The Victorian faithful

Faith was very important to the Victorians, and when I say faith I mean Christianity. In fact so much so that Peter Goldsmith Medd wrote that:

‘Every Christian Household ought to be a Church in miniature’. Household Prayer by Peter Goldsmith Medd 1864

So the idea was to set apart a room assuming you had a large enough house:

‘An oblong room is best, with a Prayer Desk, at which the Reader may kneel facing the end wall or window furthest away from the door. The congregation should range themselves down the two sides of the room, with their backs to the wall, and, without turning round, kneel down in that position, so as still to face each other. The. males and females may take opposite sides, or the family one side and the servants the other. Chairs, or long benches, may be placed along, and close to, the side walls. But if the room be narrow this is not necessary, as those assembled may stand during the saying of the Psalms or the reading of the Lesson’.’

But the Victorian Era changed much for the faithful.

The Anglican Church (Church of England) had gained a vast amount of power. It ran both the running schools and universities. It had members in the House of Lords but during the Victorian era dissent started t show it’s head, not so much in the out-of-the-way countryside, but in the ever-growing industrialized urban centers, the cities…people wanted more than a religious hierarchy, more than a demanded obedience to God, they wanted a living church that really cared about the poor and lower classes not just the well to do and the elite.

And so sects started to arise, directly out of Anglican came Methodism, it was John Wesley’s evangelistic revival with his brother Charles that led to the formation of the Methodist Church of which there are still some seventy million adherents worldwide. Congregationalism, where people got together and set up their own independent churches, they tended to be non-conformist that is to say they refused to conform or follow the governance and usages of the Church of England. The Society of Friends, friends Church or more commonly known as The Quakers and Presbyterians who followed the teaching of John Calvin.

Baptists were thriving thanks to the gifted speaker and writer Charles Spurgeon. He preached to thousands in the open air as well as in churches. And The Metropolitan Tabernacle in London was built to accommodate his regular congregation which grew to over 6,000.

The Anglican Church changed, had to change and then came Charles Darwin’s work On the Origin of Species, it was published on 24 November 1859 which is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology. This caused a crisis in faith for the Victorian era.

The book was produced varying responses and I think we have to bear in mind that secularism was growing by this time.

He stated that natural selection and survival of the fittest were the reasons man had survived so long. His theory of evolution based on empirical evidence would call into question Christian beliefs and Victorian values. And yet some in the  Church of England, some interpreted natural selection as an instrument of God’s design:

“just as noble a conception of Deity” Cleric Charles Kingsley 

So it became an age of intellectual questioning with challenges to faith from science, philosophy and Biblical criticism. Nietzsche claimed ‘God is dead’, clearly he wasn’t as the 1.5 Billion Christians today attest too but what an outrageous statement to make.

Alongside this we have the Evangelical revival (as mentioned earlier) had a significant effect on morality mainly in the working classes but this soon spread to other sections of society during the early Victorian era. This Evangelical Christianity gained ground not only in the Anglican Church but also in the independent Churches as well and as the young Queen Victoria sat on the throne there was a shift to religious respectability.

In the second half of the century the Salvation Army was founded by William Booth, his primary concern was for people’s salvation but he also say temperance as a way forward as alcohol was one of the ills of the time

The Roman Catholic church also grew in cities and universities having been suppressed for so many years.

Some in the Anglican church wanted strengthen the traditional values of the Church and the Oxford Movement was born. Some of its adherents left the Church of England to become Catholics including John Henry Newman who was later appointed a cardinal.

Many of these Churches helped developed small congregational or satellite missions to help with the poor and destitute meeting their physical needs as well as their perceived spiritual needs.

Amazingly by the end of the century about 400,000 new and translated hymns had been published so I do have to wonder about the ‘crisis of faith’ caused by Darwin’s book, how much of a crisis was it?

It speaks well for the growth of practical religion in our land, that few books form a safer speculation in the trade than Forms of Prayer for Family Worship, especially if they are good enough to get a name. The annual sale of such books is very large, and there is great choice. The London Review Oct 1860 – 1861