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Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England
by Timothy Larsen
Oxford University Press, 2006
(317 pages, $110.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Harold K. Bush
The Victorian era in England featured growing religious doubts, increased secularization, and the large-scale abandonment of faith by the majority of the educated cultural elites. Attacks on Christianity came on several fronts: the widespread impact of Darwinian theories of evolution; the popularization of the German higher criticism of the Bible; the growing interest in theories of the unconscious and human psychology; rapid advances in astronomical knowledge; and the meteoric rise of interest in comparative religions.
This standard scholarly account has become so entrenched that it is rarely even questioned. Timothy Larsen challenges this common story, and does so brilliantly in Crisis of Doubt.
“The nineteenth-century crisis of faith is a motif that has become vastly overblown,” he declares in the first line of the book. Larsen, a professor of theology at Wheaton College, begins his argument by documenting some of the ways in which the institutional teaching of the Victorian Age has fostered this motif and by illustrating the powerful “tendency in Victorian studies to separate religion from any positive connection with thought.”
He then tells his story from opposite assumptions, showing that, in fact, numerous Victorian intellectuals went through long periods of serious doubt, only to be drawn back to belief. A great many ended up reconnecting with their former faith—due, mainly, to its logical content.
Honest doubt was not the only model for the thinking Victorian, says Larsen: “There was also a crisis of doubt” itself. Thus does Larsen accomplish here revisionist history at its very best: one that illuminates the errors of a common paradigm, and turns that paradigm on its head, to argue the opposite viewpoint.
In the body of the book, he documents the “crisis of doubt” that seven prominent secularist leaders (and a number of others only briefly sketched) faced as their skepticism began to dissipate and they were drawn back to faith. These men were widely known and influential in Victorian Britain, but are now almost forgotten except by specialists.
For example, William Hone was one of the most famous freethinkers of his era, whose satires were so popular that they drew the wrath of the Anglican Church. He later realized the error of his atheistic ways and formally reconverted to an Evangelical brand of faith.
Larsen is careful to show that Hone’s conversion was intellectually motivated and highly reasonable, and not merely emotional. A number of compelling factors drew him back to belief: disillusionment with the lives of freethinkers; experiences of the paranormal; a fresh appreciation of the Bible; the character and teachings of Jesus; and the philosophical inadequacy of materialism.
For the last ten years of his life, Hone exemplified a learned, curious, and cultured Christianity, even in the face of the latest skeptical critiques. As Larsen puts it, “Ideas do matter. . . . Hone’s conversion cannot be reduced to purely non-intellectual factors.” His story is typical of the six other figures (including Thomas Cooper, John Henry Gordon, and J. B. Bebbington) that Larsen documents here.
At the end of the book, Larsen examines the extent and significance of these reconversions and offers a detailed appendix listing additional “reverts” and other figures of interest, some of whom moved away from skepticism into less traditional forms of belief like theosophy or spiritualism.
A Complicated Account
He ends Crisis of Doubt by calling out those who have perpetrated the one-sided account of belief, who describe intellectual progress as necessarily including a rejection of faith. He singles out A. N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral (1999) in particular as representing the conceit that “informed people now ‘know’ that Christianity has been discredited.”
His research greatly complicates this account, if it does not completely dismantle it, by showing how “faith was compelling to many Victorian thinkers,” and how, indeed, “most Victorian thinkers did not experience a reconversion: they had no need to, because they never lost their faith to begin with.” He also recalls the literary revival of faith in the period between the World Wars, as documented in Joseph Pearce’s book Literary Converts.
The book thus ends with a powerful critique of the standard accounts of growing doubt and the irrevocable loss of faith among intellectuals. Scholars on this side of the Atlantic would do well to take Larsen’s conclusions and apply them to American intellectual or literary history of the same period. Such research would undoubtedly uncover similar results.
Crisis of Doubt is a very welcome and timely study of how powerful many of those commonplace historical narratives can become—and of how important it is that we keep questioning them, especially when it appears that their veracity has become institutionalized and largely unquestioned.
Harold K. Bush teaches English at Saint Louis University. His newest book, Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age, will appear in the fall of 2006.