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The Bible and Belief in Victorian Britain

Timothy Larsen
p. 11-25

Résumé

This article is written in opposition to an exaggerated emphasis on the Victorian loss of faith. Organized atheism is actually always a sign of the vitality of religious faith. The very sceptical books and organizations which scholars point to in order to show that faith was on the decline are actually evidence that contemporaries recognized that it was robust. Faith is the norming factor in Victorian thought and therefore even unbelievers found themselves working within a conversation in which the terms were overwhelmingly set by the Christian faith. This article will demonstrate this claim by showing how pervasive the presence of the Bible was in the words, arguments, and very thought patterns even of those Victorians who were militant atheists.

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1Twenty-first century scholarship has identified the 1960s as the decade when Britain became secularized (Brown, 2001; McLeod, 2007). S. J. D. Green has recently made the case for back-dating secularisation by several decades, but even he is still setting the change in the twentieth century (Green, 2011). This scholarly consensus is in marked contrast with an older one which assumed that secularisation could be witnessed in Victorian Britain. The “evidence” for that older view was largely based on the concerns voiced by contemporaries. For example, when a unique Religious Census was held in 1851 in England and Wales, Christian leaders expressed dismay that apparently around 40 % of the eligible population did not attend corporate worship anywhere on the census Sunday. This was widely assumed at the time to reveal the emergence of modern godlessness and for much of the twentieth century scholars also accepted this interpretation. In reality, however, there was no reason not to posit the exact opposite: that the Victorian period represented a historic high in church attendance and that—far from documenting secularisation—the religious census put on display a level of Christian commitment across the populace far surpassing medieval patterns.

2This assumption of religious decline in the nineteenth century, in turn, led to a mid-twentieth century scholarly preoccupation with Victorian doubt and unbelief. There was a particular obsession with loss-of-faith stories which were taken as emblematic of the course of British history in general in the nineteenth century. The eminent literary scholar Basil Willey wrote of Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot:

Probably no English writer of the time, and certainly no novelist, more fully epitomizes the century; her development is a paradigm, her intellectual biography a graph, of its most decided trend. Starting from evangelical Christianity, the curve passes through doubt to a reinterpreted Christ and a religion of humanity: beginning with God, it ends with Duty.
(Willey, 1950: 204–05)

3In another work, Willey said of the loss-of-faith of F. W. Newman: “what happened to him happened to so many in the nineteenth century that his life-story may be said to conform to the standard pattern” (Willey, 1956: 12). In 1996, Sally Mitchell could breezily write in a general study of the period this highly misleading statement: “Most thoughtful Victorians who lived through the middle years of the century experienced a crisis of faith” (Mitchell 1996: 246).

4I attempted to help to overturn this old historiographic tendency in my monograph, Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Larsen, 2006). In it, I presented the lives of a whole range of leading Victorian atheists and freethinkers who then came back to the Christian faith and spent years defending religious beliefs. Although because scholars imagined they already knew the dominant trend no one had ever thought to make the comparison, it turns out that it was far, far more common in the Victorian age for a leader of organized atheism to convert to Christianity than for a Christian minister to abandon their faith. I plan to present some of the material from that monograph here while also taking the line of thought that I was beginning to pursue in that book further. I now see more clearly than ever that the very notion of “doubt” presupposes a context of faith. To say that one doubts something is implicitly to address, or at least respond to, an audience that believes it. If something is simply known or implicitly assumed to be true or false, then the notion of doubt is irrelevant. One would not say, for example, “Most people doubt that the sun rises in the west”, but rather simply, “The sun does not rise in the west.” To put it even more broadly, organized atheism is always a sure and certain sign of the vitality of religious faith. If the populace was to become truly, completely secular, then organized atheism would wither and die. The very sceptical books and organizations during the Victorian age which scholars point to in order to show that faith was on the decline are actually evidence that contemporaries recognized that it was robust. One might even say that doubt is essential to the drama of faith.

