Different religious approaches in Tess of the d'Urbervilles

During the century, the Church of England could be divided into three groups, clearly seen in the novel.

The low church

The low church or evangelical group was strong at the beginning of the Victorian era and just before. It upheld the importance of preaching, the Bible, individual conversion or a personal experience of God, and was often quite simple in its worship. They 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 main 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.

In Tess, Angel's father is an example of the evangelical Church of England. Hardy appears to admire his sincerity and courage. He is thought to be modelled on the Rev. Henry Moule of Fordingham, a poor suburb of Dorchester. Moule's sons also went to Cambridge, and Hardy was much influenced by one of them, Horace, while he was a young man in Dorchester.

The broad church

The broad church group believed the Church of England was the national church and therefore should be broad enough for everyone to join. They did not insist on a rigid following of the 39 Articles, the guidelines for Anglican belief. They tended to count everyone in as Christians unless they opted out. The vicar of Marlott is a good example here - he is willing to ‘bend the rules' somewhat to accommodate Tess.

The high church

The high church section grew in importance from the 1840s. It wanted to establish Anglican beliefs as essentially Catholic, which then led to concern for reviving ritual practises lost at the formation of the Church of England in the sixteenth century. It especially wanted to restore the sense of awe in worship, and to stress the importance of the sacraments.

Angel's two brothers are good examples of high churchmen. Hardy clearly does not have much sympathy with them, seeing them as having lost touch with personal relationships and human values. They talk a good deal about liturgy and theology.

The Methodists

John WesleyMethodists were a nonconformist sect founded by John Wesley, who had started as Anglicans until they could no longer agree with the Church of England. Although the Methodists were strong in south-west and western England, strangely Hardy does not mention their influence. Most villages of any size would have had a Methodist chapel in them. The Methodist church had ministers (the equivalent of an Anglican clergyman) but also relied heavily on local or lay preachers, who often preached quite fiery sermons.

The religious sign-painter Tess meets would probably have been a Methodist. And when Alec is ‘converted', it was probably within a Methodist context. He seems to have become a lay preacher for them. Giving an account of one's conversion, or testimony, was often part of the Methodists' open-air preaching style.

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