Religion in Victorian England

The language of church

Whether deeply religious or not, most nineteenth Century writers were strongly influenced by the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Hearing readings and sermons week by week in church, they absorbed the language and rhythms of the Bible.  A characteristic of Victorian fiction is that there are many echoes and direct references to the Book of Common Prayer and to the Bible.

The centrality of Christian observance

Outward signs of religion were more obvious in Victorian Britain than today. Churches were built in the new industrial cities and about half the population attended regularly. In villages and older towns and cities, parishes continued to be centres of the life of the community, as they had been for centuries. Moreover, even those who were not Christians or did not hold traditional beliefs would have recognized the Christian origins of the moral and ethical standards of the day.

Both in terms of actual churchgoing and in religious talk and debate, the situation in Victorian Britain was more like that of the USA now-a-days:

  • Churches on most street corners
  • A good percentage of the population attends church on a Sunday morning
  • Preachers get a wide hearing, if not in halls and public meetings, then on television and radio.

Churchmanship in England

In Victorian England, the Church of England was the dominant church, mainly because it was the state church, although in terms of numbers, the combined membership of the chapels or nonconformist churches, (Baptist, Methodist, etc.), was approaching that of the Church of England.

Church and Chapel

During the eighteenth century, there had been great dissatisfaction with the Anglican Church which had been very formal and rather moribund in its religious practice. New religious movements grew up, including Methodism and the Baptist Church. The Congregationalist churches had developed from the Independent churches that seceded from the Church of England at the time of the English Civil War. Collectively, these became known as Dissenting or Nonconformist churches.

These secessions and new sects had arisen because people wanted a simpler, more direct religion and forms of worship without priests, sacraments or ritual. These new congregations, particularly the Methodists and the Baptists, were predominantly lower class and a social distinction was indicated by describing people as either ‘church' (i.e. Anglican) or ‘chapel' (i.e. Nonconformist).


Many members of the Anglican Church had considerable sympathy with the views of the Dissenting Churches. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, an Evangelical Movement began in the Anglican church, enthused by the recent Methodist movement. Sometimes, this is referred to as Low Church Anglicanism. Evangelicalism formed a powerful movement within the Church of England.

Among other things, this style of Christianity promoted:

  • Personal piety
  • Missions to other countries
  • Supporting the abolition of slavery
  • Setting up many charities. 

Evangelicals believed that human beings are profoundly affected by sin and therefore unable to achieve a close relationship with God by their own efforts, however hard they might try. William Wilberforce (the great social reformer who was one of the leaders of the campaign to end slavery in Britain) and Lord Shaftesbury (who worked to end poverty and the exploitation of children) were both evangelicals.

However, Evangelicalism never really penetrated the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the two main centres of learning in England, where most of the nation's political and church leaders were educated. Until well into the nineteenth century, someone could not be a student at either university if they were not an Anglican. The two universities had become real bastions of die-hard Anglicanism, Oxford even more so than Cambridge.

A different way of worshipping

John KebleIn 1833, a series of tracts (leaflets arguing a point of view) entitled ‘Tracts for the Times' were circulated at Oxford, some by John Keble, an Anglican clergyman who wanted an even stricter observance of the rituals laid down in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The tracts, which continued to be published till 1841, wanted the Church of England to become more like the Roman Catholic church, though not to accept the authority of the Pope, who was the head of the Catholic Church.

  • To opponents, this meant putting the clock back to before the time of the Reformation.
  • To others, however, it meant restoring a proper sense of awe to church services and enhancing them with greater beauty and drama. For such individuals it also meant a new devotion to prayer, leading to a new spiritual energy.

The Oxford Movement

An influential group of people accepted the challenge of the tracts. They became known as Tractarians, or Puseyites after their leader, Edward Pusey, and the movement was sometimes called the Oxford Movement or the High Church revival. Today the term Anglo-Catholic is often used for Anglicans who like to align their practice to that of the Roman Catholic Church.