5Therefore, just as scholars mistook the dismay of churchmen that attendance at Sunday morning worship was not even greater for evidence that it had declined from some imagined yet higher state, so scholars also mistook Victorian anxiety about doubt for evidence that religious belief was draining away—that faith was receding—that the tide was going out to evoke Matthew Arnold’s famous image. The Victorians did frequently discuss and write about the crisis of faith. Many of them did this because they prized faith so much and therefore feared and cared about its loss. Their discussions and reading should not be seen as a measure of the extent of the phenomenon of loss of faith, however, but rather as a measure of the extent of their concern. This distinction must be maintained. Taking concern about doubt as a measure of its reality is like taking Victorian anti-Catholic rhetoric as a measure of how close England came to “papal domination” in the nineteenth century. Boyd Hilton, in his masterly study The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1795–1865 (1988), observes that narratives of financial ruin loomed large in the Victorian imagination and therefore were the theme of many novels (Hilton, 1988: 139–40). It would be a mistake to move from this preoccupation to the assumption that the Victorian period was one in which the economy was shrinking and most people were experiencing dramatic decreases in their incomes and standards of living. People talk about what they fear, and they fear not only what is probable but also what would possibly strike at what they value most—even if that possibility is not the most likely outcome. Therefore, it is fitting that the crisis of faith is so entwined with literary studies, because that was how it was in the Victorian period. Mary Augusta Ward’s crisis-of-faith novel, Robert Elsmere (1888), was the “best-seller of the decade” (Helmstadter and Lightman, 1990: 285). In other words, many more Victorians were reading about, talking about, and perhaps worrying about the crisis of faith than were actually experiencing it themselves—let alone experiencing a loss of faith. Even for the Victorians themselves, the crisis of faith was more a literary than a historical theme. In a religious age, doubt loomed large precisely because faith was so widely and dearly prized that its possible loss was a matter of grave concern.

6In the final paragraph of the conclusion of Crisis of Doubt I averred:

A focus on the crisis of doubt [return to faith] of plebeian radicals in the nineteenth century provides a fresh perspective on the intellectual resilience and cogency of faith in general and Christianity in particular in the Victorian period. A relentless focus on the loss of faith has obscured this reality. Future studies of nineteenth-century intellectual history should consider building into their framework a realization that faith was compelling to many Victorian thinkers. It is time to reintegrate faith positively into accounts of Victorian thought. Instead of discussions of faith merely serving as the set-up and foil for the imagined real story—one of the loss of faith—scholars would do well to learn to see that doubt has a subservient role in nineteenth-century Britain as the bugbear of the larger story, one of minds profoundly persuaded by the compelling nature of Christian thought. (Larsen, 2006: 253)

7While I only realized it in retrospective, my most recent monograph, A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (2011), was to a certain extent an attempt to answer my own challenge. In other words, it is a study written on the assumption that faith is the norming factor in Victorian thought and that therefore even freethinkers, skeptics, agnostics, and atheists found themselves working within a conversation in which the terms were overwhelming set by the Christian faith. My specific way into this approach is to show how pervasive the presence of the Bible was in the words, arguments, intellectual pursuits, thoughts and very thought patterns or worldview of Victorians irrespective of whether they were personally religious or, if so, in what way.

8In this article, I will focus on the evidence regarding the overarching place of the Bible in organized atheism (Larsen, 2011: 67–88). Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891) was unquestionably the most prominent atheist leader in Victorian Britain. He was the founding editor of the nation’s leading atheistic newspaper, the National Reformer, as well as the founding president of the National Secular Society. He was widely considered the most popular speaker in the Secularist movement. If he was not already a household name before, he certainly was once he began his long and eventually successful campaign to sit in Parliament as an avowed atheist. Whether they admired him or detested him, if asked to identify an atheist leader, most Britons for much of the second half of the nineteenth century would have named Bradlaugh.

