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

XIII. The Growth of Liberal Theology

§ 10. Robertson of Brighton

Frederick Robertson’s reputation was won in the face of obstacles. He entered the Anglican ministry without any academic fame, and, for some years, had neither success nor happiness, owing to uncongenial surroundings and his own extreme sensitiveness. For barely six years, he ministered in a small proprietary chapel in Brighton. When death took him thence, in 1853, at the age of thirty-seven, he had published only a few casual sermons, and yet, already, he was known as a unique preacher. Five volumes of his sermons were posthumously printed. Their form is unfinished; some of them are only his extensive notes, others are the products of amateur reporting. Yet no sermons of that period, not even Newman’s, have found so wide a range of readers. They are like no other sermons; they owe almost nothing recognisable to works of theological learning; they do not reflect the theology of any master-mind or of any party. Robertson preserves his independence till it becomes to him an almost painful isolation. He thinks his own way through the difficulties, and, though his exegesis may be unwarranted, it is never uninteresting. He avoids the technical terms of the schools, and yet his sermons are full of doctrinal teaching, conveyed by suggestion rather than by dogmatic exposition. A typical example of his habit of mind is afforded by his sermon “On the Glory of the Virgin Mother.” He is not content to point out the dangers of the cult of the Virgin; its very prevalence establishes for him the probability that it “has a root in truth.”

  • We assume it as a principle that no error has ever spread widely, that was not the exaggeration or perversion of a truth. And be assured that the first step towards dislodging error is to understand the truth at which it aims. It matters little whether fierce Romanism or fierce Protestantism wins the day: but it does matter whether or not in a conflict we lose some precious Christian truth, as well as the very spirit of Christianity.
  • An enquiry begun in this spirit could not fail to be constructive rather than destructive. A generation that felt its doubts acutely was fortunate to have such men as Maurice and Robertson for its preachers. While they criticised what they believed to be faulty or obsolete modes of theological expression, their main concern was to lose nothing which had spiritual value.

    Their influence was more enduring than that of the Oxford liberals, whose early promise had hardly justified itself. In spite of their intellectual ability and vigorous self-assertion, the Oriel men stirred little general enthusiasm, and were soon attracting less attention in Oxford itself than the second movement which emanated from the Oriel common-room. The tractarians were in full reaction against the liberals; in Newman’s eyes “the great apostasy is Liberalism in religion.” There was, for a while, a serious set-back and discouragement of free enquiry. Moreover, the liberal theologians of the next generation spoke with less confidence than the Whatelys and Arnolds. The difficulties of faith were increasing under the pressure of many convergent lines of modern enquiry, and the concessions asked for were heavier and nearer the heart of Christian teaching. Strauss’s Life of Jesus (1835), which George Eliot translated in 1846, opened anew for English readers the whole question of the supernatural. The problems suggested by physical science were hardly less urgent. Scientific knowledge had been rapidly advancing all through the century, though its bearing on the traditional theology was not at first perceived. But queen Victoria’s reign had not proceeded far before there was a more general appreciation of the difficulties of reconciling new and old ways of thinking. The spirit of doubt, even if it were reluctant and ill at ease, obtruded itself in poet and essayist and historian, as well as in philosopher and theologian. Many who had started in the following of Newman, like Mark Pattison and James Anthony Froude, instead of following him to Rome, had recovered from their enthusiasm only to become coldly distrustful of any authority.