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

XIII. The Growth of Liberal Theology

§ 14. Essays and Reviews

The publication of Essays and Reviews in 1860 made the broad churchmen a storm-centre as much as Tract XC had done for the high churchmen. It was not intended, but was generally taken to be, the manifesto of a party. The volume was, in fact, the concluding number of a series of Oxford and Cambridge essays, issued annually. The editor, Henry Bristow Wilson, was a country clergyman whose Bampton lectures entitled The Communion of Saints (1851) had already caused him to become suspect. The seven writers consisted of six clergymen, and one layman, Charles Wycliffe Goodwin, an Egyptologist who had resigned his Cambridge fellowship on finding himself unable to take holy orders. They were soon, by an outraged religious public, dubbed Septem contra Christum. Replies, in the shape of books and pamphlets and articles, continued for many months to be issued. Two of the essayists, Rowland Williams and the editor, were tried and condemned for heresy in the court of arches; their acquittal, on appeal to the judicial committee of the privy council, afforded a valuable protection to liberty of thought within the church of England. But it is not hard to account for the opposition to the essayists. Though many of the essays were blameless and unaggressive, the general effect was negative, and some of the essays were provocative. Maurice complained of the absence of theology in the volume, and especially of the neglect of “the full revelation of God in Christ” which he believed to be all that was worth preaching. Stanley, who must have symbolised closely with some of the contributors, found fault with its negative character: “No book which treats of religious questions can hope to make its way to the heart of the English nation unless it gives, at the same time that it takes away.” The editor gave just offence in his essay, “The National Church,” by betraying a greater anxiety to see the church national than Christian. Baden Powell, Savilian professor of geometry at Oxford from 1827, was a survivor from the early Oriel school, and died directly after the issue of Essays and Reviews. He had already written much on the relations of the theology and science, and in his essay he pressed the uniformity of nature against the argument for miracle. But for his opportune death, he could hardly have escaped prosecution. His generation would never have tolerated his attempt to free Christian theism from a dependence on miracles. Mark Pattison’s essay, “The Tendencies of Religious Thought, 1688–1750,” was, for the most part, a purely historical survey, and would have avoided criticism if it had not appeared in the incriminating volume. Jowett urged, “Interpret the Scripture like any other book,” and yet maintained that it would remain unlike any other book.

  • Scripture has an inner life or soul; it has also an outward body or form. That form is language, which imperfectly expresses our common notions, much more those higher truths which religion teaches.
  • His essay, like Frederick Temple’s, “The Education of the World,” was pious and conciliatory, though both included (what, indeed, gives unity to the whole collection of essays) a strong plea for free criticism. “He is guilty of high treason against the faith,” wrote Temple, “who fears the result of any investigation, whether philosophical, or scientific, or historical.” Yet, the future archbishop may have had some qualms when he read Rowland Williams’s essay on Bunsen’s Biblical Researches. The shock was not mediated by the English writer, but rendered liable to cause the maximum of offence. Williams’s Psalms and Litanies, published by his widow in 1872, proves him to have had a true devotional feeling, and a desire to enter into communion with the Eternal Spirit, but it also shows how he consistently reduced ancient collects to a unitarian standard. Maurice had, indeed, touched the chief defect of Essays and Reviews, a defect which the lapse of time has made even more apparent. The disparagement of doctrine, and, especially, the neglect to contribute anything to the understanding of the person and nature of Jesus Christ, render it of little service to a later age, which, like other ages before it, sees that here is the core of essentially Christian thinking. The true claim of the essayists to grateful remembrance is that they asserted with one voice the duty of the Christian church to welcome new truth, and the right of her accredited sons to make it known. Not in vain is one of the essayists commemorated on the walls of his college chapel as a scholar qui libertatem cleri anglicani feliciter vindicavit.