Religious Faith in The Victorian Age by P. A. Steward

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Religious Faith in the Victorian Age

by – P. A. Steward, Published in Vol. II, Issue XIX, August 2015

Introduction to the Author:

P A StewardP.A. Steward is a research scholar in English Literature at Himalayan University.





The Victorian Age was the age of scientific discoveries and inventions where the scientific advancement came into conflict with the religious theories. The Biblical account of creation came into sharp contrast with the universe explored by man. The scientific discoveries shook the faith of some people, some stood firm to their faith, while some tried to make a compromise between their faith and the new discoveries where they could neither abandon their old faith nor reject the science.

Key Words: Scientific discoveries, faith, compromise.



The Victorian Age was an age of scientific discoveries and inventions which changed the traditional idea about nature. The number of discoveries in the field of physical and natural sciences, the faster growth of technologies and industries, the expansion of communication and transport; all these filled the human imagination with a new light of hope. It was an age of conflicting explanations and theories, of scientific and economic confidence and of social and spiritual pessimism of a sharpened awareness of the inevitability of progress and of deep disquiet as to the nature of the present. (Andrew Sanders:2003) Among such discoveries were Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871) which showed man’s descent from not only animals but from some bit of primordial slime that shook the bases of the Christian faith and created acrimony to the people.

The appearance of the Origin of Species in 1859 created controversy and raised storm among churchmen, scientists and philosophers for the deeper philosophical and religious assumptions which the new understanding of origins seemed to imply. (John W. Clerk and Thomas Mack Hughes: 1890, Francis Darwin: 1892) The publication of the Descent of Man made the people believe that human beings were evolved from animals and believed that man may not be the final species but may be converted again into some other species which contradicts the religious theories where man is a divine creation. Darwin’s theory questioned the nature of Divine Creation, and spoke about a universe governed by natural laws. It removed man from the centre of creation and made him one of the many species of organic life. It replaced the idea of a ‘providential design’ in the universe with the notion of ‘natural selection’. (Suroopa Mukherjee: 2011) The quest for origin, the need to justify established forms by showing their relevance to men’s deepest emotional needs, was highly characteristic of early Victorian thinking. (Arthur Pollard: 1970)

In the 1830’s the Bible was taken literally and believed without any question. Nobody dared to question what it contained. It was believed quite simply and honestly that the eternal truths of religion actually rested upon particular interpretations of biblical narratives. The Bible was considered as the book which literally and exclusively contained the word of God. (Oswald John Simon: 1898) Even during the mid-nineteenth century, most people accepted literally the account of divine Creation given in the Bible, according to which all forms of life were created within six days, thousands of years ago. Even Science and religion walked hand in hand and were considered as the two faces of a coin.

The Victorian Age had to face difficulties in religious faith that perhaps no other age had experienced. Three movements of thought: a new approach to the authority of the scriptures; the emergence of evolutionary theories and the growth of positivism, a philosophy which denied the possibility of any knowledge about the ultimate cause of things made a powerful attack on the stronghold of orthodoxy. (R.L. Brett: 1965) The people started rejecting the authority of the Bible with the assumption that it concerns only with the supernatural and considers Christianity as a myth.

