Progress and the Great Exhibition of 1851

1851-CrystalPalace0025Most of us know of the Great Exhibition of 1851 from our Western Civilization textbooks. It is generally interpreted as a thoroughly secular affair that celebrated progress in science, technology, and industry. For example, my “instructor’s edition” of Jackson J. Spielvogel’s Western Civilization (2006) states that it was a “symbol of the success of Great Britain…a tribute to British engineering skills…a visible symbol of how the Industrial Revolution had achieved human domination over nature.”

In contrast, according to Geoffrey Cantor in a recent Isis article, the exhibition was viewed by many contemporaries as a religious event of considerable importance. Indeed, he argues that the exhibition should be “set within a religious framework.” Cantor finds support for his argument in sermons, tracts, and the religious periodical press.

The Great Exhibition was housed in Kensington in London in the Crystal Palace. Organized by Prince Albert, husband of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, he played a major role in creating the image of a showcase for science, technology, and industry. Albert, however, rejected the secular  interpretation that has come to dominate our understanding of that mid-nineteenth-century affair. In his Mansion House speech, for example, he argued that these “[physical] laws of power, motion, and transformation,” displayed in the Palace are “the laws by which the Almighty governs His creation.” He also expressed the hope that visitors to the exhibition would feel a “deep thankfulness to the Almighty for the blessings He has [already] bestowed upon us.”

According to Cantor, other religious commentators assessed the panoply of material products and labor in the Palace “within the larger scheme of God’s creation and even set the exhibition within an eschatological framework.”

There were, of course, religious concerns. One recurrent concern among religious writers was that the Great Exhibition would be perceived as a celebration of material objects and of human ingenuity. It thus appeared to “court materialism.”

But a less extreme assessment was adopted by most other Christians. The first were mild supporters of the event, but who stressed that the exhibition was “merely temporary and temporal when compared with the eternal verities of Christianity.” Other religious writers were greatly impressed by the exhibition and strongly supported it, albeit with a warning against products and materials of physical comfort, prosperity, and pride. Still others strove to reconcile the manifest materiality of the exhibition with traditional Christian values. These Christian writers would render the exhibition safe by setting it within a religious framework.

In the following section of the essay Cantor provides how such writers achieved this goal. First, to counter any objections, these Christians portrayed the exhibition in providentialist terms. This interpretation, as we saw earlier, was promoted by Prince Albert, who construed the exhibition within the context of the first verse of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is; the compass of the world and they that dwell therein.” The Archbishop of Canterbury likewise urged that in “surveying the works of art and industry which surround us, let not our hearts be lifted up that we forget the Lord our God, as if our own power and the might of our hands had gotten in this wealth.” Further still, the Anglican clergy advised prospective visitors to adopt a providentialist stance toward the exhibition. Even a Sunday school teacher expressed his wish “to see the works of God as shown in the productions of industry, skill, science, and art.” As Cantor puts it, appealing to notions of divine providence guided visitors to “appreciate how a secular experience could be transformed into a profoundly religious one.”

When it seemed that the exhibition focused attention on the artisans, sermons were preached that God is the author of all those gifts and qualifications by which men become skilled in the arts and sciences. “The activities of the scientist, the craftsmen, and the manufacturer are therefore manifestations of God’s providence” as well.

The exhibition, therefore, could provide a rich source for natural theological reflection. “While God’s word could be seen at the Bible Society’s stand, the rest of the exhibits proclaimed his works.”

This notion of providence was inextricably related to progress in the minds of these Christian writers. The famous Samuel Wilberforce, for example, argued that the exhibition not only demonstrates that science, when properly pursued, reveals the wonders of God’s creation, but also manifested God’s design and purpose, providing mankind with the necessary resources for progress. According to Cantor, England was for many the “flagship of Protestant Christianity,” thus granting the nation a crucial role in God plan, whereby the “exhibition became the epicenter from which Christianity would be disseminated throughout the world.”

Encouraged by Albert’s interventions, writers from across a wide section of the religious spectrum responded confidently to the exhibition and its contents. The strongest supporters of the exhibition, interestingly enough, were principally evangelicals, who conceived it within the context of a divinely ordained history. This evidence, concludes Cantor, demand reflection on the very notion of progress and how it was utilized in the context of the 1851 exhibition. “In contrast to our secularized understanding of progress, several of the writers discussed here conceived the development of science, technology, and even manufactures within a prophetic religious framework, one in which progress in these pursuits ultimately served higher ends.”

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