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The nineteenth century brought a wave of new ideas to the shores of England. Charles Darwin’s and Thomas Huxley’s scientific discoveries and intellectual innovations challenged previously held systems of belief.  Leading nineteenth-century intellectuals battled the Church of England and struggled to absorb radical scientific discoveries that upended everything the Bible had taught them about the world. As Christopher Lane argued in “The Age of Doubt,” the explosion of questioning among Christian thinkers in the Victorian era transformed the idea of doubt from a religious sin or lapse to necessary ethical exploration.  As a result, Victorians came to view doubt as inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, as well as a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and unbridled certainty. Despite the proliferation of doubters within the Church, this method of questioning was not held to be detrimental to the continued existence of said religious body. The ‘New Reformation’ was considered to be a process of purification, rather than an attack on faith. Rather than using new scientific evidence to discredit the Church as a whole, scientific, literary, and intellectual icons applied new discoveries to refine what was taught within the walls of the chapel and edit doctrine that had been called into question by physical and empirical evidence. In this way, doubt in the nineteenth century served to purify religion from within, not negate it from an exterior perspective.

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The Victorian ‘Crisis of Faith’ The Crisis of Faith refers to an event in the Victorian era in which much of Europe’s middle class begins to doubt what is written in the book of Genesis as a reliable source in accordance of how the universe was created (Flynn). An important work to consider is written in 1802 by William Paley called Natural Theology: Or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Paley writes in the belief that God is the sole creator of the universe and that all existing species were created by God perfectly for his intended universal balance. Needless to say, this ideology denounces the possibility of evolution which would be suggested later by Charles Darwin in his work entitled On the Origin of Species in 1859 (Fyfe, van Wyhe).

A relatively new science, geology, becomes popular in the Victorian Age which, like Darwin, diverts people’s oppinions away from the ideologies of Paley. Geologists begin to discover concrete evidence of earth’s processes which did not add up to the events written about in the book of Genesis. In particular, there is a break through in geology proving that the earth is at least a thousand years older than the Bible suggests (Flynn). Accordingly, a tension emerges between the opposing religious men and newly popular men of science. Consider the way in which Richard Helmstadeter describes the crisis of faith as: “an intellectual and emotional upheaval, stemming from challenges to the hitoricity of the Bible, discoveries in geology and biology, and concerns about morality, or rather, the apparent lack of it, in nature. Science and religion, more precisely science and theology, were deemed to be ‘in conflict’, the battle lines clearly drawn.” However, this is certainly not to speak on behalf of every scientist and religious expert of the time. Evidently, even certain Evangelical religious figures begin to agree that the book of Genisis should not be taken literally over the recent scientific studies. There is, needless to say, with the emergence of the growing popularity in geology in England, correspondingly religious geologists. Their study of geology ties to a greater purpose in interpreting the book of Genesis over again so as to keep the faith from being abandoned due to gaps in religious credibility (Fyfe, van Wyhe).

To elaborate on what was hinted upon above regarding the ideas of William Paley, it is important to note that his perception of the universe is very cut and dry; it could be described as very mechanical even. He opens his book by creating his argument in chapter one by hypothetically, describing an instance in which he stumbles across a stone in a vast heath. In asking the question how that stone got there, he says that for all he knew, the stone could have been there for ever. Then he hypothetically alludes to a scene where he stumbles across a watch, and inquiring again how it got there. The answer is more involved: the main idea that Paley is hinting at in this watch example here is that every species was created by God perfectly for a reason, providing balance in the universe. The idea is that every part of the watch has a purpose which contributes to the greater use of telling time. Paley is describing his view of how the universe works by comparing it to how a watch functions. He does state the notion more specifically to species, saying that “No animal, for instance, can have contrived its own limbs and senses; can have been the author to itself of the design with which they were constructed” (Hart). 

Contradicting the idea of God being a sufficient explanation for the way the universe is ballenced, Charles Darwin would challenge the ideals preceeding his in Paley’s book. Darwin argues directly against the idea that everything was created by God perfectly, and the idea that evolving species would throw off the ballence of the universe. Think back to the watch example from Paley; he says that every part of the watch serves a purpose for its greater use. Darwin’s ideals suggest that it is unrealistic to tie the universe to such a mechanical connotation as unchanging and the notion that change would bring about great disorder. 