9But what did it mean to be an atheist leader in Victorian Britain? The answer to this question turns out to be that it meant a concerted, sustained, lifelong engagement with belief in the Bible. Bradlaugh grew up in Bethel Green, London. His father was a solicitor’s clerk and, in regards to his financial position, Bradlaugh was content to say flatly that he was poor. Bradlaugh’s formal schooling, begun when he was seven years old, ended before he reached his eleventh birthday. This education was steeped in Scripture. The turning point in Bradlaugh’s life came when he was around fifteen years old. In good, Anglican, coming-of-age manner, the bishop of London was scheduled to visit the area in order to confirm a group of candidates, of which Bradlaugh was one. His own local clergyman, John Graham Packer, incumbent of the Church of St Peter’s, Hackney Road, instructed Bradlaugh to prepare himself to make an impression as a bright, well-informed lad. Perhaps going beyond the call of duty, Bradlaugh began studying the gospels. This research resulted in his being unsettled by the apparently irreconcilable discrepancies he found there. Bradlaugh wrote to Packer asking for his explanations for these conundrums. Packer responded by banning him from teaching Sunday school and informing his father that Bradlaugh was becoming an atheist. This became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. No longer involved in the Sunday school, Bradlaugh used that time to listen to and join the open debating and speechifying in Bonner’s Fields. He held to Christian orthodoxy initially, but abandoned it, tellingly, after being bested in a debate on “The Inspiration of the Bible”. Bradlaugh’s father responded by adorning the house with apt biblical quotations. The most prominent one, hung so as to be directly in front of Bradlaugh whenever he sat down to a meal, was: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalm 14: 1; 53: 1). This biblical text seems to have haunted Bradlaugh for the rest of his life. As a self-avowed atheist, he was always careful to clarify that he did not assert that there was no God and therefore he did not fall under this text’s censure. Here is an example of Bradlaugh’s standard definition of his atheism in which he makes the connection with this passage of Scripture explicit:

I do not stand here to prove that there is no God. If I should undertake to prove such a proposition, I should deserve the ill words of the oft-quoted psalmist applied to those who say there is no God. I do not say there is no God, but I am an Atheist without God. To me the word God conveys no idea . . . (Cooper and Bradlaugh, 1888: 9)

10Bradlaugh’s resolute freethinking stance and the resulting clash with his father prompted him to leave home at the age of sixteen. Also in his sixteenth year, Charles Bradlaugh wrote his first substantial composition as a freethinker. It was an explicitly anti-Bible work: “Examination of the four Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with Remarks on the life and death of the meek & lowly Jesus” (Bradlaugh, 1850). He added a few marginal notes to this manuscript in 1854 when he was twenty years old. The later additions are easily distinguishable, and they show that he had grown more radical in his views. Most notably, Bradlaugh inserted a note observing that he would no longer concede that Jesus of Nazareth even existed. In other words, when what was untenable in the gospels was stripped away, there might be no historical residue left at all. Bradlaugh’s fundamentally scriptural frame of mind was such that—in good Protestant, biblicist fashion—his manuscript includes a proof-text justifying his project on the title page: “‘Prove all things & hold fast that which is true’—‘Paul’” (1 Thessalonians 5: 21). Even more strikingly, the genre of Bradlaugh’s first freethinking work is that of a biblical commentary. He actually wrote out by hand in full numerous passages of scripture as the text upon which to comment. His standard approach is to put related texts from the four gospels side-by-side in four parallel columns, thus a whole page might be taken up with just scripture. After this, he would provide a section entitled “observations”, that is, the commentary. His intent, however, is to discredit the veracity of the gospels. As Bradlaugh acknowledges in the preface, the manuscript also includes lengthy quotations from popular British freethinkers: “I have quoted largely from Revd R. Taylor & Thomas Paine as well as from Thomas Cooper.” Robert Taylor was an ordained Anglican priest who had left the church and become a freethinking lecturer. Bradlaugh frequently quotes from Taylor’s The Diegesis: being a discovery of the origin, evidences, and early history of Christianity, never yet before or elsewhere so fully and faithfully set forth (1829). Taylor argued that the gospels were not historical but rather an expression of ideas borrowed from the religious traditions of other places, notably Egypt and India. Thomas Paine’s influential Age of Reason (1795), its grand title notwithstanding, was actually an (anti-) biblical commentary that worked its way breezily through the whole canon denouncing the contents of each book or section of the Bible in turn. Thomas Cooper is particularly interesting as his series of articles entitled “Critical Exegesis of Gospel History”, on the basis of Strauss’s “Leben Jesu” had only began to appear in January 1850 and it was still in progress when Bradlaugh wrote his manuscript in May 1850.

