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

XIII. The Growth of Liberal Theology

§ 8. Thomas Arnold

The early Oriel liberals are, as a whole, disappointing. There was in them more of dry light than of divine fire. But, if the charge of coldness fairly lies against some of them, it has no meaning in the case of the most attractive and most influential of their number, Thomas Arnold. If “tendencies to Socinianism” could be detected in Hampden or Whately, Arnold might defy his worst enemy to find them in his writings. Only Newman, in a moment of scepticism, could question Arnold’s right to be called a Christian. His fervid devotion to Christ radiates through all his sermons and letters, and gives them a glow of life, long after the writings of his liberal contemporaries have ceased to live. Of Arnold, at least, it could not be said that he hoped to “heal the hurt of his people lightly” with useful knowledge and facile optimism. Though he valued knowledge, and was possessed of “even cheerfulness,” he could speak naturally and effectively the deeper language of the soul. If he was not himself a great thinker or critic, he excelled as a teacher and preacher in cultivating the habit of moral thoughtfulness. His sermons reflect at once his robust good sense and his contagious earnestness; they are, above all, alive and breathe the mountain air: “I will not give my boys,” he said, “to drink out of stagnant waters.” To older audiences and to his readers he offered stronger meat, but still avoided the technical language of theology and the jargon of the pulpit; “into that common language, in which we think and feel, all truth must be translated, if we would think and feel respecting it at once rightly, clearly, and vividly.” He had learnt something of the scientific method of history from Niebuhr, and was not afraid of its application to Biblical study. On the historical and moral difficulties of the Bible, he had much to say in his sermons, and though a modern reader would find his treatment of such difficulties only midly critical, yet it reveals a sense of proportion, which argured well for the future of such studies.

  • If my faith in God and my hope of eternal life is to depend on the accuracy of a date or of some minute historical particular, who can wonder that I should listen to any sophistry that may be used in defence of them, or that I should force my mind to do any sort of violence to itself, when life and death seem to hang on the issue of its decision?
  • Arnold’s desire for unity amounted to a passion, which overrode even necessary distinctions: he was for fusing church and state, clergy and laity, secular and religious, the human and the divine. In his hands, this treatment was safe enough, because the higher term prevailed in such union; but, for less noble natures, it spelt confusion. His hatred of all division and party spirit made him tolerant in principle, but a bitter opponent of what he believed to be intolerance. When his friend Hampden was attacked in 1836, he struck out at “the Oxford malignants” in The Edinburgh Review with an invective which disturbed even his supporters. But, already, before his premature death, on 12 June, 1842, the eve of his forty-eighth birthday, he had adopted a broader and more tranquil outlook, especially after the kindly reception which he obtained from former opponents at Oxford on his becoming, in 1841, regius professor of modern history.

    Arnold’s most celebrated Rugby pupil, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, has described a scene from his boyhood in 1834 which brings together representatives of most of the types of liberal theology mentioned in this chapter. As he sat in the library of Hurstmonceaux rectory, where he noticed the preponderance of German books, Julius Hare’s curate, John Sterling, came in with the current number of The Quarterly Review, noticing Coleridge’s death and containing an article on his poetry. On the same occasion, the friends discussed the unpublished manuscript of Confessions of an Enquiring Spirit, and agreed to submit it to Arnold for his advice as to its publication. Julius Hare, contemporary and friend of Connop Thirlwall at Charterhouse and Trinity college, Cambridge, who, ten years later, became the brother-in-law of his pupil, Frederick Denison Maurice, was a link between many generations. His chief work, The Mission of the Comforter (1846), he dedicated “to the honoured memory of Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” and he repeatedly mentioned his profound obligation to the Cambridge philosopher, whom many of the Oxford lights, like Whately, disparaged as a misty thinker. As Maurice remarks,

  • Hare cannot be suspected, as many have been, of resorting to Coleridge because, at his restaurant, German cookery was adapted to weak English stomachs, not yet prepared to receive it in its genuine form; for Hare knew the taste of German dishes and had partaken of them fearlessly.
  • Hare and Thirlwall were as well acquainted as any Englishmen of their day with German literature, yet they retained a thoroughly English outlook. Thirlwall translated Schleiermacher’s St. Luke (1825) and collaborated with Hare in the translation of Niebuhr’s History of Rome (1828–1832). They both recognised the necessity of applying the newer historical method to the study of the Scriptures, and were upheld in that view by a belief in the progressive unfolding of religious truth. If Christians accepted the dispensation of the Spirit, said Thirlwall, they must believe that “His later lessons may well transcend His earlier.” He did not expect his English readers to accept all the conclusions of Schleiermacher, but
  • to diffuse the spirit of impartial criticism more extensively among ourselves in the study of the sacred writings, when it has hitherto been wholly wanting or confined to very subordinate points, was also the translator’s principal object.