In his essay “Faith and Doubt in Victorian Fiction” Reg Tye observes that “the retention of faith under a variety of onslaughts” was one of the most excruciating and consuming problems faced by the Victorians (139-40). Advances in science, the influence of German higher criticism, political reforms, drastic changes in society and culture as a result of industrialization and newly articulated philosophies–all challenged the Established Church and threatened to undermine belief. Certainly, one of the forces to shake the Anglican Church in the first half of the century was the Oxford Movement. The insistence on a return to pre-Reformation faith in the Church itself, though it instigated much needed reform, stirred debate over the power of the Church and placed Church members at odds. The strain between factions in the Church and the threat of Catholicism challenged Anglican orthodoxy. The Oxford Movement was unsettling to the Established Church because its proponents raised questions not only about the practice of belief but also about the essence of belief itself. According to Margaret Maison, the Oxford Movement showed that “simple faith was not as simple as the ordinary Anglican had imagined” (210) ; it was a very complex matter ever intertwined with personal convictions. A contrasting force that moved the Church in an opposite direction was the Evangelical movement. In contrast to the high church emphasis of the Oxford Movement, the low church emphasis of the Evangelicals was on simplicity, personal faith, and religious experience. Evangelicals also challenged Anglican orthodoxy by questioning traditional practices of the Church and placing greater emphasis on private expression in belief. The movement precipitated theological battles that lasted throughout the century. The earmark of Evangelical Christianity–personal faith–was wielded as a strong weapon against the forces that threatened to undermine belief; for, as Noel Annan asserts, Evangelicals “scorned the value of evidence and proofs and waged all on the conviction of faith” (103) . Thus, throughout the century Evangelicals voiced some of the strongest objections to the findings of science and higher criticism while seeking to counter their influence. The significance of the Oxford and Evangelical movements lies in their impact on the mindset of nineteenthcentury Anglicans. Perhaps both movements made the expression of private belief more acceptable than it had been a century before and, at the same time, set the stage for the dethronement of orthodoxy by questioning the traditional teachings and practices of the Church. The Established Church also felt the effects of national politics and the interference of political parties in the business of the Church. Political reform along with division within the Church was partially responsible for the decline in the influence of the Established Church in Victorian England, but other forces played a much larger role. The “serious decline” in the “authority and influence” of the Anglican Church in the second half of the nineteenth century noted by Horton Davies in his discussion of the theological revolution in England between 1850 and 1900 (Worship and Theology 198) was also a result of the difficulties raised by advances in knowledge and new theories that made long-held beliefs shaky. As Robert Young points out, the nineteenth century witnessed the application of the “naturalistic or scientific approach to the earth, life, man, his mind and society …” (16) which led to fresh perspectives in utilitarianism, population theory, phrenology, psychology, and theology itself–all of which brought the traditional teachings of the Church into question. As Victorians began to reject what they had been taught to believe, the Established Church found itself in a precarious position. In The Victorian Church Owen Chadwick summarizes its plight at midcentury : Three forces were driving Christianity to restate doctrine: natural science, historical criticism, moral feeling. Natural science shattered assumptions about Genesis and about miracles. Criticism questioned whether all history in the Bible was true. Moral feeling found the love of God hard to reconcile with hell-fire or scapegoat-atonement. (1:551)

The Church found itself overwhelmed by serious threats to its traditional teachings and challenged by forces that pushed for a restatement of theology. In The Victorian Frame of Mind Walter Houghton maintains that particularly after mid-century questions regarding religion were widespread. Victorians found themselves asking whether there was a God or a heaven or a hell and wondering whether there was such a thing as a true religion (11). As the Bible became a text to be critically examined and as enlightened men began to posit new explanations for the existence of mankind and the condition of the world, it became increasingly difficult to hold on to a traditional belief system. While many, even most, thinking people could retain their traditional beliefs through the first half of the century, later in the century, it was almost impossible. Bernard Reardon highlights the progressive instability of orthodox belief: At the outset of the nineteenth century the religion of the Christian churches still provided an intellectual and moral frame of reference which even the religiously indifferent in the main admitted. At its end this frame of reference had lost credibility. (470) The instability of orthodox belief led to the Victorian crisis of faith. The crisis was pervasive and particularly pronounced among the educated. As Robert Wolff points out, the more numerous and articulate class of doubters in Victorian England were “rebellious and tormented intellectuals” (Gains 366). Vidler convincingly adds, “Nearly all the representatives of Victorian thought, nearly all the intellectuals, had to struggle with the problem of belief” (112). Clearly, the educated were the most immediate victims of doubt. For intellectuals the influence of new thought was intimidating if not overwhelming; it caused much unsettlement in the Victorian mind. Alasdair MacIntyre outlines the major challenges to the faith of a nineteenth-century intellectual in the first chapter of The Religious Significance of Atheism: Most of those whose belief was put in question in the mid-nineteenth century had to cope with issues unique to their culture: Darwinian biology; the philosophical theories derived from Hegel (whether by continental Feuerbachians or by Green and Bradley); and perhaps above all the new techniques of historical criticism, which both partly grew out of and found their most radical assumptions in the quest for the historical Jesus. (4)

All of these concerns preoccupied the literati. Novelists were the spokespersons for the age, writing about social evils, new scientific theories, political corruption, Church controversies–in short, every facet of Victorian life. This intimate connection between literature and life in the Victorian novel makes the novel one of the most rewarding records of the Victorian mind. While the debate over what to think and believe was waged in periodicals, pubs, drawing rooms and at dinner tables, conversations were often informed by the latest novel. The novel was used as a platform to express every kind of opinion,- but, as Wolff contends in Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England, the subject that held the attention of the novelists more than any other was religion (1). According to Maison, the religious novel reached its “most glorious zenith” during the Victorian age (2) . Anything and everything related to religion, to belief, to church practices became subject matter for fiction. Many who had never written before picked up the pen to express their beliefs; some made a career of religious fiction, and established writers joined the foray. In fact, an extensive reading of Victorian religious novels provides a thorough picture of Christian belief in Victorian England. 

