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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

§ 9. Frederick Denison Maurice

“I do not believe,” wrote Hare, “that there is any other living man who has done anything at all approaching to what Maurice has effected in reconciling the reason and the conscience of the thoughtful men of our age to the faith of our church.” Maurice was religious teacher more than a critic: indeed, for biblical criticism, he had no great liking or aptitude. Rather he was in the true succession to Coleridge and Erskine: the latter’s Brazen Serpent (1831) had helped him, as it helped McLeod Campbell, to find his gospel. The son of a unitarian minister, member of a family sharply divided in its religious allegiance, Maurice believed himself called “from my cradle” to the pursuit of unity. He was persuaded, like J.S. Mill, that thinking people were, for the most part, right in what they affirmed, wrong in what they denied. He believed that each church party asserted some great truth, and in The Religions of the World (1847), an early example of the comparative study of religions in this country, he showed the same anxiety to appreciate all positive excellence. But his breadth of sympathy was not indifference or vaguencess. He had nothing in common with the “hang theology” air of some broad churchmen, or with the contemporary shyness of dogmatic statement. “Theology,” he declared, “is what our age is crying out for, even when it thinks that it is crying to be rid of theology.” He saw the necessity of clearing current theology of what he took to be erroneous and even immoral teaching. He was deeply concerned so to state the doctrine of atonement as not to offend the moral sense, and he resented, as warmly as Mill, Mansel’s suggestion that the justice of God “is not the kind of justice which would be expected of men.” The startingpoint of all his theology was the love of God, not the sinfulness of man. This was his best inheritance from his unitarian upbringing; he remained surer of the infinite love of God than of any other doctrine, and he examined all current religious belief in the light of this ruling idea. Here, he believed, was a gospel for all mankind; any limitation of it he attacked with an almost savage intensity. He gibbeted his opponents as giving, in effect, Christ’s good news in these reduced terms:

  • Your Father has created multitudes whom He means to perish for ever and ever. By my agony and bloody sweat, by my cross and passion, I have induced Him in the case of an inconceivably small minority to forego that design.
  • A divine who could write and speak in this strain showed more courage than discretion; he was bound to be misunderstood and mistrusted. He knew himself what to expect; “When I wrote the sentence about eternal death, I was writing my own sentence at King’s College.”

    It may be felt that Maurice forced upon the New Testament language an interpretation of eternal punishment to square with his belief in the “infinite” love of God, rather than that he came to his decision from an unimpassioned study of the text. But he was a prophet of great ideas, which consumed and fired him, not an exact student of philogy and history. He had, also, that mystical quality of mind which was lacking in the Oxford liberals. He sought to read the eternal in the manifestations of it in time: “We must have the eternal, which our fathers nearly forgot.”

    With the same disregard of popularity and the same risk of misunderstanding, Maurice proclaimed himself a Christian socialist; “I seriously believe,” he wrote, “that Christianity is the only foundation of Socialism, and that a true Socialism is the necessary result of a sound Christianity.” But, though both Christians and socialists hastened to disown him, the direction which he gave to Christian thinking has been extensively followed, so that much of what he taught, whether of a more universal theology or of a truer Christian brotherhood, has become the commonplace of the pulpit. As his friend Kingsley had hoped, Christians came to accept the teaching of Theological Essays (1853) “not as a code complete, but as a hint towards a new method of thought.” Maurice was more capable of giving hints than precise directions, and even the hints were sometimes unnecessarily indistinct. But he was not wilfully obscure; if he was less lucid than the Oriel liberals, it was partly because he was struggling to plumb greater depths of religious experience.

    It is characteristic of the changing times to find Maurice associated with Kingsley and Robertson, in 1851, in giving a course of sermons in a London church on the message of the church to rich and poor. Robertson’s turn came first; Kingsley was inhibited by the bishop of London after delivering the second; and the third was consequently never delivered. If Maurice was outspoken, and Robertson impetuous, “Parson Lot” was vehement; “when once fairly let loose upon the prey,” wrote W. R. Greg of him, “all the Red Indian within him comes to the surface, and he wields the tomahawk with an unbaptized heartiness.” Though Kingsley made no original contribution to theological thinking, he was a successful populariser of Maurice’s teaching, and applied it to the social questions of the day with remarkable directness. Nor was he a mere echo of Maurice; his romantic love of nature and of all things that have breath and his fine humanity were great gifts for a preacher.