The religious ideals about body and soul as envisaged in the Biblical account of creation came into sharp contrast with the universe of man mechanically explored. Instead of the traditional estimate of the six thousand years span, Geology now offered the awesome picture of a time stretching backward almost to infinity. The simple, homely Biblical time span had been rigorously challenged; the Great Flood was consequently removed as a significant event in geological history. Scientists, intellectuals and critics alike accepted the new Unbiblical age of the earth. It was accepted that the earth was given its present form neither by recent divine acts of creation nor by the simple miraculous cataclysm of the Flood, but rather by the gradual working of natural forces controlled by immutable laws over ages of time. It is here that the Biblical account of Creation was greatly challenged. (Sir Charles Lyell:1833) The concept of the fixity of species was shaken if not dislodged by the new understanding of fossilized bones which, when reconstructed, revealed species long since extinct (Charles Darwin:1906) Geological discoveries had shown that even the firm earth was subject to change; now with horrendous skeleton of long vanished reptiles rising in every museum, men became aware that the forms of life also could changed, realizing that behind our brief age there lay mysterious reaches of time in which species had appeared and then died, to be replaced by other species which eventually would also disappear. (Langdon Gilkey: 1968) The treatment of the problem of life and human destiny differ with one another: one man hoped while another feared; one was thrown into perplexity by the progress of scientific thought while another accepted the new gospel, but all felt themselves living in an epoch of change and reformation. Poets like Arthur Hugh Clough and Mathew Arnold represent the movement of intellectual doubt which began to revolutionize English thought about the year 1850, while Alfred Tennyson halted and hesitated between the old and the new, and Robert Browning held aloof. In the mid nineteenth century the scientific discoveries made the people doubt about their religious faith, they neither could belief firmly the new things; they could not easily forget the old faith which has given them peace for nearly two thousand years. It was here that Alfred Tennyson tried to bring a compromise between science and religion by acknowledging the growing of scientific knowledge and at the same time to show reverence to God of love. Knowledge is never ending; it must grow and must be accompanied by faith and reverence. Tennyson does not worry about the threat posed by science to religion; he says that we should have more reverence for God. He wants the mind and the soul to work together in a spirit of mutual co-operation and form one harmonious whole like before modern science had created the gulf between intellectual ‘knowledge’ on the one hand and instinctive ‘reverence’ on the other.

We have but faith: we cannot know;

For knowledge is of things we see;

And yet we trust it comes from thee,

A beam in darkness: let it grow.


Let knowledge grow from more to more,

But more of reverence in us dwell;

That mind and soul, according well,

May make one music as before.  (In Memoriam, Prologue, Lines 21-28)

Robert Browning stood for the faith which could not be shaken by the scientific discoveries where he says that everything that is happening is in accordance with God who is in heaven. Mathew Arnold and Clough were men who felt that the old faith must go. (Main Tendencies of Victorian Poetry, Arnold Smith, London, 1907, pp. 105-106)  William J. Long has observed it thus: “because of his invincible will and optimism, Browning is at present regarded as the poet who has spoken the strongest word of faith to an age of doubt. His energy, his cheerful courage, his faith in life and in the development that awaits us beyond the portals of death, are like a bugle-call to good living” (William J. Long: 2006) Browning believed in the existence and supremacy of God as the creator and governor of the universe. He considered God as an all pervading Deity, an essence always partially but never wholly revealed in the creative energy of Nature and the aspirations of man. Pauline’s love says, “I saw God everywhere I felt presence.” Paracelsus declares his faith in the Supreme Being which, in fact, is Browning’s personal faith about God:

Thus he dwells in all

From life’s minute beginning, up at last

To man.


In “Easter Day,” Browning explores the nature of human relationship with Christ who lived and died for mankind and rose up from the dead on Easter Day. Like other religious teachers, he believes that God and soul are immortal. Rabbi Ben Ezra observes:

Earth changes but thy soul and God stand sure. (XXVII: 159)

Unlike Tennyson, therefore, Browning has full confidence in present reality – he believes that life on earth is predominantly good. Nevertheless, earthly life is evidently incomplete in itself, and the central law of existence is progress, which gives assurance of a future life where man may develop the spiritual nature which on earth seems to have its beginning and distinguishes man from the brutes. Browning sees God as the highest Truth and Supreme Reality, he does not think of God in isolation from man. For him, God is just, benevolent and loving, and love is the unifying force between man and God.

