If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.  John Ruskin, 1851
Sometimes it is being confronted by the belief of others that makes doubt grow strong in us. It may be easy for me to affirm that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin in conversation, but when I encounter the earnest faith of someone who says that the virgin birth is a crucial part of God’s story of salvation, something we should all think about more seriously and prayerfully, I may then feel how weak is my belief in such a doctrine. Perhaps I may even resent my interlocutor’s faith. I may wish for convincing arguments for this or any other disputed article of the faith. Perhaps I would feel paralyzed, not indeed by someone else’s faith, but by how that faith reveals my own doubt.
This is how I imagine it was for Scintillula, the pseudonymous writer whose plaintive 1858 writer to the editors of the Christian Observer shows so much opprobrium, not at the editors’ faith per se, but at what he sees as their refusal to present to him “the whole strength of the evidence” for their faith. But that interaction needs to be prefaced by a word or two about the Victorian crisis of faith in which Scintillula found himself an unwilling participant. Perhaps this crisis, and the responses of Scintillula and others, can help us to understand the moment we are now placed in, in which it seems anxious doubt is in the ascendant over simple faith — in our hearts as much as in the world around us.
The Victorians were different from other groups of Christians who came before them. They were arguably the first doubters to express unbelief in ways that are recognizable today.
Evangelical believers in Victorian Britain were arguably those most affected by the crisis of faith, not only because of the emotional intensity and centrality of their faith, but because in the mid-19th century, they were on a march through British institutions, ambitiously seeking to transform everyday life for the gospel, and thus had much to lose. The key fact about Victorian religion, as several scholars have noted, is that there was so much of it for skeptics to rebel against. This essay uses the term “Victorian,” not only because it is concerned with events during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) but because it deals with many of the things that made the Victorians Victorian in the sense that this term is still used today. While “evangelical” is a contested term, the working definition used in this essay comes from David Bebbington’s quadrilateral: Evangelicals are characterized by (1) biblicism, (2) crucicentrism, (3) conversionism, and (4) activism.
While some scholars have deprecated the Victorian crisis of faith, reacting against its overemphasis of the crisis in secularization narratives, other scholars have taken a more empirical approach. Frederick Gibbs and Daniel Cohen have used longitudinal mapping of religious literature to show that the Victorians were not exaggerating religious change, with their research showing “a clear collapse in religious publishing beginning around the time of the 1851 Religious Census.” This, coupled with the Victorian self-perception of increasing doubt and unbelief, is certainly strong evidence for a crisis of some kind afflicting Victorian believers.
Religious doubt is isolating if it is anything. Victorian doubters in particular have been called “people without belonging,” by Grace Davie — that is, moderns. It is certainly important, then, to interpret the crisis through the lens of individual experience, not just through broader trends. For this essay, it will be the anonymous doubter Scintillula, whose plaintive 1858 letter to the Christian Observer periodical is a singular and unvarnished first-hand account of the religious doubt beginning to afflict evangelicals at this time. This essay will use “faithful doubters” like Scintillula, and the responses of the Christian Observer and other Victorians to religious doubt, to provide an account focusing specifically on evangelicals.
Doubt itself was not a new feature in Victorian evangelicalism. In fact, evangelicals in every century who truly took on board the totalizing claims of faith often experienced a continual internal battle between faith and doubt, and would have felt the truth of the maxim that “He who doubts little, believes little.” Long before the 19th century, Philipp Melanchthon, not alone among the Reformers, wrote of being “tortured with horrible doubts,” language that seems more characteristic of the Victorians three hundred years later. Unchanging factors led to some level of baseline doubt among committed Christians, so I will focus not on the mere presence of doubt among Victorians, but the ways expressions of doubt changed and, for some, grew over time.
Scintullula’s letter displays the startling gulf that separated evangelicals who dealt with visceral doubts and those who sought to combat those doubts pastorally. It is frank — even desperate — in its approach to faith and doubt, giving a sense of the divide that existed between the often-complacent apologetics of the Observer and struggling believers.
I by no means think, in my best moments, that there is not such evidence for the great truths of the Bible as ought to establish them in every reasonable mind. But it seems to me that religious men, and even the “Christian Observer,” while they are ready enough to rebuke and condemn us, are by no means sufficiently anxious to place before us the whole strength of this evidence. It is impossible to say what poor arguments will satisfy those who are already convinced; and, satisfied themselves, many good men are content to leave us alone with our perplexities. Accordingly, the old dishes of proof and evidence — often of the most unsatisfactory character — are hashed up again and again, and served at our tables, as though they would completely satisfy our appetite. Will your friends be so good as to consider this, — that bad arguments are worse than none to honest minds?