11Bradlaugh declared in the preface what his approach would be: “I will demonstrate to any one that the 4 Gospels as we have them are a jumble of nonsense & contradiction.” He asserts repeatedly that orthodox Christians think that they must believe that every detail of the Bible is truth or that “they’ll be damned.” Therefore, to show even a trivial discrepancy is, in his reckoning, to demolish the Christian religion—a high view of Scripture indeed. Occasionally, his malice is palpable. Not content to deny the virgin birth, he asserts that “Mary had a number of gallants.” Drawing on Taylor, he develops the theory that Jesus was trained in Egypt as a therapeutan monk. This theory seems to have been especially attractive to Bradlaugh as having the double punch of reducing Christianity to borrowed paganism and labeling Jesus as a monk, a pejorative term for most Victorians. Nevertheless, the basic structure of a gospels commentary must be kept in view. The headings of Bradlaugh’s sections such as “Healing the Sick”, “Raising the Dead” and “The Resurrection” would serve equally well in an orthodox volume.

12As a freethinking speaker and debater, Bradlaugh overwhelmingly chose the Bible or some passage from it as his theme. To give just one additional example, when in 1861 Bradlaugh attempted to give an outdoor lecture under the auspices of the Plymouth and Devonport Secular Society the animus of local authorities prevented it. The only words he had managed to speak before he was arrested were: “Friends, I am about to address you on the Bible” (Bradlaugh, 1873: 14–15). Bradlaugh’s modern biographer, David Tribe, was sympathetic to his subject and wrote as a Secularist insider. Indeed, when his biography was published, Tribe was serving as president of the National Secular Society. Tribe observed that Bradlaugh’s The Bible: What It Is was the president’s “magnum opus” (Tribe, 1971: 50) Charles Bradlaugh embarked upon this project in 1857, intending it to become a commentary on the entire Bible. The initial version made it through to Isaiah. Bradlaugh determined to start over and go about the task more thoroughly. This resulted in a new version of The Bible: What It Is in 1870. This time it was 434 pages long and confined to the Pentateuch. Once again he started over and in 1882 just the section on Genesis—now expanded to 346 pages—appeared separately. In other words, not only was Bradlaugh’s first manuscript a gospels commentary, but the great literary work of Bradlaugh’s mature life—a project which he laboured over for a quarter of a century, if not longer—was a biblical commentary.

13Bradlaugh was so focused on scripture, and so conscientious in his Old Testament criticism, that he even took the trouble to learn Hebrew. In The Bible: What It Is (the 1870 edition is being analyzed here) discussions of the Hebrew language mainly arise in order to make the point that the inability of scholars to determine the meaning of various Hebrew words ought to lead to the conclusion that this is an ill-fitting way for a divine revelation to be communicated. Here is a typical example of this sentiment: “It is useless to do more in this place than regret that there should be so much room for difference as to the meaning of Hebrew words, when our salvation is said to depend on the rightly understanding their signification” (Bradlaugh, 1870: 61). (The notion that salvation is at issue is merely his way of polemically heightening the stakes and not an accurate presentation of Christian belief.) As with his early gospels manuscript, Bradlaugh quotes heavily from other works in The Bible: What It Is. Once again, he draws on freethinkers such as Thomas Paine and Robert Taylor. Nevertheless, he had by this time moved into more scholarly literature as well.

14The Bible: What It Is examines the Pentateuch in canonical order with the section on each biblical book subtitled as an exploration of “Its Authorship & Authenticity”. The first section states in the preface that it is “a commentary on Genesis, written for the purpose of demonstrating that the book is not a perfect and infallible revelation specially given from an all-wise and infinite Deity, Creator, and Ruler of all worlds” (v). After various introductory remarks, Bradlaugh announces accurately: “I shall now take each chapter and verse in its Biblical order” (6). In other words, it is not a mere rhetorical flourish to speak of this book as a commentary. Bradlaugh himself calls it a commentary without irony and he makes good on that claim by following the conventions of the genre faithfully.

15Bradlaugh’s animating purpose is to discredit the Bible in every possible way. This animus often tempts him into making pedantic points. For example, on Numbers 3: 39, he objects to the round figure 22,000 being used for the number of the Levites when the actual calculation is 22,300, even though he derived that more precise number by adding together all the figures provided for the Levite clans (as the reader is obviously being invited to do by the biblical author) which are themselves clearly round numbers. The statement in Exodus 32: 20 that Moses ground the golden calf into powder, put it in water, and made the Israelites drink it, prompts this cavil:

Unless a chloride of gold had been formed by the use of chlorine and nitro-muriatic acid, and of which we have no account, or unless some analogous chemical process had been pursued, the gold would not be soluble in water, but would sink to the bottom, leaving the water entirely unaffected. (287)

16No indeterminacy in the precise meaning of some biblical word is too small to ignore. The reader is apparently meant to be concerned, for example, that: “One version says the glory appeared ‘in’ the tabernacle; the Douay says that it appeared ‘over’ the tabernacle” (350). Bradlaugh even discredits Numbers 19: 1, “The dead body of any man that is dead”, on the grounds of literary style. This pedantic tendency was furthered by a wooden literalism. Jacob’s vision, for example, must be communicating something about furniture and locomotion: “The writer of Genesis evidently conceived a ladder necessary to enable the angels of God to get up to heaven, in the same style in which you or I might ascend to the roof of a house” (122).

