Giles St Aubyn, in this long, scholarly book, sets out to chronicle the shifts in the Christian churches from the scientific revolution of the 17th century, and the Enlightenment of the 18th, to the apparent triumph of secularism in the 20th. H. H. Asquith, as leader of the Liberal party, was not an enthusiastic Christian. Nor did the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee waste much time on religious concerns, which bored him. What mattered was the NHS and the welfare state, which saved men’s bodies rather than their souls.
The Reformation had shattered the universal Catholic church of the Middle Ages, leaving in its wake what the Catholic apologist Blaise Pascal called ‘the thousand bizarre sects of Protestantism’. By the mid- 18th century the established Church of England appeared to be losing the battle for men’s souls. As Gibbon put it, the Anglican clergy remembered that they had a salary to draw but forgot that they had a duty to perform. The Bishop of Llandaff had only once visited his diocese in 36 years. In England, the established church was both corrupt at its core and intellectually feeble.
In France an equally corrupt church was mocked by Voltaire and undermined intellectually by Hume, the most fashionable philosopher of his day in Paris and London. For Christians, the divinity of Christ was proved by his capacity to perform miracles and by the miracle of his own resurrection from the tomb. For Hume, miracles were outside the natural order of things. The Deists of the Enlightenment sought to reduce dogmatic Christianity to a few universal truths. ‘It might satisfy the intellect, but it failed to gladden the heart’. The Methodist John Wesley and his brother, the greatest missionaries of the age, gladdened the heart with some thousand hymns. Christ had died to save all who truly repented of their sins. Voltaire saw that the Deists were treading on slippery ground. Without the restraints of religion, society would collapse. As Dostoevsky was to argue, if there is no God and no immortality of the soul why should men not cut each others’ throats and rob and steal?
This is what came to pass with the French Revolution. Two hundred priests were guillotined and the state confiscated the property of the Church. To stem the tide the conservatives turned to the old faith and new versions of it for protection. They included the poets of the Romantic Movement and the theologians of the Oxford Movement. But Pascal had prophesised there could be no united Protestant popular front.
On the far right, John Henry Newman, believing that liberalism would fatally erode faith, left the Church of England in 1845 to become a Catholic priest. In 1864 Pope Pius IX, in his Syllabus of Errors, condemned liberalism in all its forms. Newman, St Aubyn asserts, had surrendered his intellect to the teaching of the Church. On the left, John Wesley, before his death in 1790, struggled to keep the Methodists within the Church of England, but blinkered clerics drove them into the wilderness.
Newman and Wesley were both religious fundamentalists; but Biblical fundamentalism was coming under fire. In 1823 David Strauss published his Life of Jesus. For him the Bible must be subject to criticism as any other book. He found the accepted version riddled with contradictions and errors. He was reviled and sacked from the university of Tubingen. George Eliot (the pen name of the woman, who, to the horror of the orthodox, was the mistress of a married man) translated Strauss into English in 1846.
Strauss was an attack from the inside, delivered by a German protestant pastor. In 1850 a blast from the outside came from the Frenchman, Auguste Comte, the inventor of sociology as a science. For him, man’s knowledge of the world depended on the evidence of his senses; metaphysicians embarked on a fool’s errand. Instead of worshipping God, mankind should worship humanity. Queen Victoria found it all ‘very serious’ and ‘very sad’: to Isaiah Berlin, in 1945, Comte was a grotesque pedant, incapable of writing a clear sentence. Always on the edge of bankruptcy, Comte could rely on the financial support of liberals like J. S. Mill, until they spotted that he was as authoritarian as the creeds that he had dismissed as nonsense.
With orthodox Christianity under fire on all sides, those of the liberal elite who were not already sceptics or atheists felt forced to abandon the faith they had been taught in their childhood. St Aubyn movingly describes the agonised experiences they endured. They were, as his title proclaims, souls in torment. Some recorded these torments in their novels; others suffered nervous breakdowns or took to charity as a relief from pain. Carlyle scorned them as a coterie of wingeing sentimentalists.
To most of its inhabitants Victorian Britain was an age of certainty that conveniently combined intellectual and material progress, as in the Great Exhibition of 1851. To St Aubyn it was an arena in which doubt wrestled with faith. Tennyson in his In Memoriam, published in 1850, wrote:
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
In the end, faith for him triumphed by a whisker. To Matthew Arnold, the world was a darkling plain ‘where ignorant armies clash by night’.
In the late 19th century an attempt to close the gap that had opened with Copernicus and Galileo between religious faith and the advance of knowledge, particularly in the natural sciences, was made by the broad churchmen of the day. Their chorus leader was Benjamin Jowett, who died in 1893. For him there was a need to ‘reconcile intellectual persons to Christianity’. In doing so he sidelined a divine Christ, concentrating on the legacy of his ethical teaching.
But history surely shows that such ethical creeds need strong faith or brute force to take root. However, the brute force was in the hands of his enemies in Oxford colleges. He thought he had been dragged by them through Hell. Queen Victoria told Tennyson that ‘Oxford had used him shamefully’. St Aubyn consistently condemns the vindictive treatment handed out to their enemies by various brands of fundamentalism.
In his long last chapter St Aubyn analyses the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution on the religious climate of late Victorian Britain. ‘Historical criticism proved far more devastating than anything found in The Origin of Species’. Modern science could not satisfy the longings of the human heart. Darwin hid from the world that evolution had made him an atheist. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Shocked by God’s cruelty to the animals of his creation, I started my own voyage to atheism, hastened when my pious Anglican father cut off, with a carving knife, the head of a mouse that I had taught to eat out of my hand on the window sill. I remain a committed atheist. But I find Richard Dawkins, the cheer-leader of present-day Darwinians, arrogant when he asserts that all those who believe in God are either fools or hypocrites. This is a shameful slander and palpably false.
Queen Elizabeth I, confronted by a divided church, disliked the prospect of making windows in men’s souls. But that is the duty of historians, when faced with doctrinal divisions and what William James called the varieties of religious experience. Giles St Aubyn brings sensitivity and scholarship to this task. His book is so all-embracing in its scope that lesser mortals will sigh with envy. It is a remarkable achievement.