Scintillula was undergoing a momentous crisis of faith, stronger than that of most Victorian doubters. He implies that he is or has been a student at Oxford, and says “no young man, for the last twenty years, can have lived [at Oxford] for the fixed period of his education, without having had innumerable provocations to doubt and infidelity suggested to him.” Here is how he describes the experience of doubt in one plaintive passage:
Why, sometimes, when I am trying to pray, a great dark cloud seems to settle down over the whole of the Bible and the eternal world; sometimes the very words of Scripture seem only to suggest doubts; sometimes my imagination seems to stand, as it were, on the watch for difficulties, and I spring upon them like a bird on his prey.
This provides an interesting comparison to John Ruskin’s words at the beginning of this piece. Like other Victorian doubters also, Scintillula himself does not appear to understand why he is afflicted more deeply than his older contemporaries. He speculates that they had “power given to them,” that is, supernaturally, to resist doubt. Perhaps this is the only way he can imagine not being afflicted by doubts in the way that he is. Scintillula ends his letter with a touching, almost pathetic note of deference, asking that he and other young men afflicted by doubt would be accepted, not spurned, by “Mr. Observer,” as prodigal sons returning to the house of their father. Scintillula’s full letter, with digitization errors corrected, can be read here.
Scintillula wrote anonymously; it is thus only speculative to ask how his crisis of faith was resolved. He may well have reaffirmed orthodox faith — he clearly desired to do so. But many other avenues were open to him: for an educated young man in mid-Victorian England, the possibilities for religious searching were nearly as infinite as they are today.
Responding to Doubt
In some ways, the Christian Observer saw the same phenomena that Scintillula observed. At the mid-century mark, the Observer spoke of the “infidelity of the age” and a “cross-tide of infidelity and Romanism,” but also references the “infidelity of the last generation,” making it clear that the Observer did not yet suspect that the tide of religious sentiments was turning decisively against evangelical belief. In 1856, the Observer noted again that it was a former generation in which Christian belief was in danger: “Those were distressing times, when freethinking was the fashion. We trust there is no danger of the recurrence of this state of things…” The Observer had no reason to revisit this complacency until the events of the early 1860s.
Indeed, one characteristic of the Observer’s response to skepticism to a surprisingly late date is its confidence in the ability of evangelicals to push back unbelief in the church. The 1861 Preface points out that the fall of the Tractarians from influence resulted in the rise of a new party (the skeptics), who would by implication one day fall from favor themselves. The presence of doubt, even within clerical ranks, was not enough to convince the evangelicals that their cause was in serious danger. One 1861 contributor seems to accept the presence of doubt without it necessitating a life-or-death struggle within the church, quoting Pascal: “There is light enough for those whose sincere wish is to see; and darkness enough to confound those of an opposite disposition.”
But if the Observer did not at this time doubt the outcome of the war with unbelief, it certainly understood that a battle was raging, writing in 1862 that “The flood-gates once opened, the tide of unbelief is rushing in with a fiercer torrent, and we have no reason to suppose that it has reached its height, or that our duty of resistance is approaching to its close.” If something more fundamental was at risk, the entire idea of a Christian Britain, this was not yet clear to the Observer. In 1857, a contributor confidently asserted that “[Gospel truths] are so stamped on the national mind as, we trust, never more to be erased or forgotten.”
For some doubting Victorians, the answer was not to believe less but to believe more. In 1851, the Observer wrote that Roman proselytes, who by this time could count John Henry Newman himself among their number, “seek repose from their own unbelief under the shelter of [papal] infallibility.” In 1852 a typical convert to Rome “rejoices because he gets rid of doubts which had long pressed upon his soul.” The Observer wrote of Newman in 1851 that he was “the most skeptical of all skeptical minds — a man accustomed to spurn all reasonable evidence.” While Newman’s legendary faith makes this statement hard to credit, his writings do indeed confirm it in at least one sense:
We are told that God has spoken. Where? In a book? We have tried it and it disappoints; it disappoints, that most holy and blessed gift, not from fault of its own, but because it is used for a purpose for which it was not given.
When the Bible was critically examined (“tried”), Newman felt that it could not prove itself to be true and needed the Roman Catholic magisterium to do so. This played a key role in his conversion. For other Tractarians, these doubts about scripture could not be alleviated even by conversion to Rome. Some of the most dedicated Tractarians, like Newman’s own brother Francis, became some of the most vociferous skeptics. The Observer did not hesitate to report on the progression of Tractarians to skeptics, mentioning it gleefully and repeatedly. In this way the authority and reliability of scripture, which had raised questions during the Tractarian debate, became the basis for the most momentous crisis of faith recorded in the Observer.