17One of the most surprising features of The Bible: What It Is comes when Bradlaugh arrives at Exodus 20: 7: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” This occasions a long section decrying the requirements of British law to swear oaths in the name of God. Quite literally, it is a sermon with a text. Bradlaugh is not trying to undermine the meaning of Exodus 20: 7, nor deploy it ironically, he is rather preaching from it. This goes on for seventeen pages making it the longest sustained argument in the entire book (222–39).

18To turn to our other example figure for this article, the most prominent and important woman in the organized atheism movement of Victorian Britain was Bradlaugh’s colleague and friend Annie Besant (1847–1933). She had lost her faith and was separated from her clergyman husband. She became a vice president of the National Secular Society in 1875. In 1877, she and Bradlaugh founded the influential Freethought Publishing Company and she also became co-editor and co-proprietor with him of the National Reformer. To trace back earlier, her first published essay she had initially given a biblical title, “What think ye of Christ?” (Matthew 22: 42), but this was thought by others to be heavy-handed so this text was left as the opening quotation of the essay, but the title was changed to On the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth (Taylor, 1992: 55). Even more explicitly biblical criticism, her second published essay was “A Comparison between the Fourth Gospel and the Three Synoptics”. Indeed, the biblicism of these essays is remarkable. Although Besant no longer believed in the authority of the Bible, when there was a biblical text that made her point, like a pious evangelical, she found it irresistible to quote her proof-text triumphantly. Thus, statements by Christ about his own identity cannot be used to bolster an argument for his divinity because he had said: “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true” (John 5: 31). Freethinkers do not need to have all the answers provided in advance by revelation, because they “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5: 7) (Besant, 1885 b: 2, 114). And so it goes on. When attacking Christianity and the Bible, Besant continually reaches for biblical language that would sound esoteric to many today. She can observe, for example, that she has “written Tekel on the Christian faith” (Daniel 5: 27). She even condemns the God of the Bible as “a blood-craving Moloch” (cf. Leviticus 20: 1–5). (93, 95) Her love of biblical cadences was such that she delighted to employ them in order to attempt to make her own rhetoric more dignified, important, and persuasive. For example, her essay “On the Religious Education of Children” ends on a high by the linguistic trick of employing the structure of 1 Corinthians 13: 8:

Morality never faileth; but, whether there be dogmas, they shall fail; whether they be creeds, they shall cease; whether there be churches, they shall crumble away; but morality shall abide for evermore and endure as long as the endless circle of Nature revolves around the Eternal Throne. (100)

19Annie Besant spoke the truth when she observed that her childhood education “made me very familiar with the Bible and very apt with its phrases” (Besant, 1908: 44).

20This habit extended to her correspondence. In a particularly remarkable example, it is on display in a series of private letters she wrote in 1888 to the well-known journalist, W. T. Stead. Bradlaugh rejected socialism and therefore Besant’s growing commitment to that cause meant that the Freethought Publishing Company partners were not as close as they had been. Besant was clearly besotted with Stead. Her pet name for the crusading journalist—as literally romantic as one could imagine—was “Sir Galahad”. As Stead was not separated from his wife, he was naturally more cautious about this relationship, but even he admitted to her that they had a “political & spiritual marriage” (Besant, 1888: 4 March). Nevertheless, despite the seemingly unpropitious context of a sub rosa flirtation, Besant’s prose in these letters is infused with biblical language. For example, she reflected in this way on her deflated suspicion that her political work might be in vain:

But, my dear Sir Galahad, the power of darkness has only his hour [Luke 22: 53], & the underlying belief remains. Do you know, I have always fancied that the real blackness of Gethsemane & of the “Eli, Eli” on Calvary [Matthew 27: 46], was the doubt if, after all, the life’s ideal were a delusion.
(19 January)