The subject of doubt increasingly drew the attention of Victorian writers; consequently, there was a notable shift in the interests of the religious novel after 1860. Novelists placed a greater emphasis on the personal struggle of the character experiencing a crisis of faith and took a greater interest in exploring the causes of doubt. Moreover, the portrayal of doubters was modified. As Maison suggests, novels before mid-century tended to be melodramatic and didactic. Typically, the demise of the hero served “as a dreadful warning to doubters” (214) . She notes that novelists in the 1840s expressed conventional condemnation of doubt and unbelief. Doubters were treated as sinners “and almost invariably punished by madness or death” (212). However, a new attitude toward unbelief became evident between 1850 and 1880, as novelists portrayed doubters more sympathetically (Maison 217) . In The Novel and the Oxford Movement. Baker makes a case for a greater interest in the subjective life of the characters portrayed in novels of the 1860s and 1870s. Many novelists of that period provided a sincere depiction of the tragedies attending loss of faith. Other novelists not only portrayed doubters and unbelievers with more sympathy,- they also patiently, sometimes painstakingly, put their cases before the public. In fact, Jay maintains that regression toward doubt proved a strong inspiration to novelists in the later part of the century (Faith 6) as they carefully mapped out the path from belief to doubt and, in many cases, the road to redefinition of faith.

Victorian novelists were well aware of the looming threats to orthodox belief and thoughtfully explored the many causes of doubt in their fiction. They were especially aware of the clash between religion and science and, according to Leo Henkin, gave more attention to religion’s struggle with science than to any other Victorian concern (260). The broad application of science redefined nineteenth-century thought, and the writers of the age sought to come to terms with all the implications of this redefinition. Two areas of scientific application that had deep impact upon religious belief were evolutionary theory and German higher criticism.

Evolutionary theory was one of the forces that posed a major threat to established belief in the nineteenth century. The concept of evolution was not, however, new to the Victorians. Evolutionary theory was anticipated early in the eighteenth century by Leibnitz and DeMaillet, who argued against the concept of the immutability of species. DeMaillet’s study of fossils led him to suggest that the world was older than had been previously thought and to formulate theories that were precursors to natural selection. Later in the century, Linnaeus and Buffon theorized that “animated beings had come into existence by some process other than special creation, ” and both inquired into the variation of species (White 1:60). Evolutionary theory was given further support by geologists. In the first part of the nineteenth century, advances in geological study, particularly the work of Georges Cuvier and Charles Lyell, demonstrated that the earth was much older than was originally thought. Extending the theories of James Hutton and William Smith, they pointed out that the age of the earth as presented by contemporary geology did not correspond with the Biblical account.

By far the most disconcerting presentation of evolutionary theory to the Victorians came in 1859. In The Origin of Species. Charles Darwin presented detailed and systematic scientific evidence of evolution and posited that natural selection was the cause of species origin and variation. As Andrew White states, Darwin’s work transcended all that had been written before because his theories were supported by “minute research, wide observation” and “patient collation” (1:67) .  The premise of The Origin of Species was that all nature operates under “one general law leading to the advancement of all organic beings–namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die” (208) . Darwin argued against special creation, saying that we are mistaken in thinking that any species was suddenly produced and making a case for a common progenitor for existing species. Darwin’s theory pictured an independent creation of life and life forms that sustained themselves in accordance with natural laws apart from divine intervention.

A major blow was leveled against traditional belief as evolutionary theory discounted intentional creation. The theory questioned not only God’s role in creation and His authority over creation, but perhaps His very existence. As Bernard Reardon observes, an acceptance of an autonomous natural order made it difficult to find evidence of a divine being in the act of creation or the governing of nature (286). In suggesting that man did not owe his existence to God, Darwin’s theory suggested that God was not in control of the universe, that He had no personal interest in man, that man was not uniquely created in His image. Darwin’s argument was that species were not independently created, that they had evolved over a long period of time, that secondary causes explain the existence of life on earth. While he acknowledged a Creator who set all in motion, he denied special creation. 

Clearly, the advances in natural and biological science in the nineteenth century cast doubt on “the indispensable underpinnings of the Christian faith” (Young 20). The main difficulty that these advances posed for orthodox believers was to question creationism and by extension the traditional conception of the Creator. Yet, if one adjusted his view of creation, he could still believe in a Supreme Being, as Lyell, Chambers, and Darwin did, and retain much of his traditional belief, in particular the teachings of the New Testament. As Horton Davies points out, while the natural sciences implicitly criticized “the accepted Biblical account of the Creator . . . they cast no direct aspersions on the Redeemer, nor the record of His life as narrated in the pages of the New Testament” (Worship and Theology 181).

The most critical challenge to New Testament teaching came from the second major threat to established belief in the nineteenth century, higher criticism. The influence of German higher criticism of the Bible had as much to do with casting doubt on traditional belief as any other force in Victorian England.