The later movements of some Tractarians illuminates a paradox of Victorian spirituality. The “zeal of the convert” was visible not only in those who “got religion” for the first time through the unparalleled evangelistic action of the established Church or of myriad other Protestants (cf. Charles Spurgeon), but also those who left Protestantism entirely for Rome. This became more visible after Pope Pius IX recreated the Roman Catholic diocesan hierarchy in the United Kingdom in 1850. However, for some religious movers, Francis Newman being only one example, the first religious move was not the last, and could ultimately result in deconversion. This was perhaps especially true for converts to Catholicism, who often felt that Rome’s demands on their lives through religious ritual were less taxing than the Church of England’s demands on their intellect (e.g. that clergymen must subscribe to the Articles of Religion). For 19th century deconverts, the process was rarely a straight line from evangelical belief to agnosticism (a term coined by T.H. Huxley in 1869) — it could come after stints in Tractarianism or (later) Eastern religion.
The Argument that Failed
Scientific developments and institutional changes of the 19th century certainly played a role in Scintillula’s doubt, just as the traditional secularization accounts might have predicted. It is significant that he writes in 1858, the year before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, showing how endemic this type of “modern” doubt was even before Darwin. It is Scintillula’s reluctant openness to consider the idea of an impersonal order that separates him from the Observer, and this openness did not come from urbanization or Lamarckian evolution, nor even from “higher criticism” of the Bible. Instead, it came as the result of a centuries-long process in which Western people began to see themselves as alienated from the personal, “enchanted” universe that characterized the medieval social imaginary — they became, in short, fully modern.
Scintillula sees this centuries-long accretion as a “dark cloud” between himself and the eternal world. This dark cloud is oppressive to him, but in one sense it also gives him the freedom to do the most modern thing possible: to choose his religious creed according to his own lights. This was the new reality: religious pluralism in Victorian minds, if not in Victorian society. It birthed the temptation, not to adventure into the distant reaches of Empire, but into uncharted spiritual vistas. This unmade Victorian religion, and forged a new, modern religious synthesis.
Of course, as people like Scintillula doubted, older Christians took notice. In a particularly revealing sermon delivered to Oxford students in 1861, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce gave advice to doubters:
Whilst irreverence and doubt are the object of your greatest fear; whilst you would gladly retain a childlike and unquestioning reverence by abasing, if need were, your understanding, rather than gain any knowledge at the hazard of your reverence; you are doubtless in God’s hands, and therefore safe…Fly, therefore, rather than contend; fly to known truths.
While Wilberforce’s fideism is certainly one possible response to doubt, many Victorians were drawn in a different direction, towards a scientific-philosophical defense of the faith rooted in the work of Joseph Butler and William Paley, what has been termed the Butler-Paley apologetic. Although these names may no longer be familiar to us, their arguments continue to underpin a certain variety of Christian apologetics.
Bishop Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion was published in 1736 and William Paley’s Natural Theology, or Evidences dates to 1802. In the Observer, our barometer of mainstream evangelical opinion, Butler is mentioned 69 times, and the Analogy is mentioned at least ten times between 1850 and 1875. Paley is mentioned 157 times during this period. The word “evidences” appears 330 times and there are 19 mentions of “natural theology.” The Observer continued to employ Butler’s Analogy until its last year of publication. Paley’s Evidences remained required reading for Cambridge undergraduates well into the 20th century.
This focus on Butler and Paley in the Observer is consonant with the wider context of Victorian apologetics. To summarize the historian Josef Altholz, Butler and Paley were used together to create a cohesive argument simply by showing with Butler that Christianity was credible (or, more credible than any alternative) and then using Paley to show that the witness of scripture was in fact historically true.
Writing about this form of apologetic, Charles Taylor is unsparing in his verdict: the Butler-Paley apologetic represented a dramatic turn in apologetics away from the “saving action of Christ” to “demonstrating God as Creator, and showing his Providence.” This had deeply negative consequences. The new apologetics:
Open[ed] the door to atheism when it thinks most effectively to have barred it. The barring is meant to come through strenuous argument, but the opening comes from the shift in standpoint. Both the proposers of these arguments from benevolent design of the universe, and their addressees, are presumed to stand outside of the previous Christian horizon of practice, prayer and hope, at least for the sake of argument. God is not essential to the very framework of their lives, but an entity (albeit an important one) which we have to reason towards out of this framework.