21At times, Besant seems almost unable or unwilling to express a single thought without recourse to scripture. Here she is on their efforts to build a diverse coalition to help labouring men who had been imprisoned for participating in lawful political protests:

I think it would have met the rebuke “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” [Luke 9: 55] I feel no resentment against a hesitation which springs from real love to an ideal which I am thought to have insulted; but it is sad that after 19 centuries the lesson of brotherhood with all who are willing to work for “the least of these my brethren,” [Matthew 25: 40] is not yet learned. Well, well, it may be. Anyhow, ours is the more excellent way [1 Corinthians 12: 31]. I was inclined to say, “thy money perish with thee” [Acts 8: 20]. (13 February)

22When Stead continues to elicit resources, she refers to “your widow’s curse” (1 Kings 17). (24 January) And so it goes on.

23Before developing this theme any further, it is essential to grasp that Besant’s substantive view as an atheist of the contents of the Bible was that it was a dangerous and despicable book. Already in her early essays she was asserting that the Bible was not a safe book to give to children, or even a sixteen year old. In Besant’s own parenting, she did not find even the New Testament a fit book for her daughter to read. She gave this way of thinking free and forceful expression in a tract published in 1877 or 1878, Is the Bible Indictable? Annie Besant wrote it in response to the Lord Chief Justice’s condemnation of Charles Knowlton’s birth-control manual, The Fruits of Philosophy. Her argument is that the same charges he made against that book apply to the Bible. Besant did not shrink from venting her objection to the Scriptures in unmeasured language: “Surely if any book be indictable for obscenity, the Bible should be the first to be prosecuted. I know of no other book in which is to be found such utterly unredeemed coarseness” (Besant, 1877: 12–13). She even strikes the pose that parts of the Bible are so filthy that it would be inappropriate, if not downright immoral, even to cite them:

The difficulty of dealing with this question is that many of the quotations necessary to prove that the Bible comes under the ruling of the Lord Chief Justice are of such an extremely coarse and disgusting character, that it is really impossible to reproduce them without intensifying the evil which they are calculated to do. While I see no indecency in a plain statement of physiological facts, written for people’s instruction, I do see indecency in coarse and indelicate stories, the reading of which can do no good to any human being, and can have no effect save that of corrupting the mind and suggesting unclean ideas. I therefore refuse to soil my pages with quotations . . . (8)

24Reminiscent of Paine’s Age of Reason, she systematically marches her way through the canon, pointing out where obscenity hunters should go to find particularly vulgar parts of “this indictable book” (14).

25In the light of this strong objection to the Scriptures, it is all the more remarkable to see the compulsive way that Annie Besant quotes from the Bible in her autobiographies. The first one, Autobiographical Sketches (1885), is written at the height of her atheist identity and issued by her and Bradlaugh’s Freethought Publishing Company. The second one, An Autobiography, was initially published in 1893, and a revised edition appeared in 1908, both versions being when she was a preeminent Theosophist. An Autobiography is fuller and better written and even more biblical, so it will sometimes be the one cited from, but it must be borne in mind that it essentially incorporates Autobiographical Sketches and then carries on the story and therefore many of the biblical quotations were already present in the Freethought Publishing Company version, as will be indicated in the citations.

26It would be tedious to catalogue the numerous biblical allusions in Besant’s autobiographies and therefore only a sampling will be given here, but it is startling to witness the entire collection. To take a random example, when she introduces her early freethinking patron, Thomas Scott, because he had once spent a few months living with Native Americans, Besant quotes the statement in Genesis 10: 9 about Nimrod being a mighty hunter (Besant, 1885 a: 68). It is hard to imagine a more gratuitous circling back to scripture. In an address she published in the National Reformer that she wrote to rally support to fight the condemnation of Knowlton’s book, Besant warned Secularists that they must be careful not to make any legal blunders “for they may be sure that such sins will find them out” (Numbers 32: 23) (149–50). More substantively, Besant seems to reach for scripture instinctively whenever she wants to give weight and dignity to an important event in her life. Only the most striking examples of this tendency will be presented here. She was a public, freethinking non-Christian when her mother died, and she wrote about this terrible event in her life as an atheist. Nevertheless, Besant reached for the Bible to gives words to her loss: “Truly, my ‘house was left unto me desolate’” (Matthew 23: 38). (84) When in 1875 Bradlaugh was severely ill and it was feared that he would die, Besant tells us that “he walked down the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23: 4). (Besant, 1908: 201) Most extraordinary is the way that Besant expressed her decision to commit herself to being an atheist lecturer:

