Reinventing Christianity in the Nineteenth Century

Linda Woodhead - Reinventing ChristianityLinda Woodhead’s edited volume Reinventing Christianity: Nineteenth-Century Contexts (2001) is a group of portraits exhibiting the range of changes, adjustments, and initiatives in nineteenth-century Christianity. The collection, individually as well as collectively, eschews the standard assessment that Victorian Christianity was a religion in crisis. Its aim is to “introduce the most important varieties of Christianity in the Victorian era, and to consider their interactions with other aspects of western culture and society.”

After an extremely helpful introduction, this collection of essays offers a wide-ranging survey of the Victorian religious experience, beginning with the “Transcendent Christianity” of famous Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-92), the ultramontanism of the nineteenth-century Catholic basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, and the debates and controversy over confession in the Church of England. “Despite the immense emphasis on sin and damnation on the part of both ultramontane Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism,” Woodhead writes in her introduction, “neither was intended simply to engender fear and despair. On the contrary, their insistence on God’s transcendence and on human wretchedness served to intensify the need and longing for salvation.”

“Transcendent Christianity” is then contrasted with “Liberal Christianity and Alternative Spiritualities.” The following begins with an article on the world parliament of religions at Chicago in 1892, describing how the Unitarian triumphalism of its organizers was trumped by the representatives of eastern traditions, giving way to new forms of spirituality. According to Woodhead, although the rise of transcendent Christianity retained many believers, it also had the effect of alienating others. Those alienated by transcendent Christianity came to be classified as “liberal.” As Woodhead explains, “instead of viewing God as different and wholly other, liberalism affirms continuity and similarity between God and humanity. Christian liberals generally interpreted the doctrine of incarnation to mean both that there was something of the human in God, and something of the divine in human beings.” Liberals, then, were more optimistic, believing in the perfectibility of individuals and society, which often led them to a “strongly activist, ethical, and in some cases political stress” on Christianity. “Nowhere was Christian liberalism stronger than in the USA.”

The next essay then turns to the remarkable influence of Swedenborgianism, which “enjoyed a unique period of social and intellectual respectability after the 1840s.” Emanuel Swedeborg (1688-1772) is remembered as a seer, a mystic, a revelator or a theosopher by biographers. His reputation and influence rests on his authorship and his claims in the eighteen religious works he published between 1749 and 1771—from the Arcana Coelestia (1749-1756) to Vera Christiana Religio (1770-1771). He believed he was called to reveal the internal sense of the Bible and to announce a new “True” Christianity. During the nineteenth century, Swedenborgianism “helped bridge the gap between transcendent forms of Christianity and a purely inner spirituality; it offered a discourse in which key Victorian obsessions including death and ‘conjugal love’ could be articulated, and it offered a form of toleration towards other religions much greater than that which even liberal Protestantism could countenance.”

The final essay in this section discusses transcendentalists and Catholic converts in America, tracing the Catholic destinations of a number of Boston transcendentalists, including Orestes Brownson, Isaac Hecker, and Sophia Ripley, thereby showing how “radical spirituality could lead back to transcendent Christianity.”

Part two of the volume surveys some literary approaches in “Christianity and Literature,” going on to “Christianity and Gender,” before concluding with “Christianity and Science.” Particularly noteworthy is a chapter on the nineteenth-century roots of the religion of English novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, literary critic and painter D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930). The Bible was central to Lawrence’s religiosity. Yet he rejected “traditional Christian uses of the Bible,” preferring the “radical reinterpreters of Christianity like the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the Biblical exegete Ernest Renan, and partly through the influence of representatives of alternative spirituality like Edward Carpenter and Madame Blavatsky (the founder of the Theosophical Society).” According to Woodhead, this chapter show “how challenges to Biblical authority from science and historical investigation did not necessarily lead to a straightforward choice between accepting or rejecting the Biblical text and the faith that rested on it”; questioning the authority of scripture more often led to a “disjunction between materialism, rationalism and literalism on the one hand, and more imaginative, poetic, aesthetic, open and creative modes of religious knowledge and interpretation on the other.”

Another essay discussing the astonishingly daring feminist theology of Florence Nightingale is worthy of notice. Nightingale is an example of “the remarkably subversive uses to which theology could be put in the hands of women.” According to Woodhead, Nightingale’s critique of contemporary Christianity and her radical reinterpretation of the Gospels can be said to “anticipate many of the achievements of feminist theology over a century later.”

The final section on Christianity and science begins by attacking the image of a “war” between the two and the way contrived master-narratives have contributed to misunderstanding. What is important for understanding science and the nineteenth century, says Woodhead, “is not the creation of a more adequate single story, but an investigation of why such stories came about, which contexts supported them, and whose interests they upheld.” The picture of Christianity in this chapter, as with the previous chapters, casts doubt on simplistic assertions about universal and inevitable secularization in the nineteenth century. “The sciences have never simply led to secularization. At issue has always been the cultural meaning to be placed on new forms of science” (my emphasis).

The following essay further contextualizes the “war” in terms of a new “knowledge class” seeking to rival the power of the clergy established in the universities, demonstrating that “the ideas of war between science and religion was a rhetorical strategy from the start.” An essay on influential and widely-ride naturalist and illustrator Philip Gosse (1810-1888) shows how far Edmund Gosse’s Father and son (1907) has misled the public into thinking he was a “scientific crackpot,” “bible-soaked romantic,” “a stern and repressive father,” and a “pulpit-thumping Puritan throwback to the seventeenth century.” In fact, writes Woodhead, “[Philip] Gosse was a severe critic of more optimistic forms of natural theology, his transcendent Protestantism leading him to emphasise both the fallenness of the created order and the greater authority of the Bible in matters pertaining to God.”

In her conclusion, Woodhead notes that the nineteenth century brought “unprecedented social, political, economic and cultural change,” and although Christianity was “profoundly affected by such change,” it was not “merely a passive victim of such forces.” “Christianity was actively and centrally involved in many of the most important cultural shifts and debates of the nineteenth century, and was transformed and reinvented in the process.” It responded by provoking, resisting, embracing, or selectively appropriating.

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