In the traditional account, God is placed outside the “framework of [our] lives” by the Enlightenment, but for Taylor, it is Christian apologists who do this in a way that has deep and long-lasting consequences, because it was more immediately and lastingly influential on the intellectual conceptions of faith held by believers themselves. 19th century Christians were by no means all content with the Butler-Paley model for apologetics, but as late as 1871 the Observer offered a full-throated defense of it.
A New Path
The shift of Christian apologetics since Darwin, especially since World War II, has been from arguments from design, which require verifiable, scientific data as confirmatory evidence, to more philosophical and personal theological approaches. William Paley said that the visible universe had a God-shaped hole in it, while Billy Graham asserted that the human heart did.
Nor was this trend limited to popular evangelism. In academic apologetics, this trend gathered steam as certain developments in philosophy that were a threat to religious belief, such as logical positivism, fell out of favor. Elizabeth Anscombe, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others, credibly defended theism within the discipline of philosophy in a way that is now spreading downstream to popular apologetics. Plantinga especially, with his work on “warranted Christian belief,” provided a defense of Christianity as axiomatic that has already taken up a place in the work of popular apologists akin to that of Butler’s Analogy in the 19th century.
But Plantinga, unlike Butler, starts with what Charles Taylor calls the modern social imaginary as a basic assumption. Plantinga begins from a position of epistemic humility, tempered by the skepticism of everyone from Kierkegaard to Gödel and Heisenberg. If our mental starting place for such an argument can be compared to a structure, we could say that Plantinga is attempting to build a small, sturdy house on a good foundation — not a large, capacious tent (the argument from design discussed above). His aim is to build something structurally much sounder, if epistemically more modest.
If Plantinga were a modern-day Victorian, he would feel duty-bound to make his arguments for God accord with quantum mechanics or string theory — or even use these theories as evidence for God. Victorian apologists swarmed to the cutting edge of scientific discovery like moths. Indeed Paley was not only a successful apologist, but a well-informed scientific thinker. The emphasis on science could and did lead to the “book of nature” eclipsing God’s more personal and salvific “book of scripture.” The emphasis on philosophy, then, and especially on the epistemological humility encouraged by the postmodern turn, has been a surprising boon to Christian apologists.
But the Victorian apologists in the Observer were children of their age. Was it ever possible that they could have cut their ambitions for apologetics down to size? Could something like Plantinga’s “warranted Christian belief” have ever taken root in the Victorian era? It is not completely far-fetched, since Plantinga’s work owes much to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710-1796), Hume’s nemesis, who is referred to several times, including in the same sentence as Bishop Butler, in the Christian Observer.
On the whole, however, the caution of Plantinga’s position and the epistemological humility that characterizes the modern Christian apologetic project (notably excepting the work of Cornelius van Til and his followers) would have been difficult to accept for many Victorian evangelicals who seemed to be at the height of their powers, mobilizing in every area of society. This, in part, is why the Victorian crisis of faith caused so much intellectual heartache: strained by vast application, ambitious apologetic arguments began to fray and break. The apologetic that emerged out of the ashes of religious crisis and two world wars was humbler, more chastened, and more personal, as seen in the work of C.S. Lewis, who wrote of “mere” Christianity.
It was never inevitable that Victorian evangelicals would lose the purity of their faith. But it was inevitable that their apologetic methods, which depended so much on developments of science harmonizing with the appearance of design in the universe, would be shaken to the core when scientific developments didn’t play along. The revivalist theologian and father of modern evangelicalism Jonathan Edwards died of a botched smallpox inoculation in 1758. This shows that not only does the virulence of a disease and the natural immunity of the body play a role in the fight for survival, but that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease, as with Edwards’s inoculation. Perhaps Victorian apologetics could be compared to a bad inoculation; perhaps, on balance, they weakened the faith of more Victorians than they helped. And perhaps apologetics, like the science of vaccination, is something that can now provide a much higher chance of survival to a doubting believer than once it could.
In my research, I have tried to reveal something that most narratives of the Victorian crisis of faith do not: the doubting-but-still-faithful Christian rather than the joyous new convert or the angry exvangelical. The believer for whom God’s promises ring true and yet who is not free, temporarily or permanently, from earth-shaking doubts. The literate elites who played such a large role in Victorian society have left many accounts of loss of faith — George Eliot and Francis Newman, brother to John Henry, being but two examples. But the existing literature has paid little attention either to evangelical defenders of orthodoxy or to the earnest doubters like Scintillula who showed a sincere desire to remain within that orthodoxy. Despite the corrosive doubt of the Victorian era, remaining within evangelical orthodoxy would have been one of the most common outcomes of religious crisis. So it must be for struggling believers in our own time.