I knew that an Atheist was outside the law . . . I seemed to hear the voice of Truth ringing over the battlefield: “Who will go? Who will speak for me?” And I sprang forward with passionate enthusiasm, with the resolute cry: “Here am I, send me!” [Isaiah 6: 8] . . . No weightier responsibility can any take, no more sacred charge. . . . I have not given to my mistress Truth that “which hath cost me nothing” [2 Samuel 24: 24]. (Besant, 1908: 126–27; 1885 a: 84)

27Not only does this present her decision as a call to ministry lifted word-for-word from Isaiah’s call to be a prophet, but the importance of this is underlined with another biblical word, “sacred”, and rounded off with an additional, explicit biblical quotation.

28While Bradlaugh is indisputably the most prominent leader of Victorian organized atheism, and Annie Besant was his most important colleague as well as the most important woman in the cause, it is worth underlying that their heavy orientation toward scripture was typical of the movement as a whole. To give an example, a key leader in the movement in the generation before Bradlaugh was Robert Cooper (1818–68), who founded the atheistic paper that Bradlaugh would later edit, the Investigator. Cooper’s main publications were The “Holy Scriptures” analyzed, or Extracts from the Bible shewing its contradictions, absurdities and immoralities (1832), The Infidel’s Text-Book, being the substance of thirteen lectures on the Bible (1846), and The Bible and its evidences (1858). When the Investigator failed, and the National Reformer was founded as an atheistic paper, Bradlaugh’s original co-editor was Joseph Barker (1806–75). Barker was not only the most popular Secularist in the north of England—if not the whole country—at that time, but he was also, if anything, even more preoccupied with scripture than Bradlaugh. (Larsen, 2004: 79–96) The most prominent Secularist in the generation after Bradlaugh was George William Foote (1850–1915), who succeeded Bradlaugh in 1890 as the president of the National Secular Society. Foote rose to the top of the movement due to his trial and prison sentence for blasphemy. Foote’s offense had been to publish a series of “Comic Bible” sketches. These were parodies of the kind of illustrations that had accompanied Bradlaugh’s schoolboy writing samples, that is, they were irreverent cartoons accompanied by a text of Scripture written out as a caption. (Nash, 1999) Foote’s numerous works on the Bible stretch across the late Victorian period and beyond. As late as 1912, just a few years before his death, Foote published with his own Pioneer Press his Bible and Beer and his The Bible Handbook for freethinkers and inquiring Christians. Susan Budd, in her analysis of the life stories of freethinkers, discovered that when Secularists mentioned books as influential in their loss of faith, as they often did, they most often named the Bible itself or Paine’s anti-Bible work, The Age of Reason (Budd, 1977: 107).

29To conclude, the older historiography would have seen all this work by Bradlaugh, Besant, and the other leaders of organized freethought, secularism, and atheism as evidence that Christianity was on the decline and unbelief was the telling trend of the age. This study, by contrast, is calling for scholars to look at this material afresh and thereby to see that what it is revealing is actually a culture in which the Christian faith is so persuasive and dominant that even atheists are forced by way of reaction into speaking its language (even to the point of learning Hebrew!), to write in its genres (biblical commentaries and sermons) and find themselves unable to break free the scriptural cadences and biblical thought patterns that have been so effectively inculcated into them by a faith-filled culture.

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McLeod Hugh, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007.
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Willey Basil, More Nineteenth Century Studies: A Group of Honest Doubters, London, Chatto and Windus, 1956.

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Timothy Larsen, « The Bible and Belief in Victorian Britain », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 76 Automne | 2012, 11-25.

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Timothy Larsen, « The Bible and Belief in Victorian Britain », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 76 Automne | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 avril 2013, consulté le 01 octobre 2014. URL : http://cve.revues.org/498

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Auteur

Timothy Larsen

Wheaton College
Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College (Illinois, USA). He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and in 2012 he was also a Visiting Fellow in History, All Souls College, Oxford University. He is the author of a range of books including Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 2006) and A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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