While on one hand Mathew Arnold was knocked down by doubt and despair. The sense of gloom, doubt and despair produced a general feeling of sadness which is reflected in the literature of the Victorian Age. “It was the endeavour to intellectualize the visions of the imaginative life that led Arnold, Clough, FitzGerald and James Thomson into that mood of wistful melancholy that crystallized soon into a more or less pessimistic criticism of life. In each case, though in different ways, the poetic impulse was governed by the questioning attitude of a skeptical intellect. (Arthur Compton Rickett: 2010)The loss of faith and the absence of new faith to replace it are referred in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” wherein Arnold describes his helpless condition:

            Wandering between two worlds, one dead,

The other powerless to be born,

With nowhere yet to rest my head,

Like these, on earth I wait for lorn. (85-88)

In “Dover Beach” Arnold described the vanishing of the old religious faith from the world leaving skepticism and doubt. Before the scientific discoveries the Victorian people had absolute faith in the tenets of religion. The people were to find out the will of God which gave them peace for there was a purpose in life. The scientific discoveries exposed the irrationality of the faith saying there was no room for God as conceived by Christianity. This scientific thinking spread among people and they became skeptical of the religious faith.

            The sea of faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, with frawing roar,

Retreating to the breath. (21-26)

The development in the field of sciences led to tremendous transformation in the ways of thinking; science pictured a universe which had evolved to its present state during the vast stretches of time. The discovery of evolutionary theory and publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 showed that life was the product of chance factors in the universe and man had evolved to his present stature from very primitive origin of wild animals and beasts. Science in the Victorian Age pictured a universe without God and design in which existence on this planet was found to be the greatest absurdity and as such, there was no accommodation for any kind of morality which would make this life here meaningful. This led to the growth of fatalism and pessimism.

            The Anglican Church was not able to cope with the rate of social and demographic change. It was shaken and was no more the sole authority on religious issues. K.W. Gransden is of the opinion that the bitterest battles of Mid-Victorian England were fought not over political issues but over religious ones. (K.W. Gransden: 1964) Change was needed for the Church to flourish or even to survive in England during this period, but some clergymen in the church remained rigid and grasped onto their traditional rights and privileged without responding to a society undergoing immense changes. The cry for higher religious tolerance, social justice and the eradication of various traditional privileges held historically by the church came much louder from the growing working and middle classes. The church was also in a corruption state and therefore, the Oxford Movement came into existence for the revival of the Church of England. It tries to save the condition of the church by putting forward the old idea of the catholic church, with its divine origin and its ministry reaching back through the Apostles to the Lord, and to make men see in it no mere State Establishment, but a visible Society founded by the Lord Himself, with tremendous powers and supernatural claims.

            Thus, the calm and peaceful religious faith of the people of the early nineteenth century was disturbed and shaken by the coming of the scientific discoveries and inventions. Some groups abandoned their old faith and cling to the new theories of the scientific discoveries, another group stick firm to the old religious faith and were unaffected by the scientific discoveries, while there was another group who could not abandon their old faith which have given them peace for centuries but at the same time accepted the new theories of the scientific discoveries.



  1. Sanders. Andrew, The Short Oxford History of English Literature, 2nd edition, OUP, New York, 2003.
  2. Clerk. John W. and Thomas Mack Hughes The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedywick, 2 Vols; Cambridge, England, 1890, II. See also Francis Darwin, Life of Charles Darwin, New York, 1892.
  3. Mukherjee. Suroopa, Victorian Poets, Delhi, 2011.
  4. Pollard. Arthur, The Victorians, Great Britain.
  5. John Simon. Oswald, Progress of religious Thought During the Victorian Reign, vol.10, No. 2, 1898.
  6. Brett. R.L. (ed) Poems of Faith and Doubt, London, 1965.
  7. Lyell. Sir Charles, Principles of Geology, London, 1833, III.
  8. Darwin. Charles, The voyage of the Beagle, London, 1906.
  9. Gilkey. Langdon, Evolution and the Doctrine of Creation’ in Science and Religion (ed) Ian G. Barbour, New York, 1968.
  10. J. Long. William, English History Its History and Its Significance, New Delhi, 2006.
  11. Rickett. Arthur Compton, A History of English Literature.
  12. Gransden. K.W.: Tennyson In Memoriam, Edward Arnold Ltd. 1964
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