Perhaps the most startling thing in the study of Victorian evangelical doubt is how little it differs from that of today. The Victorians were indeed, as Charles Taylor argued, the first doubters to express unbelief in ways that are recognizable today. In 1858, Scintillula wrote of a “dark cloud” descending upon him when he attempted to read the Bible. This characterization of religious doubt is still made today, in strikingly similar terms, for example by Joseph Minich: “One cannot read the Bible without wondering (and even feeling) that perhaps it is just a historical document. One cannot pray without it feeling vaguely plausible that one’s prayers are but puffs of wind in a silent cosmos.”
The similarity of contemporary religious doubt to its Victorian ancestor is fascinating in itself, but also suggests that the study of contemporary religious doubt, even the amelioration of it, could benefit from more incisive knowledge of how Victorian believers doubted, and how they attempted to resolve those doubts. There may be an opening for researchers to consider religious doubt not just as the threat of loss of faith, but something that could indeed, despite the protestations of the Observer, lead to stronger faith, without being in itself a positive good. A template for this may be seen in John Henry Newman’s novel Loss and Gain in which the faith that is temporarily lost is a lesser thing than the faith that is later gained through doubt and suffering.
If the crisis of faith in the Victorian era is closely analogous to one facing the church now, then with better approaches to apologetics and a theology of doubt, the church today can have a better chance than the Victorians did of turning back what one Victorian chronicler called “the tide of unbelief” — but only if the church is blessed by the Holy Spirit with the resources of historical and theological memory. We have faced and overcome these struggles before, if only we can prayerfully remember the way forward.
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- George P. Landow, “The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin, Chapter Four, Section II. Loss of Belief,” victorianweb.org, 2005, https://victorianweb.org/authors/ruskin/atheories/4.2.html. ↑
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 369. ↑
- Frank Turner, “The Victorian Crisis of Faith and the Faith That Was Lost,” in Victorian Faith in Crisis: Essays on Continuity and Change in Nineteenth-Century Religious Belief, ed. Richard J. Helmstadter and Bernard Lightman (UK: Houndmills, 1990), 9–37, 11. ↑
- David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 2-17. ↑
- Frederick W. Gibbs and Daniel J. Cohen, “A Conversation with Data: Prospecting Victorian Words and Ideas,” Victorian Studies 54, no. 1 (2011): 69–77, https://doi.org/10.2979/victorianstudies.54.1.69, 73. ↑
- Nash, “Reassessing the ‘Crisis of Faith,’” 82. ↑
- Citations from the Christian Observer in this essay will use a shortened form with the abbreviation CO, the year of publication, and page number in bound volume. ↑
- Philipp Melanchthon, Loci Communes, 1543, trans. J.A.O. Preus (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1992), 15. ↑
- CO 1858 253. ↑
- CO 1858 252. ↑
- CO 1858 252. ↑
- CO 1858 254. ↑
- Ibid. 256. ↑
- CO 1851 40, 719, 714. ↑
- CO 1856 251-2. ↑
- CO 1861 v. ↑
- Ibid. 871. ↑
- CO 1862 iv. ↑
- CO 1857 iv. ↑
- CO 1851 240. ↑
- CO 1852 812. ↑
- CO 1851 12. ↑
- Lance St. John Butler, Victorian Doubt: Literary and Cultural Discourses (Hemel Hempstead, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990), 17. Emphasis original. ↑
- CO 1856 v; CO 1861 vi; CO 1867 776. ↑
- Meacham, Lord Bishop, 229. ↑
- Altholz, “The Mind of Victorian Orthodoxy,” 193. ↑
- CO 1874 468. ↑
- Altholz, “The Mind of Victorian Orthodoxy,” 194. ↑
- Taylor, A Secular Age, 225. ↑
- Ibid., 294. ↑
- E.g. Mitch Stokes, How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016). ↑
- Deane-Peter Baker, Alvin Plantinga (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 2. ↑
- CO 1868 835. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952). ↑
- Taylor, A Secular Age, 369. ↑
- CO 1858 252. ↑
- Joseph Minich, “Seeking God through Doubt: Counsel for a Faith Crisis,” Desiring God (website), May 5, 2021, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/seeking-god-through-doubt. ↑
- John Henry Newman, Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert (1848; repr., London: Burns & Oates, 1904). ↑
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