Victorians: Religion

Predominant at the start of the 19th century, by the end of the Victorian era the Church of England was increasingly only one part of a vibrant and often competitive religious culture, with non-Anglican Protestant denominations enjoying a new prominence. The period also saw the greatest burst of church building since the Middle Ages.

The elaborate Gothic interior of St Mary’s Church, Studley Royal, North Yorkshire

The elaborate Gothic interior of St Mary’s Church, Studley Royal, North Yorkshire

A CHRISTIAN COUNTRY

Throughout the 19th century England was a Christian country. The only substantial non-Christian faith was Judaism: the number of Jews in Britain rose from 60,000 in 1880 to 300,000 by 1914, as a result of migrants escaping persecution in Russia and eastern Europe.

Within the overwhelming Christian majority there were, however, many varieties of belief – and many disagreements.

A cartoon of Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, a fierce opponent of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which he famously challenged at a debate in 1860.

A cartoon of Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and Winchester, a fierce opponent of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which he famously challenged at a debate in 1860. Wilberforce’s reaction to Darwin’s ideas is one example among many of the immense controversy evolution caused among religious believers.

EXPANDING THE CHURCH

The Church of England ended the century as it had begun: as the country’s established church. Nonetheless, it had changed enormously.

At the beginning of the century the difficulty of creating new parishes – a process that until 1843 required an Act of Parliament – meant that the Church was poorly represented in England’s new manufacturing cities.

The government had begun to remedy this. In 1818 it had voted £1 million to be spent on new churches, which was followed by another £500,000 in 1824, producing a surge in church building. The enthusiasm for building or restoring churches continued in Victoria’s reign, galvanised by the ‘High Church’ Oxford Movement: between 1851 and 1875, 2,438 churches were built or rebuilt.

St Mary's, Studley Royal, North Yorkshire, an aristocratic showpiece built in the 1870s, is a fine example of what could be achieved with sufficient funds.

IMPROVING THE CLERGY

One result of these changes was a major increase in the number of Church of England clergymen, from 14,500 in 1841 to 24,000 in 1875.

Their beliefs and practices were by no means uniform. At one extreme were the Evangelicals, who focused on the Gospel teachings rather than ritual, and emphasised preaching and Bible study. At the other, High Churchmen revived rituals, images, incense and vestments not seen in England since the Reformation.

Rotherwas Chapel, Herefordshire

Rotherwas Chapel in Herefordshire belonged to the Catholic Bodenham family and had been used for Catholic worship since 1606, but it was only in 1829 that restrictions on Catholics were lifted. The Victorian additions to the interior in 1868 are the chapel’s most striking features.

OTHER DENOMINATIONS

Legislation in the 1820s had removed some of the barriers that had excluded Christians outside the Church of England – such as Catholics and Methodists – from most public offices and degrees at Oxford or Cambridge.

Pressure for further change was encouraged when the 1851 census revealed that out of a population of nearly 18 million, only 5.2 million attended Church of England services, with 4.9 million attending other Christian places of worship. The rise of non-Anglican Protestant denominations – including Methodists, Baptists and Quakers – is particularly striking: between them they represented nearly half the worshipping nation.

This blow to the Church of England led to pressure for further reforms, culminating in an 1871 Act of Parliament that abolished all religious requirements for attendance at universities.

Charles Darwin shares his likeness with an ape in this 1874 cartoon from the ‘London Sketchbook’

Charles Darwin shares his likeness with an ape in this 1874 cartoon from the ‘London Sketchbook’, produced in reaction to the publication of ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871), his second book on evolutionary theory following ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859). His theory of human evolution completely altered understanding of the natural world, challenging the literal truth of the Bible and the nature of Christian belief.
© Alamy

GROWING DOUBT – AND FAITH

The 19th century was also the first time in England that a substantial number of public figures openly declared that they had no religious beliefs.

Study of the scriptures as historical texts, and scientific advances such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (developed at Down House in Kent), made it more difficult for many educated people to accept the literal truth of the Bible. Some intellectuals and writers rejected the teachings of Christianity altogether. Others, such as the poet Alfred Tennyson, clung to their faith, ‘believing where we cannot prove’.

But the 19th century was far from irreligious. As the old certainties crumbled, new faiths emerged, such as Spiritualism, established in England by the 1850s, and Theosophy, which drew on Buddhism and Hinduism.

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