throw King Ferdinand. The intrigue came to nothing, though they were put in some danger. The trip, however, was of immense significance to Tennyson and inspired one of his greatest poems, In the Valley of Cauteretz.
In 1831, Dr. Tennyson died after a rapid, though not unexpected decline. This put an end to Alfred’s Cambridge career, and he never did receive his BA. But he and Hallam continued to correspond and to meet from time to time. In the summer of 1833 Hallam and his father were travelling in Europe. On September 13 they were in Vienna and Arthur felt unwell; two days later he died of a brain aneurism, the result, it appeared from the post mortem, of a congenital vascular abnormality. Tennyson received the news in early October. Martin writes, “Unlike Emily, Alfred did not visibly sink under the weight of Hallam’s death…although it certainly affected him long after she had recovered from it...His one remaining resort was to poetry, used as a narcotic for an existence made temporarily meaningless. On the very day that Gladstone heard that Hallam was dead, Tennyson began the first of the lyrics he was ultimately to collect as In Memoriam”. (p 184)
In this way began a process that went on for nearly seventeen years; poems written in different places, occasioned by memories, anniversaries and recurring questionings about divine providence and the possibility of immortality, mounted up. Friends urged him to publish, but he remained reluctant. In the end he began to assemble the many pieces, providing the barest structure with three celebrations of Christmas and ending with the celebration of the marriage of Cecilia, one of his sisters, not, it may be noted that of Emily, who had been engaged to Arthur Hallam. The quirks of the final structure are clear when one notes that the Prologue was written at the very end after the compilation had been made, but the Epilogue, an epithalamium or ‘marriage song’, dates from 1842.


b.blayney said...

Very useful, thank you sir.

Anonymous said...

thank you for all these informations

Cheryl Petersen said...

Very informative. Thanks for putting religion and science in the 19th century into perspective.