The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XIII. The Growth of Liberal Theology

§ 1. The Evangelicals

RELIGIOUS thought has seldom been so stagnant in England as at the opening of the nineteenth century. The professional advocates of the Christian faith did not lack ability, but they had been traversing the same arid ground of external evidences for half a century. They continued to put the apostles into the witness box and acquit them according to the rules of the Old Bailey. They cross-examined the saints for their attestation of miracle and prophecy, but omitted to discover the secret of their life. A Paley or a Watson might display admirable commonsense, and be accounted by the faithful a match for Tom Paine; and yet the religious life remained starved. The methodist movement, with its evangelical counterpart, had, indeed, given back to religious feeling its rightful place and more, but had produced little or no theology, except for the particularly acrid and unprofitable Calvinist controversy.

The French revolution had set up a ferment of new ideas and induced a critical attitude towards all established notions and institutions. But the very extravagances of the movement, and the desperate nature of the war in which England was engaged against the propagandists of the revolution, made English people more than usually suspicious of new ideas, and gave a new lease of life to threatened institutions like the established church. Sympathy with the ideas of the revolution was regarded as dubiously patriotic and probably irreligious, as Priestly and William Frend found to their cost. When the former took flight to a more kindly clime, bishop Horsley could exult and sing, “The orators and oracles of Birmingham and Essex Street are dumb.” Traditional teaching, therefore, remained in almost undisputed possession through the period of the great war, and beyond it, when the new fears of social unrest excited corresponding fears for Christian faith. For the first twenty years of the new century, English theology was at a standstill. The stars of the older day, Paley and Horsley and Watson, were setting, and no new stars had arisen. Theology could make no serious progress until it should emancipate itself from the outworn conventions of the previous century, and be free to face the urgent questions of the new age. The fashionable utilitarianism of Paley could kindle no warmth. Idealism already had its prophets in Germany; but it needed a Coleridge to discover and interpret them for English readers. There were also on the continent pioneers of a more scientific literary criticism; but their work was still unknown in this country. Herbert Marsh, fellow of St. John’s college, Cambridge, who had studied at Leipzig under Michaelis, published in four volumes (1793–1801) a translation of the latter’s Introduction to the New Testament, together with essays and a dissertation of his own on the sources of the first three Gospels. He did not escape reproof for his rashness; but neither was he debarred from becoming a divinity professor and a bishop. The work had no immediate sequel. English scholarship was not ready for such questions; but, twenty-four years later, another future bishop, Connop Thirlwall, picked up the threads, in introducing to an English public Schleiermacher’s A Critical Essay on the Gospel of St. Luke. Still more necessary than critical learning was a freer view of biblical inspiration. Theological scholars worked in shackles, if not in blinkers, so long as à priori theories of the inerrancy of Scripture were unchallenged. When the critical methods that were already being applied to other literature should come to be applied to the Bible, a revolution would follow. If, in his Shakespearean studies, said Coleridge, he were to use the same uncritical liberties as divines allowed themselves in harmonising the inconsistencies of Scripture, “I would almost undertake to harmonise Falstaff’s account of the rogues in buckram into a coherent and consistent narrative.” The eighteenth century was seriously lacking in the historic sense; but, so soon as Wolf set himself to prove the plural authorship of the Iliad, and Niebuhr began discussing the origin of the early legends of Roman history, the day was not far distant when similar tests must be applied to biblical literature. The growth of the scientific temper in the new century, with its ruling idea of development, would also create a more sympathetic interest in doctrine viewed historically rather than as absolutely defined. The time was ripe for the advent of Christian scholars who, with a more daring spirit, would set their sails to catch the new breezes that were stirring.

But in what direction was a truer theology to be looked for? The spirit of religion burned brightest among the evangelical churchmen and methodists. The new century witnessed a new literary venture, The Christian Observer, which enlisted most of the evangelical talent—Henry Thornton, Thomas Scott the commentator and John Venn. The evangelicals were not wanting in ability or energy, but, as a body, had little taste for literature, except of a directly practical purpose. They showed their capacity for meeting the religious needs of their less critical followers in devotional and homiletic literature. Hannah More’s Cheap Repository Tracts had an enormous vogue, and a simple moral tale by Legh Richmond, The Dairyman’s Daughter, reached two million copies. For more cultivated readers, there was a great outpouring of pious biography. Charles Simeon, with all his wider interests, published almost nothing except homiletic literature, “skeletons” of sermons, as he frankly called them. Even a professed work of learning like Joseph Milner’s History of the Church of Christ (1794–7) aimed chiefly at edification; “genuine piety is the only thing which I intend to celebrate.” Neither he nor his brother, dean Isaac Milner, who brought the history down to Luther’s reformation, thought it necessary to read anything in Luther’s language. Evangelical theology concentrated itself upon a few favourite doctrines which formed the scheme of salvation; its language was soon learnt, and it was all-sufficient. The peculiarity of this language, together with its hackneyed use, was enough to deter some minds, as the outspoken baptist minister, John Foster, complained in his essay On the Aversion of Men of Taste to Evangelical Religion (1805). Even biblical interpretation commanded but a narrow field of interest; the unfulfilled prophecies alone gave scope for speculation. The rigid theory of inspiration, in general, foreclosed enquiry, and the evangelicals retained that theory longest of all.