Typically, ‘High Church' Anglicans put a great stress on:

  • Ritual in worship
  • Observing the seasons of the church year
  • Saints' days
  • Ornate robes worn by the clergy and choir
  • [3Candles3], incense and other aesthetic considerations.

John Henry Newman

John Henry NewmanOne of the early Tractarians and the writer of the very first tract was John Henry Newman. In 1845, to the Tractarians' dismay, Newman decided to become a Roman Catholic. In addition to experiencing a distinct religious experience, he was intellectually convinced that the logic of becoming more closely aligned to Roman Catholic practice was to go ‘all the way'. He was not deterred by the question of the Pope's authority. A number of his friends went ‘over to Rome', as it was termed, with him.

The Catholic remnant

England had ceased to be a Roman Catholic country three centuries earlier in the Reformation under Henry VIII, and from then on saw itself as essentially Protestant. But certain parts of England had always had a few die-hard Catholics, especially in:

  • The North West
  • Ireland, which had remained largely Catholic, though Protestants had been brought in to settle the northern counties in the seventeenth century
  • Scotland, where certain Highland areas had remained Catholic.

The re-establishment of a Catholic Church

There was no properly organized Church structure for Catholics (outside of Ireland). However, by the mid-nineteenth century, the number of Catholics in Britain was increasing:

  • Large numbers of Irish had come into England as it industrialized, partly to find work, partly to escape the famines at home.
  • Refugees and immigrants from Europe were often Catholic.

The result was that in 1850, the Catholic Church decided to organize itself and set up a hierarchy in England. Cardinal Wiseman became its leading Archbishop at Westminster.

Reaction to Newman

Many English people looked on the resurgence of the Catholic Church as very threatening and as an attempt to take back lost ground. So when people of such calibre and ability as Newman converted, there was even more cause for alarm.

To show his approval of Newman's conversion, the Pope conferred a doctorate on him. There was no obstacle to Newman becoming a Catholic clergyman as he had never married (Catholic priests are required to be unmarried and celibate). Later, in 1879, he became a Cardinal in, and leader of, the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Challenges to the Bible

Another religious battle was going on at a more academic or theological level.

Darwin and geology

In 1859, Charles Darwin published his book, The Origin of Species, in which he laid out the theory of evolution. Many saw this as being contrary to the teachings of the Bible, though there were others who saw no necessary contradiction at all.

There had been earlier challenges to biblical truth, especially when its interpretation was taken very literally. New findings in geology seemed to challenge the traditional, biblically-derived age of the earth, for example.

Philosophy and science

Philosophically, some German theologians were suggesting the Bible was no more than a collection of writings of what men thought about God. It could, therefore, be criticized or, as we would say these days, relativized:

  • They refused to accord the Bible the status of absolute truth
  • They held that a modern scientific viewpoint should now see many of its beliefs as outdated
  • Various writers in England were expressing such thoughts, including the poet Matthew Arnold and the novelist George Eliot.

This debate about the possibility of absolute truth is still going on in many areas of thought and belief.

Liberalism and Benjamin Jowett

When various academics and clergymen in the Church of England started to concur with some of the challenges to biblical authority, many ordinary believers found it very disturbing.

Benjamin Jowett had become a tutor at Balliol College, Oxford in 1842. He had a hand in publishing a book of essays in 1860, simply called Essays and Reviews, in which many arguments challenging the orthodox and traditional view of the Bible, Christ and Christianity were put forward.

The Tractarians, especially, challenged Jowett, even in court. They could not stop him becoming Professor of Greek, but they could make sure he didn't get his salary for it. Eventually, Jowett won through.

The Tractarians' last effort was the 1864 Oxford declaration, suggesting Jowett and his friends were in error guilty of heresy in fact and ought to be expelled from the Church of England. However, the Anglican Church tried to encompass these varying views.

In their day, terms such as Latitudinarians or Broad Church were used of people like Jowett. Today, we use the simpler terms liberals and ‘liberal theology'.

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