The influence of Christianity

The significance of belief

As the daughter and sister of Anglican clergyman, Jane Austen was raised in a religious atmosphere shaped by the tenets of the Church of England. Her father has been described as a moderate Anglican who embraced the doctrine of salvation based on a balance of faith, deeds and grace. Jane Austen was an orthodox Anglican who appreciated the moral framework that Anglicanism provided for English society. While her religious beliefs undoubtedly influenced her writing, Jane Austen's characteristic subtlety as a novelist requires that the specifics of her faith be gleaned from additional sources such as her letters, prayers and family history.

Linguistic influence

Jane Austen was strongly influenced by the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Hearing readings and sermons week by week in church, she absorbed the language and rhythms of the Bible and of Anglican worship. While her novels are notable for their lack of reference to the Bible, her cadence, use of language, and the economy of her writing style echoes that of biblical writers.

Christian observance

Outward signs of religion were more obvious in Jane Austen's time than today. In villages and older towns and cities, parishes continued to be the centres of the life of the community, as they had been for centuries. As the daughter of a clergyman she was intimately familiar with parish life and the majority of the action and relationships in her novels are set in the context of the rural parish. Throughout her life Jane Austen observed the weekly and seasonal rites of the Church, and she took them seriously. Likewise, the gentry in her novels regularly attend church, although their attitudes to it range from the nominal to the devout, thus reflecting her era's approach to the Christian faith. Even those who were not Christians or did not hold traditional beliefs, would have recognised the origin of the moral and ethical standards of the day.

The state of the Church

While Jane Austen continued to hold firmly to her Anglican beliefs and practices, the Church of England was being criticised on various fronts:

  • Groups of Dissenters separated themselves from the Established Church. Some of these groups were characterised by their:
    • Move away from a theology based on the centrality and authority of Christ
    • Belief that reliance on the external authority of God should be replaced with the internal authority of self or reason
    • Disagreement with the Church's, monarch's and aristocracy's authority in the affairs of state.
  • The Evangelical movement grew from within the Church of England and fought against corruption both within the church and society:
    • They believed that, since human beings are profoundly affected by sin and unable to achieve a close relationship with God by their own efforts, they are in need of salvation
    • They believed in the infallible authority of the Bible
    • They placed an emphasis on individual piety through worship, Bible reading and prayer.

Jane Austen's letters suggest that she was ambivalent toward the Evangelical movement, at times strongly disagreeing with it, and at times regarding it more favourably, at least in its aim to improve the moral